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A spirited biography of the prophetic and sympathetic philosopher who helped build the foundations of the modern world. Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world's first comprehensive Encyclopédie into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to reser A spirited biography of the prophetic and sympathetic philosopher who helped build the foundations of the modern world. Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world's first comprehensive Encyclopédie into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to reserve his best books for posterity--for us, in fact. In the astonishing cache of unpublished writings left behind after his death, Diderot challenged virtually all of his century's accepted truths, from the sanctity of monarchy, to the racial justification of the slave trade, to the norms of human sexuality. One of Diderot's most attentive readers during his lifetime was Catherine the Great, who not only supported him financially, but invited him to St. Petersburg to talk about the possibility of democratizing the Russian empire. In this thematically organized biography, Andrew S. Curran vividly describes Diderot's tormented relationship with Rousseau, his curious correspondence with Voltaire, his passionate affairs, and his often iconoclastic stands on art, theater, morality, politics, and religion. But what this book brings out most brilliantly is how the writer's personal turmoil was an essential part of his genius and his ability to flout taboos, dogma, and convention.


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A spirited biography of the prophetic and sympathetic philosopher who helped build the foundations of the modern world. Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world's first comprehensive Encyclopédie into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to reser A spirited biography of the prophetic and sympathetic philosopher who helped build the foundations of the modern world. Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world's first comprehensive Encyclopédie into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to reserve his best books for posterity--for us, in fact. In the astonishing cache of unpublished writings left behind after his death, Diderot challenged virtually all of his century's accepted truths, from the sanctity of monarchy, to the racial justification of the slave trade, to the norms of human sexuality. One of Diderot's most attentive readers during his lifetime was Catherine the Great, who not only supported him financially, but invited him to St. Petersburg to talk about the possibility of democratizing the Russian empire. In this thematically organized biography, Andrew S. Curran vividly describes Diderot's tormented relationship with Rousseau, his curious correspondence with Voltaire, his passionate affairs, and his often iconoclastic stands on art, theater, morality, politics, and religion. But what this book brings out most brilliantly is how the writer's personal turmoil was an essential part of his genius and his ability to flout taboos, dogma, and convention.

30 review for Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ken

    With the ascension of multiple right-wing strongmen throughout the world, the long, slow death of the Enlightenment is upon us. What better time than this to read about one of the lesser-known Enlightenment giants, France's Denis Diderot? In his day, Diderot was more famous than now, chiefly as an "encyclopedist" who devoted many years of his life to bringing education to the common man via the Wikipedia of its day, the humble, multivolume encyclopedia. Sounds rather pedestrian to us, but when y With the ascension of multiple right-wing strongmen throughout the world, the long, slow death of the Enlightenment is upon us. What better time than this to read about one of the lesser-known Enlightenment giants, France's Denis Diderot? In his day, Diderot was more famous than now, chiefly as an "encyclopedist" who devoted many years of his life to bringing education to the common man via the Wikipedia of its day, the humble, multivolume encyclopedia. Sounds rather pedestrian to us, but when you consider that knowledge and education were two of the greatest enemies of the State (read: various Louis fellows) and the Church (read: Catholic comma Roman), you'll understand that such ventures put your life at stake. (In fact, your body was often tied to one so you squirmed less as the fire was lit.) What's good about the book is that it works in two ways, bringing to life the man himself as well as the 18th-century world around him in France. Known as a "philosophe," Diderot wasn't afraid to write about anything (thus, the "free thinking" bit), including government, art, drama, politics, religion, and sex. He paid a price for that, doing time in prison and seeing his conservative family turn its back on him, but prices are meant to be paid to thinkers like Diderot. It is their raison d'être, as they say in Par-ee. DD would live long enough to see the insurgents do free-thinking's work in the new world. But, like many of our own founding fathers (James Madison and Ben Franklin in particular), Diderot knew the American experiment was not without dangers. Any nation built on laws has two things to fear, money and tyrants: "People of North America: may the example of all those nations that have preceded you, and especially that of your motherland, be your guide. Beware the abundance of gold that brings about the corruption of morals and the scorn of law; beware of an unbalanced distribution of wealth that will produce a small number of opulent citizens and a horde of citizens in poverty." In his Essay on Seneca, Diderot also warned that success could bring failure to America's democracy. The "unintended consequences of future success" included "luxury goods, the rise of class tensions, political corruption, venality, and, in the worst scenario, perhaps even a dictator." For prescient thinking like that, Diderot has earned himself a new audience. We appear to be there now, checking every box on his list with the last just waiting for someone to contest his electoral defeat as "voter fraud" before calling on the military to secure his seat of power. Don't think it could happen here? You're not thinking very freely, are you.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Boissonneault

    Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, art critic, and writer, was described by Voltaire as a pantophile, or the type of person who falls in love with everything they study, from mathematics, science, and medicine to philosophy, politics, literature, and art. So while Diderot never produced a masterpiece that would put him in the highest ranks of philosophy or literature, he did over the course of his life think and write about a wider range of topics than most. This disposition had several bene Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, art critic, and writer, was described by Voltaire as a pantophile, or the type of person who falls in love with everything they study, from mathematics, science, and medicine to philosophy, politics, literature, and art. So while Diderot never produced a masterpiece that would put him in the highest ranks of philosophy or literature, he did over the course of his life think and write about a wider range of topics than most. This disposition had several benefits. First, it made Diderot uniquely suited for the position of chief editor of the Encyclopedie, the first and largest project to secularize all human knowledge from the materialist and humanist perspective. More than any other work, the Encyclopedie captured the full spirit of Enlightenment thought. Second, as is often the case, those with such wide educational interests often come to find the prevailing religious and cultural views grossly oversimplified and delusional. The idea that one group of ancient people discovered the immutable truth regarding the origins and purpose of the universe is an affront to the intelligence of anyone who is widely read in the natural and social sciences. And thus Diderot also become the most outspoken atheist and proponent of freethinking of the era, a position that landed him in jail for three months and brought on constant harassment from the authorities and the Church. While Diderot is known mainly for his work on the Encyclopedie and various literary works, some of his most profound writing and ideas were published posthumously. Diderot had several reasons for not publishing these works; first and most obvious was the threat of imprisonment, but there was also a more profound reason. Diderot wrote: “One only communicates with force from the bottom of the grave; that is where one must imagine oneself; and it is from there that one should speak to mankind.” Diderot wrote that “posterity is to the philosopher as heaven is to the man of religion.” He knew that contemporary biases could result in both his imprisonment and in the rejection of his progressive ideas, but that posterity would be in a better position to evaluate his arguments. In Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, Andrew S. Curran unearths these unpublished writings and shows what we can learn from the Enlightenment-era polymath. Curran shows how “[Diderot] dreamed of natural selection before Darwin, the Oedipus complex before Freud, and genetic manipulation two hundred years before Dolly the Sheep was engineered.” Diderot also foreshadowed Karl Marx with his writings on class struggle (Marx cited Diderot as his favorite author) and predicted the Haitian slave revolt (Diderot was a vociferous opponent of slavery). Perhaps most interestingly, Diderot predicted the current situation that the United States finds itself in. Diderot wrote: “People of North America: may the example of all those nations that have preceded you, and especially that of your motherland, be your guide. Beware of the abundance of gold that brings about the corruption of morals and the scorn of law; beware of an unbalanced distribution of wealth that will produce a small number of opulent citizens and a horde of citizens in poverty, a situation that will engender the insolence of some and the deprivation of others.” As Curran writes, “The real threat to American democracy, as Diderot had also suggested in his Essay on Seneca, came less from foreign powers than from the unintended consequences of future success; luxury goods, the rise of class tensions, political corruption, venality, and, in the worst scenario, perhaps even a dictator.” John Adams had similar warnings, as when he wrote to Jefferson, “As long as Property exists, it will accumulate in Individuals and Families…the Snow ball will grow as it rolls.” Adams also wrote elsewhere, “In every society known to man, an aristocracy has risen up in the course of time, consisting of a few rich and honorable families who have united with each other against both the people and the first magistrate.” The Enlightenment philosophers of the era—both Diderot and the US founders—were keenly aware of the problems of inequality, wealth, and undue political influence and power. It would do us all well to remind ourselves of their concerns. What else can Diderot teach us today? Here are five lessons I’ve taken away from the book: 1. Today we take for granted our freedoms of speech and press without realizing that these rights were strenuously fought for, often against religious and conservative authorities that had the power to censor books and lock people up. We should remember that the only way to advance knowledge is through the free expression and criticism of ideas. The second we think an individual, group, or idea is infallible is the second we’re in deep trouble. 2. In an era of specialization, it’s just as important to read widely as it is to read deeply. Being educated means coming to understand how little you know about the wealth of knowledge that exists in the world, and the complexity and uncertainty regarding most subjects. 3. The two virtues that are most valuable (and that are little discussed) are intellectual humility and intellectual courage. Intellectual humility, the opposite of dogmatism, is the recognition that no one holds a monopoly on the immutable truth regarding any subject, and that you should be careful when speaking outside of your area of expertise. The second virtue, intellectual courage, is the ability to criticize all ideas, even the ones most commonly accepted. Posterity always favors the contrarians. 4. Religion is dangerous when given political power. Thomas Jefferson advocated for a “wall of separation between Church and state” because everyone (including Diderot) in the 18th century knew what kind of damage religion can do. Faith-based positions are by definition not amenable to reason, and therefore when conflicts arise the only recourse is through violence or suppression. Secular democratic governments are ideal because non-violent processes and institutions are in place for the resolution of conflict, using reason and argument instead of suppression and force. 5. No subject should be beyond criticism. Philosophy has emancipatory value because it allows us to see where our reasoning has gone wrong, especially as new evidence becomes available. When you challenge someone’s religion, you’re not attacking them personally; you’re attacking an idea, and ideas should never be beyond criticism for fear of offending someone. Again, having intellectual courage is having the capacity to change one’s mind in the face of better explanations, and is a virtue needed now more than ever.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    I am mixed over this one. At one level, Diderot was a challenging thinker who was not bound by the preconceptions of his day. His work on the Encyclopedia changed the way intelligent readers read and then organized their intellectual worlds. Curran’s bio does a good job at linking Diderot’s life with how his ebbs and flows showed themselves in his writings. His work is entertaining and never boring. The lifelong interplay between Diderot and Voltaire is especially valuable. So what is my difficul I am mixed over this one. At one level, Diderot was a challenging thinker who was not bound by the preconceptions of his day. His work on the Encyclopedia changed the way intelligent readers read and then organized their intellectual worlds. Curran’s bio does a good job at linking Diderot’s life with how his ebbs and flows showed themselves in his writings. His work is entertaining and never boring. The lifelong interplay between Diderot and Voltaire is especially valuable. So what is my difficulty? The more I read of Diderot, the more I wonder just what the “art” is in the “art of thinking freely” that Curran is concerned with in the book. Is free thinking a matter of attack and destruction or is it also a matter of building and construction? Curran suggests that free thinking is a matter of attacking and playing offense. There is relatively little of building and positive construction. Success in being a philosophe appears to have much in common with being a pundit today. Get noticed. Get quoted. Get others to pay attention to what you are doing. In fairness to Diderot, he also facilitated many of his colleagues with the work of producing the Encyclopedia and his editorship was positive and collaborative, but it is also clear that he did not appreciate this himself especially given the long time he worked on it. Some of his efforts seem directed at being the most critical of established norms and in writing the most outrageous lines, such as in his sex works. While I appreciate the value of sharp interactions in academia, there is a sense in which being critical and attacking is fairly easy to do, compared with the difficulty of actually building new systems of ideas of plans of implementing those ideas. If that points me in the direction of more practical academics and idea people, then so be it. In the recent joint bio of Diderot and Catherine the Great, I was pulling for Catherine, and Curran’s bio does not change this. I now need to follow up with more of Diderot’s work to get the most of this.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sketchbook

    Denis Diderot (1713-1784) had a valued friend in Catherine the Great. But when she initially invited him and one of his Encyclopedie editors to Russia, the editor declined, and teasingly told Diderot that he was "prone to hemmorrhoids and they are far too dangerous in that country." Her husband, Emperor Peter III, had died (1762) - it was announced - from complications related to piles, yet everybody knew he had been murdered by the brother of one of Catherine's lovers. Catherine, a cultured and Denis Diderot (1713-1784) had a valued friend in Catherine the Great. But when she initially invited him and one of his Encyclopedie editors to Russia, the editor declined, and teasingly told Diderot that he was "prone to hemmorrhoids and they are far too dangerous in that country." Her husband, Emperor Peter III, had died (1762) - it was announced - from complications related to piles, yet everybody knew he had been murdered by the brother of one of Catherine's lovers. Catherine, a cultured and enlightened despot, made a dramatic gesture : she offered to buy Diderot's personal 3,000 book library for a wad of money, and make him her book and art curator for additional sums. A stupified Diderot wrote her "...paralysis grips my soul...I melt like a child." Eventually he spent 5 months with her in Russia. You must applaud this dame. Now I must read a Catherine biography. My knowledge extends only to show biz Catherines. Marlene and Tallulah played her in the movies, and I've long heard about Mae West who, in 1944, starred in her own play, "Catherine Was Great," a Bwy hit sniffed at by critics, but not audiences. Carl Van Vechten saw it twice and said Mae was a far better empress than Katharine Cornell might be in a bedroom farce "that would be lewd if it wasnt so fantastic." (Next Catherine, on TV, the tiresome Helen Mirren). Still, I know Mae West didnt deal with Diderot, Voltaire or Montesquieu -- or the Cult of Reason, ie, freeing us from religion and political oppression. Her wacko play numbers studly military brass, princes and ambassadors who were all breathless admiration as she hip-tossed her way down a flight of stairs in a succession of preposterous gowns and head-dresses. And then to bed - with them. A man of considerable wit and charm, Diderot met w Catherine three or four afternoons a week, for several hours, (1773-74), for intense conversation while she did needlework. He wrote his wife that Catherine was "astonishing" and the empress wrote Voltaire that he was the most "extraordinary man" she'd ever met. Once he was back in Paris and had simmered down, Diderot praised her for being "a magnificent person but equally a despot masquerading as an enlightened monarch." The Encyclopedie - 17 volumes, 7,000 entries from 150 writers, which took Diderot 25 years to complete - advanced the dangerous cause of rationalism; it was resisted by the Church and the Crown. Diderot's mantra : "Skepticism is the first step toward truth." The true location of the soul, he insisted, is in the imagination. Among other issues, Diderot forcefully attacked the ongoing African slave trade (French traders were delivering 30,000 enslaved Africans to the Caribbean on a yearly basis). At first he and Rousseau were great pals, but they had a nasty falling out. Rousseau, vain and calculating, didnt understand Diderot's sense of humor (ah...!) and then, because he could not get along w people, Rousseau violated a sacred rule in society: do not tumble a lady while her beau is at war. Diderot urged him to resolve the situation, which created the impasse. Diderot himself took a lover 3 years after his marriage upon realizing that he and his wife had nothing in common and later, 1755, he began a long relationship w unmarried Sophie Volland, 38, who became the most important person in his life. He found her as brainy as his colleagues working on the Encyclopedie, with "the quick wit of a demon." Most of their letters have been lost or destroyed. We do know that he was excited by a possibly sexual relationship she had with a sister. He liked to imagine--. But Diderot also felt same-sex attraction was natural. "Nothing that exists can be against nature or outside nature." (His free thinking here foreshadows shifts in understanding human sexuality that did not come into play until the 20th century, the author notes.) In fact, Diderot expressed his own admiration (or more) for friend and literary critic Melchoir Grimm who "combined the grace and elegance of one sex with the force of the other...a blend of the Medici Venus and the Gladiator." After Grimm returned to Paris from a trip, he wrote Sophie that at dinner "I was holding his hand" and too overcome by Grimm's presence to eat, drink or talk. (This sounds sexually fluid and "too darn hot" to me). Author Curran has assembled facts upon facts, he is most scholarly. The first half of his consideration is a summing up and it's followed by studying Diderot thematically, eg, On Virtue and Vice, On Love, The Sexologist. This structure, while tidy, fails to give one the sense of a life lived. I've read the book twice, trying to absorb the life lived. The author cannot shape an anecdote or burnish an emotional high - or low. His work is always flat, bland, colorless. The Diderot story is enthralling, but I call this "baggy-pants" writing. His prologue has clarity: "Diderot was the most creative and noteworthy thinker of his era."

