Boswell, Rousseau and Voltaire

In 1764, writes Stuart Andrews, during his successful Grand Tour, James Boswell, then aged twenty-four, visited two great European thinkers, who were, he wrote, far more interesting to him ‘than most statues or pictures’.

Portrait of James Boswell of Auchinleck by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Portrait of James Boswell of Auchinleck by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Rousseau and Voltaire died within a few weeks of one another in 1778 - Voltaire on the night of May 30th and Rousseau on July 2nd. Fourteen years before, the two leading figures of the French Enlightenment had been visited within the space of a month by that twenty-four-year-old, scalp-hunting Scotsman, James Boswell.

Boswell disclosed his plan in a letter to William Johnson Temple written from Utrecht on April 17th 1764:

I shall make the tour of The Netherlands, from thence proceed to Germany, where I shall visit the Courts of Brunswick and Lüneburg, and about the end of August arrive at Berlin. I shall pass a month there. In the end of September I shall go to the Court of Baden- Durlach, from thence through Switzerland to Geneva. I shall visit Rousseau and Voltaire, and about the middle of November shall cross the Alps and get fairly into Italy. I shall there pass a delicious winter, and in April shall pass the Pyrenees and get into Spain, remain there a couple of months, and at last come to Paris.

Such was to be Boswell’s Grand Tour. At the end of August, when he had reached Berlin as planned, he wrote to Andrew Mitchell that he proposed to visit Voltaire and Rousseau and that ‘these two men are to me greater objects than most statues or pictures’.

Before leaving Holland, Boswell had seen two of Voltaire’s tragedies performed in The Hague - Mahomet and Tancred. By the time he reached the court of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha in October, he was preparing for his meeting with Rousseau by reading La Nouvelle Héloïse. And a month later, at Karlsruhe, Boswell records in his journal:

‘The Baron de Munzensheim, a genteel, lively young Gentleman of the Bedchamber, lent me the Nouvelle Héloïse and Émile. I read two or three hours in the evening. I am perfectly happy here. I improve and am rationally amused.’

Boswell’s uncharacteristic willingness to content himself with rational amusement is a measure of the seriousness with which he was approaching his projected interview. On October 21st, while still at the court of Saxe-Gotha, he had written, ‘I swore solemnly neither to talk as an infidel nor to enjoy a woman before seeing Rousseau. So I am bound a month at least.’

Whether he kept his vow is not altogether clear, but on December 3rd he set off from Neuchatel for the village of Motiers where Rousseau lived:

‘I wished that I might not see Rousseau till the moment that I had permission to wait on him. I perceived a white house with green window-boards. He mentions such a one in Émile. I imagined it might be his, and turned away my eyes from it. I rode calmly down the street, and put up at the Maison de Village.’

At the inn he was told that Rousseau ‘kept himself very quiet’. Boswell had been given a letter of introduction from Lord Marischal1, but instead of using it preferred (as he said) to put his ‘own merit to the severest trial’ and wrote to Rousseau himself.

The letter, written in French, began thus:

I am a Scots gentleman of ancient family. Now you know my rank. I am twenty-four years old. Now you know my age. Sixteen months ago I left Great Britain a completely insular being, knowing hardly a word of French. I have been in Holland and in Germany, but not yet in France. You will therefore excuse my handling of the language. I am travelling with a genuine desire to improve myself. I have come here in the hope of seeing you.

Boswell went on to disclaim any motive of mere curiosity, and described himself as ‘a man of singular merit... with a feeling heart, a lively but melancholy spirit’. He attributed to Rousseau ‘a perfect knowledge of all the principles of body and mind’, and claimed that his writings ‘have melted my heart, have elevated my soul, have fired my imagination’. And then, in even more extravagant language, he hailed Rousseau as Saint-Preux, the hero-tutor of the Nouvelle Héloïse: ‘Enlightened Mentor! Eloquent and amiable Rousseau! I have a presentiment that a truly noble friendship will be born today.’

