Friedrich Melchior Grimm and the “Corréspondance Littéraire”

The Hume-Rousseau Feud

Source: Maurice Tourneux, editor, “Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique,” Vol VI. Paris, Garnier Frères, 1877;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

January 1, 1766

J.-J. Rousseau made his entry into Paris last December 17. The next day he strolled around the Luxembourg gardens in Armenian attire, but since no one had been warned no one profited by this spectacle. The Prince de Conti housed him within the Temple, at the home of Saint-Simon, where said Armenian every day entertained a large court of men and women. He also strolled every day at a certain hour on the boulevard, on the portion closed to his lodgings. This affectation of needlessly displaying himself in public despite the warrant against him shocked the ministry, which had ceded to the requests of his protectors in granting him permission to pass through the kingdom in order to go to England. The police told him to leave without delay if he didn’t want to be arrested. Consequently, he will leave Paris Saturday January 4, accompanied by David Hume, who is returning to England but who proposes, if he is to be believed, to return to Paris. M. Hume must love France. He received here the most distinguished and flattering reception. Paris and the court disputed the honor of surpassing themselves. And yet, in his philosophical writings M. Hume is as bold as any philosopher of France. What is even more amusing is that all the beautiful women fought over him, and the portly Scottish philosopher amused himself in their company. David Hume is an excellent man; he is serene by nature, his intelligence is subtle, and though speaking little what he says is pointed. But he is heavy; he has neither warmth nor grace nor a pleasing wit, nor anything that would attract those charming little machines we call beautiful women. How droll a people we are!

To return to Jean-Jacques, here is a letter that circulated around Paris during his stay and which had a great success:

Letter from the King of Prussia to M. Rousseau

“You renounced Geneva, your fatherland. You were driven out of Switzerland, a country much vaunted in your writings. France has issued a warrant for your arrest. Come then to my country. I admire your talents and your reveries, which, it must be said in passing, occupy you both too much and for too long, amuse me. In the end, one must be wise and happy. You have made yourself often talked about because of eccentricities inappropriate to a truly great man. Show your enemies that you can at times have common sense: that will anger them without doing you any wrong. My states offer you a peaceful retreat. I want to do well by you, and will do so if you agree. But if you persist in rejecting my assistance I will tell no one of this. If you persist in seeking out ways to find new misfortunes then choose the ones you would like. I am king and I can fulfill your wishes. And, something that will surely not happen to you vis-à-vis your enemies, I will cease to persecute you when you will cease to glory in being so.”

This letter was written by M. Walpole, son of the famous minister of George III of England. This M. Walpole has been in Paris since last October and proposes to pass the winter there. He is highly thought of in England. He is the author of various highly esteemed works. Among others, he wrote a novel in ancient Gothic which was very successful. In the preface to this novel he attacks M. de Voltaire’s latest writings against Shakespeare, writings all the more attackable because they are not in good faith. M. Walpole is in ill health, often tormented by gout.

A propos of M. de Voltaire and J.-J. Rousseau we must here set down an anecdote that an eyewitness recounted to us the other day. He was present in Ferney the day M. de Voltaire received the “Lettres de la Montagne,” and read in it the statement regarding him. His gaze enflamed and his eyes burned with fury, his body trembled and he shouted with a terrifying voice: “Oh the wretch! The monster! I must knock him out. Yes, I'll have him knocked out in the mountains between the knees of his governess.” “Calm down,” our man said. “I know that Rousseau has proposed a visit to your home and that he will soon be coming to Ferney.” “Let him come,” answered M. de Voltaire. “But how will you receive him?” “How will I receive him? I'll give him supper, I'll put him in my bed, and I'll say to him: “You had a good supper. This bed is the best in the house. Do me the pleasure of accepting them both and being happy in my home.”

This story pleased me. It depicts M. de Voltaire better than he has ever been before. It tells his entire life story in two lines.

