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.

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