Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Analysis

  • Tone

    Serious, Critical, Exploratory, Persuasive 

    Philosophy doesn't have to be stuffy, but morality and justice are pretty deep subjects and Hume isn't gonna treat them lightly. He'll let us in on his personal views sometimes, using language like "I believe" and "I say." Overall, though, the tone is what we'd expect from a philosophical enquiry.

    Hume lays his cards on the table early on, declaring,

    Men are now cured of their passion for hypotheses and systems in natural philosophy, and will hearken to no arguments but those which are derived from experience. It is full time they should attempt a like reformation in all moral disquisitions. (I.10)

    See? This guy means business.

    Hume sees other philosophers as having dropped the ball in their accounts of moral theory, arguing that

    An opposition of the greatest consequence could prevail between one system and another, and even in the parts of almost each individual system; and yet nobody, till very lately, was ever sensible of it. (I.4)

    It's one big mess and that's why Hume steps in. He's not in the mood for jokes—his goal to clear up the confusion. To quote the man himself:

    What need we seek for abstruse and remote systems, when there occurs one so obvious and natural? (V.II.2)

    Taking a critical angle, Hume points out that other folks' theories are far from perfect: modern philosophers, for instance, have harped on about virtue and vice, "yet have commonly endeavoured to account for these distinctions by metaphysical reasonings, and by deductions from the most abstract principles" (I.4). In short, these guys just aren't in touch with the real world.

    Another thing Hume criticizes is the idea that sympathy and kindness are just fronts and that, really, we're all selfish. Hume's argument is that we have a natural sense of sympathy and that "everything, which contributes to the happiness of society, recommends itself directly to our approbation and good-will" (V.II.2). Unlike some, Hume's not a complete cynic.

    Even though he's convinced of his theory, Hume knows that readers aren't gonna accept it just because he says so, and he recognizes "that nothing can be more unphilosophical than to be positive or dogmatical on any subject" (IX.I.13). Just because someone's sure of themselves or arrogant doesn't mean they're right. The word "enquiry" clues us in on the book's tone, and Hume goes on to explore how our sense of morality is formed, using examples to back up his claims.

    For instance, Hume considers situations where justice is suspended and asks,

    Is it any crime, after a shipwreck, to seize whatever means or instrument of safety one can lay hold of, without regard to former limitations of property? (III.I.8)

    Similarly, after explaining the importance of sentiment in morality, Hume asks, "what else can have an influence of this nature?"

    In case you haven't noticed, these are rhetorical questions: Hume's aim is to persuade us that the answers are obvious and for us to respond, "yep, this guy's right."

  • Genre

    Philosophical Literature, Fable, Parable, Quest

    Philosophy doesn't take anything for granted and is all about tackling heavy issues. This Enquiry is no exception, with Hume taking a critical lens to such epic topics as morality, justice, and the role of the individual within society.

    Though he asks lots of questions, Hume has his views pretty much settled from the get-go; e.g., he's convinced that sentiment plays a key role in our moral judgments (though, being human, he's subject to the odd moment of doubt). He hasn't just decided this on a whim though, and he doesn't expect readers to accept it because he says so. As the word "enquiry" suggests, this is an exploration of ethics and morality, with Hume responding to the kinds of questions we're likely to ask.

    While the Enquiry isn't a fable in itself, Hume sometimes refers to fables to demonstrate his argument. So when he states that it's important to be cautious and diligent rather than rash and hot-headed, he refers to the classic example of the tortoise and the hare. This is helpful to us, as it takes philosophy (which has a reputation for being a tricky subject) and puts it in terms that we understand.

    As well as fables, Hume sometimes uses parables to make his point. The difference is that, while fables typically use the example of animals or objects, parables describe a simple situation involving people and compares this to a more complex scenario. What they have in common is that they're both meant to teach us valuable life lessons. For instance, Hume uses the example of people building a wall to demonstrate the importance of teamwork.

    This book may not be a quest in the traditional sense, but it is a quest for knowledge. Setting out with the goal of outlining a theory of morals—and correcting all the errors that other philosophers have made—Hume embarks on an epic journey that spans the centuries and the continents. He has many obstacles to overcome, like the arguments that benevolence is a front for selfishness or that reason alone shapes our moral judgments. Still, despite occasionally doubting himself, Hume keeps his goal in sight, using a whole bunch of examples to back up his points. Hume knows the kinds of questions that we may be asking while reading the Enquiry, and he does his best to answer them. Morality may be a big, daunting subject, but Hume won't rest until he's gotten the job done.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals may not be the flashiest or snappiest title, but it does the job of summing up what the book's about. If we didn't already know that it was a work of philosophy, the title gives us a strong clue that this is the kind of material we're about to read.

