Diderot, Denis (1713–1784)
Diderot, Denis (1713–1784)
Denis Diderot, the French encyclopedist, philosopher, satirist, dramatist, novelist, and literary and art critic, was the most versatile thinker of his times and a key figure in the advancement of Enlightenment philosophy.
Born in Langres, son of a master cutler, Diderot was a brilliant student in the local Jesuit schools. He was sent to college in Paris and received his master's degree at the age of nineteen. Afterward, he refused to adopt a regular profession and, when his allowance was cut off, lived for many years in poverty and obscurity. His great ambition was to acquire knowledge. In this he was eminently successful, for he emerged from this period of self-education with an excellent command of mathematics and considerable proficiency in the Greek, Italian, and English languages. He first came into public notice as a translator of English works—a history of Greece, the earl of Shaftesbury's Inquiry concerning Virtue and Merit (1745), and Robert James's Medicinal Dictionary (1746–1748). He was secretly married in 1743; and his wife bore him a number of children, all of whom died in childhood except a daughter, Angélique, who lived to perpetuate the memory of her distinguished father.
In 1746 he published his first original work, the bold and controversial Pensées philosophiques. In that year, too, he became associated with the Encyclopédie, the greatest publishing venture of the century, of which he soon became editor-in-chief, with the aid of Jean Le Rond d'Alembert for the mathematical parts. This enterprise was his chief occupation and source of income until 1772. The boldness of his thought, in spite of the dexterity with which he attempted to conceal it, met almost instant opposition, resulting in the seizure of manuscripts, censorship, and temporary suppression. Only a man of Diderot's indomitable courage and determination could have brought the project to a successful conclusion.
In 1749, while manuscripts for the Encyclopédie were being prepared for the printer, Diderot published his Lettre sur les aveugles (Letter on the blind), in which he questioned the existence of purpose or design in the universe. For this and other suspect works he was seized by the police and spent a few uncomfortable months in the prison of Vincennes. His reputation in his parish as a materialistic atheist was catching up with him. The subsequent Lettre sur les sourds et muets (Letter on the deaf and dumb; 1751), equally original, was mild enough to escape persecution. His Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature (Thoughts on the interpretation of nature; 1754) was both a plea for strict adherence to the scientific method and an exposition of results of that method, including definite evidence in support of evolutionary transformism.
After the official suspension of the Encyclopédie in 1759, Diderot prudently withheld his most important philosophical works for the use of posterity. The Rêve de d'Alembert (D'Alembert's dream), written in 1769, and the Réfutation de l'ouvrage d'Helvétius (Refutation of Helvétius) first became public in the nineteenth century. Le neveu de Rameau (Rameau's nephew ), a scathing satire of eighteenth-century society, and the novels La religieuse (The nun) and Jacques le Fataliste (Jacques the Fatalist ), which saw the light of day only after the French Revolution, as well as various short stories and dialogues, were all of ethical import. Two bourgeois dramas, Le fils naturel (The natural son; 1754) and Le père de famille (The father of the family; 1758), accompanied by critical essays, could, however, be safely published, though the Paradoxe sur le comédien (The Paradox of the actor), important for its aesthetic insights, was withheld. Diderot's Salons, replete with brilliant criticism of art and literature, were also published posthumously, although in manuscript copy they formed an important part of Friedrich Grimm's Correspondance littéraire, written only for foreign consumption. Diderot knew that his ideas were too advanced for his own generation, but he maintained the conviction that he would some day be appreciated at his true value.
When, in 1772, his long labors on the Encyclopédie were ended, Diderot set off for St. Petersburg by way of Holland and spent some months in 1773 in intimate conversations with Catherine the Great. Persuaded of his merit through Grimm, she had not only paid in advance for his library (he desperately needed the money as a dowry for his daughter) but also gave him a salary as its custodian until his death. Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature (1770), frankly atheistic and materialistic, had sharply drawn the line between atheism and deism, and both Catherine and Frederick II took the side of the less revolutionary Voltaire. Since Diderot supported Holbach in this controversy, his political Observations on Catherine's plan to recodify Russian law were deemed too radical and suppressed by his royal patron.
