Denis Diderot


Denis Diderot

A provocative philosopher and daring political thinker, Denis Diderot is one of the most atypical figures of 18th century France. Now considered the most innovative philosopher of the Enlightenment, he embodies the spirit of that movement by his willingness to denounce prejudice, his faith in reason and his atheistic materialism.

In a context of obscurantism and intolerance, the philosopher put his reflections at the service of freedom and progress. He escaped his time through his rejection of conventions and systems, his intellectual independence and his overflowing imagination.

He left his mark on the history of all the literary genres in which he attempted to write. He laid the foundations of bourgeois drama in the theatre, revolutionised the novel with Jacques le fataliste et son maître, invented criticism through his Salons, and supervised the writing of the largest editorial project of the century, the Encyclopédie.

Rebellious formative years

Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in Langres, a small town in the North-East of France. The reign of Louis XIV is coming to an end, leaving behind a country that is highly centralised and ruined by wars.

Coming from a wealthy and very religious family of craftsmen, he is the eldest of six children, only four of whom will reach adulthood. With a canon for an uncle, a priest for a brother and a nun for a sister, the influence of religion on the young Denis Diderot is very strong. He himself is educated by Jesuits and receives a tonsure at the age of 13, yet he feels no attraction for the Church.

Behind the facade of a religious and orderly youth, Diderot is in reality a very agitated child. Sensitive and unruly, he frequently rebels against the brutal discipline and corporal punishment of his teachers. A pupil who is outstanding primarily in mischief and insolence, he is better at throwing punches than at making gestures of respect.

His bohemian years in Paris

One night, when he is 15 years old, his father is surprised to find him all ready to leave for Paris. Although this comes as a shock, the craftsman nevertheless travels with him to the capital. After completing his high school studies, Denis Diderot embarks on the study of theology and philosophy at the Sorbonne. The latter subject is to prevail. Although he was intended to become a priest, in fact he decides to become a philosopher. This is the last straw for his father who, in his disappointment, cuts him off. Diderot is 19 years old at the time.

It is the beginning of the encyclopaedist’s bohemian years, which is also the most obscure and least known period in the life of the philosopher. He holds various minor positions, such as prosecutor or tutor, and alternates between giving mathematics lessons and translating works by British philosophers – he has taught himself English on his own – in order to make ends meet. When the hunger is no longer bearable, he extorts money from monks by pretending to join their order.

Settled in the heart of the Latin Quarter, he loves his freedom and sentimental wanderings, frequenting cafés and salons in the Paris of the day, in the atmosphere of latent tension that characterises this part of Louis XV’s reign. Denis Diderot plunges into a whirlwind of amorous debauchery, philosophical discussions and gastronomic feasts. 

First publications: between convictions and imprisonment

In 1742, Diderot and Rousseau cross paths. Both as poor as each other, both sons of craftsmen and both about the same age, a solid friendship soon unites them. They meet every day for walks, card games, and passionate discussions about their futures. After his encounter with Rousseau, Diderot decides to take up the pen. He begins his career by translating works from English to French, but soon decides to publish his own reflections in Pensées philosophiques (1746). Here he promotes such scandalous ideas as reason and freedom of thought. He theorises on a form of morality independent of religious dogmas, based on what he calls social utilitarianism: doing good for the sake of good, with no hope of reward in the afterlife.

Published anonymously and clandestinely, Denis Diderot is well aware that his critical and subversive ideas run counter to established religion. The very first words of Pensées philosophiques are: “If these thoughts please no one, they may only be bad; but I hold them to be detestable, if they please everyone.” He wins his bet: the book is burned by order of the Parisian Parliament as soon as it is published, yet it is a huge success nonetheless. 

In 1749, Diderot is imprisoned in the castle of Vincennes for having dared to affirm in his second work, Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient (Letter on the Blind for the Use of those who can see), that knowledge comes from the senses, and not from divine revelation. This time Denis Diderot has gone too far. Even though the book is published anonymously, the weight of suspicion against him is too great.

