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
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
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
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
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
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.