This book is about the break-up of the short friendship between David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the response to it by the “republic of letters” in Europe at the time, and what it intimates for us today.

The story is this: Rousseau’s friends, fearful for his safety in France, asked Hume to find him safe refuge in England. Hume had no prior acquaintance with Rousseau, but he was able to arrange a house with servants in the North of England and a pension from George III. The friend who supplied the house also paid for a private carriage to take the penniless Rousseau on the long trip from London to the North. Knowing about Rousseau’s fierce independence, Hume’s friend told a white lie: he said that because of chance circumstances there was a carriage Rousseau could have at a nominal fee. Rousseau discovered the ruse before leaving London and berated an astonished Hume for about an hour. He then suddenly ran to Hume, embraced him, sat on his lap, hugged him to his cheek, and asked forgiveness for what he had said. Both men were brought to tears.

Yet Rousseau continued to brood over the matter and recalled an earlier incident at an inn when Hume had muttered in his sleep: “Je tiens Jean-Jacques.” Later, Rousseau was satirized by Horace Walpole, an acquaintance of Hume’s. Rousseau concluded that Hume was involved in a plot to persecute him, wrote a long and careful letter accusing him of malicious intent, and broke off relations. Some of Rousseau’s closest friends vouched for Hume but to no effect. Astonished and hurt, Hume concluded that Rousseau was mean-spirited and probably mad. Since he feared that his character would be blackened in the autobiography that Rousseau was writing, he published their correspondence. This unleashed an intense Europe-wide quarrel between the partisans of Hume and Rousseau.

The authors of this book call the affair “An Enlightenment Quarrel” and “An Enlightenment Tragedy.” Their stated goal is “to tell the story of the brief and dramatic friendship between Hume and Rousseau, and point to the implications it may have for the Enlightenment’s conception of human reason and understanding.” The strength of the book is that the story told is a pleasure to read. Zaretsky and Scott open a window into the 18th-century republic of letters. The rich array of the characters who entered the lives of Hume and Rousseau are woven into the plot: Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire, Comtesse de Bouffler, Julie de Lespinasse, Turgot, Condorcet, Boswell, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Horace Walpole, Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Erasmus Darwin, Frederick II, Louis XV, Prince de Conti, David Garrick, and many others. And the story is a page-turner, graced with colorful episodes, disregard of temporal order, flashbacks, and dramatic reversals.


The weakness of the book, however, is that it provides only the vaguest account of how this quarrel reveals limits to “the Enlightenment’s conception of human reason and understanding.” There is no explanation of what is meant by Enlightenment. Weighty and philosophically contested terms such as “reason,” “nature,” and “feeling” are used without definition. And when philosophical claims are made about these contested notions, they are presented intermittently, almost as side comments. Nor is it always clear how the remarks about reason and its limits cohere with what has been said elsewhere, perhaps a hazard of having two authors. There is no attempt to offer an evaluation of either philosopher’s conception of understanding nor any attempt to determine who had the better side of the quarrel.

Though we are informed at the beginning that the “relevance [of their critiques of reason] for our own age is clear: religious fanatics and philosophical reactionaries hounded Hume and Rousseau throughout their lives,” we are never told who those counterparts are today or by whom they are being hounded. The quarrel between Hume and Rousseau is said to “pose the question of the relationship between ideas and life, thinking and living.” The authors lament the fact that philosophy today is something done by academic bureaucrats and not, as it was for the ancients, “an art of living, a method for aligning our lives with our thoughts.” They rightly say that this was not true of the Enlightenment, an age in which the public began again to look to philosophers as guides. Hume and Rousseau were walking (if conflicting) icons of the Enlightenment. Their “lives, and not merely their thought,” held a fascination for their contemporaries and still do for us today. It is the “unintended lessons of their work and lives,” more than of their theorizing, from which the authors think we have something to learn. Sadly, those lessons are not clearly explained; the reader is left to tease them out.

One explanation of the quarrel is that Hume and Rousseau worked with incommensurable notions of truth and understanding. For Hume, truth was gained through critically correcting judgments in common life by publicly ascertainable standards. For Rousseau, “truth was no longer located outside ourselves, but instead was within our self.” Truth is “loyalty to one’s self.” The philosopher’s task is to “cultivate the sentiments of existence.” The tragedy of the quarrel, say the authors, was that “Hume was incapable of seeing that Rousseau represented an alternative way of knowing that went, in a certain sense, beyond reason to regions reached only through the imagination and the passions.” Even if there were such knowing and such regions, the question of whether Hume was guilty of a conspiracy to persecute Rousseau does not concern them. That is a question of fact to be determined, as Hume rightly understood, by the ordinary canons of evidence.