April 1, 1766

M. Rousseau took the letter of the King of Prussia fabricated by M. Walpole very seriously. He has a natural tendency to believe in conspiracies, in evil deeds. And so according to him this letter covers a great mystery of the greatest iniquity. The entire mystery is reduced to nothing but amusing the public at the expense of an author who is not happy. If the monarch took things as seriously as the author, if Frederick was of the same humor as Jean-Jacques, this letter would become the subject of a bloody war. It was published in French and English in the public papers of London, and M. Rousseau just wrote on this subject the following letter to the author of the London Chronicle:

Vootton, March 3, 1766

Sir: you were lacking in the respect every individual owes crowned heads by publicly attributing to the King of Prussia a letter full of exaggerations and wickedness which, for this reason alone, should have made it clear that he could not be the author. You even dared transcribe his signature, as if you saw it written in his hand. I inform you, sir, that this later was fabricated in Paris and, what saddens and tears at my heart, is that the imposter has accomplices in England. You owe it to the King of Prussia, to the truth, and to me to print the letter I am writing you in reparation of a wrong you would doubtless reproach yourself for if you knew what evil deeds you make yourself the instrument of.

With my best wishes.

Signed, J.-J. Rousseau

M. Walpole has just returned to England and it is up to the House of Commons, of which he is a member, to try him for having fabricated this letter. Providence, which is called by this name because it sees into the future, punished him in advance by afflicting him with the worst case of the gout ever experienced in England, after that of William Pitt.

October 15, 1766

About three months ago we received the first news of J.-J. Rousseau’s falling out with M. Hume. Excellent fodder for idlers! A declaration of war between two great European powers couldn’t have made more noise than this quarrel. This was the case mainly in Paris, for in London, where there are more important actors to hiss at, they barely heard of the break between the former citizen of Geneva and the philosopher from Scotland. And the English were silly enough to show less interest in this great affair than in the formation of a new ministry and the changing of the great name of Pitt to Lord Chatham. In Paris, for a week all other news was crossed off the list of subjects of discussion, and the celebrity of the two combatants, who people claimed to see constantly fighting, completely absorbed the public’s attention. M. Rousseau’s supporters were initially a bit stunned by this unforeseen blow, and his devotees suffered horrible migraines. Until this time all those individuals with whom M. Rousseau had had a falling out after having received all possible benefits from them — and there were many of them — had always been condemned by his party without any form of trial. The more reserved these individuals were in their proceedings against the illustrious Jean-Jacques, the less they deigned to complain of him, the more they were suspected and often accused by his devotees of having wronged him. They couldn’t adopt the same tactic with David Hume. The joy they'd felt over his relationship with Jean-Jacques was too recent. They had so loudly applauded the reciprocal praise they had rained down on each other! They had too loudly promised to draw from the length of their friendship a terrible argument against M. Rousseau’s former friends! In any case, M. Hume’s uprightness and bonhomie were too well established in France. M. Rousseau’s supporters had themselves bragged too often about the warmth with which his new benefactor had worked to obtain for him a happy and tranquil lot in England! And suddenly the good David complains of being insulted by his friend Jean-Jacques in the most singular and unworthy manner. This adventure cast his party into a strange perplexity.

