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||Denis Diderot (1713-1784)|
French philosopher, and man of letters, the chief editor of the L'Encyclopédie,
one of the principal literary monuments of the Age of Enlightenment.
The work, created for " for the best interests of the human race and a
feeling of mutual good will," took 26 years of Diderot's life. In
seventeen volumes of text
and eleven of illustrations, it presented the achievements of human
learning in a single work. Besides offering a summary of information on
all theoretical knowledge, it also challenged the authority of the
Catholic Church. Ideas, that would never get past the censors, Diderot
hid in the cross-references, which served as the basis for the contrary
"The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty. It is to the state what health is to the individual." (from L'Encyclopédie)
Denis Diderot was born at Langres, the son of a successful cutler.
He was first
educated by the Jesuits (1728-32). During this period he devoured books
of all kinds – his favorites were such classics as Horace and Homer. In
1732 Diderot received the master of arts degree from the
University of Paris. His father expected him to study medicine or law,
but Diderot spent his time with books and women. When his financial
support was ended, Diderot then worked for the attorney Clément de Ris
(1732-34), and as a tutor, freelance writer, and bookseller's hack
After ten bohemian years, Diderot married in 1743 Anne Toinette Champion. To support his own family, he began to translate texts from English to France. As the years went by, however, their marriage turned sour. When his wife said she would not touch a book which did not offer something spiritually uplifting, Diderot's remedy was to read her only raunchy works. "What amuses me is," Diderot confessed in a letter, "that she treats everyone who visits her to a repeat of what I have just read her, so conversation doubles the effect of the remedy. Diderot found also a new love, Madeleine de Puisieux. She was a writer, whose best work, Les caractères (1750-51), appeared during their affair. With Sophie Volland Diderot had a liaison from about 1755 until her death in 1784. Diderot's letters to her belong to the important sources of his personal life and reveal ways of thinking in that era.
"It has been said that love robs those who have it of their wit, and gives it to those who have none." (Paradoxe sur le comédien)
Diderot gained first notice in the 1740s as a translator of English
books. However, in the beginning Diderot's knowledge of the language
was not the best possible. He used an English-Latin dictionary, and
translated Latin words into French. Temple Stanyan's Grecian History came out in 1743. It was followed with Lord Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning Virtua and Merit (1745), and Robert James' Medicinal Dictionary (1746-1748). The money Diderot earned from the translation of Shaftesbury's book he gave to de Puisieux. For her he also wrote Les bijoux indiscrets (1748), an erotic novel. It was printed in Holland. In his later years Diderot regretted having written it.
The anonymously published Pensées philosophiques (1746), a collection of aphorisms, was burned by the Parliament of Paris for its anti-Christian ideas. Lettre sur les aveugles (Letter on the Blind) opened up the question of the existence of God, and Diderot was imprisoned in 1749 for three months for his opinions. When Bastille was full in July 1749, the writer was taken to prison at Vincennes. In Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu (1745) he had stated: "From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step."
In 1745 Diderot became the editor of the Encyclopédie with
mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, who resigned later because he
believed that mathematics was a more fundamental science than biology.
Diderot himself was fascinated by discoveries in the biological
sciences. Originally the work was planned to be a translation of
Ephraim Chambers's, a Scottish globemaker, two-volume Cyclopaedia.
Diderot enlarged its scope and made it an organ for radical and
revolutionary opinions, which he managed to slip into seemingly minor
articles. In his article on Macchiavellianism Diderot attributed to
this Florentine thinker the technique of undermining a political
institution by pretending to defend it: "When Machiavelli wrote
his treatise on the prince, it is as if he said to his fellow citizens:
read this work carefully, should you ever accept a master, he will be
such as I depict him to you. Here is the savage brute to whom you will
be abandoning yourselves. Thus it was the fault of his contemporaries
if they misjudged him: they took a satire for a eulogy".
