Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Diderot IV

As Diderot grew old, he became less active and spent more time alone writing. It seems that he was a little miffed that he had not produced any well-received works, and that he kept plugging away, though the kind of skills he had did not suit him for that task. In Paris, another generation, including Thomas Jefferson and Mozart, began showing up to experience the new cultural mecca firsthand. Diderot's friends, ex-friends and acquaintances began to die off. Rousseau died in 1778. Madame d'Epinay and d'Alembert died in 1783. Sophie Volland died in 1784, and Diderot himself had a stroke shortly thereafter and died later that year. Grimm outlived them all and survived through the French Revolution, but became embittered by the material losses that he faced under the new regime.

Diderot was not particularly famous before, during or immediately after the Revolution. His daughter, Angélique, wrote a memoir, and this, along with the publication of his letters to Sophie Volland, increased his name recognition significantly. Slowly he became an inspiration to other writers when Rameau's Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist were published posthumously. Goethe was an early translator into German, and Stendhal, who was born in 1783, was an early admirer. According to Furbank, Balzac also liked Diderot, and in this sense Diderot can be thought of as the founder of realism in fiction. If that is the case, Diderot deserves a lot of credit.

Furbank writes of Jacques the Fatalist as follows:

I have said that in Jacques the Fatalist Diderot depicted himself as he would like to be and in many ways would lay claim to being. One can hardly miss the point, for Jacques is, among other things, visibly an apologia for many of his own faults, or imputed faults: his talkativeness..., his officiousness, his passion for paradox, his relentless scepticism, his ribaldry and his outrageous outspokenness.

The clue or pointer in all this, biographically speaking, is "fatalism". For it was important in Diderot's mind that, buffeted as he might be by Fortune, he had been favored in his birth. He was one of those who are endowed by Nature or destiny for a whole array of virtues, talents and good qualities. His addiction to self-praise finds its justification here, it being a continual and beautiful surprise to him what precious qualities, what capacities for ardent feeling or original thought, he discovered in himself. This was no occasion for vanity, for he might just as easily have had the misfortune to be born an imbecile or a criminal.

The number of shining virtues attributed to Jacques is, when one comes to count them out, very large; and they are all linked to "fatalism" or respect for the necessary. 

Assuming that this is an accurate description of Diderot's concept of fatalism, I can't say that I'm in complete agreement. Fatalism is simply a statement about the future, with a psychological emphasis in which outcomes are seen to be beyond one's control. For practical purposes, fatalism implies an abdication of responsibility, because the presumption is that the same outcome will occur no matter what you think or do. In a psychological sense, that is incorrect, because we have the perception of free will, which causes us to believe that we can consciously affect outcomes. Fatalism implies a kind of giving up that isn't really part of human nature. We now understand the human brain far better than we did in the eighteenth century and know that it has evolved to solve problems rather than to behave passively. I contrast Diderot's view with modern determinism, in which every event in the universe is seen to be causally predetermined. The difference is that we don't actually know what every outcome will be and are forced to rely on our innate sense that we can influence events. For example, a fatalist might say "Everything is preordained and there is nothing that I can do about it, so I'm just going to stop eating and die," whereas a determinist might say "The sequence of events in the universe may be completely determined, but the process is mostly incomprehensible to me and the outcomes are uncertain." Thus, fatalism is more amenable to giving up outright whereas determinism is more amenable to thinking that even if the whole process is predictable, it is beyond your comprehension and you can still try to figure it out. It is also possible that both fatalism and determinism are false theories, in which case Diderot's theory would be even less appealing. Diderot may have been prescient in noticing that personalities and abilities are inborn, i.e. genetic in origin, but in the context that he wrote about it I don't find it especially illuminating.

