The nature in the Natural History of Religion: 4

Within the circles of the New Learning in the 17th century, a relatively new word was bandied about to take the place of what their ancestors would have called paganism or idolatry: polytheism. (Schmidt, 1985). When, in 1639, Edward Herbert sat down to write De Religione Gentilium, translated as ‘The antient religion of the gentiles” by a Mr. W. Lewis in 1705, he used “polytheism” to broaden the humanist notion of non-Christian religions. Herbert, who may not have been a deist himself, was certainly looked as a precursor by eighteenth century deists, who adopted his history of religion. It went like this: in the beginning, men worshipped one supreme God – the thought of whom was written on their hearts – but they had an unclear view of the difference between the universe and the creator of the universe. Over time, priests and then ‘imposters’ arose, who exploited the people’s awe before the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars to make these the objects of adoration. Always, of course, the people had a notion of the one Supreme God, but as these objects were adored, they gradually acquired the status of sub-gods, of separate intelligences.

The deists of the 18th century thus were rooted in the kind of thinking that, at least partly, John Locke tried to destroy: the kind of thinking that goes back to innate ideas. However, the deists used a rhetoric that was peculiarly suited to the 18th century views of the philosophes, with their emphasis on the adoration of one God, rather than the multiple cults to saints, the virgin, and the criminal who claimed to be God’s son in long ago Judea.

Hume was inclined to see Locke’s side of things, as far as the roots of our knowledge go; and he was also inclined to take the Presbyterian side in constructing the history of religion. Calvin, who used the word idolatry, poured scorn on the idea that the first humans were monotheists. If, as Scripture shows, they were filled with lust, disobedient, and murderers at the slightest provocation, why should we credit them with the virtue of worshipping the one true God?

Thus, in one way, Hume’s Natural History of Religion – which may seem to the modern reader to be a blow against Christianity – can as well be read a conservative counter-blow to deist nonsense, inserted into Hume’s larger project of clarifying the sources of our knowledge.

But this is a text that is definitely over-determined. Calvin’s view of history was essentially static – notwithstanding the extra-historical event of Christ’s birth and death. Hume’s was not. As he makes clear from the beginning, he fully accepts the enlightenment view of progress, and in fact, in a twist, he uses the deists language to describe it: from our current spiritual knowledge, derived from understanding that the perfect design of the universe implies a perfect designer, we can establish a footing in scientific reality, so to speak, by which to go back and survey the history that led up to us – us middling men, us common sense clerks, us the enlightened. It is with religion as it is with the other human arts and sciences: “ We may as reasonably imagine that men inhabited palaces before huts or cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture, as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs.” (4)

Hume doesn’t just aim to reverse the order that the deists establish: putting polytheism before monotheism. He also wants to account for religion itself. Thus, the historical problem becomes a psychological and metaphysical one – as it was for Herbert as well. Having eliminated the idea that the barbarous, necessitous animal, man, had the innate idea of God inscribed on his heart, Hume next looks at the seemingly empirical explanation: that man looked around at the heavens, the earth, the sky, the moon and the stars, and was so overawed by their splendor that he elevated them to the status of Gods. Herbert’s argument was that the religion of the pagans could not be understood outside of the symbols that formed, as it were, a language underneath the language of the cults. The symbols were necessitated by the great fact that the supreme God was invisible: invisibility is a great motive force and determinant of religion in Herbert as well as Hume. Herbert attached himself to the ancient explanation that the sun was worshipped at first as the natural symbol of the great invisible power, and then, gradually, in a sort of eclipse of the symbolic function, as the God himself.

Hume disputes that this could possibly be the case, as it would entail a sense of metaphor and, beyond that, of generalities that the vulgar could not have had, or could not have been interested in. Their leisure and work was all, in Hume’s view, taken up by local matters, not the framing of general hypotheses. Out of this view comes, perhaps, the most interesting and influential idea in the Natural History. Instead of deist’s insistence on awe – the philosophical sensation – Hume insists on the mediation of the passions:

“We may conclude, therefore, that in all nations which have embraced polytheism, the first idea of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears which actuate the human mind.”

