restricted access 3. ‘A Common Right of Mankind’ or ‘A Necessary Evil’? Hume’s contextualist conception of political liberty
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40 3. ‘A Common Right of Mankind’ or ‘A Necessary Evil’? Hume’s contextualist conception of political liberty GILLES ROBEL This chapter will focus on one specific form of political liberty examined in one of Hume’s essays, ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’ (1741), but its contention is that this essay opens a window into the main features and complexities of Hume’s conception of political liberty. ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’ is one of Hume’s very first essays published after what he regarded as the ‘failure’ of the Treatise of Human Nature. Drawing his inspiration from Addison, Hume chose a journalistic genre more susceptible to enabling him to develop a form of commerce between the ‘dominions of knowledge’ and those of ‘conversation’.1 Hume corrected and amended his essays over the years and ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’ is the essay which received the most extensive alterations, making his approach of the question quite puzzling to the modern reader, perhaps more familiar with John Stuart Mill’s discussion of the subject in chapter two of On Liberty.2 One of the main characteristics and difficulties of Hume’s empirical approach is his reluctance to conceptualise political liberty. For Hume liberty is a notion which cannot be examined in abstracto but only as part of an analysis of its development and contribution to a specific political and social setting. Such reluctance has often been misinterpreted, but we will try to show that it is philosophically grounded and that it enables Hume to develop on original approach, far removed from the dominant beliefs of the time. ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’ has tended to attract more attention for what was removed from it than for what Hume left in it. In the original version of the essays, Hume raises two questions: first ‘how it happens that Great Britain alone enjoys this peculiar privilege’ of allowing people to communicate their thoughts freely, and second ‘whether such a liberty be advantageous or prejudicial’. In the first version of the essay, i.e. from 1741 41 hume’s contextualist conception of political liberty to 1768, Hume’s point of view seems fairly similar to that of anyone who regarded the constitutional settlement of 1688 as a ‘perfect system of liberty’. The birth of the liberty of the press can indeed be traced back to the abolition of the Imprimatur with the lapse of the Licensing Order in 1694.3 Hume explains that the liberty of press in Britain is caused by its mixed form of government: in a regime ‘which is neither wholly monarchical, nor wholly republican the spirit of the people must frequently be rouzed, in order to curb the ambition of the court’. Hume describes the press as a kind of fourth estate, a watchdog designed to stop any attempts of the crown to encroach on Parliamentary power. And the press was useful to control the power of the government as well: after the replacement of the Triennial Act by the Septennial Act in 1716, which consolidated Robert Walpole’s power and that of a Whig oligarchy, a large number of newspapers and pamphlets, such as Bolingbroke’s Craftsman were published for that purpose. As regards the question of the benefits of the liberty of the press, Hume explains that grievances should be vented freely, that a whisper is more dangerous than a pamphlet and that the press helps to promote a plurality of interests. It is therefore an essential component of the culture of politeness .4 In the original version of the essay, Hume concludes that: ‘this liberty is attended with so few inconveniencies, that it may be claimed as the common right of mankind, and ought to be indulged almost in every government.’5 However, from the 1770 edition onwards, the second question and its long development is replaced by a rather abrupt concluding paragraph: ‘It must however be allowed, that the unbounded liberty of the press, though it be difficult, perhaps impossible, to propose a suitable remedy for it, is one of the evils, attending those mixt forms of government.’6 So from being a ‘common right of mankind’ the freedom of the press had become a ‘necessary evil’ in a mixed form of government. The most obvious reason for the change are the famous Wilkesite disturbances triggered by the English journalist and politician John Wilkes after the publication of the North Briton number 45; they affected England between 1762 and 1771. Privately Hume...