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Synopsis of David Hume, ‘Quatre essais moraux et politiques’

[‘Four Moral and Political Essays’]

CpA 6.6:55–70

The sixth volume of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is devoted to ‘The Politics of Philosophers’. Alongside reprints of texts on politics by Descartes and Machiavelli are four essays by David Hume on the theory of authority, accompanied by Bernard Pautrat’s article ‘La Théorie humienne de l’autorité’ [‘Hume’s theory of authority’] (CpA 6.5). Pautrat’s article gives the rationale for the selection of these essays, all of which are taken from Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political and Literary. The French texts are reprinted from the 1788 edition of Oeuvres philosophiques de M. D. Hume, with some of the texts incorrectly dated.1

1. ‘Des premiers principes du gouvernment’ [‘Of the First Principles of Government’]

First published in Hume’s Essays Moral and Political, in 1741. Reprinted in Essays Moral, Political and Literary [1777], ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987. Part 1, Essay 4. Online at

Hume observes the apparent paradox characteristic of human societies whereby, while ‘force is always on the side of the governed’, rulers still manage to ensure the submission of the people. He suggests the need for an inquiry into the source of the ‘implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers’ (CpA 6.6:75; Essays, 32).

Those who govern, Hume argues, ‘have nothing to support them but opinion’, of which there are three kinds. First, there is ‘opinion of interest’, which concerns the ‘general advantage which is reaped from government’. Then there is ‘opinion of right’, which is of two kinds: ‘right to power’ and ‘right to property’. Opinion about right to power is instanced in ‘the attachment which all nations have to their ancient government, and even to those names, which have had the sanction of antiquity’ (76/33). Opinions about right to property are also fundamental to the maintenance of government, but Hume criticises the claim that property is ‘the foundation of all government’ because it excludes the influence of ‘right to power’ (76/34).2 All governments are founded upon these three kinds of opinion, and thereby ‘all authority of the few over the many’. There are other ‘principles’ that add force or ‘determine, limit, or alter their operation’, eg. self-interest, fear and affection. But these principles are dependent on the influence of opinion, and are therefore secondary.

The expectation of advantage from the government presupposes that its authority is already established in this manner. Fear of tyranny presupposes the authority of the tyrant, ‘since, as a single man, his bodily force can reach but a small way, and all the farther power he possesses must be founded either on our own opinion, or on the presumed opinion of others’ (76/34).

Governments may endure without the ‘balance of power’ coinciding with the ‘balance of property’. This occurs when some ‘rank or order’ of the state institution ‘has acquired a large share in the property; but from the original constitution of the government, has no share of the power’ (77/35). Hume considers the validity of authority in instances of the usurpation of property. In a country like England, he argues, where ‘the original constitution’ allocates a large share of the property to a few people, authority is consolidated by bringing ‘the balance of power to coincide with that of property’ (77/35). If the British government were organised on the model of the Dutch republic, where governmental deputies are ‘obliged to receive instructions from their constituents’, the nobility would disappear and the balance of power would be radically modified.

I must, therefore, be of the opinion, that an alteration in this particular would introduce a total alteration in our government, and would soon reduce it to a pure republic. For though the people, collected in a body like the ROMAN tribes, be quite unfit for government, yet when dispersed in small bodies, they are more susceptible both of reason and order; the force of popular currents and tides is, in a great measure, broken; and the public interest may be pursued with some method and constancy (77/36).

In his conservative conclusion, Hume thus ends by counselling against ‘encouraging a passion for such dangerous novelties’.

2. ‘De l’origine du gouvernement’ [‘Of the Origin of Government’]

First published posthumously in Essays Moral, Political and Literary (1777). Reprinted in the revised 1987 edition of Essays Moral, Political and Literary, Part 1, Essay 5. Online at

In the Treatise on Human Nature and the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume had contended that human beings are naturally social animals, existing in families.3 Man ‘is compelled to maintain society from necessity, from natural inclination, and from habit’. What, then, are the origins of government? In advanced human societies, man establishes ‘political society, in order to administer justice’ (CpA 6.6.79; Essays, 37). The ‘object’ or ‘purpose’ of government is ‘the distribution of justice’. Institutions such as royalty, government, the military and the clergy, ‘so far as regards this world’, have ‘no other useful object’.

