The Reading Room

Hume on Love of Glory, not Usury

It’s probably not a major surprise that prompted by the first three volumes of the Italian translation of Hume’s History of England, the Vatican placed all of Hume’s writings on the Index Librorum prohibitorum in 1827. [1] After all, Hume was known as an infidel philosopher throughout the nineteenth century. Hume treats Catholicism as superstition throughout his writings, and many of his works have an anti-Popish slant. And while the focus on Catholicism sometimes is strategic (to stand in for all forms of organized Christianity), Hume has little warmth for Catholicism as such.
It is, perhaps more surprising that we learn that The Decretum cites “David Hume’s History of England. In any language whatsoever including A. Clerichetti’s translation from the English and all of his other Works.” [2] Piatti’s censorship report notes that in the History “there are “resentful expressions in matters of religion” and countless “passages contrary to the received dogmas.”” [3]
In fact, Piatti attacked 77 points related to more than 77 passages in the History.[4] But these, in turn, divide into four topics: “real presence, and usury, Becket, and Wickliffe.” The first involves speculative theology, the third a Catholic saint, and the fourth a declared heretic (in 1415 after Wickliffe’s death). It’s not hard to guess what the Church would be objecting to.
However, it is a bit surprising that the Church would object to Hume’s treatment of usury. For, from the middle of the fifteenth century onward plenty of catholic theologians were critical of the traditional idea that usury was fraudulent by nature. [5]
Later, in the sixteenth century, the very influential theologians of the Salamanca school argued that paying moderate interest on a loan, to compensate for opportunity costs (or profit foregone), was not an instance of usury. [6]  In the History, without giving credit to these theologians, Hume dates this change to the late sixteenth century, “By a lucky accident in language, which has a great effect on men's ideas, the invidious word, usury, which formerly meant the taking of any interest for money, came now to express only the taking of exorbitant and illegal interest.” [7] For Hume, the chance evolution of language plays a bigger role than deliberate doctrinal development. 
In his report, Piatti claims that Hume had suggested “superstition affixes a bad idea to money on interest.” [8] It seems like that Piatti had the following passage in mind: “the prejudices of the age had made the lending of money on interest pass by the invidious name of usury.” [9] Hume goes on to explain that “the necessity of the practice” had put it “every where into the hands of the Jews.” [10]
While the use of ‘prejudice’ may have attracted the censor’s ire. It is odd this passage would be singled out in the nineteenth century. By this time this claim would not have been remarkable at all. 
But the censor’s reaction to the passage can be understood if we telescope out just a bit. In context Hume is describing Richard I’s “love of glory” which shape his preparations for the crusade. In fact, it is worth quoting the whole sentence: “The king, impelled more by the love of military glory than by superstition, acted, from the beginning of his reign, as if the sole purpose of his government had been the relief of the Holy Land, and the recovery of Jerusalem from the Saracens.” Hume, thus, treats the king’s religious motive to crusade as thoroughly hypocritical. 
By contrast, while nobody would think of turning the crusading king into a saint The Catholic Encyclopedia concludes its entry on Richard I as follows, “In spite of his greed, his lack of principle, and, on occasions, his ferocious savagery, Richard had many good instincts. He thoroughly respected a man of fearless integrity like St. Hugh of Lincoln, and Bishop Stubbs says of him with justice that he was perhaps the most sincerely religious prince of his family. "He heard Mass daily, and on three occasions did penance in a very remarkable way, simply on the impulse of his own distressed conscience. He never showed the brutal profanity of John." [11]
The crusades matter because they presuppose “a union of all peoples and sovereigns under the direction of the popes.” [12] In the early nineteenth century, as part of the counter-revolution, this ideal was revived and became known as ultramontanism. [13]
The passage that caught the censor’s attention implies that even when there was a semblance of this papal supremacy in practice, the sovereigns involved paid at most lip-service to that ideal. If Hume was to believed papal supremacy was always a fantasy. 
  1.  Mazza, Emilio. "Hume on the Index: Religion and the early history of England." The Modern Schoolman 84.4 (2007): 355
  2.  Mazza (2007), op. cit: 354.
  3.  Mazza (2007), op. cit.: 355
  4.  Mazza (2007), op. cit.: 256.
  5.  Valeri, Mark. "The Christianization of usury in early modern Europe." Interpretation 65.2 (2011): 146
  6. Melé, Domènec. "Early business ethics in Spain: The salamanca school (1526--1614)." Journal of Business Ethics 22 (1999): 181.
  7.  H App3.52. Cf. Mazza (2007), op. cit. 358 and 371 n. 27
  8.  Mazza (2007), op. cit.: 358.
  9. H 10.3 .See Mazza (2007), op. cit. 358 and 371 n. 27
  10.  H 10.3.
  11. Thurston, H. (1912). Richard I, King of England. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  12.  Bréhier, L. (1908). Crusades. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  13. Benigni, Umberto. "Ultramontanism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>. For sophisticated perspective on it, Perreau-Saussine, Emile. (2012) Catholicism and democracy: An essay in the history of political thought. Princeton University Press, especially, pp. 51-69.