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Some Thoughts on the Hume-Rousseau “Philosopher’s Quarrel”


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, left, and David Hume.

3,901 words

“No good deed goes unpunished,” as the old saw goes. It puts a cynical, waggish twist on the perspicacious observation that acts of genuine generosity and kindness too often come to grief. Benefactors beware! Shades of Thomas Hobbes: “Man to man is a wolf.”

The Scottish philosopher David Hume discovered the “grief” of a proffered good deed after he extended a helping hand to a fellow philosopher, the Swiss vagabond Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His good deed was the unintended initiator of a philosopher’s quarrel that was not a philosophical quarrel — unlike the Wittgenstein-Popper ten-minute poker-duel [2] 180 years later. It was more like a nasty falling out between two celebrities, a cause célèbre, a World Wrestling Entertainment-style “Battle of the Philosophes” in which many major Enlightenment figures in France and England would take sides — mostly in the form of “Who wronged whom” letters and pamphlets. It was simultaneously an amusing and serious affair. Some of the notables joining in the fray [3] were kings Frederick II and George III; big-name men of letters and philosophy such as Voltaire, Horace Walpole, James Boswell, and Adam Smith; high society gossips in London; and, of course, Paris, including the blue-stockings.

The subsequent scholarship on “the affair” affirms that both Hume and Rousseau behaved badly, Hume with some shenanigans contributed by Boswell and Walpole. Rousseau at the time was paranoid, volatile, and unpredictable. But as J. Y. T. Greig writes in his introduction to the two volumes of Hume’s Letters: “The thing for which no defence is possible is Hume’s first letter to the Baron d’Holbach, heaping abuse on Jean-Jacques, calling him ‘the blackest and most atrocious villain that ever disgraced human nature.’”[1] [4]

Nevertheless, this remarkable contest of mutual defamation makes for a fascinating comparison that starts with considering the nature of the two men’s personalities and characters and then moves to their philosophical views on the foundations of morality and society. It is also suggestive of the vast gulf between the anti-establishment radicalism of the French Enlightenment philosophes and the conservative gradualism of the Scottish Enlightenment. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the cry of the French Revolution, has its provenance in the deeply personal philosophy of Rousseau; whereas Hume, in reference to the reception of his History of England in “My Own Life,” notes the “cry of reproach, disapprobation, even detestation” against him for having “presumed to shed a tear for the fate of Charles I and the Earl of Strafford.”[2] [5]

Hume’s History of England was more popular and widely read than his philosophical works, and excited both praise and denunciation in Europe as well as America.[3] [6] Thomas Jefferson, himself enamored with the French Revolution, reviled Hume’s History of England as a counter-revolutionary tract. Hume “still continues to be put into the hands of all our young people, and to infect them with the poison of his own principles of government.”[4] [7] Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy wrote that “Hume’s History of England devoted itself to proving the superiority of Tories to Whigs and of Scotchmen to Englishmen: he did not consider history worthy of philosophic detachment.” Such a remark makes it difficult to believe that Russell read the work, nor does it seem likely that he was familiar with Hume’s essays.

Hume and Rousseau were almost exact contemporaries. Hume was born a year (1711) before Rousseau and died two years before Rousseau’s passing in 1778. Though Rousseau died a decade before the onset of the French Revolution, it was his radical egalitarianism that inspired the Jacobins, the great, destructive modernizers who launched the Terror and violently dismantled the Ancien Régime. The Bolsheviks in early twentieth-century Russia donned the Jacobin mantle and were eager to finish their work. They far surpassed them in their destructiveness of the old order and put their tyrannical stamp of failed utopianism on large portions of twentieth-century history. In order to understand the radical implications of Rousseau’s political philosophy, J. L. Talmon’s The Origin of Totalitarian Democracy, initially published in 1951, is worth reading. It lays down the totalitarian potentialities of Rousseau’s thought and explores its historical impact.[5] [8]

16 years after Rousseau’s death, his remains were exhumed from his original burial site and ceremoniously deposited by the Jacobins in a place of honor in the Panthéon next to another one of their heroes, Voltaire.

