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Denis Diderot

Diderot by Louis-Michel van Loo
Full name Denis Diderot
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy

Denis Diderot (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent figure during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as chief editor of and contributor to the creation of the Encyclopédie.

Diderot also contributed to literature, notably with Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Jacques the Fatalist and his Master), which emulated Laurence Sterne in challenging conventions regarding novels and their structure and content, while also examining philosophical ideas about free will. Diderot is also known as the author of the dialogue, Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew), upon which many articles and sermons about consumer desire have been based. His articles included many topics of the Enlightenment.

Contents

Life and death

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Denis Diderot, 1769

Denis Diderot was born in the eastern French city of Langres and commenced his formal education in the Lycée Louis le Grand. In 1732, he earned a master of arts degree in philosophy. He abandoned the idea of entering the clergy and decided instead to study law. His study of law was short-lived; in 1734, Diderot decided instead to become a writer. Because of his refusal to enter one of the learned professions, he was disowned by his father, and for the next ten years he lived a rather bohemian existence.

In 1743, he further alienated his father by marrying Antoinette Champion, a devout Roman Catholic. The match was considered inappropriate due to Champion's low social status, poor education, fatherless status, lack of a dowry, and, at thirty-two, being four years his senior. The marriage produced one surviving child, a girl. Her name was Angélique, after both Diderot's dead mother and sister. The death of his sister, a nun, from overwork in the convent may have affected Diderot's opinion of religion. She is assumed to have been the inspiration for his novel about a nun, La Religieuse, in which he depicts a woman who is forced to enter a monastery, and suffers at the hands of the other nuns in the community.

He had affairs with the writer Madame Puisieux and with Sophie Volland. His letters to Sophie Volland contain some of the most vivid of all the insights that we have of the daily life of the philosophic circle of Paris during this time period.

Though his work was broad and rigorous, it did not bring him riches. He secured none of the posts that were occasionally given to needy men of letters; he could not even obtain the bare official recognition of merit which was implied by being chosen a member of the Académie française. When the time came for him to provide a dowry for his daughter, he saw no alternative than to sell his library. When Catherine II of Russia heard of his financial troubles she commissioned an agent in Paris to buy the library. She then requested that the philosopher retain the books in Paris until she required them, and act as her librarian with a yearly salary. In 1773 and 1774, Diderot spent some months at the empress's court in Saint Petersburg.

Diderot died of gastro-intestinal problems in Paris on July 31, 1784, and was buried in the city's Église Saint-Roch. His heirs sent his vast library to Catherine II, who had it deposited at the National Library of Russia.

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Diderot's earliest works included a translation of Temple Stanyan's History of Greece (1743); with two colleagues, François-Vincent Toussaint and Marc-Antoine Eidous, he produced a translation of Robert James (physician)|Robert James' Medical Dictionary[1] (1746–1748) at about the same time he published a free rendering of Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit (1745), with some original notes of his own. In 1746, he wrote his first original work: the Pensées philosophiques[2], and he added to this a short complementary essay on the sufficiency of natural religion. He then composed a volume of bawdy stories, Les bijoux indiscrets (1748); in later years he repented this work. In 1747, he wrote the Promenade du sceptique, an allegory pointing first at the extravagances of Catholicism; second, at the vanity of the pleasures of the world which is the rival of the church; and third, at the desperate and unfathomable uncertainty of the philosophy which professes to be so high above both church and world.

Diderot's celebrated Lettre sur les aveugles ("Letter on the Blind") (1749), introduced him to the world as a daringly original thinker. The subject is a discussion of the interrelation between man's reason and the knowledge acquired through perception (the five senses). The title, "Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See" also evoked some ironic doubt about the who exactly were "the blind" under discussion. In the essay, a blind English mathematician named Saunderson argues that since knowledge derives from the senses, then mathematics is the only form of knowledge that both he and a sighted person can agree about. It is suggested that the blind could be taught to read through their sense of touch (a later essay, Lettre sur les sourds et muets, considered the case of a similar deprivation in the deaf and mute). What makes the Lettre sur les aveugles so remarkable, however, is its distinct, if undeveloped, presentation of the theory of variation and natural selection.[3]

This powerful essay ... revolves around a remarkable deathbed scene in which a dying blind philosopher, Saunderson, rejects the arguments of a providential God during his last hours. Saunderson's arguments are those of a Neo-Spinozist, Naturalist, and Fatalist, using a sophisticated notion of the self-generation and natural evolution of species without Creation or supernatural intervention. The notion of "thinking matter" is upheld and the "argument from design" discarded ... as hollow and unconvincing. The work appeared anonymously ... and was vigorously suppressed by the authorities. Diderot, who had been under police surveillance since 1747, was swiftly identified as the author ... and was imprisoned for some months at Vincennes, where he was visited almost daily by Rousseau, at the time his closest and most assiduous ally.[4]

After signing a letter of submission and promising never to write anything prejudicial against religion ever again (with the result that from then on his most controversial works were henceforth published only after his death), Diderot was released from the dungeons of the Vincennes fortress after three months. In collaboration with d'Alembert, he subsequently embarked on his greatest project, The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.

