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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Occupied largely the attention of Diderot


D'Alembert

declined the education of the hereditary Grand Duke, just as he had declined the presidency of the Academy at Berlin; an infidel and almost a materialist by the geometer's rule, who knows no power but the laws of mathematics, he did not carry into anti-religious strife the bitterness of Voltaire, or the violence of Diderot. "Squelch the thing! you are always repeating to me," he said to Voltaire on the 4th of May, 1762. "Ah! my good friend, let it go to rack and ruin of itself, it is hurrying thereto faster than you suppose." More and more absorbed by pure science, which he never neglected save for the French Academy, whose perpetual secretary he had become, D'Alembert left to Diderot alone the care of continuing the _Encyclopaedia_. When he died, in 1783, at fifty-six years of age, the work had been finished nearly twenty years. In spite of the bad faith of publishers, who mutilated articles to render them acceptable, in spite of the condemnation of the clergy and the severities of the council, the last volumes of the _Encyclopaedia_ had appeared in 1765.

This immense work, unequal and confused as it was, a medley of various and often ill-assorted elements, undertaken for and directed to the fixed end of an aggressive emancipation of thought, had not sufficed to absorb the energy and powers of Diderot. "I am awaiting with impatience the reflections of _Pantophile Diderot on Tancrede,_" wrote Voltaire: "everything is within the sphere of

activity of his genius: he passes from the heights of metaphysics to the weaver's trade, and thence he comes to the stage."

The stage, indeed, occupied largely the attention of Diderot, who sought to introduce reforms, the fruit of his own thought as well as of imitation of the Germans, which he had not perhaps sufficiently considered. For the classic tragedies, the heritage of which Voltaire received from the hands of Racine, Diderot aspired to substitute the natural drama. His two attempts in that style, _Le Pere de Famille_ and _Le Fils natural,_ had but little success in France, and contributed to develop in Germany the school already founded by Lessing. An excess of false sensibility and an inflation of expression had caused certain true ideas to fall flat on the French stage.

"You have the inverse of dramatic talent," said Abbe Arnauld to Diderot; "the proper thing is to transform one's self into all the characters, and you transform all the characters into yourself." The criticism did Diderot wrong: he had more wits than his characters, and he was worth more at bottom than those whom he described. Carried away by the richness as well as the unruliness of his mind, destitute as he was of definite and fixed principles, he recognized no other moral law than the natural impulse of the soul. "There is no virtue or vice," he used to say, "but innate goodness or badness." Certain religious cravings, nevertheless, sometimes: asserted themselves in his conscience: he had. a glimmering perception of the necessity for a higher rule and law. "O God, I know not whether Thou art," he wrote in his _Interpretation de la Nature,_ but I will think as if Thou didst see into my soul, I will act as if I were in Thy presence."


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