Authors: Denis Diderot

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French encyclopedist, philosopher, novelist, and dramatist

October 5, 1713

Langres, France

July 31, 1784

Paris, France


Like so many of his famous contemporaries, Denis Diderot (deed-uh-roh) was of respectable, even humble origin, and lived the life of a public controversialist. He early rebelled against his Jesuit background and, refusing to go into the solid professions of law or medicine, became a bookseller’s hack, married a woman with whom he could not live, and led a bohemian existence. His conversation, always his great talent, attracted the notice of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and even that of Catherine the Great, who once saved the great encyclopedist from penury by buying his library and then making him her librarian. His aesthetic, philosophic, and literary judgments made such an impression that he was commissioned to translate Ephraim Chambers’s famous Cyclopaedia (1728), but in the process he so enlarged the original plan that the monumental Encyclopédie resulted. In fact, although Diderot is one of the major novelists of the eighteenth century, it is as the editor of the Encyclopédie that he is best remembered. For twenty years, he fought to keep the volumes coming off the press but everywhere met with objections, accusations, and all manner of persecution. Diderot’s enlightened views on science and religion drew rejection and scorn to his work. Worn out and destitute, he himself wrote and read proofs on the last parts, only to have the printer mutilate the copy with his censorship. He died in Paris on July 30, 1784. {$I[AN]9810001508} {$I[A]Diderot, Denis} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Diderot, Denis} {$I[tim]1713;Diderot, Denis}

Denis Diderot

(Library of Congress)

Diderot’s collected works, the majority of which were published posthumously, range from a farce-comedy to tragedy, poetry, philosophy, aesthetics, criticism, politics, and religion. He undertook many translations. He was above all else, however, a philosophe, one of the great eighteenth-century Enlightenment figures. He was not a great writer, but his works inspired all his French contemporaries, as well as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Germany. He was not the atheist his detractors claimed, but believed in religious tolerance and speculative freedom. His philosophy was a simple sort of casuistry, somewhat didactic though sympathetic. As a critic of art, literature, and drama, he repays reading, for none of his contemporaries presents similarly balanced judgment. He founded no school, however, nor was he widely emulated, but many have praised his faithfulness to the subjects he discussed.

