Diderot: A Critical Biography
by P.N. Furbank
Knopf, 524 pp., $30.00
‘This Is Not a Story’ and Other Stories by Denis Diderot
translated with an introduction by P.N. Furbank
University of Missouri Press, 166 pp., $27.50
In the epilogue of his very well-written biography, under the heading “The Afterlife of Diderot,” Mr. Furbank complains about the definite article in the English phrase “The Enlightenment”: a phrase that distorts the thought of eighteenth-century philosophy and that is particularly a barrier to understanding, and celebrating, Diderot. A false unity is implied, traceable, he thinks, to its origin in Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which set a fashion for countless histories of ideas. Up to the present day, conservatives have too blandly assimilated very diverse thinkers to a common pattern as all apostles of Reason in politics.
Of the great triumvirate of the century in France—Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot—only Voltaire can possibly be represented as exalting rationality in morals and politics, and even he appealed more often to common sense and to the observation of nature. Rousseau and Diderot made natural sentiments and emotions the center of their moralities and left logic and reasoning, in any strict sense, on the periphery. For conservative pamphleteers, now as in the last century, it has been easier to lump them all together to form a single target and to denounce a false notion of philosophical rationality as responsible for the September massacres during the French Revolution, and even for the later excesses of totalitarian planning.
Like so many arguments drawn from the history of ideas, this one is superficially plausible only in so far as it is kept vague and remote from specific texts. As joint editor with D’Alembert of the Encyclopedia, the great monument of advanced thinking in the eighteenth century, Diderot gets caught up in this controversy because several contributors to the Encyclopedia, who were also his friends, were indeed utilitarians and rational optimists in philosophy, and some of them also believed in scientific determinism and in the dawn of a new age of harmony and peace: Condorcet, Helvétius, Condillac, Holbach, La Mettrie, did believe, with different emphases and for different reasons, that their new theories of knowledge would enable humanity to be remodeled for the benefit of all in a splendid future.
Diderot certainly had no such confidence. He argued that the human sciences were still in their infancy and that we still know almost nothing about the workings either of the mind or of the brain or of their relation to each other. He often wrote and spoke of the vast range of different possibilities open to men and women and of new forms of happiness that would unpredictably arise. Famously he evoked in his dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau the ambiguities, the uncertainties, and incoherences which the contrast of virtue and vice, and any conventional ethics, always entails.
Diderot neither sought nor achieved purity of soul either in his life or in theory. He was amused by his own inconsistencies and weaknesses, as we know from his letters to Sophie Volland, at one time his mistress: letters still wonderful to read, comparable with the letters of Keats or Byron. When in prison …