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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

IV. Enlightenment

19. Small and Large Governments, 1742

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1David Hume (1711-1776) first studied law then philosophy. He spent three years in France (1734-1737) where he wrote his Treatise on Human Nature (published in 1739), which is considered as his most important philosophical work. Hume was regarded as anti-establishment and atheistic, which explains why he was not appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy of Edinburgh in 1744. Between 1751 and 1757 he was librarian to the Faculty of Advocates. He wrote Essays Concerning Human Behaviour in 1748 and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in 1751. One of Hume’s central ideas is that man’s understanding of the facts of the universe is not based on reason but is the result of human nature and imagination.

2David Hume, “Extract of Essay XIV, Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences” (1742) in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, vol. 3, Edinburgh: Adam Black and William Tait, 1826, p. 131-134.

From law arises security; from security curiosity; and from curiosity knowledge. The latter steps of this progress may be more accidental; but the former are altogether necessary. A republic without laws can never have any duration. On the contrary, in a monarchical government, law arises not necessarily from the forms of government. Monarchy, when absolute, contains even something repugnant to law. Great wisdom and reflection can alone reconcile them. But such a degree of wisdom can never be expected, before the greater refinements and improvements of human reason. These refinements require curiosity, security, and law. The first growth, therefore, of the arts and sciences, can never be expected in despotic governments*.

There are other causes, which discourage the rise of the refined arts in despotic governments; though I take the want of laws, and the delegation of full powers to every petty magistrate, to be the principal. Eloquence certainly springs up more naturally in popular governments: Emulation, too, in every accomplishment, must there be more animated and enlivened; and genius and capacity have a fuller scope and career. All these causes render free governments the only proper nursery for the arts and sciences.

The next observation which I shall make on this head is, That nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy. The emulation which naturally arises among those neighbouring states is an obvious source of improvement. But what I would chiefly insist on is the stop which such limited territories give both to passer and to authority.

Extended governments, where a single person has great influence, soon become absolute; but small ones change naturally into commonwealths. A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny, because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which, being distant from the majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. Besides, a large government, though the whole be discontented, may, by a little art, be kept in obedience; while each part, ignorant of the resolutions of the rest, is afraid to begin any commotion or insurrection: not to mention that there is a superstitious reverence for princes, which mankind naturally contract when they do not often see the sovereign, and when many of them become not acquainted with him so as to perceive his weaknesses. And as large states can afford a great expense in order to support the pomp of majesty, this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them.

In a small government, any act of oppression is immediately known throughout the whole; the murmurs and discontents proceeding from it are easily communicated; and the indignation arises the higher, because the subjects are not to apprehend, in such states, that the distance is very wide between themselves and their sovereign. ‘No man,’ said the Prince of Condé, ‘is a hero to his valet de chambre’. It is certain that admiration and acquaintance are altogether incompatible towards any mortal creature. Sleep and love convinced even Alexander himself that he was not a God. But I suppose that such as daily attended him could easily, from the numberless weaknesses to which he was subject, have given him many still more convincing proofs of his humanity.

But the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power. Reputation is often as great a fascination upon men as sovereignty, and is equally destructive to the freedom of thought and examination. But where a number of neighbouring states have a great intercourse of arts and commerce, their mutual jealousy keeps them from receiving too lightly the law from each other, in matters of taste and of reasoning, and makes them examine every work of art with the greatest care and accuracy. The contagion of popular opinion spreads not so easily from one place to another. It readily receives a check in some state or other, where it concurs not with the prevailing prejudices. And nothing but nature and reason, or at least what bears them a strong resemblance, can force its way through all obstacles, and unite the most rival nations into an esteem and admiration of it.

* According to the necessary progress of things, law must precede science. In republics, law may precede science, and may arise from the very nature of the government. In monarchies, it arises not from the nature of the government, and cannot precede science. An absolute prince, that is barbarous, renders all his ministers and magistrates as absolute as himself: And there needs no more to prevent, for ever, all industry, curiosity, and science.

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