It was in the 18th century that the question of taste became a recognised central theme in aesthetics. Hume studies the relativity of taste in art, and tries to identify a standard of taste that can allow us to resolve aesthetic disagreements.
You can read Hume’s essay for free online, for example here. The most visually attractive version is this one from www.davidhume.org – you’ll need to use the drop-down menu on the right to navigate to the last essay in the collection. Both of those links number the paragraphs for easy reference, and I’ll use those numbers below.
This is just a synopsis with some commentary. Please note that Hume uses gendered language which I will avoid in my own remarks.
Hume’s writing style is clear and his argument comparatively easy to follow, but making a synopsis is a helpful way to get to know the text. The essay may be broken up into four sections.
- Paragraphs §§1-8: Hume defines the issue, namely that taste is highly variable and subjective, and explores aspects of the problem.
- Paragraphs §§9-16: Hume makes an empirical case for the rules of a standard of taste. By what standard may we decide one opinion is better than another?
- Paragraphs §§17-27: Hume outlines some of the qualities of a good critic:
1) Strong sense 2) delicacy of imagination 3) practice 4) comparison 5) absence of prejudice.
- Paragraphs §§28-36: Hume considers two caveats that will affect every critic:
1) natural variations in people and 2) cultural conditioning.
§1: Hume opens with a statement of the problem: people have a great variety of taste in art, even people with similar backgrounds. Hume, as the scholar Jonathan Bennett has pointed out, does not mean ‘taste’ in a narrow or shallow sense, but to mean ‘every kind of aesthetic reaction to works of art’.1 He doesn’t mention specifically art until a bit later.
The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation. Men of the most confined knowledge are able to remark a difference of taste in the narrow circle of their acquaintance, even where the persons have been educated under the same government, and have early imbibed the same prejudices. But those, who can enlarge their view to contemplate distant nations and remote ages, are still more surprised at the great inconsistence and contrariety.
Hume does not express any doubt about the existence of beauty, nor is he interested in defining it. His interest in this essay is the Standard of Taste.
§2: This variety of taste is ‘still greater in reality than in appearance.’ Everyone can agree to praise certain qualities (‘elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit’) and to lament others (‘fustian, affectation, coldness and a false brilliancy’), but Hume observes a mismatch between general and particular.
When critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes.
We can agree about good and bad artistic qualities in the abstract, but as soon as we address specific examples, we resort to subjective taste. To take a contemporary example, two people may both prefer realist fiction, but fiercely disagree about whether Zadie Smith or James Kelman is the better novelist. Hume contrasts this with scientific debates, which are the opposite: the particulars (empirical data) are agreed upon, but the broader interpretation can be very different.
§3: Hume makes an analogy with ethics. Although he coyly writes about ‘those who...’, this position is his own. He claims that morality is like taste: it too is based upon sentiment (emotions) not reason. We agree on general moral qualities we consider good:
Writers of all nations and all ages concur in applauding justice, humanity, magnanimity, prudence, veracity; and in blaming the opposite qualities. Even poets and other authors, whose compositions are chiefly calculated to please the imagination, are yet found, from HOMER down to FENELON, to inculcate the same moral precepts, and to bestow their applause and blame on the same virtues and vices.
Everyone can agree that ‘virtue’ is good and ‘vice’ is bad – not to do so would mean perverting language. However, we surrender to subjective taste as soon as we discuss particular moral cases. Hume compares the ancient Greek poet Homer and the French writer Fénelon, author of the 1699 novel Les Aventures de Télémaque. Homer’s Achilles and Ulysses are heroes, yet both have less admirable qualities too, whereas Fénelon’s hero Telemachus is perfectly virtuous. The two writers have different opinions of what behaviour is appropriate in a heroic character.