First, the basic details of the controversy’s origins.[6] [9] It began in 1766. Rousseau was on the run and in hard times. His Social Contract and his didactic novel Émile had made him a fugitive [10]. Hume befriended the bohemian Rousseau and arranged to bring him to England, along with his mistress, Thérèse Levasseur, and even his dog, Sultan.[7] [11] As Grieg notes, Hume’s efforts were intended to:

enable [Rousseau] to live in peace after the persecutions he had undergone in France. . . . He gave considerable time and care to settling him in a place where everything appeared to be exactly as he wanted it; he bore patiently with all his grumbles and suspicions until the settlement was finally effected; he contrived a pension for him from the King; and he treated him throughout with uncommon kindness and good humor.[8] [12]

Hume’s “mi casa es su casa” letter sent to Rousseau, dated October 1765 and extending an invitation to settle himself peacefully in England, ends: “Je suis avec les sentimens de la plus haute estime, Monsieur Votre humble et tres obeisant Serviteur.”[9] [13] He would be, as he said, Jean-Jacques’ humble and most obedient servant. Little did he know what that servitude would turn into.

It should be noted that Hume was forewarned of Rousseau’s treachery by a friend, yet another notable philosopher, the Baron d’Holbach: “Je vous le dis franchement, vous allez rechaffer un serpent dans votre sein.”[10] [14]

When Rousseau first settled into his meticulously planned and arranged new setting, Hume was star-struck by the eccentricities and peculiarities of his famous guest. In a letter to the Comtesse de Boufflers, he wrote:

His wearing the Armenian dress is a pure whim, which, however, he is resolved never to abandon. He has an excellent warm heart; and in conversation, kindles often to a degree of heat which looks like inspiration. I love him much, and hope that I can have some share in his affections.[11] [15]

Le bon David simply could not do enough for his newly-acquired philosopher-companion from the continent. To his brother John, Hume wrote:

It is incredible the enthusiasm for him in Paris and the curiosity in London. . . . I should desire no better fortune than to have the privilege of showing him to all I please. The hereditary Prince, paid him a visit a few days ago; and I imagine the Duke of York called on him one evening when he was abroad. I love him much and shall separate from him with much regret.[12] [16]

Hume’s infatuation would turn out to be relatively short-lived; his distinction as Rousseau’s rescuer and generous host, a poisoned chalice. The combination of Hume’s naïveté and Rousseau’s manic-depressive state was fertile soil for the weeds of “misunderstanding” and, like clockwork, Jean-Jacques’ paranoia shifted into high gear with wild speculation on Hume’s malevolent — and entirely fictious — intentions toward him.[13] [17] Hume unwittingly and unwisely charged into the minefield deposits of Rousseau’s tortured mind and lost his characteristic composure. Instead of “My good friend has sadly departed from his senses” and letting it drop at that, to his friend Richard Davenport he penned what might be said to be an equal and opposite reaction to Rousseau’s inexplicable ingratitude. That became a major feature of the bombastic, point-and-sputter exchanges: “[W]ere he [Rousseau] not the most dangerous man in the world, on account of his malice and his talents: I cannot take too many precautions against him.”[14] [18] Paranoia begetting paranoia.


You can buy Stephen Paul Foster’s new novel When Harry Met Sally here. [20]

This “marriage” of the two great eighteenth-century minds had turned into a messy, very public divorce.

The character traits of these two men whose friendship came to grief, as noted above, would seem to bear some clues for discerning the great disparities in their philosophical work. Hume’s professed “ruling passion” was by his own confession “the pursuit of philosophy and general learning.” This intellectual passion had profound social manifestations in the life-long philosophical friendships and acquaintances Hume happily maintained. His warm and lively correspondence reveals many aspects of his leadership in an influential philosophical community.[15] [21] Around Hume were gathered a circle of friends and acquaintances who, with him, launched the Scottish Enlightenment, including his closest friend, Adam Smith. The “infidel” Hume also consorted with Scottish clergy such as Hugh Blair and Alexander Carlyle, who helped shield the irreligious Hume from the wrath of their less tolerant colleagues.[16] [22]

Hume’s personality stands in stark comparison to that of the sentimental but unstable Rousseau, who seemed incapable of forming normal attachments to others. The five children he fathered with Thérèse he trundled off to a state foundling ward. Hume’s life stands out in its propriety, continuity, stability, and sociability. Rousseau’s was the embodiment of alienated genius, characterized by insecurity, rootlessness, and narcissism. He was a wildly sentimental man who was about grievances and a peddler of moral outrage, a prototype for a later era.

