Denis Didro is an intellectual of his time, a French writer and philosopher. The greatest fame was brought to him by the Encyclopedia compiled by him, the work on which he completed in 1751. Along with Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, he was considered one of the ideologists of the third estate in France, a popularizer of the ideas of the Enlightenment, which are believed to set the stage for the French Revolution of 1789.
Childhood and youth
Denis Didro was born in 1713. He was born in the small French town of Langre. His mother was the daughter of a tanner, and his father made knives.
Parents decided that Denis Didro would become a priest. To do this, they sent him to a Jesuit college, which he graduated in 1728. Two years earlier, the boy officially became an abbot. Biographers note that during this period the hero of our article was an extremely religious person, constantly fasted and even wore a hair shirt.
Arriving in Paris to complete his education, he entered the Jesuit College of Louis the Great, a little later, in all likelihood, at the Jansenite educational institution - d'Arcourt. Here he received the profession of a lawyer, as his father encouraged him to pursue a legal career. Presumably, the conflicts that arose between the Jansenites and Jesuits just turned him away from the chosen road.
In 1732, Denis Didro received a master's degree at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Paris. Instead of a priest's career, he is seriously considering becoming a lawyer, but as a result he prefers the lifestyle of a free artist.
Refusal of a priest's career
In a brief biography of Denis Didro, you need to pay attention to his personal life. In 1743, he marries Anne Tuannet Champion, who owns a linen shop.
At the same time, it is reliably known that marriage did not prevent him from having an affair with other women. It is believed that he had a romantic relationship in the mid-1750s with Sophie Vollan, an attachment to which he retained almost until his death.
After the wedding, Denis Didro, whose biography is quite interesting and full of all kinds of ideas, at first earned money through translations. In the 40s he worked with the most famous works of Stenian, Shaftesbury, James. His first independent literary works belong to the same period. They testify to the courage and mature mind of a fairly young author. In 1746 he published his Philosophical Thoughts, and later - Alleys, or The Skeptic's Walk, Letter to the Blind for the Seeing of the Seeing, Immodest Treasures. Apparently, by this time, Didro had turned into a deist, and soon - into a convinced materialist and atheist. In those days, these books by Denis Didro were classified as freethinking, for which he was arrested in 1749. He served his sentence in the Vincennes castle.
Work on the Encyclopedia
Didro first encountered work on the Encyclopedia in 1747. The idea of the capital’s publisher Breton to translate into French the so-called "Universal Dictionary of Crafts and Sciences" appeared a few years ago. But no editor could handle this task.
Didro worked on the project with D'Alembert. As a result, one of them came up with the idea of completely abandoning the translation of the English dictionary, and preparing an independent publication that would be unique. In any case, it was thanks to Diderot that the work on the Encyclopedia acquired the scope that turned it into a real manifesto of the Enlightenment.
Over the next quarter century, the hero of our article continues to oversee work on the book of knowledge, which by that time has grown to 17 volumes of some articles that accompany another eleven volumes of illustrations. Even considering the biography of Denis Didro briefly, you need to dwell on a large number of obstacles that he managed to overcome on his way. In addition to the imprisonment already mentioned, this also means suspension of work for reasons beyond the editor’s control, the crisis that caused D'Alembert to leave the project, the prohibition of publication and its careful and meticulous censorship.
Only in 1772 the first edition of the Encyclopedia was finally completed. Almost all the great minds of the Enlightenment that were then in France — Voltaire, Holbach, Russo, Montesquieu — took part in its creation.
The result of their joint work was a universal set of modern knowledge. Separately, it should be noted that in articles on political topics, no form of government deliberately gave preference to. And the praises that the authors addressed to the Republic of Geneva, they were accompanied by remarks that such a state system is possible only for relatively small territories, to which France itself does not apply. On the pages of the Encyclopedia, pure pluralism reigned supreme, because writers in some articles advocated a limited monarchy, while in others they adhered to the absolute option, seeing only the basis of public welfare in it.
At the same time, it was separately noted that subjects have the right to resist despots, and kings should obey the law without fail, help the poor and destitute, and uphold the faith of their people.
In the "Encyclopedia" openly criticized the lifestyle of the nobles. At the same time, the authors of the articles noted that they recognize and support the need for a social hierarchy in society. They mercilessly criticized the representatives of the bourgeoisie for their desire for positions and career growth, as well as greed, financiers recognized as a parasitic part on the body of the third estate.
The authors of the "Encyclopedia" advocated for facilitating the fate of the common people. However, to achieve this goal, they did not call for the establishment of democracy in the country, but appealed to the government, drawing the attention of officials and ministers to the need for reforms in education, the economy (fair taxation, the fight against poverty).
The main ideas of Denis Didro in the field of philosophy were formulated by him as early as 1751 in the treatise "Letter on the Deaf and Dumb for the edification of those who hear." In it, he considers the problem of cognition in the context of the symbolism of words and gestures.
In 1753, he publishes Thoughts on Explaining Nature, which he creates in the image and likeness of Bacon’s works, polemicizing with the rationalist philosophy of Leibniz and Descartes. For example, he refuted the theory of innate ideas.