Encyclopédie

Title page of the Encyclopédie.

André Le Breton, a bookseller and printer, approached Diderot with a project for the publication of a translation of Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences into French, first undertaken by the Englishman John Mills, and followed by the German Gottfried Sellius. Diderot accepted the proposal. During this translation his creative mind and astute vision transformed the work. Instead of a mere reproduction of the Cyclopaedia, he persuaded Le Breton to enter upon a new work, which would collect all the active writers, ideas, and knowledge that were moving the cultivated class of the Republic of Letters to its depths; however, they were comparatively ineffective due to their lack of dispersion. His enthusiasm for the project was transmitted to the publishers; they collected a sufficient capital for a more vast enterprise than they had first planned. Jean le Rond d'Alembert was persuaded to become Diderot's colleague; the requisite had not gave permission was procured from the government.

In 1750 an elaborate prospectus announced the project to a delighted public, and in 1751 the first volume was published. This work was very unorthodox and had many forward-thinking ideas for the time. Diderot stated within this work, "An encyclopedia ought to make good the failure to execute such a project hitherto, and should encompass not only the fields already covered by the academies, but each and every branch of human knowledge." Upon encompassing every branch of knowledge this will give, "the power to change men's common way of thinking." This idea was profound and intriguing, as it was one of the first works during the Enlightenment. Diderot wanted to give all people the ability to further their knowledge and, in a sense, allow every person to have any knowledge they sought of the world. The work, implementing not only the expertise of scholars and Academies in their respective fields but that of the common man in their proficiencies in their trades, sought to bring together all knowledge of the time and condense this information for all to use. These people would amalgamate and work under a society to perform such a project. They would work alone in order to shed societal conformities, and build a multitude of information on a desired subject with varying view points, methods, or philosophies. He emphasized the vast abundance of knowledge held within each subject with intricacies and details to provide the greatest amount of knowledge to be gained from the subject. All people would benefit from these insights into different subjects as a means of betterment; bettering society as a whole and individuals alike.

This message under the Ancien Régime would severely dilute the regime's ability to control the people. Knowledge and power, two key items the upper class held over the lower class, were in jeopardy as knowledge would be more accessible, giving way to more power amongst the lower class. An encyclopedia would give the layman an ability to reason and use knowledge to better themselves; allowing for upward mobility and increased intellectual abundance amongst the lower class. A growth of knowledge amongst this segment of society would provide power to this group and a yearning to question the government. The numerated subjects in the folios were not just for the good of the people and society, but were for the promotion of the state as well. The state did not see any benefit in the works, instead viewing them as a contempt to contrive power and authority from the state.

Diderot's work was plagued by controversy from the beginning; the project was suspended by the courts in 1752. Just as the second volume was completed accusations arose, regarding seditious content, concerning the editors entries on religion and natural law. Diderot was detained and his house was searched for manuscripts for subsequent articles. But the search proved fruitless as no manuscripts could be found. They were hidden in the house of an unlikely confederate—Chretien de Lamoignon Malesherbes, the very official who ordered the search. Although Malesherbis was a staunch absolutist-loyal to the monarchy, he was sympathetic to the literary project. Along with his support, and that of other well placed influential confederates, the project resumed. Diderot returned to his efforts only to be constantly embroiled in controversy.

These twenty years were to Diderot not merely only a time of incessant drudgery, but harassing persecution and desertion of friends. The ecclesiastical party detested the Encyclopédie, in which they saw a rising stronghold for their philosophic enemies. By 1757 they could endure it no longer. The subscribers had grown from 2,000 to 4,000, a measure of the growth of the work in popular influence and power. The Encyclopédie threatened the governing social classes of France (aristocracy) because it took for granted the justice of religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and the value of science and industry. It asserted the doctrine that the main concern of the nation's government ought to be the nation's common people. It was believed that the Encyclopédie was the work of an organized band of conspirators against society, and that the dangerous ideas they held were made truly formidable by their open publication. In 1759, the Encyclopédie was formally suppressed. The decree did not stop the work, which went on, but its difficulties increased by the necessity of being clandestine. Jean le Rond d'Alembert withdrew from the enterprise and other powerful colleagues, including Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, declined to contribute further to a book which had acquired a bad reputation. Diderot was left to finish the task as best he could. He wrote several hundred articles, some very slight, but many of them laborious, comprehensive, and long. He damaged his eyesight correcting proofs and editing the manuscripts of less competent contributors. He spent his days at workshops, mastering manufacturing processes, and his nights writing what he had learned during the day. He was incessantly harassed by threats of police raids. The last copies of the first volume were issued in 1765. At the last moment, when his immense work was drawing to an end, he encountered a crowning mortification: he discovered that the bookseller, fearing the government's displeasure, had struck out from the proof sheets, after they had left Diderot's hands, all passages that he considered too dangerous. The monument to which Diderot had given the labor of twenty long and oppressive years was irreparably mutilated and defaced. It was twelve years, in 1772, before the subscribers received the final 27 folio volumes of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers since the first volume had been published.

