Come summer, Europe buckles under the annual migration of students now roosting at their universities. According to the Institute of International Education, more than a hundred and forty thousand students participated in this vast movement in 2009. We might take a moment to reflect on the history of this phenomenon. The struggle between language lessons and café crawling, old ruins and youthful desires, the road of high culture and back alleys of low culture is hardly new. Ever since Augustine, who feverishly made his way to Rome, torn between intellectual and carnal pleasures, Europe has been the great stage to such journeys.

This itinerary’s modern iteration was created two hundred and fifty years ago when young Brits began to launch themselves across the Channel for extended periods of study. These youths wound their way across France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy, making dutiful visits to museums, galleries, natural and architectural wonders, as well as taking tutorials devoted to geography and history. What came to be known as the Grand Tour soon became a rite of passage for the sons of aristocratic, and increasingly, middle-class British families. Though no statistics exist, observers spoke of ‘swarms’ of British tourists milling about the continent. More jaundiced viewers spoke of a veritable plague. As the British envoy in Dresden complained: ‘I have within this month had an inundation of English who have nearly eaten me out of house and home.’

The justifications for the Tour then were as grand and wobbly as they are today. Travel, advocates insisted, deepened the student’s understanding of the world, widened his acquaintance with other peoples, and polished his character. William Bennet, an Anglican bishop, insisted that travellers ‘always buy experience which no books can give’, while Peter Beckford, a typical traveller, claimed that travelling ‘improves and enlarges the understanding’.

Sceptics countered that the only thing improved was the bank accounts of foreigners, and the sole thing enlarged was the livers of dissolute British youths. Echoing the doubts of many parents today, Edward Mellish’s father told his son: ‘I do not apprehend real advantages from seeing fine paintings and buildings can yet be of any real advantage to you.’ Travelling, he warned, might well improve other qualifications, but never ‘the most essential, which is solid good Judgement’.

Lord Auchinleck, the father of James Boswell, shared these doubts. Indeed, his scepticism had only deepened ever since the day his son, at the tender age of sixteen, clambered with a friend to the top of Arthur’s Seat, the mossy bluff that looms over Edinburgh, and shouted to the skies: ‘Voltaire, Rousseau: Immortal Names!’ and pledged that they would go to Europe to meet these great thinkers. ‘There’s nae hope for Jamie, mon’, Auchinleck periodically burst out to friends about his wayward son; ‘Jamie is gane clean gyte.’

Young Boswell may well have been delirious but he was also determined to do the Grand Tour. A practical man, Auchinleck had no illusions about the value of travelling: ‘There is no end nor use of strolling through the world,’ he wrote to his son, ‘to see sights before unseen, whether of man, beasts, birds, or things.’ When his son proved deaf to this particular nugget of wisdom, Auchinleck threw another one, harder and faster: ‘In general, I must tell you that travelling is a very useless thing.’

Young Boswell still would not listen. As a result, Auchinleck cut a deal: if Jamie spent a year in Holland to swot law texts in preparation for his career as a lawyer – Scotland’s legal system, like that of the Netherlands, was based on Roman jurisprudence – Auchinleck would grant his son permission to travel. In the summer of 1764, after a year of study in Utrecht, Bozzy eagerly clambered into the carriage of a family friend (George Keith, the tenth Earl Marischal – a flinty Jacobite who was a diplomat in the court of Frederick the Great) to start an adventure that would last more than a year. The young Scot could scarcely contain his excitement and imagination. When the carriage reached an inn in Hanover and Boswell lay down to sleep he confided to his journal that he was filled ‘with much contentment and much health’. That his bed was a pile of straw in the stables, with ‘on one side of me eight or ten horses, on the other four or five cows’ and ‘an immense mastiff chained pretty near the head of my bed [who] growled most horribly’ hardly dampened his spirits. A crust of bread quieted the beast, while the sight of a star-strewn sky fed Boswell’s fancy: here, he jauntily told himself, ‘the great Boswell lay’.


The odd blend of rustic lodgings and cultivated company was not unusual: such contrasts were a constant of the Grand Tour. Indeed, given the frequently noisome and nasty nature of inns, where fleas and filth were as frequent as strange bed companions and surly employees, stables often made for a welcome alternative – even when, as in Brunswick, Boswell was nearly trampled to death. Nor were the ups and downs, both literal and figurative, to Boswell’s experiences on the road all that different from other British tourists. Boswell devoted too much of his time and his father’s money to finding coaches or wagons, many of which were little more than flatbeds driven by undependable postilions.

