Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in the pious town of Langres, France. He was the oldest surviving child of a family whose long tradition it was to make renowned cutlery. At the age of thirteen, he decided to leave school because he became impatient with his teachers. They weren’t feeding him enough of the information he craved. He decided to join his father in the cutlery business. That lasted for four days. He simply described his family’s trade as boring. Diderot decided impatience was better than boredom and returned to school at the local Jesuit college.
He became an Abbe in hopes of pursuing a religious career and assuming his uncle Vigneron’s position as canon at the local church. When Diderot was fifteen Vigneron fell ill and died leaving his religious office to young Diderot. When the cathedral chapter would not allow such a young man to take the position and gave it to someone else, they crushed all chances of the Diderot family producing another religious man. Soon after, Denis Diderot left for Paris to resume his studies at the College d’Harcourt and Louis-le-Grand.
It was here in Paris, that Diderot became the great philosopher that we know today. He started his new life in Paris with little to no money at all. Diderot was poverty stricken and forced to survive any way he could. He often changed residences when he owed too much in overdue rent and concocted wild schemes for borrowing money. He was a tutor for a well-to-do family but after three months, confinement drove him into the streets again. Diderot was not a man who stayed in a place that was not to his liking; no matter how beneficial. For a while he became a writer for sale, making his living by writing sermons and doing translations among other odd tasks.
In 1728, at the age of twenty-eight, Diderot fell hopelessly in love with his future wife, Antoinette Champion. By French Bourgeois standards, the match was not a good one. Diderot was several steps higher than Champion on the social ladder and she was poorly educated, fatherless, and had no dowry. Nevertheless, Diderot and Champion, four years his senior, were married and produced one surviving child. She was named Angelique after Diderot’s mother and his sister who went mad and died at the age of twenty-eight.
From then until the time of his death in 1784, Diderot published many pieces of writing from plays to poems to essays, all the time climbing in wealth and recognition. He was a controversial writer and twice had his writings burned by the executioner and once served jail time. He was a freethinker that associated with the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire and had admirers such as Catherine the Great whose court he visited at her request.
History is all about interpretation. Diderot’s life is no exception. One account of his life portrays him as a self-made man and concentrates on the later part of his life and his beliefs. Another account sees him as being taught to think and to question everything while still in Langres and therefore focuses on his early years and his upbringing. In my opinion, both interpretations are correct. If Diderot did not have the correct educational background for his future career as a philosopher than he never could have become the great thinker that he was. On the other hand, he always had a knack for learning and a craving for knowledge as well as a flare for initiating thought in others. Who is to say that he wouldn’t have become a great thinker if he hadn’t been brought up in the manner he had?
Diderot, was widely known at the peak of his career but due to the controversial nature of much of his work, most of his writings were published posthumously. France, being of a conservative and pious nature, was not ready for Diderot’s train of thought. He was against organized religion for the greater part of his life and instead elected to follow what he called natural religion. He found traditional religious thinking too confined and restricting for his open mind. His natural religion was open to all views and ways of thought.
“If there were a reason for preferring the Christian religion to natural religion, it would be because the former offers us, on the nature of God and man, enlightenment that the latter lacks. Now this is not at all the case; for Christianity, instead of clarifying. Gives rise to an infinite multitude of obscurities and difficulties.”
Diderot had little impact on the time period itself but greatly impacted future thinkers. He wrote on everything possible. It was Diderot’s nature to think and write on everything he came across. He wrote on the traditional subjects of philosophers such as religion as well as the more obscure topics. In “Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See,” Diderot questions life as we know it.
Although Diderot did not have a great impact his time, his time did have a great impact on him. The Enlightenment gave rise to many freethinkers like Diderot and together they sat at cafes, drank coffee or lemonade, played chess, and discussed the meaning of life. The glitters of Paris and the promise of intellectual stimulation is what lured Diderot out of Langres. Without the Bohemian attitude of Paris, the Diderot we know would not exist. Without the friendships and influences of such minds as Rousseau, Condillac, Voltaire and Montesquieu, Diderot’s thinking could not have been at the same caliber that it was with them.
Before the eighteenth century and even during it at times, the leaders of France were conservative and unwilling to open up to new ways of thought. They stifled yearning minds and by doing this for long enough, forced a coming out of new philosophies. Diderot and his peers were the coming out and they came out not as a trickle but as a flood. France successfully damned this flood for quite some time but eventually the flood’s ideas got through the cracks. It wasn’t until after the eighteenth century and the death of Denis Diderot that his true impact was made.