Hume says that the main reason people do not always follow justice is because of the ‘perverseness of nature’. They are seduced from important, yet distant interests by the allure of present, often frivolous temptations. ‘Men must, therefore, endeavour to palliate what they cannot cure’. An institution of justice must be established with the aim of punishment of transgression and correction of fraud and violence, ‘to oblige men, however reluctant, to consult their own real and permanent interests. In a word obedience is a new duty which must be invented to support that of justice; and the tyes of equity must be corroborated by those of allegiance’ (79/38).

Duty to government is founded in ‘the principles of human nature’. There is an ‘immediate and visible interest’ in obeying the law. The individuals who have key roles in governmental institutions gain their positions from the ‘consent, tacit or express, of the people’. The prince or leader must have the qualities of ‘valour, force, integrity or prudence’ as these ‘command respect and confidence’. Once authority is matched by obedience, a stable society ensues. ‘Habit soon consolidates what other principles of human nature had imperfectly founded; and men, once accustomed to obedience, never think of departing from that path, in which they and their ancestors have constantly trod’ (39/39). Hume distinguishes between the imperfect origins of institutions and their nature or function insofar as they are governed in the light of the principles of human nature. ‘It is probable, that the first ascendant of one man over multitudes begun during a state of war’. Further progress had to wait until the institutions had established ‘revenues’, which enabled the bestowing of reward and punishment.

‘In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between authority and liberty’ (81/40). Every sovereign authority is limited by the interests of the people. The government that can be described as ‘free’ ‘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’. Although liberty is the ‘perfection of civil society’, it is authority first and foremost that is ‘essential to the existence of civil society’ (81/41).

3. ‘Du Contrat primitif’ [‘Of the Original Contract’]

First published in Three Essays, Moral and Political (1748), along with ‘Of National Characters’, and ‘Passive Obedience’, and incorporated in the same year into the third edition of Hume’s Essays, Moral and Political (1748). In Essays Moral, Political and Literary, Part 2, Essay 12. Online at

There are currently two types of ‘philosophical’ systems in British politics, Hume claims, one that grounds authority in divine right, and the other in the social contract. The former position is represented by the ‘Tories’, the latter by the ‘Whigs’. For Hume these ‘systems’ can only be called ‘philosophical’ in a restricted sense; he suggests that there may be a contradiction in the very idea of a philosopher embracing a perspective which is effectively the same as one proposed by a political party (85/469). In the sense developed by Pautrat in his Althusserian analysis of Hume’s text, then, these ‘philosophical’ systems are really ideological. These ‘philosophies’, Hume remarks, are of ‘unshapely’ workmanship, showing signs of ‘violence’ and ‘hurry’.

The one party, by tracing up government to the Deity, endeavoured to render it so sacred and inviolate, that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it, in the smallest article. The other party, by founding government altogether on the consent of the People, suppose that there is a kind of original contract, by which the subjects have tacitly reserved the power of resisting their sovereign, whenever they find themselves aggrieved by that authority, with which they have, for certain purposes, voluntarily entrusted him (83/466).

Hume criticises both views. According to Pautrat, Hume treats the opposition as an ‘antinomy’ (CpA 6.5:70), although Hume does not use the term:

I shall venture to affirm, [1.] That both these systems of speculative principles are just; though not in the sense, intended by the parties; And [2.] That both the schemes of practical consequences are prudent; though not in the extremes, to which each party, in opposition to the other, has commonly endeavoured to carry them (CpA 6.6:83/466).

The grounding of government in Deity is just if one believes that the universe is governed by providence. A benevolent God cares for the good of all creatures, and government prevents anarchy; government must be part of God’s intention for the world. The problem is that the sovereign nevertheless cannot be said to be the ‘vice-regent’ of God ‘in any other sense than [that] every power or force, being derived from him, may be said to act by his commission’. If we assume a divine i.e. omnipotent authority, ‘whatever actually happens is comprehended in the general plan or intention of providence’, and is therefore not imputable to the sovereign. So ‘the greatest and most lawful prince’ has no more reason ‘to plead a peculiar sacredness or inviolable authority, than an inferior magistrate, or even an usurper, or even a robber and a pyrate’ (84/467). There is no more logic in the idea that divine authority is actually invested in a wiser ruler like Titus Flavius than in a tyrannical one like Cesare Borgia.

