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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Diderot never neglected his friends



Narrow circumstances had their share in the versatility of Diderot's genius as well as in the variety of his labors. Son of a cutler at Langres, a strict and virtuous man, Denys Diderot, born in 1715, had at first been intended by his father for the church. He was educated at Harcourt College, and he entered an attorney's office. The young man worked incessantly, but not a law-book did he open. "What do you mean to be, pray?" the lawyer asked him one day; "do you think of being an attorney?" "No." "A barrister?" "No." "A doctor?" "No more than the rest." "What then?" "Nothing at all. I like study, I am very happy, very contented, I ask no more." Diderot's father stopped the allowance he had been making his son, trusting thus to force him to choose a profession. But the young man gave lessons for a livelihood.

"I know a pretty good number of things," he wrote towards the end of his life, "but there is scarcely a man who doesn't know his own thing better than I do. This mediocrity in every sort is the consequence of insatiable curiosity and of means so small, that they never permitted me to devote myself to one single branch of human knowledge. I have been forced all my life to follow pursuits for which I was not adapted, and to leave on one side those for which I had a call from inclination." Before he was thirty years old, and without any resource but his lessons and the work

of every sort he did for third parties, Diderot married; he had not asked the consent of his parents, but this did not prevent him from saddling them before long with his wife and child. "She started yesterday," he writes quite simply to his father, "she will be with you in three days; you can say anything you like to her, and when you are tired of her, you can send her back." Diderot intended to be free at any price, and he threw off, one after another, the fetters he had forged for himself, not without remorse, however, and not without acknowledging that he was thus wanting to all natural duties. "What can you expect," he would exclaim, "of a man who has neglected wife and daughter, got into debt, given up being husband and father?"

Diderot never neglected his friends; amidst his pecuniary embarrassments, when he was reduced to coin his brain for a livelihood, his labor and his marvellous facility were always at the service of all. It was to satisfy the requirements of a dangerous fair friend that he wrote his _Pensees philosophiques,) the sad tale of the _Bijoux indiscrets_ and the _Lettre sur les Aveugles,_ those early attacks upon religious faith which sent him to pass a few months in prison at the Castle of Vincennes. It was to oblige Grimm that he for the first time gave his mind to painting, and wrote his _Salons,_ intended to amuse and instruct the foreign princes. "A pleasure which is only for myself affects me but slightly and lasts but a short time," he used to say; "it is for self and friends that I read, reflect, write, meditate, hear, look, feel. In their absence, my devotion towards them refers everything to them. I am always thinking of their happiness. Does a beautiful line strike me, they shall know it. Have I stumbled upon a beautiful trait, I make up my mind to communicate it to them. Have I before my eyes some enchanting scene; unconsciously, I meditate an account of it for them. To them I have dedicated the use of all my senses and of all my faculties, and that perhaps is the reason why everything is exaggerated, everything is embellished a little in my imagination and in my talk; and they sometimes reproach me with this, the ingrates!"

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