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David Hume's Account of Luxury

by Andrew S. Cunningham
Journal of the History of Economic Thought ()
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Scholarly discussions of the eighteenth-century luxury controversy invariably acknowledge the important role of David Hume, usually identifying him as one of the first to have made a strong case against the traditional view that luxury is morally corrupt and inimical to the survival of the state. But, having said this, they tend to treat Hume rather summarily, often focusing exclusively on the 1752 essay “Of Refinement in the Arts” and generally agreeing with one leading commentator that “Hume's arguments are straightforward, and can be dealt with briefly.” On closer examination, however, it appears that Hume's treatment of luxury was more complex in its historical development, and more subtle in its final form, than some have supposed. The first part of the following discussion considers the historical progression of Hume's thinking while the second consists in an analysis of “Refinement,” with particular attention to an important but overlooked distinction between the appropriate moral and political responses to luxury.

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