Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sarah Conly

Sarah Conly is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowdoin College. Her book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

Earlier this month I asked Conly what she was reading. Her reply:
David Hume, The History of England, Volume V, LibertyClassics, (based on the 1778 edition.)

Want to see a vivid display of flawed personalities locked in a bitter struggle for political power? Want to see one where at the end of the book the leader of the losing party gets his head chopped off? I’m reading David Hume’s history of the English Civil War, the one where the Royalists and the Roundheads go at it, where Charles I is ignominiously beheaded. This is Volume V of Hume’s History of England, and no, I did not first read the preceding four volumes. But this is a lively, action-filled book, replete with descriptions that would make a contemporary columnist green with envy. Page 99 is typical. The king is James I, who is distinguished, for Hume, by his lack of distinction. As the chapter opens, Austria has invaded the Palatine, and James would (sort of) like to do something about that. On p. 99 we see that sadly,
To show how little account was made of James’s negociations abroad, there is a pleasantry mentioned by all historians, which, for that reason, shall have place here. In a farce, acted at Brussels, a courier was introduced carrying the doleful news that the Palatinate would soon be wrested from the house of Austria: so powerful were the succours, which, from all quarters, were hastening to the relief of the despoiled elector: the king of Denmark had agreed to contribute to his assistance a hundred thousand pickled herrings, the Dutch a hundred thousand butter-boxes, and the king of England a hundred thousand ambassadors. On other occasions, he was was painted with a scabbard, but without a sword; with a sword, which nobody could draw, though several were pulling at it.
Hume (1711-1776), of course, was a philosopher. He was brilliant, but his major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, was ignored at the time, famously falling “dead-born from the presses.” Rather than despairing, he turned to (relatively) popular writing, with this six-volume history, which, unlike his philosophy, was very well received. Surely some of this reason for this was his uninhibited evaluation of character. While James does not actually start the Civil War, Hume suggests that his sad mixture of enervation and hauteur lay its groundwork. And when the unfortunate king eventually dies, Hume can say no better of him than that:
Many virtues, …, it must be owned, he was possessed of; but scarce any of them pure, or free from the contagion of the neighbouring vices. His generosity bordered on profusion, his learning on pedantry, his pacific disposition on pusillanimity, his wisdom on cunning, his friendship on light fancy and boyish fondness…While he endeavoured, by an exact neutrality , to acquire the good will of all his neighbours, he was able to preserve fully the esteem and regard of none. And upon the whole, it may be pronounced of his character, that all his qualities were sullied with weakness and embellished by humanity. (121)
Top that, Gail Collins! Hume’s history is not the neutral factual account that would be more acceptable as history today, but for this reason it’s an engaging story that, for 17th century history, is surprisingly close to a page-turner.
Read an excerpt from Sarah Conly's Against Autonomy, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Against Autonomy.

--Marshal Zeringue