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essay i: Belief - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion 
Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Corrected and Improved, in a Third Edition. Several Essays Added Concerning the Proof of a Deity, Edited and with an Introduction by Mary Catherine Moran (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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Desiring, wishing, resolving, willing, believing, signify all of them simple mental acts that cannot be defined; and yet are understood by all the world, every man being familiarly acquainted with them passing daily in his own mind. When I say that I believe Caesar was murdered in the senate-house, that Ganganelli was a good Pope, or that the King of Britain has thirteen children, no person has any difficulty to comprehend my meaning: as little on the other hand, when I say that I do not believe in the Patagonians, nor in Mahomet’s tomb being suspended in the air between two loadstones. Hence it is that no writer has thought it necessary to analyse belief, the author of the treatise on human nature excepted. He lays down two propositions, First, “that belief is not any separate action or perception of the mind, but only a certain manner of conceiving propositions.” Next, “that belief making no alteration on the conception as to its parts and composition, must consist in the liveliness of the conception.”1 As every particular concerning the human mind, is of importance to those who are studious of human nature, these propositions shall be put upon trial. The first holds true in some instances, but far from holding true in all. This will appear by induction. I see a bird in the air, which I believe to be an eagle. My belief enters into my perception of the bird, and is not a separate actor perception. Take an opposite example. I see a horse feeding at a distance in an inclosure. My belief that the horse exists, enters into my perception of him. I also believe him to be the same that gained the King’s plate at New market a month ago. My belief of that fact rests entirely on memory, and makes no part of my perception of the horse.
With respect to propositions, the same difference obtains. Take the following example, that any two sides of a triangle are longer than the third. My conception of this proposition, includes my belief, or more properly, knowledge of its truth. The same will hold in all self-evident propositions; but not in propositions that require evidence. Take for example the following proposition, that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. My knowledge of the truth of that proposition, cannot make a part of my conception of the proposition; because my knowledge comes after, upon perusing the demonstration.
The same difference appears in belief founded on testimony. An improbable fact is affirmed by one whose veracity is suspected: I believe not a word of it. The truth of the fact is afterward ascertained by undoubted evidence; and I believe it firmly. Yet my conception of the fact is precisely the same in both cases; and therefore my belief in the one case, and disbelief in the other, can neither of them make a part of my conception of the fact.
I have taken the more pains to analyse this proposition, not only as accurate definitions and descriptions are of great moment in philosophy, but as tending to cut down the second proposition, that which our author chiefly insists on as the foundation of his theory. It must be evident, that where belief is separate from the conception of the proposition, it cannot consist in the liveliness of that conception. But even where belief makes a part of the conception of the proposition, his argument appears extremely lame. Belief, he observes, making no alteration upon the conception as to its parts and composition, must consist in the liveliness of the conception. But why must it consist in liveliness, which is but one modification of the conception? Would not the argument conclude as justly, that it consists in a faint conception, or in any other modification? The argument has not a foot to stand on. Belief in reality differs as widely from liveliness of conception, as colour does from sound. Belief is relative to truth and falsehood, and makes a branch of knowledge: liveliness of conception has not the slightest relation to either. This is so evident that I am tempted to apply to our author the story of the blind man, who being asked his notion of colour, said that it resembled the sound of a trumpet. He is less excusable than the blind man, as belief ought to have been as well known to him, as colour to one who sees. But he had a system to defend; and nothing is more common among philosophers, than to sacrifice even common sense to a favourite system.
To distinguish reality from fiction, and truth from falsehood, is of the utmost importance to every human being. The means for making this distinction, are put into the hands of every person, though it requires a degree of understanding to apply the means for preventing error. Now, if by reducing belief to be merely a conception, whether lively or languid, man be rendered incapable of making the distinction, what better is he than a ship tossed about by every wind, without a pilot and without a rudder? But our author’s doctrine carries him a great way farther. He must banish veracity along with belief; for laying aside either, the other is of no use. One great advantage of society is the communication of knowledge; by which every one may acquire the knowledge of all. But this source of knowledge would be entirely dried up, if men were not made by nature to believe what is reported to them by others. With what coolness and intrepidity do some writers lay violent hands upon that noble fabric the human mind!
