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Brief Lives

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Martin Jenkins considers a black sheep of the French Enlightenment.

The three outstanding writer-philosophers of the Eighteenth Century French Enlightenment are Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot. The first two are relatively well known in the English-speaking world. Diderot is not. In fairness, it should be said that his legacy is somewhat contested even in France. Voltaire and Rousseau were inducted into the Panthéon at the end of the Eighteenth Century; Diderot had to wait until 1913 before he was suggested for that honour, and then the National Assembly voted down the proposal. He still has not made it.

Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot portrait by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767


Denis Diderot was born in Langres in Champagne in 1713. He was intended to succeed to the canonry held by an uncle, and so was tonsured at the age of thirteen. However, after completing his studies he entered into a bohemian life in Paris. In 1741 he met a linen maid named Antoinette Champion. Denis’ father disapproved of the liaison and had him imprisoned in a monastery. He escaped and married Antoinette in 1743. He then settled into a respectable existence, supporting himself through translating from English. He may not have been a strictly faithful husband, but his liaisons with Madame de Puisieux and Sophie Volland seem to have been primarily about his need for intellectual companionship. In Le Neveu de Rameau he wrote, “Mes pensées, ce sont mes catins” – “My thoughts are my strumpets.”

In his lifetime Diderot was mainly known as an art critic and as one of the editors of the Encyclopédie. The latter role was politically uncomfortable. The Encyclopédie was licensed, banned, unbanned, rebanned in France, until the editors gave up and announced that the final volumes would be officially published in Switzerland. In 1766 the printer of the Encyclopédie was sent to the Bastille.

Diderot was imprisoned for a few months (at Vincennes, not the Bastille). In this context his Entretien avec la Maréchale (1776) is revealing. Here Diderot seeks to convince his pious interlocutor that an atheist such as himself can be a decent human being (‘un honnête homme’). But the conclusion reads:

La maréchale: By the way, if you had to give account of your principles to our magistrates, would you admit to them?

Diderot: I would do my best to spare them a vicious act.

La maréchale: Ah, coward! And if you were on the point of death, would you submit to the ceremonies of the church?

Diderot: I would not fail to do so.

La maréchale: Fie! Hypocritical rogue!

In 1765 Diderot sold his library to Empress Catherine of Russia in return for a lump sum and a pension, plus the use of it for the rest of his life. This transaction eventually led to his only journey outside France. From 1773 to 1774 he travelled first to Holland, then to Saint Petersburg, then again to Holland.

Diderot seems to have been of an easy-going nature. He collaborated with Rousseau for fifteen years before they quarrelled (Rousseau quarrelled with everybody) and then managed to carry on working with him for another year.

Having become financially secure, Diderot spent the last years of his life in reasonable comfort. He outlived both Rousseau and Voltaire, and died of natural causes in 1784. He had ensured the future of his only surviving child, Marie-Angélique, through her marriage, and it was his son-in-law, Vandeul, who finally published Diderot’s (almost) complete works in 1796.

Writing Career

Diderot published almost none of his philosophical writings during his lifetime, although he read them to his friends and circulated them in manuscript.

There were a number of reasons for Diderot’s mostly posthumous publication. Firstly, the ideas which he put forward were potentially dangerous. He came as close as he dared to setting out a materialist (and by implication, atheist) position; even Voltaire, although anti-clerical, claimed to be a deist [the idea that there is a God, but one not interested in human affairs, Ed]. Even putting an atheist view into the mouth of a fictional speaker risked entangling the writer with the church and state authorities. By the end of his life Diderot had had enough of that. Also, he presented his ideas in dialogue form (or, as he preferred to call them, entretiens – conversations), and many of these involved his contemporaries. Some of these dialogues, such as Mystification, seem to have been worked-up versions of real conversations. Finally, Diderot was a perfectionist (or a tinkerer): he kept revising his dialogues, until he was satisfied (more or less). As a result, editing Diderot has become a major challenge in French scholarship.

His earlier dialogues are fairly straightforward. Here Diderot appears as a character and puts forward his views. A good example is the Entretien Entre M. d’Alembert et M. Diderot (1769). In this work, Diderot advances a thoroughly materialist position, including an argument carried on through several pages that rocks may possess a degree of consciousness [see Issue 117, Ed]. In later dialogues Diderot’s technique becomes more subtle, one might even say quirky. At the end of the dialogue I just cited, d’Alembert accepts the strength of Diderot’s arguments but insists that he will stick to his own position. But in the later Le Rêve de d’Alembert (1769), d’Alembert becomes the mouthpiece for Diderot’s own views, albeit that he does so while sleeping in an armchair. Dr Bordeu and Mlle de l’Espinasse then discuss what d’Alembert has been saying in his sleep, and when he wakes up, tell him to go back to sleep, or simply not to interfere with their conversation. (In the continuation of the dialogue, they manage without d’Alembert altogether.) This format reflects Diderot’s very modern belief that it is in our unconscious that we will find our true thoughts, whereas our mind edits them to be presentable to our consciousness. Therefore, what d’Alembert has uttered in his unconscious state is what he really believes. However, reality is more complex than this.

