The Man Who Knew Too Much

by Max Norman

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Andrew S Curran, Other Press, 2019


Diderot & Catherine: The Empress, The Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment

Robert Zaretsky, Harvard University Press, 2019


Diderot is a classic fox: unlike the single-minded hedgehog – say, the pouty Rousseau – Diderot knows many things. So many things, in fact, that Andrew S Curran, in Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, makes the philosophe’s very multiplicity his defining quality. ‘To become familiar with the range of Diderot’s work is to be stupefied,’ Curran writes. ‘Among other things, the philosophe dreamed of natural selection before Darwin, the Oedipus complex before Freud, and genetic manipulation two hundred years before Dolly the Sheep was engineered’. Although his duties as editor of the monumental Encyclopédie could have filled several lesser lives, Diderot was also a playwright, novelist, philosopher and art critic of tremendous originality, who did important work in a head-spinning number of areas. But much of his most memorable writing – such as Jacques the Fatalist, his Don Quixote-like novel about narrative, and D’Alembert’s Dream, his trippy dialogue-cum-dream-vision on the godless Lucretian materialism of nature – never saw the light of day. It was only after he died, reaching for some pickled cherries at lunch with the long-suffering, mercurial Nanette, his wife of more than forty years, that his work was published in dribs and drabs over the next century and a half. By bequeathing his most original work to posterity, Diderot engineered his afterlife in such a way that he ‘has now become the most relevant of Enlightenment philosophers,’ a thinker whose unclassifiability, meta-literary sensibility, and open-mindedness make him the philosophe for the internet age.


Yet in many ways Diderot has more in common with Erasmus than with Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales. Translation, commentary, and editing were the primary activities of Diderot’s professional life, and, like the Renaissance humanists, the primary impetus for his original thinking. At loose ends in Paris, an excellent Jesuit education behind him, Diderot taught himself English and stumbled into the job of translating Lord Shaftesbury’s An Enquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit, in which the British philosopher argues for the existence of an innate moral sense. Although instilled in us by God, this faculty grounds morality in the individual, and replaces religious dogma with an ethics guided by the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Shaftesbury gave Diderot the conceptual key with which to unite his skepticism toward received dogma with his yearning for a moral code, and in his enthusiasm for the text, Diderot’s version was far from faithful. He himself admitted that ‘never has someone else’s work been used with such liberty.’ Yet it was for his reputation as a hard-working translator that Diderot was hired in 1747 to help translate Ephraim Chamber’s Cyclopedia: Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts and Science – the project that grew into the great Encyclopédie.


The labor involved in this project is simply unfathomable: Diderot edited the lion’s share of the project’s 76,000 articles, wrote 2,000 of them and extensively revised and re-wrote many more during the 25 years that he supervised the project. Alongside his co-editor, the geometer Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, he was a conduit for almost every major French intellectual of the age. The only modern figure who comes even anywhere close is the late Robert Silvers, the beating heart at the center of the New York Review of Books, who sat at his desk behind beetling towers of books like a king in his castle, or a turtle in its shell.


Within the labyrinth of their great encyclopedia, Diderot and d’Alembert embedded what Curran calls ‘subtle yet substantial examples of heterodoxy.’ They organized knowledge alphabetically, disrupting old hierarchies of value by listing, say, ‘ciel’ (heaven) in between articles on cider and Cienakow, Poland. They questioned the spiritual authority of the monarchy with the same skeptical gaze they directed on religion, as in Diderot’s article on ‘Political Authority’: ‘No man has received from nature the right to command other men.’ But really the major achievement of the Encyclopedia was ‘the overturning of established orders of knowledge’. By bringing all of human knowledge onto the same level, and teaching its readers to apply the cold light of reason to all topics, the work laid the foundation for the Enlightenment worldview. Curran writes that although Diderot was never involved in politics in the way Voltaire was (such as when that philosophe intervened in a case of religious persecution in France and secured reparations for the family of the wrongly-executed Jean Calas) he had produced, in his own words, ‘a revolution’. He taught his readers to think rationally and to question ‘tyrants, oppressors, [religious] fanatics, and bigots.’ ‘Under his direction,’ Curran claims, ‘knowledge had been transformed into a form of political warfare.’


Although this may be something of an exaggeration, it’s difficult to understate the stakes of intellectual work in 18th century France, a totalitarian state with ‘a large network of both formal and informal surveillance,’ unbending dogmatic lines, and delicate structures of power and patronage. Diderot was never imprisoned for work on the Encyclopédie, but he did spend several months in the Vincennes prison following the publication of Letter on the Blind (1749), an essay on materialism that flirts with atheism. His arrest by a royal lettre de cachet, ‘one of the most hated expressions of arbitrary power associated with the ancien régime,’ and the indefinite imprisonment that followed were the major traumas of his life – and, Curran suggests, the reason that he suppressed so much of his writing.


Totalitarian and censorship bred ingenuity, leading to the ‘brilliant feints, satire, and irony, not to mention [the] overall methodological apparatus and structure’ of the Encyclopédie. Whether because of his natural tendency toward conversation, or because of the repressive forces governing public discourse, many of Diderot’s substantive publications took the form of creative translations, supplements, or commentaries: his voluminous reviews of the Salons of Royal Academy of Art, his Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (1772), his massive contributions to the abbé Raynal’s Philosophical and Political History of the Two Indies (1772-1780). Diderot’s own works ‘for the drawer,’ such as Jacques, The Natural Son, Rameau’s Nephew, and others, are marked by a self-consciousness and reflexivity that make them feel as modern as Borges, or Montaigne and Cervantes – the two literary predecessors inexplicably neglected by both of these books.


