David Hume on Polytheism and Monotheism
Two hundred and fifty years ago, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) set down his thoughts on the subject of the origins and foundations of religion in The Natural History of Religion. In that work, Hume wrote that “polytheism or idolatry was, and must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind”. Indeed, the first section is titled “That Polytheism was the primary Religion of Men.” The following excerpt, comprising the opening half dozen paragraphs of that section, nicely illustrates what Hume has to say, while at the same time providing us with a rather unguarded view of the self-perceptions of Europeans of his day with respect to their fellow, non-European, human beings.
It appears to me, that if we consider the improvement of human society, from rude beginnings to a state of greater perfection, polytheism or idolatry was, and necessarily must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind. This opinion I shall endeavor to confirm by the following arguments.
It is a matter of fact incontestable, that about 1,700 years ago all mankind were polytheists. The doubtful and sceptical principles of a few philosophers, or the theism, and that too not entirely pure, of one or two nations, form no objection worth regarding. Behold then the clear testimony of history. The farther we mount up into antiquity, the more do we find mankind plunged into polytheism. No marks, no symptoms of any more perfect religion. The most ancient records of the human race still present us with that system as the popular and established creed. The north, the south, the east, the west, give their unanimous testimony to the same fact. What can be opposed to so full an evidence?
As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth; but fell into error, as soon as they acquired learn- and politeness.
But in this assertion you not only contradict all appearance of probability, but also our present experience concerning the principles and opinions of barbarous nations. The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia, are all idolaters. Not a single exception to this rule. Insomuch that, were a traveller to transport himself into any unknown region; if he found inhabitants cultivated with arts and sciences, though even upon that supposition there are odds against their being theists, yet could he not safely, till farther inquiry, pronounce any thing on that head: but if he found them ignorant and barbarous, he might beforehand declare them idolaters; and there scarcely is a possibility of his being mistaken.
It seems certain that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some grovelling and familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect Being who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: by abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: and slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grosser, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refined, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this natural progress of thought, but some obvious and invincible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the pure principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument; yet I can never think that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.
The causes of such objects as are quite familiar to us, never strike our attention or curiosity; and however extraordinary or surprising these objects in themselves, they are passed over, by the raw and ignorant multitude, without much examination or enquiry. Adam, rising at once in Paradise, and in the full perfection of his faculties, would naturally, as represented by Milton, be astonished at the glorious appearances of nature, the heavens, the air, the earth, his own organs and members; and would be led to ask, whence this wonderful scene arose. But a barbarous, necessitous animal (such as man is on the first origin of society), pressed by such numerous wants and passions, has no leisure to admire the regular face of nature, or make enquiries concerning the cause of objects to which, from his infancy, he has been gradually accustomed. On the contrary, the more regular and uniform, that is, the more perfect nature appears, the more is he familiarised to it, and the less inclined to scrutinise and examine it. A monstrous birth excites his curiosity, and is deemed a prodigy. It alarms him from its novelty; and immediately sets him a-trembling, and sacrificing, and praying. But an animal complete in all its limbs and organs, is to him an ordinary spectacle, and produces no religious opinion or affection. Ask him, whence that animal arose; he will tell you, from the copulation of its parents. And these, whence? From the copulation of theirs. A few removes satisfy his curiosity, and set the objects at such a distance, that he entirely loses sight of them. Imagine not that he will so much as start the question, whence the first animal; much less, whence the whole system or united fabric of the universe arose. Or, if you start such a question to him, expect not that he will employ his mind with any anxiety about a subject so remote, so uninteresting, and which so much exceeds the bounds of his capacity.
Part of Hume’s thesis was controversial, and part was not. The part that was controversial was his contention that polytheism came first, and that monotheism does not appear on the scene until much later. Hume’s solidly historical theory of “primary polytheism” was strongly opposed by the completely ahistorical theory of “original monotheism”. Two centuries after David Hume, Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959) produced a very nice and succinct summary of the debate between these two positions, in his essay The Formation of Monotheism, which I will talk about in a future post. I will also defer until the (hopefully not too distant) future the following two highly relevant questions:
1. Is this distinction between polytheism and monotheism really so absolute? Aren’t there “transitional” religions occupying some gray area between monotheism and polytheism, and/or between primary and secondary religions?
2. What about Christians (and others) today, like Karen Armstrong, who attempt to portray “all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions” as essentially the same or at least equally valid, and who, implicitly or explicitly, reject the idea that there are fundamentally different kinds of religion?
What was not controversial, however, was Hume’s claim that monotheism and polytheism represent utterly different forms of religion. This was uncontroversial because it is, as everyone knows, one of the most basic theological cornerstones of Christianity and all other genuinely monotheistic religions.