This experience of prison has a profound effect on Diderot. It causes him to give up the idea of publishing all his works during his lifetime, hoping instead to reserve them for posterity. Freed from the constraints of censorship, but also from the need to seek public approval, the artist gives free rein to all the impulses of his thought, his sensitivity and his audacity. 

The Encyclopédie, a product of the Enlightenment’s audacity

This incarceration only temporarily distances him from his great project, initiated a few months earlier with d’Alembert. He intends to bring together the finest intellectuals of his time to produce a series of works on philosophy and ideas, but also on arts and crafts. This is the project of the Encyclopédie, or Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The aim of this monumental collective enterprise is to gather together an inventory of all fields of knowledge, an expression of belief in the emancipation of humankind through education.

So far, no one has judged it useful to compile a compendium of practical knowledge. But Diderot and the encyclopaedists are interested in ordinary people, the ones that no one has ever bothered to listen to. He wants to make information accessible to all.

After his imprisonment, he knows that his project would scandalise the authorities, and especially the Church. For the first time, Man, not God, is placed at the centre of the world. The history of the Encyclopédie is that of a fierce confrontation between philosophers on one side and the guardians of Catholic doctrine and the King’s censors on the other. To outsmart the censors, Diderot thinks up an ingenious scheme. He inserts daring observations under apparently innocuous headings. In the chapter “System of human knowledge”, theology appears at the very top, obviously to please the censors. But the chapter on religion is immediately followed by one on black magic. Even the table of contents has a hidden meaning.

Diderot and Rousseau, brothers turned enemies

While the Encyclopédie project is evolving, a shadow is cast over the friendship between the two philosophers.

For Diderot, the place of the philosopher is at the heart of the city. His role is to place his reflections at the service of debate, in the middle of society. Rousseau, for his part, opts to withdraw from the circus of city life, convinced that freedom lies in poverty. Diderot interprets this self-isolation as desertion. What begins as a small argument quickly escalates into a legal battle involving political stakes, and Rousseau very soon calls into question the credibility of the Encyclopédie. After going through many crises, Diderot will later try to reconnect with his former friend, but without success.

Diderot and universal education

Education is another battleground on which the two philosophers clash. Rousseau does not think that learning is suitable for the majority of people. He writes in Émile: “The poor have no need of education; their state is forced, they cannot have any other.” Voltaire shares this sectarian view of education, and goes even further in the exclusion of the common people’s children.

Denis Diderot is one of the rare 18th century writers to have envisioned education for the majority. One can imagine that the relative openness of the school he attended in Langres, and the welcome given to poor and gifted students, gave him at a very early age the feeling that education should not be reserved for the privileged few: “From the first minister to the last peasant it is good that everyone knows how to read, write and count.” Later, he will draw up plans for a Russian university open to all, boys and girls, poor and rich, an extremely liberal enterprise for the time.

Diderot’s tireless work on the Encyclopédie

The encyclopaedists allow themselves a new way of “telling the world”, challenging the laws dictated by monarchical or clerical power. In spite of the Church’s harassments, the encyclopaedists devote 26 years to perfecting their great work: 20 million words in 28 volumes. Each character is placed by hand. Hundreds of typographers, tanners, bookbinders and printers are involved.

As editor, Diderot is in charge of arranging the articles in order, coordinating and proofreading them. He also serves as one of the authors, writing 1,984 articles himself, more than half of the first volume.

In 1751, Diderot finally holds the first edition of the Encyclopédie in his hands. It is a phenomenal success. Diderot’s monumental work has fulfilled its mission: to bring respect and recognition to the common people. The Encyclopédie is banned for several years, but to quote Diderot: “A forbidden book is a book that is read”. 

In 1757, at a time when the pressure on the encyclopaedists is becoming more threatening, d’Alembert and Voltaire are on the verge of withdrawing from the project. Only Diderot stands firm. Driven by his creative energy and his values of equality, he does not share Voltaire’s view. Now an opulent grand seigneur, the latter feels an instinctive repulsion towards the people and does not believe that culture is everyone’s business. 