The self-presentation of their memoirs points to profound contrasts in the moral paths followed in their lives. Hume’s My Own Life, succinct and artfully understated, begins as such: “It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity: Therefore, I shall be short.”[17] [23] The text runs only about eight pages and was intended to speak of his life’s work and passion (his writings) and his reputation — these two things being integrally connected in his mind. His summation of life as a philosopher concludes thus:

[T]hough most men any wise eminent, have found reason to complain of calumny, I was never touched or even attacked by her baleful tooth: and though I wantonly exposed myself to the rage of both civil and religious factions, they seemed to be disarmed on my behalf of their wanton fury.[18] [24]

This is not exactly true, particularly in the case of Rousseau, but it is consistent overall with Hume’s character, temperament, and disdain for turbulent emotions and histrionics. Stoical and detached, he made every attempt, even at the end of his life, to set himself apart personally from religious and political controversy. Hume’s death-bed cheerfulness and his tranquilly-expressed doubts about the afterlife to the visiting Boswell were reported to the death-terrified Samuel Johnson, who supposedly retorted: “He lied!”[19] [25] Hume sought to be both honorable and conventionally respectable. “My friends never had any occasion to vindicate any one circumstance of my character and conduct. . . .”[20] [26] Hume was a proud but, in contrast to Rousseau, an emotionally disciplined and self-composed man. There was no self-piety, self-dramatization, or theatrics in him.

Rousseau’s prolix Confessions, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of romantic self-presentation. In contrast to the modest intention of Hume’s opening remarks in My Own Life, Rousseau leads off with a boast of unabashed narcissism: “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator.”[21] [27] He was wrong about the absence of imitators. The Confessions established itself as a prototype of our modern confessional motif in its prideful shamelessness and uninhibited self-revelations of shortcomings of character, particularly of sexual perversity [28]. Of it, Talmon writes:

Rousseau was one of the most ill-adjusted and egocentric natures who have left a record of their predicament. He was a bundle of contradictions, a recluse and anarchist, yearning to return to nature, given to reverie, in revolt against all social conventions, sentimental and lacrimose, abjectly self-conscious and at odds with his environment, on the one hand; and the admirer of Sparta and Rome, the preacher of discipline and submergence of the individual in the collective entity on the other.[22] [29]

The fault-confessing “honesty” of which Rousseau boasted at the beginning of his Confessions was not the kind that consists in adherence to one’s principles — keeping promises, honoring commitments, following the rules — but rather one that has many modern imitators. Rousseau’s confessional style was a prototype taken up by current celebrities of all stripes — movies stars, sports figures, politicians –; a shameless exhibitionism consisting in emotional evacuation, grievance airing, and sensation-producing soul-baring.

The theory of the social contract, however, is the pivotal point of this emblematic comparison of Hume with Rousseau. Hume’s “Of the Original Contract” provides the decisive point of contrast:

Did one generation of men go off the stage at once, and another succeed, as is the case with silk worms and butterflies, the new race, if they had sense enough to chuse their government, which surely is never the case with men, might voluntarily, and by general consent, establish their own form of civil polity, without any regard to the laws or precedents which prevailed among their ancestors. But as human society is in perpetual flux, one man every hour going out of the world, another coming into it, it is necessary in order to preserve stability in government, that the new brood should conform themselves to the established constitution, and nearly follow the paths which their fathers, treading in the footsteps of theirs, had marked out to them.[23] [30]


You can buy Stephen Paul Foster’s novel Toward the Bad I Kept on Turning here. [32]

Hume was arguing against the contractarian view of political legitimacy. Hume’s point is that stable governments possess an enduring character beyond that of any particular person or single generation. Legal, social, and moral constraints take time to develop and take hold. Government legitimacy is a gradual accretion, a multi-generational outcome derived from the habit of allegiance. Political legitimacy, Hume might say, is not a contractual outcome, but transactional — an ongoing exchange of duties between ruler and ruled over a period of time that results in confidence, trust, and ultimately, the belief that the government is legitimate. Rousseau’s contractarian doctrine Hume regarded as dangerous and potentially destructive because it rejects the reliance on experience-tested norms for illusive abstractions, i.e. “the general will.”

