The New International Encyclopædia/Diderot, Denis

DIDEROT, dḗ'd’-rṓ', Denis (1713-84). One of the most brilliant, versatile, and prolific writers of the French ‘philosophic’ generation. He was born at Langres, October 5, 1713, and was educated by the Jesuits. He declined to study medicine or law, quarreled with his family, and eked out a meagre livelihood in young manhood by literary hack work and teaching mathematics. After several discreditable bohemian adventures, he married (1743), and became definitely estranged from his father. In this year he published translations of Stanyan's History of Greece, and in 1746 a translation of James's Dictionary of Medicine, with an Essai sur le mérite et la vertu, a paraphrase of Shaftesbury. The Pensées philosophiques of this year was his first independent work, and is said to have been inspired by a caprice of his mistress, Madame de Puisieux, who certainly prompted his anonymous and most indecent novel, Les bijoux indiscrets (1748), of which he is reported to have said later that he “would cut off an arm not to have written it,” though he was never squeamish in fiction. Diderot's first work of philosophic importance is the Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (1749), which, though apparently a hypothetical study of the philosophy of sensation, really involved an undermining of ethical standards and so of social order. This essay abounds in strange previsions of later discoveries and hypotheses. Its immediate result was the imprisonment of its author at Vincennes — not because of its audacity, but because a passage in it offended a lady of great though unavowable influence, Madame Dupré de Saint-Maur. From imprisonment Diderot was released at the urgency of the publishers who had undertaken to bring out the famous Encyclopédie, originally conceived by Diderot as an enlargement of Chambers's Encyclopædia (1727), but becoming, under his editorship and, for a time, that of D'Alembert, the organ of intellectual emancipation rather than of any school of ethics or philosophy. To this Diderot gave twenty years of unremitting labor, writing, revising, editing, correcting, supervising, and combating the intrigues and threats of theological opponents and the prohibitions of a censorship that, fortunately for his publishers, was venal as well as corrupt. The Encyclopédie counts twenty-eight volumes (1751-72), with a six-volume supplement (1776-77) and two volumes of tables (1780). It was not primarily or chiefly revolutionary, but practical. All branches of science, manufacture, and agriculture were treated with great fullness. It is only occasionally, and then often by mocking insinuation rather than direct attack, that it touches religion or morals, in which it has no consistent theory to uphold. The attacks on legal abuses and feudal survivals are quite as marked a feature. The work was greeted with immense enthusiasm and was hardly in print before it was out of it. The last sets brought the price of a rarity, and it was several times reprinted. Diderot had during brief intervals of repose in this herculean work found opportunity to compose two plays — Le fils naturel (1757) and Le père de famille (1758) — that mark the beginning of the modern domestic drama, and by his critical Paradoxe sur le comédien had great influence on Lessing, and so on the German stage. The French classic tragedy had confined itself to ‘noble’ themes. Diderot took his tragic situations from every-day middle-class life. To this period belongs also an essay on painting in the Encyclopédie, which Goethe translated, adding a luminous commentary; his posthumously published novel, La Religieuse (1759); the eccentric Jacques le fataliste (1773), also posthumous; and the yet more eccentric Le neveu de Rameau, which first appeared in print in a translation by Goethe (1805). Diderot wrote also three short stories and nine Salons, critiques beginning in 1759 on the annual exhibition of painting, and unsurpassed in their untechnical and suggestive freshness. In 1773 Diderot, who had received but $600 a year for his work on the Encyclopédie, felt constrained to sell his library. It was purchased by Catharine II., and presented to him as salaried caretaker. He went to Saint Petersburg to thank the Empress, and spent some months there in her intimate society. He returned in 1774 and passed his last decade in ephemeral writing and conversations that left lasting impressions. In talk his contemporaries thought him unrivaled. “He who knows Diderot in his writings only,” said Marmontel, “does not know him at all.” He worked and talked with disinterested enthusiasm, greeting the mention of a collected edition of his writings with laughter, so well did he know the reckless haste of their composition. Yet they have been well edited by Assezat and Tournent (20 vols., 1875-77). Diderot's Correspondence with Mlle. Volland gives the best clue to his antithetical character. The best study, in English, of his place, environment, and influence is John Morley, Diderot and the Encyclopædists (London, 1891). Consult also: Rosenkranz, Diderot's Leben und Werke (Leipzig, 1866); Brunetière, Etudes critiques, second series (Paris, 1881); Carlyle, Essay on Diderot (London, 1881 ); and the monographs by Damiron (Paris, 1852); Scherer (ib., 1880); Fagnet (ib., 1890); Dueros (ib., 1894); Reinach (ib., 1894); Pelissier (ib., 1899).