An immortal freedom  

Diderot devotes the last years of his life to a critique of the enlightened despot and the political complacency of the elites. He then writes Histoire des deux Indes, a collection of anti-colonial and anti-slavery pieces. At this time, he also breaks with liberalism to demand a state that would protect the weakest against the power of the markets. 

Although Diderot did not believe in eternal life, he sometimes heard echoes of his future glory, and found hope and consolation in the promise of posterity. Little known to his contemporaries, since his works were censored, it was not until the end of the 19th century that the power and originality of his writings received the interest they deserved. This was perhaps the reward for not being entirely of his time. For not being quite of any era. Diderot’s modernity resists the passage of time, and still embodies the spirit of the Enlightenment: freedom and reason. 

Denis Diderot School

It is with great pride that we named our school after the great philosopher and enlightener Denis Diderot, as this name means a lot to the world. It carries the sense of enlightenment, equal access to knowledge, freedom, critical thinking and social responsibility. This is exactly what our mission toward your children is: to educate curious, conscientious and socially responsible individuals and citizens who will become honourable members of society and contribute to sustainable development. We are inspired by one such example – the prominent life of Denis Diderot. 

Diderot contributed both to literature and philosophy with works that shared progressive ideas in nearly every intellectual field, while his most outstanding achievement was the creation of the Encyclopédie. This masterpiece gathers in one place all fields of human knowledge, but it provides much more than pure information. It shares a vision and attitude toward life and reality and spreads ideas that were controversial for the times, purified from the influence of religion and old dogmas. It presents a new way of perception that teaches people not only facts but how to think and be open-minded. These concepts are seen in all his philosophical writings – they are perceived as rather unconventional for his time but share the wisdom of the future. 

We are determined to educate in a similar way at the Denis Diderot School – with a vision for the future. We aim to prepare our students for every aspect of life by building a successful blend of knowledge, skills and personal values, which will define their attitudes, choices, deeds and human relationships. As a school, we provide crucial knowledge to the young people so as to prepare them for all the academic challenges they will face. Still, similar to Diderot’s conception for the Encyclopédie, they will learn much more than this. We will teach them not only lessons from textbooks, but lessons for leading a successful and dignified life. 

We are aware that in the contemporary digital world, information learned at school might quickly become outdated, but not the skills acquired during school time: an openness to lifelong learning, flexibility and adaptability in the face of change, the ability to see the big picture through a plethora of scattered data and the capacity to think globally and strategically. At the same time, the soft skills, such as proper time management, team work and strong argumentation skills, which the young people will obtain with us by putting knowledge into practice through project-based learning and research, will not become obsolete either. 

Along with imparting knowledge and skills, we are determined to train well-balanced individuals with strong personal values and a positive attitude toward the world. And here comes the role of philosophy, so highly valued by Diderot. By making it a vital part of our curriculum, our ambition is to raise students with a clear sense of “good” and “bad”, who are emotionally mature and able to take decisions on their own and defend them with confidence. In addition, they should be able to think outside the box – critically and creatively, and to live in harmony with nature, but they should also be open to the advantages of the technological revolution. But even more than that, we want to imbue them with the freedom to be themselves and present their best side. 

In line with the personal beliefs of Diderot, we cherish the value of being socially responsible. We want to share this view with the students through our vision and deeds toward nature and people, as well as through their own contribution to it. By taking active part in volunteer initiatives aimed at fostering the sustainable development of the community and conserving nature, and by applying the comprehensive knowledge they gain about the environment, the children will develop a deep sense of respect toward the natural world and a strong desire to protect it from harm. 

Diderot is one of the few enlighteners of 18th century who widely proclaimed the idea of equal access to knowledge for ordinary people rather than keeping it as a privilege for the elite. We share this belief: children from minorities and those with special educational needs should also benefit from our approach. Thus, through studying in an environment of diversity, your children will grow up to be socially mature – tolerant, responsible and supportive of others.  

In today’s turbulent world, in which globalisation, technologies and science are reshaping our lives, we perhaps cannot name all the professions that will exist in a decade, but we are confident in the profile of the individuals who will fill them. It is the one we will shape in your children. At the Denis Diderot School, our mission is to educate the builders of tomorrow.