While waiting for a reply, Boswell walked along the banks of the Reuse, as he himself tells us, ‘in a beautiful, wild valley surrounded by immense mountains, some covered with frowning rocks, others with clustering pines, and others with glittering snow’.

This romantic prospect coincided with his mood, and when he returned to the inn he found that his hopes were to be realised. There was a card from Rousseau which read: ‘I am ill, in pain, really in no state to receive visits. Yet I cannot deprive myself of Mr Boswell’s, provided that out of consideration for the state of my health, he is willing to make it short.’

Boswell was shown in by Mademoiselle Thérèse Le Vasseur, whom, in spite of her forty-three years, he described as ‘a little, lively, neat French girl’. He was led upstairs through ‘a room which serves for vestibule and for kitchen’. Boswell’s account in his journal continues:

My fancy formed many, many a portrait of the wild philosopher. At length his door opened and I beheld him, a genteel black man in the dress of an Armenian. I entered saying, ‘Many, many thanks’. After the first looks and bows were over, he said, ‘Will you be seated? Or would you rather take a turn with me in the room?’ I chose the last, and happy I was to escape being formally placed upon a chair.

The journal does not pretend to give a verbatim record of the conversation that ensued, but it does reproduce isolated sentences. They talked of Rousseau’s books. He spoke disparagingly of the Parlement of Paris: ‘I could plunge them into deep disgrace simply by printing their edict against me on one side, and the law of nations and equity on the side opposite.’

Boswell referred to his friendship with Lord Marischal, though he had to confess that he now remembered that the unused letter of introduction had been left behind at Neuchatel. Rousseau described Marischal as ‘the only man on earth to whom I owe an obligation’.

The conversation turned to kingship. ‘When I speak of kings,’ remarked Rousseau, ‘I do not include the King of Prussia. He is a king quite alone and apart. That force of his!’ In contrast, the French were ‘a contemptible nation’. Rather unnecessarily, perhaps, Rousseau confided that he had no liking for the contemporary world: ‘I live here in a world of fantasies, and I cannot tolerate the world as it is.’

He was complimentary about Britain - ‘Sir, your country is formed for liberty’ - and he conceded that, so far, appearances were in Boswell’s favour. He did not, however, receive with any obvious relish Boswell’s proposal to call on him again the next day; and after renewed complaints about the vexation of unsolicited visits and letters, he showed his visitor out.

Boswell was well pleased with the interview, as he wrote rather smugly in his journal: ‘I had great satisfaction after finding that I could support the character which I had given of myself, after finding that I should most certainly be regarded by the illustrious Rousseau.’ He did call on Rousseau again the next day, and recorded that he found him ‘more gay than he had been yesterday’.

This time they discussed the Abbe de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743) whom Rousseau had known briefly before his death and whose works had greatly influenced him. ‘If you become a Member of Parliament,’ he told Boswell, ‘you must resemble the Abbe de Saint-Pierre’. He talked of his Plan for Perpetual Peace, taken from the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, and gave Boswell a copy from his own shelves. He then abruptly concluded the interview.

At their third meeting the following day, the subject of discussion was religion. Rousseau had been brought up a Calvinist, but was converted to Catholicism in 1728 at the age of sixteen and apparently remained a Catholic for fourteen years. He then turned to Deism and, although we know that in 1754 he received communion in the Genevan church of his youth, his religious views are usually assumed to have been embodied in the Profession de foi du Vicaire Savoyard, which he inserted into the fourth book of Émile.

Rousseau’s avowed aim in religion had been to bridge the gap between priests and philosophers. In Émile he emphasizes the distinction between le théisme ou la religion naturelle and Vatheisme ou l'irréligion. Religious truth is discovered by the light of Reason: ‘The loftiest notions of God come to us through reason alone. Observe the spectacle of Nature, and listen to the voice within.’ The basis of natural religion could scarcely be stated more succinctly.