The philosophes’ interest in political power wasn’t simply an abstract problem, then. But for all the ways they felt the slap of the royal hand, they also fantasized about what its power might do for them with a fascination that verged on masochism. The relationship of ideas to power is the real subject of Zaretsky’s Diderot & Catherine, and provides a frame, or an approach, to Diderot’s and oeuvre, most of which is compressed into this brief but sometimes overfull narrative. Reading from the other side of the 20th century, in the neoliberal age of Davos and Jeff Bezos’s MARS conference in Palm Springs, the most uncomfortable aspect of the Enlightenment is the philosophes’ flirtation with authoritarian power to accomplish their social goals. One of the monarchs who attracted their attention was Peter the Great, the tsar who built his modern capital at St Petersburg, taxed Russians who wore long beards and traditional costumes and traveled to the Netherlands to immerse himself in the latest of the arts and sciences.


Russia was appealing because of its potential: ‘The vast country’s backwardness was not just its bane,’ Zaretsky writes, ‘but also its promise. Where better, in effect, to test the effectiveness of enlightened despotism than in a country whose intermediary institutions were, at least to outside observers, either faint or simply nonexistent?’ In yet another instance of the orientalism practiced by Montesquieu in his Persian Letters, and by Diderot in his writings on Tahiti, Russia was a great blank canvas, a benighted eastern dystopia waiting for the lumières to bring the light of reason. ‘It might well be that Russia is the greatest of all Enlightenment fictions,’ Zaretsky observes.


Peter’s granddaughter, Catherine II, thought of herself as souveraine civilisatrice of great learning and political wiles, equally capable of ousting her feckless husband Peter in a coup as she was of writing two dozen plays, a history of Russia, children’s fairy tales, and an impressive memoir – in addition to the Velikiy Nakaz, or Great Instruction, an impressive blueprint for legal reform in Russia. Catherine also knew that, to secure her fragile hold on power and to cement her legitimacy as Empress of All the Russias, she needed to do everything possible to associate herself with her grandfather, and so she exercised her wealth and redoubled her cultural endeavors to acquire as much social and political capital as possible. By the time she came to power, her beloved Voltaire was too old to come to Russia, so she invited Diderot, whose loyalty she had bought in 1765 when the philosophe was scrounging to gather his daughter’s dowry. The empress offered to buy the philosopher’s library and pay him an annual salary, 50 years in advance. After that she used Diderot as her art consultant in Paris, and awaited his visit to Saint Petersburg.


Once Diderot had braced himself to leave behind the two other women in his life, his beloved daughter and the wife that he had, after several decades and several affairs, finally come to appreciate, he made the testing journey east to pay his respects to the empress – and to engage in private conversations with the Empress, every afternoon from three to five, in her private wing of the 700,000 square foot winter palace. We don’t really know what happened in these certainly remarkable encounters between the philosophical despot and the despot-friendly philosopher. But Zaretsky uses his imagination, and Diderot’s own theories of acting, fiction, art, as well as ethics and politics, to ‘re-create what Diderot believed should have taken place,’ imagining Diderot speaking volubly on most subjects under the sun. Zaretsky insists that Diderot’s ‘determination to make her an exemplar of enlightened rule was his true motivation’ and imagines, based on Diderot’s correspondence, Catherine’s memoirs, and Diderot’s Observations on Catherine’s Nakaz, that the message he tried to impress on her was the importance of the rule of law. But Catherine did what the rich and powerful tend to do to philosophers: she patted him on the head. ‘In your plans for reform,’ she claimed to have said, ‘you forget the difference between our two roles: you work only on paper which consents to anything: it is smooth and flexible and offers no obstacles to your imagination or to your pen, whereas I, poor empress, work on human skin, which is far more prickly and sensitive.’


Zaretsky clearly admires his subject: he might be the only scholar who has ever referred to Diderot as a ‘mensch’ in writing. And he clearly admires Catherine. The lesson he invites us to draw from their encounter – which had no tangible results, except perhaps for disabusing Diderot of his fantasies of enlightened despotism – is that the pair’s ‘public ideals, which are increasingly besieged in the west, and their private decency, increasingly scarce among our leaders, are more important than ever.’ But despite Diderot’s encyclopedic knowledge, his engagement with Catherine never went past ideals. Although the institution of serfdom was one of his chief critiques of Russian society (what Zaretsky calls, in the most flagrant of several darlings that should have quietly been put down, ‘the decaying elephantine carcass in the room no one dared to discuss’) Diderot never met a serf. It’s no wonder that, although he fancied himself a Socrates in his early days, and translated chunks of the Apology when imprisoned at Vincennes, Diderot identified more with Seneca as he neared the end of his life. His last published work, in 1782, was a revised version of his Essay on Seneca, an immense study of the stoic writer who preached self-sufficiency and virtue but grew rich through Emperor Nero’s largesse.


When Diderot saw the portrait Louis Michel van Loo had painted of him at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture Salon in the summer of 1767 ( the image that decorates the dustjackets of both Curran’s and Zaretsky’s books) he would have noticed that his friend chose to depict him in a flowing blue robe, shining and immaculate, rather than the ink-stained robe de chambre he wore every day for decades. But it was through writing, editing and translating the works that helped prepare the way for the French Revolution and the growth of experimental science that Diderot, like the rest of the philosophes, helped changed the world, not through cultivating relationships with the powerful. Indeed, Diderot seems to have learned from his encounter with Catherine that enlightened despotism is a contradiction in terms. As our world reverts to early modern levels of inequality, and as authoritarianism becomes an increasingly attractive solution to the failure of democracy to address environmental and social crises, the ambivalent relationship of Diderot and his fellow philosophes to political power will only become more relevant – and instructive.


MAX NORMAN reads for an MSt in Modern Languages at St Cross College. Nothing about him is modern. Art by Abigail Hodges

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