  5. 4 out of 5

    Steve Donoghue

    Such a lively, wonderful book! If you haven't made the acquaintance of Diderot's era and his thinking, this is the perfect place to start. My review: https://openlettersreview.com/open-le... Such a lively, wonderful book! If you haven't made the acquaintance of Diderot's era and his thinking, this is the perfect place to start. My review: https://openlettersreview.com/open-le...

  6. 5 out of 5

    andy

    ‪Interesting read. It will leave you with a new appreciation for Diderot and the right to think freely. ‬ ‪• Skepticism is the first step toward the truth.‬ ‪• What had never been called into question has never been proven.‬ ‪• One can demand of me that I seek the truth, but not that I must find it. ‬

  7. 5 out of 5

    James Mustich

    An inviting, even sprightly, biography of the Enlightenment era philosophe and man of letters whose energy supplied the impetus for the great Encyclopédie, and whose originality of thought and expression made him a more pervasive influence on modern thought than any single work of his implies. The assurance of Curran’s prose, his command of the complex forces at play in that fractious epoch, and the current of intelligence that runs throughout bears fitting witness to the author’s subject.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Filipa Ribeiro

    It's not every 500 pages biography that keeps my eye on every single page. Huge work on writing about such a complex and paradoxal character such as Diderot. It's not every 500 pages biography that keeps my eye on every single page. Huge work on writing about such a complex and paradoxal character such as Diderot.

  9. 5 out of 5

    RWBresearch

    I'm afraid I bailed on listening to this, once we got past his involvement with the Encyclopedie and Rameau's Nephew: a little more Diderot than I bargained for. And the narrator has a truly terrible French accent; mine may not be great, but I found myself shouting out corrections to his pronunciation as I walked down the street. I'm afraid I bailed on listening to this, once we got past his involvement with the Encyclopedie and Rameau's Nephew: a little more Diderot than I bargained for. And the narrator has a truly terrible French accent; mine may not be great, but I found myself shouting out corrections to his pronunciation as I walked down the street.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    I first discovered Diderot at St. John's College in a Philosophical Literature tutorial. We were assigned Rameau's Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist. Both books were revelatory. Diderot's stories seemed intent on undermining every rule of literature and philosophy. I returned to Jacques several times after, as I taught philosophy of literature, and it has remained one of my favorite books. Jacques provides a deep well from which to draw out the relationship between subjectivity and story telling, I first discovered Diderot at St. John's College in a Philosophical Literature tutorial. We were assigned Rameau's Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist. Both books were revelatory. Diderot's stories seemed intent on undermining every rule of literature and philosophy. I returned to Jacques several times after, as I taught philosophy of literature, and it has remained one of my favorite books. Jacques provides a deep well from which to draw out the relationship between subjectivity and story telling, deeper I believe than anything written since. Periodically, I have come across the name Diderot in other contexts: in Martin Jay's writings, references from Schlegel in The Philosophical Fragments, etc... But relative to Voltaire or Rouseau, he has always been a marginal character of the enlightenment, a man condemned to obscurity because of his work on the Encyclopedia. As a consequence, learning about who this storyteller, editor and polymath was by reading the story of his life seemed an excellent choice. The Curran's biography succeeds in telling the story of Diderot's life, particularly in his early years and the years writing and editing the Encyclopedia. Here you get a sense of the irrascability of the young man who settled into a career as an editor of the most prodigious literary project of the 18th century. It is a testament to Diderot's tradesman roots that unlike his colleagues and contemporaries who displayed their individuality through works of genius, that he created a unique life for himself dutifully propogating the cornerstone of the enlightenment project: the Encyclopedia. It is odd to think it now, but the Encyclopedia project was a major publishing event during the enlightenment, and it was considered a challenge to the political powers of the time. The rational explanation of the totality of human knowledge was Diderot's life work, and the Encyclopedia was the basis of his battle against church authority, superstition and the divine rights of kings. Curran is most effective here in bringing to life the challenges and dangers Diderot faced in taking on and publishing the Encyclopedia, sacrificing his own genius and glory for the sake of enlightening humankind. This was a good book to read. Not great. But good. I would have like more time spent on Diderot's literary achievements, and perhaps less on his romantic life. But as a whole, the book provided a compelling story not just about Diderot, but about the enlightenment.

  11. 5 out of 5

    shoesforall

    "The majority of Europeans are soiled by [slavery], and a vile self-interest has stifled in human hearts all the feelings we owe to our fellow man." (p. 366) Diderot was one of the foremost thinkers of the French Enlightenment and a leader in categorizing how we think. He wrote the quoted words in 1774, long before European sentiment would turn toward the idea that people of African origin are "fellow men". Yet Professor Curran does not critically engage with the origins of Diderot's thoughts on "The majority of Europeans are soiled by [slavery], and a vile self-interest has stifled in human hearts all the feelings we owe to our fellow man." (p. 366) Diderot was one of the foremost thinkers of the French Enlightenment and a leader in categorizing how we think. He wrote the quoted words in 1774, long before European sentiment would turn toward the idea that people of African origin are "fellow men". Yet Professor Curran does not critically engage with the origins of Diderot's thoughts on race and slavery. There is scant mention of the slave trade in the half of the book devoted to the Encyclopedie. There is about 10 pages devoted to the end of the book that include Diderot's thoughts on race but at no point are they given history or context. These were extraordinary thoughts for a privileged white man to have in 1774. How did they come to be? How were they tied to the rest of his philosophy? Professor Curran often looks forward in this book but seems blind to race. How is it possible to not see the significance of a leading philosophe's thoughts on race during this time of increasing extremism? Would Diderot's intellectual journey in regards to race not speak to some of Professor Curran's readers? It would speak to me. This is an extraordinarily well-researched and well-written book that utterly fails to engage with the great moral question of modern times: how we treat each other. This, in turn, makes the book an utter failure as a piece of historiography (and as a satisfying read).

