Denis Diderot

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Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was a French intellectual ("philosophe") and philosopher, and a major organizer and leader of the Enlightenment. A polymath, he contributed in numerous disciplines, including philosophy, literature and art criticism. Like his compatriot Voltaire, he also tended to silence Christian critics via the courts, making him a precursor to the cancel culture.[1][2][3][4]


He is best known for editing the Encyclopédie, the great multi-volume French-language encyclopedia of scientific and social knowledge. He worked on it from 1748 to 1772, arranging for many of France's greatest experts to contribute to a comprehensive overview of knowledge at a very high level—much higher than today's well-known encyclopedias.


As a philosopher Diderot speculated on free will and held a completely materialistic view of the universe; he suggested all human behavior is determined by hereditary. He therefore warned his fellow philosophers against an overemphasis on mathematics and against the blind optimism that sees in the growth of physical knowledge an automatic social and human progress. He rejected the Idea of Progress. In his opinion, the aim of explaining the universe through geometry was doomed to fail. Therefore, he founded his philosophy on experiment and the study of probabilities. He wrote several articles and supplements concerning gambling, mortality rates, and inoculation against smallpox for the Encyclopédie. There he discreetly but firmly refuted d'Alembert's technical errors and personal positions on probability.

Religious beliefs

Diderot was an atheist, even among his contemporaries, and advocated alongside Voltaire the overthrow of religion. In particular, he once stated that he wanted to live long enough to "see the last king strangled by the entrails of the last priest," thus implying that he wanted to see both the Monarchy and Christianity violently destroyed.

Theater and fiction

He wrote extensively on the theater; his understanding of the classical theater is characterized by audience-stage separation, orientation to the universal spectator, and stress on the aesthetics of the theater coming from the actors and the playwright.

Diderot's famous work, Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew, 1805), was published posthumously. A satire of Diderot's society and era, the work was the first bourgeois novel and exemplified Diderot's theory that art must embody a moral point of view.

In 1772-74 Empress Catherine the Great of Russia brought him to St. Petersburg, where his ideas had enormous influence. In turn the experience in a strange land broadened his outlook as well.

Further reading

  • Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher (1974)
  • Crocker, Lester G. Diderot's Chaotic Order: Approach to a Synthesis (1974)
  • Fellows, Otis E. Diderot, (1989)
  • France, Peter. Diderot (1983)
  • Mason, John H. The Irresistible Diderot (1982)
  • Wilson, Arthur McCandless. Diderot (1972), the standard biography

Primary sources