Andreea DECIU

It is said that on his deathbed, David Hume chos e to read not the Bible, but Joseph Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric. Odd choice? When James Boswell visite d Hume, on a Sunday afternoon in 1776, he "found him alone (...) lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance," as well as, to the surprise of the former, "placid and even cheerful" (Boswell,  Private Papers 12:227-32). Boswell was disturbed for quite some time after the visit, as he admits in h is journal, presumably because it was indeed hard to know what to make of such an encounter. At his attempts to bring up the subject of religion—more appropriate for the occasion, at least from Bo swell's perspective—Hume remained "indecently and impolitely positive in his incredulity." To a  modern commentator, Adam Potkay, Hume's attitude shortly before his death portrays him as a true  homo rhetoricus: pragmatic, shy of absolute convictions, and opposed to any type of zealoussness (cf. La nham 1-8). His admiration for ancient eloquence had been passionately declared in the essay "Of Eloq uence," and Hume's own prose has led even his less sympathetic critics to bow in front of his suas ive abilities. On the other hand, the philosopher's rejection of a certain manner of professing religion—through appeal to "superstitious" belief in miracles and the notion of "providence" — is well known. Does one (rhetoric) exclude the other (religion?? Did Hume choose Philosophy of Rhetoric over the Bible? I would sooner avoi d a firm answer. But what I would like to accomplish with this essay is to put forth a justifying hypothesis for David Hume's philosophical views in "Of Miracles," sensibly diff erent from the existing ones. Traditionally, this text has been countered either with logical arguments, designed to expose the flaws in Hume's reasoning, or with religious-metaphysical objections (which some times build on logical arguments, too). In a book published by Oxford University Press in 2000, John  Earman goes as far as to contend that "section X ("Of Miracles") of Hume's  Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding  is a failure" (3). But since many ambitious projects in philosophy end up as failure s, Earman is not satisfied with the force of his criticism, and adds that "Of Miracles" is  an abject failure. Briefly, his argument is that the weakness of the essay was caused by Hume's impoverished account  of induction and probabilistic reasoning. In another fairly recent book, published by Cornell University Press in 1999, name, reconstructs the most famous criticisms against Hume's views of miracl es from the perspective of religious thought. Approaches such as Earman's are quite typical with respect to "Of Miracles." Ever since its publication—about which the author himself had serious misgivings—the essay has been almost an easy target for criticism. In fact it is considerably more difficult to defend the Hume in "Of Miracles," than it is to attack him. My intention, however, is propos e that we ask a different kind of question when pondering this philosophical text: not "Was Hume  right?" but "Why did Hume make such claims?" With this shift of emphasis I do not wish to dismiss the first question, but simply to extend the space of conversation, hoping that it will also further our  understanding of the text, and thus make us more sympathetic to the position it espouses. My contention, very sketchily presented at this point in anticipation of what is coming, is following: in rejectin g miracles as reliable proof for the existence of God, Hume is voicing a rhetorical belief. He find s the "high-pitched" eloquence of miracle testimonies suspect because he subscribes to a completely di fferent kind of eloquence, one that is grounded in moderation and regularity. Further, this eloquence endorsed by Hume is by no means merely external, or added to an idea, but a consequence of and corollary to his philosophy of common life. Regardless of how inadequate his understanding of probabilistic  reasoning must have been, or even of his religious beliefs, I contend that it was also Hume's entir e philosophical system and the coherent outlook it provided that made it inevitable for him to reject miracles. Humean eloquence, the kind of eloquence which can never be "high-pitched," is at the very heart of this philosophical system. I will begin by giving a short historical account of the essay "Of Mira cles," and then I will trace Hume's arguments to a rhetorical view of eloquence.


David Hume did not release his thoughts on mira cles with a light heart. He probably completed the first draft of the essay while he was in France, at  the Jesuit college of La Flèche, or shortly after returning to London in 1737. He was going to include it in the Treatise of Human Nature, but eventually decided against it, fearing that it "would give  too much Offence even as the World is dispos'd at present". Eleven years later, a significantly truncated  and toned down version of the original essay was published in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The topic was definitely not novel at the time. Nor were some of Hume's arguments. Historians have identified a strong Lockean influence in "Of Miracles," noticeable, for instance, in the very defi nition of a miracle offered by Hume, or the example of the Indian prince, an adaptation of Locke's ki ng of Siam. More importantly, it seems that Hume borrowed from Locke the very formulation of the pr oblem, in terms of historical credibility. Locke himself was not the first to pose the issue in such terms, and M. Stewart's research points to a long English-language tradition supporting the idea that the philosophical problem about miracles was one of testimony and credibility. Somebody tells me that  he has seen a man being resurected from the dead. Do I believe him? According to Henry More, if "there are many  Eye-witnesses of the same Matter," and if "these things which are so strange and miraculous leave any sensible  effect behind them," then I should believe the account. In  The principles and duties of natural religion , a posthumous work by John Wilkins, we read that whether we should rely on  testimony depends "upon the credit and authority of the Witnesses." But suppose the testimony, one given  by a reliable witness, goes against everything I have come to know from my own experience, from observations and direct sensory perceptions. Will I entrust my beliefs to the witness, or to experience?

