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Hope’s philosophical excursus.

Roger Scruton

 Thanks to pioneering studies by S. Baumgarten and David Watkin1, we know much about Hope’s role in promoting the neo-classical aesthetic, about his enormous gifts as designer, draughtsman and architectural historian, about his influential conception of landscape and gardening, and about his awkward but imposing presence in a society that greeted his wealth, taste and literary talent with envy and respect. A certain amount has been written about Hope’s curious novel Anastasius, which saw fourteen editions in several languages in the author’s lifetime, and played a not inconsiderable role in shaping contemporary interest in Islamic culture. This interest, which was to be both misrepresented and roundly condemned by the late Edward Saïd in his attack on ‘Orientalism’, was testimony to the intellectual and moral curiosity of the times, of which Hope was a particularly impressive instance2. Hope was an aesthetic prodigy, and a man of extraordinary energies who managed to combine a demanding social calendar, a large family and passionate connoisseurship with a voracious reading habit in all the languages, ancient and modern, required of a scholar.

However, there is one aspect of Hope’s output that has been neglected by recent studies – although covered in a short and somewhat facetious chapter by Baumgarten - and that is the Essay on the Origin and Prospects of Man, published in three volumes in 1831, a few weeks after Hope’s death, and written in a peculiar stream-of-consciousness style indicative of the author’s desire to get his philosophy on paper while his failing health allowed. It is hard to think of this work as making a significant contribution either to science or to philosophy; nevertheless it displays the enormous breadth of Hope’s learning and interests. It is also remarkable as an early attempt to found a philosophy of man in biological science and to found biology in the laws of physics. Although the theories offered are frequently eccentric or quaint, they testify not only to Hope’s wide reading in science and philosophy, but also to a serious study of plants and animals, as well as of human beings in the various societies and climates that he had known.

The Essay is not an easy read: Latinate syntax and subordinate clauses are used to extend sentences for page upon page, with at least two sentences surpassing two thousand words before reaching their main verb3. However there is a certain exhilaration to be gained from Hope’s breathless and mountain-climbing prose, which aspires always to peaks beyond his reach but refuses, however exhausted, to abandon the ascent. I offer only the briefest survey of a work that nobody, to my knowledge, has attempted to describe in full.

The Essay begins by rejecting the Cartesian search for certain foundations for our knowledge (Hope giving his own version of Lichtenberg’s retort to the famous cogito ergo sum, namely that Descartes is entitled to assert only that there is thinking, not that there is something that thinks). It is not certainty that human beings need, but a view of the universe that will enable them to understand their place within it. Hence we must explore the fundamental structure of matter and the forces that govern change. The little globe on which we find ourselves is only one of uncountably many, spread through space and time, and ordered by causation. We ourselves are individuals, identical in time from one moment to the next, even though we are constantly remade, incorporating new matter and expelling the old. One of the fundamental requirements of philosophy, therefore, is to understand our own identity through time. Hope worries in a very modern way over the relation between space and time, toys with Aristotelian thoughts about the paradoxical nature of time, and at one point seems half willing to concede that time is unreal. He also rashly opposes the science of his day, denying that gravitation is a force of attraction, and coming close to the modern idea of a force-field: indeed, he attempts to include gravitation and electricity (electro-magnetism, as we would call it) in a single theory, as separate manifestations of a single field of force. This is one of several places where Hope’s argument dimly anticipates the unified field theory of modern physics.

Hope is concerned to show the smallness of our world among the infinity of worlds unknown to us. He emphasizes the impossibility of understanding the origins of the universe, and the need to rest our beliefs on far-reaching conjectures. In the second volume Hope moves on to explore the nature of life, arguing vigorously against the view associated with the theologian William Paley, that the perfect harmony between the predicaments faced by living organisms and their ability to overcome them, is evidence of design. As Hope puts it, the wants of living creatures, and their ability to satisfy them, arise from a single cause. Hence that which created the need, created also the answer to it. Hope takes here the first step towards recognising the profound truth later grasped in all its far-reaching subversiveness by Darwin. You explain the ability of animals to survive, not by seeing them as designed to do so, but by recognising that the forces that shaped their environment also adapted them to survive in it. Hope combines this core scientific insight with an eccentric biology of his own, arguing that living organisms maintain their structure by absorbing ‚silica’from the atmosphere - a theory that he embellishes with many curious observations. The modern reader is likely to be struck, both by the impetuous self-confidence of Hope’s theories, and by the minute botanical and zoological observations advanced in support of them. Particularly impressive is his theory of the nervous system, whose role in governing mental activity he accurately perceived, while mistakenly conceiving communication along the nerves in hydraulic, rather than electrical, terms. Had his life taken another course from the one that he chose, Hope might have become a distinguished naturalist, and a reputable precursor of Darwin.

