Rousseau Had A Dog?

"Rousseau was mad but influential, Hume was sane but had no followers " - Bertrand Russell. "Here begins the work of darkness in which I found myself engulfed" - Rousseau, the Confessions. "No character in human society is more dangerous than that of the fanatic" - Hume

Ralph Blumenau, a retired teacher living in London, wrote in his review of this book: The authors have earned fame for a hugely successful earlier book, Wittgenstein's Poker, in which a poker played a symbolical part in the dispute between Wittgenstein and Popper. Rousseau's dog, Sultan, plays no such part in this book about the antagonism that developed between Rousseau and Hume. Only on the penultimate page is there a single paragraph in which the authors comment on the unconditional love between man and dog that was the yardstick by which Rousseau judged all other friendships and to which none of his other friendships could live up.

But the title might also have another explanation: two or three times in the text the authors have invented another "dog". The philosopher Grimm had written about the "companion who will not suffer him [Rousseau] to rest in peace", meaning the paranoid personality which he thought was Rousseau's alter ego. Grimm does not describe this alter ego as a dog, but the authors see it as one, doubtlessly having in mind that Winston Churchill had called his own depression his Black Dog.

When Rousseau was being driven from one place to another on the continent because the authorities there objected to his writings, David Hume, then serving at the British Embassy in Paris, had invited Rousseau to seek asylum in England, had brought him over in 1766, and intended to help him there in any way he could. Unfortunately Rousseau was by that time a florid paranoiac. Both in France and in England woundingly satirical but anonymous writings were circulating about him, and Rousseau suspected that the kindly Hume had had a hand in them and was plotting with his enemies against him. He wrote some bitter letters of accusation to Hume, and also denounced him in letters to his contacts on the continent, some of whom were also friends of Hume's, and this forced Hume into publishing his own defence.

The nature of the dispute between them was not of a philosophical kind at all unlike, say, that of the dispute between Wittgenstein and Popper or that between Leibniz and Spinoza, so brilliantly examined by Matthew Stewart in his recent book The Courtier and the Heretic. Of course it could have been about philosophy: Rousseau was committed to the romantic and emotional approach, Hume to the ultra-rational examination of philosophical issues; Rousseau had come to hate the ‘Philosophes’, Hume had greatly enjoyed their company while he was living in Paris. The dispute was not even overtly about their respective attitudes to society. Hume loved society and was at ease in it; Rousseau hated it and loved the solitary life.

Such differences between them are handsomely set out, but if the two great thinkers were indeed "at war in the Age of Enlightenment" (the subtitle of the book), it is sadly not possible to dignify that war as one caused by differences in philosophy or life-style. Indeed, our authors mention that in all the correspondence between Rousseau and Hume, "there is no dialogue or engagement about ideas", nor, to the best of my knowledge, did either of them take issue in print directly with the philosophical ideas of the other. Their war took the form exclusively of an attack by a paranoiac Rousseau on his benefactor, and then, because the paranoiac was at that time so famous, of Hume feeling forced (against the initial advice of his friends) into defending himself against the charges circulating against him in Europe, and doing so in an uncharacteristically intemperate and less than entirely honest manner. The story of the actual quarrel is well told. The authors give a judicious account of and carefully expose the inconsistencies in the cases of both contenders in this sad and pathetic story. Rousseau was a very sick man, but Hume, too, comes out it all rather worse than is perhaps commonly assumed.

In the end it was not any clash of ideas but merely gossip that excited the intellectuals of Europe about this dispute. It was a great "media story", but not a significant one. And like so many media stories, it was about personalities and not about issues. Although there are some good assessments of Rousseau's and Hume's importance in the history of Europe, the book focuses on what was least important, least stimulating, least edifying and least enduring about them. It is of course the authors' good right to give their book that focus. And it is a good read.

Who was wronged - Rousseau or Hume?

Posted August 4, 2007


Geoff Fox said...

Rousseau was clearly paranoid and was imagining wrongs from all sources but he was never ‘wronged’ by those he accused.

Hume knew and understood this as did the intellectuals of the period and Hume was therefore never wronged.

Hume should have let the matter lie instead of pouring salt into Rousseau’s perceived wounds but given his Scottish background that may not have been possible for him


Neil said...

