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'Rousseau's Dog' Details Clash of Philosopher Titans

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'Rousseau's Dog' Details Clash of Philosopher Titans

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'Rousseau's Dog' Details Clash of Philosopher Titans

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Anyone who desires further proof that there is no verifiable connection between intellect and character may consult the newest book by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Rousseau's Dog is an account of two of the titanic minds of the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment, after all, became consumed by petty and irrational hatred for each other. David Edmonds and John Eidinow met while working at the BBC. Mr. Edmonds, who's going to join us from Berkeley, has two philosophy degrees from Oxford; Mr. Eidinow has two law degrees from Cambridge. Their two previous best-selling books, including Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein's Poker have also shown the explosiveness of the life of the mind. Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID EDMONDS (Co-Author, Rousseau's Dog): Thank you for having us.

JOHN EIDINOW (Co-Author, Rousseau's Dog): Good to be here.

SIMON: John Eidinow, why don't you begin by telling us about these two philosopher combatants. First, Mr. Eidinow, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This was the provocative philosopher who ran afoul of Europe's ruling classes.

Mr. EIDINOW: A provocative polymas(ph), composer, an early political scientist, an amazingly successful novelist, the first real autobiographer who wrote his autobiography to expose himself totally to the world, warts and all. That is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who fell afoul, as you say, at the authorities, the Catholic Church in France and the legal and court system in France. He had to flee from them. He fled to his home country, Switzerland, where he then fell afoul of the religious authorities there, except that they were Calvinists. So he was falling afoul of religious authorities on all sides.

SIMON: And if we could, David Edmonds, talk a bit about David Hume, philosopher, widely admired, supreme rationalist. He was so popular, he was in Paris at this particular point. He was working at the British Embassy. He was so popular, this rather rotund philosopher who'd been born in Scotland, was considered to be the life of the Paris salons.

Mr. EDMONDS: Yes, rotund is a very politically correct way of putting it. He was fat, bordering obese. Those were the best years of his life in Paris. Until then, his career had been dogged by failure and setback. We remember him, of course, as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. But back in the 18th century, his fame was primarily through his history books. He was known as a historian. He'd written a series of history books that Voltaire had said were the best history books ever written. And this big, obese, fat man that you talk about was the talk of the town, was surrounded by beautiful women. He was seen at the opera with a beautiful woman on either side. He couldn't quite believe what was happening to him.

SIMON: This is rather unlike philosophers these days, I guess.

EDMONDS: Yeah, these were the intellectual superstars, these were the superstars of the 18th century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a superstar as well. They were modern day, in a way modern day celebrities. Rousseau was much easier to identify than David Hume because he had this rather serious and painful bladder complaint and he used to wear this flapping Armenian gown that made it easier for him to go to the toilet. But he cut an uncommon sight on the streets of France and Switzerland and then eventually London.

SIMON: Mr. Edmonds, what moved David Hume to give him sanctuary in Britain.

Mr. EDMONDS: Well, that's a very good question and it remains something of a mystery. After all, all the leading lights in the French Enlightenment had warned David Hume not to take on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had fallen out, not just with the church, not just with the state, but with most of his friends as well. And one of the luminaries of the French Enlightenment, Baron d'Holbach, said you don't know what you're doing, you're warming a viper in your bosom.

But Hume was thinking about his reputation. He was known in France the Good David, Le Bon David. He was known as much for his virtue as for his ideas. And perhaps it was to entrench that view of himself, the idea of the virtuous man, the helpful man, that he agreed through a number of intermediaries to help Jean-Jacques Rousseau out. And in January 1766, he and Rousseau crossed the English Channel together, arriving in Dover, and then eventually in London just a few days later.

SIMON: I want to get you gentlemen to read a section from your book, if we could, in turn. And let me tell our listeners in advance, I think by the time this is over, the wonder will be not how these two gentlemen could have had such a epic, titanic argument, but how they ever became friends, or at least thought they were. So if you gentlemen in turn could take us through that section which will spotlight some of the differences.

Mr. EDMONDS: Okay. Then I'll kick off.

SIMON: Okay.

Mr. EDMONDS: Hosts and guests could hardly have had outlooks less in sympathy. The instant relationship between them inevitably had shallow foundations: respect for each other's achievements; Hume's compassion for the dispossessed; Rousseau's need for haven; some mutual friends; the courtesies of the age. There was little else to create any affinity between these two cerebral beings.

Mr. EIDINOW: In terms of a philosophical dialogue, they could not agree about religion, human nature, the good life, politics, or economics. However, what truly parted them and held them apart, was the profound disjunction in their intellectual characters.

Mr. EDMONDS: Hume was all reason, doubt and skepticism. Rousseau was a creature of feeling, alienation, imagination and certainty.

Mr. EIDINOW: Once the man of sensibility was settled, he and the man of rational skepticism had no reason to keep in touch. In this context, Hume was the last person who might fulfill Rousseau's dream of friendship.

SIMON: When you began to delve into the correspondence, and particularly the letters they wrote, letters and missives that they wrote about one another, were you disappointed that two intellects of this caliber couldn't be a least a little bit more colorful and picturesque and interesting when they were denouncing each other?

Mr. EDMONDS: Well, one of the ironies that you have arguably two of the most important thinkers of the 18th century, and in all the correspondence between them, they talk about people they know in common, they talk about logistics, about accommodation, they talk about mundane aspects of life. These two giants don't exchange a single word about ideas. We would love to know what they thought of each other's ideas.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. EDMONDS: We would love to know what Rousseau thought of Hume's empiricism. We would love to know what Hume thought about Rousseau's book, The Social Contract, or his educational tract. There's nothing like that. This, essentially, is an extremely human bust-up. And in a way it is very disappointing that we don't find any exchange of ideas between the two of them.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. EDMONDS: Thanks for having us.

Mr. EIDINOW: It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much indeed.

SIMON: John Eidinow and David Edmonds, speaking with us about their new book, Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment. And if you go to our website,, you can read an excerpt of Rousseau's Dog, the description of the arrival of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in England, as a Swiss refugee in 1766.

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