60 in 60: #34 – David Hume’s On Suicide (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

On Suicide
by David Hume (1711 to 1776)

Memorable Line
“…the lives of men depend upon the same laws as the lives of all other animals; and these are subjected to the general laws of matter and motion. The fall of a tower, or the infusion of a poison, will destroy a man equally with the meanest creature; an inundation sweeps away every thing without distinction that comes within the reach of its fury. ”

The Skinny
A series of essays that helped liberate philosophy from the “superstitious constraints of religion” and used a healthy skepticism to discuss life, death, and tragedy, among other topics.

Relevance? Argument?
It is hard for me to find much to say about David Hume’s title essay, “On Suicide.” Logical, measured, and humane, his argument seems largely in keeping with modern liberal views: that suicide can be the only way out for a mind or body that cannot continue; and, further, that government and religion should not stand against the act of suicide. It’s only in the generalities that Hume seems to fall down, as it seems false to me that every suicide has sufficient justification. Nor can I see suicide outside of the context of terminal illness as anything other than selfish to those left behind. Still, I remember how angry I was after Kurt Cobain’s suicide when many in the media mocked his death or called him weak. There is something about the act of suicide that is both cowardly and brave. As Hume says, our terror of death is strong that the decision to take one’s life certainly doesn’t derive from “small motives.”

But I’d rather talk of life and movement today, especially because the best essay in On Suicide is actually “Of the Standard of Taste,” which I recommend to every creative person. In attempting to reach consensus on a series of aesthetic elements, Hume provides much of interest to writers. It’s not so much where Hume winds up, but the brilliance of the journey.

In tackling this subject, Hume wrestles with the same issue that, in a more banal context, ruins editorial meetings and makes communication on the internet often so calamitous (and gives absurdists such as myself much fodder for satire about the human condition):

There are certain terms in every language which import blame, and others praise; and all men who use the same tongue must agree in their application of them. Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness, and a false brilliancy. But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions. In all matters of opinion and science, the case is opposite; the difference among men is there oftener found to lie in generals than in particulars, and to be less in reality than in appearance.

It may irritate or confuse some, but there really is no objective reality when it comes to writing. That which was out of fashion in one generation is lauded as genius by the next. That which was popular is now seen as shallow or silly, or both. Sometimes, now, this happens within a few months or a year rather than a decade due to the instantaneous nature of our society.

But, still, Hume attempts to create a consensus reality, or at least to explore the possibility (he’s too nuanced a thinker not to set out counter-arguments, and sometimes seems convinced by them): “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision afforded confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”

The counter-argument is: “…a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right; because no sentiment represents what is really in the object…Beauty is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” “To seek real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an inquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter” because depending on the person’s sense of taste “the same object may be both bitter or sweet” (unless it’s a lemon?).

Yet Hume argues that this “axiom…passing into a proverb” is not necessarily true: “Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.” Hume argues that critics who do equate his examples as equals are mocked by the majority.

I would make a counter-argument for the modern age, however: that readers and critics are (1) blinded by the speed of our world and thus must admit that we must step back even further from the point of creation/publication to really understand what is classic and what is not and (2) the blogosphere, by erasing certain forms of hierarchy, creates a confusion between what opinions do matter and which should matter, experience no longer being as much of a core value to our online selves.

Hume then continues on with an interesting discussion of the subjectivity of applied technique in writing, and how sometimes we value a work despite certain deformities in it–and in praising the whole, we thus also praise the defect. (Something you often find, too, in business, where a successful project leads to codifying both what made it successful and what could have made it fail; this is then presented as The Ideal.) Yet, many of these deformities, in the context of art rather than an area such as science, are indeed strengths, and Hume admits as much when he writes, “Many of the beauties of poetry, and even of eloquence, are founded on falsehood and fiction, on hyperboles, metaphors, and an abuse or perversion of terms from their natural meanings.” Therefore, “To check the sallies of the imagination, and to reduce every expression to geometric truth and exactness, would be the most contrary to the laws of criticism.”

But Hume does indicate that writing must still “be confined by the rules of art.” Which is to say that structure gives words the conduit to reach the reader in a coherent way. As I read this passage, I thought to myself: “Creators are a bunch of half-mad louts drunk with words, who gain power and strength through constructive expression of their irrationalities.”

The rest of the essay seesaws back and forth between the subjective and objective in a fine display of holding opposing ideas in one’s head–something every writer must do–and discusses the nuances and foibles of the reader receiving the writer’s work. Hume does clearly believe you can establish a standard of taste, but puts a lot of the onus of doing so on readers and critics being educated, careful, patient, and nuanced in their exploration of a particular piece of writing. This feels right to me, perhaps because I tire of seeing hasty readers blame their haste on the writer. Should we not strive to create the best possible work, with the best possible reader in mind, whatever the form that work, that reader takes? A reader or critic who lacks the background or the prior reading to appreciate a particular type of work should, perhaps, at least have the good sense to admit this, in my opinion. (However, a writer who, having found that perfect audience, has his or her work repudiated should also recognize that perhaps “negative deformity” has entered their writing.)