As I read this book I felt a lot of sympathy for Rousseau and his paranoia because I have experienced similar feelings myself. Like Rousseau I have found myself in bad form for prolonged periods of time and have bitten the hand that has been helping me on many occasions throughout my life. I did not do so to the degree that Rousseau did and many times it was just an internal attitude that I controlled and did not make known … but it was there nevertheless and it is one of the big regrets that I have as I look back on my life.

I guess we all are similar to Rousseau in this way … he just was on the more extreme edge of the problem.


Avid Reader said...

Well well! The things one learns from a good book!

I guess at the bottom we all have our human foibles and the great among us are no different. But James Boswell the diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson takes the prize for me. Escorting Rousseau’s partner, Le Vasseur, the laundry and kitchen maid by whom Rousseau had five children to join Rousseau in England, Boswell spends the 10 days of the travel having sexual intercourse with her no less than 13 times.

Can you imagine it?

His initial attempt was ‘a fiasco’ and it was only after Le Vasseur comforted him that he regained some strength. He received a damning verdict on his performance: ‘I allow that you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art’ said Le Vasseur. Fortified with a bottle of red wine her advice was to be ‘ardent but gentle and not to hurry’. Also ‘he should make better use of his hands’

This is philosophy and history as I can take it any day of the week!


Janet Witherspoon said...

I liked this book a lot and have put in an order for their other book ‘Wittgenstein’s Poker’. The authors certainly give one an interesting twist to a very dry subject (philosophy) and their book reads like a best seller novel. Thank you for introducing me to it!

I didn’t know that Hume changed his surname from ‘Home’ and was the only one in is family to do so for the strange reason that “thae glaekit English buddies” made it rhyme with ‘combe’. To me that is an interesting insight into his personality.

Also interesting was the interview at the back of the book where they were discussing their three books on the disputes between Hume/Rousseau, Popper/Wittgenstein, and the chess match between Fischer/Spassky. David Edmonds said:

Wittgenstein has taught me about certainty, Hume about doubt, Fischer about getting things out of proportion, Spassky about keeping things in proportion, Rousseau about how not to manage friendship, and Popper about how not to deal with foes.

Great stuff!


Philip Kurian said...

Geoff and Neil

I thought that Rousseau might not have been so much ‘paranoid’ as actually living out the philosophy in which he believed. After all didn’t he believe that our judgements should be based on our feelings and not on our reason?

Given that Hume had misled Rousseau (for example in the event associated with the post chaise) albeit for understandably positive reasons, Rousseau must have ‘felt’ that Hume wasn’t acting in his best interest as a friend. Hume on the other hand was ‘reasoning’ that misleading Rousseau was for his own good.

Who is to say which of them was right in this matter and are we to believe that people who act ‘emotionally’ are all to one degree or another suffering from paranoia?


Diana Malcolm said...

Good point, Phil

Add to this the fact that the ‘reasoning’ Mr. Hume had a nervous breakdown in 1729. Perhaps Rousseau’s ‘breakdown’ just lasted most of his life?

Di Di

Roger Spenser said...


I can’t see how Rousseau lived out his principles. Two kings offered him financial assistance on an ongoing basis. Instead of accepting both offers immediately from those who could well afford to provide income for him, he refused one and quibbled incessantly about the other.

On the other hand he abandoned his five children, despite the objections of his ‘live-in sex slave,’ to the Foundling Hospital in Paris. Who did he think was going to pay to support them there? He passed his responsibilities off on to others!

Then he goes off and accepts assistance in Switzerland, France, and England biting the hands that were feeding him there.

He may have been a brilliant philosopher in theory but in the practical application of his beliefs he was a complete jerk.


Janet Witherspoon said...

Roger, The NY Times appears to agree with you. It's comment was that neither of these giants of philosophy lived in accordance with his famous principles.

I guess it is a legitimate question to ask - if the proponents of these philosophical principles can't themselves live by them then how useful are they?


Stan Preston said...

A guy that writes “my birth was the first of my misfortunes” as Rousseau wrote in the Confessions is never going to achieve happiness.


Elizabeth Murray said...


To be fair to Rousseau he was surely wronged by Denis Diderot.

When the latter was locked up in Vincennes prison and badly needed company the only one that visited him on a regular basis (every other day) was Rousseau and he had to walk six miles one way in the heat of summer to do this.

How did Diderot repay that act of friendship? In his play “The Natural Son” he put in a line aimed at Rousseau which said that The good man lives in society; only a wicked man lives alone.

That hurt Rousseau and one must wonder why Diderot repaid his friendship in this way.

Reason rules!