Send for Seneca

by Robert Zaretsky

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. In Catherine & Diderot; The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment, 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. Here is a brief excerpt.

Diderot himself had, from time to time, cultivated his resemblance to Socrates, but ultimately he knew that the resemblance was mostly skin-deep. He wanted to be worthy of the Socratic mantle, but was he truly willing to turn it, through a heroic act, into his funeral shroud? Diderot already knew the answer. In mid-1769 he recounted to Sophie a debate he had just had with the Baron d’Holbach and Jacques-André Naigeon on the subject of Helvétius’s humiliating public disavowal of De l’esprit several years earlier. How admirable, Diderot exclaimed, the philosophe who stood his ground and defended his writings! Standing before his judges, such a man would declare: “Yes, I am the one who wrote this book. It contains my thoughts and I will not retract them.” While the conversation was lighthearted — “We laughed like children” — Diderot was serious about the philosopher’s duty to tell the truth, consequences be damned. “How I would suffer to retract the truth, to speak against my beliefs after having written according to my beliefs, to behave like a coward in the eyes of my judges, fellow citizens and loved ones, to deprive my statements of their authority and to refuse the sacrifices demanded by the truth.” But while his freethinking companions mocked him for his apparent desire “to be burned at all cost,” Diderot reassured Sophie that he had no intention of starring in his own auto-da-fé. “The time for such foolishness has long since passed. I don’t think highly enough of myself to defend my own cause.”

At one level this was a well-honed performance of humility. But at a deeper level it represented Diderot’s growing doubts about his accomplishments. There was, of course, his deep pride in his family. His new role as patriarch and grandfather was deeply gratifying, even if he sometimes fell short of his grandchildren’s expectations. “I love your children madly,” he told Angélique, “even though they think I’m poorly educated ever since the day I was unable to tell them where Charlemagne died.” And he had even reached a modus vivendi with Nanette, who had suddenly and unexpectedly developed a love of literature. In order to replace a friend’s book — Alain-René Lesage’s bestselling Gil Blas — that Angélique had lost, Nanette bought a new copy. Idly opening the novel, Nanette began to read and, Diderot reported, could not stop. This might well be, he exclaimed, the cure for Nanette’s “vapors.” And so, he began a daily regimen with his wife, in which he served as her physician: “I administer three doses of Gil Blas every day; one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and one at night.” According to Diderot’s prognosis, a few hundred readings of other books over a few years would “complete the cure” — especially as Nanette had the habit of repeating to visitors what she had just read, thus “doubling the remedy’s effectiveness.” Joking that he had discovered a recipe for all manner of vapors, he identified yet other essential “drugs,” which the doctor would vary according to need, ranging from Don Quixote to, yes, Jacques the Fatalist.

But, in the end, posterity was no laughing matter for Diderot. Notwithstanding his dedication to the well-being of his children and grandchildren, he was also dedicated to the well-being of the statue he had made of himself. Would posterity judge it as favorably as it would, say, Falconet’s sculpture of Peter? Had he not, in fact, told Falconet that “posterity would truly be ungrateful if it forgot me completely, given that I have been thinking about it so much”? This question led him, in the last years of his life, to undertake one last intellectual endeavor. Rather than turn to his beloved Socrates, however, Diderot appealed to another, though less-beloved thinker from antiquity. In a letter to his faithful Naigeon, Diderot proclaimed his plan to “examine without bias the life and writings of Seneca, and avenge the insults, if they are unjust, borne by this great man, or if they are founded, learn from his wise and powerful lessons.”

Diderot had always been partial when it came to the life and character of Lucius Annaeus Seneca — Roman statesman, philosopher, and dramatist — but not always for the same reasons. In his 1745 translation of Shaftesbury’s Inquiry Concerning Merit, or Virtue, the young Diderot dismissed Seneca as a dissembler and double-dealer who, more interested in “adding to his wealth than seeing to his perilous duty,” had made himself “complicit, through his shameful silence, in the death of a few brave men” under the reign of Nero. This harsh judgment, embedded in a long and winding footnote, was based on Diderot’s reading of Tacitus. “I treat this philosopher [i.e., Seneca] a little sternly,” the youthful idealist admits, “but Tacitus’s account makes it impossible to think better of him.”

That was then. Nearly four decades later — a span of time marked by repeated exposures, some terrifying, others edifying, to the exercise of absolute power — Diderot was ready to think better of Seneca. In 1782 he published his Essay on the Reigns of Claudius and Nero, and on the Manners and Writings of Seneca. The essay, which Diderot published under his own name, runs over 500 pages. As with so many of Diderot’s writings, the essay is a revision of a text he had published three years earlier. Despite his faltering health and failing eyesight, Diderot stunned friends and family by the time he devoted to the project. Looking back on this period, when her father spent fourteen hours a day reading and writing, Angélique concluded that this extraordinary spurt of energy effort shortened his life.

