David Hume in the Slough of Despond: Design from Theology to Aesthetics in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

After the children have gone to sleep, Mrs. Ramsay is relieved to find herself alone: “This self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.” Our outward appearances and expressions, “the things you know us by,” she intuits, cover over a “limitless,” “unfathomably deep” darkness (69). As she looks out the window, she feels herself extend out to meet the turning “stroke of the Lighthouse” as it shoots its beam of light across the water. She finds herself “losing personality” in that bright beam, “sitting and looking, sitting and looking… until she became the thing she looked at” (70). In this epiphanic state she suddenly mutters: “We are in the hands of the Lord.” This bit of maudlin theodicy intrudes upon her secular revelation, annoying her. She does not know where these words came from—this “insincerity slipping in among the truths.” Turning upon the problem, she asks, “How could any Lord have made this world?”

With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. (71)

At this moment Mr. Ramsay passes by, “chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat,” had once, while walking through Nor Loch, found himself stuck in a bog. Juxtaposed on either side of a period, their thoughts seem incongruous. And yet it was Mr. Ramsay’s Hume who had carried Mrs. Ramsay’s intuition to its logical conclusion, dismantling attempts to derive a benevolent God from the observation of nature. The Ramsays are thinking two ends of the same thought.

Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father and Mr. Ramsay’s original, was an eminent Victorian in his own right: the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a distinguished philosopher and mountaineer, and author of the magisterial and still-valuable History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Still, in his Mausoleum Book he worried, “if the history of English thought in the nineteenth century should ever be written, my name will only be mentioned in small type and footnotes” (93). He is, as he feared, usually remembered in small type and footnotes, though he could not anticipate that his persistence in cultural memory would be owed largely to his daughter.

Stephen was like Hume a religious skeptic, but his great admiration for the philosopher was not without qualms. In Stephen’s telling, the young Hume was “a reasoner pure and simple,” but his late style “may be accused of some divergence from the straight path under the influence of literary vanity” (History 1:43). Moreover, he was a sensualist: numerous anecdotes have him jestingly declaring himself not a refined epicure, but a simple glutton.[1] Stephen, enamored with Hume the hard, lean reasoner, has less patience with the polite, praise-seeking man of letters. Woolf, in turn, gives Mr. Ramsay a desperate and embarrassing need for praise and sympathy. In her telling, Ramsay has absorbed Hume’s own failings. Yet neither Ramsay nor Stephen could realize that Hume’s lettered prose, cheerful sensuality, and charming manners were in fact his strongest argument for his skepticism, by which he demonstrated that religious heterodoxy was no enemy to social orthodoxy.

So: at the moment Mrs. Ramsay is repulsed by the idea that any Lord could be responsible for this vale of tears Mr. Ramsay is having an amiable laugh at his fellow skeptic-gone-soft. Just as she rejects providential design, the narrative traps her in a web of authorial design, tying her quiet sadness to her husband’s quiet amusement by way of Hume, who had delivered a much more elaborate version of Mrs. Ramsay’s thinking in his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.[2] Here the skeptic Philo demolishes the notion that the idea of a benevolent creator can be inferred from experience, and his argument climaxes in this effusion:

Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children. (113)

In place of the Lord, Philo installs a maternal blind nature blundering into violent chaos. (His larger point is that no notion of divinity can be positively inferred from experience.) But where Mrs. Ramsay sees only accident upon accident, the narrative synchronizes her rejection of design with her husband’s amusement at Hume the infidel stuck in a slough of despond. What emerges in miniature, through this web of associations, is the passage of the logic of design from theology to aesthetics. For the Ramsays, it is no longer possible to think the world as designed by a conscious, benevolent agent. But this impossibility is sublimated by a narrative design that sees the spouses share two ends of an idea, unknowingly. If theological design can no longer persuade, it will be replaced with its literary counterpart, mysterious but no less providential, that works its own small miracles between the pages of the book.

While Mrs. Ramsay contemplates the problem of evil as it bears on those dearest to her, Mr. Ramsay affectively distant historical anecdote routes indirectly toward the same problem. In fact, the outward “sternness” brought on by her internal rejection of design disrupts his mirth, and he will attempt to return to the thought of Hume in the bog (75), only to find himself pulled back into the present, until he finally has a moment to tell himself the punch line:

Mr. Ramsay felt free now to laugh out loud at Hume, who had stuck in a bog and an old woman rescued him on condition he said the Lord’s Prayer, and chuckling to himself he strolled off to his study. (80)

The last piece of this apocryphal anecdote,[3] which Woolf omits, has Hume declare to his friends that this old woman who extracted from him the Lord’s Prayer was the “most acute theologian” he had ever encountered. What, precisely, did he mean? We can begin to make sense of Hume’s own contribution to the joke when we consider that Philo, the prime mischief-maker of the Dialogues, recants his own arguments at the conclusion of the text, giving his assent to the same rationale for God’s existence and benevolence that he had so radically undermined. Philo accounts this recantation, that he never believed his expressions of infidelity—he simply, as Hume will write elsewhere, “loves skeptical paradoxes” (Philosophical Essays 205). Likewise, the old woman in the swamp could by no means have believed that “Hume the atheist” had truly had a change of heart on the spot. But he gave his outward assent, and that was good enough. Hume himself had endeavored to render religion a matter of private conscience, and, having persuaded the acute theologian that he would abide by the social-religious orthodoxy when it mattered, he found himself saved.

[1] An 1851 Fraser’s Magazine article delightfully titled “Gastronomy and Civilization” records one instance:

The wise man will not assume a distinction he has not attained. The philosopher, though he may be very positive about what he does know, is equally ready to admit what he is deficient in. “I am told you are a great epicure, Mr. Hume,” said a lady to the distinguished historian. “No, madam,” he replied, “I am only a glutton.” (609)

Hume was apparently fond of this distinction. While Crossing the Firth of Forth as the wind picked up, his companion Lady Wallace began to fear for their lives.

[Hume] casually observed that they might soon be food for fishes. “And who will they begin with?” cried out Lady Wallace in distress. “Why, Madam those of them that are gluttons will begin with me, and those that are epicures with your ladyship.” (Mossner 561-2, cf. Hill Burton 2:458-9)

[2] Hume had given Adam Smith charge of his manuscripts, but, fearing that Smith would not see the incendiary Dialogues through to publication, he added a codicil to his will such that ownership of the Dialogues would pass to his nephew David if they were not published within three years. As Hume guessed, Smith put off publication, and Hume’s nephew published the Dialogues in his stead.

[3] There are two print sources for the anecdote, both arriving long after Hume’s death: the Caldwell Papers (1854, 2:177-8) and Alexander Somerville’s Autobiography of a Working Man (1848, 4). Further discussion of the anecdote here and here.


Hume, David. Dialogues and Natural History of Religion. Ed. J. C. A. Gaskin. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993.

—. The Life and Correspondence of David Hume. Ed. John Hill Burton. 2 vols. Edinburgh: William Tait, 1846.

—. Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding. London: A. Millar, 1748.

M, M. “Gastronomy and Civilation.” Fraser’s magazine for town and country 44.264 (1851): 593-609.

Mossner, Ernst Campbell. The Life of David Hume. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980.

Selections from the Family Papers Preserved at Caldwell. Ed. William Mure. 2 vols. Glasgow, 1854.

Somerville, Alexander. The Autobiography of a Working Man. London: Charles Gilpin, 1848.

Stephen, Leslie. History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century. 2 vols. London: Smith Elder, 1876.

—. Mausoleum Book. Ed. Alan Bell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Penguin Classics, 2000.