BY JOHN MORLEY
MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED
NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
First published elsewhere
New Edition 1886. Reprinted 1891, 1897, 1905
The present work closes a series of studies on the literary preparation for the French Revolution. It differs from the companion volumes on Voltaire and Rousseau, in being much more fully descriptive. In the case of those two famous writers, every educated reader knows more or less of their performances. Of Diderot and his circle, such knowledge cannot be taken for granted, and I have therefore thought it best to occupy a considerable space, which I hope that those who do me the honour to read these pages will not find excessive, with what is little more than transcript or analysis. Such a method will at least enable the reader to see what those ideas really were, which the social and economic condition of France on the eve of the convulsion made so welcome to men. The shortcomings of the encyclopaedic group are obvious enough. They have lately been emphasised in the ingenious and one-sided exaggerations of that brilliant man of letters, Mr. Taine. The social significance and the positive quality of much of their writing is more easily missed, and this side of their work it has been one of my principal objects, alike in the case of Voltaire, of Rousseau, and of Diderot, to bring into the prominence that it deserves in the history of opinion.
The edition of Diderot's works to which the references are made, is that in twenty volumes by the late Mr. Assezat and Mr. Maurice Tourneux. The only other serious book on Diderot with which I am acquainted is Rosenkranz's valuable Diderot's Leben, published in 1866, and abounding in full and patient knowledge. Of the numerous criticisms on Diderot by Raumer, Arndt, Hettner, Damiron, Bersot, and above all by Mr. Carlyle, I need not make more particular mention.
Since the following pages were printed, an American correspondent writes to me with reference to the dialogue between Franklin and Raynal, mentioned on page 218, Vol. II.:—"I have now before me Volume IV. of the American Law Journal, printed at Philadelphia in the year 1813, and at page 458 find in full, 'The Speech of Miss Polly Baker, delivered before a court of judicature in Connecticut, where she was prosecuted.'" Raynal, therefore, would have been right if instead of Massachusetts he had said Connecticut; and either Franklin told an untruth, or else Silas Deane.
CONTENTS OF VOL. I.
CHAPTER I. PRELIMINARY.
The Church in the middle of the century New phase in the revolt The Encyclopaedia, its symbol End of the reaction against the Encyclopaedia Diderot's position in the movement
CHAPTER II. YOUTH.
Birth and birthplace (1713) His family Men of letters in Paris Diderot joins their company His life in Paris: his friendly character Stories of his good-nature His tolerance for social reprobates His literary struggles Marriage (1743)
CHAPTER III. EARLY WRITINGS.
Diderot's mismanagement of his own talents Apart from this, a great talker rather than a great writer A man of the Socratic type Hack-work for the booksellers The Philosophical Thoughts (1746) Shaftesbury's influence Scope of the Philosophical Thoughts On the Sufficiency of Natural Religion (1747) Explanation of the attraction of Natural Religion Police supervision over men of letters Two pictures of the literary hack Seizure of the Sceptic's Walk (1747) Its drift A volume of stories (1748) Diderot's view of the fate and character of women
CHAPTER IV. THE NEW PHILOSOPHY.
Voltaire's account of Cheselden's operation Diderot publishes the Letter on the Blind (1749) Its significance Condillac and Diderot Account of the Letter on the Blind The pith of it, an application of Relativity to the conception of God Saunderson of Cambridge Argument assigned to him Curious anticipation of a famous modern hypothesis Voltaire's criticism Effect of Diderot's philosophic position on the system of the Church Not merely a dispute in metaphysics Illustration of Diderot's practical originality Points of literary interest The Letter on Deaf Mutes (1751) Condillac's Statue Diderot imprisoned at Vincennes (1749) Rousseau's visit to him Breach with Madame de Puisieux Diderot released from captivity
CHAPTER V. THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA. (1) ITS HISTORY.
Previous examples of the Encyclopaedic idea True parentage of Diderot's Encyclopaedia Origin of the undertaking Co-operation of D'Alembert: his history and character Diderot and D'Alembert on the function of literature Presiding characteristic of the Encyclopaedia Its more eminent contributors The unsought volunteers Voltaire's share in it Its compliance with reigning prejudice Its aim, not literature but life Publication of first and second volumes (1751-52) Affair of De Prades Diderot's vindication of him (1752) Marks rupture between the Philosophers and the Jansenists Royal decree suppressing first two volumes (1752) Failure of the Jesuits to carry on the work Four more volumes published The seventh volume (1757) Arouses violent hostility The storm made fiercer by Helvetius's L'Esprit Proceedings against the Encyclopaedia Their significance They also mark singular reaction within the school of Illumination Retirement of D'Alembert Diderot continues the work alone for seven years His harassing mortifications The Encyclopaedia at Versailles Reproduction and imitations Diderot's payment
(2) GENERAL CONTENTS.
Transformation of a speculative into a social attack Circumstances of practical opportuneness Broad features of Encyclopaedic revolution Positive spirit of the Encyclopaedia Why we call it the organ of a political work Articles on Agriculture On the Gabelle and the Taille On Privilege On the Corveee On the Militia On Endowments, Fairs, and Industrial Guilds On Game and the Chase Enthusiasm for the details of industry Meaning of the importance assigned to industry and science Intellectual side of the change Attitude of the Encyclopaedia to religion Diderot's intention under this head How far the scheme fulfilled his intention The Preliminary Discourse Recognition of the value of discussion And of toleration
(3) DIDEROT'S CONTRIBUTIONS.
Their immense confusion Constant insinuation of sound doctrines And of practical suggestions Diderot not always above literary trifling No taste for barren erudition On Montaigne and Bayle Occasional bursts of moralising Varying attitude as to theology The practical arts Second-hand sources Inconsistencies Treatment of metaphysics On Spinosa On Leibnitz On Liberty Astonishing self-contradiction Political articles On the mechanism of government Anticipation of Cobdenic ideas Conclusion
CHAPTER VI. SOCIAL LIFE (1759-1770).
Diderot's relations with Madame Voland His letters to her His Regrets on My Old Dressing-gown Domestic discomfort His indomitable industry Life at Grandval Meditations on human existence Interest in the casuistry of human feeling Various sayings A point in rhetoric Holbach's impressions of England Two cases of conscience A story of human wickedness Method and Genius: an Apologue Conversation Annihilation Characteristic of the century Diderot's inexhaustible friendliness The Abbe Monnier Mademoiselle Jodin Landois Rousseau Grimm Diderot's money affairs Succour rendered by Catherine of Russia French booksellers in the eighteenth century Dialogue between Diderot and D'Alembert English opinion on Diderot's circle
CHAPTER VII. THE STAGE.
In what sense Diderot the greatest genius of the century Mark of his theory of the drama Diderot's influence on Lessing His play, The Natural Son (1757) Its quality illustrated His sense of the importance of pantomime The dialogues appended to The Natural Son His second play, The Father of the Family (1758) One radical error of his dramatic doctrine Modest opinion of his own experiments His admiration for Terence Diderot translates Moore's Gamester On Shakespeare The Paradox on the Player Account of Garrick On the truth of the stage His condemnation of the French classic stage The foundations of dramatic art Diderot claims to have created a new kind of drama No Diderotian school Why the Encyclopaedists could not replace the classic drama The great drama of the eighteenth century
CHAPTER VIII. "RAMEAU'S NEPHEW."
The mood that inspired this composition History of the text Various accounts of the design of Rameau's Nephew Juvenal's Parasite Lucian Diderot's picture of his original Not without imaginative strokes More than a literary diversion Sarcasms on Palissot The musical controversy
There was a moment in the last century when the Gallican church hoped for a return of internal union and prosperity. This brief era of hope coincided almost exactly with the middle of the century. Voltaire was in exile at Berlin. The author of the Persian Letters and the Spirit of Laws was old and near his end. Rousseau was copying music in a garret. The Encyclopaedia was looked for, but only as a literary project of some associated booksellers. The Jansenists, who had been so many in number and so firm in spirit five-and-twenty years earlier, had now sunk to a small minority of the French clergy. The great ecclesiastical body at length offered an unbroken front to its rivals, the great judicial bodies. A patriotic minister was indeed audacious enough to propose a tax upon ecclesiastical property, but the Church fought the battle and won. Troops had just been despatched to hunt and scatter the Protestants of the desert, and bigots exulted in the thought of pastors swinging on gibbets, and heretical congregations fleeing for their lives before the fire of orthodox musketry. The house of Austria had been forced to suffer spoliation at the hands of the infidel Frederick, but all the world was well aware that the haughty and devout Empress-Queen would seize a speedy opportunity of taking a crushing vengeance; France would this time be on the side of righteousness and truth. For the moment a churchman might be pardoned if he thought that superstition, ignorance, abusive privilege, and cruelty were on the eve of the smoothest and most triumphant days that they had known since the Reformation.