To use this as an example, I'm not terribly excited about Diderot as a writer or thinker, though on the whole he probably wasn't much better or worse than Rousseau or Voltaire. Rousseau was more serious and engaging, and Voltaire was wittier. Of course, it's premature of me to say that, since I haven't actually read any of this in his own words and don't intend to. Nevertheless, that is where I stand at the moment, and I'm ready to move on to another book.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Diderot III

Another aspect of the Rousseau-Diderot split should be mentioned. In recounting the complaints that he had about Rousseau, Diderot said that he was always going out of his way to help Rousseau but never received anything in return. He had spent many hours reading and editing Rousseau's works, and in some cases had provided useful suggestions that had improved them substantially, yet Rousseau never reciprocated at all. By the time Rousseau had moved to the Hermitage, Diderot also had to travel out to the country just to see him, because Rousseau had stopped going to Paris. I had wondered about this lack of reciprocity earlier, when reading Cranston, and now I think that there is enough evidence to say that Rousseau used people. He tended to lay it on thick about how much he loved certain people, such as Mme de Warens and Diderot, but if you look closely it becomes apparent that he was taking advantage of them and creating a lot of labor on their part while expending little energy on them. In fact it seems that Mme de Warens tried to get rid of him on several occasions, and that by the time he finally departed her house she was glad to see him go. We have only Rousseau's account of those events, and I think that Mme de Warens's version would differ. In other words, by our standards, Rousseau used flattery and feigned dependence to get his way with the people whom he knew would reliably help him, and he attached himself to them. His only long-term relationship was with his mistress, Thérèse Levasseur, who, as time passed, settled into the role of maid and was never treated as an equal for social or intellectual purposes. Thus, I am seeing that Cranston, who admired Rousseau and wrote the enormous biography, presented a more favorable view of Rousseau than Furbank, who admired Diderot and was less inclined to suppress Rousseau's defects. I am finding Furbank's explanations more palatable, because they provide a better picture of why Rousseau eventually felt ostracized, and in fact was ostracized, by people who had supported him previously. To be fair, in those days before the field of psychology existed, Rousseau was less likely to be aware of his transgressions, and the people around him would not have had the language to point out his weaknesses to him. There was a pathology to Rousseau's behavior that hadn't been explored by science yet. In contrast, as Furbank likes to point out, Diderot behaved more like a modern man and was cognizant of how he fit into his social milieu. To psychologize a little, Rousseau lacked a mother while growing up and was essentially abandoned by his father; without acknowledging his father's abandonment, he proceeded to abandon his own children and clung rather pathetically to people who seemed to offer him genuine help. In the end, Rousseau benefited enormously from the extended adolescence provided to him by Mme de Warens and from the introduction to the intellectual circles in Paris provided to him by Diderot. His effort to attach himself to Sophie d'Houdetot, which precipitated his split with Diderot, backfired when she chose to stay with Saint-Lambert, in effect dumping him. My interpretation is that human foibles were in full evidence during the Enlightenment, and that one ought to be cautious about idealizing its participants.

Diderot's wife, Nanette, was less educated than he was and a nag. He remained married to her but had a long affair with Sophie Volland, beginning in about 1756. Sophie was better-educated, more intellectual and from a wealthier family than Nanette, and Diderot tended to correspond with her whenever they were apart. His father died in 1759, and he received a substantial inheritance, but not one that made him rich. After the Encyclopédie was finished he tried his hand at all kinds of writing, but did not receive much income. Over his life he wrote essays, plays, novels and short stories, none of which turned out to be profitable. However, he was very well connected, and the philosophes of Paris became the envy of intellectuals throughout Europe. In his middle years his friendships continued with d'Holbach, Grimm and Voltaire, though Voltaire was rarely in Paris. He met David Hume while Hume was employed in Paris, and they became friends. He became interested in art and became an early art critic.  His financial fortunes improved substantially when Catherine the Great of Russia bought his library in 1765 and paid him to be its librarian while leaving it in place. He also recommended the sculptor who designed and constructed a statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Diderot had no interest in travel, but eventually he visited Catherine the Great in Russia, though, apparently, she didn't like him much when they became better acquainted.