Hence the attractions of the alternative philosophy, that of the social contract. Those who defend this alternative (such as John Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government) claim that an act of consent lies at the origin of government. ‘Nothing but the [people’s] own consent could, at first, associate them together, and subject them to any authority’ (84/468). They insist that ‘all men are still born equal, and owe allegiance to no prince or government, unless bound by the obligation and sanction of a promise’ (85/469). The subject promises to abide by the rules in return for the sovereign’s protection and distribution of justice; and if the sovereign does not provide the latter, the subject is freed from allegiance.

Against this view, Hume argues that ‘these reasoners should look abroad into the world, where they would meet with nothing that, in the least, corresponds to their ideas, or can warrant so refined and philosophical a system’ (85/469). Cross-cultural comparison shows the universal prevalence of princes who assert their right to rule by appeals to conquest or succession. There are no ‘traces or memory’ (85/470) of any original contract. Hume contends the consent of actual subjects was only achieved at the end of a long historical process of domination by chieftains who ruled through ongoing, particular acts of persuasion, which eventually, through habitual reinforcement, brought about a state of acquiescence in the subjugated (85/469). ‘Almost all the governments, which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally, either on usurpation nor conquest, or both, without any pretence of a fair consent, or voluntary subjection of the people’ (86/471). Hume gives the example of the republic of Athens, where participation in democracy was restricted in a number of respects (for instance, the exclusion of women, slaves and strangers) (87/473).

An ‘original contract’, or government by ‘popular consent’ is thus a ‘perfection’ of government, not an essential condition (88/474). The presumption that a free, rational choice has actually taken place is mistaken. ‘Were all men possessed of so perfect an understanding, as always to know their own interests, no form of government had ever been submitted to, but what was established on consent, and was fully canvassed by every member of the society: But this state of perfection is likewise much superior to human nature’. Subjects clearly have less freedom, in the sense of independence, than the sovereign. The only ‘tacit consent’ that exists applies to a situation in which a foreigner voluntarily settles in a country and is acquainted beforehand with its ruler. The event of a dissolution of government, a moment of revolution, moreover, is one during which ‘people’s consent’ is ‘least regarded’, since the outcome is decided by ‘military force or political craft’ (88/474).

What then is the reason for the obedience of the people? ‘I readily answer, because society could not otherwise subsist’ (92/481). The theory of the original contract says it is due to a promise or a word, but rather ‘the general obligation, which binds us to government, is the interest and necessities of society’. The particular form of government is contingent, and opinion remains the only standard by which to judge the merit of a government.

Hume observes that the only passage he has found in classical literature in which obedience to a government is ascribed to a promise is in Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ refusal to escape from prison in the Crito (50c). In doing so, Socrates ironically ‘builds a tory consequence of passive obedience, on a whig foundation of the original contract’ (96/487). Once again, Hume ends on a conservative, cautionary note: ‘new discoveries are not to be expected in these matters’.

4. ‘De l’obéissance passive’ [‘Of Passive Obedience’]

Written around 1745. First published in Three Essays, Moral and Political (1748), also containing ‘Of the Original Contract’. Essays Moral, Political and Literary, Part 2, Essay 13. Online at

According to Eugene Miller in his edition of the Essays, passive obedience refers to ‘the doctrine that it is not lawful, under any pretense whatsoever, to take arms against the king or those who act under the king’s authority. This doctrine was held, in the seventeenth century, by the court party, and in the eighteenth century by a segment of the Tory party’.4 In his chapter ‘On the Measures of Allegiance’ in the Treatise on Human Nature, Hume had dismissed the doctrine as an ‘absurdity’5, but in ‘Of Passive Obedience’, written in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, Hume takes a sympathetic view of it.

The essay is a companion piece to ‘Of the Original Contract’, examining the ‘practical consequences’ of the kind of ‘speculative system’ to which one holds in politics. Defence of the Whig doctrine of ‘resistance’ leads to potential insurrection and rebellion. The possibility of tyrannicide or assassination, ‘approved of by ancient maxims, instead of keeping tyrants and usurpers in awe, made them ten times more fierce and unrelenting’. It focuses too exclusively on the rare, tyrannical exceptions to the general rule in the government of civil society. Hume stresses the foundational nature of ‘allegiance’ for the preservation of society: ‘Here I must confess, that I shall always incline to their side, who draw the bond of allegiance very close’ (96/490).