    If we're going to sum up the title in one word, we can call it "explanatory": some books have more mysterious titles or use puns, metaphors, wordplay, etc., but Hume goes for a more straight-laced approach that tells us the topic of study. From the title alone, we expect that we're about to read a non-fiction work that explores the foundation of morality.

    Though this enquiry can be read as a standalone text, it's a follow-up to another of Hume's works: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. That's why it's sometimes known as "the second Enquiry" (we're thinking The Enquiry II: The Philosopher Rises would've been cooler, but that's just us).

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Sometimes, we might think that we can just skip over appendices—it's like the book is the main feature and the appendices are extras. In the Enquiry, though, the appendices are super important. As Hume rounds up the final one, he focuses on language. Language is something that we can't get away from: we're all born into it and become familiar with popular lingo. However, this doesn't mean that it's perfect.

    At the end of this appendix, Hume mentions some of the words we may use to describe faults or bad behavior, like "a blemish," "a vice," and "a crime." These terms may signal different levels of error but, for Hume, they're part of the same species.

    Hume's concern is that philosophy can sometimes get bogged down in terminology and that this can lead to confusion. Hume argues that explaining one of the above words leads us to an understanding of the others and that, ultimately, there are more important things to focus on than words.

    So, what is important? Well, for the Enquiry, it's morality, regardless of what terms we use to describe it. Even the most basic systems of morals recognize that we have a duty to ourselves, and this leads us to explore the relationship between this duty and our duty to society.

    Rather than leaving this topic hanging, Hume reaches a pretty solid conclusion: both duties probably develop from similar principles and attract similar praise. The ending therefore does a great job of wrapping up the Enquiry and summarizing Hume's take on morality. Ignore it at your peril!

  • Setting

    Philosophers at War

    Thanks to Hume's comments on modern (read: eighteenth-century) philosophy, we get a sense of the issues that folks were mulling over (read: squabbling over) around the time that Hume's writing his Enquiry.

    Hume mentions that some philosophers have become preoccupied with theology and aren't approaching morality from a neutral perspective. The reason/sentiment debate is another big deal and Hume's clearly not happy with the way it's going (i.e., people failing to recognize the importance of sentiment). Even where philosophers have recognized sentiment, they've sometimes argued that it's just a front for selfishness. Hmph.

    Hume doesn't get into microscopic detail here (remember, he wants to keep this book accessible), but he gives us a primer on what's going down around the time he's been writing.

    Man of the World

    As well as giving us the lowdown on modern philosophy, Hume spends a large part of the Enquiry exploring morality in different time periods and settings. Hume knows his stuff and, if we take a quick timeout to look at his background, we can see why.

    Though Hume was part of the Scottish Enlightenment and spent his early years in Edinburgh, he often travelled to England and spent four years living in France. Hume wasn't just a philosopher but a history buff, too. Check out The History of England.

    As a result of his studies and travels, Hume knew his stuff when it came to history and the different kinds of societies that have existed around the world. This stood him in good stead when writing his moral enquiry, and his knowhow definitely pays off.

    What stands out about this piece is that it's not pinned down to one location. It may have first been published in London, but Hume casts his net far wider. England, Europe, Egypt, and ancient Rome and Greece are just some of the locations he talks about, and he explores both primitive nations and modern societies. Believe us, this guy is no slouch.

    Culture Clash

    Because of its wide scope, this book reads as a journey though history and culture. Some of the references are just mentioned in passing, but Hume explores and contrasts some of these cultures too. For instance, he observes that family name and inherited riches are valued in most of Europe, whereas in England more attention is paid to someone's current status.

    Another thing you'll notice when reading this book is that ideas about virtues/vices can depend on the time and place. So, when discussing ancient Greece, Hume notes that folks had to be brilliant public speakers and have a first-rate memory if they wanted to make it. These qualities are still valued today but, back then, they were vital and audiences would only accept the best.