In Section X of the Enquiry, Hume approaches the topic of miracles with the clear desire to avoid a simple dichotomy between testimony and sensory perception or observation. Both pertain to experience, according to him. And, more importantly , experience can be faulty, even if it is "our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact."  It is unreasonable to expect a blizzard in June in a climate such as ours, claims Hume, but even if that were to happen we should not dismiss the reliability of experience. Rather, we should take heed that "all e ffects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes." Hence, Hume advises that we should be prepared to analyze the situations in which we find ourselves with awareness that "in our re asonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest ce rtainty to the lowest species of moral evidence." Hume thus places the discussion of mira cles from the outset in the ambit of  probable knowledge. The first part of his treatment is set entirely in epistemic  terms, very much after the Lockean fashion. In his "Discourse of Miracles" from 1706, Locke considered miracles  from the perspective of their observer: "A miracle then I take to be a sensible operation which, being above the comprehension of the spectator, and in his opinion contrary to the established cour se of nature, is taken by him to be divine." Such an account does not define miracles, so much as it expl ains how a "spectator" comes to perceive certain events as miraculous. By instituting an epistemic  rather than ontic foundation for the analysis of miracles, Locke may have inadvertently undercut the use of miracles as direct proof of God's existence. However, as one commentator points out, "(his)  concern was less with providing proofs and demonstrations and more with providing grounds fo r reasonable belief" (10). As we shall see shortly, this is also Hume's concern, although the way he pursues it is significantly different from Locke's. For Hume, it should not matter whether a human being observes the miracle, or at least human experience thereof must not interfere in its philosophical acc ount: "A miracle may either be discoverable by men or not. This alters not its nature and essence... T he raising of a feather, when the wind wants ever so little of a force requisite for that purpose, is as  real as a miracles [as the raising of a house or ship], though not so sensible with regards to us." In  other words, as Earwood notices, for Hume miracles were relative to evidence (very broadly and abstra ctly conceived), rather than the evidence that a particular person might have. This is a fundamental d istinction, because it does betray the fact that Hume does not look very favorably upon testimony as evidence. After all, testimonies are evidence adduced by a particular person. It should not  be dependent upon the availability of eyewitnesses whether miracles exist—Hume seems to contend. I will return to this issue later.

Because our knowledge from experience is not infa llible, Hume recommends that the wise man proportion "belief to evidence, " by weighing  "the opposite experiments". Further, espousing a soft probabilistic reasoning, the philosopher suggests  that we count the number of observations and experiments that would be invalidated by the alleged ma nifestation of an event, in order to determine its degree of evidence, or, in lay terms, its (un) likeliness. The notion of testimony is brought up as a particular instance of these principles of  probability. According to Hume, testimonies represent one of the most readily available sources of knowledge and species of reasoning. But the very reason why we usually rely on testimonies is the fact that our experience indicates that eyewitness reports do conform more often than not with the facts. Says Hume: "I t being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the in ferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their consta nt and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in  favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other." This amounts to saying that testimonies only come into play as an aspect of experience. Hence, they  are equally vulnerable to fallibility. The closer they come to overlapping with experience, the closer they also are to constituting  proof. When they seem to be in rather loose conformity with  experience, testimonies should be regarded as  probability. Testimonies, however, are not a matter of cause and effect, and Hume is quite emphatic about it. "The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive a priori, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them."

Hume's major goals in this account, as I read t hem, are essentially strategic: he strives to establish, even before broaching the issue of miracles, that testimonies need not match in any strict, logical sense, facts (they are not connected to them in a  a priori fashion, but have just been showed to be in conformity with them), and also, that testimonies cannot be separated from experience. Such are the argumentative grounds on which he will later adva nce his views against t he reliability of reports about miracles.

