His Life Spoke Volumes

The man behind the great Enlightenment encyclopedia

Denis Diderot, depicted here in a 1767 portrait by the French painter Louis-Michel van Loo, wrote 7,000 of the 74,000 articles in the <em>Encyclopédie</em>
Denis Diderot, depicted here in a 1767 portrait by the French painter Louis-Michel van Loo, wrote 7,000 of the 74,000 articles in the Encyclopédie

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely by Andrew S. Curran; Other Press, 520 pp., $28.95

Denis Diderot (1713–1784) has never burned with the reputational brightness of French Enlightenment stars like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Leading-man status has perpetually eluded the philosophe associated with that age’s Encyclopédie. Four years before his death, Diderot himself wistfully acknowledged that he had never, in his lifetime, published a masterpiece.

Moreover, as Andrew S. Curran recounts in his deeply researched and absorbing new biography, Diderot’s was not even the world’s first encyclopedia. Such works stretched back to ancient times, and the immediate antecedent for Diderot’s enterprise, Ephraim Chambers’s two-volume Cyclopaedia, was published in London in 1728. (Indeed, the Encyclopédie began as an aborted project to translate Chambers’s volumes into French.) Diderot was not even the sole editor of the ambitious encyclopedia with which his name became linked. Not until the late 1750s, with the departure of his coeditor, mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert, did he achieve that status. Until then, Diderot and his partner jointly oversaw the entirety of the volumes’ contents. Moreover, then and later, as time allowed, Diderot wrote entries on a broad range of topics—from politics, history, economics, and the arts to religion, philosophy, and the sciences.

The son of a master cutler in the town of Langres  in northeastern France, Diderot, unlike the accomplished d’Alembert, could claim only a sketchy career before taking up the encyclopedia. What he did have was a voracious work ethic and wide-ranging curiosity. Although educated at Jansenist and Jesuit schools, Diderot abandoned plans to become a priest, and later, a lawyer, alienating his father in the process. Adrift in Paris during those pre-Encyclopédie days, he took on hack-writing commissions and learned Italian and English—the latter well enough for him to get work as a translator.

Like other philosophes, Diderot eventually embraced views hostile to France’s Catholic Church. Unlike most of those peers, however, he never fully embraced deism—becoming instead a militant atheist. During the late 1740s, having barely settled into his encyclopedia toils, Diderot published several works that won him his first significant public notice. One in particular drew the attention of royal authorities at Versailles. In July 1749, Letter on the Blind, with its atheistic assumptions, landed him in the dungeon of  Vincennes, the fortress just east of Paris. Three months later—after promising that he would cease his apostate ways—Diderot was released. “For the next thirty-three years,” Curran writes, “he avoided publishing the kind of inflammatory books that he had authored as a young man. Much of the energy that he might have devoted to such endeavors was redirected toward the all-consuming Encyclopédie.”

Curran explores at length Diderot’s views on sex, politics, and philosophy, as well as the vagaries of his finances and his relations with his family, his patron Catherine the Great, and his many mistresses and friends—particularly Rousseau, whom he met in 1742 and with whom, two decades later, he had a bitter falling out. But Curran rightly focuses the core of his narrative on Diderot’s work on the multivolume project that Curran calls “the supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment.” Published between 1751 and 1772, the Encyclopédie eventually comprised 17 volumes, bulging with 74,000 articles (7,000 of which Diderot wrote himself) and another 11 volumes of plates.

Diderot’s contributions to the work generally adhered to his 1749 promise to the officials responsible for his Vincennes confinement to eschew inflammatory writings. In retrospect, conspicuously, the Encyclopédie, in deference to France’s slave trade and its Caribbean slave labor–dependent sugar-producing colonies, spoke with a mixed voice on matters related to slavery—sometimes endorsing, at other times condemning, the institution. Otherwise, though, the volumes—by extolling the sciences and scientific method popularized by Newton as well as the age’s spirit of skepticism—helped to subtly undermine the doctrine of divine-right rule and the Catholic Church’s monopoly on matters religious, philosophical, and scientific.

While creating the encyclopedia, Diderot—in books intended for posthumous publication and, over the coming years, in discreetly published writings—added to his oeuvre the sort of candid, eccentric, and yes, provocative works that he otherwise had forsworn. Notably, starting in 1759, he contributed fiction, essays, literary experiments, and reviews from the Paris arts scene to the Literary Correspondence, a handwritten newsletter edited by his friend Friedrich Melchior Grimm and circulated among a handful of subscribers outside France—including several princes and princesses, a queen, two kings, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, and the empress of Russia.

The Correspondence circulated early versions of D’Alembert’s Dream and other Diderot works published in complete editions after his death. His novel Rameau’s Nephew, which never circulated during his lifetime, took the form of a philosophical dialogue between a thinly disguised Diderot and an amoral bohemian determined, with ambiguous results, to rhetorically undermine the bourgeois respectability of his interlocutor. In 1804, decades after Diderot’s death, Goethe read an early version of Rameau’s Nephew. Smitten, he translated it into German—deeming it “more talented and more audacious, more immorally moral” than anything he had ever read, and a “bomb” soon to explode “right in the middle of French literature.”

Alas, like most of the philosophe’s non-Encyclopédie writings, Rameau’s Nephew had a long fuse; not until 1891 did it appear in a French language edition based on Diderot’s original manuscript. And though not the incendiary Goethe had predicted, the novel did, over the years, win praise from Hegel, Engels, Freud, and other prominent intellectuals. In his writings on theater, visual arts, and music, Diderot also proved himself a shrewd, often innovative, critic. His reviews propounded early versions of such later fashionable concepts in the arts as the fourth wall in theater, the Method school of acting, and the visual sublime in painting.

Often defying the day’s arbiters of matters aesthetic, Curran writes, Diderot was “convinced that anyone could acquire an appreciation of beauty and art through ‘reiterated experience,’ by investing the time to understand ‘nature or the art that copies it.’ ” Indeed, Curran adds, the philosophe had cause for such beliefs: Diderot, after all, “was the living proof: the son of a provincial cutler who became the century’s most noteworthy art critic.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Tom Chaffin’s latest book is Odyssey: Young Charles Darwin, the Beagle and the Voyage That Changed the World. He can be reached at tomchaffin.com.


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