    Hume refers to physical strength and agility as having been highly valued in ancient times; in this case, because they were necessary during war (which was more hands-on in those days than it is now). Hume points out that, in societies less civilized than our own, courage is another thing that's seen as a major virtue.

    Sure, there are some values that are universal—e.g., Hume believes that we have a natural sense of humanity and sympathy. Even here, though, Hume points to scenarios like shipwrecks and hostage situations where people are forced to focus on self-preservation. There are also situations where people don't bother with official laws but still have a code of conduct among themselves—just ask robbers and pirates (yo-ho-ho!).

    This Enquiry is packed with so many examples and shout-outs that we could be here all day. But one thing we will say is that this isn't just some old, ultra-boring work of philosophy—Hume may not travel to all the times and places that he describes, but he does a great job of turning a philosophical work into an adventure across time and space.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    As we often find with philosophy, this isn't the easiest text in the world. But don't fret just yet Shmoopers—as far as this stuff goes, it's not too difficult (just check out these bad boys). In fact, Hume felt that some of his earlier writings hadn't been accessible enough to the general public and he set out to fix that here. Gee, thanks for looking out for us, Dave.

    You might think that since this text was written in the 1700s, it won't be easy to read or relate to today. Like, did they even have bicycles then? (Answer: No, not until the 1800s.) Either way, the big surprise here is that the book really isn't that tough. Hume is all about relating his ideas to the real world and he includes loads of examples from various historical periods and cultures, including his own. It doesn't matter if you don't recognize some of the references—this isn't a history lesson. Hume doesn't get bogged down in details but, instead, gives us some simple, useful examples.

    Hume often recaps or expands on the points that he's made, and you might sometimes feel as though this is Groundhog Day. It's helpful though, as it makes sure that we've really gotten a grip on Hume's thinking (the four appendices are super-useful in summing it all up).

  • Writing Style

    Formal, Wordy, Descriptive, Repetitious

    Works of philosophy aren't the most fun, frothy texts in the world, and their language is usually on the serious side (like in an academic essay). The Enquiry is no exception, and the fact that it was written in the 1700s means that Hume sometimes uses words, spellings, and references that aren't as fresh as they were back in the day ("connexions" and "knave," anyone?). Still, modern academic/philosophical works have their own brand of highfalutin' language, so it's not like Hume's writing is any more difficult than what we're used to.

    Some of the sentences in the Enquiry are lengthy and use terms that you may not be familiar with. Take a look at the first sentence:

    DISPUTES with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity, superior to the rest of mankind. (I.1)

    That's a mouthful, right? What he's saying, though, is that stubborn people can be annoying but they aren't as bad as folks who don't even believe what they're saying and are just trying to show off/get a rise (one word: trolls).

    Despite his wordy, formal language, Hume helps us out by repeating and emphasizing certain words. Check out this quote:

    Who sees not […] that whatever is produced or improved by a man's art or industry ought, for ever, to be secured to him, in order to give encouragement to such useful habits and accomplishments? That the property ought also to descend to children and relations, for the same useful purpose? That it may be alienated by consent, in order to beget that commerce and intercourse, which is so beneficial to human society? (III.II.7)

    One thing that we need to remember here is that Hume didn't want to just cater for fellow academic types—he wanted his work to engage with a wider readership. He therefore keeps returning to his main points and buzzwords, as we can see from the references to "useful" and "beneficial" (plus the repetitive wording and structure) in the quote above. We often think of repetition as a bad thing, but Hume uses it to get his argument across and keep it in our minds.

    Hume's style may seem daunting at first, but once you get used to it, it's really not so tough. Even if you don't recognize every word or reference, you can follow Hume's train of thought and understand his overall argument. Plus, we have to cut Hume some slack—we can't expect a centuries-old philosophical work to be a complete breeze.

  • The Tortoise and the Hare

    Hume knows that philosophy and morality aren't always the easiest subjects to come to grips with. That's why he turns to imaginary scenarios or fables to explain and back up his points.

    One stand-out example is the tortoise and the hare, which is one of Aesop's Fables. Even if you haven't read it (it's a quick and easy read that you can check out here), chances are you'll know that it's about a plodding tortoise that manages win a race against a speedy hare. It's about more than that, though. The whole point of fables is to teach a moral lesson and this is one of the most famous examples. In this case, it's meant to demonstrate the perils of being complacent and over-confident.

