Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Where Philosophy is helpless
By David Hume (17111776)
From The Sceptic
WHOEVER considers, without prejudice, the course of human actions, will find that mankind are almost entirely guided by constitution and temper, and that general maxims have little influence so far as they affect our taste or sentiment. If a man have a lively sense of honour and virtue, with moderate passions, his conduct will always be conformable to the rules of morality; or if he depart from them, his return will be easy and expeditious. On the other hand, where one is born of so perverse a frame of mind, of so callous and insensible a disposition as to have no relish for virtue and humanity, no sympathy with his fellow-creatures, no desire of esteem and applause, such a one must be allowed entirely incurable, nor is there any remedy in philosophy. He reaps no satisfaction but from low and sensual objects, or from the indulgence of malignant passions: he feels no remorse to control his vicious inclinations: he has not even that sense or taste which is requisite to make him desire a better character. For my part, I know not how I should address myself to such an one, or by what arguments I should endeavour to reform him. Should I tell him of the inward satisfaction which results from laudable and humane actions, the delicate pleasure of disinterested love and friendship, the lasting enjoyments of a good name and an established character, he might still reply that these were, perhaps, pleasures to such as were susceptible of them; but that, for his part, he finds himself of a quite different turn and disposition. I must repeat it, my philosophy affords no remedy in such a case, nor could I do anything but lament this persons unhappy condition. But then I ask, If any other philosophy can afford a remedy? or If it be possible by any system to render all mankind virtuous, however perverse may be their natural frame of mind? Experience will soon convince us of the contrary; and I will venture to affirm that, perhaps, the chief benefit which results from philosophy arises in an indirect manner, and proceeds more from its secret, insensible influence, than from its immediate application.