Arts & Books Books

Diderot’s self-centred rebellion

A portrait of young man admiring Diderot’s bust, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy

Patrick West on the 'utter scoundrel' of the Enlightenment

Diderot and the Art of Free Thinking
By Andrew Curran,
Other Press, 320pp, £22/$29

The late, great, arch-reactionary Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux often began his sermons at St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn, London, with a denunciation of that atheist figurehead of the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot, best known as the editor of the landmark Encyclopédie. Diderot was an appropriate target because he was a fervent atheist in the way we understand the term today. For the most part, thinkers of the Enlightenment weren’t atheists. Voltaire, for example, was typical of this movement, being a Newtonian deist and non-Christian believer in some higher power, designer and creator.

The paradox is that, like Friedrich Nietzsche, Diderot came from an intensely religious family, with many ancestors who belonged to the clergy. Diderot even became an abbé himself in youth, before renouncing religion, not primarily for theological reasons. His rebellion was principally one against authority.

While so many philosophes had been driven to reject Christianity by having read Spinoza’s anti-Theist theology, Diderot “had an ingrained tendency both to chafe at authority and to question the ideas upon which authority is founded”, writes Andrew Curran. He was particularly horrified by the bitter squabble between the Jesuits and Jansenists, which he saw as a ludicrous and appalling, akin to Jonathan Swift’s depiction of the wars between the “big-enders” and “little-enders”.

It was this propensity to cock a snook at authority which led Diderot to include in his Encyclopédie under “Cannibals”, cross-references to “Altar”, “Communion” and “Eucharist”. There is something almost juvenile in doing so, in what was purported to be a serious compendium of knowledge and progress in the 18th century.

As Curran explains in this marvellous and eye-opening book, Diderot’s life story was more nuanced than the reader might assume. He is remembered for clashing with the Jesuit order on account of the Encyclopédie’s perceived irreligion and potentially corrosive influence. But there were liberal, intellectual Jesuits – “priests of letters” – who objected to the Encyclopédie not for its dangerous atheism, but because they weren’t included: they had assumed that they were going to contribute to the endeavour.

“While some historians who have written about the ‘battle of the Encyclopédie’ tend to assign the Jesuits to an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ group,’’ writes Curran, “the truth was that this Roman Catholic order of priests had long considered themselves key players in the scholarly arena.” These liberal Jesuits objected to the perception that the Enlightenment was a project diametrically opposed to traditional religion.

The hugely industrious Diderot contributed 7,000 articles to the Encyclopédie. And despite some schoolboy lapses of taste, most of his entries are sober and serious, addressing subjects such as anatomy, architecture, astronomy, clock-making, gardening, hydraulics, medicine, physics and surgery. By the time the Encyclopédie was finished in 1772, Diderot “had carried the ideas of the Enlightenment forward in a way that no person, not Voltaire, and certainly not Rousseau, had done”.

By this time, Diderot had largely abandoned writing and publishing under his own name, having been spooked by his arrest and incarceration in 1749. His later works on sexuality, race, theatre, morality and politics would not see the light of day in his own lifetime.

Despite Diderot’s erudition, Curran details what an utter scoundrel he was in real life. He was a serial adulterer, sponger, dilettante and swindler.

It was perhaps destiny that he should have befriended Rousseau. We should not be surprised that these two selfish reprobates eventually fell out. A final ignominy came in the 1790s when the protagonists of the French Revolution that he had inspired came to denounce his writings. Diderot’s atheism was deemed incompatible with Robespierre’s deism and notion of a Higher Being.

Although Diderot influenced subsequent thinkers such as Marx and Freud, he never achieved repute as one of the finest exemplars of the Enlightenment. He is not a literary great, unlike many of his contemporaries. Yet his thought does warrant him the place in posterity that he was so keen to achieve, and he deserves to be remembered alongside Voltaire and Montesquieu as one of the giants of his time. He spoke out against slavery at a time when abolitionism was in its infancy and was in favour of tolerance for gay people at a time when it was deeply unfashionable in France.

What is more, he remains relevant in 2019, in a Europe in which the notion of democracy has come into question. As Diderot put it: “There is no sovereign except the nation; there can be no true legislator except the people.”