    Hume could've just explained that being focused and determined is better than being rash and losing sight of long-term goals. But, frankly, that would be kind of dull. As soon as he mentions the tortoise and the hare, however, a light bulb goes off in our heads and we instantly get what he's saying.

  • Building a Wall

    One of the simplest analogies that Hume uses in the Enquiry is the building of a wall. Explaining how society works (or should work), Hume makes this comparison:

    The happiness and prosperity of mankind, arising from the social virtue of benevolence and its subdivisions, may be compared to a wall, built by many hands, which still rises by each stone that is heaped upon it, and receives increase proportional to the diligence and care of each workman. (AIII.5)

    Though he recognizes that self-interest isn't a bad thing, Hume argues that it should be combined with usefulness and benevolence—not just toward the people closest to us but to wider society. It's a kind of social contract where everyone does their part and everyone benefits. If only a few people worked on building a wall, then it'd be a lot slower and much harder work than if lots of people helped out. Teamwork!

    You've probably heard this analogy before, so it's not like it's some big revelation. Still, it does an awesome job of summing up Hume's argument.

  • Dream Home

    You know how Hume sees sentiment as part of our nature? Well, in his view, that's why some images are immediately pleasing to us.

    Say, for instance, that we enter a warm apartment that's in a neat location and arranged in a way that's well-suited to its purpose. Hume believes that this instantly transmits pleasant emotions to us. And if the landlord's friendly and good-natured? Even better. This isn't just about reason or intellect. It's a natural response. The same applies in reverse: if the doors and windows of a building aren't designed in a way that's suited to human use, we see them as ill-fitting. Check out some of these designs. The Extreme Makeover team would have their hands full.

    To back up his point, Hume refers to the way in which architects describe a building. They might go into all the proportions of the base, the pillars, blah, blah, blah, but this doesn't explain the beauty of the building. As Hume sums up:

    The beauty is not in any of the parts or members of a pillar, but results from the whole, when that complicated figure is presented to an intelligent mind, susceptible to those finer sensations. Till such a spectator appear, there is nothing but a figure of such particular dimensions and proportions. (AI.15)

    Hume's not arguing that details aren't important or necessary. His point is that these can't account for the appeal of a building. This depends on the presence of a human being who feels a pleasing (or not so pleasing) sentiment when they look at it. Hume says it best when he declares:

    Propositions in geometry may be proved, systems in physics may be controverted; but the harmony of verse, the tenderness of passion, the brilliancy of wit, must give immediate pleasure. (I.5)

    There you have it folks, straight from the horse's mouth.

  • Poetry and Art

    Poetry and art are two areas that we definitely can't reduce to pure reason. The whole aim of these things is to provoke some kind of emotional response—this is what's often used as the main criteria when judging if they're successful. But emotional responses aren't always positive. So what does Hume sees as creating a pleasing/not so pleasing response?

    Hume sees pastoral poetry as most agreeable because it's all about gentle, peaceful imagery and doesn't conjure up dramatic or painful emotions like some other varieties. In both art and life, this kind of imagery is appealing (check out an example here). Hume explains:

    The eye is pleased with the prospect of corn-fields and loaded vine-yards; horses grazing, and flocks pasturing: but flies the view of briars and brambles, affording shelter to wolves and serpents. (II.II.4)

    Hume suggests that the Italian poet Jacapo Sannazzaro made a wrong step in using a seashore as the setting for a pastoral scene. Hume certainly recognizes that the sea is majestic, but he feels that this was a blunder. Why? Because, rather than peaceful imagery, the poet depicts fishermen who spend their days working themselves to the bone and being in constant danger. Because we have a natural sense of sympathy, this is upsetting to us.

    Far better in Hume's opinion are images such as the Elysian fields or Arcadia; again, because these present us with utopias of tranquility, love, and friendship.

    Hume also contrasts the poetical fiction of the Golden Age with philosophical fiction describing humanity's natural state. Where the philosophers imagined that we started out in "a state of mutual war and violence," the poetic writers represented this era as "the most charming and most peaceable condition" (III.I.15). Hume's doubtful whether either of these extremes represents reality, but, of the two, the poetic version's definitely the one we'd go for. 

