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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Leaving the enjoyment of them to Diderot


A strange illusion on the part of the philosopher about the power of ideas as well as about the profundity of evil in the human heart! Diderot fancied he could regulate his life by a perchance, and he was constantly hurried away by the torrent of his passion into a violence of thought and language foreign to his natural benevolence. It was around his name that the philosophic strife had waxed most fierce: the active campaign undertaken by his friends to open to him the doors of the French Academy remained unsuccessful. "He has too many enemies," said Louis XV. "his election shall not be sanctioned." Diderot did not offer himself; he set out for St. Petersburg; the Empress Catherine had loaded him with kindnesses. Hearing of the poverty of the philosopher who was trying to sell his library to obtain a dower for his daughter, she bought the books, leaving the enjoyment of them to Diderot, whom she appointed her librarian, and, to secure his maintenance in advance, she had a sum of fifty thousand livres remitted to him. "So here I am obliged, in conscience, to live fifty years," said Diderot.

[Illustration: Diderot and Catherine II----321]

He passed some months in Russia, admitted several hours a day to the closet of the empress, chatting with a frankness and a freedom which sometimes went to the extent of license. Catherine II. was not alarmed. "Go on," she would say; amongst men anything is allowable." When the philosopher went away, he shed hot tears, and "so did she, almost," he declares. He refused to go to Berlin; absolute power appeared to him more arbitrary and less indulgent in the hands of Frederick than with Catherine. "It is said that at Petersburg Diderot is considered a tiresome reasoner," wrote the King of Prussia to D' Alembert in January, 1774; "he is incessantly harping on the same things. All I know is that I couldn't stand the reading of his, books, intrepid reader as I am; there is a self-sufficient tone and an arrogance in them which revolts my sense of freedom." The same sense of freedom which the king claimed for himself whilst refusing it to the philosopher, the philosopher, in his turn, refused to Christians not less intolerant than he. The eighteenth century did not practise on its own account that respect for conscience which it, nevertheless, powerfully and to its glory promoted.

Diderot died on the 29th of July, 1784, still poor, an invalid for some time past, surrounded to the end by his friends, who rendered back to him that sincere and devoted affection which he made the pride of his life. Hearing of his sufferings from Grimm, the Empress Catherine had hired a furnished apartment for him; he had just installed himself in it when he expired; without having retracted any one of his works, nearly all published under the veil of the anonymous, he was, nevertheless, almost reconciled with the church, and was interred quietly in the chapel of the Virgin at St. Roch. The charm of his character had often caused people to forget his violence, which he himself no longer remembered the next day. "I should like to know this hot-headed metaphysician," was the remark made to Buffon by President De Brosses, who happened to be then at Paris; and he afterwards added,

"He is a nice fellow, very pleasant, very amiable, a great philosopher, a mighty arguer, but a maker of perpetual digressions. Yesterday he made quite five and twenty between nine o'clock and one, during which time he remained in my room. O, how much more lucid is Buffon than all those gentry!"

The magistrate's mind understood and appreciated the great naturalist's genius. Diderot felt in his own fashion the charm of nature, but, as was said by Chevalier Chastellux, "his ideas got drunk and set to work chasing one another." The ideas of Buffon, on the other hand, came out in the majestic order of a system under powerful organization, and informed as it were with the very secrets of the Creator. "The general history of the world," he says, "ought to precede the special history of its productions; and the details of singular facts touching the life and habits of animals, or touching the culture and vegetation of plants, belong perhaps less to natural history than do the general results of the observations which have been made on the different materials which compose the terrestrial globe, on the elevations, the depressions, and the unevennesses of its form, on the movement of the seas, on the trending of mountains, on the position of quarries, on the rapidity and effects of the currents of the sea--this is nature on the grand scale."


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