The three intellectual heroes of the Revolutionby@havelock

The three intellectual heroes of the Revolution

by Havelock EllisApril 8th, 2023
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Of the three intellectual heroes of the Revolution, Diderot exercised the least apparent influence; he was, for the most part, too far ahead of his time, and his tremendous energies were frequently either concealed or dissipated along innumerable channels. The humane Voltaire, short-sighted, but so keen within his range, whose sarcasm was always on the side of benevolence; the morbid, wrong-headed, suffering Rousseau, who spent his life in bringing to birth an exquisite emotional thrill which is now a common possession—these two men stood out in the eyes of all, then and long after, as the standard-bearers of revolution. On the other hand, Diderot’s great German contemporary, Goethe, the only man with whom he may fairly be compared, has during most part of this century seemed to us the inaugurator of the spiritual activities of the modern world. Goethe is still full of meaning; it will be long before we have exhausted “Wilhelm Meister” or “Faust.” Perhaps, now that we are so anxious to reform the world before reforming ourselves, we need more than ever the example of Goethe’s self-culture and self-restraint, of his wise reverence for temperance and harmony. But even Goethe, with that peaceful Weimar atmosphere about him, seems to us a little antique and remote from our modern ways. Diderot, on the other hand, who grew up and lived among the various and turbulent activities of the city that was in his time the focus of European life, appears before us now as a spirit of the latter nineteenth century, at one with our aspirations to-day. It was fitting that his works should wait until our own time for the most adequate and complete publication yet possible, and that he should now first receive full and ungrudging appreciation. “At the distance of some centuries Diderot will appear prodigious; men will look from afar at that universal head with admiration mingled with astonishment, as we to-day look at the heads of Plato and Aristotle.” So Rousseau wrote, at the end of his life, of the friend whose unwearying kindness he—almost alone among human beings—had at last wearied out; to-day the prophecy seems in a fair way of fulfilment.
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Of the three intellectual heroes of the Revolution, Diderot exercised the least apparent influence; he was, for the most part, too far ahead of his time, and his tremendous energies were frequently either concealed or dissipated along innumerable channels. The humane Voltaire, short-sighted, but so keen within his range, whose sarcasm was always on the side of benevolence; the morbid, wrong-headed, suffering Rousseau, who spent his life in bringing to birth an exquisite emotional thrill which is now a common possession—these two men stood out in the eyes of all, then and long after, as the standard-bearers of revolution. On the other hand, Diderot’s great German contemporary, Goethe, the only man with whom he may fairly be compared, has during most part of this century seemed to us the inaugurator of the spiritual activities of the modern world. Goethe is still full of meaning; it will be long before we have exhausted “Wilhelm Meister” or “Faust.” Perhaps, now that we are so anxious to reform the world before reforming ourselves, we need more than ever the example of Goethe’s self-culture and self-restraint, of his wise reverence for temperance and harmony. But even Goethe, with that peaceful Weimar atmosphere about him, seems to us a little antique and remote from our modern ways. Diderot, on the other hand, who grew up and lived among the various and turbulent activities of the city that was in his time the focus of European life, appears before us now as a spirit of the latter nineteenth century, at one with our aspirations to-day. It was fitting that his works should wait until our own time for the most adequate and complete publication yet possible, and that he should now first receive full and ungrudging appreciation. “At the distance of some centuries Diderot will appear prodigious; men will look from afar at that universal head with admiration mingled with astonishment, as we to-day look at the heads of Plato and Aristotle.” So Rousseau wrote, at the end of his life, of the friend whose unwearying kindness he—almost alone among human beings—had at last wearied out; to-day the prophecy seems in a fair way of fulfilment.

The whole life of Diderot, all his actions and all his words, everything that he wrote, bears the impress of his ever-flaming enthusiasm. That “air vif, ardent et fou,” which, in his own words, marked him in early life, meets us at every turn. As a boy at the Jesuit College he wished to go out into the world. “But what do you wish to be?” asked over and over again that most excellent of fathers, the cutler of Langres. And the young Diderot persisted that he wanted to be nothing: “mais rien, mais rien du tout.” He was not the last youth who, feeling the stirring of a deep instinct, would not, and could not, shut himself down to one narrow path of life. But to the men of this stamp “nothing” means “everything.” Then ten years passed, ten years, as his daughter wrote, passed “sometimes in good society, sometimes in indifferent, not to say bad, society, given up to work, to pain, to pleasure, to weariness, to want, sometimes intoxicated with gaiety, sometimes drowned in bitter reflection.” He taught mathematics: if the scholar was apt, he taught him all day; if he was a fool, he left him. “He was paid in books, in furniture, in linen, in money, or not at all.” When teaching failed he had to earn money how he could—as by supply[37]ing a missionary with a stock of sermons. Once he had to starve for a few days. That was not the least instructive experience to the youth, for he resolved that, whenever he could help it, no fellow-creature should suffer the like.

