Diderot, Denis

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Diderot, Denis (1713-84): French Philosophe.

Denis Diderot was one of the central figures of the French Enlightenment. A prolific writer across virtually all genres, his greatest achievement was compiling and editing the Encyclopedia, a task that occupied the better part of his career.

Diderot was born into a devout middle-class family from the town of Langres, in Champagne, where his father was a master cutler. He received a Jesuit education, and his parents expected that their gifted son would follow the example of relatives by entering the clergy. But, whatever enthusiasm he had for the religious life waned, along with his piety during his years at the Jesuit college of Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He shifted from theology to law, only to abandon that field as well, embarking upon a directionless but intellectually and sensually stimulating period financed through free-lance writing, teaching, and translating.

In 1743, after a decade of bohemian living, he entered into a marriage disapproved of by his parents (and kept secret from them for years). This union to a sober Parisian shopkeeper, Anne-Toinette (Nanette) Champion, proved to be unhappy; it produced only one child who survived to adulthood, and Diderot soon took a mistress. He wrote his first book, the rather audaciously entitled Pensées (Philosophical Thoughts), in 1746; it was censured and burned by the Paris Parlement for its unorthodox treatment of religion and morality. To earn money for his mistress’ upkeep, he published an erotic novel, The Indiscreet Jewels (1748). That same year he rather unheroically endured a three month imprisonment for his Letter on the Blind, a defense of philosophic materialism.

Along with D’Alembert, Diderot accepted a contract in 1746 to translate Cyclopedia, Ephraim Chambers’ dictionary, into French. This project metamorphosed into what would become, over the course of more than two decades, a 35-volume Encyclopedia. After D’Alembert withdrew as co-editor, Diderot assumed exclusive responsibility for the work. He authored several of its pieces (focusing on technological subjects, but including the important entries, “Encyclopedia” and “Philosopher”) and commissioned articles from some of the best minds of Europe. Controversial from the outset, the Encyclopedia led to friction with his family and endless wrangling with the authorities. Early volumes were suppressed, and in 1759 Jesuits succeeded in getting its license revoked, but Diderot, working clandestinely and under the protection of sympathetic officials like Malesherbes, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de, managed to see it through to completion. He felt betrayed when his publisher bowdlerized portions of the text to placate critics.

As a sideline, Diderot began writing plays in the late 1750s, including the tragicomic The Natural Son (1757) and The Father of the Family (1758), which precipitated a bitter feud with his erstwhile friend, Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Around the same time he embarked on a 15-year affair with an unconventional, well-to-do woman, “Sophie” Volland. He also took over from his friend Grimm, Baron Friedrich Melchior von the task of writing reviews of Paris’ biennial Salons of art.

The next decade was the most productive of Diderot’s career. In addition to the celebrated “Salons,” he wrote the dialogues Supplement to Bougainville, Louis Antoine's “Voyage” (1772), Rameau’s Nephew (which underwent many revisions after it was drafted in the 1760s), and D’Alembert’s Dream (1769); the novels Jacques the Fatalist (1774) and The Nun (1782); and the realistic psychological drama, “Is He Good? Is He Wicked?” (1783). Most of the works from this period were unpublished during Diderot’s lifetime, whether out of fear of persecution or to honor promises he made to his scandal-weary family.

Throughout his life Diderot remained a man of modest means. Much of what he owned, including his library, was the gift of Catherine II, the Great. He visited the Russian autocrat’s St. Petersburg court in the winter of 1773-74, and endeavored, in vain, to advise her on matters of politics and law. His entire library, including the original versions of his manuscripts, reverted to his patroness upon his death.

Over the course of his career, Diderot, like so many of his contemporaries, moved steadily toward more radical and unorthodox convictions. Religiously, he became an atheist; philosophically, a materialist; politically, a democrat; and morally, a libertine. This radicalism received fullest expression in three of his posthumously published dialogues. The first, A Supplement to Bougainville’s “Voyage,” was a commentary on the travels of a Frenchman who visited Tahiti in the late 1760s. Conversation partners identified only as “A” and “B” debate the islanders’ attitudes and practices, especially in regard to property, religion, and sexuality. The Polynesians are portrayed as healthy, happy children of nature who value their freedom and leisure. They are shocked when French sailors kill a youth for stealing some trinkets, and mystified by French inhibitions regarding incest, divorce, and adolescent fornication. In a dialogue within the dialogue, the ship’s chaplain finally accedes to the offer of his native host to impregnate his daughters. The work concludes with the affirmation of sensual pleasure as natural and a call to liberalize Europe’s sexual mores.

D’Alembert’s Dream, which was Diderot’s favorite text and arguably his most experimental, transpires in D’Alembert’s bedroom in the home of his companion, salonniere Julie de l’Espinasse. It begins with a conversation between Diderot and D’Alembert on the nature and origin of consciousness. After the materialist Diderot departs, the skeptic D’Alembert falls asleep; he seems to take ill in the night and is attended by a Dr. Bordeu. There follows the doctor’s sympathetic interpretation of the sleeping D’Alembert’s rantings, which recapitulate his conversation with Diderot. The doctor and Mlle. de l’Espinasse proceed to discuss a host of scientific and philosophical issues: sensation and memory, evolution and reproduction, identity and difference, past and future, waking and dreaming. The dialogue ends with the doctor’s spirited defense of masturbation and his claim that no practice, including bestiality, is inherently immoral or unnatural.

In the third dialogue, Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot records a café discussion between “Myself” and “He,” the rakish nephew of a celebrated musician. Diderot, qua upholder of utilitarian morality, fails in his effort to reform the cynical, unabashedly egoistic nephew. The nephew debases himself by exhibiting his culture and learning for the amusement of wealthy patrons. Secretly despising them, while hoping someday to occupy their station, he contends that competition among humans, being as natural as competition in the animal kingdom, should also be as free from moral scruple. The dialogue courageously asks whether Diderot’s own materialism logically culminates in the negation of all virtue. It was appreciated in many quarters when it was published, especially in Germany, where it attracted the interest of Goethe, Johann Wolfgang and Hegel.

Further Reading:

Carol Blum, Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher, 1974.

P. N. Furbank, Diderot: A Critical Biography, 1992.

Arthur Wilson, Diderot, 1972.


Sandra Hinchman

St. Laurence University

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