Diderot was a French philosopher and writer. Born in Langres, Champagne,
France in 1713, he was a prominent figure in what became known as
the Enlightenment, and was the editor-in-chief of the famous Encyclopédie.
also contributed to literature, notably with his work Jacques
le fataliste et son maître, which, in emulation of Sterne,
challenged conventions regarding novels and their structure and
content, while also examining philosophical ideas relating to
free will. He is also known as the author of the essay Regrets
on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, upon which many an article
and sermon about consumer desire have been based.
was educated by the Jesuits, and became a bookseller in Paris.
In 1743 he married Anne Toinette Champion, a devout Roman Catholic.
He had affairs with the writer Madame Puisieux and with Sophie
Volland, to whom he was constant for the rest of her life. His
letters to her are among the most graphic of all the pictures
that we have of the daily life of the philosophic circle in Paris.
earliest works included a translation of Stanyan's History of
Greece (1743); with two colleagues, François-Vincent Toussaint
and Marc-Antoine Eidous, he produced a translation of James's
Dictionary of Medicine (1746–1748) and about the same date
he published a free rendering of Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning
Virtue and Merit (1745), with some original notes of his own.
He composed a volume of bawdy stories, the Les bijoux indiscrets
(1748); in later years he repented of this work. In 1746 he wrote
the Pensées philosophiques (1746), and he presently added
to this a short complementary essay on the sufficiency of natural
1747 he wrote the Promenade du sceptique, an allegory pointing
first to the extravagances of Catholicism; second, to the vanity
of the pleasures of that world which is the rival of the church;
and third, to the desperate and unfathomable uncertainty of the
philosophy which professes to be so high above both church and
next piece was what first introduced him to the world as an original
thinker, his famous Lettre sur les aveugles (1749). The immediate
object of this short work was to show the dependence of men's
ideas on their five senses. It considers the case of the intellect
deprived of the aid of one of the senses; and in a second piece,
published afterwards, Diderot considered the case of a similar
deprivation in the deaf and mute.
Lettre sur les sourds et muets, however, is substantially a digressive
examination of some points in aesthetics. The philosophic significance
of the two essays is in the advance they make towards the principle
of Relativism. But what interested the militant philosophers of
that day was an episodic application of the principle of relativism
to the concept of God. What makes the Lettre sur les aveugles
interesting is its presentation, in a distinct though undigested
form, of the theory of variation and natural selection. It is
worth noticing, too, as an illustration of the comprehensive freedom
with which Diderot felt his way round any subject that he approached,
that in this theoretic essay he suggests the possibility of teaching
the blind to read through the sense of touch.
speculation in the Lettre sur les aveugles was too hardy for the
authorities, and he was thrown into the prison of Vincennes. Here
he remained for three months; then he was released, to enter upon
the gigantic undertaking of his life.
The bookseller and printer André Le Breton had applied
to Diderot with a project for the publication of a translation
into French of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary
of Arts and Sciences, undertaken in the first instance by the
Englishman John Mills, and the German, Gottfried Sellius. Diderot
accepted the proposal, but in his busy and pregnant intelligence
the scheme became transformed. Instead of a mere reproduction
of the Cyclopaedia, he persuaded Le Breton to enter upon a new
work, which should collect under one roof all the active writers,
all the new ideas, all the new knowledge, that were then moving
the cultivated class of the Republic of Letters to its depths,
but still were comparatively ineffectual by reason of their dispersion.
enthusiasm infected the publishers; they collected a sufficient
capital for a vaster enterprise than they had at first planned;
Jean le Rond d'Alembert 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 given to the world. The
last of the letterpress was issued in 1765, but it was 1772 before
the subscribers received the final volumes of the Encyclopédie,
ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des
twenty years were to Diderot years not merely of incessant drudgery,
but of harassing persecution, and of injury from the 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 the sight no longer. The subscribers
had grown from 2,000 to 4,000, and this was a right measure of
the growth of the work in popular influence and power. The Encyclopédie
was threatening to the governing social classes of France (aristocracy)
because it takes for granted the justice of religious tolerance,
freedom of thought and the value of science and industry. It asserts
the democratic doctrine that it is the common people in a nation
whose lot ought to be the main concern of the nation's government.
was a contemporary belief that the Encyclopédie was the
work of an organized band of conspirators against society, and
that the dangerous ideas they held were now made truly formidable
by their open publication. In 1759 the Encyclopédie was
formally suppressed. The decree, however, did not arrest the continuance
of the work, which went on, but with its difficulties increased
by the necessity of being clandestine.
withdrew from the enterprise and other powerful colleagues, Anne
Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, among them, declined to
contribute further to a book which had acquired an evil fame.
