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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Experimental Moralist

David Hume published the first two volumes of his A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739, and the final third volume in 1740. Despite all the attention paid by philosophers to it now, at the time it appeared it was not a publishing success. As Hume famously remarked in his autobiography, the work “fell dead born from the press”. It seems to have received little critical notice, and in later years, Hume repudiated his early book entirely, not even deigning to include it in the successive editions of his collected works he prepared for the press.

Some years ago I was involved in a bibliographical project, which led me to graze through old issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine, where I discovered an anonymous poem in the November 1741 of the magazine (Volume 11, pp. 602-603). The work seems to be a satirical criticism of Hume’s Treatise. Although the poem does not make explicit mention of Hume or the Treatise, there can be little doubt that Hume is its intended target. If so, it represents an early and rare critical notice of Hume’s work.

For one thing, the poem is entitled “The Experimental Moralist: A Fable”. The subtitle of Hume’s book was “being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects”. For another thing, the Fable satirizes the core ideas of the second and third volumes of the Treatise, particularly the infamous claim that, contrary to the received view, the only role for reasoning in moral conduct is to scout ahead and see how the passions and desires may best be served.

In criticizing Hume’s moral philosophy, the author seems in general to adopt a neo-Stoic view of morality, reflecting the influences of Lord Shaftesbury and Joseph Butler. Of course, this may be giving him too much credit, for he seems to be an untalented philosopher ― and an even worse poet!

For those readers who might have an interest in Hume or eighteenth century British moral philosophy, I reproduce below the poem in its entirety. I have not edited it in any way, which means that I have done nothing to bring order to the author’s archaic and seemingly random employment of quotation marks. I have added only a few explanatory notes where I thought these might be appropriate.

*    *    *    *    *


A  F A B L E.