Hope distinguishes animals from vegetables not, as Aristotle had done, through the ability of animals to move themselves, but in a more modern way, through the presence or absence of sensation. He acknowledges the difficulty in defining what a sensation is, arguing, however, that we are sufficiently familiar with the thing itself to dispense with a definition of the word. He proposes a theory of the mind, as a kind of  memory bank for the storing of sensations, and allows that animals (or at any rate the higher animals) have minds, just as we do. His theory of mind draws heavily on the ‚association of ideas‘ as Locke and Locke’s disciple Condillac had expounded it. But Hope treats the minds of animals as sharing important features with the minds of humans, and sees both as subject to invariable biological laws. Whether he could be called a ‚physicalist‘, in the modern sense of that term, is doubtful: mind, for Hope, is an intrusion into the physical world that leaves us with many a mystery unexplained. Nevertheless, he believes that our mental processes are all governed, in the end, by the laws that set the universe in motion, that we humans therefore do not have free will but only ‚freedom of action‘, by which he means the ability to carry out decisions which arise in us from causes that we do not control. And, in one of the few notices that the Essay has ever received – a savage review by Carlyle in the Edinburgh Review of 1831 – Hope is denounced as a ‚materialist‘.4

Hope recognizes that the distinction between ‚brutes‘ and humans is a distinction between two types of animal. Nevertheless, we are not merely animals, destined to live in the present moment and to pass away leaving no remainder. Animal minds are organised by instinct, whose perfection and infallibility is paid for by an inability to adapt or to learn. Our minds are organised differently, by rational reflection. Unlike instinctive creatures we make mistakes; but we also learn from them. Hence we humans have prospects that are radically distinct from those of the ‚brutes‘, and it is these prospects that Hope refers to in the title of his Essay. The third volume of his work is therefore devoted to expounding the distinctive features of the human condition, such as moral judgement, self-consciousness, sympathy, and all the forms of life that derive from these. Although the argument is frequently hasty and unprepared, there is no doubt that Hope had thought long and hard about the human condition, and had been an acute observer of the social and political transformations that had changed the face of Europe. His intention in Volume 3 is to show how, from the laws that govern matter, we can deduce both an account of the institutions best suited to our life on earth, and a plausible conception of the life to come. He offers, therefore, both a political philosophy and an eschatology.

The public conscience was awakening, at the time when Hope wrote, to the vulnerability of animals and to the human habit of treating them callously. Hope spells out the reasons for thinking that animals suffer pain as we do, when injured or tormented. However, like Schopenhauer, whose magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, first appeared in 1816, Hope argued that the sufferings of animals, while real, are of a different order from human suffering. Pain accompanied by rational reflection on its source is a state of mind far more horrible than anything suffered by an unreflective brute. And while animals can feel fear and rage, they know nothing of that peculiar emotional suffering that Hope calls passion, by which a human being can be thwarted and destroyed.

The joys of humans are also of another kind from the joys of animals, involving anticipation and reflection, and human communities are unlike herds or packs in being founded on the distinctively human state of mind that we call ‚sympathy‘. Hope argues with a considerable degree of plausibility that animals cannot experience sympathy, even if they can become attached to each other in the unthinking way of the herd. Sympathy is the capacity to feel another’s pain or another’s joy, so as to be prompted to alleviate the one and amplify the other.

Sympathy is the root of the social order, by which we emerge from the state of nature into the political condition. Hope’s political philosophy is clearly influenced by Hobbes and Locke, and also by the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution. Like Hobbes he regards the state of nature as a state of war of all against all, from which we emerge only by discarding our hunter-gatherer habits and entering into a social contract with our neighbours.  This social contract authorises us to punish those who take advantage of it while privately evading its terms, and is the true foundation of legitimate government. It removes the absolute freedom that we enjoy in the state of nature, which is really no more than an indefinite licence to pursue our own desires, and replaces it with something far more valuable, which is political liberty.