Yet in comparing the death of Socrates with that of Jesus, Rousseau puts into the mouth of his priest the words: ‘If the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus are those of a god.’ And although the Gospels are full of ‘incredible things, things which are repugnant to reason’, the best approach to so many contradictions is ‘to respect in silence what one does not know how to reject or to understand, and to humble oneself before the great Being who alone knows the truth’.

So perhaps we need not after all be surprised by the dialogue recorded in Boswell’s journal:

BOSWELL. ‘But tell me sincerely, are you a Christian?’

ROUSSEAU. ‘Yes. I pique myself on being one.’

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, the soul can be sustained by nothing save the Gospel.’

ROUSSEAU. ‘I feel that. I am unaffected by all the objections. I am weak; there may be things beyond my reach; or perhaps the man who recorded them made a mistake. I say, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost.’

When Boswell went on to ask whether religion could cure melancholy and efface a lifetime of immorality, Rousseau’s reply was: ‘Begin your life anew. God is good, for he is just. Do good. You will cancel all the debts of evil... Six well-spent years will pay off all the evil you have committed.’ Boswell’s desire to procure more substantial and particular advice provoked the following final exchange:

BOSWELL. ‘Will you, Sir, assume direction of me?’

ROUSSEAU. ‘I cannot. I can be responsible only for myself.’

BOSWELL. ‘I shall come back.’

ROUSSEAU. ‘I don’t promise to see you. I am in pain. I need a chamber-pot every minute.’

BOSWELL. ‘Yes, you will see me.’ ROUSSEAU. ‘Be off; and a good journey to you.’

Before leaving for Neuchatel that night, Boswell resolved to write down his confessions and entrust them to Thérèse Le Vasseur to give to Rousseau to read. He accordingly sat down and composed in French a ‘Sketch of My Life’ running to fourteen quarto pages, which he sent to Rousseau with a covering letter.

In the letter he asked Rousseau’s opinion on an episode described in the ‘Sketch’ - an affair with a married woman in Scotland. ‘You are the only one to whom I have shown her papers. I could trust you with anything.’ He concluded: ‘I am, with a respect and an affection which you will not doubt, your eternal admirer.’

Boswell returned to Motiers nine days later, having first drawn up a memorandum of topics he proposed to discuss. Rousseau, who was in great pain, admitted Boswell briefly and said he could return for a quarter of an hour that afternoon. For much of the time they discussed Boswell’s ‘affair’, and the difficulty Boswell had in his relations with his father. The interview ended with Rousseau inviting Boswell to dinner the next day.

They dined in the kitchen. Before dinner Boswell attempted to describe the character of Dr Johnson. According to the journal, Rousseau replied, ‘I should like that man. I should respect him. I would not disturb his principles if I could. I should like to see him, but from a distance, for fear he might maul me’. During the meal they talked of respect and familiarity. Boswell confessed that he had leanings towards despotism, and Rousseau confirmed this by his own diagnosis:

ROUSSEAU. ‘Do you like cats?’


ROUSSEAU. ‘I was sure of that. It is my test of character. There you have the despotic instinct of men. They do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to become a slave. He will do nothing to your order, as the other animals do.’

Thérèse then turned the conversation to Voltaire. Boswell said it was natural enough that Voltaire should have little liking for Rousseau. ‘Yes,’ replied Rousseau, ‘One does not like those whom one has greatly injured. His talk is most enjoyable; it is even better than his books’. He expressed his disapproval of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique: ‘It is very well to argue against men’s opinions; but to show contempt, and to say, “You are idiots to believe this,” is to be personally offensive.’

Before taking his leave- not without prompting- Boswell asked, ‘Do you think I shall make a good barrister before a court of justice?’ ‘Yes’, retorted Rousseau. ‘But I regret that you have the talents necessary for defending a bad case’. They embraced on parting. In Boswell’s words, ‘He kissed me several times, and held me in his arms with elegant cordiality’. They promised to write to one another.