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dave Ryan

    Diderot viewed the function of a broad education as not to produce better-educated aristocrats; it is a weapon to be deployed by society against superstition, religious intolerance, prejudice, and social injustice. I learned of this book from a New Yorker Book Critic Adam Gopnik (March 4, 2019 issue) and was rewarded by gaining insight to a man and a time period that greatly influenced our world today. The role of the philosopher is to trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, shared cove Diderot viewed the function of a broad education as not to produce better-educated aristocrats; it is a weapon to be deployed by society against superstition, religious intolerance, prejudice, and social injustice. I learned of this book from a New Yorker Book Critic Adam Gopnik (March 4, 2019 issue) and was rewarded by gaining insight to a man and a time period that greatly influenced our world today. The role of the philosopher is to trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, shared covenants, authority, in a word, everything that controls the mind of the common herd. Diderot came into notoriety in the years 1745 – 1780 an era when Europe was run by monarchs and dictators and dominated by the religious sects including; Cistercian monks, Cartesians, Socinianists, Jesuits, and Jansenists. The differences in dogma created a bloody history leading into the 18th century where one half of France had bathed piously in the blood of the other half. In the late 1740s through the early 1770s Diderot was part of and then led the team of notables from across Europe assembling “The Encyclopedia” a massive undertaking collecting all the world’s knowledge. He was censored, he was jailed and ostracized at various times during the 25 years it took to write, illustrate, edit and publish the Encyclopedia but he and his financial backers persevered to publish the many volumes. The volumes were banned by the church and burned whenever copies were found or turned in to authorities. Thousands of copies made their way into cities throughout Europe and especially within France. Diderot’s passion was to make knowledge available to the common man and firmly believed and espoused that the authority of leadership came from the consent of the governed. He hammered home the message that the aristocracy, ministers, the church, and profiteers were all complicit in running a massive illusion factory whose function was to control the minds of the people. It is quite an understatement to say he was quite radical for his day. Diderot wrote many novels during his time and most of them having a message for the common person as well as for the leaders of the day. A timeless example of many in the book is provided of the case of the illusion factory. For many years Diderot was a well-regarded art critic and he contrasted his critique of the painting by Fragonard “The High Priest Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirhoe” to the story of Platos Cave. Plato’s Cave story is the image of people being held hostage to their own perceptions with only a hazy or illusion filled idea of reality and thus easily manipulated by the leaders. In Fragonard’s painting the story involves a city held in the grips of a plague requiring the sacrifice of a beautiful maiden by the high priest. The depiction of the event is an amazing scene of the high priest about to plunge a dagger into the chest of the maiden only to the horror of those present, who were counting on her dying, to watch the priest plunge the knife into his own heart. Diderot took this scene and walked through the emotions of the people surrounding the priest, the back story of the priest and the girl, and noting they were all compelled to watch this coercive spectacle designed to seduce and bully into believing manufactured lies. Diderot’s art critiques were made available to all who could read as he felt the visual arts had a duty to be as relevant to the middle class as the Encyclopedia enlightenment project. Diderot was ahead of his time in many areas including the disgust he felt that France had carried over 1M souls to the Caribbean and other French colonies to enter the slave market. He foretold the events leading to the US independence from England, the cancerous culture of holding other human beings in servanthood, and that for all its goodness, the US slave trade and the seeking of wealth above all else would prevent the US from being a great country for the world to emulate. Many stories published and unpublished in his day are referenced and summarized in this book; D’alembert’s Dream, Rameau’s Nephew, The Nun, Jacques the Fatalist. He wrote until he died and believed that he and we all live according to our own “The Great Scroll of Life” where our physiology (genes) and environment essentially determine what we think, say and do at each moment of our lives. In that context can we ever really consider ourselves free? Some of the Questions posed by Diderot: • What is the role of religion in society? • What is the importance of meritocracy? • What is the definition of tyranny? • What are the sources of revolution? • How do we determine and administer justice? • How can religion be more tolerant? • What is the role of luxury, divorce, universities, scientific academies, prejudice, bigotry, social equality, freedom of thought? After Diderot’s death in 1794 and for the next 100+ years the church and anyone who wanted support of the church (including revolutionaries) castigated and disowned Diderot as he was that century’s leading atheist and quite a philanderer. It is only in the last 100 years that his writings and impact on France, Europe, and the World have been highlighted. His writings in the Encyclopedia and anonymous contributions in a later set of writings opened up the ability for the common person to demand a voice and to be able to live their lives with higher levels of education and to demand greater accountability from their leaders. His work contributed to the French Revolution and a continuous push for Liberty and democracy for the next 250 years.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    Who knew that a table of contents, alphabetizing topics, and cross-references could be so radical? Yet in the age of a highly repressive France, they were. Denis Diderot, a major contributor for the Encyclopdie and philosophe, pushed forth new perspectives often a much risk and derision to himself. He not only thought freely, but questioned intensely, and this questioning-- of God, religion, politics, sexuality-- gave him the opportunity to think freely. In spite of his theological education, he Who knew that a table of contents, alphabetizing topics, and cross-references could be so radical? Yet in the age of a highly repressive France, they were. Denis Diderot, a major contributor for the Encyclopdie and philosophe, pushed forth new perspectives often a much risk and derision to himself. He not only thought freely, but questioned intensely, and this questioning-- of God, religion, politics, sexuality-- gave him the opportunity to think freely. In spite of his theological education, he questioned if there is really a God and studying human nature, the hypocrisy of the church, and the politics of kings, he determined there isn't. Then he questioned his own non-belief-- what does it mean to be human in a godless world? Where does one get morality? How does one face death when there's no afterlife? His questions are uncomfortable to ask, but he asks them anyways and seeks answers, no matter how uncomfortable the answers are. He did what not many do: think through the consequences of his views and what they mean to the greater world. I like Diderot. I don't think I would like everything he wrote, but I like how he optimistically viewed human nature. Humans, he believed, would do good, not because they were told to by scripture, but because it feels good to do good things. We should live to make ourselves happy and doing good can make us so. I am oversimplifying his views, but this is the gist of it. He also saw that humans, unfettered by religion, can feel good about their own humanism-- they need not be burdened by original sin and oppressive guilt and shame. In writing much of the Encyclopedie, he gave the public access to knowledge about the world and allowed them to learn about the world around them; his other writing was just as wide and varied as the Encyclopedie and provided many perspectives not heard of at the time (or heavily censored). Curran provides us with a brief overview of Diderot's life for the first half of the book and then thematically covers his writing in the second half. I understand why he structured it this way as Diderot was a prolific writer and there are many overlaps-- it would be challenging to present the information in a linear, biographical way. To me, if felt a little choppy. He posits that Diderot wrote not for his time, but for future readers, and he provides a brief synopsis of each of his works, but the connection to the future audiences could have a little more depth. I agree with him that Diderot did impact future thought, but I wanted a more detailed argument. If you are interested in human thought and ideas, this is a good book to read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dan Graser

    Denis Diderot has long been a favorite figure of mine, mainly for the very reason that forms the subtitle of this work, his ability to not only think freely but deal with unpopular and unfashionable ideas gently, harshly, and openly in his works, frequently coming to the most prescient conclusion. Andrew Curran is to be commended for this wonderfully thorough biography that actually lives up to the promise of its aforementioned subtitle. The mix of personal and philosophical, the chronological l Denis Diderot has long been a favorite figure of mine, mainly for the very reason that forms the subtitle of this work, his ability to not only think freely but deal with unpopular and unfashionable ideas gently, harshly, and openly in his works, frequently coming to the most prescient conclusion. Andrew Curran is to be commended for this wonderfully thorough biography that actually lives up to the promise of its aforementioned subtitle. The mix of personal and philosophical, the chronological life trajectory along with the contextual happenings of the world in which he lived, the constant foibles, the imperfections, the commitment too atheism and democratic principles, the disappointments, and the notion of legacy are all perfectly balanced here. This recalls Isaacson and others in terms of just how invested you become in the subject matter, the times in which they lived, and the people with whom they lived. The major work discussed in conjunction with his life is of course the incredible Encyclopédie, however a particular treat is an examination of the lesser-known, under-published later works that were preserved following his death due to the censorious times in which he lived and their more outrageous (for the time) mental exercises on so many taboo subjects. This is such a welcome reminder of what "The Enlightenment" was and could have been about, centered around the life of a figure who although is not counted among the most important philosophers by many traditional textbooks, is someone who had an enormous impact on 18th and 19th century thought and who in his own correct estimation, was primarily regarded posthumously. The man who not only brought us the aforementioned Encyclopédie but outrageous works such as, "The Nun," and genius works of dialogue and examination like, "D'Alembert's Dream," deserves to be remembered in such erudite volumes as this.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Noah Goats

    Diderot is the emblematic figure of the French Enlightenment and in this biography Andrew Curran tells us the story of how he freed himself from the dogmatic shackles of his youth to become a free thinker who lived life like it was one big intellectual adventure. He's most famous for editing the groundbreaking bible of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, and this biography chronicles his struggles to get it published. We take our freedom of speech for granted today, but Diderot had to fight cen Diderot is the emblematic figure of the French Enlightenment and in this biography Andrew Curran tells us the story of how he freed himself from the dogmatic shackles of his youth to become a free thinker who lived life like it was one big intellectual adventure. He's most famous for editing the groundbreaking bible of the Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, and this biography chronicles his struggles to get it published. We take our freedom of speech for granted today, but Diderot had to fight censorship and even the possibility of imprisonment every step of the way. I also enjoyed reading about his relationships with many of the important people of his day, including Catherine the Great (who loved him, but didn't adopt any of his ideas for Russia) and Rousseau (who went from warm friend to bitter enemy, as was the custom with Rousseau with almost every friend he ever had). Diderot was a man with a fertile mind and the survey of his works here includes all kinds of fascinating stuff. In addition to writing entries for the Encyclopédie, he wrote scientific works, atheist tracts, philosophy, pornography, love letters, novels, and plays. Much of what he wrote couldn't be published during his lifetime because it would have offended almost everybody, including people who could throw him into the Bastille without trial. Much of this controversial work trickled out over the century or so after his death, causing sensations as it was published. I have, so far, read very little Diderot myself, but this didn't hinder my enjoyment of this book. It made me want to read more of his work.

