The Magazine

Sense and Sensibility

No good deed of Hume's went unpunished by Rousseau.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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The Philosophers' Quarrel

Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding

by Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott

Yale, 264 pp., $27.50

"No man is a hero to his valet," the old adage goes. Nor to his biographer. And eminent men--poets, statesmen, or philosophers--are all the more vulnerable. Their personal lives may be seen as, at best, a distraction from whatever it is that makes them worthy of study.

The Philosophers' Quarrel, the account of a bizarre episode in the lives of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, lends itself to this objection. Yet it raises interesting questions beyond the scope of the book, not only such obvious ones as how the term "Enlightenment" can be used to embrace two such antithetical philosophers and their philosophies, but more general questions about the relation between the personal and the public, between ideas as they are conceived and as they are received, between philosophy as the philosopher understands it and as the historian sees it unfolding in history. Short of such perennial and perhaps insoluble issues, The Philosophers' Quarrel may be read as an "entertainment"--as Graham Greene said of his thrillers to distinguish them from his more serious works--about two characters in a novel that might have been written by Tom Wolfe.

The book opens with a memorable scene in London, on March 18, 1766, when the "quarrel" (a word that hardly does justice to that affair) erupted. Rousseau, a renowned exile from his own country ( mile had been pronounced heretical by the Archbishop of Paris), was living in England courtesy of Hume, who had escorted him from Paris three months earlier and had arranged accommodations for him in London. Now, Rousseau, tiring of London (another corrupt city, he decided, like Paris), was on his way, again through the efforts of Hume, to Wootton Hall, the estate of Hume's friend, Richard Davenport, in the north of England. He was spending the night in Hume's apartment when he realized that Davenport, wanting to spare him some of the expense of the trip, had secretly contributed to the coach fare.

Assuming that Hume knew of this subterfuge, Rousseau burst into the drawing room in a frenzy of indignation and outrage, accusing Hume of deceiving and humiliating him, treating him like a child or a "beggar on alms." Taken aback by the ferocity of the attack, Hume tried, in vain, to engage him in reasonable conversation. Rousseau was implacable until, after almost an hour, he suddenly leaped into Hume's lap, threw his arms around his neck, and covered his face with tears and kisses.

"Is it possible you can ever forgive me, my dear friend?" cried Rousseau. "After all the testimonies of affection I have received from you, I reward you at last with this folly and ill behavior. But I have notwithstanding a heart worthy of your friendship. I love you, I esteem you; and not an instance of your kindness is thrown away upon me." Weeping and overwhelmed by this display of emotion, Hume reassured Rousseau of his love and friendship. "I think no scene of my life," Hume wrote to a friend shortly afterwards, "was ever more affecting."

These, it must be remembered, were not adolescents or protagonists in a rather absurd romantic novel but mature and celebrated men, indeed, leading lights of the Enlightenments in their respective countries. Nor was it a transient episode occasioned by a moment of misunderstanding and misplaced passion, for the "quarrel" went on and assumed much larger dimensions. Nor was it merely a familiar example of that wise maxim, "No good deed goes unpunished," although it was that as well.

The affair had its origins four years earlier when Hume, then living in Paris, heard of Rousseau's plight, thought he was in hiding in Paris (he had, in fact, fled to Switzerland), and offered to find a haven for him in England and a pension from the royal treasury. "Of all the men of letters in Europe, since the death of Montesquieu," Hume wrote him, "you are the person whom I most revere, both for the force of your genius and the greatness of your mind." Rousseau was flattered but politely declined Hume's offer. Three years later, finding himself unwelcome in Switzerland, he accepted it. He was to return to Paris secretly, where he would join Hume before making their way to London.