Monkish Virtues and Conventional Morality: The Moral Critique of Religion

I. Morality and the Useful and Agreeable
  • Stephen Paul Foster
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 154)


The Hume-Gibbon attack on Christianity directed its most open hostility toward the monks. Monasticism was, of course, a manifestation of Roman Catholicism, which was more available to direct attack by writers from Protestant countries. Monasticism for Hume and Gibbon was the undistilled, superstitious essence of the Church of Rome. In the monks they saw the rejection of the moral virtues practiced by the pagan philosophers and statesmen they so much admired. Monasticism had spurned the natural world and rejected the virtues that were supposed to improve life within it. Hume’s revulsion with monasticism is connected with the importance he attaches to usefulness as the foundation of moral value,1 and the monks represented for him a pathological rejection of the useful. The notion of usefulness, Hume argues, persists throughout the spectrum of cross cultural experience. “The epithets social,good-natured, humane, merciful, grateful, friendly,generous, beneficent, or their equivalents, are known in all languages, and universally express the highest merit, which human nature is capable of attaining.” (EPM, 176, original italics) Scrutiny of common life practices shows that qualities of character and personality which are perceived as both useful and agreeable, both to the possessor as well as others, command universal approbation. Honesty, wit, courage, resourcefulness; qualities such as these are universally acclaimed, as are their opposites disdained. Religious beliefs, attitudes, and practices are measured by Hume against these standards of usefulness and agreeableness. Moreover, it is religion as it is actually practiced, not an idealized version of it, that Hume considers. “True religion,” says Hume, “I allow, has no such pernicious Consequences [endless disputes, quarrels, factions, persecutions, and civil commotions]: But we must treat of Religion, as it has commonly been found in the World.” (DNR, 256) Hume’s dichotomy, “true religion” (idealized, philosophically refined religion) versus religion discovered historically, i.e., “commonly found in the world” expresses, ironically, what is an essentially disapprobative view of the effects of religion on human society. True religion is a philosopher’s elixir: religion as it is practiced seems to be widely corrupt.2 This at least is Hume’s judgment as a philosophical historian. In the History of England Hume makes a rather broad generalization about the intolerance of religionists. “It seems to be almost a general rule, that in all religions, except the true, no man will suffer martyrdom who would not also inflict it willingly on all that differ from him.” (HE,III, 340) Since persecution is such a major feature of religious history, true, i.e., philosophically refined religion, can hardly be said to exist.


Religious Believer Common Life Original Italic Religious Morality Roman Empire 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Paul Foster
    • 1
  1. 1.Central Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA

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