There was, also, the biting cold that pierced Boswell’s greatcoat when he travelled in these ‘Postwaggons’ during the winter. On his way to Dresden, Bozzy spent an entire night on one of these contraptions and barely survived to tell the tale. ‘I awaked much out of order. My blood was quite stagnated, and my teeth were loose. I was alarmed.’ When the wagon finally came to a halt, Bozzy leapt off, his teeth still chattering and ‘danced with much vigour, which by degrees brought me to my self’. It was a self, moreover, reluctant to change clothes, much less bathe, in such rough conditions. Bozzy described his German stint as ‘campaigning’, exulting that he had ‘not been undrest for ten days’.

At least the wintry blasts also froze solid the muck and mud, and evened the ruts and holes that afflicted Europe’s roads. The night Boswell spent in a ‘dreadful rain’ in Germany after his wagon broke its axle in a great pothole and nearly overturned often made, he noted, for ‘sad travelling’. Despite the network left by Rome’s imperial engineers, travelling in Italy was not much better. In the north of Italy, a steady rain turned roads into sloughs, while the farther south Boswell wandered, the more fictitious the time schedules – and, for that matter, the roads – became.

Yet none of this dampened the Scot’s spirits, who was no more immune than his contemporaries to Italy’s romantic pull. The sons of British gentry who clamoured to visit Italy for its artistic and literary sites were the precursors to American youths in the 1970s who wished to subscribe to Playboy in order to read John Updike’s fiction. Sexual adventure was no doubt Italy’s greatest attraction for young British travellers. Yet, as the historian Jeremy Black notes, the ‘vast majority of the journals that have been preserved relate to blameless or apparently blameless tourists’. Boswell’s journal, however, makes for a dramatic exception: the pages that span his Italian interlude abound not just with his many pursuits of aristocratic women, but his repeated bouts of whoring. By the time he reached Rome he swore he would have a woman every day – an ideal that, for Boswell, was easily reached. As for his vows to change his ways – ‘Night, new girl. Swear no women for a week’ – they were as redundant as they were risible. His repeated efforts to follow the straight and narrow only succeeded when he contracted venereal disease and paused from his predations to take a mercury cure.


On the subject of the Grand Tour, Samuel Johnson grew simply splenetic. In one of his Idler essays, he declared that most travellers have nothing to tell because ‘their method of travelling supplies them with nothing to be told’. Lumbering into one town or city at dusk, racing to a cathedral or ruin the following morning, then clambering back into their carriages for the next stop on their itinerary. And, yet, this kind of traveller insisted on writing about his experiences! ‘Let him,’ Johnson growled, ‘be contented to please himself without endeavouring to disturb others.’

Yet Johnson sensed Boswell would not be part of this benighted herd. Just months after they first met in 1763, when Boswell was still stunned by the ‘association of so enormous a genius with one so slender’, Johnson urged his young friend to travel to the Continent: ‘I think your breaking off idle connections by going abroad is a matter of importance. I would go where there are courts and learned men.’ While travelling, Johnson continued, Boswell must ‘read diligently the great book of mankind’. In a word, Johnson dismissed the attractions of landscapes and ruins, galleries and museums. Instead, as Johnson told Boswell, go abroad to visit great minds.

Johnson’s pitch deeply appealed to his young friend. Keeping his journal, Boswell wrote, was like tracing the history of his own mind. His ambition differed from most of his fellow travellers, who simply retraced the routes already blazed by others. Paul Fussell has written about the impact of Lockean psychology on eighteenth-century tourism: if knowledge was, in fact, the fruit of external sensations, the bigger the harvest, the better. And, of course, it was important to share these harvests of first- hand impressions for the benefit of those who did not travel; hence the proliferation of journals, correspondence and travel accounts in Georgian England.

Boswell certainly shared this conceit. When still on the German leg of his tour he excitedly jotted in his journal one night an idea he had had earlier that day: ‘I considered that mankind are sent into the world to gather ideas like flowers. Those who take them from Books have them at second-hand as flowers from a stall at Covent Garden.’ Yet, while Boswell may have been Locke’s grandchild, he was more importantly the child of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was as if he took Locke’s imperative and turned it inward: his task was not so much to gather impressions of the world as his responses to those impressions. When he crossed over the Alps he saw them through the eyes of Rousseau: a sublime screen on which to project his emotions and thoughts. If Mallory climbed Everest because it was there, Boswell crossed the Alps because he was there – there to receive its massive impression, there to translate the experience through his own senses and sensibility.

