Man's Best Friend

"speaking of smith"

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

September 17, 2020
Friendship has been a common theme at AdamSmithWorks, not least because of the deep and well-known friendship between Smith and David Hume. Unlike friendships today, theirs was characterized by correspondence; they spent very little actual time together. (Could our world be coming full circle, with so many of our “friendships” existing in the world of social media?)

In the friendship of Smith and Hume, one finds reference to another, much more peculiar friendship of Hume’s. Hume’s friendship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau ended in an infamous-and very public- squabble. Smith, for his part, warns Hume in a letter dated 6 July, 1766 not to take his quarrel with Hume public. Writes Smith, “I am thoroughly convinced that Rousseau is as great a Rascal as you, and as every man here believes him to be; yet let me beg of you not to think of publishing anything to the world upon the very great impertinence which he has been guilty of to you.” [1] We get some indication from Smith’s letter that the feud was based in part on a pension from George III that Hume procured for Rousseau, who subsequently refused. 

I recalled this enticing but sparsely detailed snippet when I came across Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. While friendship is one of the primary themes of the book, the reader also finds a comparison of the philosophical styles of Hume and Rousseau, as well as how their social and cultural environs affected each. Like Smith and Hume, the latter’s friendship with Rousseau began as a friendship in letters. Edmonds and Eidinow paint compelling pictures of social and intellectual life in London and Paris.

The story of the feud itself is long and complicated, and recounting it in detail here would spoil some of the fun for the reader. (I’ll just say, the Kardashians have little on this crowd.) 

The story’s drama begins with Rousseau’s eviction from Paris after the publication of his Emile, Confessions, and The Social Contract. After a brief stay in his native Switzerland, Rousseau finds himself in need of passage to a new hideaway in England. Hume to the rescue. Hume accompanies Rousseau across the channel with Rousseau’s beloved dog Sultan (who was not nearly as beloved by Hume). Tension begins as Hume finds his public role shifting from celebrity to celebrity escort, as Rousseau’s reputation precedes him. Yet he still endeavors to assist Rousseau, an offer Rousseau refuses. 

The spark that lit the powder keg of the feud was the satirical letter of Horace Walpole, posing as the King of Prussia, and “addressed” to Rousseau. Edmonds and Eidinow insist it was widely known to be a spoof. This did not placate Rousseau as the letter was published in papers throughout Europe. A key question for this story is how much did Hume know about the letter, and when? Rousseau went on the offensive and wrote a public response lamenting his distress and suggesting the author had “accomplices [named Hume] in England.” Hume feels duty-bound to respond to these allegations. And from here it goes on. And on. And on.

So what can we learn about friendship today from the story of Hume and Rousseau? What questions does their infamous story suggest we might think about?

One question brought to mind is whether you can experience true friendship with those with whom you disagree. This is certainly a pertinent question for the divisive times we are living in. Regarding Hume and Rousseau, the authors suspect there were few, if any, topics the two could sit down and discuss. Rousseau was a protectionist and Hume an advocate of free trade. Rousseau was a revolutionary while Hume was a conservative with regard to political change. Rousseau avoided cities and extolled the virtue of nature while Hume was unabashedly cosmopolitan and urban. But “...what truly parted them, and held them apart, was the profound disjunction in their intellectual characters...Hume was all reason, doubt, and skepticism. Rousseau was a creature of feeling, alienation, imagination, and certainty.” (147) I don’t know about you, but this sounds to me a lot like “friends” on social media feeds today.

What does “friendship” mean, and how does the notion of friendship today differ from during the Enlightenment? Reading Rousseau’s Dog makes me think the differences are not nearly as great as I might have thought. The story of this famous feud highlights the often very public nature of friendship. The authors highlight the importance of the dawn of widely read newspapers to the story. Paralleling the influence of the Internet today. Britain experienced a huge increase in literacy around this time, with newspapers the primary source of news and entertainment for the masses. In addition to actual “news,” the papers were also replete with “scandal and vituperative personal attacks on public figures,” generally anonymized through pen names and other coded references. We learn, “Hume worried about the growing power of the fourth estate and its lack of deference- in a private letter he railed against ‘the abuse of liberty’.” (95) The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions about the effects of news (feeds) on friendships.

What constitutes the need to take a quarrel public? Rousseau can be fairly said to be merely responding to the publication of the “King of Prussia.” Was that the right thing to do? Should politicians today publish a response to every Saturday Night Live skit in which they are parodied? Perhaps. Was bringing Hume into the story as a supposed contributor equally right? How sure was Rousseau that Hume did contribute to Walpole’s letter, and what “burden of proof” is sufficient to warrant public accusation? And what of Hume’s response to Rousseau? Was it warranted? Each attacked the other, and each “side” attracted its share of followers. Each lost friends over the incident. These actions were certainly not without cost.

Finally, we might ask what actually constitutes friendship. Edmonds and Eidinow suggest another part of the rift between the two philosophers were their differing conceptions of friendship.”Friendship for Rousseau was achieved only by equals, who were independent of each other,” they write. (271) This, they suggest, was why Rousseau took such offense at Hume’s purported attempts to aid him without his explicit consent. “Owing” something to Hume may have thus made friendship with Hume impossible for him. Hume, or le bon David as he became known after his salon tour of France, seems to have valued interdependence more than independence in friendship. He was a well-known host and Club member. And while we glean little about his ideas on friendship from his correspondence with Rousseau, we certainly do from that with Smith. Which is more important in maintaining friendship- agreement on the issues of the day or on the fundamental tenets of friendship itself? This book is an entertaining and interesting foray into these questions.

Shanon FitzGerald

This is an incredibly timely post, as many of us wonder about the durability and tenability of friendships and other kinds of social relationships across divisions new and old. Distance and separation are back with a vengeance, as ideological and political fissures seem to each day become more stark. The Hume-Rousseau episode at once illumines the great value of dialogue across our intellectual differences, while perhaps also pointing to some of its limits. We would all be well served to consider the great costs, both personal and macro-social, involved in breaking up or ceasing to care for these kinds of friendships.