We now know how illusory this sanguine anticipation was destined to prove, and how promptly. In little more than forty years after the triumphant enforcement of the odious system of confessional certificates, then the crowning event of ecclesiastical supremacy, Paris saw the Feast of the Supreme Being, and the adoration of the Goddess of Reason. The Church had scarcely begun to dream before she was rudely and peremptorily awakened. She found herself confronted by the most energetic, hardy, and successful assailants whom the spirit of progress ever inspired. Compared with the new attack, Jansenism was no more than a trifling episode in a family quarrel. Thomists and Molinists became as good as confederates, and Quietism barely seemed a heresy. In every age, even in the very depth of the times of faith, there had arisen disturbers of the intellectual peace. Almost each century after the resettlement of Europe by Charlemagne had procured some individual, or some little group, who had ventured to question this or that article of the ecclesiastical creed, to whom broken glimpses of new truth had come, and who had borne witness against the error or inconsistency or inadequateness of old ways of thinking. The questions which presented themselves to the acuter minds of a hundred years ago, were present to the acuter minds who lived hundreds of years before that. The more deeply we penetrate into the history of opinion, the more strongly are we tempted to believe that in the great matters of speculation no question is altogether new, and hardly any answer is altogether new. But the Church had known how to deal with intellectual insurgents, from Abelard in the twelfth century down to Giordano Bruno and Vanini in the seventeenth. They were isolated; they were for the most part submissive; and if they were not, the arm of the Church was very long and her grasp mortal. And all these meritorious precursors were made weak by one cardinal defect, for which no gifts of intellectual acuteness could compensate. They had the scientific idea, but they lacked the social idea. They could have set opinion right about the efficacy of the syllogism, and the virtue of entities and quiddities. They could have taught Europe earlier than the Church allowed it to learn that the sun does not go round the earth, and that it is the earth which goes round the sun. But they were wholly unfitted to deal with the prodigious difficulties of moral and social direction. This function, so immeasurably more important than the mere discovery of any number of physical relations, it was the glory of the Church to have discharged for some centuries with as much success as the conditions permitted. We are told indeed by writers ignorant alike of human history and human nature, that only physical science can improve the social condition of man. The common sense of the world always rejects this gross fallacy. The acquiescence for so many centuries in the power of the great directing organisation of Western Europe, notwithstanding its intellectual inadequateness, was the decisive expression of that rejection.
After the middle of the last century the insurrection against the pretensions of the Church and against the doctrines of Christianity was marked in one of its most important phases by a new and most significant feature. In this phase it was animated at once by the scientific idea and by the social idea. It was an advance both in knowledge and in moral motive. It rested on a conception which was crude and imperfect enough, but which was still almost, like the great ecclesiastical conception itself, a conception of life as a whole. Morality, positive law, social order, economics, the nature and limits of human knowledge, the constitution of the physical universe, had one by one disengaged themselves from theological explanations. The final philosophical movement of the century in France, which was represented by Diderot, now tended to a new social synthesis resting on a purely positive basis. If this movement had only added to its other contents the historic idea, its destination would have been effectually reached. As it was, its leaders surveyed the entire field with as much accuracy and with as wide a range as their instruments allowed, and they scattered over the world a set of ideas which at once entered into energetic rivalry with the ancient scheme of authority. The great symbol of this new comprehensiveness in the insurrection was the Encyclopaedia.
The Encyclopaedia was virtually a protest against the old organisation, no less than against the old doctrine. Broadly stated, the great central moral of it all was this: that human nature is good, that the world is capable of being made a desirable abiding-place, and that the evil of the world is the fruit of bad education and bad institutions. This cheerful doctrine now strikes on the ear as a commonplace and a truism. A hundred years ago in France it was a wonderful gospel, and the beginning of a new dispensation. It was the great counter-principle to asceticism in life and morals, to formalism in art, to absolutism in the social ordering, to obscurantism in thought. Every social improvement since has been the outcome of that doctrine in one form or another. The conviction that the character and lot of man are indefinitely modifiable for good, was the indispensable antecedent to any general and energetic endeavour to modify the conditions that surround him. The omnipotence of early instruction, of laws, of the method of social order, over the infinitely plastic impulses of the human creature—this was the maxim which brought men of such widely different temperament and leanings to the common enterprise. Everybody can see what wide and deep-reaching bearings such a doctrine possessed; how it raised all the questions connected with psychology and the formation of character; how it went down to the very foundation of morals; into what fresh and unwelcome sunlight it brought the articles of the old theology; with what new importance it clothed all the relations of real knowledge and the practical arts; what intense interest it lent to every detail of economics and legislation and government.
The deadly chagrin with which churchmen saw the encyclopedic fabric rising was very natural. The teaching of the Church paints man as fallen and depraved. The new secular knowledge clashed at a thousand points, alike in letter and in spirit, with the old sacred lore. Even where it did not clash, its vitality of interest and attraction drove the older lore into neglected shade. To stir men's vivid curiosity and hope about the earth was to make their care much less absorbing about the kingdom of heaven. To awaken in them the spirit of social improvement was ruin to the most scandalous and crying social abuse then existing. The old spiritual power had lost its instinct, once so keen and effective, of wise direction. Instead of being the guide and corrector of the organs of the temporal power, it was the worst of their accomplices. The Encyclopaedia was an informal, transitory, and provisional organisation of the new spiritual power. The school of which it was the great expounder achieved a supreme control over opinion by the only title to which control belongs: a more penetrating eye for social exigencies and for the means of satisfying them.
Our veteran humorist told us long ago in his whimsical way that the importance of the Acts of the French Philosophes recorded in whole acres of typography is fast exhausting itself, that the famed Encyclopaedical Tree has borne no fruit, and that Diderot the great has contracted into Diderot the easily measurable. The humoristic method is a potent instrument for working such contractions and expansions at will. The greatest of men are measurable enough, if you choose to set up a standard that is half transcendental and half cynical. A saner and more patient criticism measures the conspicuous figures of the past differently. It seeks their relations to the great forward movements of the world, and asks to what quarter of the heavens their faces were set, whether towards the east where the new light dawns, or towards the west after the old light has sunk irrevocably down. Above all, a saner criticism bids us remember that pioneers in the progressive way are rare, their lives rude and sorely tried, and their services to mankind beyond price. "Diderot is Diderot," wrote one greater than Carlyle: "a peculiar individuality; whoever holds him or his doings cheaply is a Philistine, and the name of them is legion. Men know neither from God, nor from Nature, nor from their fellows, how to receive with gratitude what is valuable beyond appraisement" (Goethe). An intense Philistinism underlay the great spiritual reaction that followed the Revolution, and not even such of its apostles as Wordsworth and Carlyle wholly escaped the taint.
Forty years ago, when Carlyle wrote, it might really seem to a prejudiced observer as if the encyclopaedic tree had borne no fruit. Even then, and even when the critic happened to be a devotee of the sterile transcendentalism then in vogue, one might have expected some recognition of the fact that the seed of all the great improvements bestowed on France by the Revolution, in spite of the woful evils which followed in its train, had been sown by the Encyclopaedists. But now that the last vapours of the transcendental reaction are clearing away, we see that the movement initiated by the Encyclopaedia is again in full progress. Materialistic solutions in the science of man, humanitarian ends in legislation, naturalism in art, active faith in the improvableness of institutions—all these are once more the marks of speculation and the guiding ideas of practical energy. The philosophical parenthesis is at an end. The interruption of eighty years counts for no more than the twinkling of an eye in the history of the transformation of the basis of thought. And the interruption has for the present come to a close. Europe again sees the old enemies face to face; the Church, and a Social Philosophy slowly labouring to build her foundations in positive science. It cannot be other than interesting to examine the aims, the instruments, and the degree of success of those who a century ago saw most comprehensively how profound and far-reaching a metamorphosis awaited the thought of the Western world. We shall do this most properly in connection with Diderot.
Whether we accept or question Comte's strong description of Diderot as the greatest genius of the eighteenth century, it is at least undeniable that he was the one member of the great party of illumination with a real title to the name of thinker. Voltaire and Rousseau were the heads of two important schools, and each of them set deep and unmistakable marks both on the opinion and the events of the century. It would not be difficult to show that their influence was wider than that of the philosopher who discerned the inadequateness of both. But Rousseau was moved by passion and sentiment; Voltaire was only the master of a brilliant and penetrating rationalism. Diderot alone of this famous trio had in his mind the idea of scientific method; alone showed any feeling for a doctrine, and for large organic and constructive conceptions. He had the rare faculty of true philosophic meditation. Though immeasurably inferior both to Voltaire and Rousseau in gifts of literary expression, he was as far their superior in breadth and reality of artistic principle. He was the originator of a natural, realistic, and sympathetic school of literary criticism. He aspired to impose new forms upon the drama. Both in imaginative creation and in criticism, his work was a constant appeal from the artificial conventions of the classic schools to the actualities of common life. The same spirit united with the tendency of his philosophy to place him among the very few men who have been great and genuine observers of human nature and human existence. So singular and widely active a genius may well interest us, even apart from the important place that he holds in the history of literature and opinion.
