Book Review

Digging Up Diderot

I do not flatter myself into thinking that, when the great revolution comes, my name will still survive. . . . But at least I will be able to tell myself that I contributed as much as possible to the hap­piness of my fellow man, and prepared, perhaps from afar, the improvement of their lot.
Political Writings


What is this will, what is this freedom of the man who’s dreaming?
D’Alembert’s Dream

There are at least two Diderots, both controversial, both remarkable Enlightenment figures. The first was a renowned philosophe and atheist associated with Voltaire and Rousseau but often thought their inferior in accomplishment. He was known chiefly as the major author and editor of the Encyclopédie—a revolutionary project of the eighteenth century—as well as a few plays and other works such as Philosophical Thoughts (1746), The Skeptic’s Walk (same year) and Letter on the Blind (1749). He also wrote a brilliantly risqué novel, The Indiscreet Jewels (1748), in which women’s genitalia narrate their experiences. Perhaps this is the figure about whom W. H. Auden wrote, in “Voltaire at Ferney,” “Dear Diderot was dull but did his best.” Auden loved alliteration more than truth in that line. Diderot was anything but dull and did not always do his best. In 1749 he spent four months in prison for his early writings, and that trauma probably shocked him into withholding some of his most significant work from publication.

The second Diderot emerged in the centuries following his death in 1784, with the discovery and publication of his major philosophical works, his most enduring fiction and other writings. For a time he was a missing link of the Enlightenment, highly influential—directly or indirectly—on America’s founders, as well as Goethe and a small army of other writers. It may be a long time before Diderot’s complicated legacy is fully understood, which makes Andrew S. Curran’s new biography, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely,[1] a timely exercise, especially helpful for those of us not steeped in philosophy. He humanizes Denis Diderot by uniting the public intellectual and the secret one known to his daughter and a few avid supporters. Diderot becomes a flawed, energetic man, a courageous defender of the liberated mind. He disparaged colonialism and slavery, encouraged Catherine the Great of Russia to elevate the rule of law above “the abuses of the state and the Church”—advice she considered and set aside. In much of his best work the form of the Platonic dialogue achieves irreverent vitality and wit. His writing is, in my limited experience of some recent translations, fun to read.

Diderot was famous in Parisian circles for his conversation, so it’s not surprising that his philosophy exhibits a wacky enthusiasm. Rameau’s Nephew (written in 1761, but not published for another 130 years) reads like the love child of Socrates and Samuel Beckett with a dash of Mozartian élan. The poetry quoted in Plato finds an equivalent here in musical referents, though the ideas batted back and forth include good and evil, pleasure, and the nonexistence of God. The talkers are HIM and ME (Lui and Moi), the former being the eponymous and fictionalized relative of France’s leading composer at the time:

He’s the nephew of that famous musician who delivered us from Lully and his plain chant which we had been intoning for more than a hundred years, and who set down all those unintelligible versions and apocalyptic truths about the theory of music which neither he nor anyone else ever really understood, and who left us with a certain number of operas which have some harmony, some snatches of song, some disconnected ideas, some banging and crashing, some flights, some triumphs, some spears, some glories, some murmurings, some breathless victories, along with a few dance tunes which will last forever and which, having killed off the Florentine, will in turn be killed off by the Italian virtuosi. . . .

I found this lively translation by Kate E. Tunstall and Caroline Warman[2] and was struck again by comparisons to Beckett’s flights of invective. The nephew refers to himself as “an ignoramus, a fool, a madman, an upstart, a hanger-on, what the Burgundians call a dirty scally, a cheat, a greedy pig. . . .” He’s brilliant and despairing, offering at times the absurdist minimalism of Beckett as well:

We were both silent for a while, during which time he walked up and down, whistling and singing. To get him to talk about his talent again, I said: What are you working on at the moment?


ME—That must be very tiring.

These two men have met near the fleshpots of the Palais Royale and converse in a well-known cafe. The work has an effervescence one doesn’t often find in philosophy. Professor Curran informs us that Diderot was also satirizing his enemies in the portrait of Rameau, but this context pales beside the dialogue’s comic tone. It’s wonderful stuff.

Yet Rameau’s Nephew and other masterpieces were nearly lost to us, as Curran writes:

These hidden works did not appear in the months after Diderot died; they trickled out over the course of decades. Several of his lost books were published during the waning years of the French Revolution; others appeared during the course of the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30), while still more of his writing emerged during the Second Empire (1852–70). Perhaps the most significant addition to Diderot’s corpus came in 1890 when a librarian discov­ered a complete manuscript version of Diderot’s masterpiece, Le neveau de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew), in a bouquiniste’s stand on the banks of the Seine. In this riotous philosophical dialogue, the writer courageously gave life to an unforgettable anti-hero who extolled the virtues of evil and social parasitism while preaching the right to unbridled pleasure.

