David Hume and fantasy

James Branch Cabell seems to have borrowed his fantasy theogony from Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion.

From the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part V:

A man, who follows your [theistic] hypothesis, is able, perhaps, to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance, and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology, by the utmost licence of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him.

Surely this must be the origin, directly or indirectly, of the theogony James Branch Cabell invents for the Biography of the Life of Manuel, in which the God of Abraham appears as a created being, and thus at one remove of Heinlein’s in Job.

Footnote Can anyone tell me why the Library of America, which has published (e.g.) two volumes of short stories by William Maxwell and two more by William Dean Howells, has yet to publish a syllable of Cabell’s work, most of which is out of print?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

10 thoughts on “David Hume and fantasy”

  1. I believe some of the Gnostics believed that this world was created by the Demiurge, which had been created by the divine wisdom Sophia, herself only a part of the divine fullness. They regarded the creation as a colossal mistake. That would be around 100 AD, and Hume might well have been aware of it.

    The idea surfaces again in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000)

    1. Current versions of the Gnostic Demiurge have him as a deity from another universe who escaped from a mental hospital, went off his meds, and created this universe before being captured and led away.

    2. Don’t need to go so far back. You have a similar sort of idea (substantially closer to Pullman) with Catharism. And the Albigensian Crusade was, what, 1209..1229?

    3. David: bingo. Plato had a version of it in the Timaeus, too. Hume couldn’t have *not* known of that.

  2. Blake’s Urizen is a similarly fallen creator-figure of even more recent vintage. The idea, like David says, goes way back. Early Gnostic Christians of the second century – perhaps earlier – apparently viewed Christ as an immaterial “spiritual” being sent by the hidden high God to liberate adepts from the prison of matter, created by the fallen Yahweh of the Old Testament. Yahweh, being a mere “psychic” being, lacked the spiritual knowledge (“gnosis”) to recognize Christ’s immaterial, hence unkillable, nature. (The Gnostic adept, endowed with this secret spiritual vision imparted by Christ, viewed him/herself as liberated from the crude constraints of matter. Early “orthodox” Christians, of course, saw this as an invitation to the twin evils of lawlessness on the one hand and extreme asceticism on the other.)

    1. I may be dating myself here, but to counter Gnosticism the early Orthodox Christians sang hymns to the tune of the old Winston cigarette jingle:

      Yahweh does good, like a deity should,
      Yahweh does good, like a (tap tap) deity should.

  3. God is obviously Schrodinger’s Cat if we hypothesize that Schrodinger is an infinite series of turtles who support the world.

  4. Dame Frances Yates wrote Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition about 50 years ago. She shows how writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which became widely circulated during the Renaissance, drew upon Neo-Platonism and displayed differing attitudes about the nature of the universe and its creator. Both agreed that the material world is governed by the stars and the planets. A pessimist school thought that the stars impregnated the world with evil, and that the purpose of gnosis was to rise above their influence through ascetic practices until the soul arrived at its true home in the immaterial transcendent world. The optimistic gnosis saw the stars as living divine beings which impregnated the world with their blessings; the purpose of Gnostic magic was to draw down these benevolent forces into the earthly realms.

    Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Stephen Greenblatt recently published The Swerve, which is all about the rediscovery of the Epicurean writings of Lucretius in the fifteenth century and the influence of Lucretius in the creation of modernity. Greenblatt mentions Bruno and leaves the reader with the impression that he was burned for teaching that there were an infinity of worlds and that the earth went around the sun. Dame Yates showed that he was actually burned for teaching Hermeticism as a truer account of things, and a set of morals more elevated than those of Christianity.

    Much of what we call “New Age” spirituality draws upon Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism. Hume would have been well acquainted with Plato and Plotinus but I do not know if he was acquainted with the Hermetic writings. Gnostic leanings do not commit you to a cosmology in which an incompetent Demiurge, through malign astral influences, is accountable for the sorry orderings of things here on earth. The New Age has drawn on the optimistic attitudes derived from those same traditions. Not that many takers for pessimistic gnosis in our time.

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