§4: Hume then makes a similar point with reference to the Qu’ran. Its followers insist upon its ‘excellent moral precepts’ and it uses the same positive language of justice, charity etc in Arabic that English does, yet it bestows praise on behaviour that would be unacceptable in ‘civilised society’. (I would add that the Bible is just as bad, though Hume may, as a religious sceptic, have had the Bible quietly in mind.) Again, people agree about generalities and quarrel about particulars.
Moral and aesthetic greement, then, is often based on a linguistic illusion: we agree on certain evaluative terms but not on what they mean.
§5: He says there is therefore little point in making generalisations about ethics. By extension, there is perhaps little point in making them about aesthetics either.
§6: To resolve such difficulties, Hume concludes:
It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.
The goal of Hume’s essay is to establish a ‘rule’ for how we may settle disputes over taste by judging who is right and who is wrong. The sceptical, relativist position laid out in the opening paragraphs (including §7) is pessimistic about this possibility, but Hume does not agree with that position – as we go on, we find he agrees with some aspects of it, e.g. that beauty is subjective, but nonetheless thinks it is possible to establish a standard.
§7: This paragraph is important. Hume further explains the relativist case, drawing a distinction between judgement and sentiment (emotion).
All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard.
Reason (‘understanding’) expects that something can be proved correct or incorrect by appeal to objective fact. By contrast, a sentiment cannot be judged correct or incorrect.
Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it. On the contrary, a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object.
If you feel something, the feeling is real, and no one can accuse you of being ‘wrong’ for feeling it. Following these observations, Hume argues that if taste is based upon feeling rather than objective reason, beauty must be subjective:
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.
On this view, morality and aesthetics are based upon feeling and are therefore subjective. You cannot pronounce any opinion about beauty correct or incorrect because all such opinions are sentiments. A Standard of Taste on this view is impossible.
Each of us may be confident in our opinion yet may make no claim to ‘regulate those of others’. The same object may be thought to taste both sweet and bitter, and it is pointless to claim that one experience is more right than the other – we may extend this bodily example to our sentiments as well. Hume evokes (without actually naming it) the proverb de gustibus non est disputandum: ‘there is no disputing over taste’. This is a rare case, he says, of ‘common sense’ agreeing with philosophy.
§8: But Hume immediately counters this with a contrary ‘common sense’ position. We behave as if there are objective standards.
Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.
We take it for granted that Milton is a better writer than John Ogilby, a Scottish poet now only remembered for being namedropped in Hume’s famous essay. There are always people who think otherwise, but we are comfortable dismissing such opinions as ‘absurd and ridiculous’. We respect a plurality of taste when its objects seem broadly comparable, but when one work seems obviously better than another, the principle of de gustibus non est disputandum quickly breaks down.
Things don’t in themselves have good and bad, beauty and ugliness. These values come from people. But people can be right or wrong about at least some of them. This ‘common sense’ position that we may judge people’s opinions is at least as valid as the other ‘common sense’ position that we can’t.
Having established this background for the argument, Hume proceeds to defend the former common sense position against the latter by seeking grounds for a Standard of Taste.
§9: Hume has already (§6) called the Standard of Taste a ‘rule’. Here he refers to the ‘rules of composition’, by which he seems to mean the rules followed by artists when creating their works. Thus we have two sets of rules: those of taste or criticism, and those of composition, but Hume does not make a distinction between them. Presumably, the artist applies the rules of composition to their work, then the critic judges, with reference to those same rules, how well it has been done.
The rules will be based upon ‘a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organs or faculties of the mind’ (§7), or what Hume later calls ‘the relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment’ (§10).
Hume’s approach to the rules of composition is characteristically empiricist:
It is evident that none of the rules of composition are fixed by reasonings a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing those habitudes and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience.
The rules cannot be worked out a priori, that is, from reasoning alone, independent of sensory experience. Reason must be accompanied by facts, which in art is supplied by experience of what works: ‘what has been universally found to please in all countries and in all ages’.
