Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ecstasis and Telos: David Hume and "Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings . . . "

DAVID HUME, THE "GREAT INFIDEL," presents a formidable and corpulent foe to the proponent of a Natural Law theory. Considered part of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume (1711-1776) was principally a historian, but his contributions to political and moral philosophy are what have catapulted him to lasting fame. In this area, his A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40) and his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) are the most important. Though there is some dispute about whether Hobbes was an atheist, there is no doubt on the score with respect to Hume. Hume was without doubt an unbeliever, even up to the point of death he expressed disbelief. One wonders if, on the day of the Last Judgment, he will walk out from his tomb as if he were Lazarus with great surprise.

But we are not here to judge the everlasting fate of Hume's soul, a matter which is infinitely outside our competence in any event. Nor are we here to undertake a description of Hume's philosophy and its sophisticated brand of skepticism which informs it, as that would be a Herculean task. Suffice it to say that at the root of all his theories--whether of belief, of knowledge, of induction, causation, the outer world, or morality--was anti-rationalism. Perhaps one of the most famous of all statements in moral philosophy, and one that best describes his moral philosophy in a nutshell, is found in his Treatise on Human Nature: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office that to serve and obey them." Or again: "Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular." For Hume, the moral law is not based upon reason, but upon passion, feeling, sentiment. It therefore follows that Law is nothing but passion writ large.

Though Hume recognized something he called the "Law of Nature" present in man, it is clear that this is something altogether different from the perennial Natural Law.
The 'law of nature', then, is not "natural" in the deepest sense, and yet its rootedness in our self-interested desire to satisfy our passions in the best possible way gives it an adequate stability. For Hume, the "three fundamental laws of nature" are "that of the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises". Each is a "law of nature" both for individuals and for nations because each is necessary for the satisfaction of human feelings (or passions, desires, sentiments). These feelings are nature's lawgivers: "Nothing is more vigilant and inventive than our passions." Reason does not guide the feelings by means of abstract moral principles; rather the feelings, rooted in self-interest, attune reason to the conventions necessary for the satisfaction of our desires.
Levering, 108. Hume rejected the ability of the mind to form universal ideas from sensory observations of nature that had any validity. Everything we know is material, and we know nothing that is not material. Hence, we can have no knowledge of anything spiritual or non-material. Souls are impossible to conceive. God is impossible to conceive, and the proofs of God derived from the observation of nature have no validity to Hume. The whole thing is unintelligble to Hume. Levering, 104. Hume therefore rejects any notion of a teleological order. In fact his whole moral philosophy is directed against those who believe "that there are eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things, which are the same to every rational being that considers them; that the immutable measures of right and wrong impose an obligation, not only on human creatures, but also on the Deity himself." Levering, 104-05 (quoting Treatise).

One of Hume's arguments has been particularly significant in the area of the Natural Law. It is frequently called the "Is-Ought" Problem, or "Hume's Guillotine." Essentially, Hume's claim is that one cannot go from a descriptive statement to a prescriptive statement. It involves a logical fallacy. The argument goes that one cannot argue from a fact of nature (an "is") to end up with a proposition of morality (an "ought"). Hume suggests that advocates of Natural Law have lapsed into this logically fallacy. One may directly quote Hume on this matter (Book III, Part I, section I of his A Treatise of Human Nature.)

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

(Fear not: the argument is answerable; however, now is not the time to handle it.)

In his book Biblical Natural Law, Matthew Levering concluded that Hume's doctrines leave us far away from the "biblical portrait of the richly 'ecstatic' capacities of the human person created by God for communion with God."

We might fancy a battle of legal philosophies between these two corpulent wrestlers. In one corner, the champion of the non-believer, David Hume. In the other corner, the hope of the believer and the current underdog, St. Thomas. The bell has rung. Were I a betting man, I would chose the Dumb Ox over the Great Infidel in this match of champions.

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