I am having a hard time getting enthusiastic about Diderot and should finish the book soon. Furbank was a literary man who was friends with E.M. Forster, so his emphasis is on literature, in this case Diderot's philosophical literature such as Rameau's Nephew, D'Alembert's Dream and Jacques the Fatalist. Since Diderot's primary model for fiction was Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), I'm not excited about reading Diderot's works. I think that the novel as a form of art was a little primitive before the nineteenth century and that it reached a peak in Europe in the second half of that century. Of course, there have been a few notable works outside that time frame, but I don't care enough to hunt them all down or read them at this point. I think it is more interesting just to read accounts of the lives of intelligent people who lived in different time periods. Diderot is a little less interesting than others because in several respects he prefigures later freelance writers who had good reputations but didn't really produce any significant works. Although Diderot had a wider literary and philosophical range than you would generally find today in a writer, I sense that he produced the same sort of writing that you might expect from recent intellectuals; the general intellectual at this stage seems a little useless to me, and writing based on actual research is more likely to capture my attention – perhaps even if it is poorly written.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Diderot II

When Diderot was released from prison in November, 1749, he began a long period of intense work on the Encyclopédie. At that time, he was regularly attending the salon of Baron d'Holbach, a rich German who had moved to Paris and occupied himself as a dilettante in the sciences. The salon was also attended by Rousseau and Herr von Grimm, another German whom Rousseau had befriended. The attendees of d'Holbach's salon were mostly atheists and determinists, with the exception of Rousseau, who retained his own brand of religious faith. For the time, it was an unusually scientific group, perhaps because of German influences. Many of them, along with the French mathematician, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, made early contributions to the Encyclopédie, which was sold serially and published between 1751 and 1761. When finished, it consisted of 17 volumes of text, 11 volumes of plates and 60,660 articles in all. It was challenging to produce, given the censorship that existed in Paris at the time and the large number of contributors who had to be recruited, but eventually it was a great success and was probably Diderot's most significant accomplishment.

Furbank is doing a much better job at describing the personalities of the philosophes than Maurice Cranston did in his biography of Rousseau. Diderot was a talker and a joker, which caused some people to dismiss him as frivolous. He became friends with Grimm, who was given to sarcasm and biting comments. Diderot had a playful spirit that Rousseau didn't share, perhaps because of his Calvinist background. Rousseau came to dislike Grimm, whom he considered a social climber. My impression is that, like many extroverts, Diderot, though intelligent by all accounts, behaved in a scattershot way which may have prevented him from forming deep personal relationship, and his non-scientific writings did not capture the hearts of his readers. It comes as no surprise that the most endearing writers of the period, Rousseau and Voltaire, are resting in the Panthéon, while Diderot is not. Nor did Diderot spur a movement like Rousseau, who was emulated in England and Germany by the Romantic poets.

As far as Diderot's personal life is concerned, he remained estranged from most of his family members until 1754, at which time the feud ended. Nanette had her only surviving child, Marie-Angélique, in 1753. Later, Marie-Angélique provided most of what little is known of Diderot's early life, based on what he told her while she was growing up.

Furbank's account of Rousseau's contentious departure from the Hermitage in 1757 is somewhat more informative than that of Cranston. It seems that Rousseau had handled his affair with Sophie d'Houdetot recklessly, and he resented the prying of Mme d'Epinay and her lover, Grimm. Rousseau had already become alienated from Grimm and had had a run-in with Diderot in his choice of the words "Only the wicked man lives alone" in a play that he had recently written; Rousseau took it personally. He had little in common with most of the other philosophes, in that he did not share their passion for science, and this, along with his dislike of Paris, caused him to gradually withdraw from the group. In turn, they saw his willful avoidance of acquiring a sufficient income as pure pigheadedness. The final straw occurred when Diderot attempted to give Rousseau some friendly advice on the situation with Mme d'Epinay and was rebuffed. Besides his dislike of science, Rousseau had an unusual tendency to reject group consensus and engaged in prickly behavior whenever pressured to conform. Subsequent to this visit, Diderot gave up completely and never saw Rousseau again. Rousseau's "hermit" act was unconvincing to the intellectuals in his circle, and because he was closed to discussion on many of the choices that he had made, thereafter they considered him an eccentric. That view became universal after Rousseau's disastrous visit to England with David Hume.