  16. 5 out of 5

    J.P. Williams

    I’ve wanted to learn more about Diderot since reading about him and other thinkers of the radical Enlightenment in Philip Blom’s A Wicked Company some years ago, and later reading Diderot’s own dialogue Rameau’s Nephew. I knew about his basic ideas, work on the Encyclopédie and frequenting of Baron d’Holbach’s salon, but was pleased to learn more through Curran’s book about his career as an art critic and his involvement with Catherine the Great. Voltaire is all right, but Diderot is where it’s I’ve wanted to learn more about Diderot since reading about him and other thinkers of the radical Enlightenment in Philip Blom’s A Wicked Company some years ago, and later reading Diderot’s own dialogue Rameau’s Nephew. I knew about his basic ideas, work on the Encyclopédie and frequenting of Baron d’Holbach’s salon, but was pleased to learn more through Curran’s book about his career as an art critic and his involvement with Catherine the Great. Voltaire is all right, but Diderot is where it’s at, and this book provides a thorough but not exhausting account of his life, work and ideas. Recommended.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    Through all his battles with censors and critics, Diderot emerged as a towering figure of the Enlightenment, as this engaging and entertaining biography of one of the greatest of the French philosophes shows. Curran provides an especially thorough look at Diderot's work editing, and also writing many of the articles of the "Encyclopedie". Through all his battles with censors and critics, Diderot emerged as a towering figure of the Enlightenment, as this engaging and entertaining biography of one of the greatest of the French philosophes shows. Curran provides an especially thorough look at Diderot's work editing, and also writing many of the articles of the "Encyclopedie".

  18. 5 out of 5

    Whitney

    brilliant

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jared

    “What has never been called into question has never been proven.” - Denis Diderot WHO IS DENIS DIDEROT? (5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer, best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie along with Jean le Rond d'Alembert. He was a prominent figure during the Enlightenment. WHY SHOULD ANYONE CARE ABOUT DIDEROT TODAY? Readers today continue to be amazed by his willingness to give a platform to the unthinkable and t “What has never been called into question has never been proven.” - Denis Diderot WHO IS DENIS DIDEROT? (5 October 1713 – 31 July 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer, best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie along with Jean le Rond d'Alembert. He was a prominent figure during the Enlightenment. WHY SHOULD ANYONE CARE ABOUT DIDEROT TODAY? Readers today continue to be amazed by his willingness to give a platform to the unthinkable and the uncomfortable, and to question all received authorities and standard practices — be they religious, political, or societal. To become familiar with the range of Diderot’s work is to be stupefied: among other things, the philosophe dreamed of natural selection before Darwin, the Oedipus complex before Freud, and genetic manipulation two hundred years before Dolly the Sheep was engineered. DIDEROT’S MIND WAS INTERESTED IN LOTS OF DISPARATE SUBJECTS The man was a pantophile, according to Voltaire: the type of thinker who falls desperately in love with every subject he studies, be it mathematics, sciences, medicine, philosophy, politics, classical antiquity, drama, literature, musicology, or the fine arts. Diderot, according to Meister, actually had little influence over his extravagant mind; it was, rather, the philosophe’s own thoughts that led him around without his “being able to either stop or control their movement.” ACCEPT NOTHING WITHOUT FIRST ASKING QUESTIONS “The first step toward philosophy,” he apparently said, “is incredulity.” His Encyclopédie summed up this mission quite succinctly when it said that the role of the philosophe is to “trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, shared covenants, authority — in a word, everything that controls the mind of the common herd.” FAMOUS ATHEIST WHO WAS ALMOST A PRIEST Diderot never documented the precise reasons why he abandoned his plan to be a priest. Diderot’s ambivalence toward the Church and further religious training intersected with his larger disinclination to commit to any real profession. RELIGIOUS IN-FIGHTING Where, Diderot wondered, was God’s will in all this religious infighting and persecution? INFLUENCES ON DIDEROT’S SECULAR MIND Newton’s effect on Diderot’s generation cannot be overestimated; over the course of two decades, the English physicist convinced an entire scientific culture that a mathematical, mechanical philosophy of nature could illuminate the secrets of the physical world. Newton, in short, had used calculus to find traces of God’s handiwork. there was a need to demythologize the faith, to make it natural. DIDEROT AND THE ENCYCLOPEDIA the Encyclopédie (and its various translations, republications, and pirated excerpts and editions) is now considered the supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment: a triumph of secularism, freedom of thought, and eighteenth-century commerce. On a personal level, however, Diderot considered this dictionary to be the most thankless chore of his life. ASPECTS OF THE ENCYCLOPEDIA This would turn out to be one of the foundations of the Encyclopédie project: replacing a theologically compatible theory of cognition with one that had little room for either the soul or an innate awareness of God’s existence. in contrast to earlier dictionaries, the forthcoming Encyclopédie was described as a living, breathing text that would highlight the obvious and obscure relationships between diverse spheres of learning. he had shifted the category of religion squarely under humankind’s ability to reason...Diderot made religion subservient to philosophy, essentially giving his readers the authority to critique the divine. WORLD’S FIRST ‘HYPERLINKS’ network of cross-references or renvois In all, approximately 23,000 articles, or about one-third, had at least one cross-reference. The total number of links — some articles had five or six — reached almost 62,000. Earlier dictionaries generally sought to communicate a linear and singular vision of truth. This new interdynamic presentation of knowledge and cross-references had a different function: it not only highlighted unobserved relationships among various disciplines, but intentionally and blatantly put contradictory articles into dialogue, thereby underscoring the massive incongruities and fissures that existed within the era’s knowledge. NONSENSICAL ENTRIES ENCOURAGED SKEPTICISM Yet Diderot and d’Alembert certainly amused themselves by sprinkling the dictionary with irreligious notions, often within the most arcane of articles. Consider, for example, Diderot’s treatment of the Central Asian “Vegetable Lamb Plant” (“Agnus scythicus”). Commenting on claims that this massive flower supposedly produces a goatlike animal with head and hooves on its tall central stem, Diderot reminds his readers that the more extraordinary an asserted “fact” may be, the more one must seek out witnesses to confirm it. ENCYCLOPEDIA GETS BANNED (MULTIPLE TIMES) In addition to obtaining the Parlement’s condemnation and a second ban issued by the king’s council, their efforts had prompted Pope Clement XIII to issue a “damnation” of the project that not only declared the Encyclopédie blasphemous, but directed those people who still owned any of its seven published volumes to turn them over immediately to their local priest — to be burned. DIDEROT AND ACTING Diderot is generally credited with inventing what is now commonly referred to as the theory of the fourth wall. Beseeching future actors to forget the audience and their highly codified and stylized forms of acting, he writes: “Imagine a great wall on the edge of the stage that separates you from the parterre. Act as if the curtain did not rise.” Among other things, he completed a draft of his Paradoxe sur le comédien (Paradox of the Actor), a philosophical dialogue in which one of the speakers maintains, against prevailing opinion, that the greatest actors are those who master themselves completely, who replicate emotional states without feeling any passion or sentiment themselves. Stanislavsky would later say that the Paradox, published posthumously in 1830, was among the most important theoretical works on acting ever written. ART CRITIC he was also convinced that anyone could acquire an appreciation of beauty and art through “reiterated experience,” by investing the time to understand “nature or the art that copies it.” He, of course, was the living proof: the son of a provincial cutler who became the century’s most noteworthy art critic. EVOLUTION Over the course of the next month, Diderot wrote three short dialogues, the sum of which constitute the most engaging proto-evolutionary book of the eighteenth century. POLITICS In addition to underscoring the fundamental injustice of much of the colonial enterprise as a whole...Diderot forcefully attacked what he believed to be his era’s most glaring evil: the ongoing business of African chattel slavery. “People of North America: may the example of all those nations that have preceded you, and especially that of your motherland, be your guide. Beware the abundance of gold that brings about the corruption of morals and the scorn of law; beware of an unbalanced distribution of wealth that will produce a small number of opulent citizens and a horde of citizens in poverty…” HUNG OUT WITH OUT GREAT MINDS In September 1742, while drinking coffee and watching games of chess at the Café de la Régence, Diderot was introduced to a fine-boned, thirty-year-old Genevan named Jean-Jacques Rousseau. HUNG OUT WITH CATHERINE THE GREAT To begin with, he helped Prince Golitsyn convince a number of artists, teachers, and even the occasional physiocrat philosopher to resettle in Saint Petersburg. Diderot’s most successful recruit was the great sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet, whom Catherine commissioned to produce the twenty-foot-tall bronze statue of Peter the Great that now stands in Saint Petersburg’s Senate Square. The foundational contribution that the philosophe made to Catherine’s art collection, which the empress had begun only two years after her coup d’état, was negotiating the purchase of five hundred superlative paintings that...became the core of the Hermitage Museum. HUNG OUT WITH AMERICAN REBELS As early as 1769, he had been on the receiving end of a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, asking him to meet with a young, upstanding physician named Benjamin Rush. Diderot gladly received the future signatory of the Declaration of Independence in his rue Taranne office, where the two men reportedly discussed the best way to resist British tyranny. GOOD QUOTES (MOSTLY FROM DIDEROT) “Posterity is to the philosophe,” he once stated, as “heaven is to the man of religion.” “One can demand of me that I seek truth, but not that I must find it.” “There is only one virtue, justice; one duty, to make oneself happy; and one corollary, not to exaggerate the importance of one’s life and not to fear death.” Writing for future generations, as he had revealed in the Encyclopédie article “Immortality,” had been the single biggest motivating factor in his highly policed and self-censored career: “We hear in ourselves the tribute that [posterity] will one day offer in our honor, and we sacrifice ourselves. We sacrifice our life, we really cease to exist in order to live on in their memory.” Seneca had asserted that true happiness does not come from either our health or our wealth, but from doing good and leading a virtuous life. FACTOIDS Though the Encyclopédie is now synonymous with Diderot, the project did not begin as his brainchild. The original idea came from a hapless immigrant from Danzig (Gdańsk) named Gottfried Sellius. ...Circle or compass of learning — the literal meaning of the Greek enkuklios paideia (encyclopedia) HAHA The most famous example is the entry on “Anthropophages” or “Cannibals”: its cross-references directed readers to the entries for “Altar,” “Communion,” and “Eucharist.” Ô stercus pretiosum!”Lui’s foulmouthed bit of Latin — which we can translate as “Oh, joyous turd” (taken from one of Diderot’s plays) when Diderot came to the Hermitage, [Catherine the Great] ordered that a table be put between them during their meetings because the philosophe, who often went into fevered monologues, had gotten in the habit of grabbing her knees and slapping her thighs to make a point. BONUS TED-Ed video about the origins of the encyclopedia: https://youtu.be/jv4bWkoG4k8 Book’s author discusses the work, provides an overview during a Talks at Google: https://youtu.be/UTVH9fvm_Qo The ‘Diderot Effect’ (consumerism): https://youtu.be/hUNxBSiV4ZY

