Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
By Andrew S. Curran
The Other Press, 2019
The famous 18th-century French philosophe Denis Diderot led a professionally thwarted life, never quite receiving any of the institutional and especially financial bounties that the society of his day, haphazard and mercenary as it was, often found ways of bestowing on its smartest, most eloquent citizens. He labored for decades on his great dictionary, the Encyclopédie in the public eye, writing feverishly on a wide variety of topics in private as well, and in 1749 he was imprisoned at Vincennes for his well-spoken obstreperousness about the current Powers That Be. He endured there - with steadily improving circumstances brought about by both the intervention of a powerful friend and by his own unending charm - from August to November, and according to Andrew Curran, Diderot’s latest English-language biographer, it was a very ostentatious turning point:
Diderot’s incarceration at Vincennes took place exactly halfway through his seventy years on earth. An unwelcome caesura, prison became the dramatic pause that gave shape and meaning to both sides of his life. Before prison, Diderot had been a journeyman translator, the editor of an unpublished encyclopedia, and a relatively unknown author of clandestine works of heterodoxy; on the day that he walked out of Vincennes, he was forever branded as one of the most dangerous evangelists of freethinking and atheism in the country.
Curran’s book, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, is a brilliant, sparkling affair that courses over every major and minor incident in Diderot’s remarkable life, treating the Encyclopédie (which Curran characterizes as “the most thankless chore of his life”) with the attention it warrants but throwing a refreshing amount of emphasis on the huge pile of other writings that Diderot generated throughout his life, including, infamously, extensive writings of an atheistic bent, as when he frequently tortured the bedrock concepts of the Church that still ruled his country and his world. What about the soul, for instance? Where is it actually attached to the body?
In the pineal gland, as Descartes had asserted? In the brain? In the nerves? The heart? The blood? Drawing attention to theology’s inability to answer this question, he then went on to demonstrate that the supposed immateriality of consciousness - and the soul - was more tied to the physical world than many people believed. If someone is delivered poorly at birth by a midwife, has as stroke, or is hit violently on the head, says Diderot, “bid adieu to one’s judgment and reason,” and “say goodbye” to the supposed transcendence of the soul.
The Denis Diderot who emerges from these pages is a delightfully charismatic figure, a weak-willed chameleon, a garrulous charmer and an omnivorously curious thinker. Curran sets him firmly in his own time, but the most charming aspect of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is the flattering way it bows low to its own modern-day readers, right here in the 21st century. In writing about those voluminous and far less-known pieces of Diderot prose, Curran imagines a reader-relationship that spans centuries instead of only social strata:
[Diderot] intentionally chose to forgo a conversation with his contemporaries in order to have a more fruitful dialogue with later generations - us, in short. His heartfelt hope was that we, the sympathetic and enlightened interlocutors of the future, might finally be capable of sitting in judgment of his hidden writings, writings that not only question the moral, aesthetic, political, and philosophical conventions of the ancien régime, but our own as well.”
It’s an appealing picture, certainly, particularly given how badly the 21st century could use a free thinker like Diderot. Lacking the man, we’re fortunate at least to have this fine, cheering book.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.