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Summer Reading: “Rousseau's Dog”

July 28, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Ecco, 2006) might have been better titled “When Philosophers Collide.” The book describes in detail a relationship that seemed to begin as a friendship but within a few months descended into hell. The year was 1766, and the two participants were Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) and Genevan novelist and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

I first read about the Hume/Rousseau affair in Chapter 6 of Ernest Campbell Mossner's delightful book The Forgotten Hume: Le Bon David (Columbia University Press, 1943) and desired to know if any historical re-evaluation had occurred in the past 60 years. Oddly, this earlier work of Mossner's is not included in Edmonds and Eidinow's bibliography, although Mossner's big biography of Hume certainly is.

In 1763, David Hume — his contributions to western civilization largely behind him — went to Paris as secretary to the British ambassador to France. Here he found himself admired and courted to an extent he had never experienced in either England or Scotland. He became le bon David. "It was taken as a measure of Hume's towering stature in Paris that he displaced [Samuel] Richardson and Laurence Sterne as the hallowed figure of English literature." (p. 66) Edmonds and Eidinow excel in conjuring the combination of social and intellectual activities that made up the salon life of pre-Revolutionary Paris.

At about this same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau found himself unwanted and liable to arrest in both his home country of Switzerland and his adopted country of France, primarily in connection with some rather anti-clerical passages in his book Émile. In 1765, Hume offered to help Rousseau flee to England, a country more tolerant of a free press. Rousseau agreed, and in January 1766 they crossed the Channel into England together with Sultan, Rousseau's precious dog and one of the few living beings who can give Rousseau what he desired most of all: unconditional love. "His affection for that creation is above all expression or conception," Hume said. (p. 4)

Rousseau had already earned the ire of many of the other figures of the French Englightenment, including Voltaire ("Jean-Jacques has gone off his head" (p. 33)), Denis Diderot, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert, and Baron d'Holbach, who warned Hume "You don't know your man. I will tell you plainly, you're warming a viper in your bosom." (p. 90) The "dog" of the title of this book really refers to something else Rousseau carried with him: "This agitated companion, just as inseparable as Sultan and forever growling at Rousseau's heels, was the writer's deeply rooted belief that the world was hostile and treacherous, ready at any moment to betray him." (p. 4) Rousseau was suspicious, paranoid, and notoriously sensitive and thin-skinned.

Although it must have seemed reasonable for Hume to take care of Rousseau in England, the only similarities between the two men were their ages and occupations. Other than that, they had virtually nothing in common. (Chapter 11 of Rousseau's Dog describes well just how distant in philosophy and temperment they actually were.) Even in the one area where their philosophies seemed to mesh — an opposition to organized religion — they came at this view from completely opposite directions.

The problems began early in their relationship: Even before they left France, on the road to Calais, Rousseau later said he awoke one night to hear Hume muttering in his sleep — in French, no less — "I hold Jean-Jacques Rousseau." Rousseau was later frightened by Hume's stare, he hated London, he couldn't speak English, he didn't want to meet George III, and he was frequently cranky, partially because his long-time partner (and former kitchen maid) Marie-Thérèse Le Vasseur had not made the initial trip. She was eventually escorted to England by James Boswell, who Hume once referred to as "A young gentleman, very good-humored, very agreeable, and very mad." (p. 112). Although the loose-trousered Boswell was almost 20 years younger than Marie-Thérèse, he just couldn't resist. As Boswell summed up the ten-day trip: "Wednesday, 12 February. Yesterday morning had gone to bed early, and had done it once: thirteen in all. Was really affectionate to her." (p. 118)

Rousseau didn't want charity, so any attempt to help him monetarily had to be disguised. These attempts were often clumsy, when then increased his suspicions of devious activity. Rousseau's persecution complex was so clearly recognized that a spoof letter began making the rounds. Purportedly from Frederic the Great, King of Prussia, the letter offered Rousseau asylum:

The letter eventually made it into a couple newspapers. Although the author was later revealed to be Horace Walpole, it was apparently based on a quip made by Hume. At some point, Rousseau decided that Hume was his enemy, and in June 1766 wrote him a letter accusing Hume of bringing him to England to dishonor him. (p. 182) This was followed in July with another letter containing full details of the plot.

Those who knew Rousseau weren't much surprised at this turn of events. But nobody expected le bon David to react quite as he did. Here was a man known for his moderation, his calm, his tolerance, his reticence to cause offence. Hume had removed chapters from his books so that people wouldn't be upset at his ideas. "In all my life, did I never meet with a being of a more placid and gentle nature," Laurence Sterne said. (p. 65) Apparently, the only thing in Hume's life that had ever made him piping-hot furious was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although many of Hume's friends warned him to just ignore Rousseau's ravings, Hume couldn't let it go, and he insisted on publishing a pamphlet detailing his defence.

What Hume was most afraid of, it seems, was Rousseau's autobiography. Everybody knew Rousseau was writing a book about his own life, and Hume was well aware of Rousseau's writing skills. Rousseau's public description of the events surrounding Hume could very well be as emotionally moving as Rousseau's other books and arouse worldwide sympathy. Hume felt he had to get out his version of the story before Rousseau entirely destroyed his reputation.

As it was, Rousseau's Confessions — written in part during Rousseau's stay in England and still regarded as a groundbreaking work of literature — stops short of his exodus from France, and any tarnishing of Hume's reputation was largely self-inflicted. In Rousseau's Dog, David Edmonds and John Eidinow come down quite hard on Hume: Rousseau couldn't help himself, but Hume knew much better.

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