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Food for Thought

David et Jean-Jacques

Tim Madigan describes the original odd couple.

“I have always wondered why I so greatly enjoy the writings of Hume but do not get much pleasure from reading defenses of very similar positions by Mill. The only explanation I can think of is that Hume had a warmth and humor that Mill lacked.” – Paul Edwards in God and the Philosophers

My good friend the late Paul Edwards, editor-in-chief of the monumental Encyclopedia of Philosophy, often told me that of all the philosophers who ever lived, David Hume is the one he most wished he could have met. For him Hume embodied the virtues of rigorous thinking, opposition to superstition, and joy in living. But most of all, unlike so many of the historical figures Edwards’ encyclopedia detailed, Hume seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. This view was shared by Hume’s contemporaries, including such friends of his as his fellow Scots the biographer James Boswell, the chronicler of the life of Samuel Johnson (who detested Hume’s impiousness), and economist Adam Smith. As D.G.C. McNabb writes in his entry on Hume in the Encyclopedia: “Hume was a deservedly popular figure in the literary world of the period. Sociable, witty, kind, ingenuous in his friendships, innocently vain, and devoid of envy, he was known to French friends as ‘le bon David’, and in Scotland as ‘Saint David’.”

Yet, while he may have been rightly known for his kindness and good humor, ‘Saint David’ did not always demonstrate the patience of a saint. In fact, it was the break-up in 1766 of a friendship with another famed philosopher and habitué of French literary circles, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which caused him to lose his cool in a spectacular manner – much to the pleasure of Rousseau’s long-time adversary Voltaire, as well as others who had warned Hume to stay far away from the Sage of Geneva. For amazingly enough, Hume and Rousseau for a brief period were travelling companions, and the former offered the latter sanctuary in England in order for Rousseau to escape from his many enemies, both real and imagined. Beginning as the best of pals, Hume and Rousseau managed rather quickly to get on each other’s nerves in ways far surpassing that other famous Odd Couple in the eponymous play by Neil Simon, namely Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Indeed, one could say that David and Jean-Jacques were the original Felix and Oscar.

While Hume did not necessarily share Felix Unger’s prissiness and fastidiousness, he was an orderly fellow, noted for his calm temper and reasonableness, and his rather conventional manners. Rousseau, on the other hand, had a well-earned reputation for outrageous behavior, and had long demonstrated tendencies towards irascibility, suspicion and anger. And, like Oscar, he was considered uncouth and slovenly by many. What could possibly cause Hume to befriend such a wild man?

Hume first made the acquaintance of Rousseau while serving as a secretary to the British Ambassador in Paris in 1765. He was eager to make a connection with this noted figure, and was initially sympathetic both to Rousseau’s critiques of religion, and to his brilliant ideas about human nature. Hume himself was at the time a frustrated philosopher, his Treatise having fallen “still-born from the press” and his literary reputation resting mainly on his historical writings. No doubt he welcomed the chance to converse with someone whose views on emotions seemed so similar to his own – little realizing that it was emotions that would ultimately lead to the two of them falling out in so spectacular a way.

In 1765 Rousseau was a man on the run. His works On the Social Contract and Émile had been publicly condemned by civil and religious figures, and a mob had attacked his home. Feeling unsafe in either Paris or his native Geneva, he had singularly managed to unite Catholic and Protestant officials in a common cause – no easy feat in those days of religious warfare – albeit that cause was denouncing Rousseau for sacrilege. Unsure of where to go or what to do, Rousseau was delighted when his new-found friend Hume offered to find him shelter, and perhaps even a state pension, back in England. Whether this arch-critic of state authority saw any irony in being offered government assistance is an interesting question, but since England and France were at loggerheads, it made sense for George III to support a high-profile detractor of Louis XVI. So Rousseau gratefully accepted Hume’s kind offer.

In January 1766 the two men traveled together to London, and Hume wrote to a colleague about his new friend that “I find him mild and gentle and modest and good humoured” – appellations not normally attributed to the volatile Rousseau, and more properly applied to Hume himself. But before they left Paris, the Baron d’Holbach, the illustrious encyclopedist who knew Rousseau all too well, warned Hume that he was “warming a viper in your bosom.” His prediction soon came true.

Finding London too noisy and crowded, Rousseau demanded accommodation in the countryside, which Hume was able to find for him. But this too proved unsatisfactory, and Rousseau (who knew no English, and had difficulty conversing with the villagers) also demanded that his long-time mistress, Th érêse le Vasseur, and his dog Sultan, be brought over to join him. When the promised pension from King George III was not forthcoming, Rousseau, always prone to seeing conspiracies, began to doubt Hume’s honesty and integrity. The more Hume tried to help, the more Rousseau began to question his motives. When anonymous poems poking fun at Rousseau started appearing, he immediately assumed they had been penned by Hume, who was in fact completely unaware of their existence. Rousseau, as was his wont, retaliated by writing letters to his French associates denouncing Hume for perfidious behavior. When he finally got wind of what was being said about him, Hume, always slow to anger, was at first shocked, and then embittered. He cherished the reputation he had acquired in France as a true gentleman and wit, and did not appreciate being the object of Rousseau’s calumny. In the words of William Butler Yeats’ poem Under Ben Bulben, “Know that when all words are said / And a man is fighting mad / Something drops from eyes long blind.” Hume retaliated by writing a detailed blistering attack on Rousseau. The two became engaged in an Eighteenth Century version of a ‘flame war’, and their various friends chimed in. Rousseau, now feeling vindicated over his accusations, left England, never to return. His friendship with Hume lasted barely half a year.

The last laugh, as it were, came from Hume’s friend James Boswell, who proved to be the true betrayer of trust. While Hume and Rousseau were fighting, Boswell, a notorious lothario, accompanied Th érêse to London, where they had a torrid affair. He claimed rather ungallantly in his journals that she wore him out with her incessant love-making. Meanwhile, Rousseau’s long-time enemy Voltaire took malicious joy in commenting on the situation. As he was to later write of Rousseau: “I have always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: ‘My God, make our enemies very ridiculous.’ God has granted it to me.”

Two recent books have examined the Hume/Rousseau relationship in detail: Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment (Harper Perennial, 2007) by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, authors of the bestselling Wittgenstein’s Poker (another work about a noted philosophical feud, that between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper); and The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding (Yale University Press, 2009), by Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott. Edmonds and Eidinow seem to side more with Rousseau, Zaretsky and Scott more with Hume, but both books make a point of setting the quarrel within the broader context of the intellectual milieu of the time, as well as showing how it exemplifies the growing separation between Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers.

I must admit that as someone who has had more than my fair share of interactions with cantankerous and mentally-unstable philosophical types, my sympathies lie with Hume; but I do appreciate the tender care that Rousseau showed for his beloved Sultan. Anyone who loved his dog so much can’t be all bad. Even Paul Edwards, another fervent canine admirer, might concur.

The whole contretemps should not be blown out of proportion, and too much hay can be made out of this rather minor episode in the lives of two of philosophy’s most noted figures. But if nothing else, it does provide a lesson hard-learned by the patient and kindly ‘Saint David’: no good deed goes unpunished. Or, as that wise philosopher Harry Truman once said about life in Washington, if you want a true friend, get a dog.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2011

Like Oscar Madison, Tim Madigan believes Alcibiades was ridiculous.

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