The Odd Couple

The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding by Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott

Books History Philosophy

At midnight on 6 September 1765, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was wakened by the sound of breaking glass. A hail of stones was coming through the windows of his home, a modest house in the village of Môtiers, in the Jura mountains. When his landlord later visited the scene, he looked at the pile of stones and said, “Good God, it’s an absolute quarry!”

Rousseau had moved to this village to escape persecution in France, where the Archbishop of Paris had whipped up a campaign against him. Môtiers had seemed the ideal safe haven. Its inhabitants were Protestant and it belonged not to France but to the principality of Neuchâtel (today part of Switzerland, but then a territory ruled by Prussia). Yet the philosopher’s talent for making enemies transcended all national and confessional boundaries. His latest book, Letters Written from the Mountain, had scandalised pious Calvinists and had insulted the government of Geneva for good measure. Now the minister of Môtiers was denouncing him from the pulpit. It was time to go.

But where to? Various unlikely options were considered, including Corsica and Silesia. One country, however, offered the two things Rousseau most strongly desired: freedom from persecution and an appreciative public. That country was Great Britain, already famed as a land of liberty (thanks to its idealisation by Voltaire) and increasingly respected as a vibrant centre of intellectual life.

By good chance, one of the most famous British intellectuals, David Hume, was not only living in Paris at the time, but was also sympathetic to Rousseau’s cause. A few years earlier, at the request of a Parisian literary lady, Hume had written out of the blue to Rousseau, offering him refuge on British soil. That offer was now at last taken up and, in January 1766, the two men travelled together from Paris to London.

They made a very odd couple. The French philosopher (or rather, Swiss – he was born in Geneva) was a small, gesticulating man with animated features and a bizarre taste in clothes: wearing what he called an Armenian caftan, he sought (like Lawrence of Arabia in the Beyond the Fringe sketch) to pass unnoticed in the street. Hume was a large, portly figure with an amiable but bovine face and a strangely vacant stare. He dressed conventionally; indeed, convention was something in which he – unlike Rousseau – rather strongly believed.

The intellectual differences went deeper than that. Rousseau idealised natural innocence and saw the socialisation of mankind as a process of corruption. Modern man was an alienated being, and radical changes were needed to remedy that. For Hume, the civilising process in human history involved a complex web of interactions, through which moral behaviour was learned and refined, and political institutions were settled and gradually improved.

Yet these two very contrasting thinkers did have some common ground. While both were products of the “Age of Reason”, neither believed that reason, as such, had any motive power: sentiment and sympathy were the generating forces of human behaviour. Both, too, had suffered from the disapproval of the ecclesiastical authorities (Calvinism being the doctrinal bedrock of Edinburgh as well as Geneva). On religious issues, indeed, Hume was the more radical of the two. While Rousseau preached his own portentous brand of “natural religion”, Hume demolished all theological arguments, including “natural” ones.

With such very different temperaments, and largely different beliefs, it is a miracle that the warm friendship between them lasted as long as it did – which is to say, six months on Hume’s side and about three on Rousseau’s. While Hume exerted himself to honour and help his friend (commissioning his portrait; finding him a country retreat; even engineering the offer of a royal pension), Rousseau was spinning a web of dark suspicions, in which every offer of help was a malignant trick or a downright humiliation.

To Hume’s astonishment, Rousseau sent him, from his rural retreat in Staffordshire, a long, denunciatory letter, in which every detail of the Scotsman’s behaviour – even his blank stare – was solemnly held up as evidence. The text was clearly designed for publication. So Hume reluctantly decided to get his retaliation in first, by publishing the letter, his comments and a mass of other evidence proving his innocence and good faith. Yet such was the cult of Rousseau that most people in France, and many in England, took Rousseau’s side. Hume, bruised and battered, and vindicated only among his friends, retired from the fray.

This is the story which two American professors, Robert Zaretsky and John Scott, set out to tell. They recount it with elegance and sympathy (and some dry humour), and manage to get much of the lives of these two thinkers, plus major walk-on parts for Boswell and Voltaire, into a fairly short book.

At first, one assumes that the account of Hume’s run-in with Rousseau will become a springboard for the study of their contrasting philosophies – as the subtitle suggests. But gradually one realises that the personal story is the real subject of the work; this is a book about a biographical episode, in which it just so happens that the psychological questions arising from it shade off delicately into philosophical issues about passion, reason and belief.

For the most part, this task is so well performed that one can confidently recommend this book as a user-friendly entrée into the world of 18th-century intellectual life. But there is one very strange error. The authors declare that Hume is “unnamed” in Rousseau’s Confessions; whereas book 12 of that work not only contains a discussion of Hume, but also describes how Rousseau was urged to put himself in Hume’s hands by one of the Parisian literary ladies, and implies that that lady, on a visit to Môtiers, secretly incited the stoning of his house. So those stones were really thrown at him not by the local peasants, but by a distant, malign and Scottish invisible hand.

Let us not beat about the bush here. Rousseau had become a paranoiac. Psychology and philosophy can wander hand-in-hand in all kinds of fascinating ways; but there must come a point, on the descent into mental illness, where philosophy has to stop and wave goodbye.