Hume’s Unnoticed Theodicy

David Hume

The intelligent author of nature’s attribute of benevolence, argued David Hume in Fragment on evil, could be proven by the effect of good prevailing much above evil. If good prevails much above evil, according to Hume, the author of nature could be said to be benevolent. If evil prevails much above good, then the intelligent author of nature could not be said to be benevolent.

Acknowledging his inability of determining with any certitude that evil prevails much above the good, Hume nonetheless found himself more inclined to the idea that “evil predominates in the world, and [he] apt to regard human life as a scene of misery, according to the sentiments of the greatest sages as well as of the generality of mankind, from the beginning of the world to his day” (Hume 2007, 111) He continued,

Were evil predominant in the world, there would evidently remain no proofs of benevolence in the supreme being. But even if good be predominate; since it prevails in so small a degree, and is counter balanced by so many ills; it can never afford any proof of that attribute.(ibid 111-112)

Qua Philo, in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume presented a rich version of the problem of evil. The apparently extent of pain and suffering in the world, both as a result of moral agents and blind forces of nature, according to Hume, makes the idea of a benevolence deity who care about his creation difficult to accept. (Hume 1947, 198)

Hume qua Demea offered a theodicy that could rescue the benevolence attribute of intelligent author. Demea argued,

This life but a moment in comparison of eternity. The present evil phenomena, therefore, are rectified in other regions, and in some future period of existence. And the eyes of men, being then opened to larger views of things, see the whole connection of general laws, and trace, with adoration, the benevolence and rectitude of the deity, through all the mazes and intricacies of his providence.(ibid 200)

But qua Cleanthes, he tore down this theodicy as “arbitrary suppositions”, and “conjectures and fictions” whose reality cannot be proven. Rejecting the belief in God of standard theism, a benevolent author of the universe, Hume nonetheless believed in a deity of limited theism:

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. (Hume 1964, 309)

In book III of The Natural History of Religion Hume provided, if I understood him correctly, a theodicy for a limited theistic deity whose providence “appears not immediately in any operation, but governs everything by those general and immutable laws, which have been establish from beginning of time”1(Hume 1985, 581). He contended,

Any of the human affections may lead us into the notion of invisible, intelligent power; hope as well as fear, gratitude as well as affliction: But if we examine our own hearts, or observe what passes around us, we shall find, that men are much oftener thrown on their knees by the melancholy than by the agreeable passions. Prosperity is easily received as our due, and few questions are asked concerning its cause or author. It begets cheerfulness and activity and alacrity and a lively enjoyment of every social and sensual pleasure: And during this state of mind, men have little leisure or inclination to think of the unknown invisible regions. On the other hand, every disastrous accident alarms us, and sets us on enquiries concerning the principles whence it arose: Apprehensions spring up with regard to futurity: And the mind, sunk into diffidence, terror, and melancholy, has recourse to every method of appeasing those secret intelligent powers, on whom our fortune is supposed entirely to depend. (Hume 2007, 129)

Hume’s theodicy, thus, is that pain and suffering, unlike leisure and prosperity, lead man to probe the nature of intelligent creator.

Next: Critique of Hume’s Deistic Theodicy


Hume, David (1947) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Norman Kemp Smith (2nd ed.) Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

____________ (1964) Natural History of Religion, in Green & Grose ed. The Philosophical. 4th vol. Dannstadt.

____________ (1985) Essay, Moral, Political, and Literary. E. F. Miller (Ed.)  Indianapolis: Liberty Classics Pub.

____________ (2007) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion And Other Writings. Dorothy Coleman (Ed.) Cambridge University Press.

[1] In his essay titled ”Of Suicide”


8 thoughts on “Hume’s Unnoticed Theodicy

  1. I would say Hume is a rational enquirer and that for a ‘moment’ he cannot “suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.”

    I was getting ready to quote some Hume and refute some of things you say, then after reflection, the only positive claim towards him being a thin theist is that Hume says “But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence”.

    I thought god had to have something more than ‘supreme intelligence’? I do not see Hume saying I belief in god.

    Supreme intelligence can mean numerous things and does not necessarily infer some immaterial transcendent being.

    • Hume called it “the Deity” with capital D who is infinitely perfect and possesses supreme intelligence and is the designer of the orderly universe. This is a deistic understanding of God. Could this be numerous thing than the impersonal Deity of Spinoza, (and Einstein following him ) ? You decide 🙂

  2. This quote does not out of necessity show Hume to be a limited theist “The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.”