Returning to France in 1774, Diderot spent the remaining years of his life in semiretirement, enjoying at least a semblance of domestic felicity. His letters to his mistress, Sophie Volland, form, next to Voltaire's, the most interesting correspondence of the century. His final work, the Essai sur les règnes de Claude et Néron (Essay on the reigns of Claudius and Nero; 1778–1782), was a eulogy of Stoic virtue, as illustrated by Seneca, and also a reply to charges of treachery and immorality made against Diderot in the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his former friend and coworker.
Diderot died in Paris six years after Voltaire and Rousseau, with whose names his is inextricably linked as a leader of the French Enlightenment.
General Philosophical Attitudes
Diderot's philosophy was remarkably undogmatic. He advocated the open mind and believed that doubt was the beginning of wisdom and often its end; he continually questioned his own theories and conclusions, developed extreme theses, or paradoxes, in ethics and aesthetics, and decided that "our true opinions are those to which we return the most often." Nevertheless, after passing briefly through a period of deistic belief (a deist, he finally concluded, was a man who had not lived long enough—or wisely enough—to become an atheist), he became an unabashed and enthusiastic materialist and developed a theory of materialism much less vulnerable than that of his forebears. His main contribution was a philosophy of science that looked far into the future and upon which his aesthetic and ethical theories were firmly and inseparably founded.
Like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Diderot was early preoccupied with the theory of sensationalism. At weekly dinners with the latter two, John Locke's psychology was thoroughly discussed. Between Diderot and Condillac influence was undoubtedly mutual. But Condillac, having taken holy orders and being therefore more circumspect, worked out a more systematic and more abstract philosophy and left it to Diderot to direct French sensationalism into definitely materialistic channels.
Diderot's philosophical thought was clarified by his constant distrust of abstractions. Abstractions, he declared in Rêve de d'Alembert, are linguistic signs, which are useful in speeding up discourse and upon which the abstract sciences are built; but as symbols emptied of their ideas, they are obstacles to clear thinking. Those who use abstractions must have constant recourse to examples, thus giving them perceptibility and physical reality. The mind is nothing but the brain functioning; the will is the latest impulse of desire and aversion. The naming of things is purely conventional.
Diderot's early philosophical publications were especially concerned with problems of communication. His empirical mind could not be satisfied with speculative studies, such as Condillac's theoretical experiment of endowing a statue with one sense at a time. He chose rather to study the actual cases of individuals deprived of the sense of sight or the sense of hearing. His Lettre sur les aveugles (1749) dealt first with case histories and the problems of "reading" through touch, illustrated by the methods of Nicholas Saunderson, the blind professor of mathematics at Oxford. This first truly scientific study of blindness led to Diderot's imprisonment. The passage that provoked the authorities was an imaginary deathbed conversation, in which the blind professor, unable to appreciate the alleged perfection of the order and beauties of nature, expressed his consequent doubts as to the existence of an intelligent God. The treatise on the deaf and dumb, two years later, was also based on scientific observation, but proceeded to discuss aesthetic theories, especially the importance of gesture to communication. In his later posthumous works, sensationalism played an important role in the development of his materialistic monism.
As early as 1748, in the libertine novel Les bijoux indiscrets (The indiscreet toys), Diderot showed himself a pronounced empiricist, a firm believer in the efficacy of the scientific method. In an important chapter of that work, Experience (the word meant both observed fact and experiment) figures first as a growing child, who discovers with the aid of a pendulum the velocity of a falling body, calculates the weight of the atmosphere with a tube of mercury, and with prism in hand, decomposes light. The child visibly grows to colossal stature and, like a Samson, crumbles the pillars of the Portico of Hypotheses.
Diderot's Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature, taking its title and inspiration from Francis Bacon, again extolled the experimental method above purely rationalistic theory. Following the work of Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and Comte de Buffon—and especially in studying Louis Daubenton's anatomical comparison of the foot of the horse and the hand of man—Diderot arrived at principles of transformism and natural selection that were to influence greatly his mature philosophy. He surmised that "there had never been but one animal, prototype, through differentiation, of all other animals." The dawning of the age of biological science, he believed, would usher in the great discoveries of the future.