People soon confusedly learned the details of this dispute, one of the most bizarre and strange, but also one of the least interesting, in the memory of man. People spoke of it everywhere and in a million ways. M. Hume had sent the principal evidence to M. d'Alembert, who, against all expectation, found himself implicated in it. For his part M. Rousseau had written to a bookseller in Paris that I didn’t see but which the bookseller made public, and in which M. Hume was challenged to produce the letters M. Rousseau had written him. We have been assured that this challenge was repeated in the newspapers of London. Consequently, M. Hume resolved to make public his entire correspondence with M. Rousseau. It has just appeared under the title of “Succinct Exposé of the Dispute Between M. Hume and M. Rousseau, with the Justificatory Evidence,” a duodecimo brochure of about 130 pages. M. Suard was M. Hume’s translator and publisher. I don’t know why he says in his Notice that M. Hume, in making this dispute public, ceded only with much repugnance to his friends’ insistence. He most likely is speaking of M. Hume’s friends in England, since as concerns his friends in France, I know several who wrote to him expressly to dissuade him from making this dispute public. And indeed I pity you with all my heart if you are forced to plead your case in public; if you take it in your head to needlessly submit yourself to the public’s decision I would find you quite foolish. Count on it that the public’s maliciousness seeks only to laugh at your expense and it is totally indifferent to rendering justice to the person to whom it is due. This indifference is not so opposed to natural equity that it can’t be justified. For by what right do you consider yourself to be so important a personage that I should waste my time on your problems? If you have a case that relates to the law have it decided at the Châtelet; if noble and generous proceedings have caused you a quarrel that the laws neither can nor should punish, can it not be said that you are much to be pitied? Content yourself with having played the noble role and learn to despise the vain opinions of others. But it is written that everyone shall fight with the arms of his profession and that authors will settle their quarrels with their pens, in the same way that soldiers settle theirs with their swords. The former are the more ridiculous of the two, and M. Hume, who until now had resisted the mania for dueling, has finally enrolled in the brotherhood for fear of finding a legacy to him in Jean-Jacques’ last will and testament. It is so obvious that many honest men will be slandered in this testament that the philosopher from Scotland could very well have decided to run the risk along with them. Whatever might happen, his “Exposé” will be a best-seller. M. Suard, the sole publisher of this “Exposé” placed a publisher’s notice on the front page that he could just as well have left out.

I won’t permit myself to judge the basis of this strange dispute. As for M. Hume, though I saw him often enough to know what to think of him, I don’t have the honor of being his friend and can allow myself to be his judge. As for M. Rousseau, that’s something else entirely. I was a close friend of his for eight years and I perhaps know him too well not to have to recuse myself when it’s a question of a judgment of his acts and deeds. About nine years ago I found myself obliged to break all relations with him, though I had nothing directly relating to myself to reproach him for, and for his part he never reproached me for anything the entire time of our relationship. Probity and justice didn’t leave me the evil choice between a break or betraying the truth and disguising my feelings in a dishonest fashion on a decisive occasion, when M. Rousseau had inappropriately chosen me as judge but where I could judge with all the more security in that the dispute was totally foreign to me and its basis was even more ridiculous than that against M. Hume. I always thought that it meant essentially and unpardonably to fail a man to dare confide one’s revolting sentiments to him in the hope that he would approve them, or at least listen to them and say nothing about them. This is the equivalent of saying to a friend: I believe you are possessed neither of honor nor delicacy. I know no more serious offense. It’s quite acceptable that one be mad, but I insist that one always be an honest man, even in accesses of madness. What is more, M. Rousseau is the sole friend I have lost without having to regret his death. He has quarreled with almost all his former friends, nearly all of whom we had in common, and dismissed them one after the other. In one of his letters he confesses that he has often changed friends, however he claims to have had solid friendships that have lasted twenty-five or thirty years. I believe he would have a problem in naming one person with whom he has preserved a relationship for ten years, for you can’t call a friend a man you once knew but haven’t had friendly relations with during that period. I also believe he has things to reproach himself for in regard to several of his former friends, but I don’t count myself in their number. I did not have, as several of them did, the good fortune of rendering him essential services. He can thus at the very most be taxed with being unfair with me, but not with being ungrateful, and I gladly forgive him a bit of acrimony against a man he unfortunately exposed to bluntly laying out the truth. It is no less true that since our break I have never spoke ill of his person. I believed that we owed this respect and modesty to any broken relationship. I lived with people who didn’t like him, with enthusiasts, with neutral individuals and have never strayed from my principle. People often assured me that M. Rousseau did not act towards me in the same way; that he spoke ill of me to those willing to listen to him, and people gladly listen to evil; that his accusations were capable of doing me all the more harm in that in never articulating any facts against me he led people to believe only the worst; that I was destroyed in the minds of all his devotees, and among these devotees were individuals of the first rank. I am proud to say that none of these considerations ever caused me to change principles and my sprit was solid enough to regard M. Rousseau’s conduct as a mark of esteem. And in fact, he was not unaware with what advantage I would plead my cause against him in rendering it public and by producing evidence more singular than that just published by M. Hume. But he thought that I would not make a spectacle of myself in public, despite the immortal honor of playing in a farce alongside Jean-Jacques, and he thought correctly. And if he thought that I would laugh at the opinion of his devotees, who I have given no reason to think ill of me, he again thought correctly.

