Denis Diderot (1713)
On this date, October 5, 1713, the most famous French Encyclopedist, Denis Diderot, was born in Langres. Educated by the Jesuits (1728-1732), he took the opportunity to read everything that came his way, and then escaped before they could ordain him.
Diderot gradually lost his faith between his Essay on Merit and Virtue (Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu, 1745) – in which he wrote, “From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step” – and his next book, Philosophical Thoughts (Pensées philosophiques, 1746), which was burned by the hangman, the public censor. In that later work, Diderot wrote,
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.
Three years later, Diderot was charged with Atheism and imprisoned for a year for his Letter on the Blind (Lettre sur les aveugles, 1749), in which he argued his strict materialism and disbelief in a divine plan for the universe. It was in the same year, 1749, that he began his work on the great Dictionnaire Encyclopædique – the French Encyclopedia, the sum of human knowledge to that time. Diderot enlarged the scope of the project and made it a platform for anti-clerical and reformist ideas. The Encyclopedia was published between 1751 and 1772 in 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of engravings. Some of the most brilliant writers of the age rallied to the cause, including Voltaire and Rousseau.
There were many clerical and government attempts to suppress the work, but its popularity assured its success. Part of its perceived danger was that it undermined the clerical theory of the divine right of kings. As Diderot wrote,
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. (Dictionnaire Encyclopædique)
A radical notion indeed!
Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.