Observation and the classification of natural phenomena was the first and essential step, but the great scientist must perceive relationships and form hypotheses, subject to experimental verification. Diderot closely associated the poetic imagination with the scientific, both in theory and practice. This theory is clearly expounded in the first of the three "conversations" of Rêve de d'Alembert. This section discusses the role of analogy, which is merely the working out of the rule of three by the feeling instrument that is man. To the genius, whether poet or scientist, will come the sudden perception of a new relationship, resulting in poetic metaphor or useful hypothesis.
Diderot's own mind worked in sudden flashes of perception. His best philosophical works are random or loosely associated thoughts or observations—or dreams. His satirical narrative, Rameau's Nephew, and his novel, Jacques the Fatalist, are apparently loosely constructed, much given to dialogue, with digressions and intercalated stories after the manner of Laurence Sterne. They follow the pattern of general conversation, in which one idea gives birth to another, and so on, until the thread is difficult to retrace. The theory of associationism was firmly based, however, on his theories of sensationalism and memory (to be discussed below).
Diderot's inquisitive and encyclopedic mind equipped him admirably to comprehend the great advances that the sciences were making in the middle of the century. From mathematics he turned to chemistry and for three years studied assiduously under Guillaume-Francois Rouelle, forerunner of Antoine Lavoisier. He was well acquainted with the work of the Dutch biologists Niklaas Hartsoeker and Bernard Nieuwyntit, who laid the foundations for the still unknown science of genetics. He was familiar with Abraham Trembley's experiments with the freshwater polyp, and with Joseph Needham's discovery of Infusoria, in apparent proof of the theory of spontaneous generation. These experiments influenced his development of the concepts of the sensitivity of matter and the essential identity of its organic and inorganic forms.
As translator of Robert James's Medicinal Dictionary, Diderot was well informed in the science of medicine. Characteristically, he sought (in vain), before writing his Lettre sur les aveugles, to be admitted to an operation for cataract, and he consorted with doctors, many of whom were contributors to the Encyclopédie. While in prison at Vincennes, the recently published first three volumes of Buffon's Natural History received his careful scrutiny, and from all possible sources he collected case histories of injuries to, and surgical operations on, the brain.
By 1769, when he composed Rêve de d'Alembert, Diderot was adequately prepared to develop an original philosophy of science, a monistic theory that has been described as naturalistic humanism and dynamic, or "energetistic," materialism, which far surpassed the mechanistic theories of his forebears, from Lucretius to Julien Offray de La Mettrie, and foreshadowed Charles Darwin. In this work, first published in 1830, Diderot showed himself at once a great and an imaginative philosopher and writer. In its pages, his mature philosophy, presented fantastically but seriously, was best illustrated.
Materialism—Matter in Motion
Diderot adopted the Heraclitean theory of flux. The universe, for him, was a single physical system, obeying the immutable laws that René Descartes assigned to matter in motion; it was dynamic or "becoming," rather than static or created. Unlike Descartes, however, Diderot followed John Toland in believing that motion was not added but was essential to matter. He gave the idealistic monad of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz a positive content. Diderot maintained that not only are bodies affected by external force but that the atom contains internal forces, a form of kinetic or potential energy. All things carry with them their opposites; being and not-being are part of every whole. "Living," he wrote, "I act and react as a mass; dead, I act and react in the form of molecules. Birth, life, decay, are merely changes of form." No knowledge was gained, no solution reached, in postulating a Creator or supernatural agency to account for material phenomena. All change, including the transformation of the universe from chaos to order, was to be explained by the interaction of the elementary material particles. What man perceives as order is simply his apprehension of the laws of motion as enacted by material bodies.
sensitivity of matter
An additional and very important hypothesis upon which Diderot's construction was built was the sensitivity of all matter, both inorganic and organic. By postulating both motion and sensitivity as inherent in matter, he felt that the entire range of natural phenomena (both physical and mental) and the full variety of experience could be adequately explained. All that nature contains is the product of matter in motion, subject to the processes of fermentation produced by heat; through eons of time growth, increasing complexity, and specialization have occurred.