Hume rightly observes that poetry does not depend for its effects on strict empirical fact:
Many of the beauties of poetry and even of eloquence are founded on falsehood and fiction, on hyperboles, metaphors, and an abuse or perversion of terms from their natural meaning. To check the sallies of the imagination, and to reduce every expression to geometrical truth and exactness, would be the most contrary to the laws of criticism; because it would produce a work, which, by universal experience, has been found the most insipid and disagreeable.
But though poetry does not have to accord with scientific fact, it ‘must be confined by rules of art’. These rules are
general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and in all ages... discovered to the author either by genius or observation.
Living in the Neoclassical age, Hume has no problem with looking back to older cultural authorities, and admires Homer as a model for all ages. Here in §9 he holds up the Italian Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto, author of the vast epic poem Orlando Furioso (first version 1516), as an example of a second-rate writer whom we still enjoy reading. He wants to make the point that if weaker writers please us, it is because they have other merits that conform to the rules and lead us to forgive the flaws.
If we take pleasure from features that criticism considers flaws, then criticism needs to change. ‘If they are found to please, they cannot be faults.’ Thus Hume asserts that the rules of composition are based upon what pleases the audience, i.e. upon subjective feelings.
§10: Hume concludes that
all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature.
But he notes that this reference point of common human experience and feelings is unstable, because, as we established earlier, feelings are variable. They don’t always behave according to their own general principles and can be thrown out of kilter. To get the best and most representative judgement of taste, therefore,
we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition. A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty.
High standards of critical judgement depend upon concentrating upon the object, in the right state of mind.
The rules, we have seen, are based upon ‘the relation which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment.’ We find its influence
from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion.
It is from proven masterworks that we may find the rule of the Standard of Taste.
§11: We are still no closer to what the rules actually are. Given that we need to iron out the flux of human feelings, Hume thinks the best way to identify them is to examine works that have been tried and tested over a long period of time. He points out:
The same HOMER, who pleased at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago, is still admired at PARIS and at LONDON. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.
The passage of time reveals which are the exemplary works of art:
Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator, but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours. On the contrary, a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with.
The immediate pressures of envy, personal acquaintance and so on can cloud our judgement, but once these are removed and the work is judged only on its own merits, we can observe ‘the beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments,’ and these have long-standing authority.
§§12-13: This appeal to ‘beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments’ implies the rules are in fact not subjective but objective. Otherwise, where do they get their long-standing authority? Hume explains:
It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease.
Note the ‘principles of approbation or blame’ are not in the object but in the operation of the mind in its response to the object. Hume seems to be saying that yes, all taste is subjective, but there are tendencies in the human organism or constitution that make us more likely to value some beauties/rules over others. There are ‘some particular forms or qualities’ in the object that give us pleasure or displeasure.
Hume clearly considers these properties reliable: they will please us. If they do not, the blame lies in some defect in the human organism.
In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of a taste and sentiment.
Just as a person with the flu can’t be expected to judge the flavours in a meal because his or her sense of taste will be impaired, a person whose faculties are defective can’t respond to art with the most appropriate pleasure and thus can’t make the best judgements of it. In a community of healthy faculties Hume thinks that we may find our Standard of Taste:
If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in daylight, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.
Hume’s analogy with colour is illuminating. The healthy organism perceives a ‘true and real’ colour even though colour is accepted as being a sensation created by the organism itself. By analogy, the healthy organism perceives a ‘true and real’ beauty even though we all agree beauty and taste are subjective. The beauty is ‘true and real’ because it is predicated upon a ‘structure of the mind’ (§13) that is broadly common to all human beings. However the general principles are affected by variations in 1) the structure of the mind and 2) the contexts in which objects are experienced, hence the variation in the pleasure felt.