    Though he contrasts agreeable and disagreeable emotions, Hume recognizes that the ability to create an emotional response is a plus point in itself. Whether we're reading a book or watching a movie, the goal is to feel a sense of connection with the characters and get involved in what's going on. If we feel completely detached then we have no emotional investment and will probably start zoning out. As Hume summarizes:

    It is the business of poetry to bring every affection near to us by lively imagery and representation, and make it look like truth and reality. (V.II.15)

    Substitute "poetry" for music, movies, or TV shows, and this statement suddenly becomes surprisingly relevant to our day-to-day lives. 

  • The Model Citizen

    Throughout the Enquiry, Hume sketches out a whole list of qualities that make someone a model citizen. This person should be loyal and caring toward those closest to them while also showing compassion toward human beings in general. They should spend their time and energy on tasks that are useful and agreeable to society but they should have a healthy amount of self-interest too. They shouldn't be arrogant, devious, or foolish; instead, they should display modesty, honesty, and stick to their principles. Some list, huh?

    Hume emphasizes that some qualities are so vital that possessing them isn't something to be celebrated—it's taken for granted that people should be polite and pleasant. We don't expect a medal for basic decency; it's when we're lacking this that we open ourselves up to criticism.

    There are other virtues that aren't expected of everybody and are all the more valued because of their rarity. We can't all be J.K. Rowling or Stephen Hawking, but that's okay: Hume's more realistic about the everyday virtues that matter.

    We might feel as though we don't live up to Hume's vision of the ideal citizen, but when a writer/philosopher is making a point, it's often most effective to compare polar opposites. That's the approach Hume takes here, and his aim isn't to make us feel as though we're not good enough—it's to give clear examples that help us understand his theory.

  • Ancient Greece/Rome

    If you're not up on some of the big names in Greek/Roman history, then you will be once you've finished the Enquiry. Don't worry though, because this isn't a history lesson and we won't be giving a pop quiz on ancient civilization. Hume uses these examples because they help make a point.

    Hume's reference to the Greek statesman Pericles is a great example. Hume explains that, when this guy was on his death-bed, his friends were listing his trophies and achievements. Pericles, however, reminded them: "no citizen has ever yet worne mourning on my account" (II.I.2). You see? We don't need to know all the background info on this guy (though feel free to read up if you want to). Hume just uses this example to show what's important in life.

    Not all these historical figures are perfect moral citizens, with Hume giving us some examples that demonstrate vice. We see this when Hume refers to what Roman historian Livy had to say about Hannibal (no, not Lecter—the famous warrior). Hannibal certainly had his fair share of virtues: he was brave, tough, determined, and adored by his soldiers. However he was also cruel, disloyal, and downright inhuman. So, even these ancient heroes could have their faults. 

    Some of the guys that Hume references are warriors while others are writers, philosophers, or politicians. This means that the qualities that are most valued can vary: it's important for a warrior to be physically strong whereas, for a philosopher, mental abilities are more important. This demonstrates Hume's point that virtues and vice aren't always set in stone.

    By painting a picture of these figures, Hume brings them to life and stops this from being just another dull philosophy text. Hume isn't just trying to wow us with his knowledge. His aim is to back up his argument and help us follow his line of thought.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator) 

    When you're reading this book, it doesn't immediately leap out as being in first person. In other kinds of texts, this is often way more obvious: with an autobiography, journal, or piece of travel writing, we can often tell right off the bat that we're in first-person mode. Likewise, in poetry and fiction (especially stream of consciousness stuff) we can identify the perspective pretty quickly. How do we know that something is first person? There's one major thing to look for, and that's the use of the term "I" as in "I think" and "I saw," etc.

    There's no reason why a philosophical work can't use the first-person tense in this way, but with the Enquiry, ittakes us a while to find our feet. The thing to remember is that this is a serious, academic work. Sure, Hume tries his best to make it accessible, and he does a good job. The thing is, though, that scholarly works can often be more detached and formal than some other kinds of writing. Have you ever been told not to use "I" in academic writing? There's no hard and fast rule, but some folks believe that writers should stay invisible in this sort of material.