Historians like Alain Corbin have made much hay of modern ‘discoveries’ of geographical places that had always been under our collective noses. Mountains or coasts, wilderness or oceans, Corbin argues, surged into the consciousness of a growing middle class that had the time and means to read about and travel to these places. In Bozzy’s case, though, the geography was internal: like Peter Pan chasing his shadow, he barrelled across Europe in search of his own self. Or, more accurately, he was in search of truths to which he could hitch his self. He was far less interested in seeing what he called ‘inanimate subject matter’ than pursuing and conversing with the animate sort.

If his peers were the distant ancestors of today’s backpackers, garbed in Patagonia’s bright colours and a copy of Europe on $100 a Day in hand, Bozzy was a traveller apart, the precursor to our own post-war and pre- Woodstock dharma bums. He inhabited the Enlightenment yet was never entirely at home with it. The Scot was marked, on the one hand, by his era’s belief in the power of reason and scorn for superstition. Yet, on the other hand, truth was bound to have a religious slant for a young man raised in the dreary and dreadful tradition of the Church of Scotland.

Boswell’s dilemma was his inability to reconcile the truths of his era with the deepest needs of his soul. A rational worldview may well be liberating but did little to ease Boswell’s fears concerning death. No matter where his travels took him, Boswell never escaped his Calvinist past; obsessed with the fate of his soul, he was equally tormented by his future. The metaphors used by his enlightened contemporaries were worse than useless: ‘If my mind is a collection of springs, these springs are all unhinged, and the Machine is all destroyed; or if my mind is a waxen table, the wax is melted by the furnace of sorrow, and all my ideas and principles are dissolved. Good GOD, what horrid chimeras!’


One of the Enlightenment’s severest critics, Thomas Carlyle, dismissed the era as the ‘Sceptical Century; in which little word there is a whole Pandora’s Box of miseries. Scepticism means not intellectual Doubt alone, but moral doubt; all sorts of infidelity, insincerity, spiritual paralysis’. Boswell would certainly have agreed with Carlyle’s observation that spiritual paralysis – what Bozzy called hypochondria and we call depression – came from intellectual malaise, and not, as we tend to believe, the reverse. When afflicted by this ‘foul fiend’, he wrote, ‘all the doubts which have ever disturbed thinking men come upon me. I awake at night dreading annihilation, or being thrown into some horrible state of being’.

Boswell’s travel journals teem with his recurrent bouts of doubt and qualms about religious truths, and his anguish and horror over the possibility they did not exist. As he was preparing to leave for Holland, the first step on his tour, Boswell was already steeling himself: ‘Never despair. Remember Johnson’s precepts on experience of mankind. Consider there is truth.’ More than two years later, during his climactic meeting in Corsica with the revolutionary leader Pasquale Paoli, Boswell could not help but confide to his host how much he ‘had suffered from anxious speculations’.

Sandwiched between these two moments are countless others when Bozzy is either interrogating himself or others about the ultimate disposition of his soul. There are dozens of walk-ons in this ongoing drama. There is the German chemist, Andreas Margrave, who, in the midst of a thunderstorm, bellowed: ‘I love to see my God in flames!’ Or there was the British political exile, John Wilkes, with whom Boswell toured in Italy. When he queried Wilkes about the sticky issues of fate and free will, the older man burst out: ‘Let ‘em alone!’ If that didn’t work, Wilkes continued, ‘dissipation and profligacy’ would do the trick.

The two men most qualified to answer Boswell’s questions and end his torment, however, were the same men whose names he shouted from the top of Arthur’s Seat: Voltaire and Rousseau. The alpha and omega of the Enlightenment, these thinkers held radically opposed appreciations of the roles played by human reason and divine will in our world. For Voltaire, reason was the weapon with which humankind would vanquish what he called ‘the infamous thing’, or superstition; for Rousseau, reason was the wrecking ball with which we had demolished our original relationship with the world and our own selves. (That these two towering figures also utterly despised one another played no small role in their philosophical differences.)

