Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment
The 18th century Enlightenment was an extraordinary time when religious skepticism rose across Europe and philosophes boldly asserted that man’s capacity for reason was the key to understanding both human nature and the nature of the universe. In Boswell’s Enlightenment, Robert Zaretsky, Professor of History at the University of Houston, provides a highly personalized view of the Enlightenment as experienced by James Boswell (1740-1795), the faithful Scottish companion to Dr. Samuel Johnson and author of a seminal biography on the learned doctor. The crux of Zaretsky’s story lies in Boswell’s tour of the European continent between 1763 and 1765 – the “Grand Tour” – where, as a young man, Boswell encountered seemingly all the period’s leading thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire, then Europe’s two best known philosophes. Zaretsky’s self-described purpose is to “place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment” (p.16-17). Also figuring prominently in Zaretsky’s account are Boswell’s encounters prior to departing for Europe with several leading Scottish luminaries, most notably David Hume, Britain’s best-known religious skeptic. The account further includes the beginning phases of Boswell’s life-long relationship with Johnson, the “most celebrated literary figure in London” (p.71) and, for Boswell, already a “moral and intellectual rock” (p.227).
But Zaretsky’s title is a delicious double entendre, for his book is simultaneously the intriguing story of Boswell’s personal coming of age in the mid-18th century – his “enlightenment” with a small “e” – amidst the intellectual fervor of his times. The young Boswell searching for himself was more than a little sycophantic, with an uncommon facility to curry favor with the prominent personalities of his day – an unabashed 18th century celebrity hound. But Boswell also possessed a fertile, impressionable mind, along with a young man’s zest to experience life in all its facets. Upon leaving for his Grand Tour, moreover, Boswell was already a prolific if not yet entirely polished writer who kept a detailed journal of his travels, much of which survives. In his journal, the introspective Boswell was a “merciless self-critic” (p.97). Yet, Zaretsky writes, Boswell’s ability to re-create conversations and characters in his journals makes him a “remarkable witness to his age” (p.15). Few individuals “reported in so sustained and thorough a manner as did Boswell from the front lines of the Enlightenment” (p.13).
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In his prologue, Zaretsky raises the question whether the 18th century Enlightenment should be considered a unified phenomena, centered in France and radiating out from there; or whether it makes more sense to think of separate Enlightenments, such as, for example, both a Scottish and a French Enlightenment. This is a familiar theme to assiduous readers of this blog: in 2013, I reviewed Arthur Hermann’s exuberant claim to a distinct Scottish Enlightenment; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s more sober argument for distinctive French, English and American Enlightenments. Without answering this always-pertinent question, Zaretsky turns his account to young Boswell’s search for himself and the greatest minds of 18th century Europe.
Boswell was the son of a prominent Edinburgh judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, a follower of John Knox’s stern brand of Calvinism and an overriding force in young Boswell’s life. Boswell’s effort to break the grip that his father exerted over his life was also in many senses an attempt to break the grip of his Calvinist upbringing. When as a law student in Edinburgh his son developed what Lord Auchinleck considered a most unhealthy interest in theatre — and women working in the theatre — he sent the wayward son from lively and overly liberal Edinburgh to more subdued Glasgow. There, Boswell came under the influence of renowned professor Adam Smith. Although his arguments for the advantages of laissez faire capitalism came later, Smith was already a sensation across Europe for his view that empathy, or “fellow feeling,” was the key to understanding what makes human beings good. A few years later, Lord Auchinleck started his son on his Grand Tour across the European continent by insisting that young Boswell study civil law in the Netherlands, as he had done in his student days.
Throughout his travels, the young Boswell wrestled with the question of religious faith and how it might be reconciled with the demands of reason. The religious skepticism of Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau weighed on him. But, like Johnson, Boswell was not quite ready to buy into it. For Boswell, reason was “not equal to the task of absorbing the reality of our end, this thought of our death. Instead, religion alone offered respite” (p.241). In an age where death was a “constant and dire presence,” Boswell “stands out for his preoccupation, if not obsession, with his mortal end” (p.15). Boswell’s chronic “hypochondria” – the term used in Boswell’s time for depression — was “closely tied to his preoccupation with his mortality” (p.15). For Boswell, like Johnson, the defense of traditional religion was “less fear of hell than fear of nothingness – what both men called ‘annihilation’” (p.85).
