The Essence of David Hume on Religion, Morals, and Economics

Edited by Henry Lewis and Hunter Lewis with Introductions by Hunter Lewis
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-090-8


Axios Press’s Essence of . . . series takes the greatest works ever written in the field of practical philosophy and pares them down to their essence. We select the best passages—the ones that are immediately relevant to us today, full of timeless wisdom and advice about the world and how best to live our lives—and leave behind the more obscure or less important bits. Our selections are not isolated: they flow together to create a seamless work that will capture your interest and attention from page one. And we provide useful notes and a solid introduction to the work.

David Hume is best known for his opposition to Christianity. He said about Christianity: “Upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.”

In his moral philosophy, Hume was famous for his skepticism, but was not skeptical about everything. He valued logic, and put special emphasis on experience as our best teacher.

As an economist, Hume demonstrated why free trade was best for all nations and why policy should help the poor and middle class, not just the rich. Despite his strong opinions, observers of Hume in his own day were struck by how serene, friendly, and cheerful he was.

About the Author

David Hume (1711–1776) is ranked as one of the greatest Western philosophers and economists.

About the Editors

Henry Lewis is a recent high school graduate from Charlottesville, Virginia. His previous books include an edition of Two Little Savages by Ernest Thompson Seton, which he co-edited in 2010; and A Traveler’s Guide to the Georgian Language (American Friends of Georgia, 2013).

Hunter Lewis, co-founder of global investment firm Cambridge Associates, has written nine books on economics and moral philosophy. He has served on boards and committees of fifteen leading not-for-profit organizations, including environmental, teaching, research, and cultural organizations.

Part One: Religion


An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)

Section I, 6

Section X: Of Miracles

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)

Section IX: Conclusion

Selected Essays (1742)

Of Suicide

Of Superstition and Enthusiasm

Of National Characters

Of the Parties of Great Britain

On the Standard of Taste

On the Immortality of the Soul

The Natural History of Religion (1757)

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Part Two: Morals


An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding(1748)

Section I: Of the Different Species of Philosophy

Section II: Of . . . Skeptical Philosophy

A Treatise of Human Nature (1738)


Book III: Of Morals

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)

Section I: Of the General Principles of Morals

Section II: Of Benevolence

Section III: Of Justice

Section IV: Of Political Society

Section V: Why Utility Pleases

Section VI: Of Qualities Useful to Ourselves

Section VII: Of Qualities Immediately Agreeable to Ourselves

Section VIII: Of Qualities Immediately Agreeable to Others

Section IX: Conclusion

Appendix I: Concerning Moral Sentiment

Appendix II: Of Self-Love

Selected Essays (1742)

The Skeptic

Of the Standard of Taste

Of Refinement in the Arts

Of the Original Contract

Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion

Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature

The Epicurean

The Stoic

The Platonist

Part Three: Economics

Brief Introduction: What David Hume Has to Teach Us Today


I: Of Money

II: Of Interest

III: Of Interest, Continued: How Commerce Increases Savings, Lowers Profits, and Lowers Interest, without Ever Requiring the Creation of Additional Money

IV: Of the Jealousy of Trade

V: Of the Balance of Trade

VI: Of Commerce

VII: Of Public Credit

VIII: Of Taxes

IX: Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations (Slavery in the Ancient World)

X: Of Government

That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science

Of the Origin of Government

Of Civil Liberty

Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences

Of Some Remarkable Customs

Of the Protestant Succession (On Political Tactics)

Part Four: Life

A Treatise of Human Nature (1738)

The Life of David Hume, Esq (Written by Himself)

Letter from Adam Smith, LLD to William Strahan, Esq.


Part One: Religion

From the Introduction

If anybody qualifies as a secular saint, it must surely be Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776). Secular certainly describes him: he regarded religion as the supreme source of both superstition and fanaticism, the twin evils which bedeviled and enslaved the human mind.

That he was saint-like in his personal life may be more arguable, but there is plenty of evidence for it. Here is Hume’s description of himself, an account that was verified by everyone who knew him:

. . . I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company. . . . It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present. . . .

