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08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson: the Ulster Stoic

Against a dark background, a hand emerges from a flowing white cuff, holding a book: Cicero's 'De Finibus'
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That Stoicism was an influence on Francis Hutcheson is well known. He translated the lions share of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (his co-translator James Moor was responsible for two of the twelve books), which was published anonymously by Foulis in Glasgow in 17421 He told Thomas Drennan by letter than he hoped the translation would be a public good, and in the Preface he wrote to the work, he said the Meditations inspired “a constant inflexible charity, and good-will and compassion toward our fellows.”2

Francis Hutcheson

Portrait of Francis Hutcheson by Allan Ramsey, c. 1745
Wikimedia, Public Domain

Hutcheson said he “took the first hints of [his opinions] from some of the greatest Writers of Antiquity” in his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) and referenced Aurelius in An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. Stoicism informs all his work. This is not surprising given the influence of Shaftesbury on Hutchesons moral theory: Shaftesbury was also influenced by Stoicism. Yet Hutcheson was not an uncritical adopter of Stoicism. It has been pointed out that Hutcheson was reticent about his debt to Stoicism, being most sympathetic towards them in the pseudonymous and very early work On Laughter. It may be that this was caution due to his immersion in an overwhelming Presbyterian environment. But it is also true that he had philosophical disagreements with classical Stoicism (and with Shaftesbury), though he did not draw attention to these differences. Perhaps his position is best illustrated by his choice of Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum (“On the ends of good and evil”) to hold in the portrait by Allan Ramsey (c. 1745 – see image at the top of the page.) Cicero’s De finibus both expounds Stoicism and criticises it3.

Hutcheson’s main concern seems to have been to establish that virtue was natural ie. that humans did not act solely from self-interest. This lead him to argue against thinkers such as Bernard Mandeville (who believed people had to be tricked into morality) and John Clarke (who believed self-love was the foundation of morality), and against many Calvinists. The Stoics believed that virtue was in accordance with nature, hence the “first hints” Hutcheson referred to. But Hutcheson found some Stoic beliefs implausible. For example, in the Essay, Hutcheson speaks of the “Vanity of some of the lower rate of Philosophers of the Stoick Sect, in boasting of an undisturbed Happiness and Serenity, independently even of the Deity, as well as of their Fellow-Creatures, wholly inconsistent with the Order of Nature.”4

This attitude was reflected in Hutcheson’s quiet alteration of his psychology away from the Stoic model. His psychology depends on two distinctions: self-love and benevolence, and on calm affections vs violent passions. Hutcheson’s analysis of the violent passions in the Essay follows that of the Stoics as described by Cicero (in Tusculanæ Disputationes) and is summarised in the following table: 5

If object is good and present, joy is felt. If object is good and absent desire is felt. If object is evil and present sorrow is felt, if object is evil and absent, fear is felt.

Cicero describes the Stoics as classifying the calm emotions in a similar way to the passions, with one exception: for the Stoics there is no calm emotion as regards a present evil. The correct Stoic attitude is indifference. As we saw above, Hutcheson forcefully rejected this. His classification of the calm emotions silently includes sorrow as a calm reaction to a present evil. Since (for both Stoics and Hutcheson) passions are to be avoided but calm emotions are not, this is a radical break6.

While Hutcheson disagreed with some aspects of Calvinism, others may have inspired this insight. Hutcheson, unlike some caricatures of Enlightenment moral philosophers, did not believe that human nature was purely good, or that it could achieve perfection by its own efforts7 Also, Hutcheson’s emphasis on public benevolence (a subject he believed neglected by other philosophers) had an effect8:

Hutcheson, putting forward a conception of human nature as naturally sociable and a conception of virtue as benevolence, could not possibly ban the public affection of sorrow arising upon the apprehension of misery in others from his table of the calm affections.