    When the Enquiry begins, we could be forgiven for thinking that it's in the third person. The first-person POV isn't as in-your-face as it may be in some other texts, but don't let that fool you. Around halfway through the first section, Hume utters the magic word "I." Here's the quote in full: 

    These arguments on each side (and many more might be produced) are so plausible, that I am apt to suspect, they may, the one as well as the other, be solid and satisfactory, and that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions. (I.9)

    Up to this point, Hume has used the kind of language that we'd expect to find in an academic essay, and he carries on in this vein. Still, there are moments when he draws attention to his own status as a narrator: at one point, he curbs his train of thought to tell himself:

    But I forget, that it is not my present business to recommend generosity and benevolence, or to paint, in their true colours, all the genuine charms of the social virtues. (II.I.4)

    Later, he writes:

    [I]t will readily, I believe, be admitted, that the strict laws of justice are suspended, in such a pressing emergence, and give place to the stronger motives of necessity and self-preservation. (III.I.8)

    We could give loads more examples, but you get the gist. Hume stays formal and in essay mode, but sometimes he'll talk in a direct, one-to-one way about his convictions or doubts. That's when we think, "a-ha! This is first person!" Not only this, it draws us in and helps make the Enquiry accessible.

    Another thing we can tell is that Hume is a central narrator. Again, the language may not be as personal as in some other kinds of texts, but the Enquiry is made up of Hume's thoughts, criticisms, arguments, etc. Yep, he's definitely the main man here.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      The Call

      The world of philosophy has been plagued by false ideas about morality. Both ancient and modern philosophers have come up with theories that are confusing or out of touch with reality. Hume's goal is to clear these muddied waters and outline a model that's based not only on reason but sentiment. Sentiment is something that folks have often overlooked, but Hume's here to shake things up and shift that balance.

      The Journey

      Hold on to your horses because this is where the story gets pretty crazy. Just kidding—this is a piece of philosophical analysis; everything is laid out in astonishingly methodical detail and there are no big plot twists. Womp womp. But we do embark on a journey when Hume starts out by discussing two main "social virtues": benevolence and justice. Using examples from different cultures and eras (the equivalent of a helpful guide), Hume battles against the sometimes abstract theories of other philosophers. Benevolence is a virtue that's clearly agreeable to everyone, and Hume avoids the temptation of babbling on about something so obvious. On the topic of justice, Hume explains that this virtue has been created because it's vital for the smooth running of society. In both cases, though, these virtues are valued because they're useful.

      Arrival and Frustration

      Hume has now discussed two of the major social virtues and emphasized the importance of utility. However, he still has to deal with the claim that all our actions stem from selfishness. Psht, as if. Hume recognizes that self-interest is part of our nature but he argues that it's not the root of every thought and action—that's why we can praise/criticize actions that occurred in faraway times and places. Hume applies the same rule to theater and poetry, which draw us in and (fingers crossed) cause us to share the characters' emotions. For Hume, we have a natural sympathy—a benevolent principle.

      The Final Ordeals

      All this talk of benevolence leads us to ask: what if a person's totally indifferent toward others? For Hume, though, this "fancied monster" (VI.I.5)—what we might call a sociopath—isn't worth dwelling on. More important are usefulness and agreeability in all areas—any philosopher who thinks otherwise must be out to lunch. Hume has no time for stuff like fasting and self-denial, but he's not a fan of greed, vanity, or cut-throat ambition either. Sure, these can be strong passions, but Hume argues that they're not as common as our sense of humanity. Still, one thing nags at Hume: he sees the foundation of morals as being obvious, yet some folks dispute it. Consequently, his confidence wobbles...

      The Goal

      Despite this blip, Hume is convinced of the role of usefulness/agreeableness in moral judgments. Some people may believe that selfish and social sentiments are opposed, but this isn't the case. It's true that some individuals give in to temptation (e.g., greed), yet most people aren't villains by nature. Those folks who do give in have lost out, as they've failed to see the value of natural pleasures.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      The Outsider

      Hume isn't impressed with what some other philosophers have had to say about morality. Their theories have, in Hume's eyes, been vague, confusing, and just plain wrong. For him, it's obvious that morality isn't just based on pure reason, but on sentiment, too. His aim in the Enquiry is to convince readers that this is the case (kind of like the contestants on The Apprentice) and to show those other philosophers who's boss. 

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Get Real

      While some other philosophers seem out of touch with reality, Hume explores two qualities that play a big role in our lives and the good of society: benevolence and justice. Benevolence is obviously agreeable but, with justice, things get more complex. Hume's not daunted, though, explaining that systems of justice have been created because a) they're necessary and b) they help keep everything running smoothly.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Selfishness: Yay or Nay?

