Sunday, January 06, 2008

An amateurish attempt at Hume scholarship

I'd like to say at the outset that I have not done much research or thinking about the following and it is based mostly on my own common-sense view of what the answer to this problem is. Perhaps more real scholarship should be done on this, but the question really does seem too trivial for anything more than a blog post.

In part 14 of David Hume's Natural History of Religion we find the following sentence
The least part of the Sadder, as well as of the Pentateuch, consists in precepts of morality; and we may also be assured, that that part was always the least observed and regarded.
The context is unimportant to us for the moment. The question I want to ask is what is this Sadder that Hume refers to?

Beyond the fact that it is likely a book, Hume himself gives us no clues. But the two editions of the text I have each have footnotes to this word. They both assume that it refers to a Jewish book. It is clear that it refers to a religious book of some sort, and we have no reason other than the two editors I cite below that it is a Jewish one.

But let us assume that it is a Jewish book. Which Jewish book is it?

One footnote (I am not sure which editor inserted this, it is a footnote in an anthology by Christopher Hitchens, who is a bit careless with sources. Could it be C.H. himself?) says the following:
Sadder refers to the Seder Eliyyahu, a Jewish book of homilies written between the third and thenth (sic) centuries C. E. The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament.
Another editor, J. C. A Gaskin, who is well known as a scholar in Early Modern Philosophy, writes (in his 1992 edition) the following as a note on the same word:
almost certainly Hume's spelling for the Seder or Siddur, the Jewish book of prayer or worship.

So which is it, the Seder Eliyyahu or the Siddur?

Are these our only options? I think not. There are likely four options I think we must consider. (1) The Seder Olam, (2) The Passover Seder, (3) The Seder Eliyyahu, and (4) The Siddur. There are many more books that have the word "Seder" in the title, but it is hard to imagine one that is as significant as the above four.

Our approach is as follows: What Jewish books would Hume likely have heard of, and given those, to which did he actually intend to refer? Let us examine the four options one at a time.

The first three options might seem plausible on lexicgraphical evidence. Hume spells the word he is refering to as "Sadder", which is plausibly pronounced (in Hume's time) "say-der" as opposed to "sih-dur". The double "dd" however, does make it plausible that Hume was thinking of a word that sounds like "sah-der". More likely Hume copied this spelling from some other source which is unknown to me (us). So spelling-evidence is so far, unhelpful.

(1) Could Hume have heard of the Seder Olam? The Seder Olam is a (actually two) purported chronology(ies) of the world from creation to the rise of Alexander the Great.

My guess is that Hume might have heard of this book. Remember, that although Hume today is known as an important philosopher, in his time, and in his own mind, he was a historian. He quotes heavily from the classical historians, and was well familiar with historical scholarship. It certainly seems plausible that he would have heard of the Seder Olam. What is less plausible is that he read it. It has not (to my knowledge) been translated to English, Latin, Greek, or French - the languages I believe Hume know well. It is also unlikely that Hume would tell us that the content of a history book contains something about precepts of morality, unless he had some reason for knowing that it was the case. The Seder Olam, to the best of my recollection, does not contain much morality. On that basis, I reject option (1) as a possibility.

(2) Could Hume have been talking about the Seder shel Pesach, or more likely the book about the Passover Seder, namely the Haggadah? The argument in favor of this is that the Haggadah is probably the most widely printed of all Jewish books, and it would not be surprising if Hume had come across one in all his time spent in scholarly pursuits. I do not know if Hume would have had access to an English, French, Latin, or Greek one, but it is certainly possible and I would bet that it existed in one of those languages in Hume's time, or at the very least, someone he read may have referred to it.

But again, why would Hume think it is full of morality precepts? Well, in some sense it is. There are plenty of morality references in the Haggadah. References to the good and wicked sons come to mind. But the references to them are not extensive. It is a collection of prayers, and it is the tale of the exodus, more than a morality play. Moreover, while it can plausibly be called the "seder" it is well known as the "Haggadah" or the "recitation". Also, though it is a prominent Jewish book, in the scheme of the Jewish year, it is read once (or twice) at night as part of the Passover feast, it is not a central document of faith on par with the Pentateuch that Hume cites.

