Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot

Overview
Denis Diderot was a French
French people
The French are a nation that share a common French culture and speak the French language as a mother tongue. Historically, the French population are descended from peoples of Celtic, Latin and Germanic origin, and are today a mixture of several ethnic groups...

 philosopher, art critic
Art critic
An art critic is a person who specializes in evaluating art. Their written critiques, or reviews, are published in newspapers, magazines, books and on web sites...

, and writer. He was a prominent person during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

.

Diderot also contributed to literature, notably with Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Jacques the Fatalist and his Master), which emulated Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne was an Irish novelist and an Anglican clergyman. He is best known for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy; but he also published many sermons, wrote memoirs, and was involved in local politics...

 in challenging conventions regarding novels and their structure and content, while also examining philosophical ideas about free will
Free will
"To make my own decisions whether I am successful or not due to uncontrollable forces" -Troy MorrisonA pragmatic definition of free willFree will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. The existence of free will and its exact nature and definition have long...

.
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Quotations

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.

Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu (1745); a translation and adaptation of Inquiry concerning Virtue or Merit (1699) by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury|Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury

If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him.

Portraying a fictional conversation of Nicholas Saunderson|Nicholas Saunderson with a priest, in ' Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter about the Blind] (1749), as quoted in Diderot and the Encyclopædists (1897) by John Morley, p. 92. Publication of this work resulted in Diderot being arrested and imprisoned.

What is this world of ours? A complex entity subject to sudden changes which all indicate a tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings which follow one another, assert themselves and disappear; a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.

Dying words of Nicholas Saunderson as portrayed in Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)

Only a very bad theologian would confuse the certainty that follows revelation with the truths that are revealed. They are entirely different things.

Apology for the Abbé de Prades (1752)

Il y a un peu de testicule au fond de nos sentiments les plus sublimes et de notre tendresse la plus épurée

There's a bit of testicle at the bottom of our most sublime feelings and our purest tenderness.

There is no kind of harassment that a man may not inflict on a woman with impunity in civilized societies.

"On Women" (1772), as translated in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker

Impenetrable in their dissimulation, cruel in their vengeance, tenacious in their purposes, unscrupulous as to their methods, animated by profound and hidden hatred for the tyranny of man — it is as though there exists among them an ever-present conspiracy toward domination, a sort of alliance like that subsisting among the priests of every country.

"On Women" (1772), as translated in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker

The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.

"Refutation of Helvétius" (written 1773-76, published 1875)
Encyclopedia
Denis Diderot was a French
French people
The French are a nation that share a common French culture and speak the French language as a mother tongue. Historically, the French population are descended from peoples of Celtic, Latin and Germanic origin, and are today a mixture of several ethnic groups...

 philosopher, art critic
Art critic
An art critic is a person who specializes in evaluating art. Their written critiques, or reviews, are published in newspapers, magazines, books and on web sites...

, and writer. He was a prominent person during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

.

Diderot also contributed to literature, notably with Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Jacques the Fatalist and his Master), which emulated Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne was an Irish novelist and an Anglican clergyman. He is best known for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy; but he also published many sermons, wrote memoirs, and was involved in local politics...

 in challenging conventions regarding novels and their structure and content, while also examining philosophical ideas about free will
Free will
"To make my own decisions whether I am successful or not due to uncontrollable forces" -Troy MorrisonA pragmatic definition of free willFree will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. The existence of free will and its exact nature and definition have long...

. Diderot is also known as the author of the dialogue, Le Neveu de Rameau
Rameau's Nephew
Rameau's Nephew, or the Second Satire is an imaginary philosophical conversation written by Denis Diderot, probably between 1761 and 1772....

(Rameau's Nephew), upon which many articles and sermons about consumer desire have been based. His articles included many topics of the Enlightenment.

Life and death


Denis Diderot was born in Langres
Langres
Langres is a commune in north-eastern France. It is a subprefecture of the Haute-Marne département in the Champagne-Ardenne region.-History:As the capital of the Romanized Gallic tribe the Lingones, it was called Andematunnum, then Lingones, and now Langres.The town is built on a limestone...

 and began his formal education at the Lycée Louis le Grand. In 1732 he earned a master of arts degree in philosophy. He abandoned the idea of entering the clergy and decided instead to study law. His study of law was short-lived however and in 1734 Diderot decided to become a writer. Because of his refusal to enter one of the learned professions, he was disowned by his father, and for the next ten years he lived a bohemian existence.

