Diderot’s Letters to Sophie Volland: A Selection
The eighteenth century is remote enough to be another world, yet near enough for us to recognize here in their infancy our modern values, our political doctrines, and our intellectual disciplines. Exploring the eighteenth century is an indirect but useful way of examining ourselves.
In completing his biography of Diderot, Arthur M. Wilson has earned the gratitude of everyone who is interested in the Enlightenment. Diderot’s importance needs no emphasizing today. Throughout the twentieth century he has been growing steadily in stature, and critical comment on his work has even outstripped that devoted to Rousseau—no small feat. The recent publication of Diderot’s works, competently edited by Roger Lewinter, includes almost everything Diderot wrote; all that is missing from these fourteen volumes is the complete collection of texts written by Diderot for the Encyclopedia. Compiling them would have been a hard task, and it will raise daunting problems for the international team of scholars who are about to undertake a critical edition of Diderot’s works.
Diderot indeed occupies a central place in the Enlightenment. Stubborn courage enabled him to bring the great ark of the Encyclopedia safe to harbor in 1772 after twenty-five years of untiring labor. The Encyclopedia has been seen, and rightly so, as a symbol of the triumph of the bourgeois spirit; it aimed at bringing together knowledge of all kinds and harnessing it to the rational exploitation of natural resources for the common good. To use Bernard Groethuysen’s expression, it gave its readers a proprietor’s view of the world. Similarly, Diderot made a decisive contribution to almost every field he touched on. He launched aesthetics and art criticism on a new career, he was instrumental in changing the face of the theater, he invented the first experimental novels. He had an impressive insight into the tasks and methods of the new biology.
He was master enough of the learning of his age to be able to claim without exaggeration that nothing human was foreign to him; mathematics, technology, music, painting, sculpture, medicine, economics, education, and politics, all of these, in almost equal measure, were his concern as a man of letters. This expression possessed in his day a breadth of meaning which it has gradually been losing ever since. In his role as a European, too. Diderot is a central figure; he is among those who introduced, assimilated, and popularized in France Bacon, Shaftesbury, Richardson, and Sterne—and in his turn he was to influence Lessing and Goethe and leave his imprint on Hegel and his progeny.
Diderot’s biographer has a hard task. There are many documents, but they are scattered; for some periods they are plentiful, for others all too rare. Unlike Rousseau, Diderot did not go to the trouble of writing a complete autobiographical apologia; to defend his name he composed not Confessions but a Life of Seneca (1779), in which he speaks of himself only indirectly. The biographer is obliged to sift his material, organizing it patiently …