Hume seems to be overlooking something here. He is saying that some objects or properties are naturally calculated to please via the structure of the mind.2 To return to colour: our experience or sensation of colour is created for us by the brain, but it is an interpretation based upon actual data, i.e. different colours represent different wavelengths of light that may be scientifically measured; similarly, beauty may be a subjective feeling but that feeling has a causal relationship with specific objective properties. This is important and needs more discussion, but the essay does not address this complication.
§§14-16: An example of the variability across individuals is ‘delicacy of imagination’. It is valued by all but exercised by fewer. To define what he means by ‘delicacy’, Hume takes an illustration from Don Quixote. The Don’s squire Sancho Panza relates a story in which two of his relatives detected a taste of leather and iron in a glass of wine. They were ridiculed for this until a key and thong were discovered in the wine cask, revealing that his relatives’ judgement was in fact acute. Sancho takes this as evidence that his own judgement of wine will also be acute, i.e. he assumes that the faculty runs in the family.
This story is not the best example for what Hume is discussing, as Sancho’s claim to good judgement in wine is based simply upon genetic inheritance, whereas Hume will later argue that good judgement comes through five criteria including things like practice (§23). But he wants to make a particular point. He goes on:
Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.
Certain qualities in objects are ‘fitted by nature’ to produce sentiments of beauty because of that ‘structure of the mind’ we have already discussed. Beauty is subjective but is prompted by objective properties towards which the human organism is biased. Again, there is a contradiction here that needs further explanation. How can beauty belong ‘entirely’ to sentiment when those sentiments are produced by fitting qualities in objects?
Of course the experience varies across individuals.
Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste...
In making their delicate judgements of taste, the critic draws upon
the general rules of beauty... being drawn from established models, and from the observation of what pleases or displeases.
Here comes Hume’s real point with the Sancho Panza story: he likens finding the rules of composition to finding the key at the bottom of the wine cask. Until the key was found, it was impossible to prove the quality of Sancho’s relatives’ judgement over that of their less delicate critics, but the key existed nonetheless.
Once we have identified an ‘avowed principle of art’ – once we have produced that key from the cask – we can justify our judgement and prove to our opponent that they lack delicacy of imagination:
When we prove, that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence: He must conclude, upon the whole, that the fault lies in himself.
Thus we can use the Standard of Taste to settle disputes about taste. This is quite a naive claim. Hume seems to take it for granted that the delicate person can convince the other person by force of reason.
Note that Hume refers in §16 to ‘sentiment, internal or external’. External sentiments are our sensations; internal sentiments are our feelings.
In the next few paragraphs Hume discusses what it takes to become a true critic. He has already given us delicacy of imagination.
§§17-19: Hume makes a case for improving our critical faculties through practice. Delicate taste is desireable and everyone approves of it. The perfection of that faculty is
to perceive with exactness its most minute objects, and allow nothing to escape its notice and observation... the perfection of the man, and the perfection of the sense or feeling, are found to be united.
Natural ability varies, but
nothing tends further to encrease and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.
For an unpracticed person, the sentiments accompanying objects are ‘obscure and confused’ and our reason struggles to identify their merits and flaws. The best we can hope for is a general verdict.
But allow him to acquire experience in those objects, his feeling becomes more exact and nice: He not only perceives the beauties and defects of each part, but marks the distinguishing species of each quality, and assigns it suitable praise or blame.
Given that practice is so important, we should withhold judgement until we have experienced the object more than once, in different lights, each time giving it our undivided attention. To recall §9, this sharpening of the faculties applies both to criticism and composition:
The same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means, in the judging of it.
§20: Hume continues by stressing the importance of comparison.
It is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other. A man, who has had no opportunity of comparing the different kinds of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion with regard to any object presented to him. By comparison alone we fix the epithets of praise or blame, and learn how to assign the due degree of each.
Inferior works often have their attractions, but it takes someone ‘familiarized to superior beauties’ to see past them and make a mature, well-informed judgement with reference to the greatest works of human culture.
One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can alone rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.
