David Hume Quotations

David Hume / 1711–1776 / Scotland / Philosopher, Historian, Essayist

Equality of Means

But historians, and even common sense, may inform us, that, however specious these ideas of perfect equality may seem, they are really, at bottom, impracticable; and were they not so, would be extremely pernicious to human society. Render possessions ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence; and instead of preventing want and beggary in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community.

Source: An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

Equality Under the Law

The government, which, in common appellation, receives the appellation of free, is that which admits of a partition of power among several members, whose united authority is no less, or is commonly greater, than that of any monarch; but who, in the usual course of administration, must act by general and equal laws, that are previously known to all the members, and to all their subjects. In this sense, it must be owned, that liberty is the perfection of civil society.

Source: Essays, Moral, Political and Literary: Part I, Essay V, “Of the Origin of Government” (1758).

Experience and Belief

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability.

Source: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X: Of Miracles” (1748).

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Source: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X: “Of Miracles” (1748).

Liberty vs. Authority

In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government; yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontroulable.

Source: Essays, Moral, Political and Literary: Part I, Essay V, “Of the Origin of Government” (1758).

Loss of Liberty

It is a very comfortable reflection to the lovers of liberty that this peculiar privilege of Britain [freedom of the press] is of a kind that cannot easily be wrested from us and must last as long as our government remains in any degree free and independent. It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received.

Source: Essays, Moral, Political and Literary: Part I, Essay II, “Of the Liberty of the Press” (1758).

Private Property

For when men, from their early education in society, have become sensible of the infinite advantages that result from it (property), and have besides acquir’d a new affection to company and conversation; and when they have observ’d, that the principal disturbance in society arises from those goods, which we call external, and from their looseness and easy transition from one person to another; they must seek for a remedy, by putting these goods, as far as possible, on the same footing with the fix’d and constant advantages of the mind and body. This can be done after no other manner, than by a convention enter’d into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.

Source: A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740).

And as to practical arts, which encrease the commodities and enjoyments of life, it is well known, that men’s happiness consists not so much in an abundance of these, as in the peace and security with which they possess them; and those blessings can only be derived from good government.

Source: Essays, Moral, Political and Literary: Part I, Essay VIII, “Of Parties in General” (1758).

 I observe, that it will be for my interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me.

Source: A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740).

A man’s property is some object related to him. This relation is not natural, but moral, and founded on justice.

Source: A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740).

No one can doubt, that the convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord. 

Source: A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740).

Reason vs. the Passions

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

Source: A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740).

. . . as nothing can be contrary to truth or reason, except what has a reference to it, and as the judgments of our understanding only have this reference, it must follow, that passions can be contrary to reason only so far as they are accompanyed with some judgment or opinion. . . . Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.

Source: A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740).