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Boswell’s Enlightenment

Boswell’s Enlightenment

Robert Zaretsky

ISBN 9780674368231

Publication date: 03/23/2015

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Throughout his life, James Boswell struggled to fashion a clear account of himself, but try as he might, he could not reconcile the truths of his era with those of his religious upbringing. Boswell’s Enlightenment examines the conflicting credos of reason and faith, progress and tradition that pulled Boswell, like so many eighteenth-century Europeans, in opposing directions. In the end, the life of the man best known for writing Samuel Johnson’s biography was something of a patchwork affair. As Johnson himself understood: “That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was BOSWELL.”

Few periods in Boswell’s life better crystallize this internal turmoil than 1763–1765, the years of his Grand Tour and the focus of Robert Zaretsky’s thrilling intellectual adventure. From the moment Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson, to his return to Dover from Calais a year and a half later, the young Scot was intent on not just touring historic and religious sites but also canvassing the views of the greatest thinkers of the age. In his relentless quizzing of Voltaire and Rousseau, Hume and Johnson, Paoli and Wilkes on topics concerning faith, the soul, and death, he was not merely a celebrity-seeker but—for want of a better term—a truth-seeker. Zaretsky reveals a life more complex and compelling than suggested by the label “Johnson’s biographer,” and one that 250 years later registers our own variations of mind.


  • The key theme of Robert Zaretsky’s splendid new book on James Boswell is that his life was a roaming drama of self-discovery…Boswell’s Enlightenment is thus about the art of living. Boswell’s interest for the historian lies not with the originality of his thought—there was none—but as an example of someone who struggled, Zaretsky shows, ‘to bend his person to certain philosophical ends.’ Hume, Johnson, Rousseau and Voltaire were asked to help him divine what those ends might be. Zaretsky’s elegantly written book, then, stands alongside a growing literature—including the works of Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life) and Alexander Nehemas (The Art of Living)—that renders the history of philosophy not as an academic pursuit, but as something wrought in pursuit of the common good.

    —Gavin Jacobson, Times Literary Supplement


  • Robert Zaretsky is a literary biographer and historian of France. He is Professor of Humanities at the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author of many books, including A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning and Boswell’s Enlightenment. Zaretsky is the history editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, a regular columnist for The Forward, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and Chronicle of Higher Education.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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