Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

To Tolerant England and a Pension from the King: Did Hume Subconsciously Aim to Subvert Rousseau’s Legacy?


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David Hume conducted Jean-Jacques Rousseau to England, landing in Dover 11 January 1766. Hume worked doggedly to settle Rousseau in England and procure a pension from the King of England, George III. But, from especially April 1766, the relationship quickly went from awkward eccentricity to bitter enmity, culminating in Rousseau’s remarkable letter of 10 July, and then publication of Hume’s account of the affair, and enormous notoriety. I suggest that, had Rousseau fallen in with—or become a pet of—the establishment in England, his legacy would have been diminished, and that Hume could sense that. Settling down in England, in arrangements crafted by Hume, and enjoying a royal pension would have undermined Rousseau’s persona as an audacious radical critic of refinement, of modern commercial society, of established aristocracies, and of England in particular. He would be seen—or portrayed—as accepting and assimilating to that which he scorned and pretended to expose. I develop the hypothesis that an impetus behind Hume’s efforts was to subvert Rousseau’s legacy. If such impetus existed, it was probably largely subconscious. One line of evidence is that Hume continued to work to salvage the plan, or parts of it, as much as a year after mutual enmity had become common knowledge. Also, unlike previous treatments of the affair, I make use of an insertion Hume had prepared for a never-realized second edition of the published account, an insertion alluding to Themistocles in Persia.