§21: Attaining this breadth of reference requires the critic to free his mind of prejudice. Hume shows he is aware of the importance of cultural context: he notes that works of art often need to be experienced in a particular way, and the critic must try to put himself in the shoes of its intended audience. He uses the example of an orator who tailors his speech to a specific, even hostile, audience, but might not be properly understood by someone who reads the text within a different culture or era. Critics must try to forget their ‘individual being and peculiar circumstances’.
A critic who allows their judgement to be distorted by prejudice suffers the consequences:
By this means, his sentiments are perverted; nor have the same beauties and blemishes the same influence upon him, as if he had imposed a proper violence on his imagination, and had forgotten himself for a moment. So far his taste evidently departs from the true standard; and of consequence loses all credit and authority.
§22: Prejudice is ‘destructive of sound judgment’ and ‘it belongs to good sense to check its influence.’
Hume helpfully describes some of the properties of ‘the nobler productions of genius’. We can detect the influence of Aristotle’s Poetics on his list:
- A mutual relation and correspondence of parts.
- A certain end or purpose, for which it is calculated.
- A chain of propositions and reasonings.
- The characters must be represented as reasoning, and thinking, and concluding, and acting, suitably to their character and circumstances.
- The purpose of poetry is to please by means of the passions and the imagination.
This is as specific as Hume gets about any actual rules. But he is not trying here to describe the rules – he is describing some of the things that can be judged by good sense. The able critic must be aware of such considerations and be sufficiently ‘capacious of thought’ to judge how well they have been used.
It seldom, or never happens, that a man of sense, who has experience in any art, cannot judge of its beauty.
Good sense is important for fighting prejudice but also for judging an artwork’s structure, unity, purpose, and so on.
§23: Hume believes that a critic capable of all these gifts – what he calls a ‘true judge’, or what we would today prefer to call a ‘true critic’ – is a rare character.
Though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.
The natural faculties might be defective, or the critic lacks the range of necessary qualities. In a key sentence, Hume summarises the five criteria that he thinks characterise the true judge:
Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.
Let’s underline those five criteria:
1. Strong sense
2. Delicate sentiment
5. Lack of prejudice
That ‘joint verdict of true judges’ is, for Hume, the answer to the puzzle of how we decide which subjective opinions are valuable. It is ‘the true standard of taste and beauty’, confirmed by the ‘common sentiments of human nature’ (§10). The true critic is someone who can best perceive the ‘beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments’ because the various defects that impede our perception of those beauties are, in the true critic, absent or minimal.
§24: This seems clear enough, but it presents Hume with a new problem. Who is to say whether a particular person is a true critic or not? This seems to return us to the problem of relativism with which we started.
§25: Hume’s response is to deny that identifying true judges is subjective. Taste is subjective, but whether one is a true critic or not is objective, a matter of fact. He believes he has proved
that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have a preference above others.
Whether someone is a true critic or not will be a matter of dispute, but everyone agrees that such a person is valuable. Where the disputes occur, people must simply put forward their best arguments:
they must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact; and they must have indulgence to such as differ from them in their appeals to this standard.
Hume seems to be suggesting that to decide who is a true critic, we make an appeal to empirical evidence. It is again a bit naive of him to assume this is a straightforward process.
§26: To defend his position, Hume returns to the ‘test of time’ argument.
But in reality the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented.
He claims that establishing truth in science is harder than in literature. Theories of philosophy and science come and go, but the appeal of great works like those of Terence and Virgil persists. This is a repeat of the argument in §11.
§27: Hume retreads it because he thinks it can help us to identify ‘men of delicate taste’. The ‘ascendant’ or prominence such persons acquire thanks to the quality of their judgements makes their opinion dominant and gives them lasting influence. He claims that it is easy to tell a true person of taste:
Though men of delicate taste be rare, they are easily to be distinguished in society, by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties above the rest of mankind.