Boswell’s fear of the annihilation of death probably helps explain his life long fascination with public executions. Throughout the Grand Tour, he consistently went out of his way to attend these very public 18th century spectacles, “transfixed by the ways in which the victims approached their last moments” (p.15). Boswell’s attraction to public executions, whose official justification was to “educate the public on the consequences of crime” was, Zaretsky notes, “exceptional even among his contemporaries” (p.80). But if the young Boswell feared death, he dove deeply into life and, through his journal, shared his dives with posterity.
A prodigious drinker and carouser, Boswell seduced women across the continent, often the wives of men he was meeting to discuss the profound issues of life and death. At seemingly every stop along the way, moreover, he patronized establishments practicing the world’s oldest profession, with several bouts of gonorrhea resulting from these frequentations, followed by excruciatingly painful medical treatments. Boswell’s multiple encounters with the opposite sex form a colorful portion of his journal and are no small portion of the reason why the journal continues to fascinate readers to this day.
But Boswell’s first significant encounter with the opposite sex during the Grand Tour was also his first significant encounter on the continent with an Enlightenment luminary, Elisabeth van Tuyell van Serooskerken, whom the young Scot wisely shortened to “Belle.” Boswell met Belle in Utrecht, the Netherlands, his initial stop on the Grand Tour, where he was ostensibly studying civil law. Belle, who went on to write several epistolary novels under her married name, Isabelle de Charrière, was a sophisticated religious skeptic who understood the “social and moral necessity of religion; but she also understood that true skepticism entailed, as Hume believed, a kind of humility and intellectual modesty” (p.127). Belle was not free of religious doubt, Zaretsky notes, but unlike Boswell, was “free of the temptation to seek certainty” (p.127). Boswell was attracted to Belle’s “lightning” mind, which, as he wrote a friend, “flashes with so much brilliance [that it] may scorch” (p.117). But Belle was not nearly as smitten by Boswell as he was with her, and her father never bothered to pass to his daughter the marriage proposal that Boswell had presented to him. The two parted when Boswell left Utrecht, seeking to put his unrequited love behind him.
Boswell headed from the Netherlands to German-speaking Prussia and its king, “enlightened despot” Frederick the Great. Zaretsky considers Frederick “far more despotic than enlightened” (p.143), but Frederick plainly saw the value to the state of religious tolerance. “Here everyone must be allowed to go to heaven in his own way” (p.145) summarized Frederick’s attitude toward religion. Frederick proved to be one of the era’s few luminaries who was “indifferent to the Scot’s irrepressible efforts at presenting himself to them” (p.141), and Boswell had little direct time with the Prussian monarch during his six month stay.
But Boswell managed back-to-back visits with Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland, his next destination. Rousseau and Voltaire had both been banished from Catholic France for heretical religious views. Rousseau, who was born in Calvinist Geneva, was no longer welcome in that city either because of his religious views. Beyond a shared disdain for organized religion, the former friends disagreed about just about everything else — culture and civilization, theater and literature, politics and education. Zaretsky’s chapter on these visits, entitled “The Distance Between Môtiers and Ferney” – a reference to the remote Swiss locations where, respectively, Rousseau and Voltaire resided — is in my view the book’s best, with an erudite overview of the two men’s wide ranging thinking, their reactions to their impetuous young visitor, and the enmity that separated them.
Zaretsky describes Rousseau as a “poet of nature” (p.148), for whom religious doctrines led “not to God, but instead to oppression and war” (p.149). But Rousseau also questioned his era’s advances in learning and the Enlightenment’s belief in human progress. The more science and the arts advanced, Rousseau argued, the more contemporary society became consumed by personal gain and greed. Voltaire, the “high priest of the French Enlightenment” (p.12), was a poet, historian and moralist who had fled from France to England in the 1730s because of his heretical religious views. There, he absorbed the thinking of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, whose pragmatic approach and grounded reason he found superior to the abstract reasoning and metaphysical speculation that he associated with Descartes. While not an original or systematic thinker like Locke or Bacon, Voltaire was an “immensely gifted translator of their work and method” (p.172).
By the time Boswell arrived in Môtiers, the two philosophes were no longer on speaking terms. Rousseau publicly termed Voltaire a “mountebank” and “impious braggart,” a man of “so much talent put to such vile use” (p.158). Voltaire returned the verbal fire with a string of vitriolic epithets, among them “ridiculous,” “depraved,” “pitiful,” and “abominable.” The clash between the two men went beyond epithets and name-calling. Rousseau publicly identified Voltaire as the author of Oath of the Fifty, a “brutal and hilarious critique of Christian scripture” (p.180). Voltaire, for his part, revealed that Rousseau had fathered five children with his partner Thérèse Levasseur, whom the couple subsequently abandoned.