For now I will conclude with another extended excerpt from Hume on another controversial claim of his: that primary, polytheistic religions are inherently tolerant, whereas monotheistic religions are inherently intolerant. Here is the entirety of the section titled “Comparison of these Religions with regard to Persecution and Toleration.”:
Polytheism or idolatrous worship, being founded entirely in vulgar traditions, is liable to this great inconvenience, that any practice or opinion, however barbarous or corrupted, may be authorized by it; and full scope is left for knavery to impose on credulity till morals and humanity be expelled from the religious systems of mankind. At the same time, idolatry is attended with this evident advantage, that, by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, it naturally admits the Gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other. Theism is opposite both in its advantages and disadvantages. As that system supposes one sole deity, the perfection of reason and goodness, it should, if justly prosecuted, banish everything frivolous, unreasonable, or inhuman from religious worship, and set before men the most illustrious example, as well as the most commanding motives of justice and benevolence. These mighty advantages are not indeed over-balanced (for that is not possible), but somewhat diminished, by inconveniences, which arise from the vices and prejudices of mankind. While one sole object of devotion is acknowleged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious. Nay, this unity of object seems naturally to require the unity of faith and ceremonies, and furnishes designing men with a pretense for representing their adversaries as profane, and the objects of divine as well as human vengeance. For as each sect is positive that its own faith and worship are entirely acceptable to the deity, and as no one can conceive that the same being should be pleased with different and opposite rites and principles, the several sects fall naturally into animosity, and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious and implacable of all human passions.
The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone who is the least conversant in the writings of historians or travellers. When the oracle of Delphi was asked, what rites or worship was most acceptable to the Gods? “Those legally established in each city,” replied the oracle. Even priests, in those ages, could, it seems, allow salvation to those of a different communion. The Romans commonly adopted the Gods of the conquered people; and never disputed the attributes of those local and national deities in whose territories they resided. The religious wars and persecutions of the Egyptian idolaters are indeed an exception to this rule; but are accounted for by ancient authors from reasons singular and remarkable. Different species of animals were the deities of the different sects among the Egyptians; and the deities being in continual war, engaged their votaries in the same contention. The worshippers of dogs could not long remain in peace with the adorers of cats or wolves. But where that reason took not place, the Egyptian superstition was not so incompatible as is commonly imagined; since we learn from Herodotus, that very large contributions were given by Amasis towards rebuilding the temple of Delphi.
The intolerance of almost all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists. The implacable narrow spirit of the Jews is well known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles; and even to this day, deals out damnation, though not fire and faggot, to all other sects. And if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priest and bigots.
The disciples of Zoroaster shut the doors of heaven against all but the Magians. Nothing could more obstruct the progress of the Persian conquests than the furious zeal of that nation against the temples and images of the Greeks. And after the overthrow of that empire, we find Alexander, as a polytheist, immediately re-establishing the worship of the Babylonians, which their former princes, as monotheists, had carefully abolished. Even the blind and devoted attachment of that conqueror to the Greek superstition hindered not but he himself sacrificed according to the Babylonish rites and ceremonies.
So sociable is polytheism, that the utmost fierceness and aversion which it meets with in an opposite religion is scarcely able to disgust it, and keep it at a distance. Augustus praised extremely the reserve of his grandson, Caius Cæsar, when this latter prince, passing by Jerusalem, deigned not to sacrifice according to the Jewish law. But for what reason did Augustus so much approve of this conduct? Only because that religion was by the Pagans esteemed ignoble and barbarous.
I may venture to affirm that few corruptions of idolatry and polytheism are more pernicious to political society than this corruption of theism, when carried to the utmost height. The human sacrifices of the Carthaginians, Mexicans, and many barbarous nations, scarcely exceed the Inquisition and persecutions of Rome and Madrid. For besides that the effusion of blood may not be so great in the former case as in the latter; besides this, I say, the human victims, being chosen by lot, or by some exterior signs, affect not in so considerable a degree the rest of the society. Whereas virtue, knowledge, love of liberty, are the qualities which call down the fatal vengeance of inquisitors; and when expelled, leave the society in the most shameful ignorance, corruption, and bondage. The illegal murder of one man by a tyrant is more pernicious than the death of a thousand by pestilence, famine, or any undistinguishing calamity.
In the temple of Diana at Aricia near Rome, whoever murdered the present priest was legally entitled to be installed his successor. A very singular institution! For, however barbarous and bloody the common superstitions often are to the laity, they usually turn to the advantage of the holy order.
In case anyone missed it, in the above passages David Hume can hardly be said to be at all admiring, or even sympathetic, in his view of polytheism. In fact, he can’t help but repeatedly insist on the superiority of monotheism! It’s quite possible that this is simply a posture that he chooses to adopt, perhaps ironically, perhaps defensively. Nevertheless what he is saying can in no way be interpreted as any kind of straightforward endorsement of polytheism.
Hume was not at all unique in his assessment of the relationship between monotheism and intolerance: this view was shared by other Enlightenment figures including Voltaire, Thomas Paine and Edward Gibbon. But this same opinion was also shared, and very forcefully reiterated, by the historian J.B. Bury (1861-1927), and it is supported by the work of a wide variety of eminent contemporary historians including, but not limited to, Ramsay MacMullen, Perez Zagorin, Charles Freeman and Jan Assmann. For more on Bury, MacMullen, & Co., see this previous post. On the general issue of religious typology also see these previous posts:
The Essence of Religion
What is Counterreligion?
What kind of religion is Buddhism?
In honor of Freddie Mercury: “We are Zoroastrians, my friends ….”
Religions of the Library
Religions of the Library, Part Deux