Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Strength and Skill

By David Hume

Strength and Skill

When Pericles, the great Athenian statesman and general, was on his death-bed, his surrounding friends [...] began to indulge their sorrow for their expiring patron, by enumerating his great qualities and successes, his conquests and victories, the unusual length of his administration, and his nine trophies [...] You forget, cries the dying hero [...] the most eminent of my praises [...] You have not observed that no citizen has ever yet worne mourning on my account. (II.I.2)

Near the end of the Enquiry, Hume says that natural pleasures are way more valuable than possessions or any other stuff. From this quote, it would appear that Pericles had a similar view. When he was dying, his pals starting harping about his conquests and trophies, but, in his eyes, the fact that he'd caused no suffering to his citizens was much more important. See, this dude knew what really mattered.

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance [...] the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not […] lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. (III.I.18)

In this quote, Hume chews on an imaginary situation: what if we lived alongside creatures that were rational and pleasant but had nowhere near our level of physical or mental strength? Hume's take is that we wouldn't subject them to tasks that they weren't fit for; however, we wouldn't give them the same property rights that we enjoy or feel that we were bound to them through systems of justice. In short, it wouldn't be an equal arrangement, but us humans have never been too good at the whole equality thing. Just look at racism.

The tortoise, according to the fable, by his perseverance, gained the race of the hare, though possessed of much superior swiftness. A man's time, when well husbanded, is like a cultivated field, of which a few acres produce more of what is useful to life, than extensive provinces, even of the richest soil, when over-run with weeds and brambles. (VI.I.10)

Fables are great for teaching us valuable life lessons, and the one about the tortoise and the hare is as well-known today as it was in Hume's time. Just in case it's somehow flown under your radar, its point is that being cautious and careful can pay off in the long run, whereas going headfirst into situations at full speed may not work out. It's about using our time wisely and thinking about what's practical and valuable.

But in ancient times, when no man could make a figure without the talent of speaking, and when the audience were too delicate to bear such crude, undigested harangues as our extemporary orators offer […] the faculty of memory was then of the utmost consequence, and was accordingly much more valued than at present. (VI.I.19)

Public speaking is still important for some folks today (like motivational speakers and politicians), but in ancient times it was much more of a requirement. If you wanted to make a name for yourself, you had to have both a flair for speaking and a first-class memory. Make no mistake, these guys were catering to a tough audience and only the best would do.

Particular customs and manners alter the usefulness of qualities: they also alter their merit. Particular situations and accidents have, in some degree, the same influence. He will always be more esteemed, who possesses those talents and accomplishments, which suit his station and profession, than he whom fortune has misplaced in the part which she has assigned him. (VI.I.20)

Like other virtues, certain skills or talents can be valued in some cultures or situations more than others. But what are the criteria for seeing something as valuable? Here, Hume returns to the magic word: usefulness. If someone has a head for numbers, they'd probably be a good accountant but wouldn't necessarily be a brilliant painter or actor. Hume acts like a career adviser here, emphasizing that skills have to be a good match for the job someone's hoping to succeed in.

Broad shoulders, a lank belly, firm joints, taper legs; all these are beautiful in our species, because signs of force and vigour. Ideas of utility and its contrary, though they do not entirely determine what is handsome or deformed, are evidently the source of a considerable part of approbation or dislike. (VI.II.3)

Usefulness doesn't just shape our views on people's behavior and personality traits. It also influences what we see as ideal physical features. Sure, it's not the only factor involved in defining what we may see as attractive/unattractive, but it plays a role. Since signs of fitness, health, and energy factor into our ideas about utility, it's only natural that we find them appealing.

In ancient times, bodily strength and dexterity, being of greater use and importance in war, was also much more esteemed and valued, than at present. Not to insist on Homer and the poets, we may observe, that historians scruple not to mention force of body among the other accomplishments even of Epaminondas, whom they acknowledge to be the greatest hero, statesman, and general of all the Greeks. (VI.II.4)

Though fitness is valued today, if we go way back to the ancient times, we see that being agile and strong was a big deal. War relied on brute force and physical skill more back then than it does today, and it's not just the old-school writers and poets (like Homer—no, not Simpson, this guy) who tell us this. Historians back them up, singling out Epaminondas as an all-round great guy whose strength would've put the dudes in Troy and 300 to shame.

All men are equally liable to pain and disease and sickness; and may again recover health and ease. These circumstances, as they make no distinction between one man and another, are no source of pride or humility, regard or contempt. But comparing our own species to superior ones, it is a very mortifying consideration, that we should all be so liable to diseases and infirmities. (VI.II.6fn1)

Despite the value of health and energy, people aren't totally ruthless (well, most aren't). Being sick on a temporary basis is no big deal: we're all human and we all have our down days. But no matter how strong we feel at other times, the very fact that we suffer with health problems makes us aware of just how fragile and human we really are.

And can it possibly be doubted, that this talent itself of poets, to move the passions, this pathetic and sublime of sentiment, is a very considerable merit; and being enhanced by its extreme rarity, may exalt the person possessed of it, above every character of the age in which he lives? (VII.27)

When we talk about virtues, we're not only talking about what's useful but what's agreeable. Some qualities are valued in all folks (such as politeness and compassion) but there are some values that we appreciate because they're agreeable and rare. Not everyone can be expected to be a poetic maestro, but that's okay; we admire artists, writers, and musicians who bring us pleasure thanks to their awesome talent.

Hannibal, as drawn by Livy [...] is esteemed partial, but allows him many eminent virtues [...] Great boldness in facing danger; great prudence in the midst of it. No labour could fatigue his body or subdue his mind [...] These great Virtues were balanced by great Vices; inhuman cruelty; perfidy more than punic; no truth, no faith, no regard to oaths, promises, or religion. (AIV.17)

Hannibal is another warrior whose feats have entered the history books—not surprising for a guy with enough skills to make Napoleon Dynamite green with envy. But he was far from perfect; in fact, he was treacherous and cruel. Just goes to show that having a bucketload of virtues doesn't always make someone a saint.

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