In 1742 he befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

. Then in 1743 he further alienated his father by marrying Antoinette Champion, a devout Roman Catholic. The match was considered inappropriate due to Champion's low social status, poor education, fatherless status and lack of a dowry. She was four years older than Diderot. The marriage produced one surviving child, a girl. Her name was Angélique, after both Diderot's dead mother and sister. The death of his sister, a nun, from overwork in the convent may have affected Diderot's opinion of religion. She is assumed to have been the inspiration for his novel about a nun, La Religieuse, in which he depicts a woman who is forced to enter a monastery where she suffers at the hands of the other nuns in the community.

Diderot had affairs with the writer Madeleine de Puisieux
Madeleine de Puisieux
Madeleine de Puisieux was a French writer and feminist.Madeleine de Puisieux debuted as a writer in 1745 and sometimes collaborated with Diderot. In 1750, she published La Femme n’est pas inférieure à l'homme...

 and with Sophie Volland. His letters to Sophie Volland contain some of the most vivid of all the insights that we have of the daily life of the philosophic circle of Paris during this time period.

Though his work was broad and rigorous, it did not bring Diderot riches. He secured none of the posts that were occasionally given to needy men of letters; he could not even obtain the bare official recognition of merit which was implied by being chosen a member of the Académie française
Académie française
L'Académie française , also called the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution,...

. When the time came for him to provide a dowry
Dowry
A dowry is the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings forth to the marriage. It contrasts with bride price, which is paid to the bride's parents, and dower, which is property settled on the bride herself by the groom at the time of marriage. The same culture may simultaneously practice both...

 for his daughter, he saw no alternative than to sell his library. When Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great , Empress of Russia, was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia on as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg...

 heard of his financial troubles she commissioned an agent in Paris to buy the library. She then requested that the philosopher retain the books in Paris until she required them, and act as her librarian with a yearly salary. From 1773 for two years Diderot spent some months at the empress's court in Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg is a city and a federal subject of Russia located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea...

.

Diderot died of gastrointestinal problems in Paris on July 31, 1784, and was buried in the city's Église Saint-Roch
Église Saint-Roch
The Church of Saint Roch is a late Baroque church in Paris. Located at 284 rue Saint-Honoré, in the 1st arrondissement, it was built between 1653 and 1722.- History :...

. His heirs sent his vast library to Catherine II, who had it deposited at the National Library of Russia.

Early works


Diderot's earliest works included a translation of Temple Stanyan's History of Greece (1743); with two colleagues, François-Vincent Toussaint
François-Vincent Toussaint
François-Vincent Toussaint was a French writer most famous for Les Mœurs . The book was published in 1748 and was soon prosecuted and burned by the French court of justice....

 and Marc-Antoine Eidous
Marc-Antoine Eidous
Marc-Antoine Eidous was a French writer, translator and Encyclopedist born in Marseilles.His translations included works on the subjects of philosophy, travel and agriculture by English and Scottish authors:...

, he produced a translation of Robert James
Robert James (physician)
Robert James was an English physician who is best known as the author of A Medicinal Dictionary, as the inventor of a popular "fever powder", and as a friend of Samuel Johnson.-Life:...

's Medicinal Dictionary (1746–1748); at about the same time he published a free rendering of Shaftesbury
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury
Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury was an English politician, philosopher and writer.-Biography:...

's Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit (1745), with some original notes of his own. In 1746 he wrote his first original work: the Pensées philosophiques, and he added to this a short complementary essay on the sufficiency of natural religion
Natural theology
Natural theology is a branch of theology based on reason and ordinary experience. Thus it is distinguished from revealed theology which is based on scripture and religious experiences of various kinds; and also from transcendental theology, theology from a priori reasoning.Marcus Terentius Varro ...

. He then composed a volume of bawdy stories Les bijoux indiscrets
Les bijoux indiscrets
The Indiscreet Jewels is the first novel by Denis Diderot, published anonymously in 1748. It is an allegory that portrays Louis XV as the sultan Mangogul of the Congo who owns a magic ring that makes women's genitals talk....

