David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-Revolution
Publication Year: 2012
Though usually Edmund Burke is identified as the first to articulate the principles of a modern conservative political tradition, arguably he was preceded by a Scotsman who is better known for espousing a brilliant concept of skepticism. As Laurence Bongie notes, "David Hume was undoubtedly the eighteenth-century British writer whose works were most widely known and acclaimed on the Continent during the later Enlightenment period. Hume's impact [in France] was of undeniable importance, greater even for a time than the related influence of Burke, although it represents a contribution to French counter-revolutionary thought which, unlike that of Burke, has been almost totally ignored by historians to this day." The bulk of Bongie's work consists of the writings of French readers of Hume who were confronted, first, by the ideology of human perfection and, finally, by the actual terrors of the French Revolution. Offered in French in the original edition of David Hume published by Oxford University Press in 1965, these vitally important writings have been translated by the author into English for the Liberty Fund second edition. In his foreword, Donald Livingston observes that "If conservatism is taken to be an intellectual critique of the first attempt at modern total revolution, then the first such event was not the French but the Puritan revolution, and the first systematic critique of this sort of act was given by Hume."
Laurence L. Bongie is Professor Emeritus of French at the University of British Columbia.
Donald Livingston is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.
Published by: Liberty Fund
Title Page, Copyright
Table of Contents
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Philosophers rarely write history, and David Hume (1711-76) is unique in being recognized as one who made canonical contributions to both philosophy and history. Many think of Hume as a philosopher but in his own time he was known as an essayist and author of the six-volume History of England (1754-62). The...
Preface to the Liberty Fund Edition
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Much has changed in Hume studies since this book was first published in 1965. For example, the introduction to the first edition noted that Hume's History was "neither widely read nor readily available." The complete work had then been out of print since the end of the nineteenth century. Today, Hume's...
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David Hume was undoubtedly the eighteenth-century British writer whose works were most widely known and acclaimed on the continent during the later Enlightenment period. Ample proof of the great reputation he acquired in France as an historian and philosopher at this time is readily available. Contrary...
I. Before 1789
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1. Royal Panegyrics
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In 1763 David Hume arrived in Paris to take up duties with Lord Hertford, Britain's first peacetime ambassador to France since the outbreak of the Seven Years' War. Author of a famous History of the Stuarts, David Hume, frequently hailed as the "English Tacitus," was given an official and...
2. The Science and Art of English History
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The quite unusual popularity of Hume's History of England in eighteenth-century France requires perhaps some preliminary general explanation. His Political Discourses and Philosophical Essays introduced on the continent several years earlier had won him little more than the unflatteringly...
3. Jehovah Among the Hebrews
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Already in 1754, even before the English publication of his Stuarts, Hume had intimated to the Abbe LeBlanc, translator of his moderately successful Political Discourses, that the History would succeed well in France. Hume proposed at this same time that Le Blanc should also translate...
4. Papist or Pyrrhonian?
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It is well known that the English at this time did not agree with the French about Hume's impartiality. The strange combination of two reputations which Hume enjoyed in England, one as a foolish atheist, the other as a perverse Jacobite, was scarcely of a nature to please any large...
5. The Scottish Bossuet
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Ideally for the philosophes, Hume's presentation of England in the History should have confirmed most of the polemical doctrine of Voltaire's famous Lettres philosophiques, holding up the English to the French as an enlightened, tolerant, politically and religiously emancipated nation...
6. Debate with Turgot
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As their answer to Bergier indicates, the philosophes were fairly confident that Hume belonged, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, heart and soul to the camp of the d'Alemberts and d'Holbachs. Moreover, even though this first generation of philosophes saw the success of...
7. Early Hostility: Mirabeau, Mably, and Brissot
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Perhaps the earliest work by a future revolutionary expressing open dissatisfaction with Hume's political conservatism is Mirabeau's Des lettres de cachet et des prisons d'etat. Himself a victim of the lettre de cachet, Mira beau, composing this work in prison in 1778, protested against all forms of ministerial...
