Comment from Australia
IN the sodden northern winter of 1766 the Scottish essayist David Hume - surely one of the most sweet-tempered and agreeable of men - sallied across to Calais to transport the notorious Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the safety of the British Isles. Like many scholars since, Hume had a weakness for the glamorous authors of audacious theories. If shallow thinkers undershot the mark of truth, he reckoned, and abstruse theorists overshot it, the abstruse ones had at least the merit of "providing something that is new".
Poor Hume had occasion to repent his intellectual enthusiasm at his leisure. Pretty soon he discovered his guest to be the very archetype of that distinctive philosophical figure, the radical misanthrope. It was Rousseau, after all, who first combined that burning and sincere love of the people in general with a thoroughgoing detestation of all human beings in the particular; and whose vaulting hopes for some distant imagined future were matched only by his dissatisfaction with every single detail of the present. As Hume put it, Rousseau's extreme sensibility led him to experience pain far more keenly than pleasure: "He is like a man stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin." And all this grand miserableness of temper transferred itself - as in philosophers it so often does - into a perfectly formulated world philosophy of grand miserableness.
Rousseau was happy only under persecution and he was endlessly ingenious in creating it. Hume's discreet attempts at financial generosity were read by Rousseau, inevitably, as humiliations; his efforts at securing Rousseau an income were read as treachery. When Hume rescued Rousseau's letters, Rousseau accused him of steaming them open.
Soon Rousseau's grand paranoia had woven together these imaginary petty betrayals into the cloth of his own grand theory of the world, in which the torrent of modern life rushes inexorably down the course of atomisation, fragmentation, selfishness and deceit.
If, as Hume suggested, a good deal of philosophy is merely the personality of the author laid over the landscape of the world, we have more than our share of miniature Rousseaus fluttering about us today.
It's to them that we owe the fashionable philosophy - recently given a kind of royal appointment by the Prime Minister - that the entire course of contemporary economic life runs, Rousseau-like, down the path of inexorable privatisation, marketisation, individualism and selfishness.
According to this view the only possible deliverer from this melancholy fate is that great contemporary equivalent of the 18th century's enlightened monarch, our very own Frederick the Great, the nation-building state.
Of course contemporary philosophers and political theorists are no less paradoxical than their 18th-century forebears. And in the otherwise polite and civilised corridors of academe you may sometimes discover - a real shock, this - that those who most zealously put their faith into the hands of grand impersonal entities, in their theories, may happen in life to be the most fissiparous, idiosyncratic and solitary of individuals. Indeed, in some cases it's hard to resist the intuition that the two impulses may be connected: sometimes we seek to cure the wounds in our own heart by diagnosing and resolving the ills of society...
Hume wasn't a romantic acolyte of market economics. (But then which serious political thinker ever was?) He did, however, accurately anticipate the moral liberation that modern economic relations might bring.
He also understood how little these relations relied on the stock of innate human goodness, the same stock in which, paradoxically, the misanthrope Rousseau purported to place so much faith. Once his scarifying encounter with the great friend of mankind was over, Hume recovered his native equanimity and returned to worldlier speculations. Who knows, perhaps our would-be philosophers might now do the same.
Posted by John Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see TONGUE-TIED. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here