Attempts to make sense

James Boswell

Boswell’s Enlightenment, Robert Zaretsky, Harvard

James Boswell remains probably the world’s most famous biographer (after the Gospel writers), for his Life of Samuel Johnson, but he is a fascinating subject for biographers himself. One of them, Peter Martin, describes Boswell as a ‘rake’, but also as a ‘figure of paradox’, due partly to the time in which he lived.

He lived a long time ago, but his life remains relevant because the Enlightenment, both riding on the coattails of the Reformation and offering its own radical new visions, made the modern world in many respects, particularly when it comes to the relationship between faith, individualism and reason. A biography of one life can be one way of navigating these turbulent philosophical waters.

Boswell’s Enlightenment is not a conventional biography; rather, it takes part of Boswell’s life – his early travels in Europe – to show how Boswell is, perhaps more so than Johnson, just like us. This may be a rather odd claim, seeing as Boswell was the son of a wealthy Scottish landowner, brought up in strict Calvinism, but with a taste for the theatre and its morally dubious associations. But he had enthusiasm for learning and travel, and as a child both of the Enlightenment and Protestantism was constantly self-examining. His writings display the agonising that comes when we ask these questions: does ‘working’ on ourselves make us more ourselves, or take us away from our true self? How do we balance independence and living up to expectations? Are we autonomous? What is the soul? The theme of this small book is not just Boswell’s life, but his attempts to makes sense of his life.

Boswell sought answers, in person and often in brazen and charmingly naïve fashion, from the supposed great minds of his day – Adam Smith, Voltaire and Rousseau, each sceptical, to say the least, of religion’s place in society. And then he fell back on the advice of Johnson, who cautioned Boswell in seeking advice from such philosophical charlatans who peddled deception disguised as blunt honesty. Johnson himself was an exemplar of rational thinking, but he was also wary of, say, Rousseau’s advice to (basically) follow one’s heart, knowing that one could easily be led astray this way. And Johnson saw beyond the Enlightenment’s caricatures of religion to a deeper, saving truth, one that Boswell had not rejected either.

There is a touching honesty in Boswell’s searching, and a reader in the modern world, but with religious sensibilities, can be captivated by a sense that Boswell is seeking the answers we all seek.

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