There could have been no better education. It was the seed-time of all his energies, of his encyclopædic knowledge, of his manifold hold on life, of his extraordinary capacity. He found time in the midst of it to fall in love with and marry a pious, honest, and affectionate girl who happened to be living in a room near him, but who was so ignorant that she once scolded him for the amount (very far from excessive) that he took for his writings; she could not imagine that mere writing could be worth so much. That he was not always faithful to her scarcely needs to be told; that could, perhaps, have been otherwise at no period, least of all in eighteenth-century Paris. There is a deep pathos in the brief story of her long life and her devotion to the husband whose own energies were at the service of any human being, however poor or disreputable, who cared to climb up the stairs to his room. In the early days of poverty she would make little sacrifices to procure a cup of coffee or similar trifling luxury for her husband; and during his last illness, though she would have given her life, her daughter wrote, to make him a Christian, yet realizing how deeply rooted[38] his convictions were, she shielded him from the efforts of the orthodox, and would not leave the parish curé alone with him for an instant; at his death, the daughter adds, she “regretted the unhappiness he had caused her as another would have regretted happiness.” But we do not regret unhappiness; it is but another way of saying that life is complex and full of mitigation. In tenderness Diderot was never deficient; he was clearly a man of deep family affection; he seems to have inherited this from his father; so judicious a critic as Sainte-Beuve remarks that of the whole group of philosophes—not eminent, perhaps, in this respect—Diderot was the one who “most piously cultivated the relations of father, of son, of brother, and who best felt and practised family morality,” and we constantly come across traces of this “piety.” He tells us with great glee how, when he was once walking through his native Langres, a townsman came up to him and said, “Monsieur Diderot, you are a good man, but, if you think that you will ever be equal to your father, you are mistaken.” His eldest sister seems to have had something of his own downrightness and solidity; he loves her, he says, not because she is his sister, but because he “likes excellent things.” His only brother was an ecclesiastic and a bigot, but Diderot dwells on the inexhaustible charity by which this rather eccentric man had im[39]poverished himself. At the latter part of his life Diderot’s letters are full of proof of his tender love for his daughter, of the care and thought he devoted to her education, of the gentleness with which he sought to open to her the mysteries of the world.

At the age of twenty-eight Diderot conceived the plan of that “Encyclopædia” which became the central activity of his life. A few years later he published his first work, a free translation of Shaftesbury’s “Essay on Merit and Virtue,” which indicates well the philosophical point from which he set out. It was followed, a year after, by the “Pensées Philosophiques,” a few brief pages, full of condensed and vigorous satire on the theologians and of robust faith in man and nature. Perhaps the most memorable is that in which he imagines that a man, betrayed by his wife, his children, his friends, retired into a cavern to meditate some awful revenge against the human race, a perpetual source of dread and misery; at last the misanthrope rushed out of his cavern shouting. “God! God!” and his fatal desire was accomplished: this account of the matter at all events indicates how little, even at this early period of his life, Diderot sympathized with the fashionable Deism of his day. The book was condemned to be burned by command of Parliament, but it was subsequently reinforced by still more audacious[40] additions. So began characteristically, if with something of the reckless impetuosity of youth, a series of writings, far too long even to name here, many that were only published at his death, some that are only now being published, a large number that have probably been lost altogether—all marked by the same prodigious wealth and variety and eloquence. Yet they lie apart from the great work of his life. The “Encyclopædia” occupied thirty years; the appearance of the first volume was retarded by Diderot’s imprisonment at Vincennes, and it appeared in 1751; the last appeared in 1772. The “Encyclopædia” was more than an encyclopædia; it was not founded on that of Chambers, by which it was suggested, nor is it represented by our own estimable “Encyclopædia Britannica.” It was not a simple summary of the knowledge of the time, for the benefit of a community trained to appreciate the value of science. It was in the words of the prospectus, “a general picture of the efforts of the human spirit in every field, in every age.” It was the frank and audacious application to the whole of knowledge of new ideas, for the first time loudly proclaimed to a society slowly crumbling to ruin, but still by no means powerless. It was an evangelistic enterprise among infidels, with dangers on every side, and where one holds one’s life in one’s hands. We may still appre[41]ciate the significance of such a struggle. The future in every age belongs to those who can see further ahead than their fellows, and who fight their way towards the vision that they see; but the risks are equally great under any condition of society, and some sort of Bastille or Vincennes is always at hand.