Critics have often remarked that Hume's argument is designed in a way that rejects miracles in a rather circular manner. As long as, by definition, testimonies do not have to be in conformity with the facts, when a miracle is the subject of a testimony, one cannot assuredly say that the miracle constitutes a fact. In other words, the testimony is too weak a form of evidence. But the circularity becomes even more fully explicit when Hume also offers a definition  of miracles, as violations of the laws of nature. Nothing that would happen in the common course of  nature can constitute a miracle, and in order to be able to speak of miracles one must also speak of  regularities and predictability. Miracles occur against the backdrop of a uniform and predictable  experience, "otherwise the event would not merit that appellation." Immediately after putting forth this definition, Hume backlashes, almost unexpectedly: "And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle;  nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, wh ich is superior." But since no proof is superior to experience, "the plain consequence" is "that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavors to establish: And even in that case th ere is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that  degree of force, which remains, after deducing the inferior."

There is no question that Hume's treatment of miracles is rather odd, at least as presented in the first part of his essay: it opens gingerly, recogniz ing that knowledge is often the product of measuring beliefs against evidence and dealing with both proofs  and probabilities, only to precipitate later to the point of forcefully dismissing any occurrences that depart from an existing order, which is tantamount to experience, and thus, to a full proof. If nothing e lse judging by the confidence and definitiveness of Hume's tone, the essay should end with this firm  rejection of miracles. Furthermore, one cannot help wondering: why even bother to put forth an elaborat ed argument against miracles, when all it would take is a simple syllogism of the form:

(1) Laws of nature are exceptionally regular.
(2) A miracle is a violation of a law of nature.
(3) Miracles do not exist in nature.

It is quite possible that Hume continued his exposé in a second section precisely because he wanted to avow the idea that experience is not, after  all, a full proof. After all, in his days scientific discoveries often originated in seemingly absurd reports brought along by travelers. His employment of the term "proof," Stewart argues, must be underst ood a part of the tripartion demonstration-proof- probability. The last two elements of this tripartite d istinction are clearly identified by Hume in "Of Miracles," but it helps to remember that there  was also a third one. A proof is an argument from experience that leaves no room for doubt, and even less for opposition. But then, how can one say that experience is a full proof, without falling into circ ular reasoning? In a letter to Hugh Blair, Hume confessed: "I find no difficulty to explain my mean ing, and yet shall not probably do it in any future edition. The proof against a miracle, as it is  founded on invariable experience, is of that  species or kind of proof, which is full and certain when taken alone, because it implies no doubt, as is the case with all probabilities; but there are degrees of this species, and when a weaker proof is opposed to a stronger, it is overcome" (in Stewart, 186). On Stewart's read ing of this letter, "the weaker proof lies always on the side of the miracle .... not because of the unifor mity of nature considered in itself, but because .... there is no case in practice where uniform contrary  evidence is of a standard that can offset the folly and knavery of the human race". Testimony, then, woul d constitute "full proof" itself, if the miracle- story came from more than one witness, in fact from a large number of perfectly reliable, independent, dispassionate, authoritative witnesses. Yet even then, we will have more testimonies of the contrary event, simply because that contrary event is experience. One of Hume's contemporaries, Richard Price, argued that testimonies should not be approached strictly against the background of experience. "Were this the case," says Price, "the regard we ought to pay to testimony would be in proportion to the number of instances in which we have found that it has given us right information." But in fact, according to Price, we sometimes believe the te stimony of a man whom we have never met before, simply because his way of telling the story is convincing, and because we know that truth is in our nature: " One action, or one conversation with a man, may convince us of his integrity and induce us to believe his testimony, though we had never, in a single instance, experienced his veracity. His manner of telling the story, its being corroborated by other testimony ( though not necessarily directly supported , A.D.), and various particulars in the nature and circ umstances of it, may satisfy us that it must be true. We feel in ourselves that a regard to truth is one  principle in human nature; and we know, that there must be such a principle in every reasonable being, and that there is a necessary repugnancy between the perception of moral distinctions and deliberat e falsehood. To this, chiefly, is owing the credit we give to human testimony."

Hume was familiar with Price's work and arguments against his own position, as presented in his Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals , "Dissertation IV: The Importance of Christianity, the Nature of Historical Evidence, an d Miracles" (1758). Indeed, Hume was grateful that Price's attack on his thesis was very civil, and Earm an surmises that he even made a change in the manuscript after reading Price's critique. In he essay "Of Miracles," the author makes a very strong claim, that "no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted  to a probability, much less to a proof." But it seems that in the editions of the Enquiry prior to 1768, the statement was even stronger: instead of "has ever amounted," "can ever possibly amount. " Whether or not Hume made the change as a result of reading Price, it is doubtful that he also a ccepted his claim, i.e., that testimony is not strictly a derivative of experience, because it is doubtful th at he would have accepted the arguments. Far from believing that human beings are prone to saying an d only buying into the truth, Hume was concerned that miracle-stories spread fast precisely because people, particularly the less educated ones, are vulnerable to deceit, especially of a sensational istic sort. And just as Price's claim has roots in an Aristotelian theory of persuasion, Hume's skepticism st ems from an ambivalent yet fascinating attitude towards rhetoric and eloquence.


