One of the most important philosophers, progressive thinkers, and brilliant stylists in the English tradition, David Hume has influenced thinkers in many fields, including Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and Charles Darwin. Among the hallmarks of his work are an empirical method, a determination to reject all superstitions including those associated with metaphysics and religion, a focus on human nature as the foundation of other sciences, and an immense multi-directional ambition. The works that established his present reputation were, however, less widely read in his own time than his multi-volume History of England and his numerous essays on diverse subjects. Many of these appeared in Hume’s two-part Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, which appeared in 1748 and 1752, both volumes reappearing in revised form in 1777 as volume 1 of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects.
The passages excerpted below are from two essays that touch on the subject of human differences. Like others of his time and since, Hume had a loose understanding of the concept of race, applying the term most frequently in a dynastic sense but occasionally speaking of groups such as soldiers as races. Hume was more disposed to recognize continuities than distinctions. His 1752 essay “On the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” a lengthy and learned effort to assess the population of the ancient world, begins with the statements that “stature and force of body, length of life, even courage and extent of genius, seem hitherto to have been naturally, in all ages, pretty much the same,” and that “there is no universal difference discernible in the human species.” Convinced of the essential unity of the human species—his major philosophical works were A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding—Hume could find no justification for the practice of domestic slavery, a subject to which he devotes many pages in this essay in the course of considering the effect on the population of the ancient world of large numbers of slaves.
The second essay, “On National Characters,” is far better known than the first, largely because of a footnote that has become more famous and certainly more controversial than the uninspired essay to which it was appended. In the essay, Hume argues against permanent or fixed national “characters,” attributing differences to climate, government, cultural practices, the tendency of people to imitate each other, and the flux of history. But in the course of a tentative and uncertain account of various differences in temperament and behavior, Hume also mentions a view that had been held by many people beginning with the ancient Greeks, that the cultural and political conditions among the people near the poles and in the tropics were at least partially attributable to some essential and unalterable difference, a principle of natural diversity that placed some peoples at a disadvantage when compared to others.
Such a view—a near approach to the “polygenesis” that would subsequently be used in justifications of racial rankings and their consequences, including Negro slavery—was widely held, but Hume put the matter more directly than anyone at the time other than Voltaire. As originally printed, the footnote began, “I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.” Five years later, in 1753, the essay was republished with a revised note in which Hume’s suspicion fell only on negroes.
Hume’s motives in adding the footnote and then in altering it have been much debated, especially since he undoubtedly suspected that much of the information available to Europeans concerning the peoples of the world was distorted, exaggerated, or simply fabricated. It is clear, however, that Hume’s understanding of the concept of species was as uncertain as his understanding of race—a term he does not use—and that apart from his opinions about certain groups, Hume is wrestling with the question of the nature, depth, and significance of distinctions or divisions in the larger category of the human. Committed as he was to unitary conceptions of human nature and human understanding, Hume was troubled by the possibility that different human groups might have distinct suites of capacities. The possibility that “national characters” might be determined by some cause deeper than climate, geography, or culture represented a potentially serious challenge to Hume’s philosophy and indeed to the Enlightenment approach to humanity that drew much of its inspiration from Hume. As Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the race concept threatens the very idea of an inclusive humanity, an idea that serves as the “sole regulating idea of international law.”*
Hume’s note was criticized and refuted in print during his lifetime and on many occasions since (see Beattie, Popkin in Further Reading). In 2020, just one month after Voltaire’s statue was removed from the Académie Française in Paris, his name was taken off Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh in response to student demands that cited this footnote. Defenders of Hume have pointed out that the footnote seemed a mere afterthought and a somewhat tentative one at that (“I am apt to suspect . . .”). But Hume retained it with only minor modifications for what turned out to be the posthumous publication of his collected works, twenty-three years later, in 1777, which is the version reprinted here.
*Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Harvest Book, 1968; orig. pub., 1951), 157.
