(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

P. N. Furbank’s admirable Diderot: A Critical Biography surveys virtually every aspect of the fascinating period of secular intellectual ferment known as the Enlightenment. Broadly viewed, this movement swept Europe, accelerated the development of colonial America, and reflected a response to the conservatism of church and state that prevailed in Europe through the end of the seventeenth century. Its real impetus, as Furbank’s study makes eminently clear, came from the rise of popular science, though its transmission occurred through popular philosophy. The massive undertaking that came to be known as the Encyclopédie (1751-1765) represents the underlying diversity of the Enlightenment, and Denis Diderot, the polymath who shepherded the work from inception to completion, typifies the versatile intellect that eighteenth century France produced.

Diderot’s life spanned those years of the century that produced the most important aspects of the Enlightenment. Even in his youth he had adopted as his own one of its fundamental tenets, that the only limit on inquiry should be the bounds of the human intellect. Born in the provincial town of Langres, he might at another time have followed the trade of his father and become a master cutler. As it happened, his apprenticeship lasted a total of five days. The Jesuits of his boyhood school considered him unruly and undisciplined, while his father, Didier, became so exasperated by his son’s apparent irresponsibility during his student years in Paris that he refused all financial support.

Diderot’s student years, 1728-1732, initiated a pattern of events important in his development. Having matriculated at the strongly Jansenist Collège d’Harcourt, Diderot would finish his student period at the University of Paris, from which he obtained a master of arts degree. It may be that Diderot’s vague goal of obtaining a doctoral degree in theology originated during his Sorbonne period, but it is clear that his revolt against dogmatic thinking dates from this time.

Events moved swiftly for him thereafter. Denied the family financial support he required to maintain his studies and his excessive personal expenditures, Diderot did not hesitate to convince a Carmelite friar that he had a vocation to the religious life. This audacity paid his debts, though it did not produce a Carmelite novice; indeed, it enraged Didier and further estranged him from his son. More than a decade would pass before Diderot would be reconciled with his family. This prolonged period of residence in Paris would provide Diderot’s introduction to many in the intellectual vanguard that came to be known as the philosophes. All these individuals ranged far beyond their original areas of expertise, and all were united in their conviction that the human mind would triumph if left unfettered by dogmatic institutions. This conviction gave their writings a decidedly political cast and necessarily placed them in opposition to the positions espoused by the French government and the Roman Catholic church. It is both significant and inevitable that what began as intellectual contention in virtually every discipline—the sciences, philosophy and theology, and even music and art—would develop in the political sphere and emerge in the American and French revolutions.

Diderot responded to this ferment. By 1741, Diderot had married Anne-Toinette (Nanette) Champion. He established a bohemian ménage with her, her mother, and the two children who would be born to them in the years immediately following their marriage. Both these children would die in infancy, and only a third child, a daughter named Angélique, would survive to adulthood. Perhaps this offers one indication of how precarious Diderot’s personal circumstances would remain until publication of the first volume of the Encyclopédie. It is certainly true, however, that Diderot’s acquaintance with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Diderot’s first independent work, Pensées philosophiques (1746; philosophical thoughts), had attracted attention in official circles. In the summer of 1749, amid rumors of national bankruptcy and sexual scandal in high places, Diderot was arrested by royal warrant and imprisoned with others considered dangerous in the prison fortress of Vincennes, six miles east of Paris. Diderot would remain imprisoned through that summer, and it was only by written repudiation of writings the authorities considered objectionable that he managed to obtain his release.

Vincennes, then, did not reveal a particularly idealistic or courageous Diderot, but his release from prison and his conspicuous welcome by Rousseau did wonders for the Encyclopédie project, then in its infancy. André-François Le Breton, one of the leading French publishers, had envisioned it as early as 1745, but various obstacles, including the resignation of its first editor, had caused it to become hopelessly stalled. Le Breton boldly named Diderot and a philosophe mathematician, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, as replacements for the resigned abbé. This change of editorship would provide the philosophes with what would become one of the most important vehicles of Enlightenment thinking.

Diderot and d’Alembert, from the first, conceived of a comprehensive encyclopedia that would also serve as a dictionary. It would be modern and emphasize technology and philosophy; by eighteenth century definition, this meant it also would be controversial and potentially subversive. Diderot would always be the moving force behind the Encyclopédie, and though he would have the support of some of the most impressive intellects the century produced, he would spend the twenty years of his...

(The entire section is 2345 words.)