Monday, August 13, 2007

Rousseau Bites

In Rousseau's Dog David Edmonds and John Eidinow embark upon an impossible task. They aspire to make Hume seem less than a saint. Their strategy is equally quixotic: to find Hume guilty in the affair with Rousseau. Their book is exhaustively researched, but its argument pivots on innuendo. On conflicting accounts of their first quarrel:
Another discrepancy is over the nature of Rousseau's apology. In Hume's version, Rousseau is apologizing for his folly and ill behaviour; in Rousseau's version, the apology concerns Hume's character. Unquestionably, Rousseau's record of Hume's stilted reaction – so reminiscent of the Scotsman's embarrassing inarticulateness when playing the sultan in Paris to the two slaves – has the ring of veracity.
One need not be as sceptical as Hume to question an inference from his awkward reaction to the prospect of a public seduction to the cold reception of a private apology. The authors cite no other evidence.

They are willing to speculate elsewhere, too, always on behalf of Rousseau. When Madame de Boufflers ignores his letter vilifying Hume, they wonder whether "[perhaps] she recognized that some of his remarks about Hume were justified"; and they all but endorse the unprovable allegation that Hume was responsible for the nastiest quip in a fabricated letter from the King of Prussia written by Horace Walpole:
If you persist in perplexing your brains to find out new misfortunes, choose such as you like best; I am a king and can make you as miserable as you wish.
Rousseau was mad: neurotic, paranoid, aggressive, leaving a trail of broken friendships across Europe on his way to England. But it is Hume who is described in lunatic terms, writing "berserk letters to d'Holbach" – these have been conveniently destroyed; there is no evidence for claims about the "extraordinary violence" of their language – and exhibiting signs of "mania":
Perhaps the moral of the whole sad encounter is that while sane men cannot make madmen sane, madmen can make sane men mad. In his momentary madness, fury, and panic, Hume never grasped the root of Rousseau's complaint: that though Hume had carried out the obligations of a friend in practice, he was constitutionally incapable of doing so in spirit.
This is savage to Hume, who was loved by so many, and insanely generous to Rousseau. Do our authors forget the true cause of Rousseau's suspicions, which they carefully document? By his own account, Rousseau was terrified on the journey to Calais by Hume's muttering to himself, "Je tiens, Jean-Jacques Rousseau" and terrified again by his stare after dinner, "a frightening look that no honest man would ever have encountered." He suspected the domestic staff at a château in Normandy of being Hume's agents.

Rousseau was pursued by phantoms, not by the failure of others to conform to his demand for spiritual friendship. And Hume was rightly afraid that his reputation would be harmed by the brilliant, vindictive rhetoric of his accuser. With the appearance of this book, Hume's fear is finally justified.


Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

For a somewhat similar critique of an earlier book by the same authors, on Popper and Wittgenstein, see the article by Tim Smiley published here.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Siris replies, quite reasonably, that Hume was not a saint, and that he reacted badly to Rousseau's accusations. I don't disagree: my previous post on Hume was titled "vanity," a flaw that presumably explains the depth of his fury with Rousseau. What I find much harder to accept is that Hume's occasional lies about the price of a carriage or having paid the postage for Rousseau's mail do anything to justify his accuser, whose charges in any case rest on paranoid interpretations of imagined mutterings and a stare that filled him with "inexpressible terror."

12:35 PM  

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