Denis Diderot

Philosopher and writer of the French Enlightenment

Denis Diderot was born to a family noted for their church connections but became an atheist later in life. He was vital to the success of the eighteenth-century Encyclopédie – itself such a monumental contribution to the French Enlightenment.

Whereas prominent contemporaries such as Voltaire and Rousseau were inclined to concentrate on elaborating particular doctrines and/or dedicating themselves to specific intellectual movements, Diderot, being particularly erudite in the history of philosophy, chose instead to eulogize its ancient and modern achievements alike. Consistent throughout his life work is a drive to supply people with knowledge to enable them to think for themselves; itself a fundamental humanist quality.

Diderot’s early works Pensées Philosophiques (Philosophical Thoughts, 1746) and Promenade du Sceptique (The Skeptic’s Walk, 1747), already demonstrate his concern for the question of religion, albeit from a deistic rather than atheistic stance. In the former, a set of aphorisms including: ‘Superstition is more injurious to God than atheism’ and ‘Scepticism is the first step towards truth’, Diderot questions Christianity’s integrity. Perhaps unsurprisingly – considering its critique of Christianity and time of publication – the work was condemned by the parlement in Paris and ordered to be burned.

It was Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles (Letter on the Blind) that he really brought up the question of the existence of God and led to his subsequent imprisonment in 1749 for three months for his opinions – seemingly incompatible with the conventional morality of the day. He contributed to much of his friend Baron d’Holbach’s Système de la nature know to some as the “the very Bible of atheism”. He later justified the extent to which he had criticised religion:

“It seems to me that if one had kept silence up to now regarding religion, people would still be submerged in the most grotesque and dangerous superstition … regarding government, we would still be groaning under the bonds of feudal government … regarding morals, we would still be having to learn what is virtue and what is vice. To forbid all these discussions, the only ones worthy of occupying a good mind, is to perpetuate the reign of ignorance and barbarism.”

Diderot devoted the majority of his time and attention to the creation of the Encyclopédie, of which he was joint editor along with Jean Le Rond D’Alembert from 1751 to 1765. He and the other ‘Encyclopédists’ envisaged incorperating all the principal discoveries of their time into one set of publications in order to initiate the process of recording the knowledge supplied by the universe of truth which reason was exposing. Rather than a mere work of reference, the Encyclopédie, under and as a result of Diderot’s instruction (Diderot continued to work underground and publish abroad where necessary in the face of growing oppoistion from religious groups and other domains), became a program for change. Although not a direct assult upon religion – querying for example, bible facts rather than directly challenging the truth of the entire bible – the work contributed greatly to the movement of knowledge and authority towards secular and away from the clerical realms of society.

Almost preempting the 1780s shift in French thinking from philosophy to politics, the criticism of despotism became a consistent theme of the Encyclopédie and of Diderot’s thinking – he favoured greater emphasis on democracy. His attacks on the political system of France contributed greatly to the causes of the French Revolution:

“The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty. It is to the state what health is to the individual.” – L’Encyclopédie