Denis Diderot was born at Langres in 1713, being thus a few months younger than Rousseau (1712), nearly twenty years younger than Voltaire (1694), nearly two years younger than Hume (1711), and eleven years older than Kant (1724). His stock was ancient and of good repute. The family had been engaged in the great local industry, the manufacture of cutlery, for no less than two centuries in direct line. Diderot liked to dwell on the historic prowess of his town, from the days of Julius Caesar and the old Lingones and Sabinus, down to the time of the Great Monarch. With the taste of his generation for tracing moral qualities to a climatic source, he explained a certain vivacity and mobility in the people of his district by the great frequency and violence of its atmospheric changes from hot to cold, from calm to storm, from rain to sunshine. "Thus they learn from earliest infancy to turn to every wind. The man of Langres has a head on his shoulders like the weathercock at the top of the church spire. It is never fixed at one point; if it returns to the point it has left, it is not to stop there. With an amazing rapidity in their movements, their desires, their plans, their fancies, their ideas, they are cumbrous in speech. For myself, I belong to my country side." This was thoroughly true. He inherited all the versatility of his compatriots, all their swift impetuosity, and something of their want of dexterity in expression.
His father was one of the bravest, most upright, most patient, most sensible of men. Diderot never ceased to regret that the old man's portrait had not been taken with his apron on, his spectacles pushed up, and a hand on the grinder's wheel. After his death, none of his neighbours could speak of him to his son without tears in their eyes. Diderot, wild and irregular as were his earlier days, had always a true affection for his father. "One of the sweetest moments of my life," he once said, "was more than thirty years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, when my father saw me coming home from school, my arms laden with the prizes I had carried off, and my shoulders burdened with the wreaths they had given me, which were too big for my brow and had slipped over my head. As soon as he caught sight of me some way off, he threw down his work, hurried to the door to meet me, and fell a-weeping. It is a fine sight—a grave and sterling man melted to tears." Of his mother we know less. He had a sister, who seems to have possessed the rough material of his own qualities. He describes her as "lively, active, cheerful, decided, prompt to take offence, slow to come round again, without much care for present or future, never willing to be imposed on by people or circumstance; free in her ways, still more free in her talk; she is a sort of Diogenes in petticoats.... She is the most original and the most strongly-marked creature I know; she is goodness itself, but with a peculiar physiognomy." His only brother showed some of the same native stuff, but of thinner and sourer quality. He became an abbe and a saint, peevish, umbrageous, and as excessively devout as his more famous brother was excessively the opposite. "He would have been a good friend and a good brother," wrote Diderot, "if religion had not bidden him trample under foot such poor weaknesses as these. He is a good Christian, who proves to me every minute of the day how much better it would be to be a good man. He shows that what they call evangelical perfection is only the mischievous art of stifling nature, which would most likely have spoken as lustily in him as in me."
Diderot, like so many others of the eighteenth-century reformers, was a pupil of the Jesuits. An ardent, impetuous, over-genial temperament was the cause of frequent irregularities in conduct. But his quick and active understanding overcame all obstacles. His teachers, ever wisely on the alert for superior capacity, hoped to enlist his talents in the Order. Either they or he planned his escape from home, but his father got to hear of it. "My grandfather," says Diderot's daughter, "kept the profoundest silence, but as he went off to bed took with him the keys of the yard door." When he heard his son going downstairs, he presented himself before him, and asked whither he was bound at twelve o'clock at night. "To Paris," replied the youth, "where I am to join the Jesuits." "That will not be to-night; but your wishes shall be fulfilled. First let us have our sleep." The next morning his father took two places in the coach, and carried him to Paris to the College d'Harcourt. He made all the arrangements, and wished his son good-bye. But the good man loved the boy too dearly to leave him without being quite at ease how he would fare; he had the patience to remain a whole fortnight, killing the time and half dead of weariness in an inn, without ever seeing the one object of his stay. At the end of the fortnight he went to the college, and Diderot used many a time to say that such a mark of tenderness and goodness would have made him go to the other end of the world if his father had required it. "My friend," said his father, "I am come to see if you are well, if you are satisfied with your superiors, with your food, with your companions, and with yourself. If you are not well or not happy, we will go back together to your mother. If you had rather stay where you are, I am come to give you a word, to embrace you, and to leave you my blessing." The boy declared he was perfectly happy; and the principal pronounced him an excellent scholar, though already promising to be a troublesome one.
After a couple of years the young Diderot, like other sons of Adam, had to think of earning his bread. The usual struggle followed between youthful genius and old prudence. His father, who was a man of substance, gave him his choice between medicine and law. Law he refused because he did not choose to spend his days in doing other people's business; and medicine, because he had no turn for killing. His father resolutely declined to let him have more money on these terms, and Diderot was thrown on his wits.
The man of letters shortly before the middle of the century was as much an outcast and a beggar in Paris as he was in London. Voltaire, Gray, and Richardson were perhaps the only three conspicuous writers of the time, who had never known what it was to want a meal or to go without a shirt. But then none of the three depended on his pen for his livelihood. Every other man of that day whose writings have delighted and instructed the world since, had begun his career, and more than one of them continued and ended it, as a drudge and a vagabond. Fielding and Collins, Goldsmith and Johnson, in England; Goldoni in Italy; Vauvenargues, Marmontel, Rousseau, in France; Winckelmann and Lessing in Germany, had all alike been doubtful of dinner, and trembled about a night's lodging. They all knew the life of mean hazard, sorry shift, and petty expedient again and again renewed. It is sorrowful to think how many of the compositions of that time that do most to soothe and elevate some of the best hours of our lives, were written by men with aching hearts, in the midst of haggard perplexities. The man of letters, as distinguished alike from the old-fashioned scholar and the systematic thinker, now first became a distinctly marked type. Macaulay has contrasted the misery of the Grub Street hack of Johnson's time, with the honours accorded to men like Prior and Addison at an earlier date, and the solid sums paid by booksellers to the authors of our own day. But these brilliant passages hardly go lower than the surface of the great change. Its significance lay quite apart from the prices paid for books. The all-important fact about the men of letters in France was that they constituted a new order, that their rise signified the transfer of the spiritual power from ecclesiastical hands, and that, while they were the organs of a new function, they associated it with a new substitute for doctrine. These men were not only the pupils of the Jesuits; they were also their immediate successors as the teachers, the guides, and the directors of society. For two hundred years the followers of Ignatius had taken the intellectual and moral control of Catholic communities out of the failing hands of the Popes and the secular clergy. Their own hour had now struck. The rationalistic historian has seldom done justice to the services which this great Order rendered to European civilisation. The immorality of many of their maxims, their too frequent connivance at political wrong for the sake of power, their inflexible malice against opponents, and the cupidity and obstructiveness of the years of their decrepitude, have blinded us to the many meritorious pages of the Jesuit chronicle. Even men like Diderot and Voltaire, whose lives were for years made bitter by Jesuit machinations, gave many signs that they recognised the aid which had been rendered by their old masters to the cultivation and enlightenment of Europe. It was from the Jesuit fathers that the men of letters whom they trained, acquired that practical and social habit of mind which made the world and its daily interests so real to them. It was perhaps also his Jesuit preceptors whom the man of letters had to blame for a certain want of rigour and exactitude on the side of morality.
What was this new order which thus struggled into existence, which so speedily made itself felt, and at length so completely succeeded in seizing the lapsed inheritance of the old spiritual organisation? Who is this man of letters? A satirist may easily describe him in epigrams of cheap irony; the pedant of the colleges may see in him a frivolous and shallow profaner of the mysteries of learning; the intellectual coxcomb who nurses his own dainty wits in critical sterility, despises him as Sir Piercie Shafton would have despised Lord Lindsay of the Byres. This notwithstanding, the man of letters has his work to do in the critical period of social transition. He is to be distinguished from the great systematic thinker, as well as from the great imaginative creator. He is borne on the wings neither of a broad philosophic conception nor of a lofty poetic conception. He is only the propagator of portions of such a conception, and of the minor ideas which they suggest. Unlike the Jesuit father whom he replaced, he has no organic doctrine, no historic tradition, no effective discipline, and no definite, comprehensive, far-reaching, concentrated aim. The characteristic of his activity is dispersiveness. Its distinction is to popularise such detached ideas as society is in a condition to assimilate; to interest men in these ideas by dressing them up in varied forms of the literary art; to guide men through them by judging, empirically and unconnectedly, each case of conduct, of policy, or of new opinion as it arises. We have no wish to exalt the office. On the contrary, I accept the maxim of that deep observer who warned us that "the mania for isolation is the plague of the human throng, and to be strong we must march together. You only obtain anything by developing the spirit of discipline among men."
But there are ages of criticism when discipline is impossible, and the evils of isolation are less than the evils of rash and premature organisation. Fontenelle was the first and in some respects the greatest type of this important class. He was sceptical, learned, ingenious, eloquent. He stretched hands (1657-1757) from the famous quarrel between Ancients and Moderns down to the Encyclopaedia, and from Bossuet and Corneille down to Jean Jacques and Diderot. When he was born, the man of letters did not exist. When he died, the man of letters was the most conspicuous personage in France. But when Diderot first began to roam about the streets of Paris, this enormous change was not yet complete.
