Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (Hardback)
  • Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (Hardback)
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Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (Hardback)

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£23.95
Hardback 272 Pages
Published: 18/02/2019
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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.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674737907
Number of pages: 272
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm


MEDIA REVIEWS

A wonderfully opinionated and erudite evaluation of the whole of Diderot’s career, of the Enlightenment, and of Russian culture. - Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

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 désamour, is generously and poignantly treated by Zaretsky. - Dan Hofstadter, Wall Street Journal

Zaretsky is a great storyteller…and he has chosen to tell a story that still astonishes. - Lynn Hunt, New York Review of Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. - Yvonne Sherratt, Times Higher Education

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

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

Entertaining. - Maria Lipman, Foreign Affairs

A beautifully written book which brings to life an important episode in Catherine’s reign and Diderot’s life…A remarkably rich account of Diderot’s life and thought. - Jonathan Beecher, Russian Review

Lively…Robert Zaretsky has produced a good and eminently readable account of this important and intriguing encounter between the French philosophe and the Russian monarch. It deserves a wide audience. - Gary Marker, Journal of Modern History

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