The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Diderot, Denis

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The American Cyclopædia
Diderot, Denis
Edition of 1879. See also Denis Diderot on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

DIDEROT, Denis, a French writer and philosopher, born in Langres, Oct. 5, 1713, died in Paris, July 30, 1784. He was the son of a cutler, and was first educated for the church, but soon gave up theology to enter an attorney's office in Paris. Law, however, did not occupy his time so much as literature and science. Failing to select a profession, he was deprived of his allowance by his father, and for a time obtained a livelihood by teaching. He married unfortunately, translated a history of Greece, wrote sermons, and furnished articles for a dictionary of medicine. In 1745 he wrote his Essai sur le mérite et la vertu, and in 1746 his Pensées philosophiques, the boldness of which was punished by a sentence of the parliament, and Bijoux indiscrets, a collection of obscene tales, of which he himself was ashamed. His Lettres sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (1749) procured him at once an acquaintance with Voltaire and three months' imprisonment at Vincennes, where he was often visited by Rousseau. On his liberation, in conjunction with D'Alembert, he framed the plan of the work upon which his reputation is mostly founded, the Encyclopédie. Its professed aim was to present in a single work the truths of science, the principles of taste, and the processes of all the arts; but it was in fact a vehicle for the diffusion of new ideas. He wrote nearly all the articles on ancient philosophy, and all those on the trades and industrial pursuits; and after the withdrawal of D'Alembert he had the supervision of the whole. Two volumes of the Encyclopédie appeared in 1751; but they were suppressed, and the printing of others was forbidden during 18 months, owing to its alleged hostility to Christianity. This suspension was revoked, and five new volumes had appeared in 1757, when it was again assailed with a tempest of denunciations, the result of which was a second suspension of the work. D'Alembert deserted his partner, and Voltaire subsequently advised Diderot to leave the country, and complete his work enjoying the hospitality of Catharine of Russia. He, however, struggled against all obstacles, and was finally permitted to continue the publication at Paris, without subjecting it to censorship; but on the title page Neufchâtel was to be printed instead of Paris, and the name of the editor was left blank. The ten additional volumes were thus produced with no further difficulty. While engaged on the Encyclopédie, Diderot wrote books of various kinds in his own name, and greatly contributed to those by his friends. Thus a large portion of Raynal's history of the Indies belongs to him, while the most eloquent pages of De l'esprit, by Helvétius, and of the Système de la nature, by D'Holbach, are attributed to his pen. The artistic part of Grimm's correspondence, known as Les salons, was written by him, and several letters on different subjects bear unmistakable marks of his hand. Diderot was always ready to help the needy, and his personal influence could scarcely be overrated. In 1757 and 1758 he produced two domestic dramas, Le fils naturel and Le père de famille, which paved the way to the change afterward accomplished in the dramatic style in France. His industry brought him money, but his careless manner of spending it and his dissipated habits frequently involved him in pecuniary difficulties. In 1765 he was forced to offer his library for sale. Catharine II. of Russia purchased it for 15,000 francs, but on condition that he would be the keeper of it at a salary of 1,000 francs a year; she moreover ordered 50 years' income to be paid at once. When the Encyclopédie was completed, Diderot paid a visit to his protectress, and spent several months at her court, where he was treated with great respect. On his return to Paris he published two novels, Jacques le fataliste and La religieuse, and in 1779 his Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron, which is merely an encomium of Seneca. His later years were passed in comparative quiet and comfort. He had been all his life considered an atheist, but during his last year he was frequently visited by the curate of St. Sulpice, with whom he was pleased to talk on religious subjects; and if he did not consent to any recantation of his philosophical opinions, he showed no particular enmity to Christianity. He left an only daughter, Mme. de Vandeul, who wrote Mémoires of his life. His friend Naigeon published an edition of his works in 15 vols. 8vo, 1798; but a more complete one, in 22 vols., appeared in 1822. To this must be added his Mémoires et œuvres inédites, 4 vols. 8vo, printed in 1830. — See Diderot's Leben und Werke, by Rosenkranz (Leipsic, 1866).