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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AMONG the French Encyclopædists of the eighteenth century Denis Diderot holds the place of leader. There were intellects of broader scope and of much surer balance in that famous group, but none of such versatility, brilliancy, and outbursting force. To his associates he was a marvel and an inspiration.  1
  He was born in October 1713, in Langres, Haute-Marne, France; and died in Paris July 31st, 1784. After a classical education in Jesuit schools, he utterly disgusted his father by turning to the Bohemian life of a littérateur in Paris. Although very poor, he married at the age of thirty. The whole story of his married life—the common Parisian story in those days—reflects no credit on him; though his liaison with Mademoiselle Voland presents the aspects of a friendship abiding through life. Poverty spurred him to exertion. Four days of work in 1746 are said to have produced ‘Pensées Philosophiques’ (Philosophic Thoughts). This book, with a little essay following it, ‘Interprétation de la Nature,’ was his first open attack on revealed religion. Its argument, though only negative, and keeping within the bounds of theism, foretokened a class of utterances which were frequent in Diderot’s later years, and whose assurance of his materialistic atheism would be complete had they not been too exclamatory for settled conviction. He contents himself with glorifying the passions, to the annulling of all ethical standards. On this point at least his convictions were stable, for long afterward he writes thus to Mademoiselle Voland:—“The man of mediocre passion lives and dies like the brute…. If we were bound to choose between Racine, a bad husband, a bad father, a false friend, and a sublime poet, and Racine, good father, good husband, good friend, and dull worthy man, I hold to the first. Of Racine the bad man, what remains? Nothing. Of Racine the man of genius? The work is eternal.”  2
  About 1747 he produced an allegory, ‘Promenade du Sceptique.’ This French ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ scoffs at the Church of Rome for denying pleasure, then decries the pleasures of the world, and ends by asserting the hopeless uncertainty of the philosophy which both scoffs at the Church and decries worldly pleasure. At this period he was evidently inclined to an irregular attack on the only forms of Christianity familiar to him, asceticism and pietism.  3
  In 1749 Diderot first showed himself a thinker of original power, in his Letter on the Blind. This work, ‘Lettre sur les Aveugles à l’Usage de Ceux qui Voient’ (Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those who See) opened the eyes of the public to Diderot’s peculiar genius, and the eyes of the authorities to the menace in his principles. The result was his imprisonment, and from that the spread of his views. His offense was, that through his ingenious supposition of the mind deprived of its use of one or more of the bodily senses, he had shown the relativity of all man’s conceptions, and had thence deduced the relativity, the lack of absoluteness, of all man’s ethical standards—thus invalidating the foundations of civil and social order. The broad assertion that Diderot and his philosophic group caused the French Revolution has only this basis, that these men were among the omens of its advance, feeling its stir afar but not recognizing the coming earthquake. Yet it may be conceded that Diderot anticipated things great and strange; for his mind, although neither precise nor capable of sustained and systematic thought, was amazingly original in conception and powerful in grasp. The mist, blank to his brethren, seems to have wreathed itself into wonderful shapes to his eye; he was the seer whose wild enthusiasm caught the oracles from an inner shrine. A predictive power appears in his Letter on the Blind, where he imagines the blind taught to read by touch; and nineteenth-century hypotheses gleam dimly in his random guess at variability in organisms, and at survival of those best adapted to their environment.  4
  Diderot’s monumental work, ‘L’Encyclopédie,’ dates from the middle of the century. It was his own vast enlargement of Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopædia of 1727, of which a bookseller had demanded a revision in French. D’Alembert was secured as his colleague, and in 1751 the first volume appeared. The list of contributors includes most of the great contemporary names in French literature. From these, Diderot and d’Alembert gathered the inner group known as the French Encyclopædists, to whose writings has been ascribed a general tendency to destroy religion and to reconstitute society. The authorities interfered repeatedly, with threats and prohibitions of the publication; but the science of government included the science of connivance for an adequate consideration, and the great work went forward. Its danger lurked in its principles; for Diderot dealt but little in the cheap flattery which the modern demagogue addresses to the populace. D’Alembert, wearied by ten years of persecution, retired in 1759, leaving the indefatigable Diderot to struggle alone through seven years, composing and revising hundreds of articles, correcting proofs, supervising the unrivaled illustrations of the mechanic arts, while quieting the opposition of the authorities.  5