      Unlike some folks, Hume doesn't give selfishness the cold shoulder. His view is that there's no reason why self-interest can't go alongside concern for others. Some philosophers claim that benevolence is just a disguise for selfishness but Hume turns the tables on them. If we're totally selfish then why can we feel emotions about stuff that doesn't concern us? And why does a parent spend time and energy caring for a sick child when there's nothing in it for them? Yep, these guys just got owned

      Falling Action

      Hume and the Last Crusade

      Having established that human beings have a sense of natural sympathy (rather than just being selfish), Hume emphasizes that usefulness is another key factor in making something a virtue; so is agreeableness. Forget so-called virtues like self-denial and solitude—Hume sees them as neither useful nor agreeable. He recognizes that folks sometimes feel greed/vanity and give into temptation, but he's convinced that we have a natural sense of humanity. You've gotta admire this guy's optimism.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      Word Up

      Summing up his key arguments, Hume states that morality is based on both reason and sentiment. Also, we're not totally selfish but have a natural sympathy for other human beings. Not all virtues are natural and instinctive: justice systems were created to serve a need. Anyhow, usefulness and agreeableness are what it's all about. There's no need to get nitpicky over labels.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Hume begins by pointing out a mistaken belief that folks often hold: the idea that morality is based entirely on reason. Arguing that sentiment also plays a major role in our moral judgments, Hume spends the earlier part of the Enquiry discussing the social virtues—i.e., benevolence and justice. These two virtues work in different ways, but Hume emphasizes that usefulness (to both ourselves and others) is a major factor in our moral thinking.

      Act II

      Following his emphasis on usefulness, Hume examines why this quality is so valued. He then zooms in on some characteristics that are seen as useful, recognizing that this can vary depending on culture/time period. These characteristics can be mental, emotional, or physical, and Hume includes plenty of examples. However, Hume recognizes that some qualities—such as politeness, wit, and decency—are immediately agreeable; regardless of utility. Hume then criticizes "monkish virtues" (XI.I.3) like solitude and fasting, as these aren't agreeable or useful. He concludes with a moral message of his own: some people may give in to greed and temptation, but what they fail to realize is that it's the natural pleasures that are priceless.

      Act III

      In the four appendices that round out the Enquiry, Hume summarizes his key arguments. He begins by recapping his main point, which is that it's not reason alone that shapes our sense of morality, but sentiment too. He then argues against the idea that we're entirely driven by selfishness, and goes on to sum up what makes justice different from other virtues (namely, that it's not immediate and instinctual like benevolence is). Hume ends by stressing that we shouldn't get preoccupied with wording—if we refer to "a vice" or "a crime" we're dealing with a similar type of thing.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      Literature and Poetry

      • Juvenal (II.I.4)
      • Jacobus Sannazarius (V.II.14)
      • Ovid (V.II.14)
      • Jonathan Swift (VI.I.8)
      • Charles de Saint-Évremond (VI.I.9, VII.3fn1)
      • Virgil (VI.II.2, VII.27)
      • Homer (VI.II.4, VII.15), The Odyssey (VII.4)
      • Boileau (VII.7)
      • Horace (V.II.3, V.II.14, VII.1, IX.I.8fn1, AII.3, AIV.20fn1)
      • François Fénelon (VII.15)
      • Edmund Spenser (VII.15)
      • Elysian Fields (VII.20)
      • Arcadia (VII.20)
      • Michel de Montaigne (VIII.9)
      • Baldassare Castiglione (IX.I.2)
      • Euripides (AIV, AIV.20fn1)


      • Thomas Hobbes (III.I.15fn1, AII.3), Hobbist (AII.4)
      • Plato (III.I.15fn1, VI.I.11, VII.25), The Republic, Phaedrus (IV.5fn1), Menone (AIV.20fn1)
      • Nicolas Malebranche (III.II.13fn1)
      • Ralph Cudworth (III.II.13fn1)
      • Samuel Clarke (III.II.13fn1)
      • Pierre Bayle, The Dictionary Historical and Critical (III.II.17fn1)
      • The Stoics (IV.5fn1, VI.I.21, AIV.14)
      • Francis Bacon (V.II.2)
      • Peripatetics (VI.I.2)
      • Niccolò Machiavelli (VI.I.9)
      • Aeschines Socraticus (V.I.11, AIV.20fn1)
      • Socrates (VII.17, VIII.10)
      • Epictetus (VII.17, AIV.14)
      • Aristotle (VIII.9), Ethics (VIII.9fn1, AIV.12)
      • Cleanthes of Assos (IX.I.2)
      • Gratian (full name: Baltasar Gracián y Morales) (IX.I.2)
      • Epicurus (AII.3)
      • John Locke (AII.3)
      • Epicureans (AII.4)
      • Hugo Grotius (AIII.8fn1)