Taken as a whole, the essay is a fascinating conversation about the nature of creativity. That said, I am not sure that Hume’s ending is as strong as his opening–it feels like the essay just stops–but perhaps this is part of the point; the nature of such a discussion is that it must be ongoing, despite any conclusions drawn by Hume.

Hume represents a synthesis of strong, nuanced writing with strong, nuanced thought that achieves a rare balance of readability and deep content.

Question for Readers
If you had to create your own personal Standard of Taste, what would it include?

Next up, Carl von Clausewitz’s On the Nature of War


  1. says

    Hot damn.. I picked up Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature not long ago, as part of my research for a book on the history of Edinburgh. Seeing your thought on the man and his works is really quite inspiring.

    It is probably worthy of note that Hume was a lifelong depressive, especially in his earlier years when he decided to spend a full decade *only* reading and writing and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. He later – with the advent of the Poker Club – discovered a far lighter side of life among fellow minds such as Sir Walter Scott and Adam Smith.

    All interesting stuff.

  2. says

    I don’t think I could adhere to a standard of taste, even if it were only me applying it. That which I like and that which resonates and that was I percieve as having quality but does neither of the latter are constantly changing, and I feel not great compunction to stick my tongue, ahem, on anything other than what it wishes to be stuck to.

    Nor can I see suicide outside of the context of terminal illness as anything other than selfish to those left behind. …There is something about the act of suicide that is both cowardly and brave.

    Generally speaking, for those suicides that are true suicides and not cries for help, by the time they’ve reached the point that suicide is the only option available, they’re beyond caring about those that will be affected by the aftermath. I believe that to be a clear indication of just how far beyond help such people can go, have gone, and it raises the question of how the people it would be selfish to leave let them progress so far. Ultimately, you can’t live soley for other people.

  3. says

    For some reason, all I can think of reading this blog post is that Yoda really ought to have his own Penguin Classic.

    Episodes 5 and 6, of course. The CGI Yoda shouldn’t get any book deal whatsoever.

  4. says

    The Force, as it was originally portrayed, was a sort of catch-all of Eastern Mysticism, combined with Western notions of Good versus Evil.

    In David Hume’s writing, as portrayed above, you see him wrestling with the soup of creativity.

    Yoda combined all of that into very simple instructions, that managed to slide over the soup of philosophy. Holding nuanced ideas, for instance, is like seeing the future, which is always clouded, and full of conflicting emotions. Seeing the past, requires a kind of fatalistic acceptance of how things are. Yoda must accept his place in a backwoods, filthy swamp, hiding from the mighty Empire that would destroy him.

    Yoda would say, about art, “Try not. Do or do not.” I have found that advice far more useful as a creative fellow than any debate about subjective or objective.

    See the future, in all its emotional tangles, and disasters. Work to shape that future towards a relativistic goodness that promotes life, but – in the end – accept what has already occurred as immutable.

    I think Yoda’s approach to creativity via the Force is more useful to me than Hume.

    I know it may be less nuanced, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Large flagpoles are easier to see on the horizon.

    In short, for some reason, all I can think of while reading this blog post is that Yoda really ought to have his own Penguin Classic.

  5. says

    Now I am thinking, with affection, that maybe you need to get out of the house more. LOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Although I accept the logic behind your visualization.

  6. says

    I recently wrote an article on this very topic. Here’s the How To portion:

    Step 1) Take each art form that enchants you. Expose yourself to as much of it as local bylaws permit. Write down a list of the works you admire. Detail your response to them: use those words that best describe your feelings, the qualities that make you feel the way you feel, what you like, what you dislike. For example, isolate those passages in literature that give you the greatest pleasure, that teach you the most profound lessons. This is the benchmark against which to judge everything else. You have formulated your own canon. It contains only the very best and everything must now bow to and be measured by it.

    Step 2) Painting appeals to sight, music to hearing, sculpture to sight and touch, fiction to all senses through the imagination. Each has its own aesthetic vocabulary. Learn the lingo. It’ll help you to understand and evaluate your feelings. Equally important, each art form is rooted in a discipline of craft. Learning these disciplines and knowing what techniques are used teaches purpose, structure, observation, selective criteria and judgment of execution. It also provides objective evaluative tools which can be used to assess quality of process and the ultimate value of finished work.

    Step 3) Read the critics, past and present; those generally revered, those whose opinions you respect; those whose you vehemently reject. Identify what they look for. Compare your criteria to theirs’. Perhaps they use a measure that you don’t. Add it to your tool bag if it fits. There’s nothing so fine as meeting a critic who expresses exactly what you feel, who shares the same enthusiasms that live in your heart.

    Step 4) To stay cool, purposefully seek out the new and address what you hate. Look for those who think what you like sucks and learn their systems of taste. Try to understand them. By so doing you’re guaranteed not to stagnate. Your taste will evolve while staying honest and coherent.