People with superior faculties will produce superior judgements, which we may confirm by comparing them to tried and tested principles of art, and they rise to prominence on merit. These are the critics whose opinions we should consult to resolve disputes over taste. Disagreement about them must yield in the long run to ‘the force of nature and just sentiment.’
Hume wraps up by saying a civilised nation rarely fails to identify its favourite epic or tragic author, i.e. he is talking about artists as well as true critics.
In the final section, Hume identifies two causes of prejudice even for true critics.
§§28-30: Despite our attempts at establishing the Standard of Taste, there are two unavoidable influences that will affect our judgements:
1. ‘The different humours of particular men.’
2. ‘The particular manners and opinions of our age and country.’
Where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable.
In these cases ‘we seek in vain for a standard, by which we can reconcile the contrary sentiments’, i.e. Hume admits that sometimes the Standard of Taste will fail.
First he addresses point #1. There will always be some diversity of opinion even among true artists and critics, thanks to the variability of human nature and culture. A young person tends to be more amorous, an older person more philosophical and moderate. We also tend to favour different artists at different ages. Broadly we naturally incline more towards artists who resemble ourselves in personality, national customs, etc. This is a defect in a critic, but
it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suits our particular turn and disposition. Such preferences are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard, by which they can be decided.
In such cases, contending works and judgements are just different and cannot be pronounced right or wrong.
Note the phrase: ‘the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature’ (§28). Under ideal conditions, everyone responds to art in broadly the same way – with a bit of variation, as he is currently describing.
§31: Hume now turns to point #2. We tend to prefer ‘pictures and characters’ that resemble our own customs and culture. Unlike a ‘common audience’, a true critic or artist makes allowances for such variations.
§32: However, he then alludes to the so-called ‘quarrel between the ancients and moderns’ that was a running debate in the 18th century: had the modern era achieved superior learning to the ancients? We need not reject artists of previous ages because of their different customs:
Must we throw aside the pictures of our ancestors, because of their ruffs and fardingales?
Hume has already made this point about throwing off prejudice towards other cultures (§21). But he makes an unexpected move. Instead of taking his own advice and putting himself into the shoes of the ancient Greeks and Romans, he condemns ancient poets who depict ‘vicious manners’ without disapproval (he offers no specific examples).
The want of humanity and of decency, so conspicuous in the characters drawn by several of the ancient poets, even sometimes by HOMER and the GREEK tragedians, diminishes considerably the merit of their noble performances, and gives modern authors an advantage over them.
Hume wants a stronger, more explicit morality than he finds in the ancient writers. When he says modern authors have an ‘advantage’ over ancient ones, he seems to be saying, on my reading, that modern morality is better than ancient morality, or at least that the morality of modern authors is better than the morality of ancient authors. The modern critic, it seems, need not forgive gross violations of our higher moral standards even in works from very different cultures. We moderns are better than that.
Hume does not say we cannot excuse the ancient poet (he thus holds true to the criterion of prejudice), but he does say that moral flaws damage our aesthetic enjoyment.
However I may excuse the poet, on account of the manners in his age, I never can relish the composition.
Our moral displeasure makes it harder for us to enjoy the work:
Whatever indulgence we may give to the writer on account of his prejudices, we cannot prevail on ourselves to enter into his sentiments, or bear an affection to characters, which we plainly discover to be blamable.
Hume therefore makes an exception of morality when it comes to ‘making allowances’ about customs. He is asserting that moral values are relevant to the aesthetic value of a work of art (a position known as moderate moralism). A moral blemish is an aesthetic blemish.
§33: Hume finishes his essay with a discussion of religion. He makes a distinction between moral principles on the one hand and ‘speculative opinions’ (ideologies, including religion) on the other. Unlike moral principles, speculative opinions are in ‘continual flux and revolution’, and mistakes in these matters are not serious blemishes on works of art.
Whatever speculative errors may be found in the polite writings of any age or country, they detract but little from the value of those compositions.