Tossing out contemplation is consistent with tossing out indolence of a certain type. For Hume, the round of little life for the mass is a total thing. And yet, outside of the Natural History, he certainly recognizes that contemplation or awe arises in ordinary life. In a letter to a friend about the time in which he is composing the Natural History, Hume promotes a now forgotten Scottish poet named Wilkie (Hume was always a great promoter of Scots literature, against the ‘criticklings’ of London) and relates the following anecdote:

“You know he is a farmer’s son, in the neighbourhood of this town, where there are a great number of pigeon-houses. The farmers are very much infested with the pigeons, and Wilkie’s father planted him often as a scarecrow (an office for which is well qualified) in the midst of his fields of wheat. It is in this situation that he confessed he first conceived the design of his epic poem, and even executed part of it. He carried out his Homer with him, together with a table, and pen and ink, and a great rusty gun. He composed and wrote two or three lines, till a flock of pigeons settled in the field, then rose up, ran towards them, and fired at them; returned again to his former station and added a rhyme or two more, till he met with a fresh interruption.”

It is a humorous image. In the movie Jude, which is taken from Jude the Obscure, Michael Winterbottom creates a harsher version of a boy being employed as a scarecrow – put out in long, lonely fields with a noisemaker. The boy is Jude, who we know will fight, in vain, against the class rigidity of Victorian England to have himself accepted as a scholar. Hume’s friend, however, is already the son of a farmer and on his way to the ministry. Still, the image and its uses are striking.

Yet in the Natural History, Hume sticks to the idea that the vulgar, its mind still mostly too blank, or two written over by the common business of life, to produce any epic concept, produces an epic concept – God – only, as it were, by accident. Out of the intersection of the local forces of nature (which give us not the serene sense of design, but a bumpy sense of chance and change, wrapped around the continuities of season, sunrise and sunset), man produces supernatural powers: “But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence? Not speculative curiosity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such gross apprehensions; and would lead men into apprehensions of the whole frame of nature; a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessities.”

Nature, then, is read through the constituents of human life. Out of feeling, we project – a magic word, not used by Hume but surely signaled, here – upon the storm anger, and upon the sunlight mercy.

John Farrell, in Freud’s Paranoid Quest: psychoanalysis and modern suspicion, has noticed that Hume’s epistemology seems to tie in very well with Freud’s notion of projection.

“Such ‘projections’ of the empirical subject onto the data of experience are, for Freud, a normal, unavoidable part of life: “For when we refer causes of certain sensations ot the external world, instead of looking for them, as in other cases, within, this normal proceeding is projection.” Or, as Hume would have it, ‘If we believe, that fire warms, or water refreshes, ‘tis only because it costs us too much pains to think otherwise.”

Interestingly, this edifice depends for its credibility upon a class distinction – between the barbarian and the man who has reached the shore of civilization. Hume’s very tone, in the Natural History, tells us that he is such a man. But he is also the man who, younger, found himself unable to reach that shore at all as he contemplated the notion of cause, and saw the world fall apart in his mind as he could not comprehend nor justify it through reason. What holds the two figures together, I think, is that common sense is returned to – and in that return, is made the subject of a certain irony that makes it hard to know, in the end, how to take Hume’s paen to the designer of a universe in which things fit so perfectly. It is more than a paen – it is our footing in the reality of the present that allows us to go back and reconstruct the past. If there is no spiritual progress, that reconstruction is epistemologically equal to the constructs of the past, and even, dare one say it, to those made up by the barbarian scarecrow in the wheatfield, the child abandoned by a class system that, to him, looks like barbarity in its final state, the parts all neatly designed to exclude thought and crush all passions that are not of use to it.