Other works

Statue of Denis Diderot in the city of Langres, his birthplace

Although the Encyclopédie was Diderot's monumental piece, he was the author of many other works that sowed nearly every field of intellectual interest with new and creative ideas. He wrote sentimental plays, Le Fils naturel (1757) and Le Père de famille (1758), accompanying them with essays on theatrical theory and practice, including Les Entretiens sur Le Fils naturel (Conversations on Le Fils naturel), in which he announced the principles of a new drama—the serious, domestic, bourgeois drama of real life, in opposition to the stilted conventions of the classical French stage. His art criticism was also highly influential. Diderot's Essais sur la peinture was described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as "a magnificent work, which speaks even more helpfully to the poet than to the painter, though to the painter too it is as a blazing torch."

Diderot's most intimate friend was the philologist Friedrich Melchior Grimm. They were brought together by their friend in common at that time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Grimm wrote newsletters to various high personages in Germany, reporting the happenings of art and literature in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe. Diderot helped Grimm between 1759 and 1779, by writing an account of the annual exhibitions of paintings in the Paris Salon. These reports are highly readable pieces of art criticism. According to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, they initiated the French into a new way of laughing, and introduced people to the mystery and purport of colour by ideas. "Before Diderot," Anne Louise Germaine de Staël wrote, "I had never seen anything in pictures except dull and lifeless colours; it was his imagination that gave them relief and life, and it is almost a new sense for which I am indebted to his genius." Jean-Baptiste Greuze was Diderot's favorite contemporary artist.[5] Greuze's most characteristic pictures were the rendering in colour of the same sentiments of domestic virtue and the pathos of common life, which Diderot had attempted to represent upon the stage. Diderot was above all things interested in the life of individuals. He did not care about the abstract life of the race, but the incidents of individual character, the fortunes of a particular family, the relations of real and concrete motives in this or that special case. He was delighted with the enthusiasm of a born casuist in curious puzzles of right and wrong, and in devising a conflict between the generalities of ethics and the conditions of an ingeniously contrived practical dilemma. Diderot's interest expressed itself in didactic and sympathetic form. However, in two of his most remarkable pieces, this interest is not sympathetic, but ironic. Jacques le fataliste (written in 1773, but not published until 1792 in German and 1796 in French) is similar to Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey. His dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew) is a "farce-tragedy" reminiscent of the Satires of Horace. A favorite classical author of Diderot's, Horace's words Vertumnis, quotquot sunt, natus iniquis are quoted at the top of the Nephew. Diderot's intention in writing the dialogue is disputed; whether it is merely a satire on contemporary manners, or a reduction of the theory of self-interest to an absurdity, or the application of irony to the ethics of ordinary convention, or a mere setting for a discussion about music, or a vigorous dramatic sketch of a parasite and a human original. Whatever its intent, it is a remarkable conversation, representing an era of that held the art of conversation in the highest regard. The writing and publication history of the Nephew is likewise a bit mysterious. Diderot never saw the work through to publication during his lifetime, but there is every indication it was of continual interest to him. Though the original draft was written in 1761, he made additions to it year after year until his death twenty-three years later. Goethe's translation (1805) was the first introduction of Le Neveu de Rameau to the European public. After executing it, he gave back the original French manuscript to Friedrich Schiller, from whom he had it. No authentic French copy of it appeared until the writer had been dead for forty years (1823). Diderot's miscellaneous pieces range from a graceful trifle like the Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown) up to Le Rêve de d'Alembert, where he plunges into the depths of the controversy as to the ultimate constitution of matter and the meaning of life. Diderot was not a coherent and systematic thinker, but rather "a philosopher in whom all the contradictions of the time struggle with one another" (Rosenkranz). He did not develop a comprehensive system of materialism, but he may have made some contributions to the atheistic materialist works of his friend Paul Henri Thiry, baron d'Holbach.

Philosophy

As a philosopher Diderot speculated on free will and held a completely materialistic view of the universe; he suggested all human behavior is determined by heredity. He therefore warned his fellow philosophers against an overemphasis on mathematics and against the blind optimism that sees in the growth of physical knowledge an automatic social and human progress. He rejected the Idea of Progress. In his opinion, the aim of progressing through technology was doomed to fail. Therefore, he founded his philosophy on experiment and the study of probabilities. He wrote several articles and supplements concerning gambling, mortality rates, and inoculation against smallpox for the Encyclopédie. There he discreetly but firmly refuted d'Alembert's technical errors and personal positions on probability.

