A Philosophe in Full

oltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu are the names most readily associated with the 18th-century French Enlightenment. But Denis Diderot, though less well known, ultimately may have had a greater effect on the formation of the Enlightenment than any of them. Diderot’s name generally falls under the rubric of “philosophe,” never to be confused with the title “philosopher.” “In the eighteenth century,” writes James Fowler, editor of New Essays on Diderot, “the word ‘philosophe’ connoted a man of ideas but also a man of action, a would-be agent of social and political change, a champion of progress.”

This is how Denis Diderot saw himself. The author of novels, plays, philosophical dialogues, art and theatre criticism, and more, he was a literary man of all work, the intellectual par excellence. His most substantial work was that which has come to be known as the great French Encylopédie. As its chief editor over the course of a quarter of a century, Diderot saw its 17 volumes containing 71,818 articles and 11 further volumes containing 2,885 plates through to publication against the always looming threat of censorship and continuous financial struggle. Among the Encylopédie’s more than 150 contributors were D’Alembert, Helvétius, d’Holbach, Turgot, Quesnay, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Buffon, Condorcet, and Voltaire, an 18th-century all-star literary and philosophical vaudeville. Diderot himself wrote, among others, the articles “Nature,” “The Will,” “The Soul,” “Political Authority,” “Eclecticism,” “Dictionary,” and “Encyclopedia.”

The Encylopédie was read and discussed both abroad and in Paris, where, in the words of Harold Nicolson, “in the drawing rooms of Madame de Lambert, Madame de Tencin, Madame du Deffand, Madame Geoffrin, and Mademoiselle de l’Epinasse the intellectuals discussed little else.” More than a source of information, the work was a sub rosa political document, and as such a significant agent of change. The purpose behind it, Diderot wrote, was “changer la façon commune de penser,” or to change the manner in which people thought. In his article “Encyclopedia,” Diderot wrote that “this is a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual good will.”

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