The chief difference between the domestic œconomy of the ancients and that of the moderns consists in the practice of slavery, which prevailed among the former, and which has been abolished for some centuries throughout the greater part of Europe. Some passionate admirers of the ancients, and zealous partizans of civil liberty, (for these sentiments, as they are, both of them, in the main, extremely just, are found to be almost inseparable) cannot forbear regretting the loss of this institution; and whilst they brand all submission to the government of a single person with the harsh denomination of slavery, they would gladly reduce the greater part of mankind to real slavery and subjection. But to one who considers coolly on the subject it will appear, that human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of Europe, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times. As much as submission to a petty prince, whose dominions extend not beyond a single city, is more grievous than obedience to a great monarch; so much is domestic slavery more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever. The more the master is removed from us in place and rank, the greater liberty we enjoy; the less are our actions inspected and controled; and the fainter that cruel comparison becomes between our own subjection, and the freedom, and even dominion of another. The remains which are found of domestic slavery, in the American colonies, and among some European nations, would never surely create a desire of rendering it more universal. The little humanity, commonly observed in persons, accustomed, from their infancy, to exercise so great authority over their fellow-creatures, and to trample upon human nature, were sufficient alone to disgust us with that unbounded dominion. Nor can a more probable reason be assigned for the severe, I might say, barbarous manners of ancient times, than the practice of domestic slavery; by which every man of rank was rendered a petty tyrant, and educated amidst the flattery, submission, and low debasement of his slaves.
The vulgar are apt to carry all national characters to extremes; and having once established it as a principle, that any people are knavish, or cowardly, or ignorant, they will admit of no exception, but comprehend every individual under the same censure. Men of sense condemn these undistinguishing judgments: Though at the same time, they allow, that each nation has a peculiar set of manners, and that some particular qualities are more frequently to be met with among one people than among their neighbours. The common people in Switzerland have probably more honesty than those of the same rank in Ireland; and every prudent man will, from that circumstance alone, make a difference in the trust which he reposes in each. We have reason to expect greater wit and gaiety in a Frenchman than in a Spaniard; though Cervantes was born in Spain. An Englishman will naturally be supposed to have more knowledge than a Dane; though Tycho Brahe was a native of Denmark.
Different reasons are assigned for these national characters; while some account for them from moral, others from physical causes. By moral causes, I mean all circumstances, which are fitted to work on the mind as motives or reasons, and which render a peculiar set of manners habitual to us. Of this kind are, the nature of the government, the revolutions of public affairs, the plenty or penury in which the people live, the situation of the nation with regard to its neighbours, and such like circumstances. By physical causes I mean those qualities of the air and climate, which are supposed to work insensibly on the temper, by altering the tone and habit of the body, and giving a particular complexion, which, though reflection and reason may sometimes overcome it, will yet prevail among the generality of mankind, and have an influence on their manners.
That the character of a nation will much depend on moral causes, must be evident to the most superficial observer; since a nation is nothing but a collection of individuals, and the manners of individuals are frequently determined by these causes. As poverty and hard labour debase the minds of the common people, and render them unfit for any science and ingenious profession; so where any government becomes very oppressive to all its subjects, it must have a proportional effect on their temper and genius, and must banish all the liberal arts from among them. . . .
If the characters of men depended on the air and climate, the degrees of heat and cold should naturally be expected to have a mighty influence; since nothing has a greater effect on all plants and irrational animals. And indeed there is some reason to think, that all the nations, which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species, and are incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind. The poverty and misery of the northern inhabitants of the globe, and the indolence of the southern, from their few necessities, may, perhaps, account for this remarkable difference, without our having recourse to physical causes. This however is certain, that the characters of nations are very promiscuous in the temperate climates, and that almost all the general observations, which have been formed of the more southern or more northern people in these climates, are found to be uncertain and fallacious.*
* I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.
James Beattie, “A Response to Hume,” from An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Skepticism (1770) (Philadelphia: Solomon Wieatt, 1809); reprinted in Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed., Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 34-37.
Richard H. Popkin, “Hume’s Racism,” in Richard A. Watson and James E. Force, eds., Richard H. Popkin, The High Road to Pyrrhonism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 251-66.