Boswell promised to return after seven years. Rousseau urged him to remember that ‘there are points at which our souls are bound’. Thérèse promised Boswell that she would let him have news of her and her master from time to time. And Boswell promised to send her a garnet necklace from Geneva. No wonder when Boswell returned to his inn, the landlady thought he was in tears!

When Boswell got to Geneva he visited Voltaire at Ferney, and wrote to Rousseau giving his account of the meeting:

I have been with Monsieur de Voltaire. His conversation is the most brilliant I have ever heard. I had a conversation alone with him lasting an hour. It was a very serious conversation. He spoke to me of his natural religion in a way that struck me. In spite of all that has happened, you would have loved him that evening.

This was one of several interviews. He had had his first audience with Voltaire on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day (no less) he wrote to Madame Denis, Voltaire’s niece and housekeeper, asking whether he might be allowed to lodge one night under their roof and so escape the inconvenience of having to hurry back from Ferney to Geneva where the city gates shut at five.

His needs, he explained, were very modest: ‘I am a hardy and vigorous Scot. You may mount me to the highest and coldest garret. I shall not even refuse to sleep upon two chairs in the bedchamber of your maid.’ A reply came the same day assuring him that he would do them ‘much honour and pleasure’ by staying with them: ‘We have few beds, but you will not sleep on two chairs.’

He returned to Ferney on the 27th where, he tells us, ‘I was received with much complacency and complimented on my letter’. There were other guests present, but by missing supper Boswell was able to talk to Voltaire alone in the drawing-room ‘for about an hour and a half at a most interesting tête a tête’. When the company returned their host retired - whereupon Madame Denis took pity on Boswell and gave him some supper nevertheless.

The next day Boswell went to mass and, he tells us, ‘was really devout’; he then wrote letters, and sent Voltaire a copy both of his poem ‘Parliament’ and of his ‘Ode on Ambition’. To the ode he added an inscription: ‘Most humbly presented to Monsieur de Voltaire, the glory of France, the admiration of Europe, by Mr Boswell, who has had the honour of regarding and loving him in private life at his Chateau de Ferney.’ One cannot help marvelling at Boswell’s pertinacity. The journal records: ‘Monsieur de Voltaire was sick and out of spirits this evening, yet I made him talk some time.’

What did they talk about? For the details we depend on a letter written from Ferney to Temple and on a series of notes made at the time, partly in English and partly in French. Boswell apparently persuaded Voltaire to speak some English - in spite of the fact that at their first meeting he had complained, ‘To speak English one must place the tongue between the teeth, and I have lost my teeth’.

When the conversation turned to religion, Boswell records, Voltaire ‘expressed his veneration- his love- of the Supreme Being, and his entire resignation to the will of Him who is All wise’. He also expressed his desire ‘to resemble the Author of Goodness by being good himself. Not surprisingly Boswell questioned his sincerity:

I called to him with emotion, ‘Are you sincere? are you really sincere?’ He answered, ‘Before God, I am’. Then with the fire of him whose tragedies have so often shone on the theatre of Paris, he said, ‘I suffer much but I suffer with patience and resignation; not as a Christian - but as a man.

No wonder Boswell told Temple he was thinking of sending over to London ‘a little sketch of my reception at Ferney, of the splendid manner in which Monsieur Voltaire lives, and of the brilliant conversation of this celebrated author at the age of seventy-two’. (He was actually seventy.)

The sketch does not appear to have been written - indeed, Boswell admitted it was ‘probably a flight of my over-heated mind’. But his notes provide evidence of other topics of conversation during the three days spent at Ferney. They discussed Shakespeare, whom Voltaire dismissed as ‘a madman... a buffoon at Bartholomew Fair’, and also Pope and Dryden. Boswell described Johnson as ‘a most orthodox man, but very learned; has much genius and much worth’ - to which Voltaire replied, ‘He is then a dog. A superstitious dog. No worthy man was ever superstitious’. Of politics Voltaire observed:

You have the better government. If it gets bad, heave it into the ocean; that’s why you have the ocean all about you. You are the slaves of laws. The French are the slaves of men. In France every man is either an anvil or a hammer; he is a beater or must be beaten.

