But petty arguments, even between geniuses, are still petty. Rousseau's Dog gets bogged down in silly squabbling between adults who should have known better -- two of the most eminent philosophers of all time, David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Edmonds and Eidinow set up the quarrel well, with accounts of the subversive Rousseau's being hounded from one Swiss canton to another and his finally falling upon Hume, a deputy ambassador in Paris, to provide him with safe passage across the Channel. In fact, the first half of the book is an entertaining tour through high society in the 1760s in England and France: James Boswell, Horace Walpole, Adam Smith and Frederick the Great all take a bow, and we find out that, in the epistolary 18th century, people took letter writing very, very seriously.
Despite the subtitle -- Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment -- the authors emphasize the bickerings of war over the subtleties of thinking. It's not until Chapter 11 that they summarize why Hume and Rousseau are still read and admired. Philosophers still wrestle with Hume's skeptical arguments against empirical observation; Rousseau redefined the confessional autobiography and the social contract.
But somewhere around the umpteenth account of how one letter was deliberately misconstrued and the next prompted malicious gossip, the authors' account of two great men devolves into a historical footnote better handled in an article than in a full-length book. Perhaps the idea is that we shouldn't revere the titans too much. Rousseau was obviously vain, paranoid and manipulative; Hume comes off as a fat little self-satisfied prig, fussing in curlicued prose about how best to secure his reputation. Both were hypocrites: Hume allowed pride and anger to swamp his rationalist boat; Rousseau, admired for his advice about child-rearing and child education in Emile, actually abandoned all five of his infant children to orphanages.
At least he was nice to his dog. Rousseau was excessively devoted to Sultan, like a good homme de sensibilit & eacute;. But Sultan lacked both a tail and sufficient stature to represent the yin of Enlightenment and the yang of Romanticism.
In Rousseau's Dog, Edmonds and Eidinow try to make a symbolic war out of an ill-mannered little dogfight.