Hume worked out the first systematic critique of modern ideologies, an achievement that has not been surpassed by later critics such as Burke, Oakeshott, and Voegelin. It is surprising that the authors make nothing of it. Nor do they avail themselves of the considerable philosophical literature on Hume and Rousseau’s respective critiques of reason.

In his first book, Hume said, “Generally speaking the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” But this was only a contingent matter, for the ancient “Cynics … from reasonings purely philosophical ran into as great extravagancies of conduct as any Monk or Dervise that was ever in the world.” He observed that philosophy was more fanatical in the ancient world than religion. Philosophy becomes pathological when cut off from the pre-reflective inheritance of common life. Hume argued that a serious attempt to emancipate oneself from the pre-reflective ends in total skepticism. True philosophers understand this, and seek only to methodize and correct judgments within the framework of common life. The false philosopher is self-deceived, because he denies the authority of the pre-reflective and at the same time is unknowingly guided by it. The lives of the false philosophers, Hume says, are lived in a “vacuum.” They “are in a different element from the rest of mankind” and “no one can answer for what will please or displease them.” Such were Diogenes and Rousseau.

The Enlightenment was an attempt to supplant religion with philosophy. Philosophers began to be seen as public figures, both as scandals and as objects of emulation. In this new public space, Rousseau cut a figure. He led an “artificial life” in the “vacuum” of false philosophy. Rousseau was the first philosopher to become a public personality, inspiring contempt, horror, and adoration. Hume observed that Rousseau was more a subject of gossip than kings and aristocrats. People eagerly sought to know everything about him: his mistress, his dress, his manners, and his dog. Even Hume momentarily lost his balance: as Rousseau’s protector, he basked in his glory and notoriety. He enjoyed showing him around and gushed that he could live with him in intimacy forever.

Yet what initially bound Hume to Rousseau—and to many of his Enlightenment friends in France—was not agreement about substantive philosophical and moral matters so much as a ritualistic anti-clericalism. The Enlightenment was in its youth. Its positive content had yet to be explored and held up to critical review. Hume’s profound distinction between true and false philosophy had not entered the minds of the philosophes who were plunging headlong into the project of replacing religion with philosophy.

Hume was not sanguine about this: for him, everything depended on whether the dominant philosophy would be the true or the false. A culture dominated by false philosophy could be worse than one dominated by religion. As Hume’s career developed, his youthful claim—that the errors of religion were dangerous; those of philosophy merely ridiculous—began to change. The Rousseau affair shocked him into recognizing an emerging mass philosophical consciousness, more inclined to false philosophy than the true. Rousseau’s “artificial life” with its world-inverting teachings could be dangerous if taken seriously and acted out by that mass audience. The tendency of Rousseau’s writings, Hume said, “is surely rather to do hurt than Service to Mankind.”

It was at this time that Hume’s other “Enlightenment” friendships began to unravel: with Holbach, D’Alembert, and Turgot. But it was in the emergence of mass political parties, shaped by a corrupt philosophical consciousness—what we know as political ideologies— that he saw the greatest danger. These, he said, “are known only to modern times, and are, perhaps, the most extraordinary phenomenon, that has yet appeared in human affairs.” World-inverting “artificial lives” are harmless in an eccentric, but disastrous when attempted by an entire society and enforced by the state.

We have had two centuries to explore what the Enlightenment had to offer. Its enemy, the Church, had a lot to answer for. We must keep in mind, however, that more people were executed in two years of the French Revolution by the Enlightenment’s inquisition than in two centuries of the Holy Inquisition. And to this must be added the massive centralization of state power, the hollowing out of traditional societies, global wars, and mass murders carried out in the name of Enlightenment conceptions of liberty and equality.

Zaretsky and Scott lament how philosophy has fallen from its role as the guide of life. They confess to being “shocked” that philosophers can aid totalitarian regimes. Their story would have been enriched by exploring Hume’s distinction between a true and a corrupt philosophical consciousness and how that distinction bears on a criticism of the Enlightenment. But one cannot do everything. This is a book about philosophers, but it is not a philosophical work; it is a story about the lives of two philosophers and is designed to “point to the implications” for further criticism. Like a good signpost, it points in the right direction, but is not required to go there. 

Donald Livingston is professor of philosophy at Emory University, author of Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy, and president of the Abbeville Institute.

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