THR Web Features   /   March 29, 2023

David Hume’s Guide to Today’s Politics

Between enthusiasm and superstition.

Alan Jacobs

( THR illustration.)

Recently, I argued in this publication that one of our best guides to the world of social media is David Hume—but Hume helps us to understand other elements of our current political culture as well.

Take, for instance, Hume’s contention, in a famous essay, that the two primary “corruptions of true religion” are superstition and enthusiasm. He was thinking primarily of Roman Catholics on the one hand and, on the other, a variety of Protestant religious groups that today we might see as examples or forerunners of evangelicalism; but he deliberately frames his argument in more general terms, as though describing not distinct factions of his time but rather enduring dispositions. “The true sources of superstition,” he argues, are “weakness, fear, melancholy, together with ignorance.” The true sources of enthusiasm, by contrast, are “hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance.” You will note that the only item common to both sides is ignorance. A typical Hume comment.

I want to argue that the primary social forces disrupting American society today are modern versions of these two false religions. Our current version of superstition is the MAGA belief system. Our current version of enthusiasm is what some people call wokeness but I prefer to call Left Purity Culture (LPC).

In “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm,” Hume’s first major point is

That superstition is favourable to priestly power, and enthusiasm not less or rather more contrary to it, than sound reason and philosophy. As superstition is founded on fear, sorrow, and a depression of spirits, it represents the man to himself in such despicable colours, that he appears unworthy, in his own eyes, of approaching the divine presence, and naturally has recourse to any other person, whose sanctity of life, or, perhaps, impudence and cunning, have made him be supposed more favoured by the Divinity.

Those Americans fearful of Deep State totalitarianism or an avalanche of immigrants, sorrowful about what they perceive to be the decline of their society into “American carnage,” and suffering from the depression of spirits that induces hopelessness, might plausibly be drawn to one who claims that he alone can fix the social problems, and, more recently, that he will be their retribution. Why might these claims be plausible to some? Certainly not because of his “sanctity of life”; but “impudence and cunning”? Those traits he has superabundantly. And so Donald Trump becomes the priest-king of a forlorn True America. Behold our new superstition.

By contrast, our modern enthusiasts of LPC follow a simpler path: “The fanatic consecrates himself, and bestows on his own person a sacred character, much superior to what forms and ceremonious institutions can confer on any other,” Hume writes. Secure in the possession of an ideological purity that confers a “sacred character,” these enthusiasts may with perfect confidence take to social media to denounce and condemn all who fall short of their own immaculateness; and then commence what they trust will be a quick decisive march through the institutions. They have no priest-king; they need no priest-king.

Hume doesn’t want to live under either one of these factions. He prefers more rational forms of religion, if religion must be. But he does think that when enthusiasm dominates, as it certainly dominates our elite culture today, there is one ray of hope: “enthusiasm produces the most cruel disorders in human society; but its fury is like that of thunder and tempest, which exhaust themselves in a little time, and leave the air more calm and serene than before.” Thus we might expect to see—and some think we already see—a moderation or weakening of LPC.

So far Hume is acute as a diagnostician of a situation that would come about centuries after his own time. But there is one element of his analysis that I question. Hume thinks “that superstition is an enemy to civil liberty and, and enthusiasm a friend to it. As superstition grounds under the dominion of priests, and enthusiasm is destructive of all ecclesiastical power, this sufficiently accounts for the present observation.” Hume has in mind here the then-recent history of his country—about which he wrote compellingly and at length. A hundred years earlier, an enthusiastic movement, driven in part by dissenters from the Church of England and in part by radicals within it—including one John Milton, who wrote passionately in favor of civil liberties that the king in his view had denied or overridden—had brought down King Charles I. But it was unable to sustain its energies and after just a few years accepted the restoration of the monarchy. This monarchy—led first by a possible Roman Catholic in Charles I and then his Roman Catholic brother, James II—threatened, in Hume’s view, to transform England into a priest-haunted theocracy.

Now, one should not assume that by describing enthusiasm as a friend to civil liberty Hume means simply to praise it. In his great history, he accuses the enthusiasts of “forgetting that a regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinate to a reverence for established government.” As I noted above, he thinks that the superstitious and the enthusiastic alike are extremists and on that account to be rejected as political guides. But he clearly does think that the superstitious, precisely because they invest themselves in the power of institutions as directed by their priest-kings, are more likely than enthusiasts to succeed in establishing permanent, or at least long-standing power.

And here we must return to our current enthusiasts’ “march through the institutions” I mentioned earlier. This poses problems for Hume’s analysis, and suggests that over time even the warmest of enthusiasts can discover the power of institutions—like velociraptors figuring out how to open doors. It may be, pace Hume, that once a party achieves rule, in any given place, it feels less strongly its need for priestly intercession. It becomes its own retribution. Thus supporters of California Governor Gavin Newsom are superstitious—fearful, sorrowful—with regard to places like Texas and Florida, while supporters of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are superstitious with regard to “coastal elites” and enthusiastic with regard to life in Florida. This is how we manage to get a situation Hume did not anticipate; a situation one might fairly describe as the worst of both worlds.