As a consequence of my plan of conduct, which I cannot but regard as excellent under pain of ceasing to be me, this is what I would have done had I been in M. Hume’s position, which was in every way more advantageous than mine: Upon receiving the gentle and honest letter of June 23, which I, portly David Hume, could hardly have expected, I would first have rubbed my eyes. Then, left a bit confused, my gaze would have become as fixed and prolonged as on that forever terrible and memorable day when David looked upon Jean-Jacques. But this surprise having passed, I would have placed the letter in my pocket. The next day I would have written to my friend Jean-Jacques to thank him for the good opinion he honored me with and the color he gave to my services and concerns, and would then have wished him good evening for the rest of his glorious life. The day after that one I would have thought no more of it, or if, despite myself, I felt any pain I would have written to the Countess de Boufflers in Paris to thank her for having fattened me on so lovely a subject. But neither the day after that, nor any other day of the year, would I have consented to confide to the public a dispute of no importance to it.

The individuals whose names are suppressed in this dispute are the Countess de Boufflers and the Marquise de Verdelin. The latter is the woman who went to visit M. Rousseau last year in Motiers-Travers. The great prince is the Prince de Conti. The distinguished individual who visited M. Rousseau in London without it being known is the hereditary Prince of Brunswick. According to M. Rousseau M. Tronchin was once the greatest doctor in Europe: I even saw the certification of this written in M. Rousseau’s hand, and I don’t know if it’s consigned to one of his writings. But since M. Tronchin dared to be angered to see his country’s peace troubled by the “Lettres de la Montagne,” a sentiment one isn’t allowed to feel without being M. Rousseau’s most mortal enemy, he was justly stripped of his quality as the greatest doctor in Europe and, as everyone knows, he has become a juggler, for every talent, every virtue, every quality depends on how you get along with J.-J. Rousseau.

If we consider his great letter strictly from the literary point of view his friends claimed that it was at the very least a masterpiece of eloquence and that the peroration was of an unsurpassed pathos. But they forget that true eloquence consists principally in knowing how to lend each subject the tone appropriate to it. If you treat petty things and nonsense in a way that the most tragic events could barely support you might appear eloquent, but you will more often pass for mad. Don Quixote, who took windmills for giants and fought against them to the death, is certainly full of courage, heroism, and the noblest valor, but he is more ridiculous than he is valiant. For me, the sword blows delivered against windmills affect me so little that I prefer M. Horace Walpole’s letter to M. Hume in this collection to all the other evidence in this dispute, for the letter has character, and character means a lot to me.

What is more, I think that no one can read about this strange dispute without feeling profound pity for the unhappy Jean-Jacques. For if it happens that he offends his friends, it must be agreed that he punishes himself cruelly for it. And how deplorable a life is one that consumes itself in such mad and painful agitations! I challenge his bitterest enemy to offer him, in his current condition, worse advice than that he offered himself: that of falling out with M. Hume without any real cause. I had always thought he had made a bad decision in preferring England to other asylums, but I didn’t expect so bizarre and prompt a revolution. It is easy to predict that he can’t long continue his comfortable stay in Wooten, and that the first dismissal will fall on Davenport and the second on the English nation, but it is not so easy to predict on which corner of the earth friend Jean-Jacques could peacefully end his days. It appears to be proved that he carries with him a companion who can nowhere allow him repose. At least he will for a few months have the sweet satisfaction of preparing a non-succinct response to the “Succinct Exposé” of M. Hume. But if my conjectures are verified, whichever of his friends and enemies escapes a good kicking in this response can consider himself lucky.

Jean-Jacques arrived two centuries too late. His true destiny was that of a reformer, and he would have had as gentle a soul as the Picard Jehan Chauvin [John Calvin]. In the sixteenth century he would have founded the Rousse or Rousseauvian or Jean-Jacquist Brotherhood. But in ours, proselytes aren’t made, and burning prose doesn’t lead the idler who reads to set his book aside and follow after the writer.