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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Applied to Diderot for assistance



"When I recall Diderot," wrote his friend Meister, "the immense variety of his ideas, the amazing multiplicity of his knowledge, the rapid flight, the warmth, the impetuous tumult of his imagination, all the charm and all the disorder of his conversation, I venture to liken his character to Nature herself, exactly as he used to conceive her--rich, fertile, abounding in germs of every sort ... without any dominating principle, without a master, and without a God." No image more suitable could be found; and his works resemble the man, in their richness, their fertility, their variety, and their disorder. A great writer we can hardly call him, for he has left no body of coherent thought, no piece of finished art; but he was the greatest of literary improvisators.

DENIS DIDEROT, son of a worthy cutler of Langres, was born in 1713. Educated by the Jesuits, he turned away from the regular professions, and supported himself and his ill-chosen wife by hack-work for the Paris booksellers--translations, philosophical essays directed against revealed religion, stories written to suit the appetite for garbage. From deism he advanced to atheism. Arguing in favour of the relativity of human knowledge in his _Lettre sur les Aveugles_ (1749), he puts his plea for atheism into the lips of an English man of science, but the device did not save him from an imprisonment of three months.

In 1745 the booksellers, contemplating a translation of the English "Cyclopaedia" of Chambers, applied to Diderot for assistance. He readily undertook the task, but could not be satisfied with a mere translation. In a Prospectus (1750) he indicated the design of the "Encyclopaedia" as he conceived it: the order and connection of the various branches of knowledge should be set forth, and in dictionary form the several sciences, liberal arts, and mechanical arts should be dealt with by experts. The homage which he rendered to science expressed the mind of his time; in the honour paid to mechanical toil and industry he was in advance of his age, and may be called an organiser of modern democracy. At his request JEAN LE ROND D'ALEMBERT (1717-83) undertook the direction of the mathematical articles, and wrote the _Discours Preliminaire_, which classified the departments of human knowledge on the basis of Bacon's conceptions, and gave a survey of intellectual progress. It was welcomed with warm applause. The aid of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Buffon, Turgot, Quesnay, and a host of less illustrious writers was secured; but the vast enterprise excited the alarms of the ecclesiastical party; the Jesuits were active in rivalry and opposition; Rousseau deserted and became an enemy; D'Alembert, timid, and a lover of peace, withdrew. In 1759 the privilege of publication was revoked, but the Government did not enforce its own decree. Through all difficulties and dangers Diderot held his ground. One day he wrote a fragment of the history of philosophy; the next he was in a workshop examining the construction of some machine: nothing was too great or too small for his audacity or his patience. To achieve the work, tact was needed as well as courage; at times he condescended to disguise his real opinions, striving to weather the storm by yielding to it. In 1765 his gigantic labours were substantially accomplished, though the last plates of the _Encyclopedie_ were not issued until 1772. When all was finished, the scientific movement of the century was methodised and popularised; a barrier against the invasion of the past was erected; the rationalist philosophy, with all its truths and all its errors, its knowledge and its ignorance, had obtained its _Summa_.

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