The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Diderot, Denis
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DIDEROT, Denis, dēd'rō', French man of letters and encyclopedist: b. Langres, 5 Oct. 1713; d. Paris, 31 July 1784. He was educated by the Jesuits but afterward became one of the bitterest enemies of the church. When his education was at an end he became estranged from his family by turning away from respectable callings and engaging in the Bohemian life of a bookseller's hack in Paris. In 1743 he married Anne Toinette Champion, a devout Catholic, but possessed of a narrow and fretful temper; in consequence Diderot's domestic life was unhappy. He sought attachments abroad, first with a Madame de Puiseux, who prompted his indecent novel, ‘Les Bijoux indiscrets’ (1748), and later with Sophie Voland, to whom he was constant throughout her life. In 1743 be published a translation of Stanyan's ‘History of Greece,’ and three years later a translation of James' ‘Dictionary of Medicine.’ In 1746 he published his first independent work, the ‘Pensées philosophiques,’ a general statement of the usual rationalistic objections to a supernatural religion. It was followed in 1747 by the ‘Promenade du sceptique.’ The first work which brought him into general notice was his famous ‘Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient’ (1749), a study of the philosophy of sensation, involving also an undermining of ethical standards and of social order. It contains strange forecasts of later discoveries and hypotheses, such as the survival by superior adaptation and the suggestion of teaching the blind to read through the sense of touch. The publication of the work caused the imprisonment of Diderot at Vincennes, where he remained three months; then he was released to enter on the gigantic undertaking of his life. Lebreton, the bookseller, had projected a French translation of Chambers' ‘Encyclopædia’ and approached Diderot in regard to the undertaking. Diderot persuaded the publisher 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 stirring the cultivated strata of society. The ‘Encyclopédie’ thus became the organ of intellectual emancipation rather than of any single school of ethics or philosophy. D'Alembert was appointed Diderot's colleague and so remained until 1759. Diderot spent 20 years of unremitting toil on the work, revising, editing, correcting and combating the intrigues of opponents. He wrote all the articles on technology and industries, besides many of those on points of philosophy and even on physics and chemistry. The first volume appeared in 1751 and the last in 1772. The work fell under the ban of the censors in 1759, but owing to the venality and corruption of the authorities the work went on as before, excepting the defection of Turgot and D'Alembert. The work was not primarily revolutionary, but practical. It takes for granted the justice of religious tolerance and speculative freedom. It asserts 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. The entire work is one unbroken process of exaltation of scientific knowledge on the one hand and pacific industry on the other. Despite this arduous task Diderot gave further proof of his versatility in the admirable reports on the annual exhibitions of painting, by which he established the first bond between art and literature He wrote two dramas — ‘Le fils Naturel’ (1757) and ‘Le père de famille’ (1758), which mark the beginning of modern domestic drama. His ‘Paradoxe sur le comédien’ influenced Lessing and the German stage, and Goethe translated an essay on painting from the ‘Encyclopédie.’ His novel, ‘The Nun,’ and the dramatic dialogue, ‘Le neveu de Rameau,’ are wonderfully effective pictures of the corrupt society of the time. His little sketches are pearls of kindly humor and of witty narrative. It is calculated that the average annual salary received by Diderot for his work on the ‘Encyclopédie’ was but $600 per year. In 1773 he felt obliged to sell his library to provide a dowry for his daughter. It was purchased by Catharine II of Russia and presented to Diderot whom she constituted her salaried librarian. Diderot went to Russia to thank the empress and spent some months in her society in Petrograd. He returned home in 1774 and passed his remaining years in the acquisition of new knowledge, in ephemeral compositions and in luminous conversations with his friends, who deemed him unrivaled as a conversationalist. The justice of their opinion is borne out by the fact that his influence on his contemporaries was tremendous. His works were edited by Assezat and Tourneux (20 vols., Paris 1879). His ‘Correspondance’ with Sophie Voland gives perhaps the best insight into his character. Consult Brunetière, ‘Etudes critiques’ (Paris 1881); Carlyle, ‘Essay on Diderot’ (London 1881); Collignon, A., ‘Diderot’ (Paris 1907); Cru, R. L., ‘Diderot as a Disciple of English Thought’ (New York 1913); Lauson, G., ‘Histoire de la Littérature française’ (Paris 1912); Horley, John, ‘Diderot and the Encyclopædists’ (London 1891), the best study in English of Diderot's life and influence; Rosenkranz, ‘Diderot's Leben und Werke’ (Leipzig 1866); Tornézy, A., ‘Le légende des philosophes’ (Paris 1911).