For some ten years (1734-1744) Diderot's history is the old tale of hardship and chance; of fine constancy and excellent faith, not wholly free from an occasional stroke of rascality. For a time he earned a little money by teaching. If the pupil happened to be quick and docile, he grudged no labour, and was content with any fee or none. If the pupil happened to be dull, Diderot never came again, and preferred going supperless to bed. His employers paid him as they chose, in shirts, in a chair or a table, in books, in money, and sometimes they never paid him at all. The prodigious exuberance of his nature inspired him with a sovereign indifference to material details. From the beginning he belonged to those to whom it comes by nature to count life more than meat, and the body than raiment. The outward things of existence were to him really outward. They never vexed or absorbed his days and nights, nor overcame his vigorous constitutional instinct for the true proportions of external circumstance. He was of the humour of the old philosopher who, when he heard that all his worldly goods had been lost in a shipwreck, only made for answer, Jubet me fortuna expeditius philosophari. Once he had the good hap to be appointed tutor to the sons of a man of wealth. He performed his duties zealously, he was well housed and well fed, and he gave the fullest satisfaction to his employer. At the end of three months the mechanical toil had grown unbearable to him. The father of his pupils offered him any terms if he would remain. "Look at me, sir," replied the tutor; "my face is as yellow as a lemon. I am making men of your children, but each day I am becoming a child with them. I am a thousand times too rich and too comfortable in your house; leave it I must. What I want is not to live better, but to avoid dying." Again he plunged from comfort into the life of the garret. If he met any old friend from Langres, he borrowed, and the honest father repaid the loan. His mother's savings were brought to him by a faithful creature who had long served in their house, and who now more than once trudged all the way from home on this errand, and added her own humble earnings to the little stock. Many a time the hours went very slowly for the necessitous man. One Shrove Tuesday he rose in the morning, and found his pockets empty even of so much as a halfpenny. His friends had not invited him to join their squalid Bohemian revels. Hunger and thoughts of old Shrovetide merriment and feasting in the far-off home made work impossible. He hastened out of doors and walked about all day visiting such public sights as were open to the penniless. When he returned to his garret at night, his landlady found him in a swoon, and with the compassion of a good soul she forced him to share her supper. "That day," Diderot used to tell his children in later years, "I promised myself that if ever happier times should come, and ever I should have anything, I would never refuse help to any living creature, nor ever condemn him to the misery of such a day as that." And the real interest of the story lies in the fact that no oath was ever more faithfully kept. There is no greater test of the essential richness of a man's nature than that this squalid adversity, not of the sentimental introspective kind but hard and grinding, and not even kept in countenance by respectability, fails to make him a savage or a miser or a misanthrope.
Diderot had his bitter moments. He knew the gloom and despondency that have their inevitable hour in every solitary and unordered life. But the fits did not last. They left no sour sediment, and this is the sign of health in temperament, provided it be not due to mere callousness. From that horrible quality Diderot assuredly was the furthest removed of any one of his time. Now and always he walked with a certain large carelessness of spirit. He measured life with a roving and liberal eye. Circumstance and conventions, the words under which men hide things, the oracles of common acceptance, the infinitely diversified properties of human character, the many complexities of our conduct and destiny—all these he watched playing freely around him, and he felt no haste to compress his experience into maxims and system. He was absolutely uncramped by any of the formal mannerisms of the spirit. He was wholly uncorrupted by the affectation of culture with which the great Goethe infected part of the world a generation later. His own life was never made the centre of the world. Self-development and self-idealisation as ends in themselves would have struck Diderot as effeminate drolleries. The daily and hourly interrogation of experience for the sake of building up the fabric of his own character in this wise or that, would have been incomprehensible and a little odious to him in theory, and impossible as a matter of practice. In the midst of all the hardships of his younger time, as afterwards in the midst of crushing Herculean taskwork, he was saved from moral ruin by the inexhaustible geniality and expansiveness of his affections. Nor did he narrow their play by looking only to the external forms of human relation. To Diderot it came easily to act on a principle which most of us only accept in words: he looked not to what people said, nor even to what they did, but wholly to what they were.
Those whom he had once found reason to love and esteem might do him many an ill turn, without any fear of estranging him. Any one can measure character by conduct. It is a harder thing to be willing, in cases that touch our own interests, to interpret conduct by previous knowledge of character. His father, for instance, might easily have spared money enough to save him from the harassing privations of Bohemian life in Paris. A less full-blooded and generous person than Diderot would have resented the stoutness of the old man's persistency. Diderot on the contrary felt and delighted to feel, that this conflict of wills was a mere accident which left undisturbed the reality of old love. "The first few years of my life in Paris," he once told an acquaintance, "had been rather irregular; my behaviour was enough to irritate my father, without there being any need to make it worse by exaggeration. Still calumny was not wanting. People told him—well what did they not tell him? An opportunity for going to see him presented itself. I did not give it two thoughts. I set out full of confidence in his goodness. I thought that he would see me, that I should throw myself into his arms, that we should both of us shed tears, and that all would be forgotten. I thought rightly." We may be sure of a stoutness of native stuff in any stock where so much tenacity united with such fine confidence on one side, and such generous love on the other. It is a commonplace how much waste would be avoided in human life if men would more freely allow their vision to pierce in this way through the distorting veils of egoism, to the reality of sentiment and motive and relationship.
Throughout his life Diderot was blessed with that divine gift of pity, which one that has it could hardly be willing to barter for the understanding of an Aristotle. Nor was it of the sentimental type proper for fine ladies. One of his friends had an aversion for women with child. "What monstrous sentiment!" Diderot wrote; "for my part, that condition has always touched me. I cannot see a woman of the common people so, without a tender commiseration." And Diderot had delicacy and respect in his pity. He tells a story in one of his letters of a poor woman who had suffered some wrong from a priest; she had not money enough to resort to law, until a friend of Diderot took her part. The suit was gained; but when the moment came for execution, the priest had vanished with all his goods. The woman came to thank her protector, and to regret the loss he had suffered. "As she chatted, she pulled a shabby snuff-box out of her pocket, and gathered up with the tip of her finger what little snuff remained at the bottom: her benefactor says to her 'Ah, ah! you have no more snuff; give me your box, and I will fill it.' He took the box and put into it a couple of louis, which he covered up with snuff. Now there's an action thoroughly to my taste, and to yours too! Give, but, if you can, spare to the poor the shame of holding out a hand." And the important thing, as we have said, is that Diderot was as good as his sentiment. Unlike most of the fine talkers of that day, to him these homely and considerate emotions were the most real part of life. Nobody in the world was ever more eager to give succour to others, nor more careless of his own ease.
One singular story of Diderot's heedlessness about himself has often been told before, but we shall be none the worse in an egoistic world for hearing it told again. There came to him one morning a young man, bringing a manuscript in his hand. He begged Diderot to do him the favour of reading it, and to make any remarks he might think useful on the margin. Diderot found it to be a bitter satire upon his own person and writings. On the young man's return, Diderot asked him his grounds for making such an attack. "I am without bread," the satirist answered, "and I hoped you might perhaps give me a few crowns not to print it." Diderot at once forgot everything in pity for the starving scribbler. "I will tell you a way of making more than that by it. The brother of the Duke of Orleans is one of the pious, and he hates me. Dedicate your satire to him, get it bound with his arms on the cover; take it to him some fine morning, and you will certainly get assistance from him." "But I don't know the prince, and the dedicatory epistle embarrasses me." "Sit down," said Diderot, "and I will write one for you." The dedication was written, the author carried it to the prince, and received a handsome fee.
Marmontel assures us that never was Diderot seen to such advantage as when an author consulted him about a work. "You should have seen him," he says, "take hold of the subject, pierce to the bottom of it, and at a single glance discover of what riches and of what beauty it was susceptible. If he saw that the author missed the right track, instead of listening to the reading, he at once worked up in his head all that the author had left crude and imperfect. Was it a play, he threw new scenes into it, new incidents, new strokes of character; and thinking that he had actually heard all that he had dreamed, he extolled to the skies the work that had just been read to him, and in which, when it saw the light, we found hardly anything that he had quoted from it.... He who was one of the most enlightened men of the century, was also one of the most amiable; and in everything that touched moral goodness, when he spoke of it freely, I cannot express the charm of his eloquence. His whole soul was in his eyes and on his lips; never did a countenance better depict the goodness of the heart." Morellet is equally loud in praise, not only of Diderot's conversation, its brilliance, its vivacity, its fertility, its suggestiveness, its sincerity, but also his facility and indulgence to all who sought him, and of the sympathetic readiness with which he gave the very best of himself to others.
