Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Boswell's Enlightenment

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Boswell's Enlightenment

Article excerpt

Boswell's Enlightenment BY ROBERT ZARETSKY HARVARD, 288 PAGES, $26.95

When James Boswell met Voltaire, he was not content to pass on after a few pleasantries. $itting in the French philosophe's chalet in Ferney, Boswell pressed him to declare whether he believed in immortality and eternal life. Bantering and batting away questions as long as possible, Voltaire finally conceded, "I suffer much, but I suffer with Patience & Resignation: not as a Christian-But as a man."

Boswell himself suffered as a man, especially from the gonorrhea he contracted in the course of a too-active social life. But unlike Voltaire, he also suffered as a Christian. Boswell was riven with contradictions: delighting in lust and analyzing his sexual performances with a variety of women, yet speaking often of virtue; self-analytical to a fault and anxious, yet socially capable and successful; religious from birth, yet attracted to the atheist and deist thinkers of the day.

During his life, Boswell was known more for his associations than for his accomplishments, but it's time, historian Robert Zaretsky thinks, to give him his moment in the spotlight. The setting is continental Europe- a playground for young English and $cottish gentlemen on their Grand Tours. Boswell set out on his travels at the age of twenty-two, and from 1763 to 1765 he traipsed from England to Utrecht to Corsica by way of Môtiers and Ferney, the homes of Rousseau and Voltaire. Zaretsky's telling is as much an intellectual history as it is a coming-of-age tale, though one gets the sense that Boswell never quite came of age.

Zaretsky decides to make one of the major conflicts of the book the debate between religion and reason. The first chapter, "In the Kirk's Shadow," examines Boswell's childhood and how a strict Scottish Calvinism imprinted on him a lifelong fear of damnation. Death and judgment hung over Boswell's mind, Zaretsky suggests, like an inescapable shadow. …

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