Diderot, Denys

, of the academy of Berlin, an eminent French writer, was the son of a cutler, and was bora at Langres, in 1713. The Jesuits, with whom he went through a course of study, were desirous of having him in their order, and one of his uncles designing him for a canonry which he had in his gift, made him take the tonsure. But his father, seeing that he was not inclined to be either a Jesuit or a canon, sent him to Paris to prosegute his studies. He then placed him with a lawyer, to whose instructions young Diderot paid little attention, but employed himself in general literature, which not coinciding with the views of his father, he stopped the remittance of his pecuniary allowance, and seemed for some time to have abandoned him. The talents of the young man, however, supplied him with a maintenance, and gradually made him known. He had employed his mind on physics, geometry, metaphysics, ethics, belles-lettres, from the time he began to read with reflection, and although a bold and elevated imagination seemed to give him a turn for poetry, he neglected it for the more serious sciences. He settled at an early period at Paris, where the natural eloquence which animated his conversation procured him friends and patrons. What first gave him reputation among a certain class of readers, unfortunately for France, too numerous in that country, was a little collection of “Pensees philosophiques,” reprinted afterwards under the title of “Etrennes aux esprits-forts.” This book appeared in 1746, 12mo. The adepts of the new philosophy compared it, for perspicuity, elegance, and force of diction, to the “Pensees de Pascal.” But the aim of the two authors was widely different. Pascal employed his talents, and erudition, which was profound and various, in support of the truths of religion, which Diderot attacked by all the arts of an unprincipled sophist. The “Pensées philosophiques,” however, became a toiletbook. The author was thought to be always in the right, | because he always dealt in assertions. Diderot was more usefully employed in 1746, in publishing a “Dictionnaire universelle de Medecine,” with Messrs. Eidous and Toussaint, in G vols. folio. Not that this compilation, says his biographer, is without its defects in many points of view, or that it contains no superficial and inaccurate articles; but it is not without examples of deep investigation; and the work was well received. A more recent account, however, informs us that this was merely a translation of Dr. James’s Medical Dictionary, published in this country in 1743; and that Diderot was next advised to translate Chambers’ s Dictionary; but instead of acting so inferior a part, he conceived the project of a more extensive undertaking, the “Dictionnaire Encyclopedique.” So great a monument not being to be raised by a single architect, D’Alembert, the friend of Diderot, shared with him the honours and the dangers of the enterprise, in which they were promised the assistance of several literati, and a variety of artists. Diderot took upon himself alone the description of arts and trades, one of the most important parts, and most acceptable to the public. To the particulars of the several processes of the workmen, he sometimes added reflections, speculations, and principles adapted to their elucidation. Independently of the part of arts and trades, this chief of the encyclopedists furnished in the different sciences a considerable number of articles that were wanting; but even his countrymen are inclined to wish that in a work of such a vast extent, and of such general use, he had learned to compress his matter, and had been less verbose, less of the dissertator, and less inclined to digressions. He has also been censured for employing needlessly a scientific language, and for having recourse to metaphysical doctrines, frequently unintelligible, which occasioned him to be called the Lycophron. of philosophy; for having introduced a number of definitions incapable of enlightening the ignorant, and which he seems to have invented for no other purpose than to have it thought that he had great ideas, while in fact, he had not the art of expressing perspicuously and simply the ideas of others. As to the body of the work, Diderot himself agreed that the edifice wanted an entire reparation; and when two booksellers intended to give a new edition of the Encyclopedic, he thus addressed them on the subject of the faults with which it abounds: “The | imperfection of this work originated in a great variety of causes. We had not time to be very scrupulous in the choice of the coadjutors. Among some excellent persons, there were others weak, indifferent, and altogether bad. Hence that motley appearance of the work, where we see the rude attempt of a school-boy by the side of a piece from the hand of a master; and a piece of nonsense next neighbour to a sublime performance. Some working for no pay, soon lost their first fervour; others badly recompensed, served us accordingly. The Encyclopedic was a gulf into which all kinds of scribblers promiscuously threw their contributions: their pieces were ill-conceived, and worse digested; good, bad, contemptible, true, false, uncertain, and always incoherent and unequal; the references that belonged to the very parts assigned to a person, were never filled up by him. A refutation is often found where we should naturally expect a proof; and there was no exact correspondence between the letter-press and the plates. To remedy this defect, recourse was had to long explications. But how many unintelligible machines, for want of letters to denote the parts!” To this sincere confession Diderot added particular details on various parts; such as proved that there were in the Encyclopedic subjects to be not only re-touched, but to be composed afresh; and this was what a new company of literati and artists undertook, but have not yet completed. The first edition, however, which had been delivering to the public from 1751 to 1767, was soon sold off, because its defects were compensated in part by many well-executed articles, and because uncommon pains were taken to recommend it to the public.