And in their final conversation they reverted to the subject of religion - arising out of Voltaire’s article on the soul in the Dictionnaire philosophique. Boswell could not get him to admit to the existence of the soul, but did persuade him to allow the need for occasional public worship:

‘Let us meet four times a year in a grand temple with music, and thank God for all his gifts. There is one sun. There is one God. Let us have one religion. Then all mankind will be brethren.’

Before leaving Ferney, Boswell was shown Voltaire’s library, and was given permission to correspond with him. There was a brief exchange of letters early in 1765. Writing from Turin on January 15th, Boswell prided himself on having spoken to Voltaire so frankly. He had given him not flattery but ‘the honest praise of a good Scots laird’.

His speech had been unaffected: ‘It had neither spice nor perfume. It was fresh from the dairy. It was curds and cream.’ He went on to recall their argument about the immortality of the soul, and to report his visit to Voltaire’s physician, Dr Tronchin, who had said of his patient: ‘The nearer death he believes himself to be, the better deist he becomes.’

Voltaire took nearly a month to reply, and then did so only briefly. He mocked Boswell’s anxiety about the soul: ‘I know nothing of it. Nor whether it is, nor what it is, nor what it shall be. Young scholars and priests know all that perfectly. For my part I am but a very ignorant fellow.’

But whatever it was, he assured Boswell, ‘My soul has a great regard for your own; when you will make a turn into our deserts, you shall find me (if alive) ready to show you my respect and obsequiousness’.

Boswell wrote once more from Rome in April, defending again the immortality of the soul which he defined as ‘the thinking principle, the source of everything noble and elegant, the author of history, of poetry and of all the fine arts’. If Voltaire wished, the correspondence could continue in either French or English: ‘If Monsieur de Voltaire does me the honour to talk to me, he may be dressed either in French silk or English broadcloth.’ This time there was no reply.

The letter in which Boswell had told Rousseau of his meeting with Voltaire had been written on the last day of 1764. In it he requested Rousseau’s advice on how to get the best out of Italy, asked his views on duelling, and said he hoped Rousseau would have no objection if he occasionally wrote to Thérèse: ‘I assure you that I have formed no scheme of abducting your housekeeper. I often form romantic plans, but never impossible ones.’

He nevertheless ended the letter he wrote to Thérèse on the same day (enclosing the promised necklace) with the words: ‘Allow me to salute you with a kiss.’ Thirteen months elapsed before Boswell and Thérèse shared the same bed in a post-house on the route from Paris to London. Boswell had just heard the news of his mother’s death and was in understandably low spirits - which may explain why Rousseau’s mistress felt she had to instruct him in the art of love-making.

It is, nevertheless, one of the most extraordinary of Boswell’s amorous adventures. It lasted a fortnight and ended when he delivered Thérèse at David Hume’s house in Chiswick, where Rousseau had sought refuge in February 1766. Boswell promised Thérèse that he would not mention their affaire ‘till after her death or that of the philosopher’. Meanwhile, he came, in seeming innocence, to report to Rousseau on his tour of Corsica.

Boswell had gone to Corsica at Rousseau’s suggestion in the summer of 1765. The Corsicans’ struggle to free themselves from the Genoese appealed to contemporary European liberals as an example of a primitive people living happily under a republican constitution. In fact, General Paoli’s revolutionary government was a benevolent dictatorship - what Boswell called ‘a species of despotism founded... on the affection of love’.

Rousseau had nevertheless commended the Corsicans in his Contrat social, published in 1762, and had received an invitation to help prepare a constitution for the new republic. During one of their meetings at Motiers, Boswell had jokingly proposed himself as ‘Ambassador Extraordinary of Monsieur Rousseau to the Isle of Corsica’. In May 1765 he was writing to Rousseau from Rome requesting a letter of introduction, which was duly sent.

