xxxxxThe French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot is best known as the Editor of the Encylopédie, a massive work of reference across the whole spectrum of human knowledge. As the major contributor, he began work on this vast compendium in 1747, together with the French mathematician d'Alembert. The first volume was published in 1751, but it was not fully completed until 1780. Well over 100 scholars contributed, including such lively minds as those of Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau. The general tenor of the work was aimed at liberating society from the superstition of the church and the political oppression of the ruling classes. By a belief in his own ability, it argued, man could obtain his "natural rights" of freedom and equality. Both Church and State attempted to suppress such inflammatory writing but without success. Diderot also wrote a number of plays, but his major works were the social satire Rameau's Nephew, his Essay on Blindness, which landed him in jail for its anti-Christian ideas, and D'Alembert's Dream in which he sets out his views on materialism. In addition, for his Essay on Painting of 1765, and his regular articles on art, he is regarded as one of the founders of art criticism.

DENIS DIDEROT 1713 - 1784  (AN, G1, G2, G3a)

THE ENCYCLOPÉDIE 1751 - 1780  (G2, G3a)


Diderot: by the French painter Louis-Michel van Loo (1707-1771), 1767 – The Louvre, Paris. Salon: by the French painter Anicet-Charles Lemonnier (1743-1824), 1812 – National Museum of the Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison, France.


xxxxxThe French philosopher, dramatist and art critic Denis Diderot is rightly famed for his editorship of the remarkable Encyclopédie, first published in 1751 and taking thirty years to complete. A materialist who saw the world in purely mechanical terms, he put his stamp on this huge undertaking, a collective, intellectual enterprise which brought advanced thinking to bear upon the whole spectrum of human knowledge. As such it can be seen as a major contribution and spur to what is termed the Age of Enlightenment (or Reason), that movement which, starting imperceptibly in the 16th century, became a force that could not be ignored by the middle of the 18th.

xxxxxDiderot was born in Langres and, after being educated by Jesuits, gained a degree from Paris University in 1732. It seems that for the next ten years or so he scraped a living as a tutor and hack writer. Hisxfirst major work was Pensées philosophiques, published anonymously in 1746, and the following year he got a job editing a French translation of Cylcopaedia, a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences produced by the English writer Ephraim Chambers (c1680-1740) in 1728. Hexbegan this task alongside the French mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, and before long had converted a straight forward translation, planned for five volumes, into a colossal project seven times larger! Its title and size said it all - Encyclopédie, or Systematic Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Trades, containing 72,000 articles from well over 100 contributors. Generously illustrated and covering a vast range of subjects, it was not fully completed until the two-volume index was added in 1780.

xxxxxSome of the greatest minds of the day contributed to this vast undertaking, and France at this time had more than its fair share of free thinkers. Apartxfrom Diderot and the mathematician Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783), they included the brilliant economist François Quesnay, the philosopher and ardent atheist Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789), and the three Click Image to Enlargegreat intellectuals of the age, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau. In their own varying ways these "philosophes" set out to liberate society from the superstition of the church, the political conservatism of the ruling classes, and the rigid social structure which had lingered on as a legacy of the feudal system. It is hardly surprising that this "wind of change" should be seen as nothing short of a hurricane by both church and state! In 1759 the ten volumes which had already been printed were suppressed, and further publication was forbidden. Undaunted, Diderot continued his work, and had new volumes secretly printed.

xxxxxIn the hands of such intellectual giants, this compendium of advanced opinion was not merely a record of man's achievement in thought and deed, but an insight into his potential for yet greater advancement once he had became the master of his own destiny. Whilst religion was tolerated, it was viewed with great scepticism. It was seen as restraining man by its superstition and the domination of the established church. Likewise the state, it was argued, should not be an instrument of political oppression, demanding unthinking obedience, but a means of creating happiness and the fulfilment of man's "natural rights".

xxxxxThis was powerful stuff and, as we shall see, exerted some influence on contemporary thought. But Diderot was far more than an encyclopedist, brilliant though he was at compiling his own contributions, and editing those of others. An able dramatist and prolific writer, he produced the first two drame bourgeois in 1757 and 1758. Entitled The Illegitimate Son and The Father of the Family, they were centred around the tragic and comic elements of middle class life of his day, and concluded with an appropriate moral lesson, an ending which became a standard feature of this genre. More successful were his social satires in dialogue form, Rameau's Nephew, and his Essay on Blindness (Lettres sur les aveugles), published in 1749, a study of the blind which landed him in prison for three months because of his anti-Christian ideas, and some tentative steps towards the theory of evolution. His D'Alembert's Dream, a work in which he spells out his views on materialism, was of importance but not published until 1830. He also earned a name for himself in the art world. By his coverage of the Paris Salons and annual art exhibitions, together with his Essay on Painting, written in 1765, he has come to be regarded as the first art critic of any stature. But like so many intellectuals of this period, it was his letters, particularly those to his lady friend Sophie Volland, which throw so much light upon his own personality and the society in which he lived.