In a system deviating so widely from truth, no just reasoning is to be expected, nor true delineation of human nature. It is urged by this author, that true history takes fast hold of the mind, and presents its objects in a more lively manner than any fabulous narration can do. Every man must judge for himself: I cannot admit this to be my case. History, no doubt, takes faster hold of the mind, than any fiction told in the plain historical stile. But can any man doubt who has taste, that poetry makes a stronger impression than history? Let a man of feeling attend the celebrated Garrick2 in the character of Richard, or in that of King Lear; and he will find, that dramatic representations make strong and lively impressions, which history seldom comes up to. But let it be supposed, that history presents its objects in a more lively manner than can be done by dramatic or epic poetry; it will not therefore follow, that a lively idea is the same with belief. I read a passage in Virgil: let it be the episode of Nisus and Euryalus. I read a passage in Livy, namely the sacking of Rome by the Gauls.3 If I have a more lively idea of the latter story, I put it to my author to point out the cause of this effect. He surely will not affirm, that it is the force of expression or harmony of numbers: for in these particulars, the historian must yield to the poet. It is evident that no satisfactory account can be given, but that Livy’s superior influence upon the conception, is the effect of his being a true historian. The most then that our author can make of his observation, supposing it to hold true, is, that the authority of the historian produceth belief, and that belief produceth a more lively idea than any fabulous narration can do. Truth indeed bestows a certain degree of vivacity upon our ideas. I cannot however admit, that history exceeds dramatic or epic poetry, in conveying a lively conception of facts; because it appears evident, that, in works of imagination, the want of truth is more than compensated by sentiment and language. Yet it is certain, that in an epic poem or in a tragedy intended merely for amusement, the finest descriptions, the most picturesque images, the most nervous expressions of the poet, or the most lively conceptions of the reader, will not on the whole contribute to produce belief.
Sometimes indeed, belief is the result of a lively impression. A dramatic representation is one instance, when it affects us so much as to draw off our attention from every other object, and even from our selves. In this state, we do not consider the actor, but conceive him to be the very man whose character he assumes. We have that very man before our eyes. We perceive him as existing and acting, and believe him to be existing and acting. This belief however is but momentary. It vanisheth like a dream, as soon as we are roused to a consciousness of ourselves, and of the place we occupy. Nor is the lively impression, even in this case, the cause of belief, but only the occasion of it, by diverting the attention of the mind from itself and its situation. It is in some such manner, that the idea of a spectre in the dark, which fills the mind and diverts it from itself, is, by the force of imagination, converted into a reality. We think we see and hear it: we are convinced of it, and believe the matter to be so.
With regard to the evidence of my own senses, though I am far from admitting, that the essence of belief consists in the vivacity of the impression, I so far agree with our author, that vivacity and belief, in this case, are always conjoined. A mountain I have once seen, I believe to be existing, though I am a thousand miles from it; and the image or idea I have of that mountain, is more lively and more distinct, than of any I can form merely by the force of imagination. But this is far from being the case, as above observed, of ideas raised in my mind by the force of language.
Belief arising from the evidence of others, rests upon a different foundation. Veracity, and a disposition to believe, are corresponding principles in the nature of man; and, in the main, these principles are so adjusted, that men are not often deceived. The disposition we have to believe, is qualified by the opinion we have of the witness, and the nature of the story he relates. But supposing a concurrence of all other circumstances to prompt our belief, yet if the speaker pretend only to amuse, without confining himself to truth, his narration will not, in the smallest degree, prompt our belief, let him enliven it with the strongest colours that poetry is master of.
I shall only add, that though our own senses and the testimony of others, are the proper causes of belief; yet that these causes are more or less efficacious, according to our present temper of mind. Hope and fear are influenced by passion: so is belief. Hope and fear relate to future events. If the event be agreeable, and the probability of its existence be great, our conception of its existence takes on a modification which is called hope. If the event be extremely agreeable, and the probability of its existing do greatly preponderate, our hope is increased proportionally, and sometimes is converted into a firm belief, that it will really happen. Upon weak minds, the delightfulness of the expected event will, of itself, have that effect. The imagination, fired with the prospect, augments the probability, till it convert it to a firm persuasion or belief. On the other hand, if fear get the ascendant, by a conceived improbability of the existence of the event, the mind desponds, and fear is converted into a firm belief that the event will not happen. The operations of the mind are quite similar, where the event in view is disagreeable.
I conclude this Essay with observing, that tho’ our own senses and the testimony of others are the causes of belief, yet that the efficacy of these causes depends considerably on the present tone of mind. My belief that an agreeable event has happened, or will happen, rises above the probability when I am in high spirits. In low spirits my belief falls below it. Where the event is disagreeable, my belief rises above the probability if my spirits be low; and my belief falls below it, if my spirits be high.
Passion has still a stronger influence upon belief. As to which see Elements of Criticism chap. 2. part 5.4
[1. ]Not verbatim, but Kames’s own paraphrase of Hume’s argument that “belief consists not in the nature and order of our ideas, but in the manner of their conception, and in their feeling to the mind ” (see Treatise, 1.3.7–8).
[2. ]David Garrick (1717–1779), the most famous actor of his day, was also a dramatist, co-manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, and a friend of Samuel Johnson.
[3. ]See Virgil, Aeneid, Book V; Livy, History of Rome, Book V.
[4. ]Elements of Criticism, vol. 1, chap. 2, pt. v, treats of “the influence of passion with respect to our perceptions, opinions, and belief.”