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”