an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 15, Summer 2018, ISSN 1552-5112



Risks for Angels: Doubts About Political Resistance in Montaigne and Hume[1]



Gordon B. Mower









Nothing seems more natural, right and worthy of moral commendation than a determination to action in the face of injustice and oppression. Contrary to this judgment, however, some conservative philosophers question the merit of such action in almost all cases. Michel de Montaigne, for instance, states:


Thus it seems to me, to speak frankly, that it takes a lot of self-love and presumption to have such esteem for one’s own opinions that to establish them one must overthrow the public peace and introduce so many inevitable evils, and such horrible corruption of morals, as civil wars and political changes bring with them in a matter of such weight – and introduce them into one’s own country. Isn’t it bad management to encourage so many certain and known vices in order to combat contested and debatable errors?[2]


And David Hume adds:

But tho’, on some occasions, it may be justifiable, both in sound politics and morality, to resist supreme power, ‘tis certain, that in the ordinary course of human affairs nothing can be more pernicious and criminal; and that besides the convulsions, which always attend revolutions, such a practice tends directly to the subversion of government, and the causing of universal anarchy and confusion among mankind.[3]


These conservative sentiments are ones that we normally associate with preserving privileged positions of elites at the expense of justice and equity. Yet Montaigne and Hume care deeply about justice and equity. Their sentiments toward resistance, then, present something of a puzzle. How is it possible that someone could genuinely care about justice and not, on every occasion, wish to see injustice overthrown?

        In this paper, I will seek to reconstruct the position of these two philosophical conservatives taken together to form a unified position and evaluate that position. I will first attempt to reconstruct the formal structure of what I call the Montaigne-Hume position (MHP) with regard to political resistance and support that interpretation with pertinent texts. I will then evaluate MHP. At the end of the analysis, I suspect that the cautionary position of Montaigne and Hume ought to merit some consideration from those who would advocate resistance in order to achieve major institutional change.



No Duty to Resist


        Understanding and evaluating MHP requires some stipulation of what political resistance is. Like other philosophers who have written on the topic, Montaigne and Hume do not carefully specify what they have in mind for resistance. Both thinkers seem to understand that there are gradations of resistance, but they also seem committed to the idea that it is harmful and threatening even at lower gradations. I will uniformly treat resistance as an attempt to coerce the established government.[4]

        The central idea of MHP is that we have no duty to resist government, but rather, under normal circumstances, we have a duty not to resist but instead to obey and to give our allegiance to government. This duty of allegiance is not based on any natural law or social contract understanding. In fact, the rejection of these two forms of moral and political thought is a major feature of MHP. Instead, this duty is derived primarily from custom and long usage.

        Since this duty of allegiance is conditional on, as Hume calls it, “the ordinary course of human affairs,”[5] we are nowadays very inclined to think that when that ordinary course breaks down into a system of tyranny and injustice, we have a duty or obligation to overthrow that set of arrangements and replace them with some more just set. MHP, however, takes the stance that even when the ordinary course of human affairs varies, no new obligation is created. If there were such a duty, it would have to be derived either consequentially or non-consequentially. Although this distinction seems to reflect contemporary concerns, both modes are implicit in the just war theory with which Montaigne and Hume were familiar. MHP addresses both possibilities and argues against each one. The next two sections will examine the MHP arguments for those eliminations. If those arguments succeed, then it follows that there is no duty to resist an unjust and oppressive government.

        This is not to say that there is no right to resistance. Hume states explicitly: “Those, therefore, who wou’d seem to respect our free government, and yet deny the right of resistance, have renounc’d all pretensions to common sense, and do not merit a serious answer.”[6] In this assertion, then, MHP differs somewhat from Kant’s position which apparently denies any right of resistance.[7] The problem from the perspective of MHP is that it is impossible to regulate this right by reason. Thus Hume states, “But tho’ this general principle be authoriz’d by common sense, and the practice of all ages, ’tis certainly impossible for the laws, or even for philosophy, to establish any particular rules, by which we may know when resistance is lawful; and decide all controversies, which may arise on that subject.”[8] Although there is a right to resistance, then, it requires the utmost wisdom in knowing when to utilize this right. The difficulties involved will become clearer as we examine the arguments against a duty to resist.



