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Political Philosophy

Hume on Revolution

Jeremy Gallegos
Purdue University

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ABSTRACT: David Hume offers a well conceived plan for the formation of government and its political workings. Furthermore, he grants that in special circumstances the citizens of a particular government may revolt. However, with respect to obedience and disloyalty, Hume gives no formal rules for revolution. We would like something more from Hume regarding revolution and, more specifically, what he considers justified revolution. Some authors, such as Richard H. Dees, find the basis for Hume’s account of justified revolution in his historical works. By connecting Hume’s historical writings with his political theory, we find a fuller account of revolution. Such an account, however, does not require him to give a rule or maxim prescribing revolution since such a rule or maxim would obviously go against his political theory as stated in the Treatise and his political essays. In sum, justified revolution for Hume centers around the established political practices and the principled causes held by factions. Unjustified revolutions, however, are denoted by lack of adherence to established practices and want of a genuine cause. They are, rather, motivated by speculative factions subject to fanaticism and enthusiasm which are the foundations of Hume’s political worries. These central tenets of Hume’s view of revolution are delineated within this paper.

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Introductory Remarks

In "Of Passive Obedience," Hume chastises those who endorse at length the maxims of resistance. Disloyal acts are considered to be immoral because they strike us as being contrary to preserving order in society. The desire to preserve peace and order in society, for self-interest, motivates people to obey authority. We are, thus, to regard disobedience towards authority as something to be avoided. Hume writes,

Besides; we must consider, that, as obedience is our duty in the common course of things, it ought chiefly to be inculcated; nor can any thing be more preposterous than an anxious care and solicitude in stating all the cases, in which resistance may be allowed.(1)

For Hume, it is of major importance and consequence that obedience is taught and demonstrated for its benefits. First of all, liberty and commerce depend on obligation to promises. Secondly, submission to government is necessary for the performance of promises. Disobedience and revolution put both of these advantageous in jeopardy.

Hume, however, in his explanation of the formation of government claims that government can be overthrown in times of egregious tyranny. To be sure, Hume had admittedly agreed with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and sympathized with the American colonial situation but he finds too much liberty of resistance pernicious. Within this paper, we will consider different types of revolutions to arrive at what Hume deems as good and bad revolutions. To begin, we will look at Hume on obedience to government and rebellion. Then, we will discuss his views of revolution both good and bad.

I. Obedience and Rebellion

Insofar as we talk in terms of allegiance and obligation to government we should understand that we "consent," in a manner of speaking, to the government by way of obeying the law of the magistrate or constitution and reaping the benefits from the government afforded by that obedience. Hence, we have an allegiance that is beyond "tacit consent" and, moreover, our obedience to government is not secured solely by fear. It is "enlightened" self interest.(2) The liberating aspect is that if we are subject to an egregious tyranny we are free from all ties and owe no allegiance whatsoever to the government. We can rebel in such a manner because we engage in political society due to our self-interest which tells us we can live in peace if we cooperate with others in our community. Moreover, as long as the government enforces the rules of justice and aids society, we obey because we see that it is in our best interest just as keeping promises is in our best interests. Once the government no longer serves our self-interests, however, we are no longer committed to it nor owe allegiance to it.(3) Hume writes in the Treatise,

‘Tis certain therefore, that in all our notions of morals we never entertain such an absurdity as that of passive obedience, but make allowances for resistance in the more flagrant instances of tyranny and oppression.(4)

Our question regarding revolution, however, arises from a seemingly contrary position held by Hume regarding obedience to governments. For Hume, our repugnance for disloyal acts and resistance to governments comes from the fact that right and obligation are derived from the advantages reaped from government. In fact, these advantages of government determine the point of resistance. Hume writes,

We ought always to weigh the advantages, which we reap from authority, against the disadvantages; and by this means we shall become more scrupulous of putting into practice the doctrine of resistance. The common rule requires submission; and ‘tis only in case of grievous tyranny and oppression, that the exception can take place.(5)

With this account, it sounds as if we should keep a tally sheet as to how poorly our government performs and once it exceeds a certain negative amount we can, if we choose, rebel. Until then we should remain submissive to the government.

