The problem with Hume’s “On Miracles” (and heroes in contemporary fiction)

I’ve always been of two minds about Hume’s “On Miracles” (it’s a short chapter in the Enquiry); and I’ve lately come to dissent from the modern criticism of heroism in literature for reasons not unrelated. So let me perform the marriage…

In “On Miracles,” Hume argues that we ought to use our own experience of what is possible and plausible as a criterion for belief in the second-hand reports of others (which, of course, includes historical reports). There’s a certain indisputable truth in that principle; indeed, the argument is almost too commonsensical to dispute.  When someone claims he’s been visited by his dead grandfather, for example, we should on principle find it harder to believe than when a man claims he’s been visited by the postman.

Yet this criterion—as a rule of thumb—is only as good as the experience of the person who applies it, which is where the contemporary angle and the counterexample come into view.  Consider that one of the most common criticisms leveled at heroes of fantasy and action films is that their characters and their deeds are wholly implausible.  Nowadays, you won’t find many heroes in literary fiction—even the name has been substituted by fiat for the far less ambitious notion of a “protagonist.”

But when compared to real historical heroes, even the characters in fantasy can seem like pikers.  Anyone who knows the historical deeds of Belisarius or Hernando Cortes could hardly be impressed by even the most extreme hero-caricature of the typical fantasy novel. Aragorn, the hero of the Lord of the Rings, for example, has nothing on any of these real historical persons.  And yet, we dismiss him as implausible—the stuff of fantasy—when he barely holds a candle to real heroes.

So what’s at work here? I think the same phenomenon that makes us assign fantasy heroes to fantasy also shapes our judgments of plausibility based on experience: our experience is circumscribed by (1) our democratic values and (2) our modern condition in a relatively peaceful, advanced industrial society. The belief in equality causes us to be prejudiced against the exceptional man, even though we may—as in all ages—naturally admire heroes for their derring-do, if only because we can live vicariously through them.

Similarly, our (mostly) safe and comfortable existence protects us from the sort of situations where heroes abide.  We are generally far removed from the dangers and the heroes who meet them head-on (like our soldiers) than people were in earlier times.  In other words, we just don’t have much experience of the heroic on which to base our judgments of what is plausible for a human being to accomplish.

That brings us back to Hume.  It seems like Hume’s principle is involved in the kind of paradox that renders such rules of thumb moot points: if you do possess a vast historical knowledge, your experience is likely broad enough to follow his rule; but if you already possess this depth of knowledge, the rule is superfluous, since you’ll already know what the rule is designed to help you learn. If, on the other hand, you don’t have a vast historical knowledge, the rule will make you dismiss the very real historical exceptions that constitute the broad experience necessary to apply the rule successfully in the first place.

Many will no doubt dissent from this opinion for various reasons.  The writer of literary fiction, for example, will dissent for pragmatic reasons. He’ll respond (with justification) that he has to accept the world as it is.  The heroes of old don’t sell books, even if one wanted to write one.  Perhaps.  But has anyone even tried in the last 60 years?

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