Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Philosophers Behaving Badly


For years, I used to write silly little movie reviews for and other sites of that ilk, and would often revisit the page of the movie on which I commented, looking for, embarrassing to say, responses from other reviewers to my reviews. As a result, I became familiar with certain phrases that the illiterati could always -- and I mean always -- be depended on to use. One of them was, "This movie has no point." Or, "It would help if the movie had a point." The variatons on this theme were impressively subtle. "The characters and dialogues [sic; a favorite error, right up there with "genious"] were OK, but the plot didn't have a point." The commentators were betraying the bad education they received in our dingy public schools (take a bow, teachers), not merely through the faulty grammar and spelling but from the drilled-in, automated desire for a work of art to furnish a "point". (The test is next Thursday, class. Refer to your notes; solve the symbolic mysteries.) Art sometimes makes a "point"; sometimes it doesn't. The better art tends to fall in the latter category. Didacticism or cant doesn't usually survive the heat of the socio-cultural moment: the centuries of the past are littered with forgotten novels, dead paintings.

But for once, I can sympathize with the "point" plaint, after having read Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. This book doesn't have a point! -- an unforgivable crime for a work of nonfiction, which is very rarely art, and usually not by design. The authors take a footnote in literary history -- the misunderstanding between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume that occurred in 1766 -- and blow it up into 284 pages of intermittently interesting but ultimately aimless (pointless!) text. Good old tells me that Edmonds and Eidinow have also written a book together about the chess match between Fischer and Spassky, and yet another about the time when Wittgenstein threatened Popper with a fireplace poker in a room at Cambridge. Plainly, the authors believe they have discovered a new niche in historical nonfiction.

Hm, two paragraphs in, and I still haven't gotten to the point. Here it is: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, after publishing La Nouvelle Heloise and On the Social Contract, ignited condemnation from religious authorities and was chased out of France by the Paris Parlement. He returned to Switzerland, the land of his birth, for a few years, but the Genevan government -- controlled, more or less, by Paris -- replied by burning his books. There are more details that I do not have time to rehearse; suffice to say that Rousseau eventually renounced his Genevan citizenship and wrote grand, seething pamphlets about the lack of liberty in Switzerland. Other Genevan citizens figured that this deserved a response: they stoned his house. He moved to an island near Bern; the authorities in Bern issued a warrant for his arrest. Basically, Rousseau had to get the hell out of Switzerland. But to where?

Enter fat David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, nowadays famed as the author of Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Disliked in London for being Scottish, he had only recently found the adulation that he felt he deserved in Paris as England's embassy secretary. Feted by the salonniers (those magnificent noblewomen who opened their "salons" to the great thinkers of the day -- including themselves -- and thereby ruled the "Republic of Letters"), praised by philosophes such as d'Alembert, Diderot, d'Holbach, and Grimm, even swooned over by luscious young Parisian ladies, Hume reveled in his vindication. One of the salonniers, Mme de Boufflers, had already informed Hume of Rousseau's plight, so when word got out that Rousseau had been pursued to Strasbourg, Hume offered to put the exile under his protection. Rousseau, having read and admired Hume's works, agreed. Hume would take him to England.

After much hemming and hawing from Rousseau about where he wanted to live in England, an irritated Hume finally found a suitable place in Staffordshire, a modest mansion owned by an indulgent old earl. But it wasn't the dithering about living quarters that irritated Hume: Rousseau's philosophies and eccentricities were highly uncongenial to the practical, empirical, man-of-the-world Scot. Hume didn't trust the senses, even as a basis for empirical deduction, whereas Rousseau was all senses. Imagination, solitude, Nature, the human heart, and, above all, feeling, were the provinces of the paranoiac exile. In other words, no two men could have had less in common. According to the authors, Hume was already predisposed to dislike his charge in any event, and was irritated that he had to keep the promise to Mme de Boufflers that he would shelter Rousseau and otherwise be his keeper. There is evidence that Hume, while still friendly with Rousseau, was poking around the latter's financial accounts, asking de Boufflers and d'Holbach to get information from Rousseau's banker. Was the poor exile as poor as he claimed? But the fateful event occurred months before Rousseau's relocation, when Hume was still in Paris. Having dinner with a group of visiting Brits that included Horace Walpole, he joked that Rousseau would've gone to Prussia under the protection of King Frederick -- who admired him -- if he thought he might've been persecuted there. It was well-known among the philosophes that Rousseau nurtured a persecution-complex (somewhat earned, actually) and always seemed to bite the hand that fed him. (As Hume was soon to discover.)