(1748); in later years he repented this work.
In 1747 he wrote the Promenade du sceptique, an allegory
Allegory
Allegory is a demonstrative form of representation explaining meaning other than the words that are spoken. Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation...

 pointing first at the extravagances of Catholicism; second, at the vanity of the pleasures of the world which is the rival of the church; and third, at the desperate and unfathomable uncertainty of the philosophy which professes to be so high above both church and world.

Diderot's celebrated Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient
Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient
In Letter on the Blind , Denis Diderot takes on the question of visual perception, a subject that, at the time, experienced a resurgence of interest due to the success of medical procedures that allowed surgeons to operate on certain cases of blindness from birth...

("Letter on the Blind") (1749), introduced him to the world as a daringly original thinker. The subject is a discussion of the interrelation between man's reason and the knowledge
Knowledge
Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

 acquired through perception (the five senses). The title, "Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See", also evoked some ironic doubt about who exactly were "the blind" under discussion. In the essay a blind English mathematician named Saunderson argues that since knowledge derives from the senses, then mathematics is the only form of knowledge that both he and a sighted person can agree about. It is suggested that the blind could be taught to read through their sense of touch (a later essay, Lettre sur les sourds et muets, considered the case of a similar deprivation in the deaf and mute
Speech disorder
Speech disorders or speech impediments are a type of communication disorders where 'normal' speech is disrupted. This can mean stuttering, lisps, etc. Someone who is unable to speak due to a speech disorder is considered mute.-Classification:...

). What makes the Lettre sur les aveugles so remarkable, however, is its distinct, if undeveloped, presentation of the theory of variation
Genetic variability
Genetic variability is a measure of the tendency of individual genotypes in a population to vary from one another. Variability is different from genetic diversity, which is the amount of variation seen in a particular population. The variability of a trait describes how much that trait tends to...

 and natural selection
Natural selection
Natural selection is the nonrandom process by which biologic traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. It is a key mechanism of evolution....

.

This powerful essay ... revolves around a remarkable deathbed scene in which a dying blind philosopher, Saunderson, rejects the arguments of a providential
Divine Providence
In Christian theology, divine providence, or simply providence, is God's activity in the world. " Providence" is also used as a title of God exercising His providence, and then the word are usually capitalized...

 God during his last hours. Saunderson's arguments are those of a Neo-Spinozist, Naturalist
Naturalism (philosophy)
Naturalism commonly refers to the philosophical viewpoint that the natural universe and its natural laws and forces operate in the universe, and that nothing exists beyond the natural universe or, if it does, it does not affect the natural universe that we know...

, and Fatalist, using a sophisticated notion of the self-generation
Spontaneous generation
Spontaneous generation or Equivocal generation is an obsolete principle regarding the origin of life from inanimate matter, which held that this process was a commonplace and everyday occurrence, as distinguished from univocal generation, or reproduction from parent...

 and natural evolution of species without Creation or supernatural intervention. The notion of "thinking matter"
Materialism
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance...

 is upheld and the "argument from design" discarded ... as hollow and unconvincing. The work appeared anonymously ... and was vigorously suppressed by the authorities. Diderot, who had been under police surveillance since 1747, was swiftly identified as the author ... and was imprisoned for some months at Vincennes
Vincennes
Vincennes is a commune in the Val-de-Marne department in the eastern suburbs of Paris, France. It is located from the centre of Paris. It is one of the most densely populated municipalities in Europe.-History:...

, where he was visited almost daily by Rousseau, at the time his closest and most assiduous ally.


After signing a letter of submission and promising never to write anything prejudicial against religion again (with the result that his most controversial works were henceforth published only after his death), Diderot was released from the dungeons of the Vincennes
Vincennes
Vincennes is a commune in the Val-de-Marne department in the eastern suburbs of Paris, France. It is located from the centre of Paris. It is one of the most densely populated municipalities in Europe.-History:...

 fortress after three months. In collaboration with d'Alembert, he subsequently embarked on his greatest project, The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.

Encyclopédie



André Le Breton
André Le Breton
André François le Breton was a French publisher. He was one of the four publishers of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert, along with Michel-Antoine David, Laurent Durand, and Antoine-Claude Briasson...