For Hume, though, there can never be a principle or law proposed that could ever tell us when to resist because to give a prescription would be to give a list of when revolt is warranted which is not only quite impossible but also politically troubling.(6) As Annette Baier points out, one reason Hume avoids giving the precise conditions dictating when one is to rebel or revolt is because it may seem that "we were issuing a conditional right to rebel."(7) So, what we get from Hume is that as a ‘general rule’ we are never to resist the government but we recognize that there are exceptions to this rule if the exception as well has the form of a general rule.(8) One exception is obviously a tyrant that carries the minimum of his office but also commits grievous offenses. Although, Richard H. Dees claims that, for Hume, egregious tyranny need not necessarily be present for resistance.(9) Which leads us to ask how do we identify justified situations of disobedience?

What concerns Hume in situations where license and anarchy arise is their being brought about by enthusiasm or fanaticism. As Hume points out, regarding religious zealots, enthusiasts and fanatics are the leaders of unrest and, hence, the chaos and disorder in society.(10) Nonetheless, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and quite possibly the American Revolution are positive examples of rebellion and revolt. One possible way to view these particular revolutions is from a more conservative economic point of view. A basic economic tenet for Hume is that commercial wealth is about doing rather than having. That is, exchange in the market place is more important than mere possession. More importantly, traditional colonialism and ownership of foreign lands endangered the possibility for exchange. By granting countries to be either independent or full members of their respective mother countries, then they would be free to participate in exchange.(11) The situation in America during the 18th century fits this category whereas regarding the Revolution of 1688, it allowed Britain to experiment in a commerce mixed with business and agriculture.(12) With such a commerce, exchange could take place between countries rather than obtaining wealth by conquest and imperialism. Perhaps, one could also say or state in conjunction with the above that Hume finds fault with religiously motivated rebellions, yet endorses revolution for capitalism. Are these Hume’s parameters for revolution?

In order to genuinely understand Hume’s view of revolution, we will look at Richard H. Dees’ discussion of Hume’s historical analysis of revolution. Richard H. Dees cites the favorable Revolution of 1688 and the disapproved of Bolingbroke Rebellion of which Hume wrote. The differences between the two revolutions are contextual. Moreover, according to Dees, the Revolution of 1688 does not fit under the category of egregious tyranny, whereas the Bolingbroke Rebellion, although popular, was nothing but unjustified.(13) Hence, there must be something present in the context of each that makes one justified and other not since both do not fit any rule or maxim. That is, the Revolution of 1688 was justified without tyranny which is part of Hume’s proffered general rule and the Bolingbroke Rebellion was unjustified even though popular and many believed to be in their best interest again missing Hume’s general rule regarding the benefits of society. Here, we will discover whether there are any particular circumstances, economic, religious, or otherwise, which promote or bar revolt.

II. Contextual Revolution

In Dees discussion of Hume’s evaluation of the Glorious Revolution versus the Bolingbroke Rebellion, he points out that the critical difference between the two, in terms of justification, is their ability to vindicate themselves by established practices. The former could rely on justification from established practices because the monarchy of the time was in conflict with the practice of politics in that time. While, the latter, however, could not justify itself by such means due to its political practice being dependent upon who possessed power at a particular time. In this particular case, it was not a revolt but a conquest.(14) The key differences, then, between justified and unjustified revolutions are established political practices. In cases of decision regarding obedience and disloyalty we must ask what is best and what are the established practices hopefully arriving at the best way to preserve order in society. Still, this does not guarantee a straightforward answer.