xxxxxIncidentally, in the world of aristocratic women, the Age of Enlightenment produced a cultivated society devoted to the art of intellectual discussion and the qualities of politeness and civility. In this milieu Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) the mistress of the French king Louis XV, played a prominent part. A talented musician and singer, and an accomplished artist, she was one of the leading patrons of the arts. Butxdespite her royal connections, she was simply a member of the most eminent Parisian salon of that time, that of Madame Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin. Her home in the Rue Saint-Honoré (illustrated) was the centre of the city’s cultural life, a meeting place above all for the great philosophes and encyclopedists of this new age. She was surrounded, Diderot noted, “by all who were of any consequence”. ……

xxxxx…… That Diderot should spend only three months in prison for his Essay on Blindness is perhaps a little surprising when one of his offending statements reads: Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. (!) ……

xxxxx...... Diderot's Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, published in 1769, gives a critical account of the French explorer's voyage to the South Seas during his trip around the world, the first by a Frenchman. The tropical plant Bougainvillea is named after him.


The Age of


(or Reason)

xxxxxThe Age of Enlightenment (or Reason), was a wide ranging intellectual movement based on the power of reasoning. It had deep roots. In the 16th century, for example, both the Renaissance and Reformation had shown how man himself could accomplish change, whilst in the 17th century explorers had opened up new horizons, and men like Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Locke had questioned old ideas and put forward new ones in philosophy, astronomy and the sciences. As we have seen, in the 18th century these ideas were crystallised in the Encyclopédie - a powerful diatribe against traditional authority and a fund of radical solutions, be it in education, economics, religion or politics. Radical thought came easily to free thinkers like Diderot, d'Alembert, Quesney, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Advanced, in particular, was the spirit of democracy, championing the right of man to freedom, equality and justice. These ideas clearly played a part in the American and French Revolutions, but in Europe, the eventual breakdown of law and order, the Napoleonic wars, and the social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution somewhat stifled the movement. However, it survived sufficiently to add its voice to social reform, and is still to be heard in man's quest for freedom, tolerance and the rule of law.

xxxxxThe Encyclopédie was one of the principal works - the "blueprint" it might be said - of the so called Age of Enlightenment (or Reason), a wide ranging intellectual movement which, based on the power of reasoning, aimed to improve every area of human life. As early as the 16th century, the Renaissance had revived man's creative spirit, and the Reformation had shown that he could challenge an authority as powerful as the Roman Catholic Church and get away with it. Such experience, plus the exploration of a new world beyond Europe, and the slow but steady advance in science and astronomy during the 17th century, increased man's faith in his ability to attain knowledge and use it to his own advantage. Be they scientist or philosopher, such pioneers as Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Leibnitz, Newton and Locke questioned old ideas and put forward new ones. The improvement of man's lot, they argued or implied, was in his own hands. As the German philosopher Kant later put it, man must "dare too know".

xxxxxThe 18th century saw the crystallizing of these ideas in the Encyclopédie, a work produced, as we have seen, by some of the best minds of the century - indeed, of any century. In the hands of rational thinkers such as Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau, this compendium of knowledge not only launched a powerful attack against traditional authority - be it Church or State - , but, in the name of materialism, put forward some radical solutions. It promoted education as a means of overcoming popular ignorance - and the consequent subservience of the masses -, whilst in economics it put forward the advanced ideas of laissez faire and free trade. In religion it accepted the existence of God (Deism), but rejected the intolerance of the Church and the intricacies of its teaching. But it was in politics, above all, that its impact was mostly to be felt. In stressing the natural rights of man, the movement deprecated people's blind obedience to absolute government. As such it was a powerful shot in the arm in strengthening the democratic spirit, championing as it did equality, justice and freedom of expression.

xxxxxBy the 1770s the Age of Enlightenment had reached its heyday and had spread beyond France, inspired by such talented men as Immanuel Kant and Gotthold Lessing in Germany, David Hume and Adam Smith in England, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in the American colonies. Even despotic rulers like Frederick II of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, and Catherine II of Russia (whom Diderot had visited in 1773), were seen as "enlightened" on the strength of some liberal reforms. However, they in no way embraced the democratic spirit. Furthermore, the idea that government based on reason would bring about universal happiness was to be shattered by the reign of terror in France in the early 1790s, and the stark dictatorship and militant nationalism which followed. And the further increase in class divisions brought about by the Industrial Revolution produced a society which was far removed from the movement's ideals.

xxxxxNonetheless, the declaration that "all men" have a right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", the corner stones of the American Revolution, and the fervent belief of the French Revolutionaries that man was born "free and equal" owed much to Enlightened thought, and, put to the test, ultimately led towards the spread of democracy and equality. And in the shorter term, the movement did help to put some limitation on such day-to-day matters as capital punishment and the use of torture. And by the very climate it created, it did contribute to the abolition of the slave trade and the growth towards women's liberation. Indeed, there was no cut-off point to the values engendered by the Age of Enlightenment. They lost a great deal of their resonance towards the end of the 18th century, but they continued to echo down the years, and thus play a vital part in man's quest for freedom, toleration and the rule of law.