, a bookseller and printer, approached Diderot with a project for the publication of a translation of Ephraim Chambers'
Ephraim Chambers
Ephraim Chambers was an English writer and encyclopaedist, who is primarily known for producing the Cyclopaedia, or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences.-Early life:...

 Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences
Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences
Cyclopaedia: or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences was an encyclopedia published by Ephraim Chambers in London in 1728, and reprinted in numerous editions in the eighteenth century...

into French, first undertaken by the Englishman John Mills
John Mills (encyclopedist)
John Mills was an encyclopedist on the Encyclopédie. He was originally a writer on agricultural matters from England...

, and followed by the German Gottfried Sellius. Diderot accepted the proposal. During this translation his creative mind and astute vision transformed the work. Instead of a mere reproduction of the Cyclopaedia, he persuaded Le Breton to enter upon a new work, which would collect all the active writers, ideas, and knowledge that were moving the cultivated class of the Republic of Letters
Republic of Letters
Republic of Letters is most commonly used to define intellectual communities in the late 17th and 18th century in Europe and America. It especially brought together the intellectuals of Age of Enlightenment, or "philosophes" as they were called in France...

 to its depths but were comparatively ineffectual due to their dispersion. His enthusiasm for the project was transmitted to the publishers; they collected a sufficient capital for a more vast enterprise than they had first planned. Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert was a French mathematician, mechanician, physicist, philosopher, and music theorist. He was also co-editor with Denis Diderot of the Encyclopédie...

 was persuaded to become Diderot's colleague; the requisite permission was procured from the government.

In 1750 an elaborate prospectus announced the project to a delighted public, and in 1751 the first volume was published. This work was very unorthodox and had many forward-thinking ideas for the time. Diderot stated within this work, "An encyclopedia ought to make good the failure to execute such a project hitherto, and should encompass not only the fields already covered by the academies, but each and every branch of human knowledge." Upon encompassing every branch of knowledge this will give, "the power to change men's common way of thinking." This idea was profound and intriguing, as it was one of the first works during the Enlightenment. Diderot wanted to give all people the ability to further their knowledge and, in a sense, allow every person to have any knowledge they sought of the world. The work, implementing not only the expertise of scholars and Academies in their respective fields but that of the common men in their proficiencies in their trades, sought to bring together all knowledge of the time and condense this information for all to use. These people would amalgamate and work under a society to perform such a project. They would work alone to shed societal conformities, and build a multitude of information on a desired subject with varying view points, methods, or philosophies. He emphasized the vast abundance of knowledge held within each subject with intricacies and details to provide the greatest amount of knowledge to be gained from the subject. All people would benefit from these insights into different subjects as a means of betterment; bettering society as a whole and individuals alike.

However, Diderot's work was plagued by controversy from the beginning; the project was suspended by the courts in 1752. Just as the second volume was completed accusations arose, regarding seditious content, concerning the editor's entries on religion and natural law. Diderot was detained and his house was searched for manuscripts for subsequent articles. But the search proved fruitless as no manuscripts could be found. They were hidden in the house of an unlikely confederate–Chretien de Lamoignon Malesherbes
Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes
Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes , often referred to as Malesherbes or Lamoignon-Malesherbes, was a French statesman, minister, and afterwards counsel for the defence of Louis XVI.-Biography:...

, the very official who ordered the search. Although Malesherbes was a staunch absolutist-loyal to the monarchy, he was sympathetic to the literary project. Along with his support, and that of other well-placed influential confederates, the project resumed. Diderot returned to his efforts only to be constantly embroiled in controversy.

These twenty years were to Diderot not merely a time of incessant drudgery, but harassing persecution and desertion of friends. The ecclesiastical party detested the Encyclopédie, in which they saw a rising stronghold for their philosophic enemies. By 1757 they could endure it no longer. The subscribers had grown from 2,000 to 4,000, a measure of the growth of the work in popular influence and power. The Encyclopédie threatened the governing social classes of France (aristocracy) because it took for granted the justice of religious tolerance, freedom of thought
Freedom of thought
Freedom of thought is the freedom of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others' viewpoints....

