Two Great Philosophers, the Dog That Divided Them

Article excerpt


On Jan. 10, 1766, two of Europe's most influential and enduring philosophers crossed the English Channel together. David Hume, the Scottish thinker and historian, brought the Swiss-born Jean Jacques Rousseau to England and, it was hoped, safety.

Nowhere on the continent, it seemed, was Rousseau welcome. Driven from city to city by irate officials who declared him persona non grata and publically burned his books, the author of "Emile," "On the Social Contract," and other works deemed deeply subversive feared for his life, as did the many admirers of his thought.

Hume believed Rousseau would prosper in relatively tolerant England, where the Swiss writer had many readers.

He was wrong. The two men were soon at odds, and their bickering turned into an unseemly spat of major proportions, news of which spread across intellectual Europe. Because of their celebrity, it became the subject of heated gossip from Paris to Berlin and Milan (and beyond), with many scrambling to discover the latest details.

Neither man emerged from the fight unblemished. Their dispute stands as a less than shining example of the pettiness, mendacity and downright meanness human beings are capable of, even those humans from whom better behavior might be expected.

In "Rousseau's Dog," British journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow offer a detailed and marvelously readable account of the spat that rocked Europe in the mid-1760s. A few years ago, Mr. Edmonds and Mr. Eidinow published their first book, "Wittgenstein's Poker." It, too, took up a difficult and unlikely subject, the great 20th-century thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

What's pleasing is that not only do Mr. Edmonds and Mr. Eidinow write surpassingly well, but they are also able to turn often complex material into splendid stories: page-turners, really, that give readers an understanding of ideas and lives they might not otherwise be tempted to explore.

Rousseau's and Hume's relationship hardly lasted four months before they separated, spewing venom in one another's direction. They never saw each other again. Part of the problem was Rousseau's natural paranoia, which many who knew him had encountered.

"In [Rousseau's] imagination, a vast conspiracy" took shape, the authors write, "in which Hume loomed up as the central figure." Rousseau, who wrote a 63-paragraph letter to Hume, accused his now former friend of disloyalty, of bringing him to England to do him in and of being in cahoots with the thousands of people in Europe who hated him.

Most of this wasn't true, of course. Hume's sole desire had been to do Rousseau a favor, or at least that's the way Hume saw it. But the Scottish philosopher, in part because he knew how powerfully Rousseau's writing could influence people's minds, reacted to the accusations with a fury that was out of character with his own past behavior or his philosophy.

The authors find "Hume's persistent mendacity his utter falsehoods, his economies with the truth, his deviousness" in the whole affair "perplexing." They cite 12 outright lies Hume told Rousseau that helped feed Rousseau's paranoia and give substance to his charges.

And they astutely suggest that Rousseau, the "apostle of truth and shrewd observer of motivation and personality," discerned in Hume "some lack of commitment to the truth, a certain looseness in Hume's respect for others . …