A Student of History

August 8, 2006

Rousseau’s Dog

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 2:02 am

Rousseau's Dog Cover: Large 

I’m reading in stops and starts a small book entitled Rousseau’s Dog.  The publisher describes the book (2006)as such:

In 1766 Jean-Jacques Rousseau — philosopher, novelist, composer, educational and political provocateur — was on the run from intolerance, persecution, and enemies who decried him as a madman, dangerous to society. David Hume, now recognized as the foremost philosopher in the English language, was universally lauded as a paragon of decency. Having willingly put himself under Hume’s protection, Rousseau, with his beloved dog, Sultan, took refuge in England, where he would find safety and freedom. Yet within months, the exile had accused Hume of plotting to dishonor him. The violence of Hume’s response was totally out of character, and the resulting furor involved leading figures in British and French society, and became the talk of intellectual Europe.

In Rousseau’s Dog, David Edmonds and John Eidinow bring their engaging style and probing analysis to the bitter and very public quarrel that turned these two giants, the most influential thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, into the deadliest of foes. The result is a story of celebrity and its price, of shameless spin, of destroyed reputations and shattered friendships. It is a story of two men whose writings would forever shape our world but whose personalities and ideas could scarcely have had less in common. It is also the story of reason and skepticism, as epitomized by Hume, colliding with the emotionalism and highly personalized confessional style pioneered by Rousseau.

 Part of the review in the NYT is here:

Rousseau’s Dog does involve an all-star lineup of the Enlightenment’s heavy hitters —Voltaire, Walpole, Diderot, Boswell — and is enlivened by their mostly poisonous contributions to the Rousseau-Hume contretemps. Walpole warned that Rousseau “contradicts and quarrels with all mankind to obtain their admiration” and predicted that Hume could anticipate similar treatment. Voltaire later wrote of Rousseau: “I have always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: ‘My God, make our enemies very ridiculous.’ God has granted it to me.”

Hume and Rousseau had never met when the groundwork for the fight was laid. But Rousseau had made himself persona non grata in Geneva, antagonizing local clergymen and politicians with his fearless polemics and becoming the victim of lapidation — that is, the stoning of his house — even after he had been exiled. Acting on collegial admiration, Hume offered to help Rousseau find refuge in the English countryside, despite Rousseau’s ominous penchants for complaint and scorn.

Their four-month period of acquaintance began with Rousseau’s tears of gratitude, which he would later describe in terms more self-aggrandizing than humble. But their encounters led to an orgy of recrimination and self-serving diatribes from both sides. Among the burning issues: whether Hume had insulted Rousseau by trying to secure a royal pension for him and whether Hume had helped to write a satirical letter to Rousseau, supposedly from Frederick the Great. The letter concluded with this promise: “I will cease to persecute you, when you are no longer vain of persecution.”

It is not a very favorable review, but I am still reading after 78 pages so I will see how it goes…..there is also more here from NPR, including a exerpt. And for a more favorable reviews, go here, but for another one that is not, go here.

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