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    In the crazy time that we are currently living in it is a comfort to read about an astute thinker who lived and wrote in the 18th century whose ideas are so close to our experiences today. it is amazing that there are humans born who can see far into the future and whose ideas encompass personal freedom, less government, improved educational systems, etc.

  21. 4 out of 5

    David

    "Free Thinking", an Orwellian double speak phrase meaning, a person is allowed to think freely as long as s/he doesn't express a belief in god or gods. Fortunately, Diderot, seems to have been an early atheist, a proponent of the Enlightenment and a heretic, who didn't disparage those who did believe. Curran does not spend much time on how Diderot came to his atheism, except how it was shaped by his dislike of the church because of its hypocrisy, (same as it always was) but talks about the fall "Free Thinking", an Orwellian double speak phrase meaning, a person is allowed to think freely as long as s/he doesn't express a belief in god or gods. Fortunately, Diderot, seems to have been an early atheist, a proponent of the Enlightenment and a heretic, who didn't disparage those who did believe. Curran does not spend much time on how Diderot came to his atheism, except how it was shaped by his dislike of the church because of its hypocrisy, (same as it always was) but talks about the fall out. His father had little to do with him and his brother who belonged to the clergy of the Catholic Church tried to change his mind. But Diderot did not ridicule those who did believe. If he had rejected who did believe, he would not have had many friends. It seems although Diderot didn't publish much about his disbelief, what did get published was banned and burned, and his publisher's offices were plundered. He worked for 25 years on his Encyclopédie, enlisting a few other contemporary intellectuals who bravely attached themselves to Diderot. Because of his devotion to his works Diderot lived a life close to destitution. Once, he traveled to Russia, where for a short time he was the daily intellectual conversationalist with Catherine the Great, from whom he expected a stipend once he got it, didn't amount to much. Curran did a fine job writing a biography about someone which little documentation exists. A side note, I find that most atheists' arguments are based on complaints about religion, which in most cases are straw men (after all one doesn't have to look very far to see how debased and cruel members of any religion can be).