Whilst remaining fully aware of the enormous cultural and
political weight of the project, Diderot occasionally expressed his
doubts about its usefulness, as he did in the famous article about
Aguaxima: "AGUAXIMA (Hist.nat.bot.), a plant growing in Brazil and the
islands of middle America. This is all we are told; & I would like
to ask for whom descriptions like this are made at all. It cannot be
for the natives of country, who obviously know more characteristis of
the aguaxima than this description contains & who have no need of
being informed that it grows in their own country. . . . It is also not
made for us; for what does it matter if there is in Brazil a tree that
is called aguaxima of which we know nothing but the name? To whom is
this name useful?" Diderot signed 1,984 articles of the first volume;
in the last three volumes, his original contributions had dwindled to
7, 8, and 6 respectively, indicating his disillusionment.
The Encyclopédie was published between 1751 and 1772 in 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of engravings. Many of the contributors were priests, but Diderot's companions in the enterprise were also Voltaire, Chevalier de Jaucourt, a tireless reseacher, and Marmontel. The Encyclopédie arose much controversy and the publisher was jailed, then released, and his licence canceled. Fortunately, the censor, M. de Malesherbes, was a believer in freedom of the press, and warned beforehand Diderot when his agents were sent to seize manuscripts.
While editing the Encyclopédie (1745-1772), Diderot composed most of his own important works as well, among them Lettre sur les sourds et muets (1751), Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature (1753), the novel La religieuse (1760), and the dialogue Le neveu de Rameau (1761), which he revised several times. It was not included in Diderot's Œuvres, published in 1798; his fellow countrymen had been indifferent to it. Diderot gave one copy to Goethe, who translated it into German. Diderot's moral plays Le fils naturel (1757) and Le père de famille (1758) gained a mediocre success. He had called for a new kind of expression on the stage, more natural portrayal of life. From 1759 he contributed notes on the biennial Salon to the collections of his friend, Friedrich Grimm. He appreciated spontaneity, criticized the tyranny of rules, but in his 'Essay on Painting' he also stated, "there is one thing that painting and poetry have in common: they should both be moral."
La religieuse was "une pure infamie" and scarcely known before its publication in 1796, during the French Revolution. In the story a young girl, Suzanne, enters a nunnery and is harassed by a lesbian abbess, Sister Sainte-Christine. Eventually her nature is corrupted and she develops lesbian attachment to Mme de Chelles. Diderot used the technique of first-person narration: "The Superior came into my cell. She was accompanied by three Sisters. One brought a stoup of holy water, the second a crucifix, the the third some ropes. The Superior said to me in a loud and threatening voice: 'Get up... kneel down and commend your soul to God!'" Diderot and his friend Grimm created the story in order to lure their acquaintance, the Marquis de Croismare, to return to Paris. The marquis had shown interest in the case of a nun, who had failed to break her vows. Diderot sent letters in her name to the marquis, as if she had escaped her convent and was looking for his help. From these letters he composed the book. In the 1960s Jacques Rivette and Jean Grualt made a play from the book and also adapted it into a film, which was banned in France.
Because of his radical thoughts several of Diderot's books were confiscated and came out posthumously. Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville, in which he indicted slavery and colonialism, was not published until 1796. An old Tahitian man tells the protagonist, who is leaving the island: "We are a free people; and now you have planted in our country the title deeds of our future slavery. You are neither god nor demon; who are you, then, to make slaves? Orou! You understand the language of these men, tell us all, as you have told me, what they have written on this sheet of metal: 'This country is ours.' This country yours? And why? Because you have walked thereon? If a Tahitian landed one day on your shores, and scratched on one of your rocks or on the bark of your trees: 'This country belongs to the people of Tahiti' – what would you think?" (from Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage)
In 1765 Diderot sold his library to Catherine II of Russia to
increase her daughter's dowry. The Empress gave him money to improve
the collections and for other similar services. During 1773 and 1774
Diderot made a long and difficult journey to St. Petersburg to thank
Catherine personally and plan the creation of a Russian university. "I
place him among the most extraordinary men who have ever lived,"
Catherine told Voltaire. According to a famous anecdote, the Empress
staged a debate between the Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler and
Diderot. The pious Euler threw down the challenge to the atheist
Diderot, "Monsieur, (a+bⁿ)/n=x, therefore God exists. Reply!" Diderot
did not know what to say and Euler won the debate. Actually he was a
very good mathematician and would have been unlikely to fall for a
meaningless proof. (The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, 2007, p. 109)
hardships of the journey weakened Diderot's health, which was never robust.