The enmity between the two men was not an obstacle to Boswell visiting each, although his actual meetings constitute a minor portion of the engrossing chapter. Boswell had an “improbable” five separate meetings with the usually reclusive Rousseau. They were wide-ranging, with the “resolute and relentless” Boswell pursing “questions great and small, philosophical and personal” (p.156). When Boswell pressed Rousseau on how religious faith could be reconciled with reason, however, Rousseau’s answer was, in essence, that’s for you to figure out. Boswell did not fare much better with Voltaire on how he might reconcile reason with religious faith.
Unlike Rousseau, Voltaire was no recluse. He prided himself on being the “innkeeper of Europe” (p.174), and his residence at Ferney was usually overflowing with visitors. Despite spending several days at Ferney, Boswell managed a single one-on-one meeting with the man he described as the “Monarch of French Literature” (p.176). In a two-hour conversation that reached what Zaretsky terms “epic proportions” (p.178), the men took up the subject of religious faith. “If ever two men disputed with vehemence we did” (p.178), Boswell wrote afterwards. The young traveler wrote eight pages on the encounter in a document separate from his journal. Alas, these eight pages have been lost to history. But we know that the traveler left the meeting more than a little disappointed that Voltaire could not provide the definitive resolution he was seeking of how to bridge the chasm between reason and faith.
After a short stay in Italy that included “ruins and galleries . . .brothels and bawdy houses. . .churches and cathedrals” (p.200), Boswell’s last stop on the Grand Tour was the island of Corsica, a distant and exotic location where few Britons had ever visited. There, he met General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the movement for Corsican independence from the city-state of Genoa, which exercised control over most of the island. Paoli was already attracting attention throughout Europe for his determination to establish a republican government on the island. Rousseau, who had been asked to write a constitution for an independent Corsica, wrote for Boswell a letter of introduction to Paoli. During a six-day visit to the island, Paoli treated the mesmerized Boswell increasingly like a son. Paoli “embodied those ancient values that Boswell most admired, though frequently failed to practice: personal integrity and public authority; intellectual lucidity and stoic responsibility” (p.232). Paoli’s leadership of the independence movement demonstrated to Boswell that heroism was still alive, an “especially crucial quality in an age like his of philosophical and religious doubt” (p.217). Upon returning to Britain, Boswell became a vigorous advocate for Paoli and the cause of Corsican independence.
Boswell’s tour on the continent ended — and Zaretsky’s narrative ends — with a dramatic flourish that Zaretsky likens to episodes in Henry Fielding’s then popular novel Tom Jones. While Boswell was in Italy, Rousseau and Thérèse were forced to flee Môitiers because of hostile reaction to Voltaire’s revelation about the couple’s five children. By chance, David Hume, who had been in Paris, was able to escort Rousseau into exile in England, leaving Thérèse temporarily behind. Boswell somehow got wind of Thérèse’s situation and, sensing an opportunity to win favor with Rousseau, eagerly accepted her request to escort her to England to join her partner. But over the course of the 11-day trip to England, Boswell and Thérèse “found themselves sharing the same bed. Inevitably, Boswell recounted his sexual prowess in his journal: ‘My powers were excited and I felt myself vigorous’” (p.225). No less inevitably, Zaretsky notes, Boswell also recorded Thérèse’s “more nuanced response: ‘I allow that you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art’” (p.225).
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After following Boswell’s encounters across the continent with many of the period’s most illustrious figures, I was disappointed that Zaretsky does not return to the question he raises initially about nature of 18th century Enlightenment. It would have been interesting to learn what conclusions, if any, he draws from Boswell’s journey. Does the young Scot’s partaking of the thoughts of Voltaire, Rousseau and others, and his championing the cause of Corsican independence, suggest a single movement indifferent to national and cultural boundaries? Or should Boswell best be considered an emissary of a peculiarly Scottish form of Enlightenment? Or was Boswell himself too young, too impressionable – too full of himself – to allow for any broader conclusions to be drawn from his youthful experiences about the nature of the 18th century Enlightenment? These unanswered questions constitute a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging account of a young man seeking to make sense of the intellectual currents that were riveting his 18th century world and to apply them in his personal life.
Thomas H. Peebles
January 25, 2017