Diderot believed that there were no inexplicable gulfs between the various kingdoms. The known facts concerning the inorganic, the organic, plant, animal, and man, were like islands jutting out of a sea of ignorance. As the waters receded through scientific investigation, the missing links would be discovered. "How d'Alembert differs from a cow," he admitted, "I cannot quite understand. But some day science will explain." He nevertheless attempted to trace the development of his friend, from the earth mold to mathematician, from the unconscious through the subconscious to the conscious life.
Biology and Evolution
During Diderot's lifetime the biological sciences were in their infancy. The scope and profundity of his insights are therefore all the more amazing. When scientific facts failed him, he had recourse to hypotheses that he was convinced would some day be verified. It was in consideration of this conviction that he presented his mature philosophy as a dream, a dream that, with the passage of time, can truly be called prophetic.
The crucial problem that confronted Diderot was to account for the emergence and behavior of the living individual. The coordinated behavior and continuous identity that characterize the organism seemed to transcend any possible organization of discrete material particles. It was difficult to see how merely contiguous material parts could form an organic whole capable of a unified and purposeful response to its environment. Traditionally, the existence of unique species and individuals was explained by recourse to supernatural design and metaphysical essence.
Contemporary science offered Diderot a choice between preformation, a Lucretian theory accepted at times by La Mettrie, and epigenesis, which explained organic formation in terms of juxtaposition and contiguity. Diderot rejected preformation, and in support of epigenesis he developed the concept of molecular combinations endowed with specialized functions and organic unity. In Rêve de d'Alembert, Diderot employed the image of a swarm of bees in an attempt to bridge the gap between contiguity and continuity in the production of a whole that is qualitatively unique and different from the sum of its parts. He pointed out that although the swarm consists simply of numerous separate individuals in physical contact, it does, as a whole, possess the characteristic of purposeful, unified behavior that is associated with the individual organism. It is possible to mistake the swarm of thousands of bees for a single animal. The unity of the organism is derived from the life of the whole, and Diderot thus affirmed the continuity of the kingdoms and refuted the metaphysical principle of essences. A half century later the discovery of the organic cell and the principles of cell division confirmed his views.
Diderot found support for his theories in the embryological ideas that he had gathered from his reading, especially of Albrecht von Haller's Elements of Physiology, and from Dr. Bordeu, his friend and the protagonist in the conversations of Rêve de d'Alembert. In the conversation with d'Alembert, which gives rise to the dream, Diderot attempts briefly to trace d'Alembert from the parental "germs." He then describes how, under the influence of heat, the chicken develops within the egg. Excluding all animistic hypotheses, he declares that this development "overthrows all the schools of theology; … from inert matter, organized in a certain way and impregnated with other inert matter, and given heat and motion, there results the faculty of sensation, life, memory, consciousness, passion, and thought."
Diderot's conviction of the importance of hereditary factors constitutes the main argument of his refutation of Claude-Adrien Helvétius's work On the Mind, in which education and law, purely environmental factors, were proposed exclusively as causes of the development of a moral society. Diderot agreed with Bordeu ("organs produce needs, and reciprocally, needs produce organs") on the Lamarckian principle of the inheritability of acquired characteristics. Moreover, he clearly stated his belief that the individual recapitulates the history of the race and that certain hereditary factors may crop up after many generations.
To explain how parental factors are inherited (cells and genes were as yet unknown), Diderot resorted to a hypothesis of organic development through a network or bundle of threads (or fibers or filaments), which strongly suggested the nervous system. Any interference with the fibers produced abnormalities, or "monsters." (He was one of the first to seek to understand the normal through the abnormal, both in embryology and psychology.) In his careful description, in Rêve de d'Alembert, of the embryological differentiation between the male and female sex organs, he was led to surmise that man is perhaps the "monster" of the woman, and vice versa. His theories clearly foreshadow not only the phenomena of recessive genes but also the fundamental role of chromosomes. One of his chief arguments against design in the universe was nature's prolific production of "monsters," most of which were too ill adapted to their environment to survive. Their elimination was the closest he came to the principle of natural selection.