The great objects which Diderot and his coadjutors had in view when they entered upon this work, are now universally known. It has been completely proved, that their intention was to sap the foundation of all religion; not directly or avowedly, for \mre-faced atheism would not then have been suffered in France. They had engaged a very worthy, though not very acute clergyman, to furnish the theological articles, and while he was supporting, by the best arguments which he could devise, the religion of his country, Diderot and D’Alembert were overturning those arguments under titles which properly allowed of no such disquisitions. This necessarily produced digressions: for the greatest genius on earth could not, when writing on the laws of motion, | attack the mysteries of Christianity without wandering from his subject; but that the object of these digressions might not pass unnoticed by any class of readers, care was taken to refer to them from the articles where the question was discussed by the divine. That when employed in this way, Diderot seems to write obscurely, is indeed true; but the obscurity is not his. His atheism was so plain, that for the most part, D’Alembert or some other leader, had to retouch his articles, and throw a mist over them, to render their intention less obvious.

Diderot, who had been working at this dictionary for near twenty years, had not received a gratuity proportionate to his trouble and his zeal, and saw himself not long after the publication of the last volumes, reduced to the necessity of exposing his library to sale, which he pretended to be very copious and valuable. The empress of Russia ordered it to be bought for her at the price of fifty thousand livres, and left him the use of it. It is said, that when her ambassador wanted to see it, after a year or two’s payments, and the visitation could be no longer put off, Diderot was obliged to run in a hurry through all the booksellers shops in Germany, to fill his empty shelves with old volumes. He had the good fortune to save appearances; but the trick was discovered, because he had been niggardly in his attention to the ambassador’s secretary. This, however, did not hinder him from visiting the empress, where he behaved in such a manner, that her majesty thought it necessary to send him back, and he comforted himself for this disgrace, with the idea that the Russians were not yet ripe for the sublimity of his philosophy.

In the mean time, the “Encyclopedic,” which had partly procured its editor these foreign honours and remunerations, gave great offence at home. Certain positions on government and on religion occasioned the impression to be suspended in 1752. At that time there were no more than two volumes of the dictionary published; and the prohibition of the succeeding ones was only taken off at the end of 1753. Five new volumes then successively appeared. But in 1757 a new storm arose, and the book was suppressed. The remainder did not appear till about ten years after; and then was only privately distributed. Some copies were even seized, and the printers were imprisoned in the Bastille. To whatever cause all these | interruptions were imputable, Diderot did not suffer his genius to be impeded by the difficulties that were thrown in his way. Alternately serious and sportive, solid and frivolous, he published at the very time he was working on the Dictionary of Sciences, several productions which could scarcely have been thought to proceed from an encyclopedical head. His “Bijoux indiscrets,” 2 vols. 12mo, are of this number a disgusting work, even to those young- people who are unhappily too eager after licentious romances. Even here a certain philosophical pedantry appears, in the very passages where it is most misplaced; and never is the author more aukvvard than when he intends to display a graceful ease. The “Fils naturel,” and the “Pere de Famille,” two comedies in prose, which appeared in 1757 and 1758, are of a superior kind of moral and affecting dramas, where we see at once a nervous style and pathetic sentiments. The former piece is a picture of the trials of virtue, a conflict between interests and passions, wherein love and friendship play important parts. It