The concept of the moral sense had come from the moral philosophy of Shaftesbury, and Shaftesbury is closer to the classical Stoics in seeing reason as having a role in ethics though regulation of emotions and potentially correcting the moral sense. But Hutcheson rejects this, seeing reason’s function as determining means to arrive at ends, rather than in the selection of ends. This has the effect of making Hutcheson’s ethics more democratic. For Shaftesbury, the moral sense required extensive education and cultivation to work correctly, while for Hutcheson an ordinary person such as a “common Trader” could be virtuous. But while that does not mean goodness takes no effort, merely that it is effort available even to the poor. Hutcheson argues for the cultivation of virtuous habits that will allow the moral sense to assert itself9.

Hutcheson’s Stoicism is not focused entirely on analysis and improvement of the self, but calls explicitly for concern with the world around us, not merely for our own benefit but because we naturally care about others. As a natural result of this, Hutcheson’s philosophy does not stop with the analysis of psychology and morality, but also puts forward a political philosophy based on republican thinking. In this he combines the two sources that he obtained (probably) from Robert Molesworth: Shaftesbury’s moral sense and Harrington’s commonwealth.

Like Shaftesbury before him, Hutcheson agreed with the Stoics that philosophy was not merely theory but something to be actively lived10 It was this that led him to refuse to support Hume’s bid for a chair in philosophy: he did not believe Hume Would encourage virtue in others. Hume put the difference neatly: Hume himself was an anatomist, dissecting the human psyche, Hutcheson the painter commending virtue to the common man. It be untrue to say Hutcheson took no interest in the anatomy of virtue, but it is fair to say that its main interest to him was in depicting virtue more perfectly11.

This then, was the Ulster Stoic, Francis Hutcheson: seeking to be a better person without neglecting others, active and concerned about the world. His philosophy does not rule out sorrow in our lives but it is, Hutcheson believed, the route to “the surest Happiness of the Agent”12


  1. The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Newly translated from the Greek: With Notes, and an Account of his Life (Glasgow: Printed by Robert Foulis and sold by him at the College: 1742). There were 4 editions in Glasgow and one in Dublin. Also see Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (2008) The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, trans. Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, edited and with an Introduction by James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund) (http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2133).
  2. James Moore and Michael Silverthorn (2008) “Introduction” to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (2008), pp ix-xiv. Quotation from Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (2008), p. 3.
  3. James Moore & Michael Silverthorn (2008), pp. xiv-xvii. Christopher Brooke (2012) Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau, Princeton University Press, p. 162. Thomas Ahnert (2010) “Francis Hutcheson and the Heathen Moralists” in The Journal of Scottish Philosophy, 8(1), pp. 51–62.
  4. Francis Hutcheson (2002) An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense, ed. Aaron Garrett (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund) (http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/885), p. 83. Thomas Ahnert (2015) The Moral Culture of the Scottish Enlightenment, New Haven CT: Yale University Press, pp. 51-53.
  5. Christian Maurer (2010) “Hutcheson’s Relation to Stoicism in the Light of his Moral Psychology” in Journal of Scottish Philosophy 8 (1), pp. 33-49. Table is based on Table 1 on page 36.
  6. Maurer (2010) pp. 31-42
  7. See Thomas Ahnert (2010) for a full analysis.
  8. Maurer (2010) pp. 46
  9. Dirk Baltzly (2014) “Stoicism” in Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition) – section on Stoic Ethics. Brooke (2012), pp. 162-4. Thomas Ahnert (2015), p. 60.
  10. For Shaftesbury’s relationship to the Stoics see John Sellars (2015) “Shaftesbury, Stoicism, and Philosophy as a Way of Life” in Sophia 55 (3), pp. 395-408.
  11. Vincent M. Hope (1992) “A Painter, No Anatomist” in Fortnight, No. 308, Supplement: Francis Hutcheson (Jul. – Aug., 1992), pp. 6-8.
  12. Francis Hutcheson (2004) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises, ed. Wolfgang Leidhold (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund) (http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2462), p. 8. Quoted in Brooke (2012), pp. 164.

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