(3) Could it be the Seder Eliyyahu? I seriously doubt it. While the book is not totally obscure, one would have to be fairly well steeped in Jewish midrashic (homiletical) texts to get to know this book. It was available in Hebrew by Hume's time, but not in any other language, and it was probably not a common book to have around. I would doubt Hume encountered it. Moreover, Seder Eliyyahu is actually two works: Seder Eliyyahu Rabbah and Seder Eliyyahu zuta which collectively are known as Tanna Devei Eliyahu. It is not important enough to be known solely as "The Seder". While the book does deal with morality, it is a much more sohisticated book. It is a midrash, and a sort of mystical-cosmography. It would be odd for Hume to have assumed that Jews give this work much credence, even if he had known of its existence. Jews take the book seriously, but only to an extent. To the extent Hume would have known about this book, he would know about the nature of midrashic exegesis. The only reason one would have to think this might be the book Hume meant is that it was names by this unknown editor. I do not know what evidence this editor came up with to get this book.

So that leaves us with (4) Siddur. The "Siddur" does get it's name from the word "seder". Hume would definitely have had access to a siddur. In 1738 someone, probably Abraham Meers, under the Pseudnym Gamaliel Ben Pedahzur wrote a translation of the Jewish prayer book and a lot of commentary, which apparently was directed at introducing the Jewish rituals to Christians. (See here here and here.) It is a work that the Jewish historian Cecil Roth described as a book that gives "exaggerated importance to the least attractive minutia of observance and by an undue insistence upon anything of a scrofulous nature". This sounds like the place Hume could have picked up some cynicism about Jewish Prayer. The sentence prior to the one we quoted with the word "Sadder" in it reads as follows: "It is certain, that, in every religion, however sublime the verbal definition which it gives of its divinity, many of the votaries, perhaps the greatest number, will still seek the divine favour, not by virtue and good morals, which alone can be acceptable to a perfect being, but either by frivolous observances, by intemperate zeal, by rapturous extasies, or by the belief of mysterious and absurd opinions." It would be useful if I had a copy of the Siddur in question to see if he spells it "Sadder" as that would clinch the argument that Hume was referring to the Siddur, and this one in particular. But sadly, I do not have access to a copy.

I think I will throw my hat in with Gaskin's footnote that Hume was referring to the Siddur. The Siddur is a book that Hume would have heard of. The first English edition we just mentioned was published in 1738, when Hume was about 27 years old. It was published in London, where Hume would have soon thereafter had access to it. It is likely that Hume came across this book in his studies on religion. It is a major Jewish text. It is the prayer book Jews use daily. It frequently mentions morality, as part of the prayers, and given the edition that Hume was likely familiar with, it seems it was tailored to reinforce the view that Hume already had of religion.


Anonymous said...

As soon as I read "Sadder" I paused and then thought, "oh, he means siddur." It didn't occur to me that there would be any other options. Show off ;)


30 said...

I think you are right. It does seem that Hume is referring to the Siddur. But, while you suggest that the context is not important, it seems that a lot of clues as to what Hume refers to by ‘Sadder’ can be gleaned from the larger point that he is trying to make.

He is speaking out against the way that religious people often seek favor from God by means of empty rituals and supplications, and not through moral conduct. As such, reference to the Siddur makes sense, more than the other options that you mention, since prayer is an example of people trying to obtain favor from God by begging and ritual rather than through merit.

Thus, two paragraphs after his mention of the Sadder he says “Nay, if we should suppose, what never happens, that a popular religion were found, in which it was expressly declared, that nothing but morality could gain the divine favour; if an order of priests were instituted to inculcate this opinion, in daily sermons, and with all the arts of persuasion; yet so inveterate are the people's prejudices, that,
[Root ed., p. 71]
for want of some other superstition, they would make the very attendance on these sermons the essentials of religion, rather than place them in virtue and good morals. The sublime prologue of ZALEUCUS'S laws^91 inspired not the LOCRIANS, so far as we can learn, with any sounder notions of the measures of acceptance with the deity, than were familiar to the other GREEKS.

So what Hume is saying is that typical religions services are not about virtue and good morals. In this context it makes sense that he should refer to the Jewish Siddur, which describes the Jewish services, as a way of making his case.

As an aside it always irked me how in Russian the word for prayer is MOLITVA which literally means ‘begging’. Similarly, in English the word ‘prayer’ traces to begging. There is something wrong with thinking that a perfect being who is all knowing and all powerful would, like a megalomaniac, afflict us with sickness and despair just so we could beg him for mercy. And yet, prayer basically comes down to begging and, what would appear to be, empty rituals like wrapping leather string around parts of your body and shaking citrus fruit.

Incidentally, on Wednesday, January 20th Christopher Hitchens is going to debate Rabbi Shmuley Boteach about whether God exists at the 92dn street Y, in case you are interested.

Menachem Butler said...

Which of the numerous places where Cecil Roth discusses The Book of Religion, Ceremonies and Prayers did his quote -- "exaggerated importance to the least attractive minutia of observance and by an undue insistence upon anything of a scrofulous nature" -- appear? (email me --