Diderot was left to bring the task to an end as he best could.
He wrote several hundred articles, some of them very slight, but
many of them most laborious, comprehensive and ample. He wore
out his eyesight in correcting proofs, and in bringing the manuscript
of less competent contributors into decent shape. He spent his
days in the workshops, mastering the processes of manufacturing,
and his nights in reproducing on paper what he had learnt during
the day. And he was incessantly harassed all the time by alarms
of a descent from the police.
the last moment, when his immense work was just drawing to an
end, he encountered one last and crowning mortification: he discovered
that the bookseller, fearing the displeasure of the government,
had struck out from the proof sheets, after they had left Diderot's
hands, all passages that he chose to think too dangerous. The
monument to which Diderot had given the labour of twenty long
and oppressive years was irreparably mutilated and defaced.
Although the Encyclopédie was Diderot's monumental work,
he was the author of many pieces that sowed nearly every field
of intellectual interest with new and fruitful ideas. He wrote
sentimental plays, Le Fils naturel (1757) and Le Père de
famille (1758), accompanying them with essays on dramatic poetry,
including especially the Paradoxe sur le comédien, in which
he announced the principles of a new drama, the serious, domestic,
bourgeois drama of real life, in opposition to the stilted conventions
of the classic French stage.
art criticism was also highly influential. His Essai sur la peinture
was described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who thought it worth
translating, 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."
most intimate friend was the philologist Friedrich Melchior Grimm.
Grimm wrote newsletters to various high personages in Germany,
reporting what was going on in the world of art and literature
in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe. Diderot helped
Grimm between 1759 and 1779, by writing for him an account of
the annual exhibitions of paintings in the Paris Salon. These
reports are highly readable pieces of art criticism. According
to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, they initiated the French into
a new sentiment, and introduced people to the mystery and purport
of colour by ideas. "Before Diderot," Anne Louise Germaine
de Staël 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."
Greuze was Diderot's favourite among contemporary artists. Greuze's
most characteristic pictures were the rendering in colour of the
same sentiment of domestic virtue and the pathos of common life,
which Diderot had attempted to represent upon the stage. For Diderot
was above all things interested in the life of men, not 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 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 and the
conditions of an ingeniously contrived practical dilemma. Diderot's
interest expressed itself in didactic and sympathetic form.
two, however, of the most remarkable of all his pieces, this interest
is not sympathetic, but ironical. Jacques le fataliste (written
in. 1773, but not published until 1796) is in manner an imitation
of Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey. His dialogue Le
Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew) is a "farce-tragedy"
reminiscent of the Satires of Horace. A favorite classical author
of Diderot's, Horace's words "Vertumnis quotquot sunt natis
iniquis" are quoted at the top of the "Nephew".
Diderot's intention in writing the dialogue has been matter of
dispute; whether it was designed to be merely a satire on contemporary
manners, or a reduction of the theory of self-interest to an absurdity,
or the application of irony 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.
its intent, is a remarkable conversation, emblematic of an era
of that held the arts of conversation in the highest esteem. 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,
from whom he had it. No authentic French copy of it appeared until
the writer had been dead forty years (1823).
miscellaneous pieces range from a graceful trifle like the Règrets
sur ma vieille robe de chambre up to Le rêve de D'Alembert,
where he plunges into the depths of the controversy as to the
ultimate constitution of matter 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). He did not develop a system
of materialism, but he contributed many of the most declamatory
pages of the Système de la nature of his friend Paul Henri
Thiry, baron d'Holbach, styled by some "the very Bible of
and incessant as was Diderot's mental activity, it was not of
a kind to bring him riches. He secured none of the posts that
were occasionally given to needy men of letters; he could not
even obtain that bare official recognition of merit which was
implied by being chosen a member of the Académie française.
When the time came for him to provide a dowry for his daughter,
he saw no other alternative than to sell his library. When the
Catherine II of Russia heard of his straits, she commissioned
an agent in Paris to buy the library, and then requested the philosopher
to retain the books in Paris until she required them, and to constitute
himself her librarian, with a yearly salary. In 1773 and 1774
Diderot spent some months at the empress's court at St Petersburg.
died of emphysema and dropsy in Paris on July 31, 1784, and was
buried in the city's Eglise Saint-Roch. His heirs sold his vast
library to Catherine II, who had it deposited at the Russian National