Rousseau’s confidence in his contract view of legitimacy is tied to his romanticized view of the natural goodness of human beings as expressed by his invention of the “noble savage.” Hume was philosophically and anthropologically opposed to Rousseau’s view of human beings whose essential goodness is corrupted by social institutions:[24] [33]L’homme est ne libre, et partout il est dans les fers.” This, Hume would argue, is perverse. Hume wrote The History of England to show how England emerged from its early centuries of barbarism, turbulence, and arbitrary rule — marked by bouts of violent religious fanaticism and oppressive superstition — to become a modern constitution that had achieved a delicate balance of “authority and liberty.” It can be read as an empirically-based refutation of Rousseau’s noble savage view of human nature and a philosophical argument against the dangers of religious-political fanaticism, particularly his treatment of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans.[25] [34] In his historical rendering of the state of England after Charles I’s execution, he describes a collective state of fury that, with slight modification, could be transposed a century later to France following the execution of Louis XVI:

Every man had framed the model of a republic; and, however, new it was or fantastical, he was eager in recommending it to his fellow citizens, or even imposing it by force upon them. Every man had adjusted a system of religion, which, being derived from not traditional authority, was peculiar to himself; and being founded on supposed inspiration, not on any principles of human reason, had no means besides cant and low rhetoric, by which it could recommend itself to others. . . . The bands of society were every where loosened; and the irregular passions of men were encouraged by speculative principles still more unsocial and irregular.[26] [35]

Rousseau had told Hume that he regarded his Du Contrat Social to be his best work. Hume dissented: “I think [la nouvelle Héloïse] his masterpiece, tho’ he himself told me that he valued most his Contrat Social, which is as preposterous a judgement as that of Milton who preferred Paradise regained to all his other performances.”[27] [36] In a letter to Turgot Hume he spoke of Rousseau’s writings as full of sophistry:

I always esteemed his writings for their eloquence alone and…looked on, at the bottom as full of extravagance and of sophistry. I found many good judges in France and all in England of a like opinion.[28] [37]

It is fair to say that these comments to Turgot can be judged as rancorous and self-serving. Still, Hume’s political philosophy and politics differed radically from Rousseau’s. Hume’s confidence in the humanizing value of the artifices of civilization, such as rules of property, stands in diametrical opposition to Rousseau’s suspicion and ambivalence to them.

In contrast with Hume, Rousseau argues that every generation must give its consent in order for a government to be legitimate. This, of course, is precisely what Hume rejects. Rousseau’s social contract argument fails to appreciate that history – embodying, as it does, time and experience — creates legitimacy, gradually and incrementally:

When a new government is established, by whatever means, the people are commonly dissatisfied with it, and pay obedience more from fear and necessity, than from any idea of allegiance or of moral obligation. The prince is watchful and jealous, and must carefully guard against every beginning or appearance of insurrection. Time, by degrees, removes all these difficulties, and accustoms the nation to regard, as their lawful or native princes, that family, which, at first, they considered as usurpers or foreign conquerors.[29] [38]

The key element here is the passage of time and the accretion of history. Time imperceptibly transforms both perceptions and behavior on the part of the prince and the people. Robert Nisbet elaborates on this point:

Basic to conservative politics is its view of the role of history. “History” reduced to its essentials is no more than experience, and it is from conservative trust in experience over abstract and deductive thought in matters of human relationships that its trust in history in founded.[30] [39]

Hume was skeptical of the kind of abstractions in Rousseau’s political philosophy that had the potential to unleash fanaticism.

Hume thus describes political legitimacy as a nuanced outgrowth of a historical process in contrast to Rousseau, who views it categorically and abstractly. As Hume put it in his History of England: “Habits, more than reason, we find, in everything, to be the governing principle of mankind.”[31] [40] “We are not converts of Rousseau,” exclaimed Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.[32] [41]

Hume and Rousseau: Measuring the characters and personalities of the two men, who rises to the top? That depends, I suppose, on your temperamental and philosophical leanings. I heavily lean toward Hume, but confess some affinity for the non-conformism and contrariness of Rousseau.

Of their philosophical impact, Hume remains the greatest British philosopher of the eighteenth century, and his impact on the course of modern philosophy is monumental. Hume’s skeptical, historically-oriented philosophy also remains relevant as a rebuke to utopianists, fanatics, and intellectual charlatans of all kinds. Moreover, Hume is unique in achieving greatness as a philosopher and a historian, although mention should be made of the idealist philosopher R. G. Collingwood, who also distinguished himself in archeology and history. During his career, he was an authority on Roman Britain.

Unfortunately, it is barely an exaggeration to say that Rousseau owns the twentieth century. It was above all a century of revolution:[33] [42] political revolution, social revolution, sexual revolution, technological revolution. The student radicals of the sixties: the French 68’ers, the Red Army Faction, SDS, Berkeley, Madison, Ann Arbor radicals — all were disciples of Rousseau. Ferociously anti-historical, they were committed to the overturning of hierarchies, the elimination of inequality, and the dismantling the old oppressive order – Écrasez l’infâme! We continue to experience the massive damage they have wrought and watch the daily assault on our European heritage by their barbarian progeny.