When there arises a dispute between the government and the citizens there should be in place an option outside of revolution. Political differences, for Hume, could not be about the constitution or government but had to be within the constitution.(15) Two opposing sides with the same goal in mind, say the betterment of society, should reach some agreement by way of following general rules. Doubtless, Hume believed there could be innovations or improvements in government.(16) In the "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," he states,

In all cases, it must be advantageous to know what is most perfect in the kind, that we may be able to bring any real constitution or form of government as near it as possible, by such gentle alterations and innovations as may not give too great a disturbance to society.(17)

Changes can come about in government and, by this quote, hopefully the changes can come from within the government or the system. But this is an optimistic view of Hume because there is the possibility that, while the intended goal may be the same, there are enough differences between the opposed groups that no resolution can be reached. There exists a difference of philosophies or ideologies. Their differences lie in their sentiments and beliefs about the world.(18) As Hume himself states with regard to following general principles,

But when we take a review of this act of the mind, and compare it with the more general and authentic operations of the understanding, we find it to be of an irregular nature, and destructive of all the most establish’d principles of reasonings; which is the cause of our rejecting it. This is a second influence of general rules, and implies the condemnation of the former. Sometimes the one, sometimes the other prevail, according to the disposition and character of the person.(19)

Hume writes as well, in "A Dialogue,"

You see then, continued I, that the principles upon which men reason in morals are always the same; though the conclusions which they draw are often very different.(20)

To be sure, a great deal of these differences are circumstantial.(21) Hume, in "A Standard of Taste," acknowledges these "unavoidable" differences in judgments where sentiments and tastes are in a stalemate.(22) In these situations, one can feel a need for change that can only come about via revolution and violence where Hume’s feared chaos and disorder follow.(23)

The type of differences of opinion that are present must be understood to get at Hume’s account of revolution. Knud Haakonssen succinctly mentions that Hume recognizes two differences between interested parties. One type are the principled factions consisting of two different social groups that have or think they have opposing interests. These interest are, though, the "driving force in all human endeavor" and such factions are "excusable."(24) The other type are the speculative factions where the differences are of a speculative or theoretical kind. Furthermore, there is no objective need for a political difference. Religious fanatics figure into this category for Hume. What intensifies these types of factions are the enthusiasts. One could hold to a particular belief without creating a political difference but enthusiasm and fanaticism makes this impossible.(25) To be sure, fanaticism and factionalism pit groups against each other to such a degree as to endanger the society and government.(26)

So, regarding the Revolution of 1688, the British political system made the politicians base their causes on ‘principle.’ While liable to criticism, they were part of the established practices in Britain, the same practices Richard H. Dees refers to regarding the turn from Parliamentary power to individual liberty.(27) The Bolingbroke Rebellion, however, fell into the dubious category of speculative differences with religious zealots. According to Dees, the political practices were at best confused and, as Hume says, "not regulated by any fixed maxims."(28) Hence, the differences and factionalism were based on speculation of who thought to possess power.

Hume, then, does not deny that endorsement of the maxim of resistance is beneficial but often this particular maxim is itself pernicious and dangerous when it is unchecked. As Richard H. Dees points out, Hume fears the formulation of a rule for revolution because, due to speculative factionalism, it may encourage those who have suffered no oppression and thus have no real cause.(29) Only those with genuine causes delineated by the practice of principled politics can justifiably call for revolt. So, regarding our earlier concern about Hume’s ‘economic revolution’ we can respond in the following manner. To be sure, advancement of capitalism or exchange based commerce is useful and, hence, fits Hume’s account of being agreeable and desirable. While economic or commercial utility may be a common factor both to the Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution, however, it need not be the driving force of Hume’s approval. They were useful and thus approvable but that does not entail that commercial utility be achieved at any costs.(30) Indeed, fanaticism about endorsing capitalism would fall into the speculative factionalism that Hume feared. A current situation against the backdrop of certain historical practices may actually work against a commercial exchange economy of the kind promoted by the Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution.


Hume offered no rules for revolution and found the search for any such rules misguided. What justifies revolution for Hume are the contexts of the politics involved. We may add, however, that part of these contexts and practices are the beliefs under which individuals labor. Hume did not find much appeal to religious fanatics because their practices tended to endorse the fanaticism that leads to the breakdown of society via war and rebellion. To be sure, their religious beliefs, while thought to be for the benefit of society, did not sufficiently ground them in politics enough to justifiably call for rebellion whereas those in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were sufficiently involved with the practice of politics to genuinely call for revolution.

