David Hume and the Stoics Compared
with Special Attention to Notions of Justice

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

May 31, 2006

This is a slightly modified version of what was originally a contribution to the International Stoic Forum e-mail discussion group at http://www.groups.yahoo.com/

People interested in the way in which early modern philosophers dealt with Stoic ideas might find a study of a part of David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature to be of interest.

Hume is in some fascinating ways an arch-anti-Stoic, but that does not mean we cannot learn a great deal from him. What I have only lately realized is that he seems to have developed his explanatory theory of morality in a more or less direct confrontation with Stoic ideas or the ideas of slightly earlier modern thinkers (e.g., in the natural law tradition, from Hugo Grotius to John Locke) who were influenced by Stoic writers or Stoicizing writers like Cicero. Hume was surely familiar with the writings of Cicero, which he likely read in Latin.

I say Hume is an arch anti-Stoic for a number of reasons:

1) Like Hobbes and Spinoza before him, he refuses to explain things in terms of final causes. Final causes, natural ends, are essential to the Stoic conception of nature, especially human nature.

2) The existence and nature of God plays no significant role in his ethical theory. It plays an important role in Stoic thought: to follow nature is to follow the moral law of nature, which is somehow equivalent to the divine reason.

3) Unless I misunderstand him--and I plan to check this out more thoroughly--Hume regards "the will" as a theological and philosophical myth. But "prohairesis" (translated variously as intention, moral character, the will), is central to Stoic theory. More study needed here: maybe "the will" debunked by Hume is something different from the Stoic prohairesis--a closer examination of texts is needed to determine that.

4) Several key moral notions that the Stoics (along with Thomas Aquinas and early modern natural law theorists) would describe as originating from the divine mind (either identical to or the source of the natural moral law), Hume explains as artifices, products of human convention, or (what covers the same ground) inventions.

5) Hume notoriously claims that reason is and must be "the slave" of the passions. No Stoic would ever have said that. It is likely that what he means by passions is not quite what the Stoics meant, and he understands reason in ways unlike the ancient Stoics. Another topic for investigation.

Yet Hume's psychological theory has something very much like Stoic oikeiosis, sometimes translated as "appropriation" (Long and Sedley) or "congeniality" (Inwood and Gerson). Hume insists that human beings have natural motives of self-interest and benevolence, which correspond to the two major types of oikeiosis. In this he is on common ground with numerous other early modern philosophers and at odds with Thomas Hobbes, who recognizes only self-interest. Nevertheless, Hume comes out justifying moral rules of justice very similar to those outlined in Cicero's De Officiis, which was based on work by the Stoic Panaetius.

Hume occasionally refers to (moral) laws of nature, but what he means by this are for the most part moral principles (mostly pertaining to justice, which in turn mostly pertain to property rights, that writers like Locke and Grotius allegedly derived from the moral law of nature). These moral principles have a hold on us, not because they come from God or the supreme being (as the ancient Stoics held) but because they come from human customs that most individuls recognize serve their own interests (corresponding to what the Stoics would have called preferred things) and the interests of other persons with whom individuals are able to sympathize.

Hume's discussion of justice tries to show how our virtue of justice (especially as it is related to property, promise-keeping, and the like) is not derived directly from its impact on our natural motives of self-interest and benevolence. Instead, it presupposes (cultural) inventions or conventions, our allegiance to which is a result of our natural motives. The moral laws, then, are artificial, not natural, although our allegiance to them has natural roots.

Hume also has an interesting account of how conventions and agreements can arise without requiring the myth of a social contract between beings who have no prior moral relationship with one another. (How could a social contract establish moral rules if there were no moral rule, generally accepted already, to keep promises?!)

He also points out that justice would gain no foothold in self-interested being in conditions of extreme poverty (in which there were not enough material resources for most people to survive) or in conditions of superabundance (in which the means of life and comfort were easily available to everyone with but the slightest effort). Hence justice is a response to a middling condition in the economy rather than something ingrained directly in the nature of human beings, whether this nature is God-derived or not. (John Rawls makes use of Hume's ideas about the "conditions of justice" in developing his own liberal account of justice in A Theory of Justice published in 1971 but that's another story.)