Professor Curran’s prologue, politely titled “Unburying Diderot,” makes the drama of representation—a phrase Diderot might have relished—only too clear. The evidence about Diderot’s life is spotty and mythologized. We don’t have a full biography because too much was hidden and too few letters survive. Curran’s book considers its subject in thematically-arranged chapters devoted mostly to the writing. The life itself might have seemed dull, to use Auden’s word, devoted as it was to the hard labor of intellectual pursuits—two decades on the Encyclopédie alone. But there was enough upheaval and romantic turmoil in Diderot’s life to make him something of a representative man in an era when class conflict and the blindness of Europe’s monarchies led to bloody, world-shattering revolutions.


In a time of religious and political intolerance, it is easy to be grateful for the Enlightenment, even with its subsequent violent idealisms. Jefferson said every generation needs its revolution, but that puts a lot of strain on the world. We need a break from it all, and surely the intellectual brilliance of figures from Newton and Locke to Diderot shouldn’t be blamed for the Reign of Terror. Revolutionary fervor is its own intolerance, as we have seen again and again in modern times. Diderot was not a saint by any means—he was refreshingly human, argumentative, occasionally dishonest, funny, ribald and enthusiastic. But he was not a particularly practical man, as his defender Catherine the Great pointed out to him during his visit to her court in St. Petersburg in 1773:

Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with the greatest pleasure to all the inspirations flowing from your brilliant mind. But all your grand philosophies, which I understand very well, would do marvelously in books and very badly in practice. In your plans for reform, you forget the difference between our two roles: you work only on paper which consents to anything: it is smooth and flexible and offers no obstacles either to your imagination or to your pen, whereas I, poor empress, work on human skin, which is far more prickly and sensitive.

One doesn’t have to think of Buchenwald to get a chill from the “poor” empress’s choice of metaphors, and one doesn’t have to think of Plato’s philosopher king to wonder what might have happened if Church and state had been more enlightened, more compassionate and open to change. Still, Catherine was remarkable in her support of intellectuals, providing Diderot with an income, even buying his vast personal library and moving it after his death to her capital. The Enlightenment was both opposed and fostered by the monarchies it undermined—another of history’s ironies.

Diderot’s intellectual life started in the Church, and he very nearly became a canon, educated by Jesuits in his home town of Langres, where he was born in 1713, and later in Paris. When he left the Sorbonne in 1735, he had received a deeper formal education than the other philosophes, studying theology and philosophy. He then mastered Italian and English and began working as a translator, with sidelines as a minor swindler and scoundrel. Both his education and his experience of intolerance—from Church, state, and his own demanding father—inspired his independence. He wouldn’t have approved of the puritanical Jansenist movement among French Catholics, but its violent suppression by the Crown was eye opening:

Such a conflict was anything but unusual from Diderot’s point of view; it was emblematic of how religion functioned more generally in the world. Far from bringing people together, it seemed that each religious faction saw their adversaries as either spiritual infidels or political foes that needed to be crushed. Diderot later explained this phenomenon in the plainest of terms: “I have seen the deist arm himself . . . against the atheist; the deist and the atheist attack the Jew; the atheist, the deist and the Jew band together against the Christian; the Christian, the deist, the atheist, and the Jew oppose the Muslim; the atheist, the deist, the Jew, the Muslim and a multitude of Christian sects attack the Christian.”

He found alternatives to such intolerance in Epicurean philosophy, particularly Lucretius, and the skeptical theology of Spinoza, who “rejected revelation and denied the possibility that a God could exist outside the boundaries of nature and philosophy.” Impiety was in the air, and Diderot breathed deeply. He befriended Rousseau in 1742 and corresponded with Voltaire, whose own education exalted science above dogma. He married a woman his father disapproved of, and while it was not a particularly happy marriage, and he would take several lovers in the decades that followed, he seems to have respected his wife as a person, even though she was not his intellectual equal.

Above all, Diderot was not a puritan. He enjoyed the appetites and disliked the forebodings of Pascal, who was, according to Curran, “Hobbes in a hair shirt.” When Diderot published his Philosophical Thoughts with its restless questioning of authority, Curran says, he “no longer had any need for Roman Catholicism and its spiteful trickster of a God. Yet the writer remained wary of the emptiness of atheism. While it may be hard to understand now, the most frightening aspect of a godless world was not godlessness itself; it was what remained after God was gone: soulless humans who seemed little more than machines living in a world that was potentially determinist, where all future events were preordained, not by an ominous deity, but by a set of mechanistic rules.”

