Denis Diderot Additional Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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

One of the principal leaders in the late eighteenth century Enlightenment, Diderot is best known as the editor of L’Encyclopédie: ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772, Encyclopedia or Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts), a twenty-eight-volume work designed to examine social and physical phenomena in strictly rational terms. Human experience—rather than God or the dictates of organized religion—anchored the enterprise, which became the first great modern work of reference. Diderot’s efforts on behalf of the Encyclopédie began in 1746. Working initially with mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, he enlisted as contributors many of the most influential French thinkers of the era, including Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Montesquieu, too, is often associated with the Encyclopédie, although he wrote nothing specifically for it. The complete work comprised seventeen volumes of text and eleven of plates.

Beginning with the publication of the first volume, the Encyclopédie—which exposed clerical and judicial abuses—was persistently attacked by the Jesuits, Jansenists, the General Assembly of the Clergy, the Parlement of Paris, the king’s council, the pope, and defenders of the old orthodoxies and the Old Regime. In 1752, its first two volumes were suppressed for their political and religious outspokenness, but two years later King...

(The entire section is 535 words.)


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: As editor of and contributor to the Encyclopedia, Diderot codified and promulgated the views of the French Enlightenment. He developed a philosophy of nature and promoted biology and chemistry with physiological investigations.

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 Catholic 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 150-mile journey north to Paris three years later to study at the Jesuit Collège 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.

Because 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 A Medical Dictionary (1743-1745). At the same time that he was translating James’s treatise, he was adapting An Inquiry Concerning Virtue in Two Discourses (1699), by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury. 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, 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; the promenade of a skeptic) 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 An Essay on Blindness, 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 Encyclopedia. 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’s five-volume Cyclopaedia: Or, Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (1728).

As realized by conservative opponents, who twice succeeded in having the Encyclopedia condemned, the work was not an innocent compilation of existing knowledge. In its pages nature replaced providence and 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 readers to judge by experience and experimentation. In a world of monarchies, the article “Political Authority” proclaimed that “no man has received from nature the right to command other men. Freedom is a present from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he enjoys reason.” By 1758, d’Alembert was sufficiently frightened by official reaction to resign as coeditor, leaving Diderot with the responsibility of writing and soliciting contributions to complete the seventeen volumes of text and twelve of plates.


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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Denis Diderot’s father was not only a reputed craftsman, a maker of cutlery, but also a respected and educated citizen who provided enlightened upbringing for his children. Denis was first educated by the Jesuits in his native Langres, and, when he showed precocious abilities, he was sent by his father to study at the Jesuit college in Paris. Moreover, when he developed doubts about his faith, he was permitted to abandon his preparations for the priesthood in favor of the study of law. The law, however, failed to attract young Diderot for long, and he spent the period of his twenties leading a rather bohemian existence, studying on his own, spending time in the cafés where intellectuals gathered, and earning his living by...

(The entire section is 439 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Denis Diderot was born in Langres, France, on October 5, 1713. His father, Didier Diderot, was a master cutler; his mother, Angélique Vigneron, was the daughter of a tanner. The family was therefore decidedly bourgeois. Although Diderot was to quarrel with his family’s religious values, he remained true to his middle-class origins in the plays he wrote in the 1750’s. Destined by his father for the priesthood, Diderot was enrolled in the local Jesuit college. In 1728, he went to Paris to continue his religious studies; four years later, he received a master of arts degree from the University of Paris. By then, he had lost all interest in a clerical career, so for two years he studied law under Clément de Ris. This occupation...

(The entire section is 634 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Denis Diderot was born on October 5, 1713, in Langres, France, one of the seven children of the master cutler Didier Diderot and Angélique Vigneron. The family of the future anticleric was pious and devout, and Diderot’s youngest brother, Didier-Pierre, was later to become a canon at Langres, deeply alienated from the great writer. Diderot’s younger sister, Angélique, died insane in a convent; her cruel fate inspired Diderot’s invective against convents in The Nun. Although Diderot began his studies at home, he was an excellent student of the Jesuits from 1723 to 1728, receiving several prizes. He also began his study of Latin and Greek with them, and he remained devoted to the classics throughout his life. He even...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Denis Diderot (dee-DROH) was born in Langres, Champagne, France, on October 5, 1713. He was the second child born to Didier Diderot and Angélique Vigneron Diderot; a son born the previous year had died in infancy. His mother was the daughter of a merchant tanner, and his father was a master cutler, well known for his surgical tools. Diderot had two sisters who survived to adulthood. His sister Denise, who remained unmarried her entire life, was born on January 27, 1715; his sister Angélique, who became an Ursuline nun in spite of the family’s opposition, was born on April 3, 1720. On March 21, 1722, the last of his siblings, Didier-Pierre, was born.

From 1723 to 1728, Diderot studied at the Collège des Jesuites...

(The entire section is 1194 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Denis Diderot’s literary works reflect the two contrary aspects of his nature. His philosophical writings reveal his rational acceptance of a mechanical, materialistic world and the human being as a part of it. His plays, his critical comments on painting, Les Salons; and his novel The Nun represent the sentimental and moralistic Diderot. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master stands as the work most representative of Diderot in his totality, as it brings together his philosophical beliefs, an examination of materialism and fatalism, and his sentimentality in depicting Jacques’s final attitude.

(The entire section is 93 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like so many of his famous contemporaries, Denis Diderot (deed-uh-roh) was of respectable, even humble origin, and lived the life of a public controversialist. He early rebelled against his Jesuit background and, refusing to go into the solid professions of law or medicine, became a bookseller’s hack, married a woman with whom he could not live, and led a bohemian existence. His conversation, always his great talent, attracted the notice of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even that of Catherine the Great, who once saved the great encyclopedist from penury by buying his library and then making him her librarian. His aesthetic, philosophic, and literary judgments made such an impression that he was commissioned to translate Ephraim...

(The entire section is 367 words.)