Diderot was certainly of all men most fitted to organize and uphold this great work and to carry it to triumphal completion. He said once of himself that he belonged to his windy countryside of Langres; “the man of Langres has a head on his shoulders like the weathercock on the top of the church spire—it is never fixed at one point.” He was scarcely just to himself; with all his emotional vivacity and his readiness to receive new impressions, there was in him also an infinite patience and a tenacity to hold on to the end in spite of all. Both his versatility and his patience were called for here. He was indefatigable, for ever animating the waverers, stimulating the slow-paced, fighting with timid publishers, himself having a hand in everything, ever ready to suggest new ideas or to spend months in studying the details of machines or factories, or anything else that had to be done; knowing all the time that at every moment he might be exiled or imprisoned. The personal qualities of the man, even more than his varied abilities, carried him through. Someone speaks[42] of “his eyes on fire and the prophetic air which seemed always announcing the enthusiasm of actual labour;” we hear of his “éloquence fougueuse et entraînante;” and, with this, of his feminine sensibility, his wit and tact and fertility of resource. We divine these qualities in his head as it has come down to us, though his characteristics do not easily lend themselves to brush or chisel. He has himself some remarks on this point. In his Salons he comes upon his own portrait by Van Loo, and, after some good-humoured criticism, he adds: “But what will my grandchildren say when they come to compare my sad books with that smiling, mincing, effeminate old flirt? My children, I warn you that I am not like that. I had a hundred different faces in one day, according to the thing that affected me. I was calm, sad, dreaming, tender, violent, passionate, enthusiastic, but I was never as you see me there. I had a large forehead, very bright eyes, tolerably large features, a head quite like that of an ancient orator, a bonhomie which approached stupidity, and an old-fashioned rusticity. I wear a mask which deceives the artist, whether it is that there are too many things mixed together, or that the mental impressions which trace themselves on my face succeed one another so rapidly that the painter’s task becomes more difficult than he expected. I have never been well done except[43] by a poor devil called Garand, who caught me as it happens to a fool who utters a bon mot.” Meister, Grimm’s secretary, who knew Diderot well, says of him: “The artist who would seek an ideal head for Plato or Aristotle could hardly meet a modern head more worth his study than Diderot’s. His large forehead, uncovered and slightly rounded, bore the imposing imprint of his large, luminous, and fertile spirit. The great physiognomist, Lavater, thought he detected there some traces of timidity and lack of enterprise, and this intuition, founded only on such portraits as he could see, has always seemed to me that of a keen observer.[3] His nose was of masculine beauty, the contour of his upper eyelid full of delicacy, the habitual expression of his eyes sensitive and gentle; but when he became excited they gleamed with fire; his mouth revealed an interesting mixture of refinement, of grace, of bonhomie; and, whatever indifference there might be about his bearing, there was naturally in the carriage of his head, especially when he began to talk, much energy and dignity. Enthusiasm seemed to have become the most natural attitude of his voice, of his soul, of all his features. When his mental attitude was cold and calm, one might find in him constraint, awkwardness, timidity, even a[44] sort of affectation; he was only truly Diderot, he was only truly himself, when his thoughts transported him beyond himself.”

It was the inexhaustible profusion and generosity of Diderot’s genius which seems to have impressed men chiefly. A small literary man of the time wrote his impression of Diderot, as he appeared in later life, with what is probably but a very mild touch of good-natured caricature:—“Some time ago I had a desire to write a book. I sought solitude in order to meditate. A friend lent me an apartment in a charming house amid delightful scenery. Hardly had I arrived when I learnt that M. Diderot occupied a room in the same house. I do not exaggerate when I say that my heart beat violently; I forgot all my literary projects, and thought only of seeing the great man whose genius I so much admired. I entered his room with the dawn, and he seemed no more surprised to see me than it. He spared me the trouble of stammering awkwardly the object of my visit. He guessed it apparently by my air of admiration. He spared me likewise the long windings of a conversation which must be led to poetry and prose. Hardly was it mentioned than he rose, fixed his eyes upon me, and, it was quite clear, did not see me at all. He began to speak, at first very low and fast, so that though I was quite close to him I could scarcely hear or follow him. I saw at[45] once that my part in the conversation would be limited to silent admiration, a part which it costs me little to play. Gradually his voice rose and became distinct and sonorous; he had been almost immovable; now his gestures became frequent and animated. He had never seen me before, and when we were standing he put his arms round me; when we were seated he struck my thighs as though they were his own. If the rapid courses of his talk brought in the word ‘law,’ he made me a plan of legislation; if the word ‘theatre’ came in, he offered me the choice between five or six plans of dramas. A propos of the relation between the scene and the dialogue, he recalls that Tacitus is the greatest painter of antiquity, and recites or translates for me the Annals or the History. But how terrible that the barbarians should have buried in the ruins of architectural masterpieces so many of Tacitus’s chefs-d’œuvre! Thereupon he grows as tender over those lost beauties as though he had known them. But if the excavations at Herculaneum should reveal fresh Annals and Histories! And this hope transports him with joy. But how often in the process of discovery ignorant hands have destroyed the masterpieces preserved in tombs! And here he dissertates like an Italian engineer on methods of excavation. Then his imagination turns to ancient Italy, and he recalls how the arts of Athens had[46] softened the terrible virtues of the conquerors of the world. He turns to the happy days of Lælius and Scipio, when even the conquered assisted with delight in the triumphs of the conquerors. He acts for me an entire scene of Terence; he almost sings several songs of Horace. He concludes by actually singing a song full of grace and wit, an impromptu of his own at a supper, and recites for me a very agreeable comedy of which, to save the trouble of copying, he has had a single copy printed. Then a number of people entered the room. The noise of chairs makes him break off his enthusiastic monologue. Then he distinguishes me in the midst of the company, and comes up to me as to a person whom one has previously met with pleasure. He reminds me that we have talked about many very interesting things—law, drama, history; he acknowledges that there was much to be learnt from my conversation, and makes me promise to cultivate an acquaintance the value of which he appreciates. At parting he gives me two kisses on the forehead, and snatches his hand from mine with genuine sorrow.” Diderot is recorded to have laughed heartily at this sketch when he saw it in the “Mercure” of 1779: “I must be an eccentric sort of fellow; but is it such a great fault to have preserved amid all the friction of society some vestiges of the angularity of nature?”