, and the value of science and industry. It asserted the doctrine that the main concern of the nation's government ought to be the nation's common people. It was believed that the Encyclopédie was the work of an organized band of conspirators against society, and that the dangerous ideas they held were made truly formidable by their open publication. In 1759, the Encyclopédie was formally suppressed. The decree did not stop the work, which went on, but its difficulties increased by the necessity of being clandestine. Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert was a French mathematician, mechanician, physicist, philosopher, and music theorist. He was also co-editor with Denis Diderot of the Encyclopédie...

 withdrew from the enterprise and other powerful colleagues, including Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune
Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune , often referred to as Turgot, was a French economist and statesman. Turgot was a student of Francois Quesnay and as such belonged to the Physiocratic school of economic thought...

, declined to contribute further to a book which had acquired a bad reputation.

Diderot was left to finish the task as best he could. He wrote several hundred articles, some very slight, but many of them laborious, comprehensive, and long. He damaged his eyesight correcting proofs and editing the manuscripts of less competent contributors. He spent his days at workshops, mastering manufacturing processes, and his nights writing what he had learned during the day. He was incessantly harassed by threats of police raids. The last copies of the first volume were issued in 1765. At the last moment, when his immense work was drawing to an end, he encountered a crowning mortification: he discovered that the bookseller, fearing the government's displeasure, had struck out from the proof sheets, after they had left Diderot's hands, all passages that he considered too dangerous. The monument to which Diderot had given the labor of twenty long and oppressive years was irreparably mutilated and defaced. It was 12 years, in 1772, before the subscribers received the final 27 folio volumes of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers since the first volume had been published.

Other works


Although the Encyclopédie was Diderot's monumental piece, he was the author of many other works that sowed nearly every field of intellectual interest with new and creative ideas. He wrote sentimental plays, Le Fils naturel
Le Fils naturel
Le Fils naturel is a 1757 play by Denis Diderot. This play tells the story of Dorval, a young man of unknown parentage, who is welcomed into the family of Clairville and his widow sister Constance. Rosalie, Clairville's fiancé, also lives there. Dorval and Rosalie fall in love, and Dorval...

(1757) and Le Père de famille (1758), accompanying them with essays on theatrical theory and practice, including "Les Entretiens sur Le Fils Naturel" (Conversations on The Natural Son), in which he announced the principles of a new drama: the 'serious genre', a realistic midpoint between comedy and tragedy that stood in opposition to the stilted conventions of the classical French stage. His art criticism
Art criticism
Art criticism is the discussion or evaluation of visual art.Art critics usually criticize art in the context of aesthetics or the theory of beauty...

 was also highly influential. Diderot's Essais sur la peinture was described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer, pictorial artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and polymath. He is considered the supreme genius of modern German literature. His works span the fields of poetry, drama, prose, philosophy, and science. His Faust has been called the greatest long...

, as "a magnificent work, which speaks even more helpfully to the poet than to the painter, though to the painter too it is as a blazing torch."

Diderot's most intimate friend was the philologist Friedrich Melchior Grimm. They were brought together by their friend in common at that time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

. Grimm wrote newsletters to various high personages in Germany, reporting the happenings of art and literature in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe. Diderot helped Grimm between 1759 and 1779, by writing an account of the annual exhibitions of paintings in the Paris Salon
Paris Salon
The Salon , or rarely Paris Salon , beginning in 1725 was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. Between 1748–1890 it was the greatest annual or biannual art event in the Western world...

. These reports are highly readable pieces of art criticism. According to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve was a literary critic and one of the major figures of French literary history.-Early years:...

, they initiated the French into a new way of laughing, and introduced people to the mystery and purport of colour by ideas. "Before Diderot," Anne Louise Germaine de Staël
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein , commonly known as Madame de Staël, was a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad. She influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 19th century.- Childhood :...

 wrote, "I had never seen anything in pictures except dull and lifeless colours; it was his imagination that gave them relief and life, and it is almost a new sense for which I am indebted to his genius." Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Jean-Baptiste Greuze was a French painter.-Early life:He was born at Tournus, Saône-et-Loire. He is generally said to have formed his own talent; this is, however, true only in the most limited sense, for at an early age his inclinations, though thwarted by his father, were encouraged by a...

 was Diderot's favorite contemporary artist. Greuze's most characteristic pictures were the rendering in colour of the same sentiments of domestic virtue and the pathos
Pathos
Pathos represents an appeal to the audience's emotions. Pathos is a communication technique used most often in rhetoric , and in literature, film and other narrative art....

 of common life, which Diderot had attempted to represent upon the stage.

