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Saturday, December 15, 2018

On Hume’s Clash with Rousseau

The 1760s were a period of great tension for Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His books had been condemned by political and cultural institutions. Warrants for his arrests had been issued in Switzerland and Paris, and in a few places there were instances of his books being publicly burned. He saw real and imaginary enemies in every direction, and since 1763, he had been moving from place to place to save himself.

When David Hume learned of Rousseau’s plight, he immediately offered him a refuge in Britain—initially Rousseau turned down the offer because he disliked the English and did not speak their language. But when the hostility that he thought he was facing became too much for him to bear, and Hume renewed his offer for assistance, Rousseau accepted, proclaiming that he was “pleased to be indebted to the most illustrious of my contemporaries, whose goodness surpasses his glory.”

In mid-December 1765 Rousseau met Hume in Paris and they crossed the English Channel on January 4, 1766. Hume had been warned by some of his Parisian friends that Rousseau was a viper who could never be trusted, and that he had betrayed everyone who had tried to do him good in the past. But Hume dismissed these warnings, even though between him and Rousseau there were immense temperamental and philosophical differences.

Rousseau started seeing supposedly sinister intentions in Hume while they were still on way to their destination in England, and within days of reaching London his suspicions were further inflamed. He did not enjoy living in London because of the large crowds, so Hume arranged a refuge for him in the countryside. However, Rousseau continued to be plagued with suspicions and his stay soon became unbearable; on March 19, 1766, three months after they first met, he departed, never to see Hume again.

Egged on by his companions, Rousseau continued to nurse his paranoid suspicions and detected an international conspiracy, headed by none other than Hume, to defame him. On June 23, Rousseau wrote an angry letter to Hume accusing him of trying to control him. Hume demanded an explanation from Rousseau.

In his 38 page long letter of July 10, Rousseau revealed his view of the gigantic Hume-led international plot against him. He says in the letter that the kindness that Hume had shown to him — bringing him to England, finding a suitable place for him to stay, securing him a pension from George III — was a way of gaining control over his mind, making him feel indebted.

Rousseau was convinced that Hume was motivated by the desire of destroying his greatest philosophical rival in Europe. In the letter, he alleges that Hume was in contact with his enemies in France, and that Hume had inspired the newspapers to publish unflattering stories on him. Hume was baffled by Rousseau’s letter, and regarded it as a “perfect frenzy.” But he was worried that Rousseau, who was one of Europe’s most powerful and popular authors, would use his pen to ruin his reputation.

Looking for sympathy and advice, Hume told a few of his close friends about this “foolish affair.” His friends rallied by his side and with his permission they published a book in which all the facts were presented to enable the readers to make up their mind. The French edition of the book was published in October, and its English edition titled A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau was brought out in London in November.

Hume later claimed that he “never consented to anything with greater reluctance in his life.”

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