Denis Diderot facts for kids
Quick facts for kids
Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767
|Died||31 July 1784
|Alma mater||University of Paris|
|Science, literature, philosophy, art|
Denis Diderot ( 5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer, best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie along with Jean le Rond d'Alembert. He was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment.
Denis Diderot was born in Langres, Champagne. His parents were Didier Diderot (1685–1759), a cutler, maître coutelier, and Angélique Vigneron (1677–1748). Three of five siblings survived to adulthood, Denise Diderot (1715–1797) and their youngest brother Pierre-Didier Diderot (1722–1787), and finally their sister Angélique Diderot (1720–1749). According to Arthur McCandless Wilson, Denis Diderot greatly admired his sister Denise, sometimes referring to her as "a female Socrates".
Diderot began his formal education at a Jesuit college in Langres, In 1732 he received the degree of Master of Arts from the University of Paris. He abandoned the idea of entering the clergy in 1735, and instead decided to study at the Paris Law Faculty. His study of law was short-lived however and in the early 1740s, he decided to become a writer and translator. Because of his refusal to enter one of the learned professions, he was disowned by his father, and for the next ten years he lived a bohemian existence.
Diderot initially studied philosophy at a Jesuit college, then considered working in the church clergy before briefly studying law. When he decided to become a writer in 1734, his father disowned him.
Diderot's earliest works included a translation of Temple Stanyan's History of Greece (1743); with two colleagues, François-Vincent Toussaint and Marc-Antoine Eidous, he produced a translation of Robert James's Medicinal Dictionary (1746–1748). In 1745, he published a translation of Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit, to which he had added his own "reflections".
In 1751, Diderot co-created the Encyclopédie with Jean le Rond d'Alembert. It was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named contributors and the first to describe the mechanical arts. Its secular tone, which included articles skeptical about Biblical miracles, angered both religious and government authorities; in 1758 it was banned by the Catholic Church and in 1759 the French government banned it as well, although this ban was not strictly enforced. Many of the initial contributors to the Encyclopédie left the project as a result of its controversies and some were even jailed. D'Alembert left in 1759, making Diderot the sole editor. Diderot also became the main contributor, writing around 7,000 articles. He continued working on the project until 1765. He was increasingly despondent about the Encyclopédie by the end of his involvement in it and felt that the entire project might have been a waste. Nevertheless, the Encyclopédie is considered one of the forerunners of the French Revolution.
Diderot struggled financially throughout most of his career and received very little official recognition of his merit, including being passed over for membership in the Académie française. His fortunes improved significantly in 1766, when Empress Catherine the Great, who heard of his financial troubles, paid him 50,000 francs to serve as her librarian. He remained in this position for the rest of his life, and stayed a few months at her court in Saint Petersburg in 1773 and 1774.
Diderot's literary reputation during his life rested primarily on his plays and his contributions to the Encyclopédie; many of his most important works, including Jacques the Fatalist, Rameau's Nephew, Paradox of the Actor, and D'Alembert's Dream, were published only after his death.
Diderot would keep writing on science in a desultory way all his life. The scientific work of which he was most proud was Memoires sur differents sujets de mathematique (1748). This work contains original ideas on acoustics, tension, air resistance, and "a project for a new organ" which could be played by all. Some of Diderot's scientific works were applauded by contemporary publications of his time like The Gentleman's Magazine, the Journal des savants; and the Jesuit publication Journal de Trevoux, which invited more such work: "on the part of a man as clever and able as M. Diderot seems to be, of whom we should also observe that his style is as elegant, trenchant, and unaffected as it is lively and ingenious."
On the unity of nature, Diderot wrote, "Without the idea of the whole, philosophy is no more," and, "Everything changes; everything passes; nothing remains but the whole." He wrote of the temporal nature of molecules, and rejected emboîtement, the view that organisms are pre-formed in an infinite regression of non-changing germs. He saw minerals and species as part of a spectrum, and was fascinated with hermaphroditism. His answer to the universal attraction in corpuscular physics models was universal elasticity. His view of nature's flexibility foreshadows the discovery of evolution, but it is not Darwinistic in a strict sense.
