Entertaining Thoughts

The trials and tribulations of Denis Diderot.

Denis Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767.As befits the biography of an author who laboured to make his treatment of ponderous philosophical questions as amusing as possible, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely entertains. Lively in tone and briskly recounting the philosophe’s 71 years, it gives a good sense of the man, his tribulations and his labour as the principal force behind the Enlightenment’s quintessential work, the Encyclopédie. Curran’s book is dotted with black and white reproductions of prints, such as that of the fortified town of Langres, where Denis Diderot was born in 1713, or of the Château de Vincennes, where he was imprisoned for 102 days in 1749, as well as portraits of the period’s major intellectual and political personalities. It provides the necessary contexts, be they familial, religious, or political, to make itself accessible to a readership unfamiliar with the age and its famed movement of ideas. More than a biography, it constitutes a stepping stone into the French Enlightenment.

Possibly in hidden homage to Arthur M. Wilson’s magisterial two-volume Diderot (1957-72), this biography also divides the life in two: ‘Forbidden Fruits’ and ‘Late Harvest’. The former covers what little we know of Diderot’s youth, his education at Langres’ Collège des Jésuites and later at Paris’ Jansenist Collège d’Harcourt, the early publications that landed him in prison and the two decades that cover his editing the Encyclopédie. It presents Diderot as an exceptionally gifted young man, who left the comfort of his provincial family for an uneasy life in Paris. There, he quit the path that would have led to a successful career in the Church, trading it first for the precarious existence of a hack writer, then for the thankless, albeit well-paid, task of an editor forever playing hide and seek with the censors and ultimately pleasing no one, not even himself.

The Diderot initially portrayed in the second part of the biography is the theoretician and playwright of ‘bourgeois drama’, in which the domesticity of commoners replaces the grand settings of princely tragedies. His plays met with a degree of success in his time (Goethe saw Le père de famille in Frankfurt under French occupation), though it is safe to say they would now be deemed deadly dull. Whether his criticism would fare any better is debatable; Diderot liked art that seemed artless and subjects akin to his moralising plays. Bizarrely, for someone who produced erotica, he wrote disapprovingly of François Boucher’s nudes, though with Diderot one must be particularly careful not to take him at his word.

Curran considers a number of other Diderots: ‘The Sexologist’, as he calls him, the lover, the traveller to Russia to meet his patron, Catherine the Great, the dreamer of evolutionary theory and the decrier of injustice, especially the most grotesque – slavery – in the Abbé Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes (1770). What makes Diderot forever interesting, however, is that there was more than one of him at any one time. Each was challenging authors in some way. The overarching Diderot in this book is the atheist and materialist; though there is no denying that his was a journey from belief to unbelief, he was acutely aware of the philosophical questions raised by materialism. His was not a smug stance, as his disturbing dialogue, Rameau’s Nephew, which later inspired Hegel and Marx among others, makes abundantly clear. That was before Diderot saw the potential that his ironic, unreliable satire had for unravelling the very moral and political order he himself hoped to establish. 

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
Andrew S. Curran
Other Press 528pp £24.99
Review by Sylvana Tomaselli

Sylvana Tomaselli is the Harry Hinsley Lecturer in History at St John’s College, Cambridge.