. . . I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. . . . (“My Own Life”)

His close friend Adam Smith, the great economist, witnessed his stoic and uncomplaining acceptance of death, as diarrhea steadily robbed him of strength, and on his passing wrote the following to Hume’s publisher and friend William Strahan:

Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose . . . character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. . . . The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened . . . the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humor, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity. . . . Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit. (Letter from Adam Smith to William Strahan)

As amiable, lovable, and serene as Hume always seemed to appear to his friends, he was also fully human. This is how the youthful Hume described himself in his first book:

. . . I have exposed myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians. . . . When I look abroad, I foresee on every side, dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny and detraction. When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. . . .

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. . . .

[Even so], I make bold to recommend philosophy, and shall not scruple to give it the preference to superstition of every kind or denomination. . . . The [ancient Greek] Cynics are an extraordinary instance of philosophers, who from reasonings purely philosophical ran into as great extravagancies of conduct as any Monk or Dervish that ever was in the world. Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.

I am sensible, that . . . there are in England, in particular, many honest gentlemen, who being always employed in their domestic affairs, or amusing themselves in common recreations, have carried their thoughts very little beyond those objects, which are every day exposed to their senses. And indeed, of such as these I pretend not to make philosophers. . . . They do well to keep themselves in their present situation; and instead of refining them into philosophers, I wish we could communicate to our founders of systems, a share of this gross earthy mixture, as an ingredient, which they commonly stand much in need of. . . . (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Section VII)

Part Two: Morals

From the Introduction

Although Hume was a determined enemy of religion in any form, and especially Christianity, he recognized that this left a gap in morals. If God or revealed religion was not to be the source of our morals, what was to take its place?

Could logic take its place? Could clear reasoning from a self-evident (a priori) premise to conclusion and then to corollary of the conclusion and then onward from there show us the right way to think about our lives and social relations with other human beings? Hume thought not.

Logic had its place, but only as a tool to help us order the practical lessons taught us by experience. We learn from experience what is both useful and agreeable, and no moral system makes sense if not useful and agreeable. Moreover experience teaches us that what is useful and agreeable in the long run is often of much greater consequence than what seems useful or agreeable at the moment, which is a supreme lesson.

All of this is of the greatest importance, but Hume adds a critical caveat. Even experience has a limited application. Only emotion, which Hume called sentiment, could prompt us to want to act on the wisdom to be gained from experience. We must want to be wise; indeed we must want to be happy. Not everyone actually makes this choice. Ultimately, therefore, morals are based on emotion.

This last point has led to great misunderstanding, as we shall shortly see. Hume does not mean that morals are all about emotion. He does not mean that they do not also include reason and experience as essential pillars. He certainly does not mean that our moral choices are without empirical or logical content, more like the barking of dogs than the considered judgments of human beings. He simply means that emotion gives us the energy and will to make the choices we make, and it is well for us to draw as much wisdom as we can from experience and even logic in making those choices.

Part Three: Economics

From the Brief Introduction: What David Hume Has to Teach Us Today

Reading David Hume (1711–1776) on economics, one has the feeling that he is rebutting today’s dominant Keynesian policies, the policies espoused by almost all world governments of our era. But how can this be, since Hume died in 1776 and Keynes in 1946? The explanation is simple: Keynesianism is not really new. It is in large part a revival of the old mercantilist ideas that Hume was vigorously attacking.

Keynes acknowledges at the end of his magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, that he is reviving mercantilism. This is a bit unexpected by the reader, because earlier in the same book he states that he is staking out new ground in economics, but perhaps he means that he is staking out new ground by reviving and updating mercantilism. Whatever the explanation, much of Hume seems highly relevant to current debates for and against Keynes, a proponent of government deficit spending to stimulate a weak economy and of government control of the money supply in order to bring down interest rates. On trade issues, Keynes took different positions at different times. He began as a Humean free trader, then became a protectionist, then returned to a generally free trade position after World War II.

Read the complete public domain versions showing deletions and additions:

A Treatise of Human Nature

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

An Enquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals

The Natural History of Religion

Selected Essays