Cleanthes on “the eternity of the world”

Continuing their discussion of the design argument(s) from the previous section, in the sixth part of Hume’s Dialogues concerning natural religion, the discussants take up Cleanthes’ Intelligent Cause.[1] Neither Demea nor Philo are accepting of Cleanthes’ position. Demea, for his part, objects that it renders the deity unsuitable for veneration or obedience, while Philo’s objection is more formidable and takes the shape of “another hypothesis.”

As near as we can tell, Philo explains, “the universe…bears a great resemblance to an animal or organized body, and seems actuated with a like principle of life and motion.”[2] Philo is arguing by analogy for the animality of the universe: the universe is like an animal, which has a very well organized body and is actuated by a principle of life and motion. So, if an animal is actuated by a principle of life and motion, then one may infer that so is the universe (a claim Philo promotes by detailing a few supporting characteristics each shares, e.g., “continual circulation of matter in [each] produces no disorder” and “each part or member…operates both to its own preservation and to that of the whole”). Animals are in fact so actuated, so, Philo concludes, “the world…is an animal, and the Deity is the soul of the world, actuating it, and actuated by it.”[3] Notice: he’s not asserting that this must be the case. Rather, Philo is claiming that for all we know this could be the case—a suggestion, he thinks, is at least just as likely as Cleanthes’ position.[4]

Though (at least pretending to be) caught off guard by Philo’s new hypothesis, Cleanthes offers two objections in response. We are here interested only in the second one. He answers, “your theory seems to imply the eternity of the world; and that is a principle, which, I think, can be refuted by the strongest reasons and probabilities.”[5] Now this is a very curious response. First, it’s not immediately clear just how Philo has implied the eternity of the world. Unfortunately, Cleanthes doesn’t make the connection for us (and surprisingly Philo doesn’t demand an explanation). At any rate, Cleanthes goes on to substantiate his response with two astonishingly lame supporting arguments.

Cleanthes begins with a “vulgar argument,” which he admits “seems a little precarious.”[6] He points to “the late origin of arts and sciences” as evidence for the relative infancy of the universe. Though not well-articulated, it seems to proceed thus: if the universe is eternally old, and if humans are equally long-lived, then the arts and sciences would have arisen earlier. Of course, Cleanthes concedes, the argument is easily refuted. It is “precarious” because we can easily imagine—given eternity—an endless cycle of human affairs (including the possibility that the arts and sciences developed by earlier civilization was subsequently lost due to, say, war), which provides infelicitous data for drawing inferences.[7] Or, as Cleanthes put it, such cycles make it “impossible for us…to foretell with assurance what events may or may not be expected.”[8] He wisely moves, then, to a second supporting argument.

In hopes of developing a “better argument,” Cleanthes turns to (where else but) agriculture! Men brought cherry-trees from Asia to Europe (where they easily thrive) in relatively recent history. Vines were similarly transplanted into France, “though there is no climate in the world more favourable to them.”[9] In the same way, livestock and certain crops have only been raised (though with tremendous success) in America for roughly three hundred years. Surely, though, were the world eternal, these various species would have appeared in such fitting environments much sooner. Surely at some point over eternity someone would have relocated them to such conducive surroundings. After all, whereas arts and sciences are subject to the cycles of human affairs, such agriculture “will never be affected by the revolutions of human society.” After all, “nothing less than a total convulsion of all elements” could destroy such agriculture. Apparently well-pleased with himself, Cleanthes deems these “convincing proofs of the youth, or rather the infancy of the world.”[10]

Philo, of course, moves to defend himself against Cleanthes’ accusation. He opens with the obvious question: “And what argument have you against such [total] convulsions?”[11] Whereas Cleanthes had acknowledged “convulsions” in human affairs, he precludes such a possibility in nature; Cleanthes assumes the stability of nature over time—an assumption Philo is happy to reveal. In fact, he continues, there are “almost incontestable proofs” that such ‘natural convulsions’ have occurred. For example, “every part of this globe has continued for many ages entirely covered with water.”[12] Besides, he continues, “matter [may] be susceptible of many and great revolutions, through the endless periods of eternal duration.” This alone is sufficient to fend off Cleanthes’ accusation, given their mutual acceptance of the Principle of Empiricism. This is because when faced with a variety of possible hypotheses—each of which adequately accounts for the data—an empiricist cannot deem one hypothesis superior to another; they are “on an equal footing.”

Suppose, just for fun, that you’ve been asked to arbitrate this dispute. Having heard each side’s arguments, Philo seems clearly to have the upper hand (at least in this Part). As Yandell notes, Cleanthes could have employed the same argument regardless of how long, say, cherry-trees had been in Europe. Even if they’d been there for two billion years, he could still ask—given an infinite past—why they hadn’t shown up sooner.[13] Regardless, the argument fails because Cleanthes has not (and, as near as I can tell, cannot) shown the incompatibility of “the past history of the universe is infinite” and “some event (say, cherry-trees arriving in Europe) occurring for the first time.” My judgment on this disputation is in favor of Philo (and my advice to Cleanthes is to repudiate the Principle of Empiricism).

[1]All quotations of the text are taken from David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in On Religion, ed. with an introduction by Richard Wollheim (New York: Meridian Books, 1963). Hereafter referred to as Dialogues.

[2]Dialogues, p. 143.

[3]Dialogues, p. 144. This is the “new species of Anthropomorphism” Philo recommends to Cleanthes. It is worth noting also that, given Philo’s succeeding comments on the body/soul relationship, he appears to endorse neither pantheism nor animism, but rather some form of dualism in which “the world” and “God” (or “world’s soul”) are distinct yet inseparable entities (see William Lad Sessions, Reading Hume’s Dialogues: A Veneration for True Religion [Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002], p. 112).

[4]The stakes are, of course, quite high. As Philo claims later, “if the universe bears a greater likeness to animal bodies and to vegetables than to the works of human art, it is more probable, that its cause resembles the cause of the former than that of the latter, and its origin ought rather to be ascribed to generation of vegetation than to reason or design” (Dialogues, p. 149).

[5]Dialogues, p. 145.

[6]Dialogues, p. 146.

[7]For more on this see Andrew Pyle, Hume’s Dialogues concerning natural religion: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Continuum, 2006), p. 69 (cf. Keith Yandell, Hume’s ‘Inexplicable Mystery’ [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990], p. 217).

[8]Dialogues, p. 146.

[9]Dialogues, p. 147.



[12]As Pyle notes, at this point Philo might have appealed to the work of James Hutton, a contemporary of Hume and fellow constituent of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1795) argued for precisely Philo’s position: that the history of Earth is a story of endless natural cycles.

[3]Yandell, Hume’s ‘Inexplicable Mystery’, p. 218.

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