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jim Robles

    Five stars! A great free thinker who joyfully followed his curiosity wherever it took him, during challenging times. Prologue: Unburying Diderot "The second, 'Jacques le fataliste,' is an open-ended antinovel where Diderot used fiction to take up the problem of free will" (4). Part One: Forbidden Fruits (17) I The Abbot From Langres ". . . . elder Diderot . . . and a devoted subject of the king" (25). It is still the Middle Ages. "Until the age of thirty, in fact, Diderot did not have the right to le Five stars! A great free thinker who joyfully followed his curiosity wherever it took him, during challenging times. Prologue: Unburying Diderot "The second, 'Jacques le fataliste,' is an open-ended antinovel where Diderot used fiction to take up the problem of free will" (4). Part One: Forbidden Fruits (17) I The Abbot From Langres ". . . . elder Diderot . . . and a devoted subject of the king" (25). It is still the Middle Ages. "Until the age of thirty, in fact, Diderot did not have the right to legally marry without their consent" (44). ". . . . his lifelong tendency to embrace existence fully, completely, and audaciously, with little regard for the potential consequences" (47). II Leaving God (49) ". . . . Louis XIV had issued the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, which put an end to the era of comparative tolerance that had been guaranteed by the 1598 Edict of Nantes" (53). "Turgot understood better than most people what Diderot's intention was in these philosophical thoughts: creating a knowable and likable persona who could appeal to people's common sense and aesthetic sensibility with irony, pithy aphorisms, and, as it turned out, intoxicating tidbits of sacrilege" (67-68). III A Philosophe In Prison (75) ". . . . asking them to rethink basic moral questions--such as human happiness--that had been the purview of the church" (96). The end of the Middle Ages is in sight. IV The Enlightment Bible (101). "This would turn out to be one of the foundations of the Encyclopedie project: replacing a theologically compatible theory of cognition with one that had little room for either the soul or an innate awareness of God's existence" (110). ". . . --he also puts forward the perilous idea that the real origin of political authority stems from the people, and that this political body not only has the inalienable right to delegate this power, but to take it back as well" (124). V The Encyclopedie Hair Shirt (133). "As had been the case for Voltaire and Buffon, the mathematician took over a chair that had been held by a high-ranking ecclesiastic. The implications of this were not lost on the philosophes or the clergy" (143). The end of the Middle Ages is upon us. "It was here that Diderot spent most of the next thirty years, bent over his desk, surrounded by his library, and dressed in his robe de chambre and slippers" (145). "In an era when the abolitionist movement was only just budding, Jaucourt made use of his platform to denounce slavery in a way no one had ever done in France" (168). "What Diderot did not fully realize, in 1765, was that he had carried the ideas of the Enlightenment forward in a way that no person, not Voltaire, and certainly not Rousseau, had done before" (175). VI On Virtue and Vice (179). "In nature, as Lui puts it, 'all species prey on each other; in society, people of all stations prey on each other too'" (195). VII On Art: Diderot at the Louvre (201). ". . . . Diderot argues that the best artists produce a carefully crafted dialogue between the real and the imaginary" (226). "Diderot's dreamlike version of Plato's cave initially seems very much like what we find in The Republic" (229). VIII On the Origin of the Species (233). "And can matter actually think?" (236). "Studing spermatozoa, both men published tremendously influential studies asserting that these small swimming 'individuals' were complex enough to have souls" (248). "Lucretian Musings" (250). "The Human Story" (252). "But behind this mapping of the world's different'varieties,' as Buffon called them, was the theory that these dissimilar groups all came from a prototype race that mutated as it moved across the globe into different climates, ate dissimilar foods, and created new and diverse customs for itself" (254). "Not only do human varieties change over time--shifting and twisting as a function of their climate and food--but the species itself can be altered, combined, and perhaps even improved" (258). IX The Sexologist (259) "Even today, The Nun strikes a nerve" (266). "One of these individuals had been, of course, his younger sister Angelique, who, at age twenty-eight, had lost her mind and died behind the thick limestone walls the Ursuline convent in Langres" (275). "Calling out to his fellow Islanders to rebel, he predicts an era of new diseases, enslavement, and perhaps the eventual annihilation of the Tahitians" (280). "Infanticide, a widespread fact of life in eighteenth-century Europe, is unthinkable on the island because every child is seen as a national treasure" (283). X On Love (293) XI A Voyage to Russia: Politics, Philosophy, and Catherine the Great. (315) "Bad weather on a seemingly annual basis during the 1760s made things worse" (322). "The dialectical message proposed by Rousseau was that the people were supposed to sacrifice their freedom in order to be truly free. Those who violated this trust, he argues in The Social Contract, must be put to death" (337). This is the philosophical justification for The Terror. XII Last Words: Speaking to Despots and American Insurgents (345). "This new type of pedagogy, he insisted, would finally allow experimentation to take precedence over received ideas" (351). ". . . he arguably became the most influential, progressive (and often radical) voice in the years leading up to the French Revolution" (352). ". . . Diderot forcefully attacked what he believed to be his era's most glaring evil: the ongoing business of African chattel slavery" (365). "It is no exaggeration that Diderot was the single most important French interpreter of the remarkable political experiment taking place on the other side of the Atlantic" (369). "Epilogue: Walking Between Two Eternities" (375) "The end of life did not seem to worry him in the least, however" (380). "And can we really consider ourselves free if what we do and what we think are necessarily preordained by our physiology and our environment?" (382). "This was also Diderot's hope in the late 1770s and early 1780s: to die with the same equanimity as the great Greek philosopher" (384). ". . . the clergy plan on avenging themselves upon him and making his cadaver every religious snub unless he satisfies the externals (by recognizing the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Christian God)" (389). ". . . he is also, paradoxically, the only major thinker of his generation who questioned the rational perspective that is at the heart of the Enlightenment project" (401).

  23. 5 out of 5

    B

    “You rot beneath marble or under the ground, you still rot” “Posterity is to the philosophe, as heaven is to the religious” “The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.” A well-woven biography, the book relates lifelong events behind the creation of many of this far-sighted philosopher’s masterpieces, and how he came to shape as he did: being a pantophil, becoming a champion of free-thinking, expressing anti-colonial sentiment, and most saliently, his aversion to religion. Already in his thir “You rot beneath marble or under the ground, you still rot” “Posterity is to the philosophe, as heaven is to the religious” “The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.” A well-woven biography, the book relates lifelong events behind the creation of many of this far-sighted philosopher’s masterpieces, and how he came to shape as he did: being a pantophil, becoming a champion of free-thinking, expressing anti-colonial sentiment, and most saliently, his aversion to religion. Already in his thirties, he based the foundation of his belief system on logic, search of truth through skepticism, and right to think freely – pensees philosophiques, and even brushed existentialism through Jacques le fataliste (making me perceive why Kundera may have considered Diderot as the first existentialist). An anti-conventionalist, he has also questioned the institution of marriage, the resounding public opinion against same sex, the role of women and their education, and his increasingly radical tone regarding absolute regimes.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jerry Wall

    Bio. of Diderot. . . . faith is the foundation of error. . . . p. 455 From Bacon, Diderot learned that science need not bow down before a Bible-based view of the world; it should be based on induction and experimentation. p. 57 . . . according to the Deists, God gave us the tools necessary to believe in Him, and to live a simple and moral life, but He had not given us organized religion, we had inflicted that problem on ourselves. p. 60 . . . our sole redeeming quality; we ahve the ability to study Bio. of Diderot. . . . faith is the foundation of error. . . . p. 455 From Bacon, Diderot learned that science need not bow down before a Bible-based view of the world; it should be based on induction and experimentation. p. 57 . . . according to the Deists, God gave us the tools necessary to believe in Him, and to live a simple and moral life, but He had not given us organized religion, we had inflicted that problem on ourselves. p. 60 . . . our sole redeeming quality; we ahve the ability to study our fundamental wretchedness, whereas "a tree does not." * * * Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot . . . "Erudition bores people. Metaphysics repels them. A bon mot is remembered and moves from mouth to mouth; its poison[is] more volatile, and insinuates itself through breathing [Diderot's toxin] is even more dangerous in that it produces the most mirthful pleasures of the imagination and the most refined gratifications of the the mind. p. 67 sign posted on locked cemetery gate [where demonstrations were held] By order of the king it is forbidden for God to make miracles in this place.p. 70 skeptic . . . a person who engages in profound and disinterested study of a question beofre admitting his inability to decide. p. 72 What has never been called into question has never been proven. * * * One can demand of me that I seek truth,but not that I must find it. p. 73 !!!!!! encyclopedie . . . . this new form of reasoned dictionary would actively examine and restructure the era's understanding of knowledge. p. 111 Diderot's "system" paired Memory with History, Reason with Philosophy, and Imagination with Poetry. p. 115 . . . the more that oen studies the so-called Science of God, the ore it becomes clear that religion leads inevitably to occult and irrational practices. p 116 The legendary lamb plant, a legendary plant described in the Encyclopedie.p. 121 Diderot reminds his readers that the more extraordinary as asserted "fact" may be, the more one must seek out witnesses to confirm it. * * *[the explication of traditional church doctrine not only bog down under the weight of their own improbable and contradictory assertions, but raise far more questions than they resolve. p. 122 . . . if the immaterial soul is supposedly the seat of consciousness and emotion, where does it connect to the body? . . . . the true location of the soul is in the imagination. p. 123 . . . neither God nor nature has given any one person the indisputable authority to reign. * * * . . . the origins of political power and social inequality as arising from one of two possible sources, either "the force or violence" of the person who absconded with people's freedom, which was Hobbes view, or the consent of the subjugated group through established contract, which came from Locke. . . . p. 134 !!! !! . . . slavery "violates religion, morality, natural law, and all the rights of human nature". He also declared that those Africans who had been taken as slaves, regardless of the conditins of their enslavement, had the right to declare themselves free. p. 168 . . . reduced all miracles either to the product of superstition or the result of "entirely natural events" * * * . . . it would be quite useful to determine which of the many confliting versions of Christianity actually led to salvation. p. 173 People became virtuous, he believed, not because someone had scribbled down some guidelines on a scroll some two thousand years before, but because moral actions themselves were beautiful, a natural extension of the secular trinity of truth, beauty, and the good. p. 193 Plato's cave . . . the Republic . . . most people are prisoners of their own perception, going through life with only a hazy or illusion filled idea of reality. p 229 !!!!! behind us were kings, minissters, priests, doctors, apostles, prophets, theologians, politicians cheats, charlatans, masters of illusion, and the whole band of dealers in hopes and fears. p. 230 Younger Parisians now had less appreciation for the fine arts, philosphy, peotry, and traditional sciences; they were far more preoccupied with "administration, commerce, agridulture, imports, exports, and finance." * * * Money, in his opinion, ws the enemy of human imagination. p. 233 . . . not explained teh seemingly unbridgeable gap between the immaterial and physical worlds. p. 239 ? Diderot . . . knew that the only thing one accomplished by dreading the inevitable was ruining the present. p,381 !!!!!! . . . the important things in life: "There is only one virtue, justice; one duty, to make oneself happy; and one corollary, not to exaggerate the importance of one's life and not to fear death. p. 381 "the best doctor is the one you run to, but that you cannot find." p. 387 Voltaire seems to have held firm [in his non belief], his last words to the priest were reportedly "let me die in peace." p. 388 !!!!!!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Danny

