Laws Not Men: Hume's Distinction between Barbarous and Civilized Government

Hume Studies 31 (1):123-144 (2005)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Hume Studies Volume 31, Number 1, April 2005, pp. 123-144 Laws Not Men: Hume's Distinction between Barbarous and Civilized Government NEIL McARTHUR 1. Introduction Hume uses the adjectives "civilized" and "barbarous" in a variety of ways, and in a variety of contexts. He employs them to describe individuals, societies, historical eras, and forms of government. These various uses are closely related. Hume thinks that cultural and political development are intimately connected, and are mutually dependent. Civilized government goes together with civilized society. A wise ruler cannot emerge before "refinements have taken place" in the society at large and "science [becomes] known in the world." At the same time, the policy of a monarch who is "ignorant and uninstructed... for ever prevents all improvements."1 This intimate connection, however, is not an identification. A civilized government is not simply that which produces, or results from, a civilized society. When discussing forms of government, Hume uses the terms "barbarous" and "civilized" consistently and somewhat narrowly, to describe governments that possess certain specific characteristics. It is striking that these characteristics are explicitly divorced from the abilities or characters of the rulers. While a nation requires wise and refined leadership to achieve its civilized status, Hume thinks it is a crucial feature of civilized government that, once established, it depends Neil McArthur is at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2M8, Canada, e-mail: [email protected] 124 Neil McArthur entirely on its institutional structure, and not on the talents or intentions of any individual or group. To understand Hume's distinction between these two kinds of government, it is useful to abstract away from his discussion of more general issues of cultural development, and to lay temporarily aside the causal question of what social and economic conditions are necessary to produce a civilized government. I propose to explain Hume's concepts of barbarous and civilized government just in terms of the institutional characteristics possessed by each. Hume's choice of adjectives is not, of course, accidental. The complex causal questions of how a civilized government comes about, and what is its relation to civilized society, are large and important ones. However, 1 do not propose to take them up here.2 The crucial feature dividing civilized and barbarous government is their relation to law. In his essay "Of Civil Liberty" Hume says: "It may now be affirmed of civilized monarchies, what was formerly said in praise of republics alone, that they are a government of Laws, not of Men."3 "Barbarous government" are thus "governments of men"—he also calls them governments "of will."4 Scholars of Hume's political theory have noted the importance of the rule of law in defining "civilized government. "5 However, they have not made clear precisely what Hume thinks precisely defines a "government of laws. " I submit that such a government must (for Hume) possess three characteristics. It must have: 1. A clear separation between the legislative and magisterial "powers" of the state; 2. A rigid subordination of the magisterial to the legislative power, such that the "discretion" of magistrates is restricted by "general laws"; 3. Self-sufficient laws and institutions, such that they are able to operate regardless of the intentions or abilities of individual rulers or officeholders. To this end, a government of laws must possess fixed rules governing the succession of officers, including (in a civilized monarchy) succession to the throne. Hume thinks specific governments may meet these criteria to varying degrees through time (with regression also possible). His use of the term "civilized government" nevertheless implies that it exists as a distinct, and achievable, ideal. An examination of Hume's theory of civilized government shows his understanding of the rule of law to be more subtle and complex than has previously been acknowledged. Hume moves beyond traditional Whig panegyrics on the rule of show to show how the law must operate if it is to protect people from oppression in the local theatres in which it is most acute. He articulates a theory of "civilized monarchy" that provides a middle path between republican and absolutist theories of government, and that is consistent his philosophy as a whole. Hume Studies Laws...


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Neil McArthur
University of Manitoba

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My Own Life.David Hume - 1927 - Mill House Press.

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