Hume’s Natural History of Religion is, as its very title shows, something different than a mere history. History and natural history differ in their object: in the former, the object is the chronicle of human action, and in the later, of the development of living forms in nature. By shifting religion to the realm of nature, Hume was following through on the logic of a division that he articulates in the very first paragraph between reason and human nature. Already this division speaks to a certain incoherence in the pretence that man is, ontologically, on an equal level with ‘nature’. In other words, an incoherence of ontological scope. This incoherence haunts social science like a Cartesian demon, casting doubt on all attempts to ground a social science on the opposition between culture and nature, while at the same time making it impossible to simply combine the two without destroying the very meaning and savor of both categories. In the twentieth century, Levy-Strauss made of that opposition one of the founding social structures, the study of which is the object of anthropology, at least insofar as the society studied lacks a system of writing. I mention Levy-Strauss to signal a certain textual destiny that can assigned to Hume’s natural history. Although the essay is not shaped by the protocols of what we would call anthropology – it evidences no fieldwork whatsoever – it is, on the other hand, an argument about a certain product of human nature, religion, that is almost – Hume is very clear about the ‘almost’ – universal. And in as much as it appears in most societies, Hume feels that we can understand it as a system of beliefs by asking what qualities of human nature are expressed in it.
However, in posing the question in this way, we already suppose that it is not a product of human reason. Reason, here, will be regarded not as an expression of human nature, but as a mechanism that transcends human nature. Reason is a machinery that allows for a two-fold operation, beginning firstly with citation – breaking a certain phenomenon out of its context or situation – and secondly with analysis, breaking it down according to the rules of either deduction or induction. Hume thinks that the operation of reason, abstraction, contemplation, etc. is so little a product of human nature that most humans do it badly, if they do it at all. In a sense, Hume’s whole essay is at the polar opposite of one of Wittgenstein’s comments about Frazer’s Golden Bough (which is itself very much a descendent of Hume’s Natural History of Religion):
“Already the idea of wanting to explain the practice – for instance, the killing of the priest king – seems to me to miss the mark. All that Frazer does is make it plausible to men who think as he does. It is very remarkable that all these practices are finally so to speak portrayed as stupidities.
But it will never be plausible that people did all this out of stupidity.
When he explains to us that the King must be killed in his blood, because after the ideas of the savages, otherwise his soul will not be fresh, one can only say: where this practice and this idea go together, the practice does not spring from the idea, but they are both simply there. “
Hume, on the other hand, thinks it will never be plausible that religion – in his survey of it – comes from anything but stupidity. The “ignorant”, the “vulgar”, and the “ignorant vulgar” play a very strong role in Hume’s account, and help us understand another of the determinations of his initial separation of human nature and reason: it is from the standpoint of reason, which deduces the truth about God, that the historian can understand the history of religion, which unfolds as a series of misperceptions of God. Importantly, for Hume, as for Frazer, God is a phenomenon of belief, molded in the form of the God that is worshipped in the Christian church. When Hume finds, not unnaturally, that this concept of God cannot really be imposed on many of the religious phenomena he finds in the past, he attributes this to a primitive intellectual equipment.
It is in explaining that primitive intellectual equipment that we come upon a certain unarticulated primal supposition in Hume, concerning primitive man. Hume, while never fully spelling this out in his essay, evidently assumes Hobbes. He assumes, that is, that the primitive state was one of man against man, or perpetual and complete war. It is characteristic of that state that people are harried – they have no time for contemplation. The temporal/material condition for reasoning – indolence – is lacking. And this original lack impedes the habit of inquiry; for inquiry, like all human phenomena in Hume, is eventually founded in habit and habit’s social cousin, custom.
“Adam rising at once in Paradise, and in the full perfection of his his faculties, would naturally, as represented by Milton, be astonished at the glorious appearances of nature, the heavens, the air, the earth, his own organs and members ; and would be led to ask, whence this wonderful scene arose: but a barbarous, necessitous animal (such as a man is on the first origin of society), pressed by such numerous wants and passions, has no leisure to admire the regular face of nature, or make inquiries concerning the cause of those objects to which, from his infancy, he has been gradually accustomed. On the contrary, the more regular and uniform, that is, the more perfect nature appears, the more is he familiarized to it, and the less inclined to scrutinize and examine it. A monstrous birth excites his curiosity, and is deemed a prodigy. It alarms him from its novelty,and immediately sets him a-trembling, and sacrificing, and praying. But an animal, complete in all its limbs and organs, is to him an ordinary spectacle, and produces no religions opinion or affection. Ask him
whence that animal arose? hewill tell you, from the copulation of its parents. And these, whence? From the copulation of theirs. A few removes satisfy his curiosity, and set the objects at such a distance, that he entirely loses sight of them. Imagine not that he will so much as start the question, whence the first animal,much less whence the whole system or united fabric of the universe arose.”
This is interestingly wrong. It was even known to be wrong in Hume’s time: there was, by 1750, two centuries of material gathered and published by Europeans that showed, contrary to Hume, a deep fascination with how the whole system of the fabric of the universe arose, and even how animals arose. Hume was probably aware of Lafitau, if not the numerous Spanish works on the belief systems of the Indios. And of course since Hume’s time we are more and more aware that, whatever else interested Paleolithic humans, they were absolutely fascinated and even obsessed by an animal complete in its limbs and organs. But Hume’s Hobbesianism disallows at least one reading of the evidence. And, interestingly, sets the stage for one of Hume’s most ingenious suppositions, which will prove to have a long life in the 19th and 20th centuries.
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