These impressions are confirmed by those of[47] the Empress Catherine, whose delicate generosity in buying Diderot’s library and appointing him librarian smoothed the last years of his life. She wrote to Mme. Geoffrin: “Your Diderot is an extraordinary man. I emerge from interviews with him with thighs bruised and quite black. I have been obliged to put a table between us to protect myself and my members.” He could not understand, his daughter remarks, that one must not behave the same way in a palace as in a barn. It must be added, in justice to Diderot, that Catherine was no lover of ceremony, as she certainly let Diderot know.

He was the same to everybody; not more ready to furnish the Empress with the plan of a university on the largest scale, and in accordance with the most advanced ideas, than to write laughingly Avis au public for a new pomade to promote the luxuriant growth of the hair. He was equally ready to throw out the brilliant suggestions which Helvetius and Holbach worked into their books “De l’Esprit” and the “Système de la Nature,” and to assist some poor devil in tatters who, once at least, after he had long fed and clothed him, turned out to be a police spy; he was none the less bountiful to every comer. Now we see him devising ingenious ruses to obtain succour for a nobleman’s forsaken mistress; again finding a manager for Voltaire’s comedy, the “Dépositaire,” or revising[48] Galiani’s “Dialogues” on the wheat trade. The Dauphin dies; a monument must be erected to him in Sens Cathedral; Diderot is sought out and speedily submits five designs. All the men of talent and all the people in distress found their way to Diderot; dedicatory epistles for needy musicians, plots of comedies for playwrights deficient in invention, prefaces, discourses—no one went away disappointed who climbed up to that fourth-floor door in the corner house of the Rue St. Benoît and the Rue Taranne.

Some of his benevolent schemes were certainly of a rather dubious character; there seems to linger about them a touch of the sanctification of means by ends which we may, if we like, attribute to his Jesuit education. In his comedy, “Est-il bon? Est-il méchant?”—no doubt the best of his plays—he has satirized himself in the person of the hero, Hardouin, a man who gets into terrible scrapes with his friends from the questionable devices by which he tries to serve them; obtaining, for instance, a pension for a widow lady by pretending that her child is illegitimate, and causing an obdurate mother to acquiesce eagerly in the marriage of her daughter by delicately suggesting that she has already been seduced. We find Diderot carrying on various benevolent little intrigues of this kind when we read his letters to Mlle. Voland.


These letters to Mlle. Voland form the most characteristic and intimately personal record of himself that Diderot left. He was forty years old when the correspondence began, and it lasted for more than twenty years. Of Sophie Voland almost nothing is known; we only catch glimpses of her as a woman of wide sympathies and decided intelligence, neither very young nor pretty, and wearing spectacles; she lived with her family, who were clearly more orthodox and conventional than herself, and must not, as Diderot frequently hints, see everything that he writes. Of the depth and reality of his affection for her there is no doubt; his editors have discussed the question as to whether this affection was throughout of the nature of friendship only, or whether, according to the phrase of Sainte-Beuve, an hour’s passion had served as the golden key to the most precious and intimate secrets of friendship. This may be as it will; Diderot had found some one in whose presence he could show himself, without reserve or precaution, on every side of his manifold nature, and he was always tenderly grateful to the woman who had procured him this sweetest of pleasures. “My Sophie is both man and woman,” he wrote to her, “when she pleases;” as such he always addressed her, pouring out recklessly all that happened to be in his head, narrating the incidents of the day, telling what he was thinking[50] about or projecting, repeating current scandal or sometimes not quite decent story, flashing instinctively into wise or witty reflection; always with a swift, almost unconscious pen, forgetting now and again what he has already said. It is only in these letters, where he is, as he says, “rendering an account of all the moments of a life that belongs to you,” that we realize the personal charm, the exuberant strength and at the same time the weakness of the man who in the midst of his manifold energies bursts out: “A delicious repose, a sweet book to read, a walk in some open and solitary spot, a conversation in which one discloses all one’s heart, a strong emotion that brings the tears to one’s eyes and makes the heart beat faster, whether it comes of some tale of generous action or of a sentiment of tenderness, of health, of gaiety, of liberty, of indolence—there is the true happiness, nor shall I ever know any other.”

