Wednesday, October 26, 2011

David Hume on Wounded Places

Today I came across an essay by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume, "A Treatise on Human Nature." Turns out that in 1739, Hume was considering how what I call wounded places affect people. Here's what he wrote about the difference between places that have undergone some kind of emergency and those that are just not very attractive:

"A barren or desolate country always seems ugly and disagreeable, and commonly inspires us with contempt for the inhabitants. This deformity, however, proceeds in a great measure from a sympathy with the inhabitants, as has been already observ’d; but it is only a weak one, and reaches no farther than the immediate sensation, which is disagreeable. The view of a city in ashes conveys benevolent sentiments; because we there enter so deep into the interests of the miserable inhabitants, as to wish for their prosperity, as well as feel their adversity."

Now, we can (and should) argue that it is arrogant and insensitive to contempt for those who live in a poor, unlovely place. But what's interesting here is that three hundred years ago Hume was thinking about how nature strikes the mind and heart in different ways, depending on what has happened to it.

How can we move deeper into this question? How can we assess our own responses to a city torn apart by an earthquake... and a city falling into disrepair as a result of poverty? Where is the "environment" in each? Where is "Nature?" Where does our compassion lie in each circumstance?