Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment

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"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, Rousseu, 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
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"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, Rousseu, 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 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.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
David Edmonds and John Eidinow, the team that gave us Wittgenstein's Poker and Bobby Fischer Goes to War, offer us another moving portrait of deep thinkers in the real world. Rousseau's Dog pits Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) against Franco-Swiss philosopher and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). In the hands of the Edmonds and Eidinow, these two intellectuals seem almost destined to come to loggerheads; the methodical, reasonable Hume and the brilliantly rhetorical, slightly paranoid Rousseau were born to distrust and ultimately scorn one another.
Publishers Weekly
In 1766, Scottish philosopher David Hume helped the radical Swiss intellectual Jean-Jacques Rousseau find asylum in England; a few months later, the volatile philosopher accused his benefactor of masterminding a murky conspiracy against him and triggered a virulent response. The argument had nothing to do with philosophy (or Rousseau's dog), but, as in their well-received Wittgenstein's Poker, the authors use the dispute as a pretext for an engaging rundown of the two thinkers' great ideas-with a big swig of human interest to wash down the philosophical morsels. Their (sometimes excessively) detailed, meandering account of the feud points to something larger: the contrast between the affable, urbane rationalist Hume and the moody, paranoid, emotionally overwrought Rousseau prefigures, they believe, the shift from the Enlightenment cult of reason to the Romantic cult of feeling. The authors widen their vivid portraits of the antagonists into a panorama of the cross-Channel intellectual community that refereed the squabble, taking in the ancien r gime salons and their brilliant hostesses and the London and Paris streets where visiting philosophers were mobbed like rock stars. The result is an absorbing cultural history of the republic of letters in its exuberant youth. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1765, Jean Jacques Rousseau, hounded out of several European localities for his provocative writings, accepted the offer of David Hume-the two had never met-to help him find respite in England. "I think I could pass all my life in his company without any danger of our quarreling," declared Hume. He spoke too soon. Over the weeks that followed, their relationship broke apart in a succession of private and public epistolary exchanges, pseudononymous spoofs, and salon intrigues, topped later by Hume's own authorized publication decrying Rousseau's behavior. Edmonds and Eidinow (Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers) chronicle the intersection of the two men's lives, when Hume, the epitome of Scottish rational philosophy, behaved with uncustomary frenzy and Rousseau, the man of passionate self-consciousness, applied a polish of clear logic to his habitual paranoia. Their quarrel is not the easiest to turn into a gripping plot, yet the book is well worth reading. The authors offer an elegant mixture of learning, wit, and justice, the last, e.g., by asking that Rousseau's mistress Th r se Le Vasseur, almost universally disparaged by scholars, be given a fair shake. Recommended both for the knowing specialist and the inquisitive general reader.-Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The authors of Wittgenstein's Poker (2001) once again dissect a contentious encounter between two celebrated philosophers, this time Age of Reason luminaries David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who find it impossible to reason together. Rousseau, self-professed lover of mankind, didn't much love individual men and ended up irritating and alienating almost everyone on the continent, except for his dog and his longtime housekeeper/mistress. As his reputation grew, colleagues, governments, churches and kings heartily returned his scorn, censoring his works and routinely banishing him. Nothing could have better pleased one so disposed to see himself as a victim. And no one could have been more ill suited to entanglement in the affairs of the suspicious, nearly paranoid Rousseau than Edinburgh's sober-sided Hume who, ignoring friends' warnings, agreed to accompany and sponsor the Genevan's flight to Britain in 1766. From mutual expressions of esteem and affection, their relationship quickly deteriorated. What caused the rift? Rousseau, who saw plots everywhere against him, overheard Hume talking strangely in his sleep, took offense at anonymous small charities and suspected his benefactor of being the instigator of "the King of Prussia letter," a lampoon in fact written by Horace Walpole. Not even George III's offer of a pension, engineered by Hume, could quench Rousseau's righteous wrath. Accusatory and self-justifying letters flew, and soon the quarrel became public, forcing the 18th-century European intelligentsia and its noble patrons to take sides. James Boswell, Walpole, Adam Smith and Voltaire all play varying roles in the story, a celebrated anecdote in the history of philosophy nowavailable to the general reader in all its delicious, gossipy detail. Edmonds and Eidinow seem especially to delight in the spectacle of the normally genial and mostly blameless Hume flailing, eventually driven to behave as badly as his obsessive antagonist. An enthralling account of a trifling provocation inflated to epic proportions.
New York Review of Books
“A detailed and fascinating reexamination of this story by David Edmonds and John Eidinow.”
Los Angeles Times
“As we’ve come to expect from Edmunds and Eidinow, their analysis of the personalities in question is sharp and engaging.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Sprightly and accessible . . . David Edmonds and John Eidinow have heightened intellectual feuds beyond the shallows of anecdote.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641861123
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/14/2006
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David Edmonds is an award-winning journalists with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.

John Eidinow is an award-winning journalist with the BBC. He's the bestselling authors of Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker.

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Read an Excerpt

Rousseau's Dog

Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment
By David Edmonds John Eidinow


ISBN: 0-06-074490-1

Chapter One

Fear and Flight

The rank which the two men held in the Republic of Letters was so high, the interest which their strife exerted was so great, and the spectators of the contest were so eminent that even at this time it deserves to be carefully studied.

