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Giants in petty strife

22 May 2006

9:56 AM

22 May 2006

9:56 AM

Rousseau’s Dog David Edmonds and John Eidinow

Faber, pp.405, 15.99

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‘In London, if a man have the misfortune to attach himself to letters, I know not with whom he is to live, nor how he is to pass his time in suitable society.’ David Hume was notorious for preferring Edinburgh’s intellectual life to London’s, but the city where the philosopher was most successful, at least socially, was Paris. He was sent there in 1763 as secretary to the ambassador, the Earl of Hertford, and was feted as ‘le bon David’. ‘In Paris,’ Hume wrote, ‘a man that distinguishes himself in letters meets immediately with regard and attention.’

Hume’s remark about the anti-intellectualism of the English remains true to this day, but he was to some extent the cause of it. A resolute atheist, Hume advocated burning all books which contained neither mathematics nor experimental science, saying they contained nothing but ‘sophistry and illusion’. The consequence is that the British empiricism with which his name is associated has deteriorated into the pettifogging analytical philosophy of today, a hideous caricature of the scholasticism it claims to reject. In France, by contrast, philosophy remains the queen of the sciences. Educated people there are expected to be familiar with the outlines of the history of philosophy and to be acquainted with metaphysics and theology.


It was through friends in Paris that, in late 1765, Hume contacted Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose own books were being burned in Switzerland and who was on the run from arrest warrants in both France and his native Geneva. In spite of a warning that he was ‘clasping a viper to his breast’ (the philosophical father of the French Revo- lution was known to be emotionally unstable and vain) Hume did bring the French superstar to England and even used his high-level political contacts to persuade King George III to pay him a pension. He eventually arranged for Rousseau to stay in a stately home in Staffordshire, where the exile enjoyed long walks and indulged his interest in botany.

Although they were initially attracted by mutual respect, Hume and Rousseau soon fell out. Hume was famous for being congenial and urbane, Rousseau was a loner and a crank. One night in 1766, Rousseau dined and stayed with Hume and initially took huge umbrage at some trifle; he then made an emotional amends, covering an embarrassed Hume with kisses, but continued to nurture doubt about the Scotsman’s true intentions. He became sucked into a spiral of paranoid fantasy that his benefactor was in fact orchestrating a vast conspiracy against him to calumniate him in the press. Hume, supposedly a man of reason and equanimity, in turn over-reacted to Rousseau’s charges, called him a liar, and published a short book denouncing him, at great cost to his own reputation.

This is now the third book David Edmonds and John Eidinow have published on rows or contests between great men, the previous two being on Wittgenstein v. Karl Popper and Bobby Fischer v. Boris Spassky. It is elegantly written and exquisitely researched, the authors’ minute attention to detail being perfectly suited to the absurd minutiae which seem to provide the Archimedean point for all really big fallings-out. The book is also a delightful account of life in 18th-century London and Paris, and it authoritatively fills the gap in the literature on Rousseau concerning his time in England. There is also plenty of interesting discussion of who knew whom in British and French intellectual circles, the various titans seeming all to be intimate with one another up to and including the fact that James Boswell ‘did it’ with Rousseau’s mistress ‘13 times’ during their journey together from Paris to Chiswick.

On the other hand, it is depressing that the authors seem to assume that only trivia can interest the book-reading public in this country. That Rousseau and Hume had a row is probably one of the least interesting things about the life of either man. The book’s title, moreover, is not only naff but also misleading, since Rousseau’s dog (thankfully) makes only the briefest of appearances. What a difference from France, where the books which sit out on the tables in Paris bookshops never descend into this sort of camp gossip. But it was doubtless ever thus. The only kindred spirit Rousseau seems ever to have discovered in this country was the Duchess of Portland: she certainly made no attempt to study his radical philosophical ideas, and would probably have found them frightfully non-U if she had. The two did, however, share an interest in gardening.


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