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Hume Studies

Volume 39, Issue 1, April 2013

Margaret Watkins
Pages 103-121

A Cruel but Ancient Subjugation?
Understanding Hume’s Attack on Slavery

This essay argues that Hume’s criticism of slavery in “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” despite its contribution to the British Enlightenment’s anti-slavery movement, is not truly abolitionist in character. Hume’s aim was not to put an end to contemporary slave practices or forestall their expansion. Nonetheless, the criticism of slavery proves significant for reasons that transcend the demographic questions of the essay. It supports an argument that Hume develops throughout the Essays and Political Discourses. The conclusion of this argument warns against reverence for either ancient systems or modern progress. Like all forms of factionalism, these divisive tendencies threaten to compromise both our moral sensibility and our rational judgment.

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