A First Foray with David Hume's History of England

david hume history of england

January 3, 2023

An American dips in to David Hume's History of England and comes up with more questions than answers. 
Is it Un-American to care too much about the history of England? When I watch Downton Abbey or drink Lady Grey tea, I feel a bit traitorous. Wouldn’t it be better to be reading Willa Cather or drinking Kentucky bourbon? But perhaps that is too childish - to think a parent has nothing to offer even if a child is grown. Plus, what if the parent is smart and funny and one of the world’s most famous infidels? The scales might tip and I might find myself cracking open David Hume’s History of England

I am not starting at the beginning because I am also not starting summer break before my junior year of St. John’s College when all I really have to do is waitress for the upcoming year’s rent money. But I am participating in a virtual reading group on the messiness of progress and if the reign of Henry VIII doesn’t scream messiness to you, you have more successfully avoided English history than even me. 

I am starting with Volume 3, Chapter 29, well, because that’s what Shannon Chamberlain, the discussion leader, suggested. But the chapter teaser is certainly enticing, including subheadings like a “Digression concerning the ecclesiastical state,” “Martin Luther,” “Henry receives the title of defender of the faith.” And there will be wars (with France, with Scotland, with Italy).

Hume starts by encouraging reflection on the necessity of an ecclesiastical order and a public establishment of religion. It’s only the first paragraph and I’m already considering putting down my tea cup! Hume classifies those professions which can be left to markets (artisans, lawyers, doctors) and those which cannot (financiers, armies, magistrates) and places ecclesiastics in the latter category. Why? Because in the many “untrue religions” the desire to appeal to the masses of people will have terrible results.
Each ghostly practitioner, in order to render himself more precious and sacred in the eyes of his retainers, will inspire them with the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavour, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of his audience. No regard will be paid to truth, morals, or decency in the doctrines inculcated. Every tenet will be adopted that best suits the disorderly affections of the human frame. Customers will be drawn to each conventicle by new industry and address in practising on the passions and credulity of the populace. 
Hume wants to disincentivize these practitioners with salaries that do not require them to be quite so active. It is, he claims, in the best political interest of the society. But, be sure not to be like the Catholics is the next warning. He acknowledges a small benefit from the opposition to despots, the increased interaction between people of different nations, and increased taste for fine arts and elegance but these are far outweighed in his view by the harms. 

And what are the harms of the Romish church and it’s practitioners in England? Wars and taxes. The cast of characters expands. Luckily, my tea is still hot. Enter Pope Leo X and indulgences, “forgiveness” in exchange for funds which the church was greatly lacking. Enter Martin Luther, a fiery friar who was having none of it. Enter King Henry, no fan of Luther or his ideas. Luther stands up to Henry from the pulpit and the printing press and a clergy unaccustomed to defense is overwhelmed by attacks. Exit Leo due to his death. Enter a new pope, Adrian, and the manipulations of the powerhouse Wolsey. And what should an English King do when there is trouble at home? War with France, of course. Wars everywhere. And this American can’t help but think back to George Washington's "Farewell Address" urging his new nation to stay out of European wars.

And then come the taxes, long-standing taxes imposed without parliament’s consent, higher taxes and more taxes. And the tea is far too sweet all of a sudden. And Hume tells of the push back when too much power is exerted too quickly or without perceived legitimacy from the people. And all of the history in this section is leading up to the conflict over what a marriage is and who counts as a successor as Henry VIII struggles to satisfy himself and provide an heir to the throne. 

I’m glad of the opportunity to talk though this chapter with others as it raises many questions.  Here's a few of mine:  

1 - For Hume, how intertwined is the personal with the institutional? At times, the history turns on the character of a particular pope or a king’s mother. But other times, the precedents of levying taxes for war or the historical customs regarding duels dominate his explanations. 

2- Does Hume actually want an official religion or does he just want some institution to push back against despotism? He says he wants a church financed by the state, as a guard against rabble-rousing “untrue” religions but is he really just looking for some kind of inoffensive ground cover that prevents more noxious weeds from growing in rich soil?

3 - What is Hume’s perspective on within group conflicts (Martin Luther with the Catholic Church) versus between group conflicts (The Catholic Church vs the on-it’s-way Church of England). When are these conflicts liberty enhancing? When are they damaging to civil rights and peace?

Want to read more? 
Christy Lynn on another work of David Hume’s “A Skeptic's Guide to the Perfect Commonwealth
(A good reason to watch Downton Abbey) Shal Marriot’s “Adam Smith Visits Downton Abbey