Hume undoubtedly is afraid of rebellion based on "speculative" differences, despite intentions. Thus, he is conservative. Yet, as Richard H. Dees states, Hume is conservative only to the extent as to "conserve" the practices established in the society. Questions of utility and usefulness come against the background of established political practices.(31) Thus, Hume is optimistic as there are no ultimate ends to be sought either economic, religious, or otherwise. Preservation of society and order is sought in Hume’s politics even with regard to rebellion.

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(1) D. Hume, "Of Passive Obedience," p. 203.

(2) Here, I am alluding to something similar to Haakossen’s view of authority. While a contract theory explanation of the origins of government is absurd, one can keep promises to government, or pay allegiance, with regard to "interest in external and internal protection and, especially, in the administration of justice." The government being that institution in place by force, usurpation, or conquest, ie., the result of war.

(3) D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 550. We must emphasize the central point for Hume here. We can only revolt if the government does not serve our interests at all. If, for the most part, the government serves our interest although fails to in some particulars we are still obligated to obey it.

(4) Ibid., p. 552.

(5) Ibid., p. 554.

(6) This view relates well to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on revolution in Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty writes, "The revolutionary movement, like the work of the artist, is an intention which itself creates its instruments and its means of expression. The revolutionary project is not the result of a deliberate judgement, or the explicit positing of an end." Essentially, then we cannot pose revolution as an end as if we had a checklist of objective criterion and, moreover, one does not bring about the revolution by herself. There is, rather, an interplay between the individual and the social situation or circumstance into which she is thrown. If the situation presents itself as possible for revolution then the individual may aid in carrying it out if she so desires. Nevertheless, there can never be a definite prescription given as to when one may revolt.

(7) A. Baier, "How Can Individualists Share Responsibility?" p. 258. Baier mentions that what we get from Hume is not a "legally recognized entitlement to rebel" but a "moral liberty to resist tyrants." Hence, there could be no law or principle dictating revolution but one may carry it out given a particular moral sentiment.

(8) R.H. Dees, "Hume and the Contexts of Politics," p. 222.

(9) Ibid., p. 222.

(10) Michael Gill mentions this with respect to the Thomas B Becket and Archbishop Laud. Hume’s condemnation of Thomas B Becket centers on the fact that Becket’s "vaulting ambition precipitated a quarrel with Henry that threatened to plunge England into civil war." Moreover, regarding the gunpowder conspiracy, Hume decries the fact that the individuals religious beliefs almost led them to grave consequences.

(11) K. Haakonssen, "Introduction," to David Hume; Political Essays, p. xxv.

(12) Hume admits this improvement in "Of the Jealously of Trade" where he points out how "the arts both of agriculture and manufactures were then (two centuries ago) extremely rude and imperfect." To be sure, Hume also admits that the current improvement was also the result of progress made by other countries. Nevertheless, the rise of British commercial exchange was an advantage gained after the Revolution of 1688.

(13) R.H. Dees, "Hume and the Contexts of Politics," p. 223.

(14) R.H. Dees, "Hume and the Contexts of Politics," pp. 238-239.

(15) K. Haakonssen, "The Structure of Hume’s Political Theory," p. 205.

(16) D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 561.

(17) D. Hume, "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," p. 222.

(18) We can draw another similarity between Hume and French philosophy as this notion coincides with Michel Foucault’s idea of games of truth regarding institutions and practices of control. For Foucault, engagement with government and politics is a relationship of power where one ‘wishes to direct the behavior of another.’ This relationship is, however, unstable and there exists room for resistance violent and discursive. In our discursive dealings with these relationships of power we escape domination by playing a game of truth where we demonstrate to the other ‘that there were other rational possibilities, teaching people what they ignore about their own situation, on their conditions of work, on their exploitation.’ Where this discursive game of truth fails, in a stalemate or in a state of domination, one still has viable options in parliamentary struggle, revolution, and so on. So, while via games of truth contradictions should be worked out, there could be situations where resistance in the relationship of power consists in violence and revolution because, as Hume notes, the principles by which men reason their morals are the same although they often derive different conclusions.