Matter and Thought
Diderot believed that once it is granted that sensitivity is a property of matter and that matter thereby develops increasing complexity and specialization, it then follows that thought can best be understood as a property of that highly complex and specified material organ, the brain. He accepted Bordeu's theory of the individual life of the various bodily organs. All were linked, however, through the nervous system to the central organ, which, depending upon circumstances and temperaments, exerted more or less control over them. Personal identity, the unified self, was thus assured by the nervous system, and the brain played the role of both organ and organist.
Self-awareness, however, depends entirely on the remembering function of the human brain. Quite characteristically, Diderot assigned a neural mechanism to Locke's theory of the association of ideas. In his investigations of the physical substrata of memory, he read all he could find on the anatomy of the brain and injuries to the brain and consulted doctors and specialists in brain surgery. A number of case histories were reported in Rêve de d'Alembert. In the preliminary conversation with d'Alembert, however, he used La Mettrie's metaphor of vibrating strings and harmonic intervals to explain the association of images and memory, the passage from sense perceptions to comparisons, reflection, judgment, and thought. Memory furnishes the continuity in time, the personal history that is fundamental to self-consciousness and personal identity. In Diderot's mind, memory was corporeal, and the self had only material reality. He thus attempted to give psychology a scientific, physiological basis, which was further developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the midst of notes taken mostly from his reading and published later as the Éléments de physiologie, Diderot included an eloquent passage in support of his theory: "I am inclined to believe that all we have seen, known, perceived, or heard—even the trees of a great forest … all concerts we have ever heard—exists within us and unknown to us." He could still see in his waking hours the forests of Westphalia, and could review them when dreaming—as brilliantly colored as if they were in a painting. Moreover, "the sound of a voice, the presence of an object … and behold, an object recalled—more than that, a whole stretch of my past—and I am plunged again into pleasure, regret, or affliction."
dreams and genius
The concept of the greater or lesser control exerted by the central organ over the other organs of the body was applied by Diderot not only to dreams but also to the phenomenon of genius. In sleep, control is relaxed and anarchy reigns. A random recall in the central organ may then be referred to the subordinate organ, or the procedure may be reversed, from organ to brain. In dreams, random combinations may be formed and dragons created. Only personal past experience is available, however, for such imaginings. The one impossible dream is that the dreamer is someone else.
Applied to genius, the explanation of which was of great concern to Diderot and an important aspect of Rameau's Nephew, the concept of central control ran into difficulties. In the early Pensées philosophiques, in opposition to Blaise Pascal, he championed the strong emotions as the chief source of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Later, his acquaintance with David Garrick led him to write a paradox on the acting profession, in which he claimed that the great actor, with complete command of his emotions, makes his audience laugh or weep by coolly calculated gesture and intonation; he must register the emotions, but not feel them at the same time. In Rêve de d'Alembert he explained that dominating control by the center produced wise and good men but that genius was the result of the strongest emotions under almost complete control, a theory that could be illustrated by the horseman, Hippolytus, in firm command of the most spirited horses that Greece produced. In Diderot's hands, genius was not a mere talent produced, as Helvétius had claimed, by education and chance, but a psychophysiological phenomenon, and in that respect akin, when central control is lost, to madness.
The fundamental principles of Diderot's ethics may be found most readily in Rêve de d'Alembert. Will and liberty (free will) he described as senseless terms, abstractions that obscured the facts. The will of the waking man is the same as that of the dreamer: "the latest impulse of desire and aversion, the last result of all that one has been from birth to the actual moment." "There is only one cause … and that is a physical cause." But Diderot clearly distinguished between fatalism and determinism. Man is not, like the lower animals, a prey to the bombardment of the senses. The self, the brain with its properties of memory and imagination, intervenes between the external stimulus and the act.
Diderot was tempted, but refrained from writing a treatise on ethics. Many critics have attributed this failure to the moral dilemma posed by his determinist convictions. It is more probably that he felt his ideas were too advanced for the age and society in which he lived. Moral problems were foremost in his mind throughout his career. A letter of 1756 stated clearly his deterministic beliefs. Heredity played a dominant role, for some, happily, are endowed with moral or socially acceptable propensities, while others, unfortunately, are not. Moral monsters must be eliminated, but in general, man is modifiable. Rameau's Nephew is, among other things, the story of the dilemmas that confront moral man in an immoral society, in which honesty is not necessarily the best policy.
