Saturday, April 29, 2006

Hume and Rousseau versus Hume and Smith

“Enlightened enemies” is an account of their recent book on the David Hume’s out-of-character quarrels with the somewhat paranoid J. J. Rousseau in 1766, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, co-authors of ‘Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers At War In The Age of Enlightenment’ (Faber & Faber, 2006).

Edmonds and Eidinow write about another partnership of David Hume with Adam Smith:
David Hume comes down to us as among the greatest of philosophers. He also exemplifies the man of pristine character, saluted in his own age for his uncommon virtue. Hume was immensely proud of his upright reputation; one might say he gloried in his goodness. In 1776, close to death from bowel cancer, he summarised his life in a short, unrevealing essay. He was, he wrote, "a man of mild disposition, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions".

His friend, the economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, agreed, eulogising Hume after his death as the exemplar of as "perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit". Historians and biographers have gone along with this image - ignoring Smith's caveat ... "as the nature of human frailty will permit".

Smith wrote handsomely about the merits of his late friend in 1776, I think largely under the influence of a guilty conscience for his less than frank refusal to Hume in his last few months to publish Hume’s little essay, ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’, as revealed in correspondence between them.

Hume eventually persuaded his nephew to undertake the work of seeing his controversial (for the 18th century) Dialogues posthumously, which obligation Smith had wriggled out of and which Hume eventually realized was his intention. Hume was not best pleased with his old friend, asserting that Smith’s ‘Scruples’ were ‘groundless’ and ‘have a specious Appearance’ (Letter to Smith, 3 May 1776) and referred to the ‘sacred Regard to the Will of a dead Friend’ (Correspondence of Adam Smith, Liberty Fund, 1987).

His next letter (3 May) to Smith carried from Hume the noticeably unusual salutation of ‘My dear Sir’ instead of his usual ‘my dear Friend’ or ‘My dearest Friend’, suggesting for a short while in 1776 his friendly attitude towards Smith had cooled.

In August, Smith relented slightly and wrote: ‘I shall be very happy to receive a copy of your dialogues; and, if I should happen to die before they are published, I shall take care that my copy shall be carefully reserved as if I was to live a hundred years’. What he did not promise to do was published Hume’s dialogues.

In these exchanges while Hume was dying we see a flash of him reacting to what was a hurtful rebuff from a man he had every reason to admire and expect reciprocation from in his final months. A hint of disappointment was as far as it went, unlike when Rousseau accused Hume of plotting to do him harm, Hume reacted with uncharacteristic venom once he was convinced of the damage Rousseau intended for him.

Read David Edmunds and John Eidenhow’s account [,,1762868,00.html] of the deterioration into a poisoned relationship between Rousseau and Hume, as Rousseau went quite mad, in projecting onto the one man who could only do him good, his fantasies and paranoia that had no basis whatsoever.

Rousseau ruffled Hume’s dignity in ways that nobody else managed, not even the most virulent of the zealots who castigated Hume almost without mercy and towards whom he turned the other cheek without fail. He thanked critics and name callers for taking the trouble to publish their critiques and refrained from replying to their nonsense with a barrage of philosophical blasts of which he was more than capable intellectually, but not capable of emtionally.


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