The philosopher felt let down by the enlightened despotby Ada Bronowski / March 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
In this riveting book—part biography, part historical fiction, part philosophical commentary—Robert Zaretsky brings to light the historic encounter between the great 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot and the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great. The meeting promised an effusion of friendship, visionary policy-making and historic new directions for an enlightened Russian nation; in reality, it ended in the proverbial whimper.
Zaretsky’s chatty style echoes Diderot’s own experimentation with narrative techniques. He feeds us a gripping story: the philosopher, sick after travelling through half of Europe, finally meets the empress and enchants her with his conversation. But he misreads her enjoyment for influence over policy; in fact, for the four months he was there all he was doing was providing intellectually refined entertainment.
The biographer animates his tale of the external events through snippets of correspondence, notes on conversation and Diderot’s works, most of which were too incendiary to be published in his lifetime.
He also reveals how Catherine was caught between her aspirations towards enlightenment (reaffirming in letters to Voltaire her allegiance to the “party of humanity”), and the reality of ruthlessly quashing serf rebellions. Diderot is similarly caught in contradiction: putting his moral integrity in jeopardy, he willingly enters the circle of power, thinking that he can persuade the ruler to change.
The tension between dreams and reality explodes in the aftermath of Diderot’s visit, as every encounter between a philosopher and a ruler invariably has since Plato first went to Syracuse. Catherine’s passion for the Enlightenment abates, while Diderot spends the last 10 years of his life penning his most radical texts on religious toleration, colonialism and sexual freedom. He also came to believe that the idea of the enlightened despot was an oxymoron.
Catherine and Diderot by Robert Zaretsky (Harvard, £20)