The “Encyclopædia” seems to us to-day but a small portion of the achievement of Diderot’s life, though it represents the part that he played in relation to the science of his time. His place in science has sometimes been wrongly stated. It has been said, for instance, that he anticipated Lamarck and Darwin. It is true that he wrote, “The need produces the organ; the organization determines the function,” and that this contains the germ of Lamarck’s doctrine; and again,[51] “The world is the abode of the strong,” and that this may be said to be the germ of the doctrine of natural selection; but at both points he was simply putting into epigrammatic form the conceptions of the greatest scientific genius of his age and country, Buffon, the only man of that time who was cast in the same massive mould, and to whom Diderot could turn with fraternal delight and admiration. It is to Buffon also, and not to Diderot, that the honour of anticipating Lyell belongs. It is in his Baconian thoughts on the interpretation of nature, and again in such a comprehensive collection of data as his notes on physiology, discovered of recent years, that Diderot’s searching and inquisitive scientific spirit appears. He frequently startles us by the way in which he vividly realizes and follows out to their legitimate conclusions those floating ideas of his time which we are working out to-day. Above all, and from the first, he clearly grasps the fundamental value of the human body and its processes in the interpretation of mental phenomena; in one of his comparatively early works, the “Lettre sur les Aveugles,” he remarks that he has never doubted that “our most purely intellectual ideas are closely related to the conformation of our bodies.” “How difficult it is,” he says elsewhere, “to be a good philosopher and a good moralist without being anatomist, naturalist, [52]physiologist, and doctor.” Holding firmly by this clue, he was constantly trying to fathom the mysteries of the soul and to picture the processes of life; it is because he has realized that this can only be done fruitfully from the physiological side that the “Rêve de d’Alembert,” his most brilliant effort in this direction, is interesting after the lapse of a century.

He brought the same eager, impressionable spirit to his novels and stories. It is indeed no great step from “Le Rêve de d’Alembert” to “Le Neveu de Rameau,” and from that to “La Religieuse.” Whatever he undertook he carried out with the whole energy and enthusiasm of his nature, and while this takes from the artistic symmetry of his work, it adds to its vitality and significance. It is owing to this quality that “Les Bijoux Indiscrets,” a frivolous novel in the style of the younger Crebillon, pointless and indecent, written, at the age of thirty-five, mainly to obtain money for his mistress, Mme. de Puisieux, contains passages which have been considered among the finest he ever wrote, and by its reflections on the reform of the theatre, its criticisms of manners, and philosophical insight served avowedly as the point of departure for Lessing’s famous “Dramaturgie.” It was not until he read Richardson that Diderot produced any very noteworthy work in fiction; his admiration for the English novelist was extreme, but[53] certainly not out of proportion to Richardson’s historic importance. Richardson not only marks the first real landmark in the evolution of the English novel; he is the point of departure of the modern French novel, and Diderot, more than any one else, helped to make his influence felt in France. Very soon after falling under the spell of the great English story-teller and writing his “Éloge de Richardson,” Diderot produced his most famous novel, “La Religieuse.” It is clear how much Richardson influenced this minute study, in autobiographic form, of the life and sufferings of a young girl forced into a convent with its uncongenial atmosphere and petty persecutions. It was a distinct artistic achievement, the more remarkable as it was certainly intended as an attack on the small vices of a community of women isolated from the world. Even those parts of this attack which have been considered questionable are always in the tone of the unsuspecting young girl who writes them, and only become offensive when a modern editor removes them in order to substitute asterisks; compare these passages with the more ostentatious propriety and zeal for virtue of a modern Parisian in “Mademoiselle Giraud ma Femme.” A year later Diderot wrote an unquestionable artistic masterpiece, only preserved for us by a happy chance, “Le Neveu de Rameau,” a dialogue of unfailing spirit be[54]tween himself and a strange social parasite whom he is analyzing. Some years later he fell under the influence of Sterne; “Jacques le Fataliste,” so attractive to Goethe and many others, was the result. But he had no great affinity for the sinuous humour of Sterne, and, while he threw himself into it with his usual energy, the result, though Shandean enough, is less happy than his great Richardsonian effort. Yet “Jacques le Fataliste” contains the “Histoire de Mme. de la Pommeraye,” and this little histoire, when disentangled from the manifold episodes which interrupt the hostess of the inn who tells it, is Diderot’s most perfect and most characteristic effort as a story-teller. Even in his novels it is the directness and the veracity of his scientific spirit, united to his emotional impressionability, which gives significance to his work.