- G. Birkbeck Hill, ed., Letters of David Hume to William Strahan

On the evening of January 10, 1766, the weather in the English Channel was foul - stormy, wet, and cold. That night, after being held in harbor by unfavorable winds, a packet boat beat its way, rolling and plunging, from Calais to Dover. Among the passengers were two men who had met for the first time some three weeks earlier in Paris, a British diplomat and a Swiss refugee. The refugee was accompanied by his beloved dog, Sultan, small and brown with a curly tail. The diplomat stayed below, tormented by seasickness. The refugee remained on deck all night; the frozen sailors marveled at his hardiness.

If the ship had foundered, she would have carried to the bottom of the Channel two of the most influential thinkers of the eighteenth century.

The diplomat was David Hume. His contributions to philosophy on induction, causation, necessity, personal identity, morality, and theism are of such enduring importance that his name belongs in the league of the most elite philosophers,the league that would also include Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and Wittgenstein. A contemporary and friend of Adam Smith's, he paved the way to modern economics; he also modernized historiography.

The refugee was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His intellectual range and achievements were equally staggering. He made epochal contributions to political theory, literature, and education. His autobiography, the Confessions, was a stunningly original work, one that has spawned countless successors but still sets the standard for a narrative of self-revelation and artistic development. Emile, his educational tract, transformed the debate about the upbringing of children and was instrumental in altering our perceptions of childhood. On the Social Contract, his most significant political publication, has been cited as an inspiration for generations of revolutionaries. More fundamentally, Rousseau altered the way we view ourselves, our emotions, and our relationship to society and to the natural world.

The circumstances in which they traveled together could not have differed more. David Hume was returning to London at the end of his service as secretary of the British embassy in Paris. His twenty-six months in office had been a triumph, perhaps the happiest time of his life. He had been the darling of the Paris salons, the hothouses of the French Enlightenment, winning acclaim for his decency as well as his intellect. He was awarded the appellation le bon David in tribute to his nobility of character.

Hume's generosity toward a stranger in distress seemed at one with his good nature. He had accepted the burden of arranging refuge in England for the fifty-three-year-old Rousseau, whose books and pamphlets had aroused such intense religious and political opposition that he had been driven from his domicile in France and then from asylum in his native Switzerland, where a mob, whipped up by a priest, had stoned his house. Recognizing the lethal potency of his pen, the local authorities were determined to rid themselves of so subversive a figure.

For ten years, Rousseau had sensed himself a man under siege. Convinced of plots against him, with his freedom threatened by the French and Swiss authorities, with his inability to find a permanent resting place, driven from one refuge to another, Rousseau had come to regard persecution as his lot, even his badge of honor. It fitted with his resolution, taken long before, to live alone, away from the world of men. This solitary life did not preclude friendship, but for Rousseau friendship had to be engaged in unequivocally - it involved the total transparency of one person's heart to another's. It was possible only between equals and was incompatible with any form of servitude.

However, Rousseau was now dependent on Hume for survival in a country where he knew no one and could not speak the language. He had left behind, in Switzerland, Therese Le Vasseur, the former scullery maid who was his steadfast companion, acting as his gouvernante, or housekeeper, for over thirty years. Rousseau was immensely fond of her, needing her by his side and longing for her when they were separated. Sultan, at least, was with him. Rousseau's emotions about Sultan were sufficiently intense to amaze onlookers. The onetime dog-owning Hume said, "His affection for that creature is above all expression or conception."

For much of his adult life, a second creature had kept Rousseau company.

"It seems plain," said Friedrich Grimm, the self-appointed cultural correspondent to the courts of Europe, "that [Rousseau] takes with him a companion who will not suffer him to rest in peace." This agitated companion, just as inseparable as Sultan and forever growling at Rousseau's heels, was the writer's deeply rooted belief that the world was hostile and treacherous, ready at any moment to betray him.

The boat docked at Dover at midday on January 11. Setting foot on English soil, Rousseau leaped on Hume's neck, embraced him, not uttering a word, and covered Hume's face with kisses and tears. Just after the travelers arrived in London, Hume wrote to his brother, "I think I could live with [Rousseau] all my life in mutual friendship and esteem." Blithely, the letter continued: "I believe that one great source of our concord is, that neither he nor I are disputatious."

In Paris, Hume had communed with many of the intellectual luminaries and leading hostesses of the age. Yet, even during the French Enlightenment, with received notions, institutions, and cultures under challenge from radical thinkers in every area of life, no other radical thinker was quite like Rousseau. In all his benevolence, had Hume, le bon David, any real idea of what he had taken on?


Excerpted from Rousseau's Dog by David Edmonds John Eidinow Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Great history, great philosophers.

    First, there is very little about the dog, who was not in any way a major figures. The dog in the title is not Rousseau's actual canine, but his suspicious mind which taints every relationship. However, once you get past the disappointment of no dog, this is a facinating snapshot of a brief period in the 18th century and two philosophers who simply could not get along, despite what they thought were their best intentions. Nothing shows the tragedy of the world, although it is a very mild tragedy, than that two men, both deep thinkers, could or would not step into the shoes of another and averted this quarrel. The author seems to show a little more sympathy for Rousseau than Hume, but then Rousseau needs it. A true story, and a very philosophical one.

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    Posted November 7, 2008

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    Posted October 27, 2010

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    Posted December 28, 2008

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