STUDIOUS from diff’ring tales to show
That virtue makes our bliss below,
My warning voice to ev’ry heart
May ev’ry faithful ear impart;
This one important truth believ’d,
Who can by vice be still deceiv’d?
Bliss is our aim, and bliss our end,
And he who points the path, a friend.
     A Goat and Fox, by joint consent,
Together once a journey went;
With patient steps from morning’s dawn
They measur’d hill, and vale, and lawn;
When Phoebus in the zenith rode,
A chearless, pathless waste they trod;  [1]
The fainting wand’rers wide around
With sighs survey’d the burning ground;
Again, and yet again they look,
To find the welcome cooling brook;
The welcome cooling brook in vain
They sought around the sun-burnt plain.
Onward they slowly pass, when lo
A pit ― and water ― deep below;
Urg’d by a strong desire to drink,
They both leap headlong from the brink.
For appetite still foremost goes,
Quite blind to all beyond its nose;
And Reason, impotently kind,
A tardy friend, limps far behind.  [2]
Now when our pair had drink’d amain,
They thought of getting out again;
And long with aching hearts they try’d,
But this the steep ascent deny’d.
Reynard at length the goat addrest,
And thus his wily thought expresst:
‘Courage, my friend, ― be rul’d by me,
‘We’ll soon form this mischance be free.
‘Here ― of the pit the shallowest place,
‘On your hind legs your body raise,
‘And while thy horns my weight sustain,
‘At one light bound the shore I’ll gain,
‘And thence effectual aid can lend
‘to save thee too, my dearest friend,’ ―
The goat consents ― and by his aid
The fox his leap successful made;
His friend look’d up, well pleased no doubt,
And deem’d himself as good as out;
But the false fox, with barb’rous sneer,
Cry’d, ‘Pox! How came you scrambling here?’
The goat reply’d, ‘Forbear to flout,
‘Lest I should ask how you got out’
Said he, ‘Of that no doubt remains,
‘You’d horns, my friend, ― and I had brains.
‘You wear that wisdom on your chin
‘Which I, more modest, hide within.
‘We beasts of sprightly thought despise
‘All who like thee look gravely wise ―
‘Improve these useful hints aright,
‘You’ll profit much ― and so good night.
This said, he titt’ring slunk away,
The goat remain’d to death a prey.
     In wonder lost, with horror chill’d,
With anguish, indignation fill’d,
The traytor-friend’s enormous guile
Engross’d his shudd’ring soul a while;
A while the wretched beast forgot
His pity’d, helpless, hopeless lot;
But after short suspence his woes
Return’d ― as the stem’d torrent flows,
With trebled force ― he scarce sustain’d
The shock ― and thus at length prophan’d.
     ‘For ever let that maxim cease,
“That virtue’s paths are paths of peace.” ―
‘Where’s that reward which learned pride
‘Boasts none from virtue can divide?
‘Where the sure woes of various kinds,
‘Which fate to vice forever binds?
‘Life, joy, (or what cou’d make him smile)
‘The fox obtains thro’ horrid guile;
‘My life, my humble guiltless joys,
‘At once a gen’rous trust destroys;
‘Jove’s slumb’ring vengeance lets him fly,
‘His goodness slumbers while I die.
     A sylvan god who pass’d that way
(Of old none wander’d more than they)
By chance the rash impeachment heard
And instant on the brink appear’d.
‘Look up, he cries, no more despair,
‘The help you wish prevents your pray’r;
‘Safe on the wish’d substantial plain,
‘I’ll set thy dying feet again.
‘The fox with envy did’st thou see?
‘Henceforth thyself a fox shalt be. ―
‘Thou shalt his prosp’rous vice possess,
‘And taste a fox’s happiness.
     The thing was done as soon as said,
A fox, the goat enfranchiz’d fled,
But feels within his alter’d mind,
His narrow’d love to self confin’d.
No more from others good his breast
The social joy serene possess’d;
No more by kind compassion mov’d,
His mercy is by foes approv’d.
Now mutual wants, love’s band below,
No means to fix a friend bestow;
Unlov’d, unloving, deep in earth
He gives his schemes of plunder birth.  [3]
From injur’d man, his friend so late,
He fears the stroke of potent hate;
With griefs looks back on periods past.
His bloodless food, a blest repast!
Which late he cropt in peace profound,
With flocks, and herds, and men around,
Yet now abhors that guiltless food,
To rapine doom’d, and thirst of blood,
And mourns the days (to this a slave)  [4]
When heav’n a happier nature gave;
‘By dear experience now I know,
‘That virtue’s only bliss below;
‘He, sighing, said, in sad despair,
‘And thus prefers a fault’ring pray’r,
“Ye gracious pow’rs who rule above!
“Who virtue, and its vot’ries love!
“I see my fault, my fault repent,
“And own I ask’d the pains you sent.
“I now th’ unrighteous thought foregoe,
“That vice is bliss, and virtue woe;
“Oh! make me what I was again,
“Tho’ faint I tread the scorching plain;
“Tho’ with a faithless fox I stray,
“Me tho’ again his wiles betray,
“Make me a goat, tho’ void of wit,
“You leave me dying in the pit:
“’Tis better far than thus alone
“To live without one joy my own;
“For while the past my mind retains,
“My resent pleasures are but pains.”
     He pray’d, to Jove the pray’r ascends;
His ear to pray’rs like these he lends.  [5]
“I (said the god) thy wish fulfil,
“Henceforth, be virtuous ― if you will
“Be man ― to him that pow’r I give;
“Go ― and by past experience live.”
Transform’d again, with lifted eyes,
The man his story thus applies. ―
“From what appears, how little do we know
“What others feel of happiness or woe!
“Is vice your envy when of health possess’d,
“With pow’r, and pelf, and all externals blest?  [6]
“Know that amidst that health, & pow’r, & pelf,
“The thriving villain must abhor himself;
“For who can bear, tho’ desperately brave,
“The voice of conscience when it calls him knave?
“Or who so dull, without regret to miss
“Of conscious goodness the substantial bliss?  [7]
“Ask your own heart, and search thro’ all you know,
“All, all this universal truth attest,
The virtuous are, and can alone be blest.”  [8]


1. Lord Rochester, “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind”, ll. 12-15:
“Reason, an ignis fatuus in the mind,
Which, leaving light of nature, sense, behind,
Pathless and dangerous wandering ways it takes
Through error’s fenny bogs and thorny brakes”

2. An obvious reference to Hume’s views on the respective roles of reason and passion in practical reasoning.

3. Samuel Butler, Hudibras, III.ii.393-400:
“And when he chanc’d t’escape, mistook
For Art, and Subtlety, His Luck,
So right his Judgment was cut fit,
And made a Tally to his wit,
And both together most Profound
At Deeds of Darkness under ground:
As th’Earth is easiest undermin’d
By vermine Impotent and Blind.”

See also John Milton, Paradise Lost, Bk. II, ll. 376-378: “Advise if this be worth / Attempting, or to sit in darkness here / Hatching vain empires.”

4. A pointed reference to Hume’s famous line in the Treatise (Pt. 3, sec 3): “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.”

5. “Ear” is the most plausible reading. The text is illegible.

6. “Externals” here is a technical Stoic usage, referring to those things that are not in our power to control.

7. This view of the role of conscience is reminiscent of Bishop Butler’s views in Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726).

8. This ending is somewhat reminiscent of the closing sentence of Lord Shaftesbury’s Inquiry concerning Virtue, or Merit (1st edition, 1699): “[Virtue] is that by which alone Man can be happy, and without which he must be miserable. And, thus, VIRTUE is the Good, and VICE the ill of every-one.” Reprinted in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. II, p. 176.

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