The second section of the essay on miracles concerns itself with  combating belief in miracle- stories, after the first one had attempted to show  why such stories are complete bogus. To a large extent, the purpose of Part II is rhetorical, because it  does not add anything to the substance of the demonstration. Rather, it gives Hume the opportunity to bemoan the fact that humans are so foolishly gullible, to willing to attend to tales of far-fetched phenomena. The peculiarity of this account, however, is that it seems to point to a two-minded Hume.  On the one hand, we have the Hume who frequently refers to the human mind in abstract and generalizing terms, as being the locus of rationality, capable of balancing "the contrary experiments, and deducting  the inferior from the superior," in order to "proceed with that degree of assurance or evidence, which remains" ( Treatise). But on the other hand, we also see the Hume who complains of "the strong  propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous," as being "our natural way of thinkin g" ("Of Miracles," Section II). The threat posed by miracle-reports is that they excite this propensity to  the extraordinary by triggering an emotional mechanism known as  wonder. Says Hume: "The passion of  surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those  who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are in formed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and  delight in exciting the admiration of others." Miracles, then, get spread even by those who do not  necessarily believe them, simply because of their potential for an agreeable emotion to which many ar e vulnerable. A miracle thus becomes a rhetorical topos, i.e., a narrative configuration likely to stir t he imagination and the affection of an audience.  It is because of its suasive potential that the miracles co mes as essential ingredient in the accounts of travelers, who want to attract audiences. "With  what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travelers received, their description of sea and land  monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners?"

Hume's mention of travelogues is not casual or arbitrary. The Enlightenment saw an explosion of travel reports, some of which were aspiring to ge t the attention of the sc ientific and philosophical community. As historians have shown, the main  challenge of such reports was establishing trust, convincing their audience of the reliability of t heir contents. If the human mind were capable of balancing "the contrary experiments," it certainly would have been counterproductive for a traveler to select as a persuasive strategy the report of a miracle. After all, according to Hume, the weakest proof is always on the side of miracles, so the plausibility  of convincing or being believed by an audience is minimal.

One can easily read between the lines of Part II in "Of Miracles" an attack on rhetoric, which was certainly not uncommon for an 18 th century philosopher. Since the Renaissance humanism, the discipline of rhetoric had suffered a gradual but  systematic decay in the European intellectual arena. Prior to the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon and Tho mas Hobbes had attacked rhetoric as manipulation, deceit, a business concerned more with victory than with truth. Hume himself complains in his  Treatise that "'tis not reason, which carries the prize, but  eloquence, and no man needs ever despair of gaining proselytes to the most extravagant hypothesis, who  has art enough to represent it in any favourable colours. The victory is not gained by the men at arms, who manage the pike and the sword; but by the trumpeters, drummers, and musicians of the army ." Obviously, the philosopher was unaware of his own appeal through the metaphor of various musical  instruments to rhetoric as tropology, as a way of constructing an argument with the resources of skillfully manipulated language. Again, this is not unique: Bacon's refutation of rhetoric aligned even more spectacular uses of rhetorical devices. As Adam Potkay notices, with such an introduction to the Treatise of Human Nature, the work published early on in his career, Hume "pledges his allegiance to t he plain style of philosophical prose adopted by British empiricism" (59). In the essay "Of Miracles," the  issue of manipulative rhetoric comes up again, when the author sanctions the employment of eloquence at  its "highest pitch," for leaving "little room for reason or reflection" and "addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections." Moreover, once passions come into play, the plain language that ought to be the medium for scientific and philosophical argumentation, becomes corrupt. The connection betwe en emotions and language is another piece of rhetorical wisdom: Aristotle, the founding father of rhetoric, contended that the excitement of passions triggers a departure from ordinary language (Book III of  Rhetoric, 7.11). The Port-Royal tradition, too, acknowledged that "the passions have a peculiar language, and are pressed only by what we call figures" (73). But where Aristotle had considered the tropes based on logical relations (such as the transference of properties in the case of metaphors), Campbe ll, Hume's preferred author on his deathbed, outlined a psychology of figures, maintaining that there  are certain mental mechanisms that lead us to  think in metaphors. By corrupting plain language, then, thr ough the appeal to emotions that often involves recourse to tropes, miracle-reports inevitably do  even more damage: they corrupt thought. While, according to Campbell,  the philosopher attempts to  categorize figures, tracing them to the mental operation that was the initial cause, the uneducated  fall prey to figures and respond to them the way they respond to non-figurative language: with direct assent. As Potkay puts it, "the enlightened think  in terms of figures, whereas the ignorant think  in figures" (167). In his lectures on rhetoric, Adam Smith had noticed that:"The is nowhere more use made of fi gures than in the lowest and the most vulgar conversation" (34).

