We discovered the entries in the Jesuit catalogs that listed everyone who lived at the Royal College in 1726, 1734, and 1737: some 100 teachers, students, and servants in all. Twelve Jesuit fathers had been at La Flèche when Desideri visited and were still there when Hume arrived. So Hume had lots of opportunities to learn about Desideri.
One name stood out: P. Charles François Dolu, a missionary in the Indies. This had to be the Père Tolu I had been looking for; the “Tolu” in Petech’s book was a transcription error. Dolu not only had been particularly interested in Desideri; he was also there for all of Hume’s stay. And he had spent time in the East. Could he be the missing link?
We discovered that in the 1730s not one but two Europeans had experienced Buddhism firsthand, and both of them had been at the Royal College. Desideri was the first, and the second was Dolu. He had been part of another fascinating voyage to the East: the French embassy to Buddhist Siam.
In the 1680s, King Narai of Siam became interested in Christianity, and even more interested in European science, especially astronomy. Louis XIV dispatched two embassies to Siam, in 1685 and 1687, including a strong contingent of Jesuit scientists. Dolu was part of the 1687 group.
The Jesuits in the 1687 embassy, including Dolu, stayed in Siam for a year and spent a great deal of time with the talapoins—the European word for the Siamese Buddhist monks. Three of them even lived in the Buddhist monastery and followed its rules.
Like Desideri’s mission, the Siamese embassy ended in bloodshed and chaos. In 1688 the local courtiers and priests revolted against the liberal king and his arrogant foreign advisers. They assassinated King Narai, the new bridge between the two cultures crumbled, and the Jesuits fled for their lives. Several of them died. Dolu and a few others escaped to Pondicherry, in India, where they set up a Jesuit church.
In 1723, after his extraordinarily eventful and exotic career, Dolu retired to peaceful La Flèche for the rest of his long life. He was 80 when Hume arrived, the last surviving member of the embassies, and a relic of the great age of Jesuit science.
And I discovered something else. Hume had said that Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary was an important influence on the Treatise—particularly the entry on Spinoza. So I looked up that entry in the dictionary, which is a brilliant, encyclopedic, 6 million–word mess of footnotes, footnotes to footnotes, references, and cross-references. One of the footnotes in the Spinoza entry was about “oriental philosophers” who, like Spinoza, denied the existence of God and argued for “emptiness.” And it cross-referenced another entry about the monks of Siam, as described by the Jesuit ambassadors. Hume must have been reading about Buddhism, and Dolu’s journey, in the very building where Dolu lived.--Alison Gopnik "How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis: David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment" in The Atlantic.