Because Furbank's favorite topics are at odds with mine, I am reading some chapters more thoroughly than others. I enjoy reading about the intellectual scene in Paris of the mid-eighteenth century, but Diderot's writings less so. The appeal is in the freshness of the intellectual atmosphere, which is striking compared to the present, in which ideas are not widely discussed and the media are engaged in a kind of thought control driven primarily by the profit motive. It is astonishing to witness all the tripe that is being served up these days, when, in theory at least, there are more educated people than ever walking the planet. For example, the majority of U.S. senators at present pale in comparison to the framers of the U.S. Constitution, which has been in effect since 1789; in contrast to the Enlightenment thinkers, they seem to be enthusiastically ushering in a new Dark Age. I'll keep plugging away and may finish sooner than I thought I would.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Diderot I

I am reading the biography of Denis Diderot by P.N. Furbank. As is usually the case when I start a new book, it takes me a while to warm up to the subject and the writing style of the author. In this instance I am finding Furbank to be a good writer, but am a little dismayed that he is making an effort to portray Diderot as a literary figure in addition to an Enlightenment thinker, because, if you've been reading this blog, you will already know that I'm not a great fan of literature at the moment, and in any case I don't think that Diderot has much claim to fame on that front. I have no interest in Diderot's fiction and don't plan to read any of it. On the other hand, Furbank is providing more information on Diderot's ideas than Maurice Cranston did on those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his biography that I discussed earlier. I should also mention that, although Furbank is an engaging writer, there is far less biographical information available on Diderot than there is on Rousseau, so this characterization may neglect certain aspects of Diderot's life. Diderot was not always honest and made expedient statements about himself when necessary, whereas Rousseau, who had an excellent memory, was generally honest in Confessions.

Diderot was born in 1713 in Langres, a town southeast of Paris, between Nancy and Dijon. His father was a successful cutler, and the family was close and supportive up to the point that Diderot became an aimless bohemian. His early schooling was at a local Jesuit college, where he proved to be an unruly but talented student. In the early years he tentatively planned a life in the church. He later attended the University of Paris, where he received a master of arts degree in 1732. Around this time he dropped theology and considered other fields, but he never got serious about any profession, and his father eventually lost patience with him, cut off his funding and told him to come home from Paris. From then on, Diderot became skilled at earning money or obtaining free lodging by everything from tutoring in mathematics to translating to posing as a potential monk. When he desperately needed money, his mother would send him some on the sly.

He met Rousseau in Paris in 1742, while he was still immersed in a bohemian lifestyle, and they immediately hit it off. Diderot had a girlfriend, Anne-Toinette Champion, whom he decided to marry that year, and he returned to Langres to try to get funds from his parents. He didn't tell them his intentions immediately, and they thought that he would be staying in Langres. However, when he did tell them there was an explosive argument, because his parents had already planned a marriage for him. Diderot had the audacity to threaten his father, saying that if he didn't receive payment for his share of the family property he would call the bailiff and have him arrested. His father retaliated by having him arrested and imprisoned in a monastery. After being incarcerated for a few days, Diderot escaped by climbing out of a window and made his way back to Paris on foot, staying off the main roads to avoid being spotted. Upon his return, he was initially estranged from his girlfriend, who was called Nanette, but they eventually reconciled and married in a private ceremony on November 6, 1743 without telling his family.

During these years, Diderot considered himself a philosophe, a class that emphasized reason over Christianity, and was suspect according to Parisian authorities:

...among the orthodox and bien-pensant, the term philosophe carried a sulphurous aroma: one of its meanings was "misanthrope" and another was "freethinker", and as late as 1740 the Dictionnaire of the Académie defined it as "a man who, by libertinism of mind, places himself above the duties and ordinary obligations of civil and Christian existence. It signifies a man who refuses himself nothing and observes no constraint."  In the bookselling trade, the term "philosophical books" was used to include pornography.