(19) Ibid., p. 150. Emphasis added.

(20) D. Hume, "A Dialogue," p. 336.

(21) Ibid., p. 336.

(22) D. Hume, "A Standard of Taste," p. 244.

(23) Doubtless, there are those who call for revolution vis--vis communication and passive resistance but there are others who demand a more radical and a more violent movement. Frantz Fanon was one such philosopher. The moment for discussion had long passed for Fanon and true change could only be brought forth by a violent revolution against Western colonialism. We can quote Fanon at length; "The natives’ challenge to the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view...The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values but also the negation of values...The violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values over the ways of life and of thought of the native mean that, in revenge, the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him...After centuries of unreality, after having wallowed in the most outlanding phantoms, at long last the native, gun in hand, stands face to face with the only forces which contend for his life—the forces of colonialism...The native discovers reality and transforms it into the pattern of his customs, into the practice of violence and into his plan for freedom." In this view of the colonial situation, Hume’s innovations of government may not alleviate the situation. Indeed, Fanon may be quite correct prescribing violence in contrast to Hume.

(24) K. Haakonssen, "The Structure of Hume’s Political Theory," p. 206.

(25) Ibid., p. 207.

(26) Ibid., p. 205.

(27) R.H. Dees, "Hume and the Contexts of Politics," p. 236.

(28) Ibid., p. 238.

(29) R.H. Dees, "Hume and the Contexts of Politics," p. 223. What may be problematic about this view, however, revolves around the scenario of the sympathizer. Annette Baier seems to believe that we as enlightened Humean subjects should show the falseness of the vulgar tyrant’s beliefs and the need for their review by the general principles. Yet, this may be impossible given the tyrant’s position of power and prejudiced reasoning. All that may induce change is violence for she points out that nonviolent demonstration is not easily prevented from escalating into violence and revolution. Baier writes, with regard to terrorists, "Some simply choose terrorism to advance a political goal such as the collapse of capitalism, although they have suffered no significant maltreatment by capitalists." Baier seems to think that, since by her account Hume remains virtually silent on the issue of violence, and because Hume says that an unstable society will allow its dispossessed to express its resentment that terrorism is, at the least, understandable in the Humean theory of politics. Again, however, this may be too optimistic given the account laid out by Dees and Haakonssen where Hume would obviously find some fault with this type of factionalism and behavior that is detrimental to society.

(30) R.H. Dees, "Hume and the Contexts of Politics," p. 230.

(31) Let us note, that in reference to a philosopher such as Frantz Fanon established political practices are to be blamed for the oppression. Hence, he may seek to dismantle it altogether despite Hume’s wishes for the preservation of order in society.


Baier, Annette C. "How Can Individualists Share Responsibility" from Moral

Prejudices. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press. 1994

________. "Violent Demonstrations" from Moral Prejudices. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press. 1994

Dees, Richard H. "Hume and the Contexts of Politics," Journal of the History of Philosophy, 30:2 (April 1992): 219-242.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. trans. by Constance Farrington. New York, NY: Grove Press. 1963

Foucault, Michel. "Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom" from The Final Foucault. ed. by James Bernauer and David Rasmussen. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 1994.

Gill, Michael. "A Philosopher in his Closet: Reflexivity and Justification in Hume’s Moral Theory," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26:2 (June 1996): 231-256.

Haakonssen, Knud. "Introduction" from David Hume; Political Essays. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

________. "The Structure of Hume’s Political Theory" from The Cambridge Companion to Hume. ed. by David Fate Norton. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1993.

Hume, David. Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1975

________. "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" from David Hume; Political Essays. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1994

________. "Of the Jealousy of Trade" from David Hume; Political Essays. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1994

________. "Of the Original Contract" from David Hume; Political Essays. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1994

________. "Of Passive Obedience" from David Hume; Political Essays. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 1994

________. "Of the Standard of Taste"

________. A Treatise of Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1978

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. trans. by Colin Smith. New York: Routledge. 1962

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