Why should we enter such a contract? Although Hope endorses Hobbes’s view, that it is in our interest to do so, he also believes that there is another motive, which is that of benevolence. Benevolence is natural to human beings, since it springs from sympathy; and equally natural is morality – the disposition to order our lives by ideas of right and wrong. And from these two motives springs our desire to enter into agreements with our neighbours, to strike deals to our mutual advantage, and to cooperate on building a safe and free society.

Hope defends representative government, in terms that recall those used by Burke; but he sees political representation as simply one instance of a general phenomenon. Representation is something like a primary mental operation, and one that is unique to human beings. It is through representation that language develops. At first we express ourselves in cries and groans; after a while, however, we devise words to stand for our inner ideas. The habit arises of using one thing to represent another, in order to simplify the many transactions of society, and to make commerce possible. Thus gold represents value; bank notes represent gold; and parliamentarians represent people. 

Hope has many interesting, though somewhat random, things to say about the government of modern societies, and in particular about the need to temper luxury and excess, and to cater for the needs of the poor. He offers, en passant, a philosophical defence of the ‚neo-classical idea‘, arguing that symmetry and metre are intrinsically appealing to rational beings, and form the basis not merely of decoration, music, poetry and dance, but of social cooperation in all its forms. (Vol. 3, pp. 154-7.) Rhythm makes work lighter, company more enjoyable, surroundings more intelligible. It rests the eye and the mind, and forms the reliable background to our social endeavours.

However, Hope’s real purpose in volume 3, once he has got the problems of politics off his chest, is to move on to our final destiny and salvation, concerning which he has a theory as singular as any that he toyed with in the earlier chapters. First he considers the problem of evil. Only one thing is intrinsically evil, and that is suffering, which is indeed the true definition of evil. Yet all suffering is the effect of ‚decombination‘, whereby things become disproportionately joined, so as to disintegrate and jar against each other. (This idea too can be seen as a reflection of the neo-classical approach to proportion.) Thus: ‚the same opposite elements which, in certain proportions relative to each other produce good, utility, benefit and happiness, when in proportion relative to each other different from these former ones, produce evil, detriment and suffering.‘ (Vol. 3 p. 181.)

Evil, so defined, existed prior to the Fall of man, being an incipient imbalance in the natural order that can lead at any time to destruction. Since we are part of nature, and governed by nature’s laws, this tendency to evil is something that we experience in ourselves. Evil, for us, is a disintegrating force; it is the constant ‚decombination‘ of the good things that we assemble in our search for perfection. It is therefore natural for us to believe that we will one day be released from evil; that the perfection towards which we strive will come about in a condition of bliss. This condition is not to be found in this world. But the universe is infinitely vast, and contains other worlds, other possibilities, and even worlds outside the spatial and temporal constraints with which we are familiar. It is in such a world that we shall find salvation.

But in what form? Will we be individuals there as we are here below? Hope looks back to his previous discussions, and finds in them a refutation of the ordinary belief in life after death. Our bodies here below are in a state of constant flux and ‚decombination‘. Bits fall away to become parts of other bodies, and to reassemble them after death would be to cause a hopeless confusing of individuals, who will not be individuals at all but fragments of a shapeless aggregate. This is one of several difficulties which, if I understand him, Hope discerns in the idea of individual survival. Instead, he suggests, we must see life after death as a transcending of individuality, a combining with the angelic host, that overcomes all divisions of the world that we know and absorbs us into the universal harmony.

That somewhat Vedic vision is one that Hope strives, in a perfunctory way, to reconcile with the Christian scriptures, before going on to consider the doctrines of immortality that we have inherited from the Greeks, arguing meanwhile that the wisdom of the Greeks was brought to them from India, an idea that he took, David Watkin has suggested to me, from the self-styled Baron d‘Hancarville.5 His discussion of Greek and Roman civilisation, with which he rambles to a conclusion, is by no means the least interesting section of a book that, for all its quirkiness, displays a fascinating attempt to look back over a lifetime’s reading and experience in the urgent desire to make sense of it. Hope concludes by exhorting us ‚to produce as much beauty, sensible and intellectual, as we can; and to live in the hopes that when, with this life, the substances more coarse, more confused, and with their beauties still mixing more deformities, that fed it, fall away, - when radiance alone remains and wafts our spirit to more exalted globes – we shall from a higher and more central point of view, in the tranquil contemplation of the harmonies of worlds innumerable, enjoy a felicity without bounds in time or place‘. (Vol. 3, pp 382-3.)