It is needless to say that such a temper was constantly abused. Three-fourths of Diderot's life were reckoned by his family to have been given up to people who had need of his purse, his knowledge, or his good offices. His daughter compares his library to a shop crowded by a succession of customers, but the customers took whatever wares they sought, not by purchase, but by way of free gift. Luckily for Diderot, he was thus generous by temperament, and not because he expected gratitude. Any necessitous knave with the gift of tears and the mask of sensibility could dupe and prey upon him. In one case he had taken a great deal of trouble for one of these needy and importunate clients; had given him money and advice, and had devoted much time to serve him. At the end of their last interview Diderot escorts his departing friend to the head of the staircase. The grateful client then asks him whether he knows natural history. "Well, not much," Diderot replies; "I know an aloe from a lettuce, and a pigeon from a humming-bird." "Do you know about the Formica leo? No? Well, it is a little insect that is wonderfully industrious; it hollows out in the ground a hole shaped like a funnel, it covers the surface with a light fine sand, it attracts other insects, it takes them, it sucks them dry, and then it says to them, 'M. Diderot, I have the honour to wish you good day.'"
Yet insolence and ingratitude made no difference to Diderot. His ear always remained as open to every tale of distress, his sensibility always as quickly touched, his time, money, and service always as profusely bestowed. I know not whether to say that this was made more, or that it was made less, of a virtue by his excess of tolerance for social castaways and reprobates. Our rough mode of branding a man as bad revolted him. The common appetite for constituting ourselves public prosecutors for the universe, was to him one of the worst of human weaknesses. "You know," he used to say, "all the impetuosity of the passions; you have weighed all circumstance in your everlasting balance; you pass sentence on the goodness or the badness of creatures; you set up rewards and penalties among matters which have no proportion nor relation with one another. Are you sure that you have never committed wrong acts, for which you pardoned yourselves because their object was so slight, though at bottom they implied more wickedness than a crime prompted by misery or fury? Even magistrates, supported by experience, by the law, by conventions which force them sometimes to give judgment against the testimony of their own conscience, still tremble as they pronounce the doom of the accused. And since when has it been lawful for the same person to be at once judge and informer?"
Such reasoned leniency is the noblest of traits in a man. "I am more affected," he said, in words of which better men that Diderot might often be reminded, "by the charms of virtue than by the deformity of vice. I turn mildly away from the bad, and I fly to embrace the good. If there is in a work, in a character, in a painting, in a statue, a single fine bit, then on that my eyes fasten; I see only that: that is all I remember; the rest is as good as forgotten."
This is the secret of a rare and admirable temperament. It carried Diderot well through the trial and ordeal of the ragged apprenticeship of letters. What to other men comes by culture, came to him by inborn force and natural capaciousness. We do not know in what way Diderot trained and nourished his understanding. The annotations to his translation of Shaftesbury, as well as his earliest original pieces, show that he had read Montaigne and Pascal, and not only read but meditated on them with an independent mind. They show also that he had been impressed by the Civitas Dei of Augustine, and had at least dipped into Terence and Horace, Cicero and Tacitus. His subsequent writings prove that, like the other men of letters of his day, he found in our own literature the chief external stimulant to thought. Above all, he was impressed by the magnificent ideas of the illustrious Bacon, and these ideas were the direct source of the great undertaking of Diderot's life. He is said to have read little and to have meditated much—the right process for the few men of his potent stamp. The work which he had to do for bread was of the kind that crushes anything short of the strongest faculty. He composed sermons. A missionary once ordered half-a-dozen of them for consumption in the Portuguese colonies, and paid him fifty crowns apiece, which Diderot counted far from the worst bargain of his life. All this was beggarly toil for a man of genius, but Diderot never took the trouble to think of himself as a man of genius, and was quite content with life as it came. If he found himself absolutely without food and without pence, he began moodily to think of abandoning his books and his pen, and of complying with the wishes of his father. A line of Homer, an idea from the Principia, an interesting problem in algebra or geometry, was enough to restore the eternally invincible spell of knowledge. And no sooner was this commanding interest touched, than the cloud of uncomfortable circumstance vanished from before the sun, and calm and serenity filled his spirit.
Montesquieu used to declare that he had never known a chagrin which half an hour of a book was not able to dispel. Diderot had the same fortunate temper.
Yet Diderot was not essentially a man of books. He never fell into the characteristic weakness of the follower of letters, by treating books as ends in themselves, or placing literature before life. Character, passion, circumstance, the real tragi-comedy, not its printed shadow and image, engrossed him. He was in this respect more of the temper of Rousseau, than he was like Voltaire or Fontenelle. "Abstraction made," he used to say, "of my existence and of the happiness of my fellows, what does the rest of nature matter to me?" Yet, as we see, nobody that ever lived was more interested in knowledge. His biographer and disciple remarked the contrast in him between his ardent impetuous disposition and enthusiasm, and his spirit of close unwearied observation. Faire le bien, connaitre le vrai, was his formula for the perfect life, and defined the only distinction that he cared to recognise between one man and another. And the only motive he ever admitted as reasonable for seeking truth, was as a means of doing good. So strong was his sense of practical life, in the midst of incessant theorising.
* * * * *
At the moment when he had most difficulty in procuring a little bread each day for himself, Diderot conceived a violent passion for a seamstress, Antoinnette Champion by name, who happened to live in his neighbourhood. He instantly became importunate for marriage. The mother long protested with prudent vigour against a young man of such headstrong impetuosity, who did nothing and who had nothing, save the art of making speeches that turned her daughter's head. At length the young man's golden tongue won the mother as it had won the daughter. It was agreed that his wishes should be crowned, if he could procure the consent of his family. Diderot fared eagerly and with a sanguine heart to Langres. His father supposed that he had seen the evil of his ways, and was come at last to continue the honest tradition of their name. When the son disclosed the object of his visit, he was treated as a madman and threatened with malediction. Without a word of remonstrance he started back one day for Paris. Madame Champion warned him that his project must now be for ever at an end. Such unflinching resoluteness is often the last preliminary before surrender. Diderot fell ill. The two women could not bear to think of him lying sick in a room no better than a dog-kennel, without broths and tisanes, lonely and sorrowful. They hastened to nurse him, and when he got well, what he thought the great object of his life was reached. He and his adored were married (1743). As has been said, "Choice in marriage is a great match of cajolery between purpose and invisible hazard: deep criticism of a game of pure chance is time wasted." In Diderot's case destiny was hostile.
His wife was over thirty. She was dutiful, sage, and pious. She had plenty of that devotion which in small things women so seldom lack. While her husband went to dine out, she remained at home to dine and sup on dry bread, and was pleased to think that the next day she would double the little ordinary for him. Coffee was too dear to be a household luxury, so every day she handed him a few halfpence to have his cup, and to watch the chess-players at the Cafe de la Regence. When after a year or two she went to make her peace with her father-in-law at Langres, she wound her way round the old man's heart by her affectionate caresses, her respect, her ready industry in the household, her piety, her simplicity. It is, however, unfortunately possible for even the best women to manifest their goodness, their prudence, their devotion, in forms that exasperate. Perhaps it was so here. Diderot at fifty was an orderly and steadfast person, but at thirty the blood of vagabondage was still hot within him. He needed in his companion a robust patience, to match his own too robust activity. One may suppose that if Mirabeau had married Hannah More, the union would have turned out ill, and Diderot's marriage was unluckily of such a type. His wife's narrow pieties and homely solicitudes fretted him. He had not learned to count the cost of deranging the fragile sympathy of the hearth. While his wife was away on her visit to his family, he formed a connection with a woman (Madame Puisieux) who seems to have been as bad and selfish as his wife was the opposite. She was the authoress of some literary pieces, which the world willingly and speedily let die; but even very moderate pretensions to bel-esprit may have seemed wonderfully refreshing to a man wearied to death by the illiterate stupidity of his daily companion. This lasted some three or four years down to 1749. As we shall see, he discovered the infidelity of his mistress and broke with her. But by this time his wife's virtues seem to have gone a little sour, as disregarded prudence and thwarted piety are so apt to do. It was too late now to knit up again the ravelled threads of domestic concord. During a second absence of his wife in Champagne (1754), he formed a new attachment to the daughter of a financier's widow (Mdlle. Voland). This lasted to the end of the lady's days (1783 or 1784).
There is probably nothing very profitable to be said about all this domestic disorder. We do not know enough of the circumstances to be sure of allotting censure in exact and rightful measure. We have to remember that such irregularities were in the manners of the time. To connect them by way of effect with the new opinions in religion, would be as impertinent as to trace the immoralities of Dubois or Lewis the Fifteenth or the Cardinal de Rohan to the old opinions.