Diderot was above all things interested in the life of individuals. He did not care about the abstract life of the race, but the incidents of individual character, the fortunes of a particular family, the relations of real and concrete motives in this or that special case. He was delighted with the enthusiasm of a born casuist in curious puzzles of right and wrong, and in devising a conflict between the generalities of ethics
Ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

 and the conditions of an ingeniously contrived practical dilemma. Diderot's interest expressed itself in didactic and sympathetic form. However, in two of his most remarkable pieces, this interest is not sympathetic, but ironic. Jacques le fataliste (written in 1773, but not published until 1792 in German and 1796 in French) is similar to Tristram Shandy
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a novel by Laurence Sterne. It was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next 10 years....

and The Sentimental Journey. His dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew) is a "farce-tragedy" reminiscent of the Satires of Horace
Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

. A favorite classical author of Diderot's, Horace's words Vertumnis, quotquot sunt, natus iniquis are quoted at the top of the Nephew. Diderot's intention in writing the dialogue is disputed; whether it is merely a satire
Satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

 on contemporary manners, or a reduction of the theory of self-interest
Individualism
Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses "the moral worth of the individual". Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing most external interference upon one's own...

 to an absurdity, or the application of irony
Irony
Irony is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or situation in which there is a sharp incongruity or discordance that goes beyond the simple and evident intention of words or actions...

 to the ethics of ordinary convention, or a mere setting for a discussion about music, or a vigorous dramatic sketch of a parasite and a human original. Whatever its intent, it is a remarkable conversation, representing an era of that held the art of conversation in the highest regard.

The writing and publication history of the Nephew is likewise a bit mysterious. Diderot never saw the work through to publication during his lifetime, but there is every indication it was of continual interest to him. Though the original draft was written in 1761, he made additions to it year after year until his death twenty-three years later. Goethe's translation (1805) was the first introduction of Le Neveu de Rameau to the European public. After executing it, he gave back the original French manuscript to Friedrich Schiller
Friedrich Schiller
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright. During the last seventeen years of his life , Schiller struck up a productive, if complicated, friendship with already famous and influential Johann Wolfgang von Goethe...

, from whom he had it. No authentic French copy of it appeared until the writer had been dead for forty years (1823). Diderot's miscellaneous pieces range from a graceful trifle like the Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown) up to Le rêve de D'Alembert
Le rêve de D'Alembert
D'Alembert’s Dream is an ensemble of three philosophical dialogues authored by Denis Diderot in 1769 and published in 1830:* Conversation between d’Alembert and Diderot* D’Alembert’s Dream...

, where he plunges into the depths of the controversy as to the ultimate constitution of matter
Matter
Matter is a general term for the substance of which all physical objects consist. Typically, matter includes atoms and other particles which have mass. A common way of defining matter is as anything that has mass and occupies volume...

 and the meaning of life. Diderot was not a coherent and systematic thinker, but rather "a philosopher in whom all the contradictions of the time struggle with one another" (Rosenkranz
Johann Karl Friedrich Rosenkranz
Johann Karl Friedrich Rosenkranz was a German philosopher and pedagog.-Life:Born at Magdeburg, he read philosophy at Berlin, Halle and Königsberg, devoting himself mainly to the doctrines of Hegel and Schleiermacher...

). He did not develop a comprehensive system of materialism
Materialism
In philosophy, the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance...

, but he may have made some contributions to the atheistic materialist works of his friend Paul Henri Thiry, baron d'Holbach
Baron d'Holbach
Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach was a French-German author, philosopher, encyclopedist and a prominent figure in the French Enlightenment. He was born Paul Heinrich Dietrich in Edesheim, near Landau in the Rhenish Palatinate, but lived and worked mainly in Paris, where he kept a salon...

.

