The 10th Laird of Auchinleck is best known for his comprehensive biography of Samuel Johnson; but James Boswell was an important and interesting figure in his own right. This book is essentially an account of how Boswell becomes The Boswell we are more familiar with–the writer, the biographer, the lawyer. This book reveals to us a Boswell who thought deeply about religion, the afterlife and the immortality of the soul and who sought out the greatest thinkers of his days and questioned them relentlessly about these topics. Zaretsky’s brief biography is an account of Boswell’s Grand Tour of Europe from 1763-1765 as he interviews great men in an attempt to probe the depths of his own soul.
Zaretsky first describes Boswell’s Calvinist roots which laid the foundation for his struggle with religion, worship and the immortality of the soul. Boswell was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where his parents were very traditional followers of this Christian sect which believed in a harsh and vengeful God. The long Sundays spent in devotion to such an ever-watchful deity had a lasting influence on Boswell’s psyche. When he graduates from university and his father expects him to study law, Boswell wants first to travel around Europe and have conversations with the world’s leading Enlightenment thinkers. Boswell actively pursues and interrogates the likes of Johnson, Rosseau, Voltaire, Wilke and Paoli.
There are some interesting themes that Zaretsky notes about Boswell’s life during this period, the most important of which is his constant battle with melancholy. When Boswell meets Johnson in London, the two men bond over their respective bouts of depression. Boswell is constantly plagued by a type of pensive sadness concerning his life and the course which it ought to take. During these low periods he indulges in two forms of “medication”: drinking and sex. The self-medication and depression become a cyclical pattern because the more depressed he feels the more he drinks and has sex; after a night of extreme debauchery Boswell has feelings of dread and guilt which further launch him into a depression. Zaretsky points out that even much later in life, when he is settled down with a wonderful wife and five children he continues to wrestle with these demons.
The most entertaining encounters that Boswell has during his travels are with Rosseau and Voltaire. At this point, both writers are carrying out reclusive lives as feeble, crusty old men when Boswell overtakes them. And overtakes them he does as he shows up on both men’s doorsteps and insinuates himself into their homes. He questions both men about religion, life, and most importantly the immortality of the soul. Zaretsky provides us with a general overview of Rosseau’s and Voltaire’s important ideas and how these ideas have an impact on young Boswell. Rosseau is a bit more affable with Boswell and is entertained by Boswell’s gregarious and affable personality. But neither philosopher is able to give Boswell satisfactory answers about the role of God in this life or what will happen to his soul in the next.
Boswell then moves on to Italy and eventually Corsica where he meets two very different types of men. John Wilkes, the libertine politician, is a free-spirited thinker who embraces life for all it is worth; he, too, loves to drink and whore around but he is unapologetic about his behavior. Wilkes dismisses Boswell’s questions about religion and mortality and tells Boswell to stop being so serious and to embrace life. While Boswell is with Wilkes he lets loose with wild abandon as his days and nights are taken up with talking to his friend, drinking and sexual promiscuity.
Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always well-written, Boswell’s Enlightenment has given me a much greater appreciation for Johnson’s biographer. Boswell is plagued with self-doubt and depression yet through all of his low points he continues to contemplate the importance of this life and his possible annihilation in the next. This book covers only a brief span in Boswell’s life, but I enjoyed it so much that I purchased a copy of Boswell’s diaries so I can learn more about this fascinating, Scottish laird.
About The Author:
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French History at the University of Houston.