La Rochefoucauld, expressing a commonplace with the penetrative terseness that made him a master of the apophthegm, pronounced it "not to be enough to have great qualities: a man must have the economy of them." Or, as another writer says: "Empire in this world belongs not so much to wits, to talents, and to industry, as to a certain skilful economy and to the continual management that a man has the art of applying to all his other gifts." Notwithstanding the peril that haunts superlative propositions, we are inclined to say that Diderot is the most striking illustration of this that the history of letters or speculation has to furnish. If there are many who have missed the mark which they or kindly intimates thought them certain of attaining, this is mostly not for want of economy, but for want of the great qualities which were imputed to them by mistake. To be mediocre, to be sterile, to be futile, are the three fatal endings of many superbly announced potentialities. Such an end nearly always comes of exaggerated faculty, rather than of bad administration of natural gifts. In Diderot were splendid talents. It was the art of prudent stewardship that lay beyond his reach. Hence this singular fact, that he perhaps alone in literature has left a name of almost the first eminence, and impressed his greatness upon men of the strongest and most different intelligence, and yet never produced a masterpiece; many a fine page, as Marmontel said, but no one fine work.
No man that ever wrote was more wholly free from that unquiet self-consciousness which too often makes literary genius pitiful or odious in the flesh. He put on no airs of pretended resignation to inferior production, with bursting hints of the vast superiorities that unfriendly circumstance locked up within him. Yet on one occasion, and only on one, so far as evidence remains, he indulged a natural regret. "And so," he wrote when revising the last sheets of the Encyclopaedia (July 25, 1765), "in eight or ten days I shall see the end of an undertaking that has occupied me for twenty years; that has not made my fortune by a long way; that has exposed me many a time to the risk of having to quit my country or lose my freedom; and that has consumed a life that I might have made both more useful and more glorious. The sacrifice of talent to need would be less common, if it were only a question of self. One could easily resolve rather to drink water and eat dry crusts and follow the bidding of one's genius in a garret. But for a woman and for children, what can one not resolve? If I sought to make myself of some account in their eyes, I would not say—I have worked thirty years for you: I would say—I have for you renounced for thirty years the vocation of my nature; I have preferred to renounce my tastes in doing what was useful for you, instead of what was agreeable to myself. That is your real obligation to me, and of that you never think."
It is a question, nevertheless, whether Diderot would have achieved masterpieces, even if the pressure of housekeeping had never driven him to seek bread where he could find it. Indeed it is hardly a question. His genius was spacious and original, but it was too dispersive, too facile of diversion, too little disciplined, for the prolonged effort of combination which is indispensable to the greater constructions whether of philosophy or art. The excellent talent of economy and administration had been denied him; that thrift of faculty, which accumulates store and force for concentrated occasions. He was not encyclopaedic by accident, nor merely from external necessity. The quality of rapid movement, impetuous fancy, versatile idea, which he traced to the climate of his birthplace, marked him from the first for an encyclopaedic or some such task. His interest was nearly as promptly and vehemently kindled in one subject as in another; he was always boldly tentative, always fresh and vigorous in suggestion, always instant in search. But this multiplicity of active excitements—and with Diderot every interest rose to the warmth of excitement—was even more hostile to masterpieces than were the exigencies of a livelihood. It was not unpardonable in a moment of exhaustion and chagrin to fancy that he had offered up the treasures of his genius to the dull gods of the hearth. But if he had been childless and unwedded, the result would have been the same. He is the munificent prodigal of letters, always believing his substance inexhaustible, never placing a limit to his fancies nor a bound to his outlay. "It is not they who rob me of my life," he wrote; "it is I who give it to them. And what can I do better than accord a portion of it to him who esteems me enough to solicit such a gift? I shall get no praise for it, 'tis true, either now while I am here, nor when I shall exist no longer; but I shall esteem myself for it, and people will love me all the better for it. 'Tis no bad exchange, that of benevolence, against a celebrity that one does not always win, and that nobody wins without a drawback. I have never once regretted the time that I have given to others; I can scarcely say as much for; the time that I have used for myself." Remembering how uniformly men of letters take themselves somewhat too seriously, we may be sorry that this unique figure among them, who was in other respects constituted to be so considerable and so effective, did not take himself seriously enough.
Apart from his moral inaptitude for the monumental achievements of authorship, Diderot was endowed with the gifts of the talker rather than with those of the writer. Like Dr. Johnson, he was a great converser rather than the author of great books. If we turn to his writings, we are at some loss to understand the secret of his reputation. They are too often declamatory, ill-compacted, broken by frequent apostrophes, ungainly, dislocated, and rambling. He has been described by a consummate judge as the most German of all the French. And his style is deeply marked by that want of feeling for the exquisite, that dulness of edge, that bluntness of stroke, which is the common note of all German literature, save a little of the very highest. In conversation we do not insist on constant precision of phrase, nor on elaborate sustension of argument. Apostrophe is made natural by the semi-dramatic quality of the situation. Even vehement hyperbole, which is nearly always a disfigurement in written prose, may become impressive or delightful, when it harmonises with the voice, the glance, the gesture of a fervid and exuberant converser. Hence Diderot's personality invested his talk, as happened in the case of Johnson and of Coleridge, with an imposing interest and a power of inspiration which we should never comprehend from the mere perusal of his writings.
His admirers declared his head to be the ideal head of an Aristotle or a Plato. His brow was wide, lofty, open, gently rounded. The arch of the eyebrow was full of delicacy; the nose of masculine beauty; the habitual expression of the eyes kindly and sympathetic, but as he grew heated in talk, they sparkled like fire; the curves of the mouth bespoke an interesting mixture of finesse, grace, and geniality. His bearing was nonchalant enough, but there was naturally in the carriage of his head, especially when he talked with action, much dignity, energy, and nobleness. It seemed as if enthusiasm were the natural condition for his voice, for his spirit, for every feature. He was only truly Diderot when his thoughts had transported him beyond himself. His ideas were stronger than himself; they swept him along without the power either to stay or to guide their movement. "When I recall Diderot," wrote one of his friends, "the immense variety of his ideas, the amazing multiplicity of his knowledge, the rapid flight, the warmth, the impetuous tumult of his imagination, all the charm and all the disorder of his conversation, I venture to liken his character to nature herself, exactly as he used to conceive her—rich, fertile, abounding in germs of every sort, gentle and fierce, simple and majestic, worthy and sublime, but without any dominating principle, without a master and without a God." Gretry, the musical composer, declares that Diderot was one of the rare men who had the art of blowing the spark of genius into flame; the first impulses stirred by his glowing imagination were of inspiration divine.
Marmontel warns us that he who only knows Diderot in his writings, does not know him at all. We should have listened to his persuasive eloquence, and seen his face aglow with the fire of enthusiasm. It was when he grew animated in talk, and let all the abundance of his ideas flow freely from the source, that he became truly ravishing. In his writings, says Marmontel with obvious truth, he never had the art of forming a whole, and this was because that first process of arranging everything in its place was too slow and too tiresome for him. The want of ensemble vanished in the free and varied course of conversation.
We have to remember then that Diderot was in this respect of the Socratic type, though he was unlike Socrates, in being the disseminator of positive and constructive ideas. His personality exerted a decisive force and influence. In reading the testimony of his friends, we think of the young Aristides saying to Socrates: "I always made progress whenever I was in your neighbourhood, even if I were only in the same house, without being in the same room; but my advancement was greater if I were in the same room with you, and greater still if I could keep my eyes fixed upon you." It has been well said that Diderot, like Socrates, had about him a something daemonic. He was possessed, and so had the first secret of possessing others. But then to reach excellence in literature, one must also have self-possession; a double current of impulse and deliberation; a free stream of ideas spontaneously obeying a sense or order, harmony, and form. Eloquence in the informal discourse of the parlour or the country walk did not mean in Diderot's case the empty fluency and nugatory emphasis of the ordinary talker of reputation. It must have been both pregnant and copious; declamatory in form, but fresh and substantial in matter; excursive in arrangement, but forcible and pointed in intention. No doubt, if he was a sage, he was sometimes a sage in a frenzy. He would wind up a peroration by dashing his nightcap passionately against the wall, by way of clencher to the argument. Yet this impetuosity, this turn for declamation, did not hinder his talk from being directly instructive. Younger men of the most various type, from Morellet down to Joubert, men quite competent to detect mere bombast or ardent vagueness, were held captive by the cogency of his understanding. His writings have none of this compulsion. We see the flame, but through a veil of interfused smoke. The expression is not obscure, but it is awkward; not exactly prolix, but heavy, overcharged, and opaque. We miss the vivid precision and the high spirits of Voltaire, the glow and the brooding sonorousness of Rousseau, the pomp of Buffon. To Diderot we go not for charm of style, but for a store of fertile ideas, for some striking studies of human life, and for a vigorous and singular personality.
Diderot's knowledge of our language now did him good service. One of the details of the method by which he taught himself English is curious. Instead of using an Anglo-French dictionary, he always used one in Anglo-Latin. The sense of a Latin or Greek word, he said, is better established, more surely fixed, more definite, less liable to capricious peculiarities of convention, than the vernacular words which the whim or ignorance of the lexicographer may choose. The reader composes his own vocabulary, and gains both correctness and energy. However this may be, his knowledge of English was more accurate than is possessed by most French writers of our own day. Diderot's first work for the booksellers after his marriage seems to have been a translation in three volumes of Stanyan's History of Greece. For this, to the amazement of his wife, he got a hundred crowns. About the same time (1745) he published Principles of Moral Philosophy, or an Essay of Mr. S. on Merit and Virtue. The initial stands for Shaftesbury, and the book translated was his Inquiry concerning Virtue and Merit.