Philosophy


As a philosopher Diderot speculated on free will
Free will
"To make my own decisions whether I am successful or not due to uncontrollable forces" -Troy MorrisonA pragmatic definition of free willFree will is the ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. The existence of free will and its exact nature and definition have long...

 and held a completely materialistic view of the universe; he suggested all human behavior is determined by heredity. He therefore warned his fellow philosophers against an overemphasis on mathematics and against the blind optimism that sees in the growth of physical knowledge an automatic social and human progress. He rejected the Idea of Progress
Idea of Progress
In historiography, the Idea of Progress is the theory that advances in technology, science, and social organization inevitably produce an improvement in the human condition. That is, people can become happier in terms of quality of life through economic development , and the application of science...

. In his opinion, the aim of progressing through technology was doomed to fail. He founded his philosophy on experiment and the study of probabilities. He wrote several articles and supplements concerning gambling, mortality rates, and inoculation against smallpox for the Encyclopédie. There he discreetly but firmly refuted d'Alembert's technical errors and personal positions on probability.

See also


  • Contributions to liberal theory
    Contributions to liberal theory
    Individual contributors to classical liberalism and political liberalism are associated with philosophers of the Enlightenment. Liberalism as a specifically named ideology begins in the late 18th century as a movement towards self-government and away from aristocracy...

  • Diderot Effect
    Diderot effect
    The Diderot effect is a social phenomenon related to consumer goods which either posits that form culturally defines groups that are considered cohesive or refers to a process of spiralling consumption resulting from dissatisfaction induced by a new possession...

  • Encyclopedist
  • Encyclopédistes
  • Liberalism
    Liberalism
    Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally, liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights,...

  • Society of the Friends of Truth
    Society of the Friends of Truth
    The Society of the Friends of Truth , also known as the Social Club, was a French revolutionary organization founded in 1790. It was "a mixture of revolutionary political club, the Masonic Lodge, and a literary salon"...

  • University of Paris VII: Denis Diderot
    University of Paris VII: Denis Diderot
    Paris Diderot University, also known as Université Paris Diderot - Paris 7, is a French leading University located in Paris, France. It is one of the heirs of the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Paris , which was one of the earliest established in Europe, founded in the mid 12th century...


Further reading

  • App, Urs. The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010 (ISBN 978-0-8122-4261-4), pp. 133–187 on Diderot's role in the European discovery of Hinduism and Buddhism.
  • Blom, Philipp. The Wicked Company. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
  • Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher (1974)
  • Crocker, Lester G. Diderot's Chaotic Order: Approach to a Synthesis (1974)
  • Fellows, Otis E. Diderot, (1989)
  • France, Peter. Diderot (1983)
  • Furbank, P. N. Diderot: A Critical Biography. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN 0-679-41421-5.
  • Gregory Efrosini, Mary. Diderot and the Metamorphosis of Species (Studies in Philosophy). New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0-415-95551-3.
  • Havens, George R. The Age of Ideas. New York: Holt, 1955. ISBN 0-89197-651-5.* Mason, John H. The Irresistible Diderot (1982)
  • Simon, Julia. Mass Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press
    State University of New York Press
    The State University of New York Press , is a university press and a Center for Scholarly Communication. The Press is part of the State University of New York system and is located in Albany, New York.- History :...

    , 1995. ISBN 0-7914-2638-6.
  • Tunstall, Kate E. Blindness and Enlightenment. An Essay. With a new translation of Diderot's Letter on the Blind (Continuum, 2011)
  • Wilson, Arthur McCandless. Diderot (1972), the standard biography

Primary sources

  • Diderot, Denis, ed. A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry, Vol. 1 (1993 reprint) excerpt and text search
  • Diderot, Denis. Diderot: Political Writings ed. by John Hope Mason and Robert Wokler (1992) excerpt and text search, with introduction
  • Main works of Diderot in English translation
  • Hoyt, Nellie and Cassirer, Thomas. Encyclopedia, Selections: Diderot, D'Alembert, and a Society of Men of Letters. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company
    Bobbs-Merrill Company
    The Bobbs-Merrill Company was a book publisher located in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bobbs-Merrill was known for publishing such authors as Richard Halliburton, David Markson, Ayn Rand, James Whitcomb Riley, Walter Dean Myers, and Irma S. Rombauer. Bobbs-Merrill also published the early works of...

    , 1965. LCCN 65-26535. ISBN 0-672-60479-5.


External links