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James Boswell (1740-1795), painted in 1785 by Reynolds

“It is certain that I am not a great man, but I have an enthusiastic love of great men, and I derive a kind of glory from it.” Frederick the Great may have eluded Boswell in Berlin, so prompting these regretful words of his, but with other figures Boswell pursued during a European tour of one and a half years in the early 1760s it was a different matter. Voltaire, the spindly, skeletal satirist, behaved more or less obligingly, putting him up for a night in his Swiss fiefdom; Rousseau was grumpier, but still tolerated his importunities. Boswell later returned the compliment by repeatedly seducing Rousseau’s plain and illiterate companion Thérèse Le Vasseur over the several days it took him to deliver her to England, where Rousseau had taken refuge from religious persecution. Before their arrival, however, Thérèse instructed her guide, deflatingly, not to assume his automatic superiority as a lover to the much older Rousseau, asking him “as a man who had travelled more had he not noticed how many things were achieved by men’s hands”. “I felt like a child in her hands, not a lover,” Boswell reported disconsolately.

Yet he generally maintained a healthy degree of self-regard, often combined with a measure of cheek, though his better qualities were sometimes obscured by the company he kept. What was it people found in him? Intelligent curiosity? Mostly. Overall astuteness? Frequently. Marked liberalness? Not especially. Indefatigable engagingness? Assuredly. Though as sexually incontinent as other young men of comparable rank and wealth at the time, he met with much forgiveness. As to whether he was truly any more enlightened than his peers, Robert Zaretsky’s account reserves judgment. Less inclined to question religious orthodoxy than Rousseau, certainly, while studying at Glasgow University as a young man he had had his early inclination to jettison Calvinism for Catholicism and the life of a monk nipped in the bud by his father, Lord Auchinleck. The lucky son lived accordingly thereafter, grateful for the fleshly gifts that came his way as for the more lasting  intellectual gratifications he encountered. He took his distance from the Enlightenment’s prevailing scepticism, especially where it shaded into downright disbelief; and when it came, the death of Hume the doubter would distress him far more than it appeared to be doing the man himself. Afterwards Boswell could think of nothing to do but drink himself silly and go whoring. Lord Auchinleck had sagely counselled his son as a young man to worry, since he had to worry about something, only where relatively tractable matters were concerned, such as how the Dutch contrived to keep their cattle as clean as they did. It would have been so much more useful than agonising about the meaning of life and the finality of death.

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