Boswell was well received in Corsica. Despite the British government’s decree in 1763 forbidding British subjects to aid the Corsican ‘rebels’, he found Paoli very sympathetic towards things British. Not only had he read many of the Parliamentary debates, but he had apparently seen Wilkes’s North Briton. Boswell was captivated: he wore Corsican costume, played Scottish airs to his hosts on a German flute, and sang them Garrick’s ‘Heart of Oak’, to be received with cries of bravo Inglese!

Writing from Lyons on January 4th, 1766, Boswell told Rousseau that he was under ‘the deepest obligations’ to him for sending him to Corsica. ‘That voyage,’ he continued, ‘has done me a wonderful amount of good. It has affected me in the same way that Plutarch’s Lives would if they were infused into my mind. Paoli has given a temper to my soul which it will never lose.’

Boswell was glad to hear that Rousseau was coming to England: it would enable him to arrange a meeting with Dr Johnson. And then there must be a tour of Scotland: ‘Rousseau shall meditate in the venerable woods of my ancestors, and he shall share my belief that nymphs, genii, angels and all kinds of benevolent and happy spirits hold their choirs there.’ When in 1768 Boswell published his own Account of Corsica, Horace Walpole wrote to Gray:

The author, Boswell, is a strange being, and... has a rage of knowing anybody that ever was talked of. He forced himself upon me at Paris in spite of my teeth and my doors, and I see he has given a foolish account of all he could pick up from me about King Theodore. He then took an antipathy to me on Rousseau’s account, abused me in the newspapers, and exhorted Rousseau to do so too; but as he came to see me no more, I forgave him all the rest. I see he now is a little sick of Rousseau himself, but I hope it will not cure him of his anger to me.

Boswell’s admiration for Rousseau had indeed cooled. He did not come to see him a second time at Chiswick; he did not repeat his suggestion that they should go to Scotland together; and Rousseau’s letters began to charge Boswell with neglect. There is no indication that he had discovered Boswell’s liaison with Thérèse: it is more likely that Rousseau’s quarrel with Hume, which developed in the summer of 1766, embroiled Boswell as well.

Boswell had undoubtedly become bored with Rousseau’s peevishness. In October he wrote in French to Deleyre, the Duke of Parma’s librarian and a friend of Rousseau:

If Jean Jacques were young and robust and hardy, like one of those savages he wishes to make us admire so much, then he could ignore the human race and running through the woods cry, ‘Vivo et regno’. But Jean Jacques is actually a man advancing in years, and a man whose life has not been easy. He is infirm, ill and delicate to a degree that I would never have believed had I not seen it. He is a man who is fond of his little delicacies even, and who would be very discontented if he were deprived of good food and a soft bed.

That was not quite Boswell’s last word on Rousseau. Apart from a complimentary reference to him in the Account of Corsica, Boswell was responsible for depicting him in what he called ‘a most ludicrous print’. A slightly altered version of Boswell’s design was sold in the print shops under the title of ‘The Savage Man’. Boswell’s own description of the print appeared in the London Chronicle for January, 8th 1767:

Mr Hume is to be represented as a bluff English farmer, holding a measure of excellent oats, which John James |Rousseau] like a hairy savage is tempted to follow. Mr Walpole is busy putting papier maché horns and a tail to him. Tronchin applies a blister to his back, and Voltaire, in the figure of a schoolboy, is licking his legs with a wet handkerchief.

So Boswell’s acquaintance with Rousseau and Voltaire, which had begun on a note of high Romance, ended in farce. No doubt there was something superficial about what Walpole called his ‘rage of knowing anybody that ever was talked of, but historians can be grateful for this young Scotsman’s presumption and self-conceit.

1 The Scottish earl whom Frederick the Great had appointed Governor of the Prussian territory of Neuchâtel.

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