Page:EB1911 - Volume 08.djvu/221

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204
DIDEROT

of fire and beauty. In hands so noble as those of Lucretius and Goethe this species of didactic poetry has enriched the world with durable masterpieces, and, although the circle of readers which will endure scientific disquisition in the bonds of verse grows narrower and narrower, it is probable that the great poet who is also a great thinker will now and again insist on being heard. In Sully-Prudhomme France has possessed an eminent writer whose methods are directly instructive, and both La Justice (1878) and Le Bonheur (1888) are typically didactic poems. Perhaps future historians may name these as the latest of their class.

(E. G.)


DIDEROT, DENIS (1713-1784), French man of letters and encyclopaedist, was born at Langres on the 5th of October 1713. He was educated by the Jesuits, like most of those who afterwards became the bitterest enemies of Catholicism; and, when his education was at an end, he vexed his brave and worthy father’s heart by turning away from respectable callings, like law or medicine, and throwing himself into the vagabond life of a bookseller’s hack in Paris. An imprudent marriage (1743) did not better his position. His wife, Anne Toinette Champion, was a devout Catholic, but her piety did not restrain a narrow and fretful temper, and Diderot’s domestic life was irregular and unhappy. He sought consolation for chagrins at home in attachments abroad, first with a Madame Puisieux, a fifth-rate female scribbler, and then with Sophie Voland, to whom he was constant for the rest of her life. His letters to her are among the most graphic of all the pictures that we have of the daily life of the philosophic circle in Paris. An interesting contrast may be made between the Bohemianism of the famous English literary set who supped at the Turk’s Head with the Tory Johnson and the Conservative Burke for their oracles, and the Bohemianism of the French set who about the same time dined once a week at the baron D’Holbach’s, to listen to the wild sallies and the inspiring declamations of Diderot. For Diderot was not a great writer; he stands out as a fertile, suggestive and daring thinker, and a prodigious and most eloquent talker.

Diderot’s earliest writings were of as little importance as Goldsmith’s Enquiry into the State of Polite Learning or Burke’s Abridgement of English History. He earned 100 crowns by translating Stanyan’s History of Greece (1743); with two colleagues he produced a translation of James’s Dictionary of Medicine (1746-1748) and about the same date he published a free rendering of Shaftesbury’s Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit (1745), with some original notes of his own. With strange and characteristic versatility, he turned from ethical speculation to the composition of a volume of stories, the Bijoux indiscrets (1748), gross without liveliness, and impure without wit. In later years he repented of this shameless work, just as Boccaccio is said in the day of his grey hairs to have thought of the sprightliness of the Decameron with strong remorse. From tales Diderot went back to the more congenial region of philosophy. Between the morning of Good Friday and the evening of Easter Monday he wrote the Pensées philosophiques (1746), and he presently added to this a short complementary essay on the sufficiency of natural religion. The gist of these performances is to press the ordinary rationalistic objections to a supernatural revelation; but though Diderot did not at this time pass out into the wilderness beyond natural religion, yet there are signs that he accepted that less as a positive doctrine, resting on grounds of its own, than as a convenient point of attack against Christianity. In 1747 he wrote the Promenade du sceptique, a rather poor allegory — pointing first to the extravagances of Catholicism; second, to the vanity of the pleasures of that world which is the rival of the church; and third, to the desperate and unfathomable uncertainty of the philosophy which professes to be so high above both church and world.

Diderot’s next piece was what first introduced him to the world as an original thinker, his famous Lettre sur les aveugles (1749). The immediate object of this short but pithy writing was to show the dependence of men’s ideas on their five senses. It considers the case of the intellect deprived of the aid of one of the senses; and in a second piece, published afterwards, Diderot considered

the case of a similar deprivation in the deaf and dumb. The Lettre sur les sourds et muets, however, is substantially a digressive examination of some points in aesthetics. The philosophic significance of the two essays is in the advance they make towards the principle of Relativity. But what interested the militant philosophers of that day was an episodic application of the principle of relativity to the master-conception of God. What makes the Lettre sur les aveugles interesting is its presentation, in a distinct though undigested form, of the modern theory of variability, and of survival by superior adaptation. It is worth noticing, too, as an illustration of the comprehensive freedom with which Diderot felt his way round any subject that he approached, that in this theoretic essay he suggests the possibility of teaching the blind to read through the sense of touch. If the Lettre sur les aveugles introduced Diderot into the worshipful company of the philosophers, it also introduced him to the penalties of philosophy. His speculation was too hardy for the authorities, and he was thrown into the prison of Vincennes. Here he remained for three months; then he was released, to enter upon the gigantic undertaking of his life.

The bookseller Lebreton had applied to him with a project for the publication of a translation into French of Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, undertaken in the first instance by an Englishman, John Mills, and a German, Gottfried Sellius (for particulars see Encyclopaedia). Diderot accepted the proposal, but in his busy and pregnant intelligence the scheme became transformed. Instead of a mere reproduction of Chambers, he persuaded the bookseller to enter upon a new work, which should collect under one roof all the active writers, all the new ideas, all the new knowledge, that were then moving the cultivated class to its depths, but still were comparatively ineffectual by reason of their dispersion. His enthusiasm infected the publishers; they collected a sufficient capital for a vaster enterprise than they had at first planned; D’Alembert was persuaded to become Diderot’s colleague; the requisite permission was procured from the government; in 1750 an elaborate prospectus announced the project to a delighted public; and in 1751 the first volume was given to the world. The last of the letterpress was issued in 1765, but it was 1772 before the subscribers received the final volumes of the plates. These twenty years were to Diderot years not merely of incessant drudgery, but of harassing persecution, of sufferings from the cabals of enemies, and of injury from the desertion of friends. The ecclesiastical party detested the Encyclopaedia, in which they saw a rising stronghold for their philosophic enemies. By 1757 they could endure the sight no longer. The subscribers had grown from 2000 to 4000, and this was a right measure of the growth of the work in popular influence and power. To any one who turns over the pages of these redoubtable volumes now, it seems surprising that their doctrines should have stirred such portentous alarm. There is no atheism, no overt attack on any of the cardinal mysteries of the faith, no direct denunciation even of the notorious abuses of the church. Yet we feel that the atmosphere of the book may well have been displeasing to authorities who had not yet learnt to encounter the modern spirit on equal terms. The Encyclopaedia takes for granted the justice of religious tolerance and speculative freedom. It asserts in distinct tones the democratic doctrine that it is the common people in a nation whose lot ought to be the main concern of the nation’s government. From beginning to end it is one unbroken process of exaltation of scientific knowledge on the one hand, and pacific industry on the other. All these things were odious to the old governing classes of France; their spirit was absolutist, ecclesiastical and military. Perhaps the most alarming thought of all was the current belief that the Encyclopaedia was the work of an organized band of conspirators against society, and that a pestilent doctrine was now made truly formidable by the confederation of its preachers into an open league. When the seventh volume appeared, it contained an article on “Geneva,” written by D’Alembert. The writer contrived a panegyric on the pastors of Geneva, of which every word was a stinging reproach to the abbés and prelates of Versailles. At the same moment Helvétius’s book, L’Esprit,