Catherine the Great: And Other Studies

Catherine the Great: And Other Studies

Catherine the Great: And Other Studies

Catherine the Great: And Other Studies

Excerpt

The portrait of Catherine the Great completes the trilogy on the Enlightened Autocrats of the eighteenth century, of which the previous instalments dealt with Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa. None of them attempts a full-length picture, for we possess excellent biographies, large and small, of them all. The purpose is twofold: firstly to illustrate the type of government most widely adopted and most warmly admired in the Age of Reason which ended with the French Revolution; and secondly to bring to life leading actors on the European stage as they reveal themselves in their memoirs, correspondence and table-talk, and in the comments of friend and foe. No artist could wish for more colourful or more contrasted sitters. Their sole bond is their conviction of the superiority of efficient paternalism over all other methods of government, and their determination to fulfil their exacting duties to the limit of their strength. The two Germans--for Catherine was a German--were Intellectuals, with a genuine interest in the things of the mind, for whom the philosophy of the Aufklärung replaced inherited beliefs. The two Austrians, Maria Theresa and her son Joseph, on the other hand, untouched by the rationalism of the century of Voltaire, devoted their entire energies to governing their ramshackle empire. The interaction of temperament and circumstance; the clash of tradition with the requirements and temptations of the hour; the ideologies and ambitions, the austerities and dissipations, the joys and sorrows of those in high place: such are the themes of the drama unfolded in these studies. Since Karl Marx claimed attention for economic influences a century ago increasing emphasis has been laid on the impersonal factors in history, but interest in leading actors on the stage remains as keen as ever.

In the second item in this volume the scene shifts from Eastern Europe to the West, from the council chamber to the drawingrooms of Parisian hostesses, from courts and cabinets to society and literature. Though there have been salons in France from Mme de Rambouillet to Juliette Adam, no period has witnessed . . .

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