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Hume Studies Volume 33, Number 2, November 2007, pp. 335-338 Book Reviews Neil McArthur. David Hume's Political Theory: Law, Commerce, and the Constitution of Government. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 193. ISBN 9780802093356, cloth, $45.00. Neil McArthur chose with care the title of his fine book. This is not a study of the more purely philosophical aspects of Hume's treatment of politics. That is, it does not concern itself with Hume's assault on the leading "speculative" political principles of his day, the social contract and the divine right theories of the basis of the duty of allegiance. McArthur forsakes this very well-trodden ground in favour of a careful and thorough account of Hume's contribution to what, so he says, is now called political science. "This," McArthur says, "is the tradition concerned with concrete questions about the machinery and functioning of government rather than abstract ones about its nature and foundation" (14). The object of study for this tradition is actual political practice, past and present, and the goal is to draw conclusions about what makes particular forms of government, in particular historical circumstances, prosper and decline. To treat Hume's political writings in such a fashion is to relate him to Machiavelli and Harrington, not Hobbes and Locke, and to see his most important contemporaries as Montesquieu, Turgot, and Condorcet. McArthur says little, however, about either Hume's debts to his forebears in the tradition or the differences between Hume and other political writers of his own day. For the most part McArthur concentrates on providing a clear and Volume 33, Number 2, November 2007 336 Book Reviews succinct survey of those of Hume's texts which bear on the question of what kind of government is best suited to solve the (as Hume saw the matter) wholly new problems presented to legislative and executive power by the rise of international commerce. McArthur is to be congratulated for acknowledging the centrality of this question to Hume's intellectual biography. He is also to be congratulated for recognising that just as important as the essays among the texts in which Hume poses and answers the question is the entirety of The History of England. He does not press the point, but, still, McArthur provides further reasons to see the History not as an exercise in belles lettres that Hume turned to once his most important work was done, but, instead, as the culmination and crowning glory of Hume's career as a philosophical analyst of the age in which he lived. As McArthur reads him, Hume's guiding concern in his political writings is with civilisation, and with how to preserve it and prevent outbreaks of its contrary, barbarism. The marks of a civilised society are humanity (or general benevolence), knowledge, and industry. Hume made two important contributions to the study of how civilisation is to be fostered and maintained. The first concerns the relation between civilisation and avarice, the ineliminable human desire for what the eighteenth century termed "luxury." Like Mandeville before him, Hume saw that avarice could be harnessed so as to serve the ends of the state, and that, contrary to what had been argued by every moralist since the success of Sparta began to be contrasted with the decline and fall of Rome, prosperity and freedom from external interference were not threatened by the pursuit of luxury. Both Spartan achievement and Roman failure, so Hume argued, were to be explained in terms which had nothing to do with the martial virtue of the former and the increasing "effeminacy" of the latter. Where Hume differed from Mandeville was in showing that it was not true that a state's success had to be achieved at the expense of the virtue of its citizens. Commercial success could be seen as a progenitor, not an enemy, of humanity. Nevertheless, wealth and military strength were not sufficient for civilisation. Just as important was a further kind of freedom, a citizen's freedom from interference at the hands of both his fellow citizens and those in positions of power. This kind of freedom was generally understood to be secured by, as the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 335-338
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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