The Wooden Duck of Edinburgh

Philosophical Story

On June 11, 1762, Rousseau was ordered to leave France after the government banned his educational treatise Emile. His protectress, Marie-Charlotte-Hippolyte wrote to Hume asking him to house the Frenchman in Scotland, where the heart is free. Rousseau was not happy with this solution because he never trusted Hume; however, in the last couple of months he really got into Chinese philosophy and one gem of wisdom he learned was that you should keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

A wooden duck on a hill at Edinburgh

Hume arranged a humble castle in the vicinities of Edinburgh for Jean-Jacques and his mistress Thérèse. Although Hume’s castle was a bit too small for someone used to the grandeur of Versailles and the foggy, rainy, dreadful, misty, unpredictable and altogether miserable Scottish weather did not quite suit his meteoropathy, Rousseau had bigger concerns. After having noticed, in the last few years, that no one was attending his ‘Back 2 Nature’ parties anymore, he became aware of an international conspiracy against him. However, the final piece of the puzzle was missing: who was the sneaky mastermind behind the complot?

A few episodes in the first weeks of his stay in Scotland gave the answer that he unconsciously knew all along. Firstly, it was Rousseau’s firm belief that vegetarianism is the sign of a peaceful soul. The blue steak Hume ate at their first meal together was clearly a sign of his cruelty. Secondly, it came to Rousseau’s knowledge that Hume tried to seduce Thérèse by saying “reason is the slave of the passions”. Thirdly, and most importantly, Hume developed the habit of trashing Rousseau at every Backgammon game they played.

Knowing Hume’s passion for food and his Burgundian taste, Rousseau decided to build a wooden duck and to break through the walls with it.

In order to put an end to the conspiracy, Rousseau gathered a philosophical army composed of Voltaire, Samuel Clarke, Gottfried Leibniz, Denis Diderot, George Berkeley, Jeremy Bentham (who joined only because Hume’s death would have maximized the happiness of the majority of philosophers), and even Adam Smith, who despite being very fond of Hume, was done losing at Backgammon.

This great army besieged Edinburgh for ten long years without any success. They tried every philosophical argument they could find, Berkeley even convinced himself that the city wall wasn’t real and tried to walk through it; Leibniz shouted that in the best possible world Hume would have surrendered but Hume would not listen to reason and angrily replied “sticks and stones may break our walls but your words will never harm them”. Jean-Jacques was running out of ideas (and Leibniz out of monads) and almost drowned in despair when one last ruse came to mind. Knowing Hume’s passion for food and his Burgundian taste, Rousseau decided to build a wooden duck and to break through the walls with it. He wrote a long letter to Hume saying that the duck was a peace offering and he also added that the duck was full of rillette as an homage to the great philosopher who had been willing to host him when no one wanted to. Of course, the duck had a completely different content: it was filled with Rousseau’s philosophical soldiers armed to the bone with their arguments and ready to attack once they arrived in the city.

Although Hume’s mouth was watering at the thought of some delicious rillette, his skepticism held him back.

When the duck rolled up to the city gates, Hume saw it from his castle and ordered to keep the gates closed. After having put on his most festive clothes and interrupting his Backgammon game, he walked over the city walls to the gates and started two inquiries: he first started doubting the human understanding of the duck and then questioned the moral principles behind it. Rousseau answered to Hume’s questions from inside the duck and shouted: “people who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little”. Although Hume’s mouth was watering at the thought of some delicious rillette, his skepticism held him back. Afraid of having second thoughts, Hume immediately ordered to his empiricist squad to investigate the duck from up close and check whether there was actually rillette inside. Although the duck gave the impression of a gift, the squad reported back that they had the idea it was a trap.

It was already late at night but Hume, afraid that the sun would not rise the next day, decided to take immediate action and set the duck on fire. From inside the duck he could still hear Rousseau screaming “will I at least go to Heaven?” and Hume, in an irritated manner, answered: “the life of a man is of no greater importance to God than that of an oyster”. Hume stayed in front of the duck watching its flames and listening to the agonizing and excruciating screams of the philosophical infidels.

“Stercus accidit” he said and went back to his game of Backgammon.

Creatively inspired by Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment.By David Edmonds and John Eidinow.Illustrated. 340 pp. Ecco/ HarperCollins Publishers.