Denis Diderot

The French philosopher, playwright, and novelist Denis Diderot (1713-1784) is best known as the editor of the Encyclopédie.

On Oct. 15, 1713, Denis Diderot was born in Langres, Compagne, into a family of cutlers, whose bourgeois traditions went back to the late Middle Ages. As a child, Denis was considered a brilliant student by his Jesuit teachers, and it was decided that he should enter the clergy. In 1726 he enrolled in the Jesuit college of Louis-le-Grand and probably later attended the Jansenist Collège d'Harcourt. In 1732 he earned a master of arts degree in philosophy. He then abandoned the clergy as a career and decided to study law. His legal training, however, was short-lived. In 1734 Diderot decided to seek his fortune by writing. He broke with his family and for the next 10 years lived a rather bohemian existence. He earned his living by translating English works and tutoring the children of wealthy families and spent his leisure time studying. In 1743 he further alienated his father by marrying Anne Toinette Champion.


The Encyclopédie

On Jan. 21, 1746, André François le Breton and his partners were granted permission to publish a 10-volume encyclopedia. On the advice of the distinguished mathematician Jean D'Alembert and with the consent of Chancellor D'Aguesseau, Diderot was named general editor of the project.

For more than 26 years Diderot devoted the bulk of his energies and his genius to the writing, editing, and publishing of the Encyclopédie. For Diderot, the aim of the work was "to assemble the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth; to explain its general plan to the men with whom we live … so that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race." Such was the plan and the purpose of the Encyclopédie, and it was also the credo of the Enlightenment. But the project was more than just the compilation of all available knowledge; it was also a learning experience for all those regularly connected with it. It introduced Diderot to technology, the crafts, the fine arts, and many other areas of learning. It was an outlet for his curiosity, his scholarly interests, and his creativity.

In 1751 D'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse and the first volume were published. In January 1752 the second volume appeared, but the opposition of the Jesuits and other orthodox critics forced a temporary suspension. Publication was soon resumed and continued at the rate of one volume a year until 1759, when the Royal Council forbade further operations. Diderot and Le Breton, however, continued to write and publish the Encyclopédie secretly until 1765, when official sanction was resumed. In 1772 the completed work was published in 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates under the title Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers.

Other Writings

Throughout the period of his association with the Encyclopédie, Diderot continued to devote himself to other writing. In 1746 he published Philosophical Thoughts, which was concerned with the question of the relationship between nature and religion. He viewed life as self-sufficient and held that virtue could be sustained without religious beliefs. In Sceptics Walk (1747) and Letters on the Blind (1749) Diderot slowly turned from theism to atheism. Religion became a central theme in his writings, and he aroused the hostility of public officials who considered him a leader of the radicals, "a clever fellow, but extremely dangerous."

In 1749 Diderot was imprisoned for 3 months because of his opinions in Philosophical Thoughts. Although he had stated, "If you impose silence on me about religion and government, I shall have nothing to talk about," after his release he reduced the controversial character of his published works. Therefore most of his materialistic and anti-religious works and several of his novels were not published during his lifetime.

During his long literary career Diderot moved away from the mechanical approach to nature, which was characteristic of the Englishtenment's use of the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. Such works as D'Alembert's Dream, Conversation between D'Alembert and Diderot, Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature, Elements of Physiology, and Essay on Seneca vividly point to the evolution of his thought and to its modernity.

In his mature writings Diderot tends to see man as an integral part of an organic and vitalistic nature, governed by laws that are incomprehensible to him. Nature, according to Diderot, is a continually unfolding process, which reveals itself, rather than being revealed by man. Forms in nature develop from earlier forms in a continually evolving process, in which all elements, animate and inanimate, are related to one another. Man can know nature only through experience; thus rationalistic speculation is useless to him in understanding nature.

Diderot is one of the pre-19th-century leaders in the movement away from mathematics and physics, as a source of certain knowledge, to biological probability and historical insight. As one modern scholar has stated, Diderot's approach to nature and philosophy was that of mystical naturalism.


Later Years

Following the completion of the Encyclopédie, Diderot went into semiretirement; he wrote but infrequently published his works. His earnings as editor of the Encyclopédie guaranteed him a modest income, which he supplemented by writing literary criticism. In addition, he sold his library to Empress Catherine of Russia, who allowed him to keep it while he lived and paid him an annual salary as its librarian. On July 30, 1784, Diderot died in the home of his daughter, only 5 months after the death of his beloved mistress and intellectual companion, Sophie Voland.

The great paradox of Diderot's life is found in the tensions that existed between his basically bourgeois nature and his bohemian tendencies. This struggle was mirrored in his novel Rameau's Nephew, in which the staid Rameau and his bohemian nephew represent aspects of Diderot's personality. Fittingly, Diderot's last words, "The first step toward philosophy is incredulity," are an adequate measure of the man.

Further Reading on Denis Diderot

Two biographies of Diderot are outstanding: Lester G. Crocker, Diderot: The Embattled Philosopher (1952), an accurate and penetrating work, but with a tinge of romanticism; and Arthur M. Wilson, Diderot: The Testing Years, 1713-1759 (1957), apparently a more scholarly work, but in reality lacking only the romanticism of Crocker. Both works show notable scholarship in the area of Diderot studies. Among the shorter works, George R. Havens, The Age of Ideas (1955), contains four excellent and highly original chapters on Diderot.