No Consequential Duty to Resist


        Consequentialism establishes the rightness of action based on outcomes. The first premise to be supported in the MHP argument against a duty to resistance is that there is no consequential duty to resist. Since resistance on its face points to a practical end, the centerpiece of MHP is the argument against the consequential obligation to resist. This consequential obligation can only come into place if certain claims about outcomes can be justified. If resistance is to be excused then the good to be achieved must be, as Hume says, “so great and so evident as to justify the action.”[9]

        MHP supplies skeptical doubts about mental faculties that call into question the ability to make a consequential claim evident. It offers at least two doubts.  First, we are unable to be certain that the good to be achieved by resistance will exceed the harms it will impose. Those harms come from under-valuing and damaging our self-understanding as it relates to the present arrangements of society. MHP goes further than Machiavelli and Aristotle in thinking that the principal feature of human character formation is habituation. Custom, says Montaigne, “at every turn [forces] the rules of nature,” such that by force of habit, humans can be brought to institutionalize virtually any practice, and reason has no sway over the tyrant: “It is for habit to give form to our life, just as it pleases; it is all-powerful in that; it is Circe’s drink, which varies our nature as it sees fit.”[10]  Once formed according to habit, it does psychic harm to people to disrupt them from that formulation.

        Hume elaborates on this. He asserts that experience and custom form the sole basis of any of our beliefs about matters of fact that go beyond the present testimony of the senses. To the extent that our moral outlook is built around expectations about how matters of fact beyond the present testimony of the senses ought to be, Hume’s results on causal understanding suggest that our entire worldview is shaped by present practices. To the extent that resistance is disruptive of the conventions or shared customary expectations of a people, it is harmful in that it undermines the social bearings of that people. They no longer know what to expect from each other, and their sense of justice as it relates to their practices is distorted. Montaigne and Hume speak of society being thrown into confusion by resistance. This confusion is a generalized social stupor or aporia in which the benefits of being a part of society are made cloudy. Thus, Montaigne states that rationalistic descriptions of the reformulation of government “would be applicable in a new world, but we take men already bound and formed to certain customs; we do not create them like Pyrrha or Cadmus. By whatever means we may have power to correct and reform them, we can hardly twist them out of their accustomed bent without breaking up everything.”[11] The potential harms, then, of resistance are great before we even say anything about the convulsions of violence that may erupt in resistance, and Montaigne worries that for advocates of resistance who do not consider the customary bent of people, “instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts.”[12]  The MHP claim is, then, that it is doubtful that resistance will be able to achieve a very great good that exceeds the harms it imposes.

        The other MHP doubt about the consequential duty to resist intersects with the magnitude of benefits doubt. It is that the outcomes of resistance are not very evident. Two general doubts undermine our confidence here. The first is that there is a cognitive intervention by the imagination that distorts our judgment. Montaigne and Hume suggest that the imagination has such a powerful influence on the judgment that it compromises our claims about harms in the present and about future goods to be achieved. The second doubt is about our cognitive disability to achieve understanding of the future. MHP denies that there is a reliable cognitive mechanism for predicting outcomes.

        Montaigne tells us that the imagination distorts our judgment of the present and the future in such a way that we always tend to undervalue present conditions. He concurs with those who say that our minds are always reaching out for the future even though “we have no grip on what is to come (indeed a good deal less than we have on what is past).” He calls this propensity to reach out for the future, “the most common of errors” but admits that it is thoroughly grounded in our nature. We love nothing so much as shake up present arrangements. “We are never ‘at home’,” says Montaigne; “we are always outside of ourselves,” and we are robbed “of feelings and concern for what is now, to spend time over what will be.”[13]