The same features mark his plays, though here the result has ceased to be pleasing, and we may be permitted to-day not to read through the “Fils Naturel” and the “Père de Famille.” Yet we must not forget that from them is dated the modern drama, with the notes of sincerity and simple realism, peculiar then to Diderot, which nowadays have become a more common possession. Diderot’s dramas produced a great and immediate effect in Germany, on Goethe and Schiller as well as on Iffland and Kotzebue, and the “Père de Famille” was translated by Lessing.


As a critic of the stage Diderot has, perhaps, attracted exaggerated attention, though he has not escaped misunderstanding, most people’s knowledge of his opinions on this head beginning and ending with the “Paradoxe sur le Comédien.” Diderot at first attributed, as from the nature of his temperament he was sure to do, the chief part in acting to emotion and sensibility; in time he outgrew this youthful opinion, and in the “Paradoxe” he emphasized as strongly as he could the part of study and reflection in the actor’s art, a part which must always be of the first importance, notwithstanding all the tears shed by charming actresses, and carefully bottled for controversial purposes. Diderot was far too sane and many-sided to see only one aspect of so complex an art as the actor’s; it is, as he says, “study, reflection, passion, sensibility, the true imitation of nature,” which go to make up good acting. An interesting and too brief series of letters to Mlle. Jodin is well worth reading from this point of view. Mlle. Jodin, the daughter of an old friend of his, was a rather wild and impetuous young lady of some talent who had suddenly adopted the life of an actress. Diderot performed many small services both for her and her mother, and wrote letters full of wise and, it appears, much-needed counsel as to her conduct both on and off the stage. “Mademoiselle,” he writes, “there is nothing[56] good in this world but that which is true; be true, then, on the stage, true off the stage.... An actor who has nothing but sense and judgment is cold; one who has nothing but verve and sensibility is mad. It is a certain temperament of mingled good sense and warmth which makes men sublime; on the stage and in the world he who shows more than he feels makes us laugh instead of touching us.”

Diderot inaugurated modern art criticism by the notices of the pictures in the Salon, which he wrote during many years for “Grimm’s Correspondence.” One cannot help regretting that he was not born among a greater group of artists. Chardin we still esteem, and Greuze is at the height of his popularity, but it is difficult to take more than an antiquarian interest in Boucher, and who cares now for Loutherbourg or Van Loo? Even before Joseph Vernet, whose variety, freshness, and love of nature appealed so strongly to Diderot, it sometimes requires an effort to be sympathetic. Diderot now and then criticizes with severity—as occasionally when he is dealing with Boucher—but the tone of his criticism, as generally happens with contemporary criticism, seems to us to-day pitched altogether too high. In one respect, at all events, it is unlike most old appreciations of now neglected pictures; it is generally delightful to read, perhaps sometimes more delightful than the picture can[57] ever have seemed. One suspects that Diderot treated pictures like books; Holbach, having read a book he had warmly recommended, came to him to say that the book contained nothing of which he had spoken. “Well,” replied Diderot, “if it wasn’t there it ought to have been there.”

Everything that Diderot touched he vitalized. There were few things that he left untouched. There were very few roads of modern life on which he was not an enthusiastic and often audacious pioneer. He seems to have known instinctively the things that we are laboriously learning. So it is with politics, sexual morality, various social and politico-economical questions, education, philosophy. He touched all the social questions which absorb our attention to-day. He approached the problem of the place of the workers in society in the same temper in which we approach it to-day, and the practical knowledge of industries and industrial life which he had obtained in order to write some of his most remarkable articles in the “Encyclopædia” gave him some right to be heard.

His views on education, chiefly expressed in the “Plan d’une Université pour le Gouvernement de Russie,” are on a level with the most advanced views to-day. The education he demands is free and compulsory, and he is in favour of giving children free meals at school. He censures classical teaching, advocates professional[58] education and instruction in the natural sciences, “the study of things rather than the study of words.” “I think,” he says, “that we should give in our schools something of all the knowledge necessary to a citizen, from legislation to the mechanical arts, and in these mechanical arts I include the occupations of the lowest class of citizens. The spectacle of human industry is in itself large and satisfying, and it is good to know the different ways in which each contributes to the advantages of society. This kind of knowledge is attractive to children, who are naturally inquisitive.” Certainly, from more than one point of view, such an element in education would have an important social significance.

