ROUSSEAU'S DOG: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Englightenment

David Edmonds & John Eidinow
HarperCollins ($25.95)

by Allan Vorda

Rousseau's Dog, a book with a strange title, is the fascinating reconstruction of an argument between two of the greatest thinkers of the 18th century: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume. How this argument evolved from a satiric letter mocking Rousseau and snowballed across the intellectual society of Europe is brought to life in shimmering detail by David Edmonds and John Eidinow.

This is a story of two great thinkers who became close friends only to become bitter enemies. It is surprising they could become friends since they were polar opposites in almost every way: Rousseau was combative and paranoid; Hume mild-mannered and decent.

Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711. Initially a student of law, he was drawn to philosophy and in his mid-twenties wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, a brilliant philosophical work that was not well-received upon publication. Eventually, Hume's Treatise was recognized as a seminal study of the philosophical concept known as empiricism. Due to the magnitude of Hume's Treatise, the authors consider Hume to be one of the five greatest philosophers ever.

Hume would later become famous as a historian (for The History of England) and an essayist. In contemporary terminology, Hume would probably be considered a geek or dork. Or, as 17-year old James Caulfield (later to become Lord Charlemont) wrote of Hume: "His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility. His eyes vacant and spiritless, and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than of a refined philosopher."

Nevertheless, Hume was a gentle and likeable person, especially well-received by the intelligentsia of Parisian society during his time as a diplomat in France. He did not believe in God or an afterlife, yet did his best to downplay his religious viewpoints for fear of alienating his audience.

Rousseau was a totally different animal. He was born in 1712 in Geneva, a city-state steeped in Calvinism. At 16, he fled Geneva, eventually ending up in France. Rousseau was a skilled musician who, before he was 30, had begun "to construct a radical new system for musical notation, the fundamental idea being to substitute numbers for visual signs."

Even so, his life was unremarkable until 1749 when he entered and won an essay contest for Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. Overnight, he was a national sensation. He would gain fame (and infamy) with several books covering different genres: Of the Social ContractEmileHeloise, and The Confessions—ostensibly the first autobiography ever written and still considered a classic. To give an example of his autobiographical eloquence: "My birth was the first of my misfortunes."

Whereas Hume was all reason, doubt, and skepticism, "Rousseau was a creature of feeling, alienation, imagination, and certainty." Rousseau's religious beliefs alienated virtually everyone. He thought religions were based on superstition and were unnecessary. Strangely enough, because he was so in tune with Nature, he saw God in mountains, waterfalls, flowers, and trees. For Rousseau, God was to be found through introspection.

Due to writings which challenged the very essence of societal and religious beliefs, Rousseau was literally stoned and forced to flee for his life from Switzerland. He escaped back to his adopted country of France, but before long a warrant was issued for his arrest. It was here that Hume intervened and offered Rousseau safety in England. They arrived in Dover on January 10, 1766. A few weeks later, the lusty James Boswell (the biographer of Samuel Johnson) accompanied Rousseau's life-long mistress (Therese Le Vasseur) to England, during which they had a short-term affair.

Initially, everything was fine. Rousseau was the toast of London and as well-received as Hume had been in Paris. Problems developed, however, due to the extremely independent and finicky nature of Rousseau: he did not want to accept gifts and insisted on finding the perfect place to live. Hume secretly arranged a carriage to transport Rousseau and Le Vasseur to their new home, but Rousseau was upset to receive any charity and admonished Hume.

All of his actions seemed to exacerbate Hume who was simply trying to help. Hume was also maneuvering to get a royal pension for Rousseau so he could have an income, but had to go behind his back since he wouldn't accept any outright gifts. On top of all this, he and Le Vasseur could not communicate in English which further increased Rousseau's paranoia—enflamed, perhaps, during their crossing of the English Channel: they were sleeping in a cabin bed when Rousseau awoke with Hume repeatedly muttering, "I hold Jean-Jacques Rousseau." Aside from the homosexual connotation, Rousseau interpreted these words as part of some great conspiracy against him.

The catalyst for the argument between Rousseau and Hume originated in a satiric letter written by Horace Walpole, but which Walpole signed as Frederick the Great—the King of Prussia and a friend of Rousseau. This mocking letter, which was published in England and France, was the final straw Rousseau saw as a diabolical plot against his character. Even though Walpole admitted to being the author of this Swiftian "letter of levity," Rousseau blamed Hume.

What followed was a litany of letters between both men with various accusations and denials. It must be pointed out that Hume was present when Walpole wrote the letter and likely contributed caustic remarks which Walpole incorporated. Hume was just as concerned about his reputation and honor as Rousseau, and began to write letters to defend himself, often altering the facts to put himself in a better light.

Edmonds and Eidinow have done a splendid job in recreating a significant historical moment which had been generally lost over time. It is their opinion that "with the exception of Nietzsche, probably no philosopher's reputation has fluctuated so dramatically as Rousseau's." While they rate The Confessions as "a literary masterpiece," Rousseau's reputation has indeed fluctuated; Hume's, on the other hand, has "steadily climbed."

These British writers, to their credit, go against the grain of conventional thinking—Rousseau would have loved this—and make the case Hume was not an innocent party to this whole lurid affair as previously construed. If anything, Hume mis-created the facts in various letters to make himself look better because he himself was paranoid about appearing in a bad light in Hume's autobiography. Ironically, Rousseau barely mentioned Hume at all.

The authors of Rousseau's Dog have provided an illuminating account of two of mankind's greatest thinkers; they present a balanced view of both men, which makes the reader contemplate if Edmonds and Eidinow each focused on one particular writer. When I wrote asking them to clarify this, this is the response I received: "We're often asked this question, and the answer is that we both work on all parts of the book: obviously there has to be a starting point—one of us will kick off a particular chapter—but we then send chapters back and forth so often that by the end we're not sure who wrote what."

Naturally, this author's comment was unsigned, and thus just as ambiguous as the authorship I was questioning. What is not ambiguous is that Rousseau's Dog is a book well worth reading.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006