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.

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