Of the functions and position of women—in most countries, he remarks, that of idiot children—he speaks often, shrewdly indeed, yet with peculiar sympathy. The most important expression of his opinions on sexual morality is contained in the “Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville.” Bougainville, the first Frenchman to sail round the world, had visited the lovely island of Tahiti, and brought back a strange and vivid picture of the idyllic innocence and frank license that existed there. Diderot was aroused to set forth his views on sexual questions with that union of fiery enthusiasm, uncompromising thoroughness, and saving grace of humorous good sense which always characterizes him. He[59] imagines a dialogue between the chaplain of Bougainville’s expedition and Orou, a Tahitian, who is anxious to know why the chaplain refuses to conform to the customs of the country. The worthy chaplain represents the morality of civilized Europe, and Orou, with a few questions concerning this morality, easily succeeds in confounding him and in pouring keen ridicule on the inconsistencies of European morals. With reference to rules of conduct which vary with the country and the time, Diderot makes Orou say, “We must have a surer rule, and what shall this rule be? Do you know any other than the good of the community and the advantage of the individual?” “You were unhappy,” he remarks again to the chaplain, “when I presented to you last night my two daughters and my wife; you exclaimed, ‘But my religion! my office!’ Do you wish to know what in every time and place is good and bad? Concern yourself with the nature of things and of actions, and with your relations to your fellows. Consider the influence of your conduct on yourself and on the community. You are mad if you think that there is anything in the universe, above or below, which can add to or take from the laws of nature.” That rule, he explains, is the polar star on the path of life, and the invention of crimes, punishments, and remorse will only obscure it. “In founding morality on the relationships which[60] must always exist between men, the religious law becomes perhaps superfluous; and the civil law should only be the enunciation of the law of nature, which we bear engraved on our hearts, and which must always be the strongest.” At the end Diderot intervenes with a counsel of moderation and practical wisdom: “What shall we do, then? We will protest against foolish laws until they are reformed: meanwhile we will submit. He who by his private authority breaks a bad law, authorizes others to break good laws. There is less inconvenience in being mad with the mad than in being wise by oneself. Let us say to ourselves, let us proclaim incessantly, that shame, punishment, and ignominy have been attached to actions which in themselves are innocent. But do not let us commit them; for shame, punishment, and ignominy are themselves the worst of evils.”

“Every century has its own spirit; that of ours seems to be liberty.” So in 1776, when men were beginning to say that it was time to burn philosophers instead of their books, and a boy of eighteen was actually burned, Diderot wrote to Voltaire, in the famous letter in which he announced that in spite of all he would stay in Paris, among the enemies of liberty, to carry on his own mission. Timidity in political matters was excusable in Diderot’s day, and existed even among the men of his own set.[61] Helvetius, for instance, advocated the advantages of paternal government and benevolent despotism; with his usual keen and vigorous good sense, Diderot shows how unreal these advantages are. When we give a ruler absolute power to do good, we cannot prevent him assuming also an absolute power to do evil. Moreover, as Diderot insisted, it is not possible to make people good against their wills, nor is it desirable to treat men like sheep. “If they say, ‘We are well enough here,’ or if, even, they say, ‘We are not well here, but we will stay,’ let us try to enlighten them, to undeceive them, to bring them to saner views by persuasion, but never by force.” “The arbitrary government of a just and enlightened prince is always bad.” He insists, again and again, that we must never let our pretended masters do good to us against our wills. “Whenever you see the sovereign authority in a country extending beyond the region of police, you may say that that country is badly governed.” Diderot, Goethe, Adam Smith, Beccaria, Mill, to mention but a few typical names, threw all the weight of their influence, sometimes with passionate emphasis, on the side of individuality and freedom, and their teaching reached its final consecration when Darwin accepted as his central theory the fruitful idea of Malthus. They felt, and rightly felt, that they were taking the step that was most needed.[62] Those who advocated solidarity and social co-operation mostly went to the wall. Now it is the turn of the social instincts, and we must expect them to work themselves out to the utmost. We have to see to it that the truth to which Diderot and the rest fought their way is not meanwhile lost. The general will is itself to-day in danger of becoming a benevolent despotism, and perhaps the time will never arrive when such warnings as these will be quite out of date. When it is a question of the oppression of our fellows, we cannot always afford to wait until the offender listens to the voice of persuasion; him, at least, we must bring within “the region of police:” beyond that lies danger.

“Et si j’ai quelque volonté,

C’est que chacun fasse la sienne.”

So Diderot wrote in some impromptu verses at a convivial gathering over which he once presided; it was a summary of his views on many matters. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that there can be no true happiness for the human race except in a social state in which there is neither king nor magistrate, nor priest nor laws, nor meum nor tuum, nor property in goods or land, nor vices nor virtues.” This is the anarchism that stands at the end of all social progress, but as an attainable social state it is still certainly, as Diderot adds, “diablement idéal.” He had[63] no faith in moralization by Act of Parliament. “There will then be prostitutes?—Assuredly.—Mistresses?—Why not?—Girls seduced?—I expect there will.—Husbands and wives not always faithful?—I fear so. But at least,” he adds, “I shall be spared all those vices which misery, luxury, and poverty produce. The rest may be as it will be.”

