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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, February 09, 2007

Monkish virtues

I was just thinking about this famous quote from David Hume for another purpose. I love the way he skewers a lot of self-denying morality. It's worth quoting in full from the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

"Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of the company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, tranfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices; nor has any superstition force sufficient among men of the world, to pervert entirely these natural sentiments. A gloomy, hair-brained enthusiast, after his death, may have a place in the calendar, but will scarcely ever be admitted, when alive, into intimacy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself."

We ought to take this to heart. I dislike arrogance and bragging as much as anyone does - Hume has some bad things to say about them, as well. He's not defending them here. But, as he suggests, we are not morally required to go around with long faces. We can enjoy life, be sociable, sexual creatures, and take a proper pride in what we do.

The worldly moral philosophy of Hume is a high point of the Enlightenment. Sure, I can think of one or two things in it that need updating, but overall it still makes a helluva lot of sense.

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