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  • “Sweden Is Still a Kingdom”:Convention and Political Authority in Hume’s History of England
  • Willem Lemmens (bio)

To balance a large state or society, whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able, by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it.

—Hume, “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” 124

Andrew Sabl’s Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England is an impressive tribute to the Tacitus of the eighteenth century. His study offers a reading of the History of England “as if it were a treatise on this one subject: how conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die” (7).1 Hume’s History, according to Sabl, is much more than a mere narrative of the gradual emergence of a stable constitutional monarchy on the English soil: it contains a systematic political theory that foreshadows some crucial devices of contemporary coordination theory. Hume the historian thus propagates an ingenious “liberalism of enlargement” (as Sabl calls it) from which we can still profit.

“Teasing out a coherent political theory from a 1.3 million words book” is of course no sinecure. Sabl admits that his study is more “analytic” than “humanistic” (18).2 He focuses on the dynamics of conflict that yield conventions of political authority, and abstracts largely from a more moral reading of the History, such as we [End Page 57] find for example in some of the latest essays by Annette Baier.3 Sabl thinks Hume’s intentions in writing the History were first and foremost political-practical. He also takes for granted that Hume the historian relies heavily on the philosopher: the History’s tale of the gradual emergence of a stable fabric of political authority in England confirms, in general, the theoretical account of the origin of government and political allegiance in the Treatise.

By confining his focus, Sabl is able to elaborate his reading of the History. He concludes his book with a plea for a politics of “charm and realism” as antidote for a strained political rationalism. For Sabl, Hume is not the antiquarian Tory conservative, as some would like him to be, nor a proponent of a Kantian liberalism of dignity. Hume is much more one of us: a political Enlightenment thinker of a post-modern blend: moderate, pragmatic, and propagating a non-perfectionist liberal pluralism. I agree firmly with Sabl that Hume’s History contains hidden treasures. However, I worry that if we see Hume too much as one of us, we might ignore some of the less optimistic lessons his History contains. In the following, I point out why I think so.

1. Political Authority and Fundamental Conventions in the Treatise and History

According to Sabl, one finds in Hume’s History an account of political authority that confirms the exposition of the Treatise. Here, Hume unfolds in a brilliant way his somehow uncanny normative internalism concerning the legitimacy of an established government or constitution: custom—not reason—forms the foundation of allegiance towards the sovereign (or the “governors”). Citizens, so Hume contends, obey a certain constitution because it is established, not because they silently consented to do so or explicitly agreed to do so through an original contract.4 It might be the case that the willingness to obey a political convention arose, in uncivilised times, out of self-interest or a temporary quasi-contract (seeking protection in times of war): but the transformation of the merely factual interests of the parties forming a political society into a sense of allegiance implies a sort of repression of this non-normative origin of the constitution, a jump over the abyss, as Sabl himself nicely suggests at the end of his study.5

This implies that for Hume, the sense of political allegiance—the civil virtue shoring political authority—is deeply embedded in common life. Citizens habitually obey the sovereign and legislature spontaneously, out of a sense of obedience, and without further considerations of self-interest (at least in times of peace and prosperity). Political authority thus derives its normative force solely from...


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pp. 57-72
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