Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Setting

By David Hume

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.