      • Polyphemus (VI.I.8)
      • Ajax (VII.4)
      • Medea (VII.7)
      • Oedipus (AI.12)
      • Laius (AI.12)

      Historical References

      • Cicero (Recurring)
      • Lord Shaftsbury (I.4)
      • Pericles (II.I.2)
      • Athens/Athenians (II.I.2, IV.9, VII.12, VII.25, VIII.10, AIV.19)
      • Levellers (III.II.3)
      • Sparta (III.II.4)
      • The Achaean Republic (IV.4)
      • Plutarch (IV.5fn1, V.II.25fn1, VII.8fn2, AIV.16)
      • Polybius (V.I.6, V.I.16, AIV.9fn2, AIV.19) 
      • Demosthenes (V.I.11, VII.12, AIV.5) 
      • Thucydides (V.II.18, VII.15, VII.25)
      • Francesco Guicciardini (V.II.18, AIV.18)
      • Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (V.II.19)
      • Tiberius (V.II.19)
      • Soranus (V.II.19)
      • Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus (V.II.19)
      • Publius Cornelius Tacitus (V.II.19, VII.9)
      • Nero (V.II.19, V.II.25, AI.12, AI.17)
      • Timon of Athens (V.II.25)
      • Alcibiades (V.II.25) 
      • Ofonius Tigellinus (V.II.25)
      • Seneca (V.II.25, AII.13fn1, AIV.20fn1) 
      • Burrhus (V.II.25)
      • Cromwell (VI.I.8)
      • Jean François Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz (VI.I.8)
      • Mareschal Turenne (VI.I.9)
      • Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator (VI.I.9)
      • Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (VI.I.9)
      • Dicaearchus (V.I.16)
      • Caesar (VI.I.19, VII.3, AIV.6)
      • Lucian of Samosata (VI.I.21)
      • Xenophon of Athens (VI.II.2)
      • Epaminondas (VI.II.2, VI.II.4fn2) 
      • Pompey (VI.II.4, AIV.10)
      • Sallust (VI.II.4fn1, AIV.6)
      • Cassius (VII.3)
      • Longinus (VII.4, VII.5)
      • Alexander the Great (VII.5, VII.6)
      • Parmenio (VII.5)
      • Darius III (VII.5, VII.25)
      • Prince of Condé (VII.6)
      • Phocion (VII.8)
      • Vitellius (VII.9)
      • Philip II of Macedon (VII.12, AIV.5)
      • The Suevi (VII.13)
      • The Scythians (VII.14)
      • Herodotus (VII.14)
      • Henry IV of France (VII.23)
      • Charles XII of Sweden (VII.24)
      • Xerxes I of Persia (VII.25)
      • Lysias (VII.25)
      • Isocrates (VII.25)
      • Augustus (VII.27)
      • Maurice, Prince of Orange (VIII.9)
      • Don Ambrogio Spinola Doria, 1st Marquis of the Balbases (VIII.9)
      • Iphicrates (VIII.10)
      • Solon (IX.I.9)
      • Agrippina the Younger (AI.12, AI.17)
      • Euclid (AI.14)
      • Andrea Palladio (AI.15)
      • Claude Perrault (AI.15)
      • Gaius Verres (AI.16)
      • Catiline (AI.16)
      • Titus Pomponius Atticus (AII.3, AIV.10)
      • Cyrus the Great (AIII.4)
      • Cato the Younger (AIV.6)
      • Achaeus (AIV.9)
      • Hannibal (AIV.17)
      • Livy (AIV.17)
      • Hasdrubal (AIV.17)
      • Timaeus (Greek historian) (AIV.19)
      • Agathocles (AIV.19)
      • The Carthaginian state (AIV.19)

      Religious References

      • Egyptian (II.II.9, II.II.13)
      • Zoroaster (II.II.11)
      • Genesis (III.I.5fn1)
      • Jesuits (III.II.17fn1)
      • Manicheans (V.II.25)
      • Solomon (AIV.14)
      • David (AIV.15)
      • Alexander the Sixth (AIV.18)