Denis Diderot (1731-1784) was foremost a philosopher and writer inFrance during thetimeof the Enlightenment. He is best known, however, for being editor in chief of the Encyclopedie, first published in 1751. It is believed that the Encyclopedie helped not only to promulgate the latest advances and discoveries in science and technology but also to spread the democratic ideas that sparked the French Revolution. Although it is debatable whether or not the creators of this work intended to incite social change, the consequences were far reaching.
Diderot was born October 5, 1731, in Langres, Champagne, France. His family was part of the bourgeois class that had been growing in France since the 15th century. Diderot’s parents realized his academic talents at a young age and sent him to study with the Jesuits. His teachers saw a bright future for him in the clergy. At age 13 he became impatient with his schooling and decided to become an abbe at the local cathedral where his uncle was canon. After 2 years his uncle died and intended to leave his religious office to young Diderot. Unfortunately the church leaders gave the job to someone else. After this disappointment, Diderot moved to Paris and later attended the Jansenist College d’Harcourt.
While studying in Paris, Diderot worked as a tutor for wealthy families, wrote sermons, and did English translations, among other odd jobs. In 1732 he earned a master of arts degree in philosophy. He gave up his dream of going into the clergy and pursued a career in law. This was short-lived, and in 1734 he decided instead to become a writer.
In 1743, he married Antoinette Champion and had one child, Angelique. He struggled as a writer for many years, but through a bit of good luck, he obtained the post of librarian for Catherine II of Russia and earned a yearly salary to support his family.
As part of the growing Bohemian culture of Paris, he socialized with many of the period’s greatest thinkers, such as Voltaire. Diderot’s first philosophical work was titled “Lettre sur les aveugles,” published in 1749. It primarily describes the reliance of people’s ideas on their senses. The works that followed dealt with the concepts of free will and relativism and gained him a good reputation among the thinkers of the day.
Diderot was asked to translate a dictionary of arts and sciences into French. Instead of accepting this task, he decided to create a new project that would do more than just define terms. He proposed the idea for the world’s first modern encyclopedia. The publishers were excited by the prospect of such a project and named him editor in chief. In the Encyclopedie all of the ideas of this exciting intellectual period were compiled into one publication. The areas of history, philosophy, and poetry were included. For the first time it was possible for scholars, as well as the average citizen, to keep up with cutting-edge concepts. Some entries were seen as antiestablishment, and the encyclopedia was eventually suppressed and censored by the government in 1759, but volumes continued to be published until 1765. Diderot dedicated 2 decades of his life to this enormous project. He spent his final years writing plays and art criticisms and died of emphysema on July 31, 1784.
Jessica M. Masciello
See also Comte, Auguste; Democracy; Enlightenment, Age of; Materialism
Crocker, L. G. (1955). The embattled philosopher: A biography of Denis Diderot. London: Neville Spearman.
Furbank, P. N. (1992). Diderot: A critical biography. London: Secker & Warburg.