A treatise of human nature: being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects. ... [pt.3]
Hume, David, 1711-1776.

SECT. XII. Of chastity and modesty.

IF any difficulty attend this system con∣cerning the laws of nature and nations, 'twill be with regard to the universal appro∣bation or blame, which follows their ob∣servance or transgression, and which some may not think sufficiently explain'd from the general interests of society. To remove, as far as possible, all scruples of this kind, I shall here consider another set of duties, viz. the modesty and chastity which belong to the fair sex: And I doubt not but these virtues will be found to be still more con∣spicuous instances of the operation of those principles, which I have insisted on.

Page  194 THERE are some philosophers, who at∣tack the female virtues with great vehe∣mence, and fancy they have gone very far in detecting popular errors, when they can show, that there is no foundation in nature for all that exterior modesty, which we re∣quire in the expressions, and dress, and be∣haviour of the fair sex. I believe I may spare myself the trouble of insisting on so obvious a subject, and may proceed, with∣out farther preparation, to examine after what manner such notions arise from educa∣tion, from the voluntary conventions of men, and from the interest of society.

WHOEVER considers the length and feebleness of human infancy, with the con∣cern which both sexes naturally have for their offspring, will easily perceive, that there must be an union of male and female for the education of the young, and that this union must be of considerable dura∣tion. But in order to induce the men to impose on themselves this restraint, and un∣dergo chearfully all the fatigues and expences, to which it subjects them, they must be∣lieve, that the children are their own, and that their natural instinct is not directed to a wrong object, when they give a loose to love and tenderness. Now if we examine Page  195 the structure of the human body, we shall find, that this security is very difficult to be attain'd on our part; and that since, in the copulation of the sexes, the principle of generation goes from the man to the wo∣man, an error may easily take place on the side of the former, tho' it be utterly im∣possible with regard to the latter. From this trivial and anatomical observation is deriv'd that vast difference betwixt the education and duties of the two sexes.

WERE a philosopher to examine the matter a priori, he wou'd reason after the following manner. Men are induc'd to la∣bour for the maintenance and education of their children, by the persuasion that they are really their own; and therefore 'tis rea∣sonable, and even necessary, to give them some security in this particular. This secu∣rity cannot consist entirely in the imposing of severe punishments on any transgressions of conjugal fidelity on the part of the wife; since these public punishments cannot be inflicted without legal proof, which 'tis diffi∣cult to meet with in this subject. What restraint, therefore, shall we impose on wo∣men, in order to counter-balance so strong a temptation as they have to fidelity? There seems to be no restraint possible, but in the Page  196 punishment of bad fame or reputation; a punishment, which has a mighty influence on the human mind, and at the same time is inflicted by the world upon surmizes, and conjectures, and proofs, that wou'd never be receiv'd in any court of judicature. In order, therefore, to impose a due restraint on the female sex, we must attach a pecu∣liar degree of shame to their infidelity, above what arises merely from its injustice, and must bestow proportionable praises on their chastity.

BUT tho' this be a very strong motive to fidelity, our philosopher wou'd quickly dis∣cover, that it wou'd not alone be sufficient to that purpose. All human creatures, espe∣cially of the female sex, are apt to over-look remote motives in favour of any present temptation: The temptation is here the strongest imaginable: Its approaches are in∣sensible and seducing: And a woman easily finds, or flatters herself she shall find, cer∣tain means of securing her reputation, and preventing all the pernicious consequences of her pleasures. 'Tis necessary, therefore, that, beside the infamy attending such licences, there shou'd be some preceding backwardness or dread, which may prevent their first ap∣proaches, and may give the female sex a Page  197 repugnance to all expressions, and postures, and liberties, that have an immediate rela∣tion to that enjoyment.

SUCH wou'd be the reasonings of our speculative philosopher: But I am persuaded, that if he had not a perfect knowledge of human nature, he wou'd be apt to regard them as mere chimerical speculations, and wou'd consider the infamy attending infide∣lity, and backwardness to all its approaches, as principles that were rather to be wish'd than hop'd for in the world. For what means, wou'd he say, of persuading man∣kind, that the transgressions of conjugal duty are more infamous than any other kind of injustice, when 'tis evident they are more excusable, upon account of the greatness of the temptation? And what possibility of giving a backwardness to the approaches of a pleasure, to which nature has inspir'd so strong a propensity; and a propensity that 'tis absolutely necessary in the end to comply with, for the support of the species?

BUT speculative reasonings, which cost so much pains to philosophers, are often form'd by the world naturally, and without reflection: As difficulties, which seem un∣surmountable in theory, are easily got over in practice. Those, who have an interest Page  198 in the fidelity of women, naturally dis∣approve of their infidelity, and all the ap∣proaches to it. Those, who have no in∣terest, are carried along with the stream. Education takes possession of the ductile minds of the fair sex in their infancy. And when a general rule of this kind is once establish'd, men are apt to extend it beyond those principles, from which it first arose. Thus batchelors, however debauch'd, cannot chuse but be shock'd with any instance of lewdness or impudence in women. And tho' all these maxims have a plain reference to generation, yet women past child-bearing have no more privilege in this respect, than those who are in the flower of their youth and beauty. Men have undoubtedly an im∣plicit notion, that all those ideas of modesty and decency have a regard to generation; since they impose not the same laws, with the same force, on the male sex, where that reason takes not place. The exception is there obvious and extensive, and founded on a remarkable difference, which produces a clear separation and disjunction of ideas. But as the case is not the same with regard to the different ages of women, for this reason, tho' men know, that these notions are founded on the public interest, yet the Page  199 general rule carries us beyond the original principle, and makes us extend the notions of modesty over the whole sex, from their earliest infancy to their extremest old-age and infirmity.

COURAGE, which is the point of honour among men, derives its merit, in a great measure, from artifice, as well as the chastity of women; tho' it has also some foundation in nature, as we shall see afterwards.

AS to the obligations which the male sex lie under, with regard to chastity, we may observe, that according to the general notions of the world, they bear nearly the same proportion to the obligations of women, as the obligations of the law of nations do to those of the law of nature. 'Tis con∣trary to the interest of civil society, that men shou'd have an entire liberty of in∣dulging their appetites in venereal enjoyment: But as this interest is weaker than in the case of the female sex, the moral obligation, arising from it, must be proportionably weaker. And to prove this we need only appeal to the practice and sentiments of all nations and ages.