Born October 5, 1713, in Langres, a small town in the middle of France, Denis Diderot was the son of an artisan cutler who expected him to rise above his humble beginnings. After graduating with honors from a Jesuit college in his hometown, Diderot moved to Paris to continue his studies at the Collège d’Harcourt and the Sorbonne. After college, he managed to make ends meet through his work as a translator, given his skill in various languages, particularly English. This work resulted in his first few major publications in the early 1740s, which started to draw a spotlight on his public persona while contributing little to his financial security. Diderot met Rousseau in 1742, and together with Etienne Bonnot de Condillac joined his philosophe movement in an effort to gain public acclaim and patronage as intellectuals in Parisian society. In 1743, Diderot married and sired a daughter with Antoinette Champion. She was an equally poor woman whom he loved dearly, but his family back in Langres disapproved of the union and broke ties with him completely.
Diderot published his first original work, Pensées philosophiques (Philosophical thoughts), in 1746. However, it was his third work, published in 1748, a novel of an erotic nature called Les Bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscrete Jewels), that would earn him his first sizable financial return. These works, along with his most notable work of the decade, Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient (Letter on the Blind for the Use of those who can see), published in 1749, started to earn Diderot some fame and even attention form Voltaire, who would become a great ally of his. Given the subversive nature of his works, as they flirted with themes of materialism and atheism, he would also come to attract less than favorable attention from the Parisian authorities, resulting in his Pensées being publicly burned in July 1746. He also spent three months in jail in 1749 after the publication of Lettre sur les aveugles, though his sentence was cut down through his association with Voltaire.
Diderot’s most significant project would come to be the Encyclopédie, a project started by André-François Le Breton in 1746 as a French translation of Ephraim Chambers’ 1728 Cyclopedia. But, after D’Alembert and Diderot took over complete control of it in 1747, it would go on to gain its own identity as what Diderot thought could be a living document, ebbing and flowing through the tides of knowledge as the ages went on. Diderot would go on to incorporate some of his ideas that were hostile to the religious authorities into the volumes of the work, resulting in many controversies throughout its publication, with its publication rights even being suspended several times under various accusations. The project gained further heat in 1757 after the attempted assassination of King Louis XV by Robert-François Damiens, who was supposedly provoked by the kind of subversive materialist philosophy promoted in works like the Encyclopédie. This incident would lead in part to the work’s condemnation by the French Parliament in 1759 for its crimes against religion, morality, and public order, resulting in it being greatly censored by a committee of scholars. This decision sparked D’Alembert’s resignation as co-editor, giving Diderot full control over the project. Luckily, with his connections in the Monarchy, Diderot was able to get back to work in 1759 and would finish the final ten volumes of the Encyclopédie by 1765, writing close to six thousand entries by himself. The various controversies surrounding the project found Diderot in a state of great financial security for once as they greatly boosted sales.
In the late 1750s, Diderot would go on to write several plays that were staged in Paris and were infused with his radical moral agenda. Beginning in 1759, Diderot began his contributions to the monthly journal Correspondence Littéraire, offering profound critiques of the art displayed at the biennial Parisian art salon. These riveting articles would result in the invention of the genre of art criticism. Following his time in prison and constant persecution by the French authorities, Diderot kept his works written after 1760 secret, with many of them only being published long after his death, including his greatest masterpieces Le Rêve de d’Alembert (D’Alembert’s Dream) and Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew). By 1765, Diderot’s money was starting to dry up, so, in an attempt to provide a suitable dowry for his daughter in the hope she would marry someone more affluent than he did, he decided to sell his entire library to the highest bidder. This gave Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, a great fan of Diderot’s, an opportunity to express her appreciation for his work, buying the entire collection to set up a new library in Paris for Diderot to act as the permanent librarian at, earning him an annual pension that allowed him to live an affluent life until his death in 1784. Diderot got an opportunity to return his thanks, and offer his political philosophy, seven years later when he visited Catherine in Russia.
Diderot’s later years saw him fighting much more actively for his political ideology as an abolitionist, criticizing slavery and racial divisions. After his death, Diderot was buried in a lead coffin. Ten years later, this coffin would be unburied by looters looking for lead to make bullets for French revolutionary armies, who would throw his remains in a mass grave filled with bodies from public executions. This would be a rather fitting end for a man who had to fight his entire career against a society that would’ve rather seen him six feet under from the beginning.
Wolfe, Charles T., and J.B. Shank. “Denis Diderot.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, June 19, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/diderot/.