  The Encyclopædia under Diderot followed no one philosophic path. Indeed, there are no signs that he ever gave any consideration to either the intellectual or the ethical force of consistency. His writing indicates his utter carelessness both as to the direction and as to the pace of his thought. He had an abiding conviction that Christianity was partly delusion and largely priestcraft, and was maintained chiefly for upholding iniquitous privilege. His antagonism was developed primarily from his emotions and sympathies rather than from his intellect; hence it sometimes swerved, drawing perilously near to formal orthodoxy. Moreover, this vivacious philosopher sometimes rambled into practical advice, and easily effervesced into fervid moralizings of the sentimental and almost tearful sort. His immense natural capacity for sentiment appears in his own account of his meeting with Grimm after a few months’ absence. His sentimentalism, however, had its remarkable counterpoise in a most practical tendency of mind. In the Encyclopædia the interests of agriculture and of all branches of manufacture were treated with great fullness; and the reform of feudal abuses lingering in the laws of France was vigorously urged in a style more practical than cyclopædic.  6
  Diderot gave much attention to the drama, and his ‘Paradoxe sur le Comédien’ (Paradox on the Actor) is a valuable discussion. He is the father of the modern domestic drama. His influence upon the dramatic literature of Germany was direct and immediate; it appeared in the plays of Lessing and Schiller, and much of Lessing’s criticism was inspired by Diderot. His ‘Père de Famille’ (Family-Father) and ‘Le Fils Naturel’ (The Natural Son) marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the stage, in the midst of which we are now living. Breaking with the old traditions, Diderot abandoned the lofty themes of classic tragedy and portrayed the life of the bourgeoisie. The influence of England, frequently manifest in the work of the Encyclopædists, is evident also here. Richardson was then the chief force in fiction, and the sentimental element so characteristic in him reappears in the dramas of Diderot.  7
  Goethe was strongly attracted by the genius of Diderot, and thought it worth his while not only to translate but to supply with a long and luminous commentary the latter’s ‘Essay on Painting.’ It was by a singular trick of fortune, too, that one of Diderot’s most powerful works should first have appeared in German garb, and not in the original French until after the author’s death. A manuscript copy of the book chanced to fall into the hands of Goethe, who so greatly admired it that he at once translated, annotated, and published it. This was the famous dialogue ‘Le Neveu de Rameau’ (Rameau’s Nephew), a work which only Diderot’s peculiar genius could have produced. Depicting the typical parasite, shameless, quick-witted for every species of villainy, at home in every possible meanness, the dialogue is a probably unequaled compound of satire, high æsthetics, gleaming humor, sentimental moralizing, fine musical criticism, and scientific character analysis, with passages of brutal indecency.  8
  Among literary critics of painting, Diderot has his place in the highest rank. His nine ‘Salons’—criticisms which in his good-nature he wrote for the use of his friend Grimm, on the annual exhibitions in the Paris Salon from 1759 onward—have never been surpassed among non-technical criticisms for brilliancy, freshness, and philosophic suggestiveness. They reveal the man’s elemental strength; which was not in his knowledge, for he was without technical training in art and had seen scarcely any of the world’s masterpieces, but in his sensuously sympathetic nature, which gave him quickness of insight and delicacy in interpretation.  9
  He had the faculty of making and keeping friends, being unaffected, genial, amiable, enthusiastically generous and helpful to his friends, and without vindictiveness to his foes. He needed these qualities to counteract his almost utter lack of conscientiousness, his gush of sentiment, his unregulated morals, his undisciplined genius, his unbalanced thought. His style of writing, often vivid and strong, is as often awkward and dull, and is frequently lacking in finish. As a philosophic author and thinker his voluminous work is of little enduring worth, for though plentiful in original power it totally lacks organic unity; his thought rambles carelessly, his method is confused. It has been said of him that he was a master who produced no masterpiece. But as a talker, a converser, all witnesses testify that he was wondrously inspiring and suggestive, speaking sometimes as from mysterious heights of vision or out of unsearchable deeps of thought.  10
 
 
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