Bibliography

Monument to Denis Diderot in Paris, VIe arrondissement, by Jean Gautherin
  • Essai sur le mérite et la vertu, written by Shaftesbury French translation and annotation by Diderot (1745)
  • Pensées philosophiques, essay (1746)
  • La promenade du sceptique (1747)
  • Les bijoux indiscrets, novel (1748)
  • Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (1749)
  • L'Encyclopédie, (1750-1765)
  • Lettre sur les sourds et muets (1751)
  • Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature, essai (1751)
  • Le Fils naturel (1757)
  • Entretiens sur le Fils naturel (1757)
  • Le père de famille (1758)
  • Paradoxe sur le comédien (1758)
  • Discours sur la poesie dramatique (1758)
  • Salons, critique d'art (1759–1781)
  • La Religieuse, Roman (1760; revised in 1770 and in the early 1780s; the novel was first published as a volume posthumously in 1796).
  • Le neveu de Rameau, dialogue (1761?)
  • Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie (1763)
  • Mystification ou l’histoire des portraits (1768)
  • Entretien entre D'Alembert et Diderot (1769)
  • Le rêve de D'Alembert, dialogue (1769)
  • Suite de l'entretien entre D'Alembert et Diderot (1769)
  • Paradoxe sur le comédien (1769?)
  • Apologie de l'abbé Galiani (1770)
  • Principes philosophiques sur la matière et le mouvement, essai (1770)
  • Entretien d'un père avec ses enfants (1771)
  • Jacques le fataliste et son maître, novel (1771-1778)
  • Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1772)
  • Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes, in collaboration with Raynal (1772–1781)
  • Voyage en Hollande (1773)
  • Éléments de physiologie (1773–1774)
  • Réfutation d'Helvétius (1774)
  • Observations sur le Nakaz (1774)
  • Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron (1778)
  • Lettre apologétique de l'abbé Raynal à Monsieur Grimm (1781)
  • Aux insurgents d'Amérique (1782)

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Mark Twain, "A Majestic Literary Fossil", originally from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 80, issue 477, p. 439-444, February 1890. Online at Harper's site. Accessed September 24, 2006.
  2. ^ Bryan Magee. The Story of Philosophy. DK Publishing, Inc., New York: 1998. page 124
  3. ^ Diderot's contemporary, also a Frenchman, Pierre Louis Maupertuis, who in 1745 was named Head of the Prussian Academy of Science under Frederic the Great, was developing similar ideas. These proto-evolutionary theories were by no means as thought out and systematic as those of Charles Darwin a hundred years later.
  4. ^ Johnathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. (Oxford University Press. 2001, 2002), p. 710
  5. ^ Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, French Eighteenth-Century Painters. Cornell Paperbacks, 1981, pp.222-225. ISBN 0-8014-9218-1

References

Further reading

  • Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher (1974)
  • Crocker, Lester G. Diderot's Chaotic Order: Approach to a Synthesis (1974)
  • Fellows, Otis E. Diderot, (1989)
  • France, Peter. Diderot (1983)
  • Furbank, P. N. Diderot: A Critical Biography. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN 0-679-41421-5.
  • Gregory, Mary Efrosini. Diderot and the Metamorphosis of Species (Studies in Philosophy). New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0415955513.
  • Havens, George R. The Age of Ideas. New York: Holt, 1955. ISBN 0-89197-651-5.* Mason, John H. The Irresistible Diderot (1982)
  • Simon, Julia. Mass Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. ISBN 0-7914-2638-6.
  • Wilson, Arthur McCandless. Diderot (1972), the standard biography
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Primary sources

Selections:Diderot, D'Alembert, and a Society of Men of Letters. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc, 1965. LCCN 65-26535. ISBN 0-672-60479-5.

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Denis Diderot article)

From Wikiquote

Skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.

Denis Diderot (5 October 171331 July 1784) was a French philosopher and chief editor of the historic project to produce L'Encyclopédie.