For Bozzy, the Grand Tour would be truly ‘grand’ only if he met and conversed with Voltaire and Rousseau. Not only were their names ‘immortal’, but they also held the key to the Scot’s fears concerning his own immortality. In December 1764 Boswell made the long trek on horseback to Môtiers, the snow-bound hamlet in the Swiss Jura where Rousseau had taken refuge from both French and Genevan authorities two years earlier. Boswell came armed not just with a dashing red waistcoat edged with gold lace and green greatcoat, but also with his good natured obstinacy and a long list of questions, many of which revolved around faith and melancholy.

Upon arriving in Môtiers Boswell settled in the local inn and drafted an introductory letter to the reclusive Rousseau. He opens with his melancholic disposition (‘a family trait,’ he explains), turns to his gloomy upbringing (‘the eternity of punishment was the first great idea I ever formed,’ he avers) and, several pages later, concludes with an ardent plea: ‘O charitable philosopher, I beg you to help me … Kindle [my] soul and the sacred fire shall never be extinguished.’ Clearly, this was a request Rousseau could not refuse: he invited Boswell to make a short visit. Yet no sooner had he made his way into Rousseau’s cottage than Bozzy, in his Scottish-tinged French, demanded to know if his host was a Christian. Garbed in a flowing Armenian tunic he had lately taken to, Rousseau dramatically struck his breast: Indeed he was!

Boswell then went to the heart of the matter: Would a virtuous man, he asked the creator of the Savoyard vicar, be rewarded in his afterlife? ‘We cannot doubt we are spiritual beings,’ Rousseau replied. The souls of good men, he explained, ‘will enjoy the contemplation of happy souls, nobly employed.’ After the two men rattled through several other subjects as they paced up and down the floor in Rousseau’s room, Boswell inevitably returned to his favourite subject: James Boswell. He asked Rousseau to be his confessor – a request the ailing philosopher turned down. He knew his man too well and was clearly relieved to see him off a few days later.

From Môtiers, Boswell spurred his horse in the direction of Ferney, the estate near Geneva where Voltaire had moved more than a decade before. When the Scot arrived in Geneva on Christmas Eve 1764 he immediately called on Voltaire, but was disappointed by his inability to spend time alone with him. The problem was that Ferney, like a rococo ancestor of reality shows, housed more than fifty family members, sycophants, hangers- on and servants, as well as Voltaire’s niece and mistress, Mme Denis, a destitute grand-niece of the playwright Corneille, and a defrocked Jesuit, Père Adam, who when not playing chess with Voltaire served as his foil for anti-Catholic jibes.

Bozzy had better luck in his second assault a couple of nights later on the great philosophe. As the guests gathered, Boswell positioned himself next to Voltaire to ‘put him in tune’. When the other guests retired to dine, Boswell remained glued to his host’s side in the drawing room.

Intent on picking up with Voltaire where he had left off with Rousseau, Bozzy dragged an enormous Bible over to his host in order to dispute the Scriptures. ‘For a certain portion of time there was a fair opposition between Voltaire and Boswell,’ he boasted to his journal, adding less confidently: ‘The daring bursts of his ridicule confounded my understanding.’ Yet the young Scot persisted, demanding to know the aged thinker’s true sentiments concerning religion. Like his nemesis, Rousseau, Voltaire ‘expressed his veneration – his love – of the Supreme Being’ whom he wished to resemble by being good himself. Unlike Rousseau, though, Voltaire refused to reassure Boswell on the vexed subject of the soul’s immortality: ‘He says it may be, but he knows nothing of it. And his mind is in perfect tranquillity.’

Perhaps, but Boswell’s mind certainly was not. Shortly after leaving Ferney (his last words to a bemused Voltaire were ‘When I came to see you, I thought to see a very great, but a very bad, man’) Boswell wrote to the great scourge of established religion, again insisting on the soul’s immortality. Voltaire replied in his inimitable English: ‘I do not protest you; 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.’

Although he may have come to accept the response over the years, at the time Voltaire’s letter annoyed Boswell. Indeed, towards the end of his life, he noted that he had ‘wished for something more than just the common course of what is called the tour of Europe’. Though no less disturbed at the end of his life by the same existential questions which harried him as one of those ‘young scholars’ barrelling across Europe, Boswell may have realised the ‘something more’ he sought was the ignorance that Voltaire claimed as his own. May a few of our own young scholars abroad follow the same arduous path taken by Bozzy.

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