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Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment

Robert Zaretsky



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Harvard University Press
15 January 2019
Philosophy; Western philosophy, from c 1900 -
A dual biography crafted around the famous encounter between the French philosopher who wrote about power and the Russian empress who wielded it with great aplomb.

In October 1773, after a grueling trek from Paris, the aged and ailing Denis Diderot stumbled from a carriage in wintery St. Petersburg. The century's most subversive thinker, Diderot arrived as the guest of its most ambitious and admired ruler, Empress Catherine of Russia. What followed was unprecedented: more than forty private meetings, stretching over nearly four months, between these two extraordinary figures. Diderot had come from Paris in order to guide-or so he thought-the woman who had become the continent's last great hope for an enlightened ruler. But as it soon became clear, Catherine had a very different understanding not just of her role but of his as well. Philosophers, she claimed, had the luxury of writing on unfeeling paper. Rulers had the task of writing on human skin, sensitive to the slightest touch.

Diderot and Catherine's series of meetings, held in her private chambers at the Hermitage, captured the imagination of their contemporaries. While heads of state like Frederick of Prussia feared the consequences of these conversations, intellectuals like Voltaire hoped they would further the goals of the Enlightenment.

In Catherine & Diderot, Robert Zaretsky traces the lives of these two remarkable figures, inviting us to reflect on the fraught relationship between politics and philosophy, and between a man of thought and a woman of action.
By:   Robert Zaretsky
Imprint:   Harvard University Press
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 210mm,  Width: 140mm, 
ISBN:   9780674737907
ISBN 10:   0674737903
Pages:   272
Publication Date:   15 January 2019
Audience:   Professional and scholarly ,  Undergraduate
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Unspecified

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.

Reviews for Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment

A wonderfully opinionated and erudite evaluation of the whole of Diderot's career, of the Enlightenment, and of Russian culture.--Adam Gopnik New Yorker (03/04/2019) Zaretsky is a great storyteller...and he has chosen to tell a story that still astonishes.--Lynn Hunt New York Review of Books (03/07/2019) One of the glories of Robert Zaretsky's beautifully organized and very readable book--in itself a meditation on those Enlightenment values of knowledge and happiness that are so beleaguered in our own day--is the way it opens up Diderot's self-doubt on his return from a country whose dependence on brute power to maintain domestic order made French philosophizing look naive...This book is splendid.--Lesley Chamberlain Times Literary Supplement (03/05/2019) Zaretsky, a sympathetic reader of the kind Diderot dreamt of, succeeds in resurrecting him as an author who speaks to our times: principled, but amenable to patronage; clinging to truth in the corridors of power; happiest at his desk experimenting with his own and other people's prose; a loquacious chaos; but, most importantly of all, a defender of humanity, progress and Enlightenment.--Ruth Scurr The Spectator (03/23/2019) Zaretsky has written a scintillating, sophisticated, and nuanced book that not only recounts the remarkable story of the Russian ruler and the French thinker, but also explores the complicated dance between power and ideas in the Age of Reason.--Douglas Smith Los Angeles Review of Books (03/01/2019) Particularly good...in its advocacy of Diderot as a thinker and imaginative writer...As Zaretsky demonstrates convincingly, he was the French equivalent of Laurence Sterne, as well as a Samuel Beckett before his time and an effervescent source of witty paradoxes.--Donald Rayfield Literary Review (03/01/2019) 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.--Ada Bronowski Prospect (03/05/2019) A dual biography and the biography of a duel: between two great forces in history, the power of reason versus the might of politics...[Zaretsky's] book reads like a compelling historical novel, with passages that made me laugh out loud. Infused with rich sensual and emotional detail, this is one of the most enjoyable biographies I've read.-- (03/21/2019) Catherine the great empress once told Diderot the great philosophe that while he had the luxury of writing on 'unfeeling paper, ' her profession required her to write on human skin, which was 'far more ticklish.' How right she was! Yet for all their differences, the two enjoyed one of the most remarkable relationships of the Enlightenment age. Robert Zaretsky tells their story with elegance, wit, and insight in this delightful book.--Willard Sunderland, author of The Baron's Cloak Face to face with her in the Hermitage, [Diderot] bumptiously attempted to steer her mind. But Catherine was firmly at her own helm, and soon she came to believe that an ebullient and politically naive 10-year-old lurked within the mind of the elderly sage... The two clearly charmed each other but were not fated to agree, and the story of their falling-out, a sort of intellectual d samour, is generously and poignantly treated by Zaretsky.-- (02/15/2019) Lively and engaging throughout, Zaretsky takes a fresh look at the relationship between Catherine and Diderot, seeing it through the searching eyes of the philosophe rightly described as one of the most provocative thinkers of the age.--Simon Dixon, author of Catherine the Great A vivid, exceptionally readable narrative of Denis Diderot's visit to Russia and his encounter with Catherine the Great. It also provides a lucid introduction to Diderot's major works.--David A. Bell, author of Napoleon: A Concise Biography

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