Today, our guest, Rob Zaretsky tell us about an odd couple. The University of
Houston presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In 1766, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume became
friends. They were the Enlightenment's two most daring explorers of the maze
of human nature. The friendship, though, quickly fell apart. Its collapse,
as Hume sadly noted,
"made [a] great ... Noise all over Europe." Echoes of this "noise" still reach
us today, reminding us of the fragility of reason, even when exercised by the most lucid minds.
Rousseau was his age's most celebrated writer, and most controversial. He fled
Paris in 1762, yet was unable to return to his native Geneva. Both cities hounded him
for his radical democratic principles and unorthodox religious beliefs. Small and frail,
Rousseau finally took refuge in a Swiss mountain village, but its isolated location
only increased his notoriety. Rousseau's life was no longer his own. More than his
philosophy, Rousseau's fiction, which celebrated nature and its promise of transcendence,
attracted countless pilgrims of the budding Romantic movement. His novels offered a
spiritual exercise in which his prose and person became one. In Rousseau, the writer
was, if not king, something greater: a genius.
As for the portly Hume, his friends hailed him as "Good David," yet his enemies blasted
him as the "Great Infidel." They'd all read his alarming books, which shattered our
deepest assumptions about the world and ourselves. They reduced cause and effect to
a matter of habit; dismissed the self as a bundle of mere perceptions; and concluded
that reason was the slave of the passions. From his mountain redoubt, Rousseau was
celebrating passion as the reason to live. Together, these unlikely allies exposed the
limits of the Enlightenment's infatuation with reason.
When Hume offered Rousseau haven in England in 1766, they had more in common then
contemporaries suspected. Though they were philosophers, Rousseau and Hume distrusted
philosophical certitudes; though they were citizens of the Age of Reason, both reminded
us of the saving grace of unreasoning human nature.
Ultimately, they were victims of the very passions they dissected. Rousseau, his mind
increasingly undone by years of persecution, came to believe Hume was leading a conspiracy
to silence him. Stunned by the mad accusation, Hume published his correspondence with
Rousseau to protect his reputation. This act, ironically, was thought by some to be
self-serving and unworthy. After mesmerizing all of Europe with the exchange of these
impassioned letters, Hume and Rousseau never again communicated. Had they ever communicated?
When Hume learned that Rousseau was writing his autobiography, he confided his skepticism to
a friend: "I believe, he wrote, "that nobody knows himself less." Perhaps. Yet Rousseau
ends his autobiography at the very point he left for England. It's as if he knew himself
only well enough to wish that he knew himself better. In the light of this story, how
much more complex does Hume's famous injunction become:
"Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man."
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors
College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.
There are no book-length studies of the friendship, but (often conflicting) accounts
can be found in a number of biographies of the two men. The standard Hume biography is
E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Oxford 1954, 1980); for Rousseau, see
M. Cranston, The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity
(Chicago, 1997). See also Angela Scholar's translation of Rousseau's autobiography,
The Confessions (Oxford Classics, 2000).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the left. David Hume on the right.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.