At this point, I must stop and admit that Hume does not actually analyze a testimony about a miracle from the perspective of the figurative language it did or did not employ. But his notion of "high- pitched" eloquence includes the use of tropes and the appeal to emotions. Come to think of it, how would a miracle-report have been phrased? In langu age reflects reality—as the Port-Royal taught— reporting something that seems, at least at the face  of it, to contradict reality as we know it, would have to employ a different kind of language. On Peter Jones's  reading of Hume, "insistence on effective communication as a bond of society, and on the conventional nature of language were two of the most important views which Hume adopted from the French writers he studied ... stress on the conventional is important for Hume, because a reasonable man, in his eyes, is not one who merely performs some formal moves, but is to be defined, rather, in terms of  what he has learned to do in particular social contexts" (141). As Jones points out, Hume reco gnized the social nature of knowledge. In  An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, he wrote that language "must invent a peculiar set of terms in order to express those universal sentiments of censure or approbation which arise from humanity, or from views of the general usefulness and its contrary" (95). Therefore, "what matters for the purposes of communication is the articulation of publicly availa ble viewpoints from which objective properties of phenomena can be discerned" (Jones 142). But this is exa ctly the kind of goal that a miracle-report could not have achieved, because miracles, by nature, contradicted publicly available viewpoints.


Perhaps it is an exaggeration to maintain, as Potk ay does, that "in the age of Hume religion is often viewed as a mirage in a landscape deserted by  the ancients" (11), in  other words, that religion was a poor substitute for rhetoric. But Hume does liken, if only indirectly, the "religionist" to a cunning rhetorician: both deceive the audience, even though the former might sometimes (not all the times) do so inadvertently. In Part II of his essay, the ph ilosopher claims that "a religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: He may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake  of promoting so holy a cause: Or even where this delusion has no place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances;  and self-interest with equal force. .... But what a TULLY or a DEMOSTHENES could scarcely effect  over a ROMAN or ATHENIAN audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can per form over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by touching such gross and vulgar passions." Hume is dissociating the great figures of the Roman and Greek oratorical tradition from the "re ligionists" of his time, to conclude that the manipulative power of the religionists exceeds  the one of orators. This dissociation not only is unflattering to organized religion, but more important ly, it has a redeeming value for rhetoric. Indeed, in 1742 Hume published his essay "Of Eloquence," an  advocation of the revival of ancient eloquence in 18th century Britain. The challenge posed by this e ssay comes from its apparent lack of unity and consistency: its author seems to be equally enthralled with and weary of the power of figurative eloquence. On the one hand, Hume admires the "blaz e of eloquence" and the "inflammatory" rhetoric employed by ancient orators. On the other hand, he concludes the essay recommending a style of argumentation that is most "conspicuous to the hearers, who will be infinitely pleased to see the arguments rise naturally from one another" (109-10). The discontinuity in Hume's argument, however, might simply a superficial one. To resolve this appare nt contradiction we must seek help from other works by Hume. For instance, in his discussion of ancient oratory in Book 2 of the  Treatise, the philosopher contends that eloquence operates within  a given community of sympathetic hearers: the audience responds to the emotions stirred in  them by the orator, but these can only happen when there already is a compatibility, or familiarity between audience and speaker, or among the members of the audience. The idea of community associated with the  polis is behind this reasoning. But in the modern era such solidarity and likeness of spirits  are mere vestiges (Potkay 51). The use of passionate rhetoric in a community bound to be disunited was  dangerous. If we also take into account the views presented in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776) by Hume's mouthpiece Philo, religion is largely responsible for disuniting human being through civil wars, persecutions, oppression, and slavery (220).

In the absence of a  polis, what the modern man has available to fall back on is  nature. The polysemy of the term notwithstanding, 18 th century philosophy, Hume's in particular, associates  nature with regularity, constancy, steadiness, and universality. The attitude that best suits this view of nature is moderation. According to Jones, "Hume treats modera tion as a condition of understanding, as a rhetorical device for securing effective communicati on, as an essential moral constituent of humanity, and as an essential element in political and so cial stability"(174). Moderation is the demeanor recommended for ordinary life.