Contents

Sourced

What is this world of ours? ... a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.
  • If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him.
    • Portraying a fictional conversation of Nicholas Saunderson with a priest, in ' Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter about the Blind] (1749), as quoted in Diderot and the Encyclopædists (1897) by John Morley, p. 92. Publication of this work resulted in Diderot being arrested and imprisoned.
  • What is this world of ours? A complex entity subject to sudden changes which all indicate a tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings which follow one another, assert themselves and disappear; a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.
    • Dying words of Nicholas Saunderson as portrayed in Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
  • What is this world? A complex whole, subject to endless revolutions. All these revolutions show a continual tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings who follow one another, press forward, and vanish; a fleeting symmetry; the order of a moment. I reproached you just now with estimating the perfection of things by your own capacity; and I might accuse you here of measuring its duration by the length of your own days. You judge of the continuous existence of the world, as an ephemeral insect might judge of yours. The world is eternal for you, as you are eternal to the being that lives but for one instant. Yet the insect is the more reasonable of the two. For what a prodigious succession of ephemeral generations attests your eternity! What an immeasurable tradition! Yet shall we all pass away, without the possibility of assigning either the real extension that we filled in space, or the precise time that we shall have endured. Time, matter, space—all, it may be, are no more than a point.
    • Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
  • As to all the outward signs that awaken within us feelings of sympathy and compassion, the blind are only affected by crying; I suspect them in general of lacking humanity. What difference is there for a blind man, between a man who is urinating, and man who, without crying out, is bleeding? And we ourselves, do we not cease to commiserate, when the distance or the smallness of the objects in question produce the same effect on us as the lack of sight produces in the blind man? All our virtues depend on the faculty of the senses, and on the degree to which external things affect us. Thus I do not doubt that, except for the fear of punishment, many people would not feel any remorse for killing a man from a distance at which he appeared no larger than a swallow. No more, at any rate, than they would for slaughtering a cow up close. If we feel compassion for a horse that suffers, but if we squash an ant without any scruple, isn’t the same principle at work?
    • Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
  • Only a very bad theologian would confuse the certainty that follows revelation with the truths that are revealed. They are entirely different things.
    • Apology for the Abbé de Prades (1752)
  • Il y a un peu de testicule au fond de nos sentiments les plus sublimes et de notre tendresse la plus épurée
    • There's a bit of testicle at the bottom of our most sublime feelings and our purest tenderness.
    • Letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville (1760-11-03)
Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.
  • There is no kind of harassment that a man may not inflict on a woman with impunity in civilized societies.
    • "On Women" (1772), as translated in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
  • Impenetrable in their dissimulation, cruel in their vengeance, tenacious in their purposes, unscrupulous as to their methods, animated by profound and hidden hatred for the tyranny of man — it is as though there exists among them an ever-present conspiracy toward domination, a sort of alliance like that subsisting among the priests of every country.
    • "On Women" (1772), as translated in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
  • The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.
    • "Refutation of Helvétius" (written 1773-76, published 1875)
  • L'esprit de l'escalier
    • "Spirit of the staircase" or "Staircase inspiration"
      • This phrase is a famous allusion to the witty remarks one thinks of when it is too late, as when one is leaving a meeting and going down the stairs. Paradoxe sur le Comédien (1773 - 1777)
  • It has been said that love robs those who have it of their wit, and gives it to those who have none.
    • Paradoxe sur le Comédien (1773 - 1777)
  • Man was born to live with his fellow human beings. Separate him, isolate him, his character will go bad, a thousand ridiculous affects will invade his heart, extravagant thoughts will germinate in his brain, like thorns in an uncultivated land.
    • The character Suzanne Simon, in La Religieuse) [The Nun] (1796)
  • Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.
    • "Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage" (1796)
  • The wisest among us is very lucky never to have met the woman, be she beautiful or ugly, intelligent or stupid, who could drive him crazy enough to be fit to be put into an asylum.
    • Ceci n’est pas un conte [This Is No Tale] (1796),
How old the world is! I walk between two eternities...
  • How old the world is! I walk between two eternities... What is my fleeting existence in comparison with that decaying rock, that valley digging its channel ever deeper, that forest that is tottering and those great masses above my head about to fall? I see the marble of tombs crumbling into dust; and yet I don’t want to die!
    • Salon of 1767 (1798), Oeuvres esthétiques
  • I have often seen an actor laugh off the stage, but I don’t remember ever having seen one weep.
    • "Paradox on Acting" (1830), as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
Pithy sentences are like sharp nails which force truth upon our memory.
  • Justice is the first virtue of those who command, and stops the complaints of those who obey.
    • As quoted in The Golden Treasury of Thought : A Gathering of Quotations from the Best Ancient and Modern Authors (1873) by Theodore Taylor, p. 227
  • Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,
    Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.
    • And his hands would plait the priest's entrails,
      For want of a rope, to strangle kings.
    • "Les Éleuthéromanes", in Poésies Diverses (1875)
    • Variant translation: His hands would plait the priest’s guts, if he had no rope, to strangle kings.
      • This derives from the prior statement widely attributed to Jean Meslier: "I would like — and this would be the last and most ardent of my wishes — I would like the last of the kings to be strangled by the guts of the last priest". It is often claimed the passage appears in Meslier's Testament (1725) but it only appears in abstracts of the work written by others. See the Wikipedia article Jean Meslier for details.
    • Variant: Et des boyaux du dernier prêtre
      Serrons le cou du dernier roi.
      • Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.
        • Attributed to Diderot by Jean-François de La Harpe in Cours de Littérature Ancienne et Moderne (1840)
    • Attributions to Diderot of similar statements also occur in various forms, ie: "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."
  • The more man ascends through the past, and the more he launches into the future, the greater he will be, and all these philosophers and ministers and truth-telling men who have fallen victims to the stupidity of nations, the atrocities of priests, the fury of tyrants, what consolation was left for them in death? This: That prejudice would pass, and that posterity would pour out the vial of ignominy upon their enemies. O Posterity! Holy and sacred stay of the unhappy and the oppressed; thou who art just, thou who art incorruptible, thou who findest the good man, who unmaskest the hypocrite, who breakest down the tyrant, may thy sure faith, thy consoling faith never, never abandon me!
    • As quoted in "Diderot" in The Great Infidels (1881) by Robert Green Ingersoll; The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll Vol. III (1900), p. 367
  • Pithy sentences are like sharp nails which force truth upon our memory.
    • As quoted in A Dictionary of Thoughts : Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations (1908) by Tryon Edwards, p. 338
  • The best doctor is the one you run for and can't find.
    • As quoted in Selected Thoughts from the French: XV Century - XX Century, with English Translations (1913) by James Raymond Solly, p. 67
  • Distance is a great promoter of admiration!
    • As quoted in Thesaurus of Epigrams: A New Classified Collection of Witty Remarks, Bon Mots and Toasts (1942) by Edmund Fuller
It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.
  • We are far more liable to catch the vices than the virtues of our associates.
    • As quoted in Thesaurus of Epigrams: A New Classified Collection of Witty Remarks, Bon Mots and Toasts (1942) by Edmund Fuller
  • Evil always turns up in this world through some genius or other.
    • As quoted in Dictionary of Foreign Quotations (1980) by Mary Collison, Robert L. Collison, p. 98
  • There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it.
    • As quoted in Dictionary of Foreign Quotations (1980) by Mary Collison, Robert L. Collison, p. 235
There are things I can't force. I must adjust. There are times when the greatest change needed is a change of my viewpoint.
  • I believe in God, although I live very happily with atheists... It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.
    • As quoted in Against the Faith (1985) by Jim Herrick, p. 75
    • Variant translation: It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but to believe or not believe in God is not important at all.
  • There are things I can't force. I must adjust. There are times when the greatest change needed is a change of my viewpoint.
    • As quoted in Cracking the Code of Our Physical Universe : The Key to a Whole New World of Enlightenment and Enrichment (2006) by Matthew M Radmanesh, p. 91
  • Happiest are the people who give most happiness to others.
    • As quoted in Happyology by Harald W. Tietze, p. 28