        Hume explains why he thinks this is the case. He believes that our natural propensity is to let our imagination carry us away with what is near at hand in space and time; we are negligent about remote objects of consciousness. Still, with some reflection we are able to have an idea about what our greatest good would be without considering whether that good is present or future. The problem is that while we see all the details of our present circumstances, our distance from future objects “makes all those minute differences vanish” and we register a preference for the future only on “the general and more discernible qualities of good and evil.”[14] Not only, then, does the combination of passions and imagination activate a preference for the future on sparse detail, it also exaggerates the good and evil features of present details. Human nature, then, has a cognitive bias against present circumstances in favor of possible future circumstances due to the level of detail we are able to perceive.[15]

        The second problem with a future good being very evident involves the mental mechanism by which we come to have beliefs about the future. Hume tells us that the only way that our understanding can reach beyond the present testimony of the senses and memory is through causal understanding, which cannot come from any a priori reasoning but can only arise from experience and custom. Montaigne complements this understanding with the recognition that our experience is convulsively contradictory. He seemingly relishes in this recognition. The very first sentence of the Essays is on the topic of resistance, and Montaigne finds that experience yields no clear conclusion about what outcomes we can expect. He takes up the question of what action we should take against “those we have offended once they have us at their mercy with vengeance at hand.”[16] He first considers that the most common way of softening such hearts, is to submit to them. Then he takes up consideration of the completely contrary position, that of “brave and steadfast” resistance. He considers many cases in the style of a Pyrrhonian trope and finds that rationality offers no guidance. If you submit, sometimes you are crushed and sometimes you are saved, and if you resist, sometimes you are crushed and sometimes you are saved. The reasons pro and contra are balanced by experience, as there is no other cognitive mechanism for accessing the future, so judgment must be suspended with respect to the consequences that if known would generate an obligation.

        This doubt about the evidence of goods to be achieved combines with doubt about the magnitude of goods to be achieved. If we are unable to know the future very well, we are likely to fall victim to unintended adverse consequences, and these make the magnitude of the good to be achieved more doubtful. MHP, then, eliminates any consequentially derived duty by showing that the goods to be achieved cannot be justified as being very great or very evident.



No Non-Consequential Duty to Resist


        We may think, however, that resistance against oppression and tyranny is good even in its failure to achieve its ends. In other words, resistance may be good and right independently of consequences. MHP questions this kind of intuition and raises doubts about non-consequential approaches to justifying resistance. As considered below, it considers two types of possible sources for a non-consequential obligation to resist and dismisses both of them. First, Montaigne gives attention to the non-consequential, external standard of traditional natural law with its purported tie to human nature, and he finds this inadequate in providing any non-consequential obligation. It is the external standard itself as manifest in human nature that Montaigne argues against. On this approach, the duty to resist is rejected as a species of a rejected general category. Hume on the other hand, addresses the possibility of an internally derived, non-consequential source of obligation. He first considers the possibility of reason being the source of obligation generally, and he rejects this on two grounds. Then he takes up the possibility of a moral sense supplying a particular obligation to resist, and he rejects this in favor of the moral sense supplying an obligation of allegiance. Montaigne supports this obligation as well. MHP, then, considers and dismisses the main possibilities of a non-consequential duty to resist and instead establishes an obligation of allegiance that contends with the right to resistance. The skeptically conservative perspective of MHP favors the duty over the right.

        Montaigne argues against a natural law duty to resist by arguing against natural law. He disagrees with the purported universal status of any natural law. The presumption is that since humans have a common human nature, if there is a law that is natural to the species, it must be universally embodied across the species. Montaigne contends that there are no such universal laws:


But they are funny when, to give some certainty to the laws, they say that there are some which are firm, perpetual, and immutable, which they called natural, which are imprinted on the human race by the condition of their very being. And of those one man says the number is three, one man for, one more, one less: a sign that the mark of them is as doubtful as the rest. Now they are so fortunate (for what else can I call up but misfortune, that out of such an infinite number of laws not even one is found that fortune and heedlessness of chance have allowed to be universally accepted by the consent of all nations?), They are, I say, so wretched that of these three or four selected laws there is not a single one that is not contradicted and disavowed, not by one nation but by many. Now the only likely sign by which they can argue certain laws to be natural is universality of approval. For what nature had truly ordered for us we would without doubt follow by common consent. And not only every nation, but every individual, would resent the force and violence used on him by anyone who tried to impel him to oppose that law. Let them show me just one law of that sort - I’d like to see it.[17]



        The human law, if it is law at all, according to traditional natural law theory, must be reflective of natural law. Montaigne, however, claims that the human law is utterly customary, and he supports this by showing that any conduct that we might think of as being utterly depraved is institutionalized as law somewhere: “The murder of infants, the murder of fathers, the sharing of wives, traffic in robberies, license for all sorts of sensual pleasures, nothing in short is so extreme that it is not accepted by the usage of some nation.”[18] The authority of the law is found in its longstanding presence in a society. Since there is no universal law to match common human nature, there is no natural law, and since there is no natural law, there is no natural law obligation to resist.

Hume looks for normative moral standards as determined by features internal to the experience of agents. One possibility for the rightness of resistance independent of consequences is that reason itself gives an internally recognizable sanction of it. Hume famously explodes this possibility by showing that reason, which is the faculty by which we determine the truth or falsity of propositions, does not on its own have the ability to motivate action. It is motivationally inert. While this is the main argument that Hume emphasizes in the Treatise, there is another that he uses in the Moral Enquiry. Reason, he says, depends on the principle of non-contradiction which in turn relies on the bivalence of propositions. Human actions including moral actions, however, are not bivalent. While they may be contrary to one another, they are not contradictory to each other, and this robs reason of its operating principle in establishing obligation. Reason, then, on Hume’s understanding, is incapable of motivating action on moral obligation and is incapable of specifying obligation by its guiding principle. Reason, then, is out as a possible internal source for grounding an obligation of resistance.[19]

        Perhaps instead, the obligation to resist is derived from an internal moral sense of approval and disapproval. In the normal course of affairs, however, Hume asserts that resistance is disapproved of. This is because the moral sense establishes instead an obligation of allegiance that is contrary to any duty to resist. The obligation of allegiance begins with “the interest, which all men have in the upholding of society, and the observation of the rules of justice,”[20] but it later takes on the internal force of an obligation as it becomes established as a customary expectation in the minds of those in the society and comes to be revered with general moral approval.

        For Hume, the sense of justice itself upon which the obligation of allegiance depends arises in this same conventional fashion. Justice is an ‘artificial’ obligation, which means that the moral sense of a duty to justice is not an original quality of the mind; it arises indirectly from the internal states of self-interest and sympathy. Justice begins with the common interests of people engaged in conventional practices. People see that a general system of justice is to their best interest. They also see that justice tends to the public good within the established conventional practices, and they care about the public good as a result of their sympathetic faculty by which they share in the emotional life of those around them. Through these indirect processes, the moral sense of justice embeds itself in the minds of people as a shared set of expectations for conduct, and it is only upon the basis of this shared set of expectations “that our moderation and abstinence are founded.”[21] Justice becomes a virtue as members of society come to approve of it through the original sense of morality activated by self-interest and sympathy. The moral sense of justice, then, relates to original qualities of the mind under the influence of custom and conventional conduct, and it is only “the combination of men, in a system of conduct, which renders any act of justice beneficial to society.”[22]

        Before a moral sense of justice develops, there is no moral sense of general social obligation. Once justice is established, though, the commitment to it founds our moral sense of allegiance. Under normal conditions, our moral sense of allegiance strongly disapproves of resistance, and even under extraordinary circumstances the sense of disapproval lingers. The moral sense, then, for Hume establishes a duty against resistance, and this duty is immediately present in the moral consciousness of social beings. We cannot have a duty to alter the existing arrangements of society, because our duties as shared expectations arise out of those arrangements. Having a duty to resist would be equivalent to having a duty to overthrow our duties. To the extent that resistance disrupts the system of shared expectations, no non-consequential duty supports it.

