Denis Diderot Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

0111207185-Diderot.jpg Denis Diderot (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: As editor of and contributor to the Encyclopedia, Diderot codified and promulgated the views of the French Enlightenment. His posthumously published fiction has earned for him a prominent place in the pantheon of eighteenth century writers, and his philosophical works remain challenging and influential.

Early Life

The son of Didier and Angélique Vigneron Diderot, Denis Diderot was born on October 5, 1713, in Langres, France. Although the family was involved in trade—Didier Diderot was a master cutler and his wife the daughter of a tanner—a number of relatives had entered the Church, among them the canon of the cathedral at Langres. Diderot’s brother, Didier-Pierre, and his sister, Angélique, would follow this ecclesiastical path, the former becoming a priest and the latter a nun. Diderot, despite his later atheism, also showed an early inclination in this direction. Tonsured at the age of twelve, he made the one-hundred-fifty-mile journey north to Paris three years later to study at the Jesuit Collège de Louis-le-Grand or the Jansenist Collège d’Harcourt; he may have taken courses at both. When he received his degree in 1732, though, it was from the University of Paris, and his interest had shifted to philosophy and rhetoric.

Since Diderot had abandoned a career in the Church, his father apprenticed him to the Parisian lawyer Clément de Ris. This field suited him no better than religion, and, after enduring two years of legal studies, Diderot turned to a life of letters. His father refused to approve of so uncertain a course, so for the next decade Diderot survived on the meager earnings he garnered as tutor and hack writer, supplemented by occasional small sums from his mother. On November 6, 1743, he married Anne-Toinette Champion, the daughter of a poor linen-shop owner; this step further alienated his father, who so opposed the match that he had Diderot locked up in a monastery to prevent the wedding. Diderot escaped; he realized, however, that he could not rely on his parents to support his family and recognized that he needed a secure source of income.

Life’s Work

Diderot therefore turned to the booksellers, offering his fluency in English and his literary talent. In 1743 he translated Temple Stanyan’s Grecian History (1707) for the publisher Briasson, who was sufficiently pleased with the result to ask Diderot for a French version of Robert James’s Medical Dictionary (1743-1745). At the same time that he was translating James’s treatise, he was adapting the third Earl of Shaftesbury’s An Inquiry Concerning Virtue in Two Discourses (1699). Much in Shaftesbury’s work appealed to Diderot and deeply influenced his views. He admired the Englishman’s tolerance and emphasis on reason, and he adopted the notion that religion and morality should be judged according to their social effects. Diderot also agreed with Shaftesbury that emotions play an important role in fostering socially proper conduct. He was less prepared to accept Shaftesbury’s optimism, his notion of an innate aesthetic appreciation, and his criticism of organized religion.

Diderot’s first original philosophical work, Pensées philosophiques (1746; English translation, 1819), written over Easter weekend, 1746, to earn fifty gold pieces for Madame de Puissieux, his mistress, built on this adaptation. Diderot was still not prepared to reject the Church—the fifty-first pensée reaffirms his belief in Catholicism—but he does urge that faith be tested by reason and that the passions, deemed by the orthodox to be dangerous, be seen as necessary to morality and creativity. Published anonymously, it was sufficiently impressive to be attributed to such well-known intellectuals as Voltaire or étienne Bonnot de Condillac. It was also regarded as sufficiently radical to be condemned by the Parliament of Paris in July, 1746.

La Promenade du sceptique (1830) revealed Diderot’s increasing doubts about religion; the manuscript was seized before publication, and the police began to watch Diderot closely. His bawdy satire on Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748; The Indiscreet Toys, 1749), further antagonized the authorities, and his Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient (1749; An Essay on Blindness, 1750), which questioned the Deistic argument that cosmic order proves God’s existence, led to his arrest and solitary confinement for three months in the fortress of Vincennes.

This experience shook him deeply. Previously he had published his controversial works anonymously; henceforth, he would rarely publish them at all. His reputation in the eighteenth century, therefore, was lower than it would become after his death. Much of his contemporary acclaim derived from the project that would occupy him for the next fifteen years, the Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772;Encyclopedia, 1965). His translations and other writings not only had exposed Diderot to new knowledge but also had made him a logical choice for coeditor, with Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, of the ambitious project to translate and supplement Ephraim Chambers’ five-volume Cyclopaedia: Or, Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (1728).

As conservative opponents, who twice succeeded in having the Encyclopedia condemned, realized, the work was not an innocent compilation of existing knowledge. In its pages nature replaced providence, determinism superseded God’s will as the guiding forces of the world. Instead of relying on authority and tradition, Diderot and his fellow philosophers urged...

(The entire section is 2376 words.)