    The best biographies do not only tell the story of a life, but they tell the story of a life within the context of their time and space. This biography is not only about Diderot, though it never leaves its focus on him, but is also about the philosophical culture of all of 18th century France, and, to some degree, all of western Europe. To read the book is to be confronted with the inquiries of Europe at the time, as well as many other major thinkers and political figures relevant not only to Di The best biographies do not only tell the story of a life, but they tell the story of a life within the context of their time and space. This biography is not only about Diderot, though it never leaves its focus on him, but is also about the philosophical culture of all of 18th century France, and, to some degree, all of western Europe. To read the book is to be confronted with the inquiries of Europe at the time, as well as many other major thinkers and political figures relevant not only to Diderot's life, but to the whole of Europe. Diderot's influence has not amounted to that of Voltaire or Rousseau, two of his contemporaries who he knew personally, but the world has been subtly shaped by Diderot in ways currently not appreciated, and this book lays out well the case for such a statement. On a personal level, I largely disagree with many of Diderot's key ideas, but almost entirely agree with the disposition with which he carried himself in regard to fighting for the freedom to express those ideas. Conversely, I find myself agreeing more with the ideas of many of his detractors while disagreeing with their methods and intolerance. Like any of us, Diderot was a product of his time, which led him I think to carry his iconoclasm in quite the way that he did. I like to think he'd find good in religion had he lived in another place and time, for example. But his resolve was admirable, and this book is a fascinating and well researched study on a truly interesting man.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Katrīna

    Whoof. I sure took my time reading this one. As a consumer of audiobooks, it takes a lot of motivation for me to sit down and hold a book in my hands and do nothing else but read. In the end, I carved out time for it before bedtime. Half an hour at a time, couple of times a week, and several months later, I've finally finished it. As for the book itself, one would think that spending quarter of a century going through the total written sum of human knowledge, from agriculture, medicine, physics, Whoof. I sure took my time reading this one. As a consumer of audiobooks, it takes a lot of motivation for me to sit down and hold a book in my hands and do nothing else but read. In the end, I carved out time for it before bedtime. Half an hour at a time, couple of times a week, and several months later, I've finally finished it. As for the book itself, one would think that spending quarter of a century going through the total written sum of human knowledge, from agriculture, medicine, physics, craftsmanship to politics and philosophy would change a man. And as turns out it really does. Diderot's flow of thought is chaotic, weaving and yet it makes sense. He is unafraid to think the unthinkable, connect distant topics and seems to be wholeheartedly having fun just being in his head. Though not without his flaws (double standards regarding infidelity for one, not to mention pride), he sure was a man of tremendous prescience. Also people were so weird back then. Pretending to be an abused young nun in letters to your friend over the course of several months as a prank? Publishing a piece of writing in which, among relaying various materialist theories on the origin of humans, his best friend (d'Alembert) masturbates in his sleep next to his conscious lover (Mademoiselle L'Espinasse)? I mean, wow.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mshelton50

    Andrew Curran has written a superb biography of Denis Diderot. In it, he not only covers the facts of le philosophe's life (birth in Langres; study for the priesthood; marriage to Toinette; birth of and relationship with his adored daughter Angelique; his affairs, most notably with Sophie Volland; the twenty years he spent as editor of the Encyclopedie; trip to St. Petersburg to meet Catherine II late in life), but also charts the course of his ideas as reflected in his writings. By necessity, C Andrew Curran has written a superb biography of Denis Diderot. In it, he not only covers the facts of le philosophe's life (birth in Langres; study for the priesthood; marriage to Toinette; birth of and relationship with his adored daughter Angelique; his affairs, most notably with Sophie Volland; the twenty years he spent as editor of the Encyclopedie; trip to St. Petersburg to meet Catherine II late in life), but also charts the course of his ideas as reflected in his writings. By necessity, Curran discusses the role of the Monarchy and the church as they affected public discourse and the publishing world during the ancien regime. So that he could write freely, Diderot's major works D'Alembert's Dream, Rameau's Nephew, and Jacques the Fatalist were consciously written for posterity, and Curran does a fine job discussing them. This work is lively, interesting, and very well written. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in French history, or the history of the Enlightenment.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Harry

    Not a normal read for me but fascinating. The book is well written but more interesting to me was the subject of the biography. As the arc of his life unfolds we learn of the voluminous output and the radical ideas (read that as rational in today's world) that set him apart from the rest of his generation. Wise enough to know his contemporaries, much of what he wrote he saved for posterity rather than share it with those not ready to hear it. Women's Rights, slavery, atheism and the churches hyp Not a normal read for me but fascinating. The book is well written but more interesting to me was the subject of the biography. As the arc of his life unfolds we learn of the voluminous output and the radical ideas (read that as rational in today's world) that set him apart from the rest of his generation. Wise enough to know his contemporaries, much of what he wrote he saved for posterity rather than share it with those not ready to hear it. Women's Rights, slavery, atheism and the churches hypocrisy, royalty and the right to rule are just a few of his deep thought out convictions and writings. Long and detailed but never boring. I feel I learned something far more important than a life story from this account. Respect, honor, and awe for one of us who went far beyond his generation, thinking freely and with love for the world and its inhabitants.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mishehu

    Not an especially deep book, but an eminently serviceable one, and entertaining to boot. More than meets the 'if you're going to read one book about Diderot' standard. Diderot and the Art... is both standard and intellectual biography. Pitched to a popular readership, it does a fine job of limning Diderot's life and mind, while eschewing academic minutiae. I wouldn't have minded more minutiae myself, and would have gladly read a more scholarly intellectual bio of this fascinating subject. But I Not an especially deep book, but an eminently serviceable one, and entertaining to boot. More than meets the 'if you're going to read one book about Diderot' standard. Diderot and the Art... is both standard and intellectual biography. Pitched to a popular readership, it does a fine job of limning Diderot's life and mind, while eschewing academic minutiae. I wouldn't have minded more minutiae myself, and would have gladly read a more scholarly intellectual bio of this fascinating subject. But I knew very little about Diderot before reading this fine book, and am happy to know a great deal more in the wake of doing so. I highly recommend Diderot and the Art... to anyone who may be interested in Enlightenment history and knows the name Denis Diderot but little more about the man. This is a great place to start.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Scott Sanders

    I reviewed this book for The Washington Post. Here's how the review opens: "Freedoms that Americans too easily take for granted—freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion—are the legacy of a relatively few daring thinkers in eighteenth-century Europe who risked their own freedom to voice forbidden ideas. None was more daring, none challenged a wider range of beliefs and institutions, than French philosophe Denis Diderot, subject of this engrossing biography by Andrew S. Curran, Professor o I reviewed this book for The Washington Post. Here's how the review opens: "Freedoms that Americans too easily take for granted—freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion—are the legacy of a relatively few daring thinkers in eighteenth-century Europe who risked their own freedom to voice forbidden ideas. None was more daring, none challenged a wider range of beliefs and institutions, than French philosophe Denis Diderot, subject of this engrossing biography by Andrew S. Curran, Professor of Humanities at Wesleyan University." Here's how the review ends: "'To become familiar with the range of Diderot’s work is to be stupefied,' Curran remarks. Indeed, readers of this biography are likely to be impressed by the scope of Diderot’s thought, and also by his courage, as he risked persecution to ask and answer taboo questions, thereby making it easier, and safer, for us to do the same."

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