Humean reflections

There were a couple posts at the Long Sunday blog this week making the case for Hume being a precursor of postmodernism. The term “postmodernism” brings out LI’s virtuoso middle aged sighing – as a veteran of the 80s, I can’t countenance a thing that was surely fossilized by 1990, and whose reappearance has all the appeal of a remake of the Friday the 13th series.

However, in making critical comments about this view of Hume, I re-read Hume’s famous essay, That Politics May be Reduced to a Science and found the essay pretty surprising. Surprising, that is, if you have a view of the Enlightenment in which that phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness,” plays a central role. I think that anyone looking at the political nature of the Atlantic revolutions – in North America, France and Haiti – has to take that phrase seriously. Which is why we were rather shocked that Hume introduces this disjunction between what you might call the aggregate level of virtue among a people and the level of virtue of the state:

“The ages of greatest public spirit are not always most eminent for private virtue. Good laws may beget order and moderation in the government, where the manners and customs have instilled little humanity or justice into the tempers of men. The most illustrious period of the ROMAN history, considered in a political view, is that between the beginning of the first and end of the last PUNIC war; the due balance between the nobility and the people being then fixed by the contests of the tribunes, and not being yet lost by the extent of conquests. Yet at this very time, the horrid practice of poisoning was so common, that, during part of a season, a Prætor punished capitally for this crime above three thousand*25 persons in a part of ITALY; and found informations of this nature still multiplying upon him. There is a similar, or rather a worse instance,*26 in the more early times of the commonwealth. So depraved in private life were that people, whom in their histories we so much admire. I doubt not but they were really more virtuous during the time of the two Triumvirates; when they were tearing their common country to pieces, and spreading slaughter and desolation over the face of the earth, merely for the choice of tyrants.”

I found this a surprising dissent from the usual Enlightenment idea that the government is a mirror of the people -- in fact, Hume's remark edges towards the Sadean. An Enlightenment ideal of representative government is one that most people today – including LI – would take for granted -- and similarly, that the benefit of such a government is that it establishes a virtual space for happiness in which all good things flourish, the lion lies down with the lamb, etc. -- an Edward Hicksian picture of the world as it should be. After all, the revolution to establish a state that would preserve an order making the pursuit of happiness possible for every citizen presumes that the most appealing of those pursuits will not consist of slipping arsenic to your neighbors or husband.

So LI wondered if there was any instance in which one could say that public virtue increased while private disorder decreased. And what immediately came to mind was the sixties. Surely, in many ways, the most virtuous epoch in American history since the eighteen sixties – the first serious effort to eliminate apartheid – it was also, to use Hume’s measure, a time when homicide made dramatic leaps, taking over from Monopoly as the favored past-time of the sons and daughters of the peaceful booboisie, become all hitchhiking serial killers or victims. And the nineties were the reverse: at a time when the Federal government was stripping the poor of the pitiful amount the republic grudgingly devoted to them, while allowing the rich to enjoy the splendor of the deregulatory anarchy that would eventuate in Enron, the homicide rate dropped considerable. In fact, I do remember, when Clinton was signing off on putting the pistol to the pauper’s head and pulling the trigger, thinking how absurd it was that this was happening in a decade that was rolling in dough. It was as if the whole Enlightenment assumption that the people were vested with certain inherent virtues that would express themselves in a democracy was being mocked.

On the other hand, we don’t think Hume’s index for defining both private vice and public “spirit” is sufficient. Besides being based on the dubious proposition that murders were less when the Triumvirates were tearing the Republic apart, we also think that it is misleading to label the successes of the state – its survival, its ability to enforce order – as virtues. Hume is overclever here, and thus dims his otherwise very ponderable point: that the assumption that the government and the people are reflections of one another rests on very ad hoc grounds. That the best form of government might be installed to administer a society in the midst of dissolution is, theoretically, a possibility, and one that I think is connected to the dark side of populism: the longing for the open expression of the latent violence that maintains the social order. The long, long reaction to the official dismantling of racism is a case in point – here the longing for the chthonic age of the old slave auction block, and the fear that any loosening of the chains would lead to some unimaginable riot, has become a reliable predictor in Southern elections: coded and not so coded racism wins almost every time. This is the longing not only for tyranny, but for a tyranny erected on the lynch mob. I’m being obscure; what I mean is, the popular feeling that the people – if it includes all of the people, even them, the unspeakable autrui - don’t deserve a form of government that mirrors their situations, but one that punishes their differences.


msw said…
re: the 90s reduction in homicide rates.

One of the entries in one of the past years' "NYT most important ideas of the year" list was this: yes, the homicide rate has declined dramatically, but the aggrivated assault rate did not. The most likely reason for this is not a reduction of violence but an increase in the effectiveness of our emergency response system. The difference between life in prison or a 5 year sentence can be how soon 911 handles your call, even if the means/motive/opportunity remains the same.
roger said…
msw, your comment blows my mind. I'm gonna look up this article. I thought that the crime index had gone down on assaults, rapes and robberies too... I'm gonna return to this subject.
Thanks for the tip!