Pensées Philosophiques (1746)

Philosophical Thoughts (1746)
One may demand of me that I should seek truth, but not that I should find it.
  • When superstition is allowed to perform the task of old age in dulling the human temperament, we can say goodbye to all excellence in poetry, in painting, and in music.
    • Ch. 3, as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
  • To attempt the destruction of our passions is the height of folly. What a noble aim is that of the zealot who tortures himself like a madman in order to desire nothing, love nothing, feel nothing, and who, if he succeeded, would end up a complete monster!
    • Ch. 5, as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
  • The God of the Christians is a father who makes much of his apples, and very little of his children.
    • No. 16
  • On doit exiger de moi que je cherche la vérité, mais non que je la trouve.
    • One may demand of me that I should seek truth, but not that I should find it.
      • No. 29; Variant translation: I can be expected to look for truth but not to find it.
  • There is no good father who would want to resemble our Heavenly Father
    • No. 51
  • We are constantly railing against the passions; we ascribe to them all of man’s afflictions, and we forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures … But what provokes me is that only their adverse side is considered … and yet only passions, and great passions, can raise the soul to great things. Without them there is no sublimity, either in morals or in creativity. Art returns to infancy, and virtue becomes small-minded.
    • As translated in Diderot (1977) by Otis Fellows, p. 39
    • Variant translations:
    • One declaims endlessly against the passions; one imputes all of man's suffering to them. One forgets that they are also the source of all his pleasures.
    • Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.
  • Superstition is more injurious to God than atheism.
  • Scepticism is the first step towards truth.
    • Variant: A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.
      • As quoted in The Anchor Book of French Quotations with English Translations (1963) by Norbert Gutermam
    • Variant: The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.
  • To prove the Gospels by a miracle is to prove an absurdity by something contrary to nature.
    • As quoted in The Anchor Book of French Quotations with English Translations (1963) by Norbert Gutermam
  • To say that man is a compound of strength and weakness, light and darkness, smallness and greatness, is not to indict him, it is to define him.
    • As quoted in The Anchor Book of French Quotations with English Translations (1963) by Norbert Gutermam

L'Encyclopédie (1751 - 1766)

First published 1751 - 1766, revised in 1772, 1777 and 1780
Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian...
  • No man has received from nature the right to give orders to others. Freedom is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he is in enjoyment of his reason.
    • Article on Political Authority, Vol. 1, (1751) as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
    • Variant translation: No man has received from nature the right to command his fellow human beings.
  • Power acquired by violence is only a usurpation, and lasts only as long as the force of him who commands prevails over that of those who obey.
    • Article on Political Authority, Vol. 1 (1751)
  • The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty. It is to the state what health is to the individual.
    • Article on Government
The philosopher forms his principles on an infinity of particular observations. ... He does not confuse truth with plausibility; he takes for truth what is true, for forgery what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is probable. ... The philosophical spirit is thus a spirit of observation and accuracy.
  • Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian.
    Grace causes the Christian to act, reason the philosopher.
    Other men are carried away by their passions, their actions not being preceded by reflection: these are the men who walk in darkness. On the other hand, the philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection; he walks in the dark, but by a torch.
    The philosopher forms his principles from an infinity of particular observations. Most people adopt principles without thinking of the observations that have produced them, they believe the maxims exist, so to speak, by themselves. But the philosopher takes maxims from their source; he examines their origin; he knows their proper value, and he makes use of them only in so far as they suit him.
    Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination and whom he believes to be found everywhere; he contents himself with being able to unravel it where he can perceive it. He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is only probable. He does more, and here you have a great perfection of the philosopher: when he has no reason by which to judge, he knows how to live in suspension of judgment...
    The philosophical spirit is, then, a spirit of observation and exactness, which relates everything to true principles...
    • Article on Philosophy, Vol. 25, p. 667, as quoted in Main Currents of Western Thought : Readings in Western European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present (1978) by Franklin Le Van Baumer
    • Variant translation: Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher. Other men walk in darkness; the philosopher, who has the same passions, acts only after reflection; he walks through the night, but it is preceded by a torch. The philosopher forms his principles on an infinity of particular observations. ... He does not confuse truth with plausibility; he takes for truth what is true, for forgery what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is probable. ... The philosophical spirit is thus a spirit of observation and accuracy.
  • Go further, and require each of them to make a contribution: you will see how many things are still missing, and you will be obliged to get the assistance of a large number of men who belong to different classes, priceless men, but to whom the gates of the academies are nonetheless closed because of their social station. All the members of these learned societies are more than is needed for a single object of human science; all the societies together are not sufficient for a science of man in general.
    • Article on Philosophy
  • If exclusive privileges were not granted, and if the financial system would not tend to concentrate wealth, there would be few great fortunes and no quick wealth. When the means of growing rich is divided between a greater number of citizens, wealth will also be more evenly distributed; extreme poverty and extreme wealth would be also rare.
    • Article on Wealth