We are ruled by an execrable, morally bankrupt oligarchy — in some respects resembling the geriatric, alcohol-sodded Bolsheviks of the 1980s — that empowers the current radicals, who have launched their own “cultural revolution.” Just recently, the University of Edinburgh’s craven administration allowed the “David Hume Tower [43]” to be renamed because . . . Well, no need to say why. The smashing of monuments and memorials, the show-trials, the discrimination, the anti-white slander and defamation of decent, hard-working people are all signals that the current regime is intent on erasing the wisdom and traditions of the descendants who built this country and treating those who embrace them as enemies. Now is the time for the counter-revolutionaries to arise.

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[1] David Hume, The Letters of David Hume, J. Y. T Greig, editor, Garland, New York & London, 1983, 1, xxvi.

[2] [45]  Ibid., 1, 4.

[3] For a study of the influence of Hume’s History of England on political thought in France, see Laurence Bongie,
David Hume, Prophet of the Counter-Revolution, Oxford, Clarendon, 1965.

[4] [46] The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Adrienne Koch and William Peden, editors, Random House, New York, 1944, 497, 606.

[5] J. L. Talmon, The Origin of Totalitarian Democracy, Sphere Books, London, 1970

[6] For a book-length study of the Hume-Rousseau quarrel, see Robert Zaretsky and John T. Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding, London, 2009.

[7] See Rousseau’s Dog, David Edmonds & John Eidinow, Faber & Faber, London, 2006, for a revisionist account of the quarrel that distributes more of the blame for the falling out on Hume.

[8] Hume, Letters, 1, xxvi.

[9]  Ibid., 1, 527.

[10] Ibid., 2, 13, fn3.

[11] Ibid., 2, 2.

[12] Ibid., 2, 8

[13] See “Appendix H” in Hume’s Letters for Rousseau’s letters of accusation against Hume.

[14] Ibid., 2, 38.

[15] [47] Hume’s influence was not limited only to Britain and France, where his History of England and Essays were enormously popular; his ideas were also influential in the development of American political thinking. See Gary Wills, Explaining America: The Federalist Papers, Penguin, New York, 1981, a detailed study of the impact of Hume’s essays on Madison and Hamilton and the Federalist Papers. Also, Gary Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Vintage Books, New York, 1978.

[16] Ernest Campbell Mossner, The Life of David Hume, second ed., Oxford: Clarendon, 1980, 363, 579-80.

[17] Hume, Letters, 1, 1.

[18] Ibid., 1. 7.

[19] [48] Quoted from Mossner, The Life of David Hume, 606.

[20]  Hume, Letters, 1,7.

[21] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, Penguin, Baltimore, 1954.

[22] Talmon, Origin, 38.

[23] [49] David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary, Liberty, Indianapolis, 1985 476-77.

[24] [50] “There is no man so bad that he cannot be made good for something” from the Social Contract is quintessential Rousseau on the natural goodness of human beings. How he would apply that to Jeffrey Dahmer (the Milwaukee cannibal) or Jeffrey Epstein would be interesting.

[25] [51] See Hume’s essay, “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm,” in Essays Moral, Political and Literary.

[26] [52] David Hume, The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Ceasar to the Revolution in 1688 (6 vols.), Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1983, 6, 3-4.

[27] Hume, Letters, 2, 28.

[28] Ibid., 2, 91.

[29] [53] Hume, Essays, 474-75.

[30] Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dreams and Reality, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, 23.

[31] [54] Hume, History of England, 5, 159.

[32] [55] See Gordon H. McNeil, “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 6, no. 2 (1945) 197-211. McNeil writes that “the Jacobins are usually considered followers of Rousseau, and there is some justification for this. His admirers were to be found in all parts of the party. There was the radical Marat, who was said to have been one of the few to know and appreciate the Contrat social before the Revolution. Of the Dantonist moderates, Hérault de Séchelles and Camille Desmoulins were disciples. But Maximillian Robespierre was both the most famous Jacobin and the most famous disciple of them all. His religion of the Supreme Being may very well have been, at least in part, derived from Rousseau.” (205-06)

[33] [56] See François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: the Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, translated by Deborah Furet, University of Chicago Press, 1999.