Shortened, perhaps, but also sweetened — or so Diderot claimed. In his letter to Naigeon — which was subsequently published as the book’s introduction — Diderot insisted that the time he had spent researching and writing the book was “one of the sweetest periods of my life.” Yet it was a period where his attention was fastened not just on the distant past and Rome, but also on the near past and Saint Petersburg. As late as 1781 Diderot held to the tattered hope that Catherine might yet metamorphose into the legislative reformer he had long hoped she would become. That summer he recommended to Catherine the services of Pierre Charbit, a young man whose recently published book on legislative practice in France had impressed Diderot. In his letter Diderot praised Charbit’s integrity and utility. His sole desire, he explained, is “to be useful.” And where could his abilities be of greater use than in Russia, whose sovereign “thinks night and day about the happiness of her people”? But Catherine, who never replied to Diderot’s letter, made clear she had no use for Charbit’s skills. Her interest in legislative reform, diminished by the resistant reality of Russian society, as well as her preoccupation by military and diplomatic matters, might explain her silence. A more prosaic and painful possibility — one that Diderot must have considered — was that Catherine had decided that her French philosophes were largely useless.

For Denis le philosophe, this possibility had nearly existential ramifications. More so than any other episode in his life, Diderot’s time at the Hermitage forced him to reflect on what he had accomplished and how posterity, and not just his grandchildren, would remember him. It was less a matter of being able to tell his grandchildren where Charlemagne died than tell them why he, Diderot, had lived. The question haunted Diderot, especially as he felt his life was reaching an end. He had reached the age, he told Grimm in 1776, where “one counts the years, followed by the age where one counts the months, leading to the age when one lives a day at a time.” A year later, in another missive to Grimm, he returned to the theme. “My spirit and heart remain in their infancy, but the rest of my body is slouching toward the cemetery.”

Now that the time had come to take stock, Diderot looked to Seneca: the parallels in their lives and work were, at least in the philosophe’s eyes, too great to ignore. Both had achieved fame — and a degree of infamy — as men who, because of their philosophizing, became advisors to emperors.

Seneca played a pivotal role in Rome’s imperial government as Nero’s tutor and advisor, whereas Catherine had Diderot — at least in his version of their relationship — “stay by her side and work on texts dealing with legislation.” For both men, the proximity to power became ethically problematic. There was, of course, the awkward matter of imperial munificence. With Nero’s complicity, Seneca became one of the empire’s richest men — a tricky position for a practicing Stoic who professed great disdain for wealth. And while Diderot could not boast of vast estates and wealth, he could breathe freely in his later years thanks to Catherine’s many acts of generosity. Every time he referred to his great collection of books as her library, every time he received his salary as her librarian, every time he earned a commission for her art purchases, he wondered if he had become, not her philosopher, but her courtier. When he protested that he wanted nothing but a memento of the empress and reimbursement for his travel costs when he took his leave, he might well have asked himself if he was protesting too much. If Diderot had always been, as he told Catherine, a free man in Russia, why did he demand a public show of that freedom? Did he suspect that he had already made the sort of concessions and compromises that Rameau’s nephew would have gladly flaunted? Did he have reason to recall his effort to persuade Rulhière to bury his account of Catherine’s role in the “revolution” of 1762? Had his praise for the empress who combined the qualities of Brutus and Cleopatra begun to ring hollow?

These persistent questions crowded on Diderot as he looked to his past in order to better forecast his future. The pressure was so great that Diderot did both himself and Catherine a disservice by insisting too forcefully on the parallels to Seneca and Nero. Nero’s palace was a theater of cruelty and murder, after all, whereas Catherine’s court was often steeped in intrigue and jealously but never in blood (at least after Peter’s death). Catherine sought to reform penal law and eliminate torture in Russia, of course, whereas Nero relished the power of life and death over his court and subjects. And though the empress bankrupted the treasury to fund her imperial adventures abroad and imperial spectacles at home, her private life remained modest and unpretentious — two adjectives that do not apply to Nero’s public or private lives.

The bridges that Diderot tried to build between his own life and Seneca’s were, in certain respects, even flimsier. Whereas Seneca was a very prolific and public writer, Diderot had relegated his philosophical writings, ever since his stay at Vincennes, to his desk drawers; the Roman was a pivotal figure in politics and served as Nero’s advisor for eight years, whereas the Parisian had Catherine’s ear for scarcely four months. Diderot tried (and failed) to persuade Rulhière to kill the publication of his book, but this pales in comparison to Seneca’s defense of Nero’s killing of his stepbrother Britannicus and mother, Agripinna. Finally, Nero was still a child when Seneca was called to Rome to shape his charge’s mind; Catherine was a forty-year-old empress who knew her own mind when she called Diderot to Saint Petersburg.

And yet, despite the smudges and cracks in this particular mirror, Diderot saw a resemblance. The reader of his essay, he warned, “will not need long to see that it is my own self that I portray as much as that of the different historical actors in my essay.” As he veers from historical synopsis to polemical jousting, interpretations of Seneca’s writings to justifications of his actions, Diderot presents a defense not just of the Roman but also of himself. He defends Seneca against the charges of corruption and hypocrisy partly by recalling his remark to Mme Necker about painted and real tigers. He chastises his contemporaries who, while enjoying a delicious meal in the comfort of a well-heated room, disparage Seneca. These critics clearly had never experienced the exercise of absolute power so intimately and intensely as had Seneca — or, Diderot insinuates, he himself. The only tigers these detractors know are those framed on the walls of their well-appointed salons. Had not Nero, upon learning of a conspiracy against his life, become like a “maddened tiger”? “Put yourself in the place of the philosopher, teacher and minister,” he proclaims, “and try to do better than he did.”

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