Diderot's imaginary Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1796) describes and extols the primitive customs of Tahiti. Unlike Rousseau's, Diderot's "primitivism" was not a plea for a return to a less civilized society. Not nature or natural law, but the fundamental laws of nature, were uppermost in Diderot's mind. The conventions of modern society, it seemed to him, unnecessarily restricted the basic biological needs of man. Before Sigmund Freud, he sensed the dangers of sexual repression, a theme developed in the final section of Rêve de d'Alembert and fundamental to his novel La religieuse. Celibacy, in his view, led too often to mental or sexual aberration. He ended his Tahitian tale, however, with the admonition that, though we should try to change bad, or "unnatural," laws, we must obey the laws that our society has imposed.
Diderot frankly admitted his enjoyment of sensual pleasures—books, women, pictures, friends, and toasting his toes before a fire. But in the preface of Le père de famille, addressed to the princess of Nassau, he declared that "he who prefers a voluptuous sensation to the conscience of a good act is a vile man." He felt certain that through education and knowledge we could recognize what was good, and that virtue, or beneficence, was the one and only path to happiness. There are intimations in his works of a belief that the good and wise man, in a corrupt society, should at times rise above a bad law, a theme illustrated in his last play, Est-il bon? Est-il méchant?
Toward the end of his life, in his praise of Seneca, he extolled the Stoic concept of virtue as its own reward. He summed up his natural, humanistic ethics in a brief pronouncement: "There is only one virtue, justice; one duty, to be happy; one corollary, neither to overesteem life nor fear death."
In the theory and practice of the arts dependent on the imagination—literature, music, and the fine arts—Diderot also introduced innovations. His approach to the theory of Beauty was through the perception of relationships and the arts of communication. An unusual perception of relationships, through analogy and associative memory, was the mark of the genius, whether scientist or poet. The artist first experiences an emotional or aesthetic stimulus strong enough to fire his imagination. A second moment of enthusiasm, which comes from the ability to communicate his vision through his special technique, sounds, colors, lines, or words, is essential, however.
His Encyclopédie article "Beau" (1751) gave evidence of a thorough acquaintance with French and English aestheticians. That same year he launched out on his own in his Lettre sur les sourds et muets. Here he discussed the importance of gesture and expression in communication. The great actor is one who paints in gestures what he expresses in words, just as the great poet paints in sounds and rhythms what he means in words. Likewise, the beauty of a painting depends on its inner rhythm and structure. The sublime in painting and poetry is derived from the emotions imparted through the harmonies of sound and color, the wedding of sense and sound. Poetry, he declared, is therefore essentially untranslatable.
art and morality
A strong moralistic tone pervaded Diderot's aesthetic theories and criticism. The painter must have morals as well as perspective. The bourgeois drama, a genre that he originated and illustrated, though not very successfully, should compete with the law in persuading us to love virtue and hate vice.
There was more than a touch of sentimentality in the art criticisms of the Salons, which he wrote biennially from 1759 to 1781. For a period, the bourgeois pathos of Jean-Baptiste Greuze held a strong appeal for him. A notable connoisseur of the arts, he was not, however, fooled. He recognized the masterly compositions of François Boucher, but condemned his allegorical subjects and depiction of the loves of the gods. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's use of color, he knew, was far superior to that of Greuze, though his subject matter was too often "ignoble." Yet Teilhard de Chardin taught him that painting was not, as the classical theorists long held, the imitation of beautiful nature. He stood in awed amazement before Teilhard de Chardin's painting of the skate and called it magic.
Diderot created modern art criticism as a literary art. The Salons, especially of 1765 and 1767, still make fascinating reading and contain the best of his literary criticism. That he was himself a great writer is now at last being generally recognized. First and foremost, he was a master of dialogue; written for the ear, his dialogues are artistic transpositions of reality. His dislike of abstractions made him an early champion of realism. He never ceased to admire Molière and Jean Racine—and William Shakespeare—but believed that the theater was destined to follow new paths. His romantic spirit was revealed by his advocacy of strong emotions and his streak of sentimentality. He therefore foreshadowed the romantic-realistic revolt against classicism, delayed in France until the nineteenth century by the political revolution.