Diderot’s robust faith in nature, that finest fruit of the scientific spirit, comes out again and again, here and elsewhere. “The evil-doer is one whom we must destroy, not punish”: that is the great truth, held by a large number of the foremost men to-day, which is not even yet accepted. “Never to repent and never to reproach others: these are the first steps to wisdom.” And, again: “In the best and most happily constituted man there remains always much of the animal; before becoming a misanthrope, consider whether you have the right.” Not many men have had so much reason as Diderot for becoming misanthropic; few men have had in them less of the misanthrope. “My life is not stolen from me,” he writes; “I give it.... A pleasure which is for myself alone touches me slightly. It is for myself and for my friends that I read, that I reflect, that I write, that I meditate, that I hear, that I observe, that I feel.... I have consecrated to them the use of all my senses, and that is perhaps the reason why every[64]thing is a little enriched in my imagination and conversation; sometimes they reproach me, ungrateful as they are. Ungrateful! would I could make hundreds ungrateful every day!” He never seems to waver in his faith in men, nor in the determination, with which, indeed, that faith must ever be bound up, to look every fact of nature squarely in the face. The words with which his letters to Sophie Voland close seem to be the constant refrain throughout all his work: “There is nothing good in this world but that which is true.”

It cannot be said that Diderot performed any one great and paramount achievement. The most brilliant of his fragments—the “Rêve de d’Alembert” or “Le Neveu de Rameau”—is but a magnificent improvisation. He made no memorable contribution to our knowledge of the world. Nor was his genius of what may be called the wedge-shaped order—the genius of the man who, with every nerve strained to the solution of one mystery, never rests until the heart of it is cloven. His genius was essentially fermentative. He knew by a native instinct every promising germ of thought, and he knew how to make it fruitful. He was, as Voltaire called him, Pantophile, the man who loved and was interested in everything. His extreme sensitiveness to impressions was the source of his strength and of his weakness. In his sane,[65] massive, and yet so sensitive temperament, aspirations keen and lyrical as Shelley’s seem to blend harmoniously with laughter broad and tolerant as Rabelais’s. The latent elements in him of fantastic extravagance were held in check by a bourgeois good sense in which we seem to recognize the shrewd old cutler of Langres. There is a profound democratic instinct in him; his never-failing faith in nature and man seems to be a part of this; it is a faith that may possibly be foolish, but for all those who are born men it is the most reasonable faith, and it has commended itself most to those who have been oftenest disillusioned.

There can be no doubt that the immediate effect of the Revolution of 1789 was to kill the spirit that Diderot represented—the spirit of scientific advance, active even to audacity, and allied with a firm faith in man and in social development. The party of progress were not able to recognize progress in the form of the Revolution, and the more obviously dominating movement of the century that is now closing has been the Counter-Revolution, corresponding in many respects to that Counter-Reformation which dominated Catholic countries during the seventeenth century. Putting aside a few stray enthusiasts, like Shelley or Owen, attractive personalities with little grasp of practical life, the men who have directed European thought,[66] especially in England, have been men whose imaginations were profoundly impressed, and their mental equilibrium considerably disturbed, by that brief convulsion of France; and they developed a curious timidity and distrust, visible even when they had the courage to adopt a short-sighted optimism. It is very interesting now to turn back to the essay in which Carlyle, perhaps the most brilliant and distinguished representative of the Counter-Revolution, recorded his estimate of Diderot. How curiously old-fashioned seem to us to-day its mitigated admiration, its vague mysticism, its sneers at Diderot’s loquacity, his generosity, his dyspepsia—sneers that, in the light of Carlyle’s own life, have aroused feelings of pain, and even indignation, among some who in their youth looked up to Carlyle as to a sort of venerable prophet—its absolute failure to perceive that here was a man not to be stifled by a handful of transcendental phraseology. Yet this was at the time accepted as an adequate and even generous account of the matter. To-day we are again in the same position as Diderot, and we are able to see in him the significance, hidden from Carlyle, of the light of science fearlessly brought to illuminate the whole of life.

When men begin to say that everything has been done, the men come who say that there has yet nothing been done. We have congratulated ourselves that many sciences of[67] nature and of man are in the main settled, but we are always compelled to begin again, and on a larger and perhaps simpler scale. In many fields of physical and social knowledge—from electricity at the one end to criminology at the other—we are now laying anew great foundations, and the walls are being raised so rapidly that it is sometimes hard to know where we are, or to realize what is being done. When science is thus renewing itself, and men are on every hand seeking how, by means of science, they may enlarge and ennoble life, the spirit that moved Diderot is again making itself felt. It is worth while to realize his fellowship for a few moments, and to sun ourselves, if we can bear it, in his inspiring enthusiasm.

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This book is part of the public domain. Havelock Ellis (2017). The New Spirit. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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