        And yet, Hume insists that we have a right to resistance. Whereas, however, the moral sense of a duty not to resist is firmly established in the moral consciousness, and the right to resist is geared to future states about which we are cognitively limited, the default moral preference is for the duty over the right. Montaigne chimes in on this saying, “the oldest and best-known evil is always more bearable than an evil that is new and untried.”[23]

        MHP, then, has moved toward establishing that there is no consequential duty to resist, and there is no non-consequential duty to resist. There is indeed a right to resist, but this right is more obscure than the duty against resistance.



Objections to MHP


        Many objections can be offered to this line of reasoning. I will briefly consider two. It might be objected that Montaigne and Hume have their own, albeit similar, views, and it is a mistake to try to combine them into a synthetic product. In response, it is obvious that Hume read and was profoundly influenced by Montaigne, who writes in a rather rambling and unsystematic fashion. In the points brought out here by MHP, Hume often takes up topics from Montaigne, systematizes and completes them. Sometimes, as with deriving expectations from experience, Montaigne supplements Hume’s rather abstract reasoning with illustrations. Occasionally, for instance in treating the argument against a non-consequential obligation, Montaigne and Hume each supply half an argument, and when brought together, they complement each other. Indeed the two treatments on resistance seem to complement each other nicely.

        Another objection that might be raised is that the harms that come from disturbing the present arrangements are exaggerated, and in comparison, with the harms that come from oppression, these are in fact minor. There are two possible responses to this objection. First, the intersubjective value of socialization is invisible to us, and if MHP correctly characterizes the socially amended nature of justice, then the harms of disrupting the present arrangements are larger than we perceive when we take the view that justice is derived entirely from rational principles. That, of course, opens another objection about the nature of justice, but MHP addresses this in its treatment of non-consequential obligation. It is difficult to say that disruption of present arrangements causes no harms, and MHP implies that these harms are greater than what we might see at first glance. Secondly, even if we were to dismiss these harms, the possibility of unknown future harms must still be considered in determining the magnitude of the good to be achieved.





        MHP points to serious shortfalls of reason in being able to pin down when a people ought to resist. It strongly supports and recommends extreme caution in moving toward resistance. It does not, however, necessarily and universally foreclose all forms of resistance. It is pragmatic in asking people to carefully gauge with as much objectivity as possible what they are able to tolerate.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 15, Summer 2018, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Thirty-first Annual International Social Philosophy Conference, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, OR, July 2014.

[2] Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Donald M. Frame, trans. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1976), (hereafter, Frame), “Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law,” 87.

[3] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (hereafter, T), David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000),, 354.

[4] See Peter Nicholson, “Kant and the Duty Never to Resist the Sovereign,” Ethics 86, no. 3 (1976), 218.

[5] Hume, T, 354.

[6] Hume, Treatise

[7] See Nicholson, 214-230.

[8] Hume, Treatise

[9] Hume, T

[10] Frame, “Of experience,” 827.

[11] Frame, “Of vanity,” 730.

[12] Frame, “Of vanity,” 856.

[13] Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, M.A. Screech, trans. (London, New York: Penguin Books, 2003), (hereafter, Screech), “Our emotions get away beyond us,” 11.

[14] T.

[15] That our cognitive biases significantly and dramatically undermine our abilities to make consistently rational choices is explored nicely by Sarah Conly. See Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[16] Screech, “We reach the same end by discrepant means,” 3.

[17] Frame, “Apology for Raymond Sebond,”  437.  See also J.B. Schneewind’s discussion: The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 42 – 52.

[18] Ibid.

[19] It should be noted that while Kant and Kantians reject this analysis, Kant apparently uses the categorical imperative to also reject the possibility of a duty to resist, establishing instead a duty not to resist.

[20] T.

[21] Hume, T, 315.

[22] Hume, T, 395.

[23] Frame, “Of vanity, 732.