On the Interpretation of Nature (1753)

In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.
As translated in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
  • Are we not madder than those first inhabitants of the plain of Sennar? We know that the distance separating the earth from the sky is infinite, and yet we do not stop building our tower.
    • No. 4
  • There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination. Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound, and our experiments exact. We rarely see these three means combined; and for this reason, creative geniuses are not common.
    • No. 15
  • In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.
    • No. 50
  • The following general definition of an animal: a system of different organic molecules that have combined with one another, under the impulsion of a sensation similar to an obtuse and muffled sense of touch given to them by the creator of matter as a whole, until each one of them has found the most suitable position for it shape and comfort.
    • No. 51

On Dramatic Poetry (1758)

"On Dramatic Poetry" (1758), as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
Genius is present in every age, but the men carrying it within them remain benumbed unless extraordinary events occur to heat up and melt the mass so that it flows forth.
  • The pit of a theatre is the one place where the tears of virtuous and wicked men alike are mingled.
  • Genius is present in every age, but the men carrying it within them remain benumbed unless extraordinary events occur to heat up and melt the mass so that it flows forth.
  • It is not human nature we should accuse but the despicable conventions that pervert it.
  • Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.
  • When shall we see poets born? After a time of disasters and great misfortunes, when harrowed nations begin to breathe again. And then, shaken by the terror of such spectacles, imaginations will paint things entirely strange to those who have not witnessed them.
  • Shakespeare’s fault is not the greatest into which a poet may fall. It merely indicates a deficiency of taste.

Rameau's Nephew (1762)

Le Neveu de Rameau (written 1762, published 1821)
Every man has his dignity. I'm willing to forget mine, but at my own discretion and not when someone else tells me to.
  • Every man has his dignity. I'm willing to forget mine, but at my own discretion and not when someone else tells me to.
  • If there is one realm in which it is essential to be sublime, it is in wickedness. You spit on a petty thief, but you can’t deny a kind of respect for the great criminal.
  • Bad company is as instructive as licentiousness. One makes up for the loss of one’s innocence with the loss of one’s prejudices.
  • People praise virtue, but they hate it, they run away from it. It freezes you to death, and in this world you've got to keep your feet warm.
  • I discuss with myself questions of politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I let my mind rove wantonly, give it free rein to follow any idea, wise or mad that may present itself. ... My ideas are my harlots.
    • Variant translations:
      • My ideas are my whores.
      • My thoughts are my trollops.
  • Gratitude is a burden, and every burden is made to be shaken off.
  • We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.
  • If your little savage were left to himself and be allowed to retain all his ignorance, he would in time join the infant’s reasoning to the grown man’s passion, he would strangle his father and sleep with his mother.
  • What a hell of an economic system! Some are replete with everything while others, whose stomachs are no less demanding, whose hunger is just as recurrent, have nothing to bite on. The worst of it is the constrained posture need puts you in. The needy man does not walk like the rest; he skips, slithers, twists, crawls.

D’Alembert’s Dream (1769)

See this egg. It is with this that all the schools of theology and all the temples of the earth are to be overturned.
D’Alembert’s Dream (written 1769, published 1830)
  • All abstract sciences are nothing but the study of relations between signs.
    • Dr. Théophile de Bordeu, in “Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot”
  • We are all instruments endowed with feeling and memory. Our senses are so many strings that are struck by surrounding objects and that also frequently strike themselves.
    • “Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot”
  • Do you see this egg? With this you can topple every theological theory, every church or temple in the world. What is it, this egg, before the seed is introduced into it? An insentient mass. And after the seed has been introduced to into it? What is it then? An insentient mass. For what is the seed itself other than a crude and inanimate fluid? How is this mass to make a transition to a different structure, to sentience, to life? Through heat. And what will produce that heat in it? Motion.
    • “Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot”, as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker, and The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (2004) by Louis K Dupré, p. 30
    • Variant translation: See this egg. It is with this that all the schools of theology and all the temples of the earth are to be overturned.
      • As quoted in Diderot, Reason and Resonance (1982) by Élisabeth de Fontenay, p. 217

Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)

