Hume on the Characters of Virtue

Journal of the History of Philosophy 35 (1):45-64 (1997)
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Abstract

In the world according to Hume, people are complicated creatures, with convoluted, often contradictory characters. Consider, for example, Hume's controversial assessment of Charles I: "The character of this prince, as that of most men, if not of all men, was mixed .... To consider him in the most favourable light, it may be affirmed, that his dignity was free from pride, his humanity from weakness, his bravery from rashness, his temperance from austerity, his frugality from avarice .... To speak the most harshly of him, we may affirm, that many of his good qualities were attended with some latent frailty, which, though seemingly inconsiderable, was able, when seconded by the extreme malevolence of his fortune, to disappoint them of all their influence: His beneficent disposition was clouded by a manner not very gracious; his virtue was tinctured with superstition; his good sense was disfigured by a deference to persons of a capacity inferior to his own; and his moderate temper exempted him not from hasty and precipitate resolutions." This sketch shows Charles in all his complexities, with his virtues, near virtues, and contradicting virtues. I have quoted it at length because it is hard to summarize without losing the subtleties that lie within it. Hume's moral theory is based fundamentally on judgments of character, 2 so those subtleties are important to his view. The character sketches that pervade the..

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Richard Dees
University of Rochester

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