While reading Peter Gay’s Enlightenment, Volume 1 the following passage intrigued me. Gay is referring to his lifelong fascination with Scottish philosopher David Hume, and in turn, the work of Stuart Hampshire:
“I was delighted to read Stuart Hampshire’s brief appraisal of Hume, “Hume’s Place in Philosophy,” in David Hume: A Symposium, 1–10, which accords precisely with my own estimate—an estimate I have arrived at after years of close and affectionate concern with Hume’s work. Hume, writes Hampshire, “defined one consistent, and within its own terms, irrefutable, attitude to politics, to the problems of society, to religion; an attitude which is supremely confident and clear, that of the perfect secular mind, which can accept, and submit itself to, the natural order, the facts of human nature, without anxiety, and therefore without a demand for ultimate solutions, for a guarantee that justice is somehow built into the nature of things. This philosophical attitude, because it is consistent and sincere, has its fitting style: that of irony …” (pp. 9–10). The demands and the possibilities of modern paganism have rarely been stated better than this.”
Excerpt From: Peter Gay. “Enlightenment Volume 1.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/vuGqN.l
I’m fascinated by this wee passage. Of course the paragraph is a palimpsest, Gay’s admiration for Hume frames everything. If we think in the manner of Linnaeus, Gay is the inciting species. Notice that he’s a delighted scholar! (Are scholars nowadays allowed to express their delight?)
Peter Gay is also an affectionate intellect. Adoration, devotion, and caring are critical to the life of the mind. (Have scholars forgotten this at their peril? One may well think so.)
What does Gay like so much in this passage? He likes an appraisal of Hume. Hume is in the room, but he isn’t speaking. Gay’s delight is doing the talking, and then, voila, he brings forward a paratactic delight—a tandem pleasure, Hampshire’s elegance, which is also in the service of Hume. Hume, who isn’t speaking. Here in a cloister of estimation we see two scholars whose respective lives were devoted to ideas celebrating the nobility of a third. And the third is their father, and ours too.
Notice the use of “attitude”. Talk about nuance! From Latin for “fit” it was originally the proper word for placement, especially of figures in painting. Later it became synonymous with stance. And once it entered the world of ideas it became the template for self-awareness. Attitude is valuable only insofar as it has the manners of irony.
I know of no better description of the contrarian intellectual. No anxiety, just the facts. So let’s say there is no God. Let’s say justice isn’t built into nature. What then? Why we get to build a confident and clear pagan democracy.
The natural order is ours to govern.
We must stand for justice because it is ours to develop and extend.
It is a consistent and sincere style.
“Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”
“In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”
These thoughts of a morning.
The pleasures of thought, the marvels of freedom.