But he nevertheless recognises two reasons for upholding the doctrine of resistance. First, obedience may carried too far, and effectively preclude any critique of the tyrannical abuse of authority; second, the British form of government tends to treat its magistrates as ‘above the law’ (98/491). ‘Resistance therefore must, of course, become more frequent in the British government, than in others, which are simpler, and consist of fewer parts and movements’ (492). Hume takes Charles I and James the II as cautionary examples of the tyrannical misuse of power within such a system. By ‘mistaking the nature of our constitution, and engrossing the whole legislative power, it became necessary to oppose them with some vehemence’.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Bernard Pautrat, ‘La théorie humienne de l’autorité’, CpA 6.5:69-74.

Primary bibliography:

  • Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political and Literary [1777], ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, revised edition, 1987. Online versions are available at and
  • Hume, David. A Treatise on Human Nature [1739-40], ed. L.A. Selby Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon, 1888.
  • ---. ‘That Politics may be Reduced to a Science’ (1741). In Hume, Essays Moral and Political and Literary [1777], ed. Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987. Part 1, Essay 3.
  • ---. ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’ [1748] (CpA 6.6). Essays, Part 2, Essay 16.
  • ---.Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals [1758], ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Selected secondary literature

  • Bongie, Laurence L. David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.
  • Forbes, Duncan. Hume’s Philosophical Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  • ---. ‘Sceptical Whiggism, Commerce and Liberty’. In Essays on Adam Smith, ed. A.S. Skinner and T. Wilson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.
  • ---. ‘Hume’s Science of Politics’. In David Hume: Bicentenary Papers, ed. G.P. Morice. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977.
  • Haakonsen, Knud. ‘The Structure of Hume’s Political Theory’. In The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. Norton and Taylor.
  • Hardin, Russell. David Hume, Moral and Political Theorist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Miller, David. Philosophy and Ideology in Hume’s Political Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
  • Norton, David Fate and Jacqueline Taylor. eds. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2009.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. ‘Hume and the American Revolution: The Dying Thoughts of a North Briton’. In McGill Hume Studies, ed. David Fate Norton et al. San Diego: Austin Hill Press, 1979.
  • Phillipson, Nicholas. Hume. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.
  • Stewart, John B. Opinion and Reform in Hume’s Political Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Whelan, Frederick. Order and Artifice in Hume’s Political Philosophy. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1984.


1. The essays in the Cahiers are dated as follows: ‘Of the First Principles of Government’ (1742), ‘Of the Origin of Government’ (1742), ‘Of the Original Contract’ (1752), ‘Of Passive Obedience’ (1752). According to Eugene Miller’s scholarly edition of Hume’s Essays Moral, Political and Literary, the essays were published as follows: ‘Of the First Principles of Government’ (1741), ‘Of the Original Contract’ (1748), ‘Of Passive Obedience’ (1748), and ‘Of the Origin of Government’ (1777). For information on the publication dates of the contents of Hume’s Essays, see Eugene Miller’s ‘Foreword’ to Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, xi-xvii.

2. In an editorial note to his edition of the Essays, Eugene Miller notes that Hume’s target here was probably James Harrington, who maintained in The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) that the balance of political power depends on the balance of property. Hume discusses Harrington’s views on right to property in the essays ‘Whether the British Government inclines more to an Absolute Monarchy, or to a Republic’ (1741; Essays, Part 1, Essay 6, see in particular 47-48), and ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’ (1754; Essays, Part 2, Essay 16. In the latter essay, Hume relates Harrington’s ideas about the rotation of power in a commonwealth to Machiavelli’s idea that ‘a government [...] must often be brought back to its original principles’ (516). Machiavelli’s account of the conditions for the existence of a republic is represented in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse in the extract from the Discourses on Livy in CpA 6.4

3. Cf. Hume, Treatise, Book III, 2.2; Enquiry, 206-9.

4. Hume, Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, 488-9n.

5. Hume, Treatise, Book III, 2.9.