has been said that Diderot has borrowed it from Golcloni; if that be the case, the copy does honour to the original; and, with the exception of a small number of places, where the author mixes his philosophical jargon with the sentiments, and some sentences out of place, the style is affecting and natural. In the second comedy, a tender, virtuous, and humane father appears, whose tranquillity is disturbed by the parental solicitudes, inspired by the lively and impetuous passions of his children. Tin’s philosophical, moral, and almost tragical comedy, has produced considerable effect on several theatres of Europe. The dedication to the princess of Nassau Saarbruck, is a little moral tract, of a singular turn, without deviating from nature; and proves that the author possessed a great fund of moral sentiments and philosophical ideas. At the end of these two pieces, published together under the title of “Theatre de M. Diderot,” are dialogues containing profound reflections and novel views of the dramatic art. In his plays he has endeavoured to unite the characters of Aristophanes and Plato; and in his reflections he sometimes displays the genius of Aristotle. This spirit of criticism is exhibited, but with too much licence, in two other works, which made a great noise. The former appeared in 1749, 12mo, under the title of “Letters on the blind, for the use of those who sec.” The free notions of the author | in this work cost him his liberty, and he underwent a six months imprisonment atVincennes. Having naturally strong passions and a haughty spirit, finding himself on].a sudden deprived of liberty, and of all intercourse with human beings, he had like to have lost his reason; and to prevent this, his keepers were obliged to allow him to leave his room, to take frequent walks, and to receive the visits of a few literary men. J. J. Rousseau, at that time his friend, went and administered consolation to him, which he ought not to have forgot. The letter on the blind was followed by another on the “deaf and dumb, for the use of those who can hear and speak,” 1751, 2 vols. 12mo. Under, this title, the author delivered reflections on metaphysics, on poetry, on eloquence, on music, &c. There are some good things in this essay, mixed with others superficial and absurd. Though he strives to be perspicuous, yet he is not always understood, and indeed, of all “that he has composed on abstract subjects, it has been said that he presents a chaos on which the light shines only at intervals. The other productions of Diderot betray the same defect of clearness and precision, and the same uncouth emphasis for which he has always been blamed. The principal of them are: 1.” Principles of Moral Philosophy,“1745, 12mo, of which the abbe des Fontaines speaks well, though it met with no great success. It was our philosopher’s fate to write a great deal, and not to leave a good book, or at least a book well composed. 2.” History of Greece, translated from the English of Stanyan,“1743, 3 vols. 12mo, an indifferent translation of an indifferent book. 3.” Pieces on several mathematical subjects,“1748, 8vo. 4.” Reflections on the Interpretation of Nature,“1754, 12mo. This interpreter is very obscure. 5.” The Code of Nature,“1755, 12mo, which is certainly not the code of Christianity. 6.” The -Sixth Sense,“1752, 12mo. 7.” Of Public Education,“one of that swarm of publicutio. produced by the appearance of Emilius, and the abolition of the Jesuits but some of his ideas in this work are very judicious, and would be highly useful in the execution. 8.” Panegyric on Richardson,“full of nerve and animation. 9.” Life of Seneca.“This was his last work; and', is one of those which may be perused with most pleasu even while we cannot approve the judgments be passes on beneca and other celebrated men. | The abb Barruel says that he was the author of” Systeme de la Nature,“which is usually given to Robinet; and it is certain that if he was not the author, he furnished hints, and revised the whole. Naigeon, his friend and disciple, collected and published his works in 15 vols. 8vo, at Paris, 1797, containing some articles which we have not noticed; and in 18 10 a small publication appeared, entitled” Diderotiana."

