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  • “Distant and Commonly Faint and Disfigured Originals”:Hume’s Magna Charta and Sabl’s Fundamental Constitutional Conventions
  • Mark G. Spencer (bio)

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. If that is right, it really is too bad in the case of Andrew Sabl’s Hume’s Politics. It is too bad because the reviewer’s job would be exceedingly easy, and very pleasant. By any measure this book has a strikingly fine cover. Its image is drawn from John Byam Liston Shaw’s (1872–1919) depiction of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth entering London in 1553. Hume’s interpretation of Elizabeth I (in particular Elizabeth’s “constitutional conventions”) plays a prominent role in Hume’s Politics, so I will come back to her. But first, looking beneath the cover, what else does Sabl’s book yield?

The short answer is that it yields plenty. There are several important points being made in this artfully-conceived volume. One is that Hume’s political thought continues to be of relevance today. As Sabl puts it, Hume’s Politics “aims to clarify Hume, and shine light on his contributions. But it also aims to help us better understand the political world. It is a study not only in what Hume says but in what political theory can do.”1 Another important point relates to how we see the History of England (1754–1762) in Hume’s corpus. An underlying premise of Sabl’s book is that we ought to take Hume’s History seriously as a work of political thought. That is something that some modern scholars may need to be reminded of, but Hume’s contemporaries knew it very well.2 [End Page 73]

Sabl argues that “Hume’s great contribution to political thought is an account of dynamic coordination” (6). Others have recognized that Hume “understood, far ahead of his time, the ways in which the goods of human society stem largely from doing as others do, in certain limited but crucial matters, so that each person’s purposes in all other matters will mutually further others’ purposes instead of crossing them” (6). But Sabl’s attention is on “politics and government,” in particular, and he approaches Hume’s History “as if it were a treatise on this one subject: how conventions of political authority arise, change, improve by various measures, and die” (7).

Hume’s Politics is divided into an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion. The opening chapters “introduce the question of coordination” (18). Chapter 1, “Coordination and Convention,” outlines the basic principles of dynamic coordination, sketching “the problem of coordination and the solution to it—convention—that is most relevant in the context of large-scale politics and government” (21). Chapter 2, “Coordinating Interests: The Liberalism of Enlargement,” looks to some of the preconditions for solving coordination problems. A key precondition, as explained in the Introduction, is that “the actors involved must share a common interest in coordinating their actions that outweighs whatever interest they have … in not coordinating them” (18). Introducing Hume into that equation complicates things for, as Sabl wisely maintains, “Hume often deals in unintended consequences” (87). And some of those unintended consequences, especially when dealing with commerce and industry, spread widely. As Hume put it in a passage in the Essays that Sabl quotes: “We cannot reasonably expect, that a piece of woolen cloth will be wrought to perfection in a nation, which is ignorant of astronomy, or where ethics are neglected. The spirit of the age affects all the arts; and the minds of men, being once roused from their lethargy, and put into a fermentation, turn themselves on all sides, and carry improvements into every art and science” (quoted in Sabl, 88). Chapter 3, “Convention and Allegiance,” outlines how political authority might be thought of as a matter of convention. For Sabl, Hume’s History is largely “a book about conventions of authority—and the artificial virtue, namely allegiance, that describes adherence to that convention” (90).

Chapters 4 through 7 focus squarely on Hume’s History. Chapter 4, “Crown and Charter,” sets out to show that Hume “regards certain conventions as fundamental: immune to alteration (except in the...


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pp. 73-80
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