He thought bravely, but Diderot was not a martyr. When in 1749 he was arrested for attacking morality and religion and taken to the prison at Vincennes, he denied having authored Letter on the Blind for the benefit of those who see and The Indiscreet Jewels. Work on the great Encyclopédie was already beginning—a monumental intellectual construction that would involve dozens of authors, including Americans Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, several editors, several publishers in more than one country, delays, censorings, hatchet jobs, betrayals and salvations—and friends came to Diderot’s aid, seeing to it that he had access to books and was not held in the worst dungeons. On his release, he threw himself into the enlightened project, subtitled “a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts,” and worked like a mule till its completion. The eleventh volume of illustrative plates was published in 1772; the seventeenth and final volume of articles in 1766.

In our time of thick-headed leaders promoting ignorance and lies, the contemplation of an irreverent shrine to human learning is inspiring. The Encyclopédie’s editors created a new canon of thinkers and “intellectual heroes,” such as “Bacon, Leibnitz, Descartes, Locke, Newton, Buffon, Fontenelle, and Voltaire.” Diderot’s collaborator, the mathematician Jean le Rond D’Alembert, promoted a modern curriculum and “what one might call an Enlightenment version of manifest destiny.” Diderot himself was pursuing dangerous freethinking not just in individual essays, but in the way the work’s system subverted society’s dominant irrationality. One section subtitled “Science of God” toyed with atheism: “Closer readers got the joke: the more one studies the so-called Science of God, the more it becomes clear that religion leads inevitably to occult and irrational practices. Indeed, within the Encycplopédie’s overall breakdown of human knowledge, the so-called Science of God could just as easily have been classified under human­kind’s ability to ‘imagine’ as its capacity to ‘reason.’” Ultimately, Diderot placed religious dogma in the realm of make-believe. But he couldn’t do so directly. In order to get past relentless censorship, he had to create a subterranean system of satirical connections: “After all, it was the repressive elements of the ancien régime that spawned the book’s brilliant feints, satire, and irony, not to mention its overall methodological apparatus and structure.” Curran adds, “The most famous example is the entry on ‘Anthropophages’ or ‘Cannibals’: its cross-reference directed readers to the entries for ‘Altar,’ ‘Communion,’ and ‘Eucharist.’”

To me, Diderot represents humanity without idealism—or without the totalizing idealism of Rousseau, with its attendant isolation and paranoia. Curran makes a very good case for Diderot as a champion of liberal ideas about sexuality, learning, freedom, limited monarchy and the abolition of slavery, but there are also the counterweights of Diderot’s art criticism, which could be narrow-minded, and his occa­sional subterfuge with women. The love of his life was a brilliant spinster, Louise-Henriette Volland, whom he called Sophie for her wisdom, and it is in letters to her that we might see Diderot’s vulnerable yearnings and desires. Alas, Sophie burned many of them and requested that her own letters be returned to her as well, “which she presumably consigned to a fireplace shortly thereafter.” Their affair lasted through the trials of completing the Encyclopédie, including periods when it was shut down and Diderot “was in grave danger of being imprisoned.” Curran quotes one of Diderot’s surviving letters to her:

I am writing without being able to see. I came. I wanted to kiss your hand and return home quickly thereafter. I will return without that gift . . . It is nine o’clock. I am writing you that I love you; I at least want to write it to you, but I don’t know if the pen is bending to my will. Won’t you come down so that I can tell you this, and then flee?

Adieu, my Sophie, good night. Your heart must be telling you that I am here. This is the first time that I am writing in the dark. This situation should arouse loving thoughts in me. I am feeling only one; it is that I am unable to leave. The hope of seeing you for a moment is holding me back, and I continue to speak to you without knowing if I am actually forming letters. Wherever you see nothing [on this paper], read that I love you.

The author of Letter on the Blind writing fervently in the dark—it’s a beautiful image of Diderot the man, for whom the intellectual life is never divorced from the predicament of personhood, and for whom dramatic dialogues would as a result be the most apposite form of discourse.

A man of his time, Diderot associated thinking with masculinity and thought of Sophie, in consequence, as hermaphroditic. But he was also scientifically correct in seeing sexual binaries as only part of the story—there’s a bit of the hermaphrodite in all of us.