The visit ended in March 1774. Before leaving for Russia he started to write Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1771-73).
Diderot's humorous, freewheeling story of Fate and individual choice, showed the influence of Cervantes, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Voltaire's Candide.
The central charaters are a servant, Jacques, and his master, a knight
whose name is never told. Jacques tells his master that his Captain
used to say: "Everything good or bad that happens us here below is
written on high." He asks, is there any way of rubbing out what is
written up there? The Italian writer Italo Calvino has called Jacques an anti-Candide, "because it was conceived as an anti-conte-philosophique:
Diderot is convinced that truth cannot be constrained into one form, or
into one didactic fable." The tale of Madame de la Pommeraye, which
Jacques and his Master hear at an inn, was translated into Germanby Friedrich Schiller (1785).
Among Diderot's friends were such philosophers and literary figures
as Rousseau, with whom the friendship ended in 1757, Hume, Helvétius,
Abbé Raynal, Lawrence Sterne, Marmontel, and Sedaine. When the Encyclopédie
started to appear, Roussau was enthusiastic for the views it expressed,
and founded a journal to promote the work. Later he established with
his brother-in-law a new printing house, issuing novels and stories of
Voltaire, the Fables and Contes
of La Fontaine, a
complete set of Diderot's works, and other works by writers and
propagandists for the Enlightenment. Diderot died of emphysema and
dropsy in Paris on July 31, 1784. According to a story, his wife tried
to prevent him from eating an apricot that he had in his hand. "But
what the devil do you think that will do to me?" he said, ate it anyway
and died suddenly.
Diderot was a pivotal figure of the
entire century, but his later reputation was shadowed by the brilliance
of his two contemporaries, Voltaire and Rousseau. Both Marx and Engels
held him in high esteem and Marx referred to Diderot as his favorite
prose writer. The Bolshevik leader
V.I. Lenin even
attempted to make him a precursor of dialectical materialism in his
philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1909).
For further reading: Censoring of Diderot's "Encyclopédie" and the Re-established Text by Douglas H. Gordon and Norman L. Torrey (1947); Diderot: The Testing Years 1713-1759 by Arthur M. Wilson (1957); Diderot et l'Encyclopédie by Jacques Proust (1962); Diderot: The Embattled Philosopher by Lester G. Crocker (1966); The Philosophy of the Enlightenment by Ernst Cassirer (1968); Diderot by Otis Fellows (1977); Diderot, critique d'art by Else Marie Bukdahl (1980); Diderot by Peter France (1983); Diderot: Tresholds of Representation by James Creech (1986): Diderot and a Poetics of Science, ed. by Suzanne Pucci (1986); Socratic Satire: An Essay on Diderot and Le Neveu De Rameau by Stephen Werner (1987); Bibliographie de Diderot by Frederick A. Spear (1980-88); Diderot: A Critical Biography by P.N. Furbank (1992); A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot by Peter Burke (2000); Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, the Book That Changed the Course of History by Philipp Blom (2005); A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom (2010); Diderot and Rousseau: Networks of Enlightenment by Marian Hobson (2011); Narrative Structure and Philosophical Debates in Tristram Shandy and Jacques le fataliste by Margaux Elizabeth Whiskin (2014); Denis Diderot's Enlightenment by Joseph Epstein (2019) - See also: Voltaire (1694-1778) who also spoke against established religious and political systems. Mme de Staël met Diderot in her childhood in her mother's salon.