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 two met on December 20, 1765, at the not-very-secret salon of the Countess of Conti. (The authorities turned a blind eye as Rousseau went to the opera, paraded in the Luxembourg Gardens in his peculiar dress--he had taken to wearing an Armenian-like caftan--and was publicly feted and celebrated.) Hume was also much taken with him. "I find him mild, and gentle and modest and good humoured," he reported, much like Socrates, both being "of very amorous complexions," although that too was "much to the advantage of my friend." Several weeks later in London, Hume used much the same words in writing to a French friend: Rousseau was "mild, gentle, modest, affectionate, disinterested, and above all endowed with a sensibility of heart in a supreme degree."

"Mild," "gentle," "modest"--that hardly describes the Rousseau who, the following month, created that dramatic scene of denunciation and reconciliation. Hume might have been reminded of another letter he had written earlier: "The philosophers of Paris foretold to me that I could not conduct him to Calais without a quarrel; but I think I could live with him all my life in mutual friendship and esteem." Among those philosophers was Baron d'Holbach, who had warned him, on the eve of their departure from Paris: "You do not know your man. I tell you plainly that you are nursing a viper in your bosom."

Hume had occasion to recall those warnings in the months to come, for Rousseau's declarations of remorse and love proved to be short-lived. The quarrel escalated as Rousseau found more reason to accuse Hume of deceit and betrayal. As soon as he arrived at Wootton Hall, referring again to the subterfuge about the coach fare, Rousseau wrote him "to stop playing once and for all these small tricks from which no good can come." To friends in Paris, Rousseau reported on other "sinister" circumstances. Hume "tampered" with his mail by opening letters forwarded to him and not sending others. (Hume had forwarded only a sampling of the letters because Rousseau had complained of the cost of postage.) And Hume was one of the "abettors" in the publication of anonymous letters intended to dishonor him. (The satirical letters were actually written, and were known to have been written, by Horace Walpole and Voltaire, who needed no abetting from Hume to get them published.)

All this time, while Rousseau was berating him personally and reviling him to others, Hume was negotiating, finally successfully, for the royal pension. Rousseau at first accepted it and then, after the Walpole incident, rejected it. What might have been a letter of thanks to Hume was a bitter denunciation. Hume had brought him to England, Rousseau complained, ostensibly to give him asylum, but really to "dishonor" him: "The public loves to be deceived, and you are made to deceive it." Rousseau was reminded of what he had said to Hume during that emotional scene in London: "If you were not the best of men, you must be the blackest." In view of his "secret conduct," Hume must now realize that he was not, indeed, "the best of men"--hence "the blackest." The letter concluded with Rousseau's refusal to have any further contact with Hume or "accept any affair in which you are a mediator, even if it is to my advantage."

Bewildered and hurt, Hume replied by professing his "unbounded and uninterrupted" friendship for Rousseau and asking to be told the name of the person who had been maligning him so that he could prove his innocence. Rousseau did write again, in spite of his earlier promise not to do so. That letter--38 folio pages (17 printed pages), carefully written and composed (it went through several heavily revised drafts)--was an even harsher indictment of Hume and, not incidentally, an impassioned testimonial to himself.

Hume had asserted his innocence, but it was Rousseau who portrayed himself as the true innocent. He did not "live in the world," he told Hume, and was ignorant of what went on in it. "I know only what I feel," and in presenting his case against Hume, "I will present the history of the movements of my soul." As in a judicial case, he proposed to speak of Hume in the third person, except that in this case Hume was to be not so much the defendant as the judge against himself.