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Denis Diderot Biography

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DIDEROT, Denis (1713–84). One of the most brilliant, versatile, and prolific writers of the French "philosophic" generation, nicknamed "Pantophile Diderot" by Voltaire, because of his unbounded interest in almost every branch of human activity. He was born at Langres, Oct. 5, 1713, and was educated by the Jesuits. He declined to study law, quarreled with his family, and c 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 was ashamed in his later years. Diderot's first work of philosophic importance is the Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de сeux 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, such as the suggestion of developing the sense of touch among the blind. Its immediate result was the imprisonment of its author at Vincennes because a passage in it offended a lady of great though unavowable influence. 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 Еncyclopædia (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 20 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 28 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 reprinted several times. Though engaged in this Herculean work, Diderot managed, with characteristic super-abundance of energy and bigness of heart, to help his literary comrades, when he did not actually rewrite their works entirely for them, and even composed 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 everyday middleclass life, thus sowing the germs of the melodrama in France. To this period belong 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). In his critiques on the annual exhibition of painting, the famous Salon, Diderot established the first bond between art and literature; still he can hardly be considered an art critic, owing to his ignorance of its technique and his undue insistence on the mere subject or idea of the work. In 1773 Diderot, who had received but $600 a year for his work on the Encyclopédie, felt constrained to sell his library to furnish a suitable dowry for his daughter. It was purchased by Catharine II and presented to him as salaried caretaker. He went to St. 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, full of powerfully stimulating ideas as they were, left lasting impressions. In talk his contemporaries thought him unrivaled; this is borne out by the fact that his influence on his contemporaries was tremendous, even though most of his really original compositions were published after his death. "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. A certain sentimental strain infused into him by the works of Sterne and Richardson, his own sincere appreciation of nature, and his natural though unselfish lyricism, easily mark him as a precursor of the Romanticists, even ahead of Rousseau in point of time. His works have been well edited by Assezat and Tourneux (20 vols., 1875–79). Diderot's Correspondence with Mademoiselle 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 (2d series, Paris, 1881); Carlyle. Essay on Diderot (London, 1881); G. Lauson, Histoire de la littérature française (Paris, 1912); A. Collignon, Diderot (ib., 1907); A. Tornézy, La légende des philosophes (ib., 1911); R. L. Cru, Diderot as a Disciple of English Thought (New York, 1913).

The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. VI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 792-793.