Writing about a genius from the past, one has two choices. Either we make of him an image of ourselves, taking the ideas that most suit us to buttress our own thinking, or we seek him in historical context, trying to understand his distinct identity. The example of Diderot thwarts us in both cases, it would seem, demanding the flexibility and doubt of real engagement. That’s why his philosophical dialogues fascinate—they subvert the doctrinaire, while their undeniable vitality draws us in. His literary experiments, The Nun and Jacques the Fatalist (both posthumously published), provoke with their style as well as their subjects. The Nun deals frankly with sexuality, while Jacques seems a philosophical road novel. It was admired by Goethe, and its opening reads like a modern work:

How had they met? By chance, like everybody else. What were their names? What’s it to you? Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going? Does anyone really know where they’re going? What were they saying? The Master wasn’t saying anything, and Jacques was saying that his Captain used to say that everything that happens to us here below, for good and for ill, was written up there, on high.

The few pages I’ve read of this novel (I hope to go further one day) reminded me of Candide crossed with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.”

Such open-mindedness about identity is one of Diderot’s chief attractions, and we can see it especially in another of his major dialogues, D’Alembert’s Dream—which again fictionalizes his contemporaries in the manner of Plato. The dialogue involves a Dr. Bordeu and Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse, who has overheard D’Alembert talking in his sleep, with rushes of insight coming, it would seem, straight out of the unconscious. Curran writes,

Bordeu—as a medical practitioner—begins his conversation by underscoring the utility of masturbation for both men and women. As he explains it, both sexes can suffer from pent-up and potentially deleterious surpluses of sexual energy. After cheerfully volunteering that sometimes one simply needs to give “nature a hand on occa­sion,” he then moves on to the question of other nonprocreative sexual acts, including those by members of the same sex. Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse’s objection that such coupling is “against nature” incites an authoritative reply from Bordeu that numbers among the boldest statements in Diderot’s entire corpus: “Nothing that exists can be against nature or outside nature . . .” Same-sex attraction and love is entirely natural, according to this principle, by dint of the simple fact that it exists.

Sexual identity is a major theme of The Nun, which exposes religious hypocrisy as well. In my admittedly hasty reading, D’Alembert’s Dream considers ideas important not only to mathematics and philosophy, but also to anyone questioning notions of the self. As Richard Wilbur put it in a poem, “What is an individual thing?” Indeed. And is there a more profound question?

“Many of the stimulating ideas in D’Alembert’s Dream,” writes Curran, “have their roots in Lucretius’s De rerum natura. This was not the first time that the philosophe had drawn from the Roman poet’s unpredictable, vibrant, and destabilizing understanding of nature.” The idea of a “churning universe . . . gives rise to one of the most powerful moments in the Dream. This is when D’Alembert realizes that the human race, too, is but a fleeting occurrence within this endless invention and reinvention of nature: ‘Oh, vanity of human thought! oh poverty of all our glory and labors! oh how pitiful, how limited is our vision! There is nothing real except eating, drinking, living, making love and sleeping. . . .’” If the materialism of the vision bothers you, try reading the translation by Ian Johnston.[3] You might find a sort of Darwinian consolation in nature, where everything is organically related. D’Alembert’s sleep-talking outbursts are fevered poetry. Here’s one of the earliest in the dialogue:

. . . he started to shout, “Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse! Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse!” “What do you want?” “Have you sometimes seen a swarm of bees going out of their hive? . . . The world, or the general mass of matter, is the large hive . . . Have you seen them move out to the end of a tree branch to form a long cluster of small winged animals, all hooked to one another by their feet? . . . This cluster is a being, an individual, an animal of some sort . . . But these clusters all have to be similar to each other . . . Yes, if he allowed only one homogenous material. . . . Have you seen them?” “Yes, I’ve seen them.” “Have you seen them?” “Yes, my friend, I tell you I have.” “If one of these bees decides somehow to pinch the bee to which it is hanging, what do you think will happen? Tell me.” “I have no idea.” “Tell me, anyway . . . So you don’t know, but the philosopher knows . . . yes, he does. If you ever see him, and you’re bound to see him sometime, for he promised me you would, he’ll tell you that the second bee will pinch the one next to it, that in the entire cluster there would be as many sensations aroused as there are small animals, that everything will get aroused, shift itself, change position and shape, that a noise will arise, small cries, and that someone who had never seen a group like that arrange itself would be tempted to assume it was an animal with five or six hundred heads and a thousand or twelve hundred wings. . . .”

The philosopher, like the scientist and the poet, must be an observer. Diderot rigorously adhered to this belief and to the freedom of making his own connections. That he did so while never forgetting the suffering individual and the life of the body makes him, in my view, heroic. What others have made of him is another matter. During the French Revolution his lead coffin was dug up to make bullets.

[1] Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, by Andrew S. Curran. Other Press. $28.95.

[2] Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, ed. by Marian Hobson, trans. by Kate E. Tunstall and Caroline Warman (Cambridge, England, 2016).

[3] Denis Diderot, D’Alembert’s Dream, trans. by Ian Johnston (London, 1981).