Diderot's romance with Nanette didn't last long, and their marriage was soon on the rocks, though it continued. She had several children who did not survive to adulthood. After 1746, Diderot had an affair with Madeleine de Puiesieux, an aspiring writer. Then, in 1749, the following incident occurred:

It so happened that in this summer of 1749 the French Government was in a mood of near panic, the country being thick with rumours of national bankruptcy and sexual scandal in high places. Thus it was decided to make a round-up of anti-government propagandists and of suspicious characters generally – atheists, Jansenists, pornographers or abusers of the King. By now Diderot was an obvious candidate, and on 24 July, at seven-thirty in the morning, he was arrested at his house – to which he and Nanette had lately moved – in the rue de la Vieille Estrapade. The two police officials ransacked his study for documents and led him off to a waiting hackney-coach, to take him to the prison fortress of Vincennes, six miles to the east of Paris.  

Though Diderot expected help from his family, they ignored him. However, Voltaire, with whom he was acquainted, used his connections to arrange for favorable conditions for him while jailed. He was allowed to dine with the Marquis du Châtelet and receive visitors. Mme de Puiesieux visited him, and, becoming suspicious, on her departure he spotted her with a new boyfriend, which caused him to break up with her permanently. More famously, Rousseau read about the essay prize proposed by the Academy of Dijon while walking to visit him. The question was "Whether the progress of the sciences and the arts has contributed to corrupting morals or to purifying them." According to Diderot, he recommended that Rousseau take the least popular position, i.e. that morals were being corrupted. Thus, the main theme of Rousseau's career was launched, and before long he became one of the most famous writers in Europe. As for Diderot, his experience of being locked in the monastery and at Vincennes left him with a deep fear of confinement.

As I proceed through this book my views may change a little. For now, I think that Diderot was a more significant thinker than Rousseau because of his work on the Encyclopédie. Although there were several contributors, it was Diderot who held it together and wrote articles on many topics that his collaborators couldn't handle. For example, Rousseau wrote primarily on topics related to music. The Encyclopédie is at present probably obsolete from a technical standpoint, but when it was written it represented a significant step toward making specialized knowledge widely available and stimulating research and intellectual activity throughout Europe. In comparison, Rousseau's main influence was on the liberté and perhaps the égalité portions of the political slogan liberté, égalité, fraternité, which I think has outlasted its usefulness. If you think about freedom in a practical sense, it immediately becomes apparent that it must be limited. Psychologically, Rousseau resented being assigned lower social status simply because he lacked an aristocratic background, but he also disliked being an employee subject to the whims of his employers. Rousseau influenced a wide range of thinkers, including Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson. In the case of Jefferson, we are left with the idea of liberty as an inalienable right, which now looks rather shortsighted and unexamined. In America, liberty has historically meant that one is free to build large factories and employ workers who roughly resemble slave laborers, and then make millions of dollars while contributing to the destruction of the biosphere. To put it mildly, the state of the modern U.S. would be a nightmare to Rousseau, and Jefferson would likely be shattered to see the disappearance of his ideal: the country gentleman class. I am interested in the shelf lives of popular ideas, which seem to morph over time and eventually become unrecognizable when compared to the original. So little was known in Diderot and Rousseau's day that I don't see much point in closely studying their ideas in the present.

Another aspect of the book that interests me is the differing personalities of Diderot and Rousseau. Diderot was gregarious and extroverted, with wide-ranging interests, while Rousseau was relatively private and introverted, with fewer interests. Aesthetically, I think I prefer Rousseau, whose writing may be of higher quality because he remained focused on fewer topics than Diderot and willfully avoided the distractions of city life.

This book is much shorter than the three volumes I read on Rousseau, but I intend to read it slowly and will probably make several posts on it.