8. Defence and Defiance
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The change in political climate which took place between the 1760s and the 1780s is well illustrated by earlier French reactions to republican interpretations of the English revolution. The Journal Encyclopedique, not the least liberal of ancien-regime periodicals, refused in its highly...
9. Anticipating the Storm
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Such bitter attacks on the Scottish historian are still fairly rare before 1789. On the eve of the Revolution, proof of Hume's continuingly great historical reputation can be seen in the appearance of a new edition of the Stuarts in 1788-possibly the tenth separate French edition since...
II. The Revolution and the Rôle of History
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1. History as a Weapon of Counter-Revolution
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We have examined at the beginning of chapter I the prevailing eighteenth-century view of history. Some further general considerations on the subject are necessary at this point, however, since it is especially at the time of the Revolution in France that history's traditional role as the...
2. History as the Superstition of Slaves
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If we turn now to the opinions of the Left on this matter we will see that the revolutionary ideologists disagreed passionately with the basic assumption on which such historical conservatism rested: namely, the idea of a stable human nature, of an inflexible moral...
III. From 1789 to the Trial of Louis XVI
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1. Prophetic Parallels and the Counter-Revolutionary Lessons of Hume
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Abbe Maury figures most appropriately at the beginning of this chapter dealing in part with examples of Hume's influence on some of the early counter-revolutionary leaders. Maury, generally recognize d as the leading orator of the Right in the Assemblee Constituante, had been...
2. The Long Parliament: Brissot Versus Clermont-Tonnere
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To illustrate the intensity of the revolutionary debates provoked by differing views of Stuart history and, what is more important, to show how Stuart history influenced in an immediate sense the formulation by both sides of many political problems of the day, let us examine at some length...
3. A Republican Antidote: Catherine Macaulay-Graham
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Five years before the Revolution Brissot had already expressed the hope that Mrs. Macaulay's work would one day be translated into French, and in his Memoires he speaks of having discussed at that time the feasibility of such a project with Mirabeau. In fact, although there are...
IV. The Trial of "Le Stuart Francais"
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1. Louis XVI and Charles I: A Condemned King's Mediations
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We remember that during Hume's visit to Versailles in 1763 the historian of the Stuarts had been complimented on his great reputation in France by a nine-year-old boy, the future king, Louis XVI. As it turned out, the young prince was to remain an avid and faithful reader of...
2. David Hume and Stuart History for the Defense
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Undoubtedly one of the most important of these was the apology for Louis XVI published by his former minister, Jacques Necker, on 30 October of that year. In an eloquent plea to the Convention, Necker begged its members not to proceed with the trial, promising that they...
3. Cromwell in the Convention: The Judgement of Posterity
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The scores of published opinions emanating from the Convention during Louis XVI's trial and dealing with such questions as whether the King could be judged, how he should be judged, and what should be his punishment are all quite heterogeneous in their various tendencies and difficult...
4. The Parallel Rejected: Brutus to the Rescue
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Let us turn now to what we have arbitrarily set aside as a second group and consider those members of the Convention who, although they seem to hold a view of history not altogether incompatible with that of the group whose opinions we have just examined, maintained...
5. Principles Versus Precedents
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Finally, let us consider those conventionnels whose opinions concerning the relevance of history, expressed during the trial of Louis XVI, allow us to classify them as a third group. These last were, of course , no less politically earnest than the others but they showed a greater amount of impatience...
V. The Aftermath
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1. Republican Qualms
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The counter-revolutionary use of Hume's History of the Stuarts as a bible of unshakeable prophecies, complacently illustrating the irrationalism and ineradicable sins of human nature, the implacable "force of things," and the inevitable failure of all revolutions, continued with perhaps even...
2. Waiting for General Monk
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The Abbe Duvoisin in his Défense de l'ordre social contre les principes de la Révolution Française (1798) gives, along with the usual history-inspired theocratic account of the origin of society, perhaps the most precise expression to the royalists' counter-revolutionary hopes at this time. God...
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Although the high point of critical French interest in the English revolutionary period had passed by the time Napoleon made his dramatic appearance on the scene, the force of Hume's enormous influence over a subject which was so remarkably suited to exploitation by pundits...
Index of Names and Titles
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Page Count: 235
Publication Year: 2012