It is remarkable that there were moments in which Diderot, notwithstanding his avowed impiety, seems to have been compelled by the force of truth, to pay homage to the New Testament. An acquaintance found him one day explaining it to his daughter, with all the apparent seriousness and energy of a believer. On expressing his surprize, Diderot replied, “I understand your meaning; but after all, where is it possible to find better lessons for her instruction?” This from him who had given so many lessons of a different kind, and had been a more zealous teacher of impiety and profligacy than perhaps any man in France, appears somewhat improbable; yet it may coincide with a report, which is more certain, that in his latter days he shewed some signs of contrition. In 1784 his health began visibly to decline; and one of his domestics, perceiving that his death was at no great distance, acquainted him with his apprehensions, and addressed him on the importance of preparing for another world. He heard the man with attention, thanked him kindly, acknowledged that his situation required seriousness, and promised to weigh well what he had said. Some time after this conversation he desired a priest might be brought, and the same domestic introduced one, whom Diderot saw several times, and was preparing to make a public recantation of his errors. Condorcet, and his other philosophic friends, now crowded about him, persuaded him that he was cheated, that his case was not so dangerous as it was said to be, and that he only wanted the country air to restore him to health. For some time he resisted their attempts to bring him back to atheism, but was at last prevailed upon to leave Paris; and his departure being kept secret, he was concealed in the country till July 2, when he died. His dead body was then secretly brought back to Paris, and his friends eagerly spread the report that he died suddenly on rising from the table, without the least sign of repentance. | His character, from what has been said, is not very difficult to be understood. Some of his countrymen extol his frankness, his candour, his disinterestedness, his integrity while others represent him as artful, interested, and concealing iiis cunning- under a cheerful air, and sometimes >ven a rough behaviour which we confess appears more probable, as the genuine result of his principles. Towards the laiter part of uis life he hurt himself in th.: public opinion, by taking up too warmly the pretended ahVo-Ls he imagined to exist against him in the “Confessions” of his old friend J. J. Rousseau; and by this conduct left unfavourable impressions both of his heart and his understanding. This Rousseau, whom he so much decries, praises him in the second manuscript part of his Confessions; but says in one of his letters, that “though naturally kind, i of a generous disposition, Diderot had the unhappy ;>ensity to misinterpret the speeches and actions of his :ids; and that the most ingenuous explanations only furnished the subtilty of his invention with new interpretations against them.” The enthusiasm Diderot displays in some of his productions, appeared in the circle of his, friends, on every topic of discourse. He spoke with rapidity, with vehemence, and the turns of his phrases were often poignant and original. It has been said, that nature by mistake made him a metaphysician, and not a poet; but though he was often a poet in prose, he has left some verses which prove him to have had but little talent for poetry. The intrepid philosophy of which he boasted, affected always to brave the shafts of criticism; and his numerous censors were unable to cure him either of his taste for a system of metaphysics scarcely intelligible, or of his fondness for exclamations and apostrophes which prevailed in his conversation and in his writings. He married, and we are told by his friends, was in domestic life sensible and obliging; easily provoked, but as easily calmed; yielding to transient ebullitions of temper, but generally having it under command. The goodness or badness of his temper, however, as affecting his relatives, is a matter of little consequence, compared to the more extensive mischief which arose from his writings as an infidel, and his example as a profligate. Of the latter we need no more decided proof than the extract from one of his letters to Wilkes, published by lord Teignmouth in his “Life of Sir William Jones.” La Harpe, to whose “Lyceum” we may refer for an impartial account of | Diderot, thinks very justly that the principal cause of the success of the French infidels, in gaining readers and followers, arose from their enlisting the passions on their side. Such, says he, is the basis of their system, the general spirit of their sect, and the principle of their success. The method is not very honourable, but with a little address it is almost sure to succeed, at least for a time, for nothing is more easy than to pass off as a theory, a corruption which already exists as a fashion. 1

1 Dict. Hist. Gleig’s Supplement to the Encycl. Britannica. Earruel’s Memoirs of Jacobinism, vol.1, p. 169, 350, &c. Lord Teigqinouth’s Life of W. Jones, vol. I. p. 314.