    It is understandable why anyone would think such things, especially for primitive man. For instance, many things in science and physics are not intuitively known and actually work differently to what is commonly understood. This quote can be seen in such a light. He doesn’t say that there ‘is’ an intelligent author, he says it bespeaks.

    • That is an interest point to consider. I would say if you think Hume is a “rational enquirer” and quo Hume “no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion” then unless we say that Hume is irrational enquirer we cannot exclude him from his view, no?

      In Hume’s Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh, answering the charges of being an atheist, Hume argued “Wherever I see Order, I infer from Experience that there, there has been Design and Contrivance. And the same Principle which leads me into this Inference, when I contemplate a Building, regular and beautiful in its whole Frame and Structure; the same Principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect, from the infinite Art and Contrivance which is displayed in the whole Frabric of the Universe.”

      This led me to rethink of what I knew (was told by philosophers with PhDs), that Hume refuted Design Argument. As Saul Traiger also pointed out, David Hume did not even challenged Design argument(though he weaken it in Dialogues) To my surprise he actually endorsed it in Appendix to the Treatise Concerning Human Nature, what has become a footnote(Treatise “The same imperfection attends our ideas of the Deity; but this can have no effect either on religion or morals. The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind; that is, a mind whose will is constantly attended with the obedience of every creature and being. Nothing more is requisite to give a foundation to all the articles of religion, nor is it necessary we should form a distinct idea of the force and energy of the supreme Being.”

      It was for passages like these that led Jame O’ Higgins (“Hume and the Deists: a Contrast in Religious Approaches,” Journal of Theological Studies, 1971, Vol. 23, pp. 479-501) to conclude that Hume accepted design argument though remain skeptical about how human mind can grasp that truth. Similarly B. A. O. Williams (‘Hume on Religion’ in David Hume: A Symposium ed. Pears( London 1963) 77-88). John Erhman also hold that Hume at his mature age held design argument. See also J. C. A. Gaskin ‘Hume on Religion’ in The Cambridge Companion To Hume 2nd Edition e.d. Norton & Taylor (2009)

      These passages led me to begin reading Hume outside the box of what I have always been told.

      There are many philosophers on the other side that clam that Hume is atheist or agnostic but what I fail to see is evidence from Hume’s original work. As far as I have read Hume, he has led me to believe that he is a thin theist.

      See also Hume’s letter to William Mure (1743). I will finish with Hume’s words:

      A little philosophy, says lord BACON, makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to religion. For men, being taught, by superstitious prejudices, to lay the stress on a wrong place; when that fails them, and they discover, by a little reflection, that the course of nature is regular and uniform, their whole faith totters, and falls to ruin. But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence, they return to that belief, which they had deserted; and they are now able to establish it on a firmer and more durable foundation.” – David Hume, (NHR 4:329, Hume’s emphasis)

      Cited: Natural History of Religion, in The Philosophical Works,ed. T .H. Green and T. H. Grose, 4 vols. (Dannstadt, 1964)

  3. I’m just catching up on your posts and wanted to post on this :”Q&A: Is the Problem of Evil a barrier to belief?” but for some reason there is no where to comment. I wanted to say that you are so right that the problem of evil is flawed intellectually and I just posed here something that shows that. But the strength of the postmodern spirit of our age is that it rejects reason and it’s undergired by feelings. They claim they have an argument but they don’t regard philosphy, reason and even science which they advocate for cosmology.

  4. Something often overlooked by those who use the problem of pain and or evil to disprove God is that pain and problems often comes in the presence of prosperity and success. It is not always illness, poverty or abuse. In other words when we sometimes get to the mountaintop we are depressed and sad in mental pain more than when we had nothing. Why are the celebrities with all their talent and success essentially in forms of pain? When do we ever get “happy”? The Bible says “in him was the light of men”. Absolute joy, peace and purpose comes from Christ.

    • You remind me of C. S. Lewis: “”I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be
      led out to battle against other words.” (Till We Have Faces. 1984, 308)

      Thank you Zania.

  5. One flaw in Hume’s analysis is that the philosopher who determines what is good or evil thrusts him/herself into the role of God. What we might consider evil may ultimately be used for good in the scope of eternity. Our limited human perspective can not accurately evaluate God’s beneficence.

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