Diderot's trinity was truth, goodness, and beauty. In his aesthetic order, first place was given to that which was both useful and agreeable; second, to the merely useful; and third, to the purely agreeable. Since the essence of the arts was not subject matter, but the perception and communication of relationships, he felt it was advantageous to add a moral subject, the useful, to technical beauty.
Society and Politics
Diderot made his Encyclopédie a major weapon for upsetting the social and political institutions of the Old Regime. In the first volume his article "Autorité politique" boldly proclaimed, before Rousseau's Contrat social, that sovereignty resided in the people, who alone should determine how and to whom it should be delegated. There, too, appeared the first discussion of the "general will." In an often vain effort to evade censorship, he chose out-of-the-way places, sometimes seemingly harmless definitions of terms, to point out the danger that lay before both the state and the church unless they were strictly separated.
In his Observations on the instructions of Catherine II to her deputies in the recodification of Russian law, he was even more forthright: "The only true sovereign is the nation," he wrote; "there can be no true legislator except the people." He also chided Catherine for submitting political institutions to religious sanction: "Religion is a support that in the end almost always ruins the edifice." He did not hesitate to call her a tyrant and refuted her arguments in favor of benevolent despotism. Her suppression of his manuscript was so thorough that parts of it were coming to be known only in the twentieth century.
Rameau's Nephew was a sweeping satire of French eighteenth-century society, especially of the often ignorant and very wealthy general tax collectors, who, with their hordes of parasites, were a menace to the development of the arts, as well as powerful enemies of the Encyclopédie. In a dialogue with Diderot, the parasitic nephew of the great Jean-Philippe Rameau defended his debasement and moral corruption, quite shocking to his moralistic interlocutor, as the only means of satisfying the pangs of hunger in a thoroughly corrupt society. Throughout Diderot's works—in his dramas, his short stories and novels, in his art and literary criticism, as well as in his social and political theories—his sympathies were with the Third Estate.
Because he was forced to withhold his best and most forthright works for publication by future generations, the growth of Diderot's fame has been a very slow process. Rousseau declared that it would take two centuries for the realization that he was the great genius of his century. His first enthusiasts were also men of genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Honoré de Balzac, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, and Victor Hugo.
It can hardly be a cause for wonder that Diderot is receiving special attention in Marxist societies and that many excellent editions and translations have come from Marxist presses. Yet it was to the scientist and philosopher in Friedrich Engels, rather than the social economist, that Diderot's work most greatly appealed. His philosophical determinism was in no sense economic determinism; his sturdy bourgeois qualities give small comfort to Marxist sociology; and his views of the importance of hereditary traits are in sharp opposition to behavioristic theory. He would seem to qualify most readily as a naturalistic humanist.
See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Atheism; Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de; Clandestine Philosophical Literature in France; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Darwin, Charles Robert; Deism; Descartes, René; Doubt; Empiricism; Encyclopédie; Engels, Friedrich; Enlightenment; Ethics, History of; Freud, Sigmund; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; La Mettrie, Julien Offray de; Lavoisier, Antoine; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Lucretius; Marxist Philosophy; Materialism; Maupertuis, Pierre-Louis Moreau de; Pascal, Blaise; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Scientific Method; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Sensationalism; Stoicism; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Toland, John; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.
works by diderot
Oeuvres complètes. 20 vols, edited by J. Assézat and M. Tourneux. Paris: Garnier, 1875–1877.
Oeuvres, edited by A. Billy. Paris, 1935. Essential works in one volume.
Correspondance, edited by G. Roth. Paris, 1955–.
Le rêve de d'Alembert, edited by Jean Varloot. Paris, 1962.
Diderot's Early Philosophical Works. Translated and edited by Margaret Jourdain. Chicago and London: Open Court, 1916.
Dialogues. Translated and edited by Francis Birrell. New York: Brentano, 1927.