Although the Encyclopédie was Diderot's most monumental product, he was the author of many other works that sowed nearly every intellectual field with new and creative ideas. Diderot's writing ranges from a graceful trifle like the Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown) up to the heady D'Alembert's Dream (Le Rêve de d'Alembert) (composed 1769), a philosophical dialogue in which he plunges into the depths of the controversy as to the ultimate constitution of matter and the meaning of life. Jacques le fataliste (written between 1765 and 1780, but not published until 1792 in German and 1796 in French) is similar to Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey in its challenge to the conventional novel's structure and content.
Diderot's most intimate friend was the philologist Friedrich Melchior Grimm. They were brought together by their common friend at that time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1753, Grimm began writing a newsletter, the La Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, which he would send to various high personages in Europe.
In 1759, Grimm asked Diderot to report on the biennial art exhibitions in the Louvre for the Correspondance. Diderot reported on the Salons between 1759 and 1771 and again in 1775 and 1781. Diderot's reports would become "the most celebrated contributions to La Correspondance."
According to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Diderot's reports initiated the French into a new way of laughing, and introduced people to the mystery and purport of colour by ideas. "Before Diderot", Anne Louise Germaine de Staël wrote, "I had never seen anything in pictures except dull and lifeless colours; it was his imagination that gave them relief and life, and it is almost a new sense for which I am indebted to his genius".
Diderot had appended an Essai sur la peinture to his report on the 1765 Salon in which he expressed his views on artistic beauty. Goethe described the Essai sur la peinture as "a magnificent work; it speaks even more usefully to the poet than to the painter, though for the painter too it is a torch of blazing illumination".
Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805) was Diderot's favorite contemporary artist. Diderot appreciated Greuze's sentimentality, and more particularly Greuze's portrayals of his wife who had once been Diderot's mistress.
Diderot wrote sentimental plays, Le Fils naturel (1757) and Le Père de famille (1758), accompanying them with essays on theatrical theory and practice, including "Les Entretiens sur Le Fils Naturel" (Conversations on The Natural Son), in which he announced the principles of a new drama: the 'serious genre', a realistic midpoint between comedy and tragedy that stood in opposition to the stilted conventions of the classical French stage. In 1758, Diderot introduced the concept of the fourth wall, the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play. He also wrote Paradoxe sur le comédien (Paradox of the Actor), written between 1770 and 1778 but first published after his death in 1830, which is a dramatic essay elucidating a theory of acting in which it is argued that great actors do not experience the emotions they are displaying. That essay is also of note for being where the term l'esprit de l'escalier (or l'esprit d'escalier) comes from. It is a French term used in English for the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late.
Death and burial
Diderot died of pulmonary thrombosis in Paris on 31 July 1784, and was buried in the city's Église Saint-Roch. His heirs sent his vast library to Catherine II, who had it deposited at the National Library of Russia. He has several times been denied burial in the Panthéon with other French notables.
The French government considered memorializing him on the 300th anniversary of his birth, but this did not come to pass.
Appreciation and influence
In the next century, Diderot was admired by Balzac, Delacroix, Stendhal, Zola, and Schopenhauer. According to Comte, Diderot was the foremost intellectual in an exciting age. Historian Michelet described him as "the true Prometheus" and stated that Diderot's ideas would continue to remain influential long into the future. Marx chose Diderot as his "favourite prose-writer."
In Spanish: Denis Diderot para niños
- Contributions to liberal theory
- Diderot effect
- Euler, Leonhard
- List of liberal theorists
- Society of the Friends of Truth
- Paris Diderot University
- Denis Diderot House of Enlightenment
Images for kids
Denis Diderot Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.