When the philosophy of Denis Didro was formed, he categorically denied the dualistic doctrine, dedicated to the bifurcation of the spiritual and material principles. He argued that in the world there is only matter that can have sensitivity, and all the diverse and complex phenomena that occur in real life are the result of the movement of its particles. Confirmation of this can be found in quotes by Denis Didro:
Religion prevents people from seeing, because it, under pain of eternal punishment, forbids them to watch.
Take away the Christian’s fear of hell, and you will take away his faith.
The God of Christians is a father who treasures his apples tremendously and very little by his children.
His philosophical views also traced thoughts about the impact on the individual of various external factors. Among the ideas of Denis Didro, one can find the statement that a person is exclusively what his environment and education can make of him. Moreover, every action that he performs is a necessary act in the general worldview.
Attitude to politics
Considering the worldview of Denis Didro, the main thoughts and ideas of a philosopher and writer, it should be noted that for political convictions he was a supporter of enlightened absolutism, agreeing with Voltaire in this. Diderot also refused to trust the masses, who considered them incapable of resolving state and moral issues.
In his opinion, the ideal political system is a monarchy ruled by a sovereign endowed with philosophical and scientific knowledge. Didro was convinced that a union of philosophers and rulers was not only possible, but necessary.
At the same time, his own materialistic teaching was directed against the clergy. The ultimate goal was to transfer state power into the hands of philosophers.
In this Diderot was mistaken. As can be judged by history, the monarchs respected philosophers, but did not allow them to really influence practical politics. For example, when Diderot came to Russia in 1773, responding to the invitation of Catherine II, they spent hours talking in lofty conversation, but the Russian empress was skeptical of his projects to destroy luxury at the court, channeling the released funds to the needs of the people, and also about organizing universal free education.
For his library, Didro received a large sum of money from Catherine, while he was assigned a salary for its maintenance.
Diderot began to actively engage in creativity in the 50s. He publishes two plays - “The Father of the Family” and “The Second Son, or Trials of Virtue”. In them, he categorically refuses the rules of then-dominant classicism, seeking to create a philistine, bourgeois-sentimental drama, which he succeeds as a result of. In the majority of his works, the conflicts that arise between the representatives of the third estate come to the fore, their life and behavior in the most ordinary conditions are described.
His classic works include the novel “The Nun,” which we will talk about in more detail, the novels Nephew Rameau, Jacques-Fatalist and His Master. For most contemporaries, these books remain unknown, since the author was practically unable to print them during his lifetime.
It is worth noting that all these works are united by realism, amazing judiciousness and a transparent, extremely clear style of narration. Reading the works of Didro has always been easy, because they have almost no verbal jewelry.
In most of his works one can find rejection of the church and religion, commitment to humanistic goals, idealized ideas about human duty.
The aesthetic and philosophical principles that Diderot proclaims can be traced in his attitude to the visual arts. From 1759 to 1781, he regularly publishes reviews of Parisian salons in the handwritten newspaper of his friend Grimm, called Literary Correspondence. By subscription it is sent to influential princes and monarchs.
This is one of the most famous works of Didro. It depicts depraved mores reigning in a convent. In the book “The Nun” by Denis Didro, the story is narrated on behalf of a young novice who does not realize what feelings she is experiencing.
Critics note in this work an amazing combination of psychological truth with extremely bold naturalism for that time. All this makes Denis Didro's story “The Nun” one of the best prose works of the 18th century, at least in France. In addition, this is an excellent example of anti-religious propaganda.
The impetus for writing this book was the real story that the author found out about. In the 1950s, the secrets of the convent were exposed. In pre-revolutionary France, church life was one of the most exciting and pressing topics.
The story itself begins with an episode in which the main character Suzanne, who is an illegitimate child, is forcibly sent to a convent. In fact, her mother is betraying her, but the girl still loves her, does not reveal the secrets of her origin, although this could help her free herself. Instead, she makes several attempts to escape from the monastery in order to gain freedom, one of which ends successfully.
"Nephew of Rameau"
Another famous work of Didro is the novel "Rameau's Nephew". Many literary scholars consider it the pinnacle of the hero of our article.
The novel itself was written in the form of a dialogue between the author and the nephew of composer Rameau, who was very popular at that time in France. A relative begins to talk with admiration about theft and parasitic life at someone else's expense. The younger Rameau appears in the work as the personification of egoism that exists in modern society.
Travel to Russia
Catherine II, who corresponded and was on friendly terms with Voltaire, was interested in the work of Didro on the famous Encyclopedia. Barely taking the throne, she immediately offered to move the publication to Russia. Behind this was not only her desire to strengthen her reputation, but also an attempt to satisfy the interest of the educated and enlightened part of Russian society in this work.
Didro declined this offer, but agreed to sell the Empress his unique library for 50,000 livres. Moreover, the books themselves remained at his full disposal until the end of his life. He became the keeper of the works in his house as a personal librarian of the Empress.
At the invitation of Catherine, he stayed in St. Petersburg from October 1773 to March 1774. During this time he was elected an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.
When he returned to France, he wrote several essays on the possible introduction of Russia to European civilization. His skeptical remarks about Catherine’s policies provoked her anger, but they became known in Russia after the death of the philosopher.
In 1784, he died in Paris at the age of 70.