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No. 1933:
An Odd Couple

by Robert Zaretsky

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 work.

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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). 


Rousseau and Hume
Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the left.     David Hume on the right.