Study Guide

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Section VII

By David Hume

Section VII

Of Qualities Immediately Agreeable to Ourselves

  • Hume begins this section by recognizing the positive effect that happy, cheerful company has on us: it's normal to have down days, but Hume observes that good-humored companionship can lift the spirits. Another important quality is self-esteem, as, in Hume's view, it's hard to have respect for others if we don't value ourselves.
  • Courage is another quality that we often see as a positive thing; partly because it can be useful but also because it has a noble quality that appeals to us. Regardless of the positive results of a hero's actions, there's something about the hero that draws us in—it's that x-factor and doesn't just apply to real life but to characters in literature and art too.
  • As with the other characteristics featured in this enquiry, courage has been especially valued in certain settings.
  • Here, Hume refers to places that haven't been fully civilized and don't have the same justice systems that we do.
  • Even so, Hume recognizes that bravery can reach a point where it gets brutal and destructive—just look at the classic MTV show Jackass. 
  • Hume lists philosophical tranquillity as another virtue that inspires our admiration. Guys like Socrates, who maintain a state of serenity and contentment, seem to exist on another level to us average Joes. This kind of state may not be achievable for most of us, but the nearer we get to it, the better.
  • Once again, Hume highlights that different characteristics can be valued in different times/settings. In ancient times, the heroes of philosophy and war had a grandeur and strength that, to us, can seem kind of extreme.
  • However, for these ancients, the degree to which moderation and order are valued in the modern world would seem equally incredible.
  • Returning to the topic of benevolence, Hume reaffirms that it's useful to society. However, he recognizes that it's not just about usefulness. Take the poetic image of the Elysian Fields: the inhabitants of this idyllic place don't need each other's help but still enjoy love and friendship. This then transmits a pleasing image to us. 
  • Some sentiments can be harmful when taken to excess, yet there are other times when heightened sentiments can seem noble or appealing. Hume uses Henry IV of France as an example: this guy's passions and attachments often hurt his cause, but those who sympathize with him may find his weaknesses endearing. As human beings, it's natural for us to be drawn to particular characteristics even if they aren't backed up by reason. 
  • Poetry excites all kinds of passions, but Hume argues that it's the more lofty or gentle affections that are most engaging. This is because they please us on more than one level and cause us to feel respect and affection for the featured characters. As for poets themselves, this ability to move the emotions is a major talent and is all the more valued given its rarity.
  • Hume finishes this section by recapping that utility isn't always the only source of value—in some cases, we value sentiments for the immediate pleasure that they provide rather than usefulness or future benefits. Still, whether something is valued for usefulness or pleasure, our judgment is based on sympathy.

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