Denis Diderot was the most prominent of the French Encyclopedists, and his attacks on the political systems of France were some of the largest benefactors of the French Revolution. Diderot spent thirty years of his life compiling the Encyclopedie- an immense contribution to the Enlightenment of Europe- and dedicating the rest of his life to helping others expand their realm of knowledge, thus adding Diderot to the list of prime initiators of the Enlightenment.
The roots of the Enlightenment began in the 17th century, beginning with rationalism and the laws of Descartes and Newton. Discoveries in natural science alchemized into the Enlightenment; society began observing and making conclusions on these observations, rather than just accepting what is told to them. The analytic method which Newton, Descartes, Galileo, and the other great discoverers were using became applied to the entire field of knowledge and thoughts, leading to many remarkable ideas. “The real power of reason lay not in the possession but in the acquisition of truth,” said Lessings. Society began looking for truths, looking at everything logically, and breaking the demarcations of dogmatism.
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Furthermore, unlike Socrates, logic was applied to rid the society of evils and injustice, rather than to just point the wrongs out. The Enlightenment dislodged the majority of society from the grasp that government and religion bestowed upon them, which plays a role in the French Revolution. The Enlightenment is credited to a core group of intellectual people: Voltaire, Hume, LeMettrie, d’Holbach, Pascal, Gibbon, Pierre Bayle- writer of a dictionary of history, he was a Galileo of history-, Montesquieu, Leibnitz, and most importantly, Diderot.
Denis Diderot, born in 1713, was educated by the Jesuits from 1728-1732, and then received the master of arts degree from the University of Paris. Diderot’s father wanted his son to study medicine or law, but Diderot wanted to be with books. Over the next few years, Diderot had several jobs, mainly translating literature from English to French, married, and soon began writing texts. His first work was the “Essai sur le merite et la vertu” in 1745. During that same year Diderot began a job as an editor for an encyclopedia of math with Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. During that time he learned the encyclopedic process, which became valuable when he began work on his own encyclopedia. Denis Diderot soon began collecting fame for his upcoming works, putting him in a position of authority and giving him a large audience. Diderot anonymously wrote, in 1746, the “Pensees philosophiques,” a collection of aphorisms, which was burned by the Parliament of Paris for its anti-Christian ideas. In 1749 he was imprisoned at Vicennes for three months because of he “Lettre sur les aveugles,” which supports Locke’s Theory of Knowledge and questioned the existence of God.
He was released from prison by the influence of Voltaire’s friend Mme. Du Chatelet, showing the close ties among the revolutionary thinkers. Over the next thirty years, Diderot wrote some of his most important works: Lettre sur les sourds et muets, Pensees sur L’interpretation de la nature, the novel La religieuse, Le neveu de Rameau, the plays Le fils naturel and Le pere de Famille and La religieuse which received fair success. Some of his books were not published because of his radical thoughts. One book, Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville, which wasn’t published until 1796, criticized slavery and colonialism.
In the book, an old Tahitian man says to a man leaving the island, “We are free people, and now you have planted the title deeds of our future slavery. You are neither god nor demon; who are you, then, to make slaves? You! You understand the language of these men, tell us all, as you have told me, what they have written on this sheet of metal: ‘This country is ours.’ This country is yours? And why? Because you have walked thereon? If a Tahitian landed one day on your shores and scratched on one of your rocks or on the bark of your trees: ‘This country belongs to the people of Tahiti’- what would you think?”
Although Diderot’s writings gained much success, none was more important than his largest work, the Encyclopedia. He began forming it in 1745, and it was completed and published in 1772. 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of engravings were published; each volume contained history, science, math, and theoretical thoughts by various authors. In it he often denounced Christianity; one of the chief reasons he wrote the book is because of Christians’ thousand-year record of destroying and burning libraries, and so, in the prevention of this happening again, he gathered as much knowledge as possible into one text so it couldn’t be lost. Diderot wrote almost one thousand of its articles, and the rest were submitted by prestigious scholars from around the world, including Voltaire Chevalier de Jaucourt, Marmontel, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and many others.
Diderot and his Encyclopedie are most accountable for the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was all about expanding the realm of knowledge to all people, and Diderot’s encyclopedia accomplished that exquisitely. Instead of only publishing one view-point, like most philosophers, Diderot was showing as many perspectives as possible and left it up to the reader to choose which beliefs should be accepted. In spite of the Encyclopedie’s placing on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books, like many other writings by Diderot, the Encyclopedie was in every major library and became the most used resource in all libraries and homes that possessed it.
Needless to say, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are strongly tied. The State and Church are, too, strongly connected. The State needs the church to remind the people of the Divine Right of Kings, and the Church needs the State to keep its immense holdings, about half of Europe, tax-free. The Encyclopedia stirred commotion for the Revolution because the State and Church saw that knowledge could bring doubt and an end to them, so they vainly banned the first two volumes. This was no use though because it was too popular to be stifled. Many articles of the Encyclopedia were resentful of the crown and clergy, and publicly opened the eyes of others to what truly went on in nunneries and monasteries. Denis Diderot died eight years after publication, just before France became so resentful at the oppressive rule of royalty and clergy that France either exiled them or chopped off their head.
Diderot’s life was spent relieving dogmatism, tradition, and authority to better the people of Europe. His life was not in vain, for he largely contributed to the Enlightenment and sparked the French Revolution. “Once the sun has been extinguished, what will be the result? Plants will perish, animals will perish, the earth will become desolate and silent. Light up the star once more, and you will immediately restore the necessary cause whereby an infinite number of new species will be generated…” said Diderot in a conversation with d’Alembert. In a time which dogmatism, government, religion, and illiteracy had blocked the sun out, Diderot lit up a star once more.
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