Adjusting ourselves to different morals however requires ‘a very violent effort’, and someone who is confident in the ‘rectitude’ of their moral standards will not make allowances.
Hume does not explain why moral principles, which are based upon sentiment and vary across cultures, are not also in ‘flux and revolution’ – see §3.
§34: Writers may be excused for speculative errors on religious matters, as ‘the same good sense, that directs men in the ordinary occurrences of life, is not harkened to in religious matters,’ which lie outside human reason. Critics who wish to form good judgements of ancient literature must not be prejudiced by the writers’ religion, which Hume calls ‘the absurdities of the pagan system of theology’. You cannot expect good sense on such things, whether in life or in works of art.
Religious principles are only a problem when they are so strong as to become bigotry or superstition:
Where that happens, they confound the sentiments of morality, and alter the natural boundaries of vice and virtue. They are therefore eternal blemishes, according to the principle above mentioned; nor are the prejudices and false opinions of the age sufficient to justify them.
Just as we are right to condemn the worst violations of our moral standards, we are right to condemn the worst violations of our religious standards.
In the final two paragraphs he address bigotry and superstition in turn.
§35: On this basis he has a dig at Roman Catholicism, which by its nature inspires ‘violent hatred of every other worship’, and gives the examples of two plays – Corneille’s Polyeucte (1642) and Racine’s Athalia (1691) – that he thinks have been blemished by this sort of ‘bigotry’. Hume describes a scene from Athalia where the Jewish priest Joad accuses a priest of Baal of ‘poisoning the air’ with his ‘horrid presence’, earning the applause of the Paris audience. This illustrates an ‘intemperate zeal for particular modes of worship’.
§36: Hume also thinks:
RELIGIOUS principles are also a blemish in any polite composition, when they rise up to superstition, and intrude themselves into every sentiment, however remote from any connection with religion.
Local customs are no excuse for the poet, and Hume cites two examples from Petrarch and Boccaccio. He therefore contends that certain violations of morality and religion are serious enough to overrule the critic’s duty to approach other cultures without prejudice, and they ought to be condemned.
And thus the essay comes abruptly to an end.
OK, here is the shorter version.
In his essay, Hume seeks to solve a puzzle: taste in art is highly variable and subjective. If we are arguing over painter X and painter Y, our preferences will be based on how much pleasure we derive from each painter’s work. There is no basis for saying that someone’s subjective feelings are wrong. Yet we routinely assert that some artists and works are better than others.
Hume wants to find the rule by which we pronounce one opinion right and another wrong: a Standard of Taste. When we reject some people’s preferences as mistaken or even absurd, we must be going by some kind of non-relativist principle. We may find the rules of composition by studying the works that have survived the test of time and working out what pleases everybody, everywhere.
The beauties of art depend upon a relationship by which certain properties in objects please our common human structure of mind. These beauties will please us unless defects in our human organism impede them.
A small number of people are particularly good at discerning the principles of aesthetic value, and by their natural gifts and by practice can minimise the impediments to beauty. To deliver the best judgement, critics should concentrate upon the works in the calmest state of mind. They require delicacy of imagination, good sense, practice, comparison, and freedom from prejudice towards other eras and cultures. The joint verdict of such true critics may decide the Standard of Taste. The solution therefore to the disputes that arise from subjective tastes is to locate a reliable standard in the verdicts of those best equipped to judge art.
Sometimes the standard will fail thanks to variations in personal characteristics and cultural conditioning. In these cases the works are not better or worse, just different. But we moderns reserve the right to condemn the worst violations of our own moral and religious standards, regardless of the culture of the artist.
1. Jonathan Bennett, Four Essays, http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/hume1757essay2.pdf.
2. Incidentally, we may take issue with the phrase ‘naturally calculated to give pleasure’ (§13). ‘Calculation’ implies an agency that forms Nature so as to meet the goal of giving pleasure to human beings, and such an agency could only be a religious delusion. But this is just pedantry on my part.