Diderot, Interpreter of Nature; Selected Writings. Translated and edited by Jean Stewart and Jonathan Kemp. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937. Best translations of Rêve de d'Alembert, etc.
Rameau's Nephew and Other Works. Translated by Jacques Barzun and Ralph H. Bowen. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.
Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. Translated by J. Robert Loy. New York: New York University Press, 1959 and 1961.
Selected Writings. Translated and edited by Lester G. Crocker. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
works on diderot
Anderson, Wilda. Diderot's Dream. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher. New York: Viking Press, 1974.
Bonneville, Douglas A. Diderot's Vie de Seneque: A Swan Song Revised. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966.
Bremner, Geoffrey. Order and Chance: The Pattern of Diderot's Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Cabeen, D. C., ed. A Critical Bibliography of French Literature. Vol. IV. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1951. Especially valuable for researchers.
Clark-Evans, Christine. "Charles de Brosses and Diderot: Eighteenth-Century Arguments concerning Primitive Language, Particular Natural Languages and a National Language." History of European Ideas 16 (1–3) (1993): 183–188.
Creech, James. Diderot: Thresholds of Representation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986.
Crocker, Lester G. "Diderot as Political Philosopher." Revue Internationale de Philosophie 38 (1984): 120–139.
Crocker, Lester G. Diderot's Chaotic Order: Approach to Synthesis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Crocker, Lester G. The Embattled Philosopher. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1954. Good general introduction to Diderot's life and works.
Davis, Colin. "Backward, Forward, Homeward: Encounters in Ithaca with Kant and Diderot." In Proximity: Emmanuel Levinas and the Eighteenth Century, edited by Melvyn New. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2001.
Dynnik, M. A. "On the Esthetics of Diderot." Soviet Studies in Philosophy 3 (1964–1965): 48–53.
Edmiston, William F. Diderot and the Family: A Conflict of Nature and Law. Saratoga, NY: Anma Libri, 1985.
Eisenberg, Jose. "The Theater and Political Theory in Rousseau and Diderot." Kriterion 41 (101) (2000): 86–108.
Fellows, Otis E. et al., eds. Diderot Studies. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1949–. Critical essays and monographs in English and French by contemporary scholars. Five volumes had been published as of 1965.
France, Peter. Rhetoric and Truth in France: Descartes to Diderot. London: Clarendon Press, 1972.
Holt, David K. "Denis Diderot and the Aesthetic Point of View." Journal of Aesthetic Education 34 (1) (2000): 19–25.
Ibrahim, Annie. "The Life Principle and the Doctrine of Living Being in Diderot." Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 22 (1) (2000): 107–122.
Lough, John. Essays on the "Encyclopedie" of Diderot and d'Alembert. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Luxembourg, Lilo K. Francis Bacon and Denis Diderot, Philosophers of Science. New York: Humanities Press, 1967.
Niklaus, Robert. "Denis Diderot: Search for an Unattainable Absolute of Truth." Ultimate Reality and Meaning 3 (1980): 23–49.
Pucci, Suzanne L. Diderot and a Poetics of Science. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
Rey, Roselyne. "Diderot and the Medicine of the Mind." Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 22 (1) (2000): 149–159.
Richards, Joyce A. Diderot's Dilemma: His Evaluation Regarding the Possibility of Moral Freedom in a Deterministic Universe. New York: Exposition Press, 1972.
Schmidt, James. "The Fool's Truth: Diderot, Goethe, and Hegel." Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (4) (1996): 625–644.
Simon, Julia. Mass Enlightenment: Critical Studies in Rousseau and Diderot. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Strugnell, Anthony. Diderot's Politics: A Study of the Evolution of Diderot's Political Thought after the Encyclopedie. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1973.
Vasco, Gerhard M. Diderot and Goethe: A Study in Science and Humanism. Geneva: Slatkine, 1978.
Waldauer, Joseph L. Society and the Freedom of the Creative Man in Diderot's Thought. Geneva: Droz, 1964.
Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot: The Testing Years (1713–1759). New York: Oxford University Press, 1957. Best biography to date and best critical studies of early works. The first of two volumes.
Norman L. Torrey (1967)
Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)