Carlyle’s contemptuous review of the Essay helped to ensure its neglect. And one cannot entirely dissent from Carlyle’s description of the book, as one in which ‚all sciences are heaped and huddled together, and the principles of all are, with a childlike innocence, plied hither and thither, or wholly abolished in case of need…‘. However, Carlyle failed to understand or to sympathise with Hope’s design, which was to establish a scientific anthropology, and to restore the human species to its proper place in the natural order. Carlyle was deeply hostile to science in any case, disparaged all forms of thought that were tainted by the tradition of British empiricism, and dismissed Hope as he dismissed so many of his contemporaries, for failing to be German, a failure that was all the more to be regretted in a man who had such a promising start in life as a Dutchman. As Carlyle expressed the point:

‚If the fact, that Schlegel, in the city of Dresden, could find an audience for such high discourse, may excite our envy; this other fact, that a person of strong powers, skilled in English and master of its Dialect, could write the Origins and Prospects of Man, may painfully remind us of the reproach, that England has now no language for meditation; that England, the most calculative, is the least meditative, of all civilised countries.‘

Only 250 copies of the Essay were printed, of which 229 were sold and 10 given away. It is presumably not on account of Carlyle’s huffing and puffing that so few of these copies now exist. Their disappearance has led Baumgarten to suspect the author’s family of having done their best to suppress the book, on account of the heretical views of the after life, as well as the transparent aestheticism (which can also be read as a kind of immoralism) with which it ends. The idea of immortality without individuality was certainly shocking to the ordinary Christian believer, and the poet Laureate, Robert Southey, expressed his distaste in a letter to Harriet Taylor of July 15th, 1831, protesting against the thought of being eternally mingled with David Hume and Leigh Hunt, not to speak of the Jews, the Philistines, the Scotch and the Irish. Hope’s family cannot have been as hostile to his last literary ambitions as Baumgarten supposes, however. For the copy in which Southey came across this eccentric theory of the afterlife, one of the few now in existence, can be found in the London Library. On the title page, in the poet’s hand, is the inscription ‚Robert Southey, Keswick. 5 July 1831, from the Author.‘ Presumably it was sent to Southey after Hope’s death, by an obedient member of the family.

Roger Scruton is currently Research Professor for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences where he teaches philosophy at their graduate school in both Washington and Oxford.

He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. He has specialised in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates from the standpoint of a conservative thinker and is well known as a powerful polemicist.  He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues.


1. S. Baumgarten, Le crépuscule Néo-Classique: Thomas Hope (The Neo-Classical twilight: Thomas Hope), Paris, Didier, 1958. David Watkin, Thomas Hope and the Neo-Classical Idea, London, John Murray, 1968.

2. As noted by J.C.M. Nolan, in his contribution to this catalogue, Saïd makes no mention of Hope in Orientalism. Not surprising, given, Saïd’s polemical purpose.

3. The cumbersome syntax of Hope’s essay is attributed by Herbert Huscher to Hope’s legal training, and to the Ciceronian Latin taught in the Dutch university of Leiden. See Herbert Huscher, ‘Thomas Hope, author of Anastasius’, in Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, Rome, 1968, pp. 2-13. I am grateful to Jerry Nolan for drawing my attention to this source, the only place, so far as I know, in which Hope’s Essay receives serious praise.

4. Thomas Carlyle, ‘Characteristics’, The Edinburgh Review, Vol. CIV, December 1831.

5. D’Hancarville Recherches sur l’origine, l’esprit et les progrès des arts de la Grèce, etc., 3 Vols., London 1785. For an illuminating discussion of this book, the author of which (Pierre-François Hugues, 1719-1805) was a distinguished archeologist and traveller, friend of Winckelmann, Sir William Hamilton, Payne Knight and many other influential figures,  see David Watkin, Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, ch. 5.


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