Towards the same time, again, Diderot probably made acquaintance with Madame de Puisieux, of whom it has been said with too patent humour that she was without either the virtue or the merit on which her admirer had just been declaiming. We are told that it was her need of money which inspired him with his first original work. As his daughter's memoir, from which the tale comes, is swarming with blunders, this may not be more true than some of her other statements. All that we know of Diderot's sense and sincerity entitles him to the benefit of the doubt. The Philosophical Thoughts (1746) are a continuation of the vein of the annotations on the Essay. He is said to have thrown these reflections together between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Nor is there anything incredible in such rapid production, when we remember the sweeping impetuosity with which he flung himself into all that he undertook. The Thoughts are evidently the fruits of long meditation, and the literary arrangement of them may well have been an easy task. They are a robuster development of the scepticism which was the less important side of Shaftesbury. The parliament of Paris ordered the book to be burnt along with some others (July 7, 1746), partly because they were heterodox, partly because the practice of publishing books without official leave was gaining an unprecedented height of license. This was Diderot's first experience of that hand of authority, which was for thirty years to surround him with mortification and torment. But the disapproval of authority did not check the circulation or influence of the Thoughts. They were translated into German and Italian, and were honoured by a shower of hostile criticism. In France they were often reprinted, and even in our own day they are said not wholly to have lost their vogue as a short manual of scepticism.
The historians of literature too often write as if a book were the cause or the controlling force of controversies in which it is really only a symbol, or a proclamation of feelings already in men's minds. We should never occupy ourselves in tracing the thread of a set of opinions, without trying to recognise the movement of living men and concrete circumstance that accompanied and caused the progress of thought. In watching how the beacon-fire flamed from height to height—
[Greek: phaos de telepompon ouk enaineto phroura, prosaithrizousa pompimonphloga—]
we should not forget that its source and reference lie in action, in the motion and stirring of confused hosts and multitudes of men. A book, after all, is only the mouthpiece of its author, and the author being human is moved and drawn by the events that occur under his eye. It was not merely because Bacon and Hobbes and Locke had written certain books, that Voltaire and Diderot became free-thinkers and assailed the church. "So long," it has been said, "as a Bossuet, a Fenelon, an Arnauld, a Nicole, were alive, Bayle made few proselytes; the elevation of Dubois and its consequences multiplied unbelievers and indifferents."
The force of speculative literature always hangs on practical opportuneness. The economic evils of monasticism, the increasing flagrancy and grossness of superstition, the aggressive factiousness of the ecclesiastics, the cruelty of bigoted tribunals—these things disgusted and wearied the more enlightened spirits, and the English philosophy only held out an inspiring intellectual alternative.
Nor was it accident that drew Diderot's attention to Shaftesbury, rather than to any other of our writers. That author's essay on Enthusiasm had been suggested by the extravagances of the French prophets, poor fanatics from the Cevennes, who had fled to London after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and whose paroxysms of religious hysteria at length brought them into trouble with the authorities (1707). Paris saw an outbreak of the same kind of ecstasy, though on a much more formidable scale, among the Jansenist fanatics, from 1727 down to 1758, or later. Some of the best attested miracles in the whole history of the supernatural were wrought at the tomb of the Jansenist deacon, Paris. The works of faith exalted multitudes into convulsive transports; men and women underwent the most cruel tortures, in the hope of securing a descent upon them of the divine grace. The sober citizen, whose journal is so useful a guide to domestic events in France from the Regency to the Peace of 1763, tells us the effect of this hideous revival upon public sentiment. People began to see, he says, what they were to think of the miracles of antiquity. The more they went into these matters, whether miracles or prophecies, the more obscurity they discovered in the one, the more doubt about the other. Who could tell that they had not been accredited and established in remote times with as little foundation as what was then passing under men's very eyes? Just in the same way, the violent and prolonged debates, the intrigue, the tergiversation, which attended the acceptance of the famous Bull Unigenitus, taught shrewd observers how it is that religions establish themselves. They also taught how little respect is due in our minds and consciences to the great points which the universal church claims to have decided.
These are the circumstances which explain the rude and vigorous scepticism of Diderot's first performances. And they explain the influence of Shaftesbury over him. Neither Diderot nor his contemporaries were ready at once to plunge into the broader and firmer negation to which they afterwards committed themselves. No doubt some of the politeness which he shows to Christianity, both in the notes to his translation of Shaftesbury, and in his own Philosophic Thoughts, is no more than an ironical deference to established prejudices. The notes to the Essay on Merit and Virtue show that Diderot, like all the other French revolters against established prejudice, had been deeply influenced by the shrewd-witted Montaigne. But the ardour of the disciple pressed objections home with a trenchancy that is very unlike the sage distillations of the master. It was from Shaftesbury, however, that he borrowed common sense as a philosophic principle. Shaftesbury had indirectly drawn it from Locke, and through Hutcheson it became the source and sponsor of the Scottish philosophy of that century. This was a weapon exactly adapted for dealing with a theology that was discredited in the eyes of all cool observers by the hysterical extravagances of one set of religionists, and the factious pretensions of their rivals. And no other weapon was at hand. The historic or critical method of investigation was impossible, for the age did not possess the requisite learning. The indirect attack from the side of physical science was equally impossible. The bearing of Newton's great discovery on the current conceptions of the Creator and the supposed system of the divine government, was not yet fully realised. The other scientific ideas which have since made the old hypothesis less credible, were not at that time even conceived.
Diderot did indeed perceive even so early as this that the controversy was passing from the metaphysicians to the physicists. Though he for the moment misinterpreted the ultimate direction of the effect of experimental discovery, he discerned its potency in the field of theological discussion. "It is not from the hands of the metaphysician," he said, "that atheism has received the weightiest strokes. The sublime meditations of Malebranche and Descartes were less calculated to shake materialism than a single observation of Malpighi's. If this dangerous hypothesis is tottering in our days, it is to experimental physics that such a result is due. It is only in the works of Newton, of Muschenbroek, of Hartzoeker, and of Nieuwentit, that people have found satisfactory proofs of the existence of a being of sovereign intelligence. Thanks to the works of these great men, the world is no longer a god; it is a machine with its cords, its pulleys, its springs, its weights." In other words, Diderot had as yet not made his way beyond the halting-place which has been the favourite goal of English physicists from Newton down to Faraday. Consistent materialism had not yet established itself in his mind. Meanwhile he laid about him with his common sense, just as Voltaire did, though Diderot has more weightiness of manner. If his use of the weapon cannot be regarded as a decisive settlement of the true issues, we have to remember that he himself became aware in a very short time of its inadequateness, and proceeded to the discussion, as we shall presently see, from another side.
The scope of the Philosophical Thoughts, and the attitude of Diderot's mind when they were written, may be shown in a few brief passages. The opening words point to the significance of the new time in one direction, and they are the key-note to Diderot's whole character. "People are for ever declaiming against the passions; they set down to them all the pains that man endures, and quite forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures. It is regarded as an affront to reason if one dares to say a word in favour of its rivals. Yet it is only passions, and strong passions, that can raise the soul to great things. Sober passions produce only the commonplace. Deadened passions degrade men of extraordinary quality. Constraint annihilates the greatness and energy of nature. See that tree; 'tis to the luxury of its branches that you owe the freshness and the wide-spreading breadth of its shade, which you may enjoy till winter comes to despoil it of its leafy tresses. An end to all excellence in poetry, in painting, in music, as soon as superstition has once wrought upon human temperament the effect of old age! It is the very climax of madness to propose to oneself the ruin of the passions. A fine design truly in your pietist, to torment himself like a convict in order to desire nothing, love nothing, feel nothing; and he would end by becoming a true monster, if he were to succeed!" Many years afterwards he wrote in the same sense to Madame Voland. "I have ever been the apologist of strong passions; they alone move me. Whether they inspire me with admiration or horror, I feel vehemently. If atrocious deeds that dishonour our nature are due to them, it is by them also that we are borne to the marvellous endeavour that elevates it. The man of mediocre passion lives and dies like the brute." And so forth, until the writer is carried to the perplexing position that "if we were bound to choose between Racine, a bad husband, a bad father, a false friend, and a sublime poet, and Racine, good father, good husband, good friend, and dull worthy man, I hold to the first. Of Racine, the bad man, what remains? Nothing. Of Racine, the man of genius? The work is eternal." Without attempting to solve this problem in casuistry, we recognise Diderot's mood, and the hatred with which it would be sure to inspire him for the starved and mutilated passions of the Christian type. The humility, chastity, obedience, indolent solitude, which had for centuries been glorified by the Church, were monstrous to this vehement and energetic spirit. The church had placed heroism in effacement. Diderot, borne to the other extreme, left out even discipline. To turn from his maxims on the foundation of conduct, to his maxims on opinion. As we have said, his attitude is that of the sceptic:—
What has never been put in question, has not been proved. What people have not examined without prepossessions, they have not examined thoroughly. Scepticism is the touchstone. (Sec. 31.)
