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.

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