A letter to Catherine the Great (1774), published in 1921, as translated in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
Disturbances in society are never more fearful than when those who are stirring up the trouble can use the pretext of religion to mask their true designs.
  • Disturbances in society are never more fearful than when those who are stirring up the trouble can use the pretext of religion to mask their true designs.
  • The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.
  • In any country where talent and virtue produce no advancement, money will be the national god. Its inhabitants will either have to possess money or make others believe that they do. Wealth will be the highest virtue, poverty the greatest vice. Those who have money will display it in every imaginable way. If their ostentation does not exceed their fortune, all will be well. But if their ostentation does exceed their fortune they will ruin themselves. In such a country, the greatest fortunes will vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Those who don't have money will ruin themselves with vain efforts to conceal their poverty. That is one kind of affluence: the outward sign of wealth for a small number, the mask of poverty for the majority, and a source of corruption for all.
  • Morals are in all countries the result of legislation and government; they are not African or Asian or European: they are good or bad.
  • Patriotism is an ephemeral motive that scarcely ever outlasts the particular threat to society that aroused it.
  • The possibility of divorce renders both marriage partners stricter in their observance of the duties they owe to each other. Divorces help to improve morals and to increase the population.
  • The general interest of the masses might take the place of the insight of genius if it were allowed freedom of action.
  • The decisions of law courts should never be printed: in the long run, they form a counterauthority to the law.

Conversations with a Christian Lady (1774)

Conversations with a Christian Lady (Written in 1774, published 1777), as translated in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker
  • The blood of Jesus Christ can cover a multitude of sins, it seems to me.
  • The most dangerous madmen are those created by religion, and ... people whose aim is to disrupt society always know how to make good use of them on occasion.
  • There is not a Musselman alive who would not imagine that he was performing an action pleasing to God and his Holy Prophet by exterminating every Christian on earth, while the Christians are scarcely more tolerant on their side.

Jacques le Fataliste (1796)

Jacques le Fataliste [Jacques the Fatalist] (1796)
  • Jacques said that his master said that everything good or evil we encounter here below was written on high.
    • Prologue
  • How did they meet? By chance, like everybody ... Where did they come from? From the nearest place. Where were they going? Do we know where we are going?
    • Prologue
  • How easy it is to tell tales!
  • The first promise exchanged by two beings of flesh was at the foot of a rock that was crumbling into dust; they took as witness for their constancy a sky that is not the same for a single instant; everything changed in them and around them, and they believed their hearts free of vicissitudes. O children! always children!

Elements of Physiology (1875)

Elements of Physiology (written 1774-1780, published 1875)
It is said that desire is a product of the will, but the converse is in fact true: will is a product of desire.
  • Gaiety — a quality of ordinary men. Genius always presupposes some disorder in the machine.
    • “Diseases"
  • Good music is very close to primitive language.
    • "Correspondence of Ideas with the Motion of Organs"
  • The infant runs toward it with its eyes closed, the adult is stationary, the old man approaches it with his back turned.
    • "Death"
  • It is said that desire is a product of the will, but the converse is in fact true: will is a product of desire.
    • "Will, Freedom”
  • There is only one passion, the passion for happiness.
    • "Will, Freedom”
  • The world is the house of the strong. I shall not know until the end what I have lost or won in this place, in this vast gambling den where I have spent more than sixty years, dicebox in hand, shaking the dice.
    • Conclusion

Misattributed

  • Although a man may wear fine clothing, if he lives peacefully; and is good, self-possessed, has faith and is pure; and if he does not hurt any living being, he is a holy man.

Quotes about Diderot

  • If I had believed him, everything would have been turned upside down... all would have been turned topsy-turvy to make room for impractical theories.
  • If ever anybody dedicated his whole life to the "enthusiasm for truth and justice" — using this phrase in the good sense — it was Diderot.
  • Diderot took the ground that, if orthodox religion be true Christ was guilty of suicide. Having the power to defend himself he should have used it.
    • Robert Green Ingersoll in "Diderot" in The Great Infidels (1881); The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll Vol. III (1900), p. 367
  • Of course it would not do for the church to allow a man to die in peace who had added to the intellectual wealth of the world. The moment Diderot was dead, Catholic priests began painting and recounting the horrors of his expiring moments. They described him as overcome with remorse, as insane with fear; and these falsehoods have been repeated by the Protestant world, and will probably be repeated by thousands of ministers after we are dead.
    The truth is, he had passed his threescore years and ten. He had lived for seventy-one years. He had eaten his supper. He had been conversing with his wife. He was reclining in his easy chair. His mind was at perfect rest. He had entered, without knowing it, the twilight of his last day. Above the horizon was the evening star, telling of sleep. The room grew still and the stillness was lulled by the murmur of the street. There were a few moments of perfect peace. The wife said, "He is asleep." She enjoyed his repose, and breathed softly that he might not be disturbed. The moments wore on, and still he slept. Lovingly, softly, at last she touched him. Yes, he was asleep. He had become a part of the eternal silence.
    • Robert Green Ingersoll in "Diderot" in The Great Infidels (1881); The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll Vol. III (1900), p. 367

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