Author Works Nonfiction: Pensées philosophiques, 1746 (English translation, 1819; also known as Philosophical Thoughts, 1916) De la suffisance de la religion naturelle, wr. 1747, pb. 1770 La promenade du sceptique, wr. 1747, pb. 1830 Lettre sur les aveugles, 1749 (An Essay on Blindness, 1750; also known as Letter on the Blind, 1916) Notes et commentaires, 1749 Lettre sur les sourds et muets, 1751 (Letter on the Deaf and Dumb, 1916) Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature, 1754 Entretiens sur “Le Fils naturel,” 1757 Discours sur la poésie dramatique, 1758 (English translation of chapters 1-5 in Dramatic Essays of the Neo-Classical Age, 1950) Les Salons, 1759-1781 (serial; 9 volumes), 1845, 1857 (book) Essais sur la peinture, wr. c. 1765, pb. 1796 Le Rêve de d’Alembert, wr. 1769, pb. 1830 (D’Alembert’s Dream, 1927) Entretien d’un père avec ses enfants: Ou, Le Danger de se mettre au-dessus des lois, 1773 (Conversations Between Father and Children, 1964) Paradoxe sur le comédien, wr. 1773, pb. 1830 (The Paradox of Acting, 1883) Plan d’une université pour le gouvernement de Russie, wr. c.1775-1776, pb. 1813-1814 Essai sur Sénèque, 1778 (revised and expanded as Essai sur les règnes de Claude et Néron, 1782) Pensées détachées sur la peinture, 1798 Principes de politique des souverains, 1798 Diderot’s Early Philosophical Works, 1916 (includes Letter on the Blind, Letter on the Deaf and Dumb, Philosophical Thoughts) Lettres à Sophie Volland, 1938 (Diderot's letters to Sophie Volland, 1972) Concerning the Education of a Prince, wr. 1758, pb. 1941 Correspondance, 1955-1970 (16 volumes) Œuvres philosophiques, 1956 Œuvres esthétiques, 1959 Œuvres politiques, 1962 (Political Writings, 1992) Voyage en Hollande, 1982 Ecrits sur la musique, 1987 Diderot on Art, 1995 Long Fiction: Les Bijoux indiscrets, 1748 (The Indiscreet Toys, 1749) Jacques le fataliste et son maître, wr. c. 1771, pb. 1796 (Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1797) La Religieuse, 1796 (The Nun, 1797) Le Neveu de Rameau, 1821, 1891 (Rameau’s Nephew, 1897) Short Fiction: “L’Oiseau blanc,” 1748 “Les Deux Amis de Bourbonne,” 1773 (“The Two Friends from Bourbonne,” 1964) Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, 1796 (Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, 1926) “Ceci n’est pas un conte,” 1798 (“This Is Not a Story,” 1960) “Madame de la Carlière: Ou, Sur l’inconséquence du jugement public de nos actions particulières,” 1798 Rameau’s Nephew, and Other Works, 1964 Rameau's Nephew, and First Satire, 2006 Drama: Le Fils naturel: Ou, Les Épreuves de la vertu, pr., pb. 1757 (Dorval: Or, The Test of Virtue, 1767; also known as The Illegitimate Son) Le Père de famille, pb. 1758 (The Father of the Family, 1770; also known as The Family Picture, 1871) Est’il bon? Est’il méchant? pr. 1781 (Denis Diderot, Wicked Philanthropy, 1986) Translations: L’Histoire de Grèce, 1743 (of Temple Stanyan’s Grecian History) Principes de la philosophie morale: Ou, Essai de M. S.*** sur le mérite et la vertu, avec réflexions, 1745 (of the earl of Shaftesbury’s An Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit) Dictionnaire universel de médecine, 1746-1748 (of Robert James’s A Medical Dictionary) Edited Text: Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1751-1772 (17 volumes of text, 11 volumes of plates; partial translation, Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation, Encyclopedia, 1965) Miscellaneous: Œuvres, 1798 (15 volumes) Œuvres complètes, 1875-1877 (20 volumes) Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings, 1937 (includes short fiction) Selected Writings, 1966 Ecrits inconnus de jeunesse, 1974 Bibliography Anderson, Wilda. Diderot’s Dream. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. See especially the introduction and chapter 6, “The Nephew’s Natural Morality.” Includes very few notes and no bibliography. Bremner, Geoffrey. Order and Chance: The Pattern of Diderot’s Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Bremner seeks a pattern in Diderot’s thought and concludes that, in his best works, order and chance are complementary concepts. Interesting insights, suitable for advanced undergraduates. Brewer, Daniel. The Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France: Diderot and the Art of Philosophizing. Cambridge Studies in French, No. 42. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. This somewhat difficult study examines the interplay between critical knowledge and its representation. Examining Diderot’s work in philosophy, science, the fine arts, and literature, Brewer points to its remarkable similarity to aspects of modern critical theory. Creech, James. Diderot: Thresholds of Representation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986. This very clear explanation of Diderot’s aesthetics enables readers to appreciate the originality of Diderot’s art criticism. Creech also shows how Diderot utilized these theories in order to represent social reality in the fiction. Cronk, Nicholas. “Reading Expectations: The Narration of Hume in Jacques le fataliste.” The Modern Language Review 91 (April, 1996): 330-341. Argues that David Hume’s ideas of causation and determinism influenced Diderot’s philosophic voice and narrative structure. Claims that Diderot exemplifies the compatibility of the apparently contradictory positions of “reader-freedom” and “reader-direction.” Curran, Andrew. Sublime Disorder: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot’s Universe. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2001. An examination of physical monstrosity in Diderot’s writings. Bibliography and index. Fellows, Otis. Diderot. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This volume is an excellent short introduction to the works of Diderot. Fellows describes very well Diderot’s evolution as a writer despite the fact that censorship prevented him from publishing his major works during his lifetime. Contains a good annotated bibliography. France, Peter. Diderot. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. In this relatively short book, France explaines very clearly Diderot’s originality as a free thinker, an art critic, and a social critic. France’s chapters on Rameau’s Nephew and Diderot’s aesthetics are especially thought-provoking. This book complements very nicely Otis Fellows’s book (above) on Diderot. Furbank, Philip Nicholas. Diderot: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. An excellent biography of the philosopher-writer. Goodden, Angelica. Diderot and the Body. Oxford, England: Legenda, 2001. A study of Diderot that focuses on his portrayal of the body. Gould, Evelyn. Virtual Theater: From Diderot to Mallarmé. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Contains a lengthy discussion of Rameau’s Nephew, comparing it to the Platonic dialogues and exploring its influence on Romanticism, especially in Germany. Includes notes and bibliography. Hampshire, Stuart. “The Cast Charmer.” The New York Review of Books 40 (March 4, 1993): 15-18. Notes that Diderot made natural emotions the center of his morality; Diderot argued that the soul is in constant flux and that any conventional morality entails ambiguities; he did not believe in perfectibility or acknowledge the idea of the good, and he was amused by his own inconsistencies and weaknesses. Kaufman, Peter H. The Solidarity of a Philosophe: Diderot, Russia, and the Soviet Union. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. This study examines Diderot’s philosophy and its lingering influence. Bibliography and index. Loy, Robert J. Diderot’s Determined Fatalist. New York: King’s Crown Press, 1950. Although this study deals directly with Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, Loy argues persuasively that Diderot’s experimentation with various narrative techniques in this novel enables readers to understand his originality as a writer of both short and long fiction. Pucci, Suzanne L. Sites of the Spectator: Emerging Literary and Cultural Practice in Eighteenth Century France. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2001. This work looks at the literary world in eighteenth century France, focusing on Diderot’s Les Salons and Marivaux’s Le spectateur français. Bibliography and index. Rex, Walter E. Diderot’s Counterpoints: The Dynamics of Contrariety in His Major Works. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998. Examines Diderot’s works in relation to his era. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Simon, Julia. Mass Enlightenment: Critical Studies in Rousseau and Diderot. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. An examination of the social and political thought in the work of Rousseau and Diderot. Umdank, Jack, and Herbert Joseph, eds. Diderot: Digression and Dispersion, a Bicentennial Tribute. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1984. Presents nineteen essays that cover Diderot’s many activities and interests. In their diversity, the contributions mirror the editors’ view that Diderot did not seek unity but rather regarded diversity as the rule of nature. Werner, Stephen. Socratic Satire: An Essay on Diderot and “Le Neveu de Rameau.” Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, 1987. The introduction explores Diderot’s view of satire, and subsequent chapters analyze different forms of satire as they apply to Diderot and to his conception of irony. Includes notes and substantial bibliography. Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. This essential and well-researched biography of Diderot also includes insightful analyses of his major works. Wilson defines Diderot’s importance in the development of the French Enlightenment and the critical reception of his works since the eighteenth century. The notes and bibliography are essential for all Diderot scholars.

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