Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

by Denis Diderot

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master (French: Jacques le fataliste et son maître) is а philosophical novel by Denis Diderot, written between 1765–1780 and published in 1796. It tells the story of a servant named Jacques and his anonymous master, who go on a journey across France and meet numerous characters and experience various adventures. With its comedic and humorous dialogue, the novel resembles a play, or more accurately, a comedy.

Master: Do you pray?

Jacques: Sometimes.

Master: And what do you say?

Jacques: I say: "Thou who mad'st the Great Scroll, whatever Thou art, Thou whose finger hast traced the Writing Up Above, Thou hast known for all time what I needed, Thy will be done. Amen."

Master: Don't you think you would do just as well if you shut up?"

Jacques is a fatalist, or he believes that there is no free will. Everything that happens to humanity is predetermined by fate or from up above. Diderot reveals his character and describes his determinism in several instances.

“What does one say to somebody who says: ‘Whatever the sum total of the elements I am composed of I am still one entity. Now one cause has only one effect. I have always been one single cause and I have therefore only ever had one effect to produce. My existence in time is therefore nothing more than a series of necessary effects’?”

“Because, without knowing what is written up above, none of us knows what we want or what we are doing, and we follow our whims which we call reason, or our reason which is often nothing but a dangerous whim which sometimes turns out well, sometimes badly.”

“The enjoyment of freedom which could be exercised without any motivation would be the real hallmark of a maniac.”

Throughout the novel Diderot often communicates with the reader as well, treating him/her as a character in the story.

“To speak to you frankly, Reader, I find that you are the more wicked of the two of us. How satisfied would I be if it were as easy for me to protect myself from your calumny as it is for you to protect yourself from the boredom or the danger of my work!”

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master received a lot of positive reviews, mainly because of its high entertainment value and deeply philosophical narrative.

“No matter how much a man may study, reflect and meditate on all the books in the world, he is nothing more than a minor scribe unless he has read the great book.”

“Life is but a series of misunderstandings.”

However, Diderot also received some criticism, especially in the time he wrote and published the novel, due to his questionable and skeptical behavior towards the existence of God and religion.

“Tell me how it is that whoever wrote out the great scroll could have decreed that such would be the reward of a noble act? Why should I, who am merely a miserable compound of faults, take your defense while He calmly watched you being attacked, knocked down, manhandled and trampled underfoot, He who is supposed to be the embodiment of all perfection?”

“There comes a moment when nearly all young girls and young boys become melancholic. They are disturbed by a vague uneasiness which extends to everything and can find no consolation. They look for solitude. They weep. The silence of the cloister moves them and the image of peace which seems to reign in religious houses seduces them. They mistake the first movements of their developing emotions for the voice of God calling them and it is at the precise moment when nature is calling to them that they embrace a life which is contrary to the laws of nature.”

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