The upshot of all this is that Walpole drafted a not-terribly-funny one-page letter, writing as Frederick, urging Rousseau in a mocking tone to come to Prussia. Walpole then circulated this juvenile piece of wit among the salons, asking the intellectual haute monde to correct the inelegant French. As Rousseau had criticized most of the Enlightenment figures at one time or another, no one seemed to much care about his feelings. Eventually, all of France, it seems, had memorized the ridiculous letter. After a few months, news of it traveled across the Channel to England, just as Rousseau was settling down to "retirement". The "King of Prussia" letter was eventually printed in the St. James Chronicle.

But the letter was merely the cherry on the sundae for Rousseau, who, probably sick of Hume's condescending manner in their correspondence, had already conceived a vast, swirling conspiracy against his life and/or dignity of which Hume was the ringleader. Perhaps Rousseau, from his own sources in Paris, had gleaned Hume's true opinion of him. The crisis came to a head not with the published spoof, however, but with a pension offer from George III that Hume was finagling for Rousseau. Feeling insecure in England, Rousseau wanted to delay the decision to accept the pension. This amounted to a refusal, and, to Hume's mind, a snub to the King and himself. One of Rousseau's hangups was to avoid being beholden to any man, for to be beholden or to accept charity was a form of slavery, according to his fevered, fucked-up mind. The embarrassed Hume, understandably, had had just about enough of the Genevan's famed eccentricities, and pressured Rousseau to accept the pension, or at least not turn down the King in public again. The written response (these communications were all letters, for Hume was in London) was electric. More or less? Fuck you, Hume, you never were a true friend, anyway. And you were clearly responsible for that insulting fucking spoof in the papers. Drop dead.

I don't have the space or the energy to describe every ensuing letter and machination (read the damn book if you want all the tiresome details), but I can summarize it all this way: Rousseau drove David Hume mad to the point of frothing at the mouth. Bilious letters (destroyed by the receivers for the sake of the Scot's reputation) sped from Hume's hand to his supporters in Paris; Rousseau demanded an apology from the St. James Chronicle; Rousseau sent Hume a 30,000-word indictment of his "guilt"; Hume sent it back, scribbling "Lie Lie Lie" in the margins. Before long, the entirety of Europe's intelligentsia got involved in one way or another. Against most of their advice, and purely out of red-faced spite, Hume collected all the papers pertaining to the colossal hissy-fit, and, after editing the material much to his advantage, published A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau. Vanity served. Meanwhile, Rousseau shrugged his shoulders and went back to France, where sympathetic nobles kept him well-hid till the Paris Parlement rescinded its warrant of arrest. He survived the ludricous affair with a reputation no more damaged than it was before. Hume, however, never recovered from his "victory": the philosophes were weary of his anti-Rousseau tirades (annoying Rousseau may have been, but no one really thought that he was an "atrocious" villain); it was the common opinion in England and France that Hume had debased himself, in a manner unworthy of a leader of the Enlightenment. He wrote very little during the remainder of his life. Posterity, though, has been kind to him, so what the hell!

Kind to Rousseau, too! (Well, mostly.) In other words? Who-cares. This material is worthy of an anecdote, maybe an article -- not a book. Edmonds and Eidinow write well enough, I suppose, but I deem that if you've stuck with me this far, I've saved you a great deal of trouble. The whole undertaking reads like a classy gimmick that was dreamt up by the authors' agent. Here's the pitch: A neurotic paranoiac and priggish careerist, both geniuses who changed the foundations of Western thought, meet each other. They don't like each other. They hiss at each other like cats on meth. And there's your book, fellas . . . just like your other two books!

I just checked my copy of Rousseau and Revolution by Will Durant -- volume 10 of the 11-volume Story of Civilization series. The material I've just discussed merited 3 pages from Durant -- pp. 211-214, to be exact. And people call him long-winded?


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