1755 | Edinburgh

As in a Great Theater

David Hume on not fearing the unknown.

We are placed in this world as in a great theater, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want—which are distributed among the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable.

These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear, and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers on which we have so entire a dependence. Could men anatomize nature according to the most probable, at least the most intelligible philosophy, they would find that these causes are nothing but the particular fabric and structure of the minute parts of their own bodies and of external objects; and that by a regular and constant machinery all the events are produced, about which they are so much concerned. But this philosophy exceeds the comprehension of the ignorant multitude who can only conceive the unknown causes in a general and confused manner; though their imagination, perpetually employed on the same subject, must labor to form some particular and distinct idea of them. The more they consider these causes themselves and the uncertainty of their operation, the less satisfaction do they meet with in their researches; and, however unwilling, they must at last have abandoned so arduous an attempt, were it not for a propensity in human nature, which leads into a system that gives them some satisfaction.

There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds, and by a natural propensity—if not corrected by experience and reflection—ascribe malice or goodwill to everything, that hurts or pleases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopoeia in poetry, where trees, mountains, and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. And though these poetical figures and expressions gain not on the belief, they may serve at least to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor natural. Nor is a river god or hamadryad always taken for a mere poetical or imaginary personage, but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar, while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it. Nay, philosophers cannot entirely exempt themselves from this natural frailty, but have oft ascribed it to inanimate matter the horror of a vacuum, sympathies, antipathies, and other affections of human nature. The absurdity is not less, while we cast our eyes upward; and transferring, as is too usual, human passions and infirmities to the deity, represent him as jealous and revengeful, capricious and partial, and, in short, a wicked and foolish man, in every respect but his superior power and authority. No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers possessed of sentiment and intelligence. The unknown causes which continually employ their thought, appearing always in the same aspect, are all apprehended to be of the same kind or species. Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion—and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men—in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves.

Contributor

David Hume

From The Natural History of Religion. Hume’s study of the humanities as a young man led to a nervous breakdown in 1729, requiring several years for recovery. Economist, historian, and philosopher of morality and epistemology, Hume called literature his “ruling passion,” acknowledging his “insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning.”