Involved Conversations

The finest example of Diderot’s conversational philosophy is the Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville (1772). In this dialogue Diderot confronts one of the major theories of the Eighteenth Century, which concerned the state of nature in which primitive humanity was supposed to exist, and the noble savage who was supposed to live in it. Rousseau had approached the idea of the primordial state of man from a theoretical perspective; he hypothesised what primitive man would have been and how mankind had arrived at the civilized state he has now achieved. (Bear in mind those male pronouns; they will be relevant.) Diderot, on the other hand, starts from a real example – Bougainville’s description of Tahitian society. (However, rather cheekily, he claims to be quoting what Bougainville omitted from his published account!)

Unusually for Diderot, the participants in this dialogue are anonymous. They’re identified only as A and B. It might be presumed that B is Diderot’s representative, since he has a lot more to say. But as we shall see, this is not a safe presumption.

The starting point of the dialogue is the purported speech of an aged Tahitian chief denouncing European intervention in native customs. It is a splendid piece of Rousseauesque rhetoric (Diderot’s own speech is never rhetorical), and it provokes A to comment that it sounds rather European. To this B replies that it was translated from Tahitian into Spanish and thence into French. He then adds that the chief gave the text to his translator Orou the night before he delivered it so that Orou could translate it into Spanish in order that Bougainville could have the Spanish version in his hand while the diatribe was being pronounced.

Even this start undermines the naïve idea of the noble savage. Firstly, the translation of the speech reminds us that the concept itself has been filtered through Western sensibilities by way of translation – that we see the ‘noble savage’ through European spectacles. Secondly, it suggests that the noble savage is not so artless or spontaneous as Rousseau would have us believe, but is, for example, perfectly capable of constructing an appropriate speech in advance.

The bulk of the speech consists of a dialogue between Orou and Bougainville’s chaplain. The chaplain has been assigned to lodge with Orou, and Orou offers him the choice of his three daughters or his wife as sexual partners. The chaplain protests in the name of his religion and his celibacy. Orou’s youngest daughter begs him to oblige her, on the basis that her elder sisters both have children and she has none, which embarrasses her. The chaplain yields, while feeling guilty (he will later have sex with both other daughters, and, out of politeness, with Orou’s wife too). In the dialogue which follows Orou argues for his sort of morality, in which people make free choices in their relationships, whereas the chaplain is forced to admit that by contrast, Europeans make relationship promises which they do not keep.

However, in the middle of this dialogue, at the request of A, B breaks off to recount the story of Polly Baker (as adapted from a report by Benjamin Franklin). Initially seduced and impregnated by a local man, Polly Baker went on to bear five children out of wedlock, whom she considered a benefit to New England, although she was regularly condemned in the courts.

At the end of this dialogue it is suggested that A and B should join the ladies. The following exchange is interesting:

A: Suppose we read them the conversation between the chaplain and Orou?

B: What do you think they would say about it?

A: I really don’t know.

B: And what would they think about it?

A: Perhaps the opposite of what they would say.

We’re suddenly reminded that the dialogue between Orou and the chaplain, the bulk of the text, has been between two males; that the only female voices which have been heard are those of Orou’s youngest daughter and of Polly Baker; and that Polly Baker challenged a patriarchy which tolerated her seduction but condemned her attempts to live with the results. Orou is also a patriarch. In respect of his women he says to the chaplain, “They belong to me, and I offer them to you; they are their own, and they give themselves to you.” One suspects that the first part of the sentence is more accurate than the second. Diderot continually emphasises that the result of sexual freedom is pregnancy: in other words, that the man has only the pleasure, while the woman also suffers the consequences. On this model, living in a ‘state of nature’ may be a far better option for men than for women.

Moreover, if the ladies might be saying something other than they think, can we be sure that A and B are themselves expressing their true thoughts? All that is lacking from this conversation is the disclaimer: “The views expressed in this dialogue are not necessarily those of the author – or of the speakers.”

Resolution and Adventure in Matavai Bay
Resolution & Adventure in Matavai Bay, William Hodges, 1776

True Philosophy

Voltaire and Rousseau knew what they thought and tried to convince others to think the same. Denis Diderot probably knew what he thought; but in his later dialogues he puts forward different and contending views, then subtly undermines them. This shows that Diderot was a philosopher – a lover of wisdom – in the truest sense. He loved facts, and collected them for the Encyclopédie; but he also explored ideas, recognising that unlike facts, they are not final, and that people often omit to consider ideas that might contradict their own. Rather than telling us what we ought to think, Diderot, like Socrates, encouraged us to think for ourselves. He would, on that basis, probably have sympathised with those who voted against admitting him to the Panthéon. In fact, he might well have voted with them.

© Martin Jenkins 2017

Martin Jenkins is a retired community worker and Quaker in London.

A Note On Texts

Diderot’s philosophical dialogues are not readily available in English translation, with the exception of the Penguin Classics edition of Rameau’s Nephew and d’Alembert’s Dream. The most convenient French edition is that of Jean Varloot, Le Neveu de Rameau et Autres Dialogues Philosophiques, by Folio Classique.

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