Incredulity is sometimes the vice of a fool, and credulity the defect of a man of intelligence. The latter sees far into the immensity of the Possible; the former scarcely sees anything possible beyond the Actual. Perhaps this is what produces the timidity of the one, and the temerity of the other.
A demi-scepticism is the mark of a feeble understanding. It reveals a pusillanimous reasoner, who suffers himself to be alarmed by consequences; a superstitious creature, who thinks he is honouring God by the fetters which he imposes on his reason; a kind of unbeliever who is afraid of unmasking himself to himself. For if truth has nothing to lose by examination, as is the demi-sceptic's conviction, what does he think in the bottom of his heart of those privileged notions which he fears to sound, and which are placed in one of the recesses of his brain, as in a sanctuary to which he dares not draw nigh? (Sec. 34.)
Scepticism does not suit everybody. It supposes profound and impartial examination. He who doubts because he does not know the grounds of credibility, is no better than an ignoramus. The true sceptic has counted and weighed the reasons. But it is no light matter to weigh arguments. Who of us knows their value with any nicety? Every mind has its own telescope. An objection that disappears in your eyes, is a colossus in mine: you find an argument trivial that to me is overwhelming.... If then it is so difficult to weigh reasons, and if there are no questions which have not two sides, and nearly always in equal measure, how come we to decide with such rapidity? (Sec. 24.)
When the pious cry out against scepticism, it seems to me that they do not understand their own interest, or else that they are inconsistent. If it is certain that a true faith to be embraced, and a false faith to be abandoned, need only to be thoroughly known, then surely it must be highly desirable that universal doubt should spread over the surface of the earth, and that all nations should consent to have the truth of their religions examined. Our missionaries would find a good half of their work done for them. (Sec. 36.)
One thing to be remembered is that Diderot, like Vauvenargues, Voltaire, Condorcet, always had Pascal in his mind when dealing with apologetics. They all recognised in him a thinker with a love of truth, as distinguished from the mere priest, Catholic, Anglican, Brahman, or another. "Pascal," says Diderot, "was upright, but he was timid and inclined to credulity. An elegant writer and a profound reasoner, he would doubtless have enlightened the world, if Providence had not abandoned him to people who sacrificed his talents to their own antipathies. How much to be regretted, that he did not leave to the theologians of his time the task of settling their own differences; that he did not give himself up to the search for truth, without reserve and without the fear of offending God by using all the intelligence that God had given him. How much to be regretted that he took for masters men who were not worthy to be his disciples, and was foolish enough to think Arnauld, De Sacy, and Nicole, better men than himself." (Sec. 14.) The Philosophic Thoughts are designed for an answer in form to the more famous Thoughts of this champion of popular theology. The first of the following extracts, for instance, recalls a memorable illustration of Pascal's sublime pessimism. A few passages will illustrate sufficiently the line of argument which led the foremost men at the opening of the philosophic revolution to reject the pretensions of Christianity:—
What voices! what cries! what groans! Who is it that has shut up in dungeons all these piteous souls? What crimes have the poor wretches committed? Who condemns them to such torments? The God whom they have offended. Who then is this God? A God full of goodness. But would a God full of goodness take delight in bathing himself in tears? If criminals had to calm the furies of a tyrant, what would they do more?... There are people of whom we ought not to say that they fear God, but that they are horribly afraid of him.... Judging from the picture they paint of the Supreme Being, from his wrath, from the rigour of his vengeance, from certain comparisons expressive of the ratio between those whom he leaves to perish and those to whom he deigns to stretch out a hand, the most upright soul would be tempted to wish that such a being did not exist. (Sec.Sec. 7-9.)
You present to an unbeliever a volume of writings of which you claim to show him the divinity. But, before going into your proofs, he will be sure to put some questions about your collection. Has it always been the same? Why is it less ample now than it was some centuries ago? By what right have they banished this work or that, which another sect reveres, and preserved this or that, which the other has repudiated?... You only answer all these difficulties by the avowal that the first foundations of the faith are purely human; that the choice between the manuscripts, the restoration of passages, finally the collection, has been made according to rules of criticism. Well, I do not refuse to concede to the divinity of the sacred books a degree of faith proportioned to the certainty of these rules. (Sec. 59.)
People agree that it is of the last importance to employ none but solid arguments for the defence of a creed. Yet they would gladly persecute those who attempt to cry down the bad arguments. What then, is it not enough to be a Christian? Am I also to be one upon wrong grounds? (Sec.57.)
The less probability a fact has, the more does the testimony of history lose its weight. I should have no difficulty in believing a single honest man who should tell me that the king had just won a complete victory over the allies. But if all Paris were to assure me that a dead man had come to life again, I should not believe a word of it. That a historian should impose upon us, or that a whole people should be mistaken—there is no miracle in that. (Sec.46.)
What is God? A question that we put to children, and that philosophers have much trouble to answer. We know the age at which a child ought to learn to read, to sing, to dance, to begin Latin or geometry. It is only in religion that you take no account of his capacity. He scarcely hears what you say, before he is asked, What is God? It is at the same instant, from the same lips, that he learns that there are ghosts, goblins, were-wolves—and a God. (Sec.25.)
The diversity of religious opinions has led the deists to invent an argument that is perhaps more singular than sound. Cicero, having to prove that the Romans were the most warlike people in the world, adroitly draws this conclusion from the lips of their rivals. Gauls, to whom if to any, do you yield the palm for courage? To the Romans. Parthians, after you, who are the bravest of men? The Romans. Africans, whom would you fear, if you were to fear any? The Romans. Let us interrogate the religionists in this fashion, say the deists. Chinese, what religion would be the best, if your own were not the best? Naturalism. Mussulmans, what faith would you embrace, if you abjured Mahomet? Naturalism. Christians, what is the true religion, if it be not Christianity? Judaism. But you, O Jews, what is the true religion, if Judaism be false? Naturalism. Now those, continues Cicero, to whom the second place is awarded by unanimous consent, and who do not in turn concede the first place to any—it is those who incontestably deserve that place. (Sec.62.)
* * * * *
In all this we notice one constant characteristic of the eighteenth century controversy about revealed religion. The assailant demands of the defender an answer to all the intellectual or logical objections that could possibly be raised by one who had never been a Christian, and who refused to become a Christian until these objections could be met. No account is taken of the mental conditions by which a creed is engendered and limited; nor of the train of historic circumstance which prepares men to receive it. The modern apologist escapes by explaining religion; the apologist of a hundred years ago was required to prove it. The end of such a method was inevitably a negation. The objective propositions of a creed with supernatural pretensions can never be demonstrated from natural or rationalistic premisses. And if they could be so demonstrated, it would only be on grounds that are equally good for some other creeds with the same pretensions. The sceptic was left triumphantly weighing one revealed system against another in an equal balance.
The position of the writer of the Philosophical Thoughts is distinctly theistic. Yet there is at least one striking passage to show how forcibly some of the arguments on the other side impressed him. "I open," says Diderot, "the pages of a celebrated professor, and I read—'Atheists, I concede to you that movement is essential to matter; what conclusion do you draw from that? That the world results from the fortuitous concourse of atoms? You might as well say that Homer's Iliad, or Voltaire's Henriade, is a result of the fortuitous concourse of written characters.' Now for my part, I should be very sorry to use that reasoning to an atheist; the comparison would give him a very easy game to play. According to the laws of the analysis of chances, he would say to me, I ought not to be surprised that a thing comes to pass when it is possible, and the difficulty of the event is compensated by the number of throws. There is a certain number of throws in which I would safely back myself to bring 100,000 sixes at once with 100,000 dice. Whatever the definite number of the letters with which I am invited fortuitously to produce the Iliad, there is a certain definite number of throws which would make the proposal advantageous for me; nay, my advantage would be infinite if the quantity of throws accorded to me were infinite. Now, you grant to me that matter exists from all eternity, and that movement is essential to it. In return for this concession, I will suppose with you that the world has no limits; that the multitude of atoms is infinite, and that this order, which astonishes you, nowhere contradicts itself. Well, from these reciprocal admissions there follows nothing else unless it be this, that the possibility of engendering the universe fortuitously is very small, but that the number of throws is infinite, or in other words, that _the difficulty of the event is more than sufficiently compensated by the multitude of the throws. Therefore, if anything ought to be repugnant to reason, it is the supposition that,—matter being in motion from all eternity, and there being perhaps in the infinite number of possible combinations an infinite number of admirable arrangements,—none of these admirable arrangements would have been met with, out of the infinite multitude of all those which_ matter successively took on. Therefore the mind ought to be more astonished at the hypothetical duration of chaos."_ (Sec. 21.)