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

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Harvard University Press
Publish Date
5.8 X 1.1 X 8.3 inches | 0.95 pounds
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About the Author

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.


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
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)
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.-- (02/15/2019)
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)
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)
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)
Particularly 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)
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)
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)
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" (10/15/2019)