Page:EB1911 - Volume 08.djvu/222

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205
DIDEROT

appeared, and gave a still more profound and, let us add, a more reasonable shock to the ecclesiastical party. Authority could brook no more, and in 1759 the Encyclopaedia was formally suppressed.

The decree, however, did not arrest the continuance of the work. The connivance of the authorities at the breach of their own official orders was common in those times of distracted government. The work went on, but with its difficulties increased by the necessity of being clandestine. And a worse thing than troublesome interference by the police now befell Diderot. D’Alembert, wearied of shifts and indignities, withdrew from the enterprise. Other powerful colleagues, Turgot among them, declined to contribute further to a book which had acquired an evil fame. Diderot was left to bring the task to an end as he best could. For seven years he laboured like a slave at the oar. He wrote several hundred articles, some of them very slight, but many of them most laborious, comprehensive and ample. He wore out his eyesight in correcting proofs, and he wearied his soul in bringing the manuscript of less competent contributors into decent shape. He spent his days in the workshops, mastering the processes of manufactures, and his nights in reproducing on paper what he had learnt during the day. And he was incessantly harassed all the time by alarms of a descent from the police. At the last moment, when his immense work was just drawing to an end, he encountered one last and crowning mortification: he discovered that the bookseller, fearing the displeasure of the government, had struck out from the proof sheets, after they had left Diderot’s hands, all passages that he chose to think too hardy. The monument to which Diderot had given the labour of twenty long and oppressive years was irreparably mutilated and defaced. It is calculated that the average annual salary received by Diderot for his share in the Encyclopaedia was about £120 sterling. “And then to think,” said Voltaire, “that an army contractor makes £800 in a day!”

Although the Encyclopaedia was Diderot’s monumental work, he is the author of a shower of dispersed pieces that sowed nearly every field of intellectual interest with new and fruitful ideas. We find no masterpiece, but only thoughts for masterpieces; no creation, but a criticism with the quality to inspire and direct creation. He wrote plays — Le Fils naturel (1757) and Le Père de famille (1758) — and they are very insipid performances in the sentimental vein. But he accompanied them by essays on dramatic poetry, including especially the Paradoxe sur le comédien, in which he announced the principles of a new drama, — the serious, domestic, bourgeois drama of real life, in opposition to the stilted conventions of the classic French stage. It was Diderot’s lessons and example that gave a decisive bias to the dramatic taste of Lessing, whose plays, and his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1768), mark so important an epoch in the history of the modern theatre. In the pictorial art, Diderot’s criticisms are no less rich, fertile and wide in their ideas. His article on “Beauty” in the Encyclopaedia shows that he had mastered and passed beyond the metaphysical theories on the subject, and the Essai sur la peinture was justly described by Goethe, who thought it worth translating, as “a magnificent work, which speaks even more helpfully to the poet than to the painter, though to the painter too it is as a blazing torch.” Diderot’s most intimate friend was Grimm, one of the conspicuous figures of the philosophic body. Grimm wrote news-letters to various high personages in Germany, reporting what was going on in the world of art and literature in Paris, then without a rival as the capital of the intellectual activity of Europe. Diderot helped his friend at one time and another between 1759 and 1779, by writing for him an account of the annual exhibitions of paintings. These Salons are among the most readable of all pieces of art criticism. They have a freshness, a reality, a life, which take their readers into a different world from the dry and conceited pedantries of the ordinary virtuoso. As has been said by Sainte-Beuve, they initiated the French into a new sentiment, and introduced people to the mystery and purport of colour by ideas. “Before Diderot,” Madame Necker said, “I had never seen anything in pictures except dull and lifeless colours; it was his imagination that gave

them relief and life, and it is almost a new sense for which I am indebted to his genius.”

Greuze was Diderot’s favourite among contemporary artists, and it is easy to see why. Greuze’s most characteristic pictures were the rendering in colour of the same sentiment of domestic virtue and the pathos of common life, which Diderot attempted with inferior success to represent upon the stage. For Diderot was above all things interested in the life of men, — not the abstract life of the race, but the incidents of individual character, the fortunes of a particular family, the relations of real and concrete motives in this or that special case. He delighted with the enthusiasm of a born casuist in curious puzzles of right and wrong, and in devising a conflict between the generalities of ethics and the conditions of an ingeniously contrived practical dilemma. Mostly his interest expressed itself in didactic and sympathetic form; in two, however, of the most remarkable of all his pieces, it is not sympathetic, but ironical. Jacques le fataliste (written in 1773, but not published until 1796) is in manner an imitation of Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey. Few modern readers will find in it any true diversion. In spite of some excellent criticisms dispersed here and there, and in spite of one or two stories that are not without a certain effective realism, it must as a whole be pronounced savourless, forced, and as leaving unmoved those springs of laughter and of tears which are the common fountain of humour. Le Neveu de Rameau is a far superior performance. If there were any inevitable compulsion to name a masterpiece for Diderot, one must select this singular “farce-tragedy.” Its intention has been matter of dispute; whether it was designed to be merely a satire on contemporary manners, or a reduction of the theory of self-interest to an absurdity, or the application of an ironical clincher to the ethics of ordinary convention, or a mere setting for a discussion about music, or a vigorous dramatic sketch of a parasite and a human original. There is no dispute as to its curious literary flavour, its mixed qualities of pungency, bitterness, pity and, in places, unflinching shamelessness. Goethe’s translation (1805) was the first introduction of Le Neveu de Rameau to the European public. After executing it, he gave back the original French manuscript to Schiller, from whom he had it. No authentic French copy of it appeared until the writer had been nearly forty years in his grave (1823).

It would take several pages merely to contain the list of Diderot’s miscellaneous pieces, from an infinitely graceful trifle like the Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre up to Le Rêve de D’Alembert, where he plunges into the depths of the controversy as to the ultimate constitution of matter and the meaning of life. It is a mistake to set down Diderot for a coherent and systematic materialist. We ought to look upon him “as a philosopher in whom all the contradictions of the time struggle with one another” (Rosenkranz). That is to say, he is critical and not dogmatic. There is no unity in Diderot, as there was in Voltaire or in Rousseau. Just as in cases of conduct he loves to make new ethical assumptions and argue them out as a professional sophist might have done, so in the speculative problems as to the organization of matter, the origin of life, the compatibility between physiological machinery and free will, he takes a certain standpoint, and follows it out more or less digressively to its consequences. He seizes a hypothesis and works it to its end, and this made him the inspirer in others of materialist doctrines which they held more definitely than he did. Just as Diderot could not attain to the concentration, the positiveness, the finality of aim needed for a masterpiece of literature, so he could not attain to those qualities in the way of dogma and system. Yet he drew at last to the conclusions of materialism, and contributed many of its most declamatory pages to the Système de la nature of his friend D’Holbach, — the very Bible of atheism, as some one styled it. All that he saw, if we reduce his opinions to formulae, was motion in space: “attraction and repulsion, the only truth.” If matter produces life by spontaneous generation, and if man has no alternative but to obey the compulsion of nature, what remains for God to do?

In proportion as these conclusions deepened in him, the more