Denis Diderot Biography

(French Philosopher, Co-Founder and Chief Editor of the ‘Encyclopédie’)

Birthday: October 5, 1713 (Libra)

Born In: Langres, France

Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, writer, encyclopaedist, and art critic. He was a well-known figure of the Age of Enlightenment and was most noted for co-founding, editing, and contributing to a general encyclopaedia published in France called the ‘Encyclopédie.’ He co-created it with Jean le Rond d'Alembert. According to Diderot, the objective of the ‘Encyclopédie’ was to change the way people thought, apart from catering to their needs of knowing things and informing themselves. Contributors of the encyclopaedia, which was the first to elucidate mechanical arts, supported secularization of learning, away from the Jesuits. Some articles of the ‘Encyclopédie’ expressed reservations on biblical miracles. This not only drew controversy but also infuriated the ‘Catholic Church’ and the French government, resulting in a ban on the project. Controversies led many of the contributors to leave the project, while some were jailed. d'Alembert also left it, and with this, Diderot became its sole editor. He emerged as the main contributor of ‘Encyclopédie,’ which is regarded a forerunner of the French Revolution. Other notable literary works of Diderot were ‘The Indiscreet Jewels,’ ‘Paradox of the Actor,’ and ‘Rameau's Nephew.’ He received financial aid from Empress Catherine II of Russia, served as her librarian, and also stayed in her court in Saint Petersburg for a while after the empress heard of his financial struggle.
Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In October

Died At Age: 70


Spouse/Ex-: Antoinette Champion (m. 1743–1784)

father: Didier Diderot

mother: Angélique Vigneron

siblings: Angélique Diderot, Denise Diderot, Pierre-Didier Diderot

children: Angelique Diderot

Born Country: France

Quotes By Denis Diderot Philosophers

Died on: July 31, 1784

place of death: Paris, France

Cause of Death: Pulmonary Embolism

Notable Alumni: Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Lycée Saint-Louis

More Facts

education: University Of Paris, Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Lycée Saint-Louis

  • 1

    What were Denis Diderot's major contributions to philosophy?

    Denis Diderot was a prominent figure in the Enlightenment era and is best known for being the editor-in-chief of the "Encyclopédie," a comprehensive compilation of knowledge that aimed to promote critical thinking and knowledge dissemination.
  • 2

    What was Denis Diderot's stance on religion?

    Denis Diderot was known for his skepticism towards organized religion and his advocacy for secularism. He believed in the importance of reason and science over blind faith.
  • 3

    How did Denis Diderot impact the field of literature?

    Denis Diderot was a key figure in the development of the modern novel through his works such as "Jacques the Fatalist" and "Rameau's Nephew." His writing style often explored philosophical and moral themes.
  • 4

    What was Denis Diderot's view on censorship?

    Denis Diderot was a vocal critic of censorship and believed in the freedom of expression. He faced censorship and persecution for his controversial writings and fought for the right to publish ideas without government intervention.
  • 5

    How did Denis Diderot influence the field of art and aesthetics?

    Denis Diderot was instrumental in shaping art criticism through his essays on the arts. He advocated for realism and naturalism in art and believed that art should serve a moral and educational purpose.
Childhood & Early Life
Denis Diderot was born on October 5, 1713, in Langres, Champagne, Kingdom of France, to French craftsman Didier Diderot and Angélique Vigneron. He had five siblings, of whom younger sisters Denise and Angélique and younger brother Pierre-Didier survived till adulthood.
Diderot attended a Jesuit college in Langres and obtained a “master of arts” degree in philosophy in 1732. Thereafter, he enrolled at the ‘Collège d'Harcourt’ of the ‘University of Paris.’ Although Diderot considered working in the church clergy, he abandoned the idea in 1735 and went on to study law at the ‘Paris Law Faculty,’ only to drop out later. His father disowned him after Diderot resolved to become a writer and translator in the early 1740s. He lived a bohemian life for the next decade.
As a youth, he initially remained a follower of Voltaire and his deist, Anglomanie. Diderot, however, shifted toward atheism and materialism later in life.
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Work on Encyclopédie
Diderot accepted the proposal of French bookseller and printer André le Breton and worked on the French translation of Ephraim Chambers' encyclopaedia, ‘Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences.’ Following this, he convinced le Breton to undertake a work that was to be a combination of knowledge and concepts taken from the ‘Republic of Letters.’ Jean le Rond d'Alembert was roped in, and government permission was obtained for the work.
A detailed prospectus of the ‘Encyclopédie’ was published in 1750, while its first volume was released in 1751. The project, however, attracted controversy from the very outset. The courts suspended it in 1752. Soon after the second volume was completed, accusations of seditious content did the rounds. Following this, concerns were expressed on the writings on natural law and religion. An unsuccessful search was conducted in Diderot’s house, for manuscripts of subsequent articles, while he was detained. The manuscripts were surprisingly hidden in the house of French statesman and minister Chretien de Lamoignon Malesherbes, who had originally given the search order. Although Diderot eventually succeeded in resuming the project with the support of Malesherbes and other noted confederates, the project constantly drew controversy.
The ‘Encyclopédie’ was the first to elucidate mechanical arts and remained the first encyclopaedia that had contributions from several noted contributors. The secular tone of the project, which included articles that expressed doubts on the authenticity of biblical miracles, annoyed the government and religious authorities. It posed a threat for the French aristocracy and asserted that the government’s main concern should be the common people of the nation.
Although the project was deserted by the ecclesiastical party, its popularity grew by 1757, with its subscriber count increasing from 2,000 to 4,000. The ‘Catholic Church’ banned it in 1758. I was formally banned by the French government in 1759, although the ban was not strictly imposed.
The constant controversy surrounding the project led many contributors to abandon it, while some were incarcerated. d'Alembert left the project in 1759, making Diderot its only editor.
Amidst constant harassment and threats, Diderot continued to work on the project and wrote 7,000 articles, emerging as the ‘Encyclopédie’s main contributor. He worked on it till 1765. However, with time, he lost enthusiasm and felt that the whole project was possibly a literary trash. The ‘Encyclopédie’ encompassed 28 volumes, including 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations, and was published between 1751 and 1765.
Other Literary Works & Pursuits
Initially, Diderot worked on several translation projects. These included Temple Stanyan's ‘History of Greece’ (1743), Shaftesbury's ‘Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit’ (1745), and Robert James's ‘Medicinal Dictionary’ (1746–1748) with François-Vincent Toussaint and Marc-Antoine Eidous.
Meanwhile, he came up with his first original work, ‘Philosophical Thoughts,’ in 1746. Diderot, who was a deist back then, defended deism, argued against atheism, and censured Christianity in the book. He did not disclose his name in the well-written book that many thought was written by a noted author. The book was condemned by the ‘Parlement of Paris’ in July 1746. Orders were given to burn it publicly. This raised curiosity, thus increasing the book’s popularity.
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Diderot was under police surveillance when he completed the book ‘The Skeptic's Walk’ in 1747. The book criticized religion and included a philosophical debate. It was confiscated by the police during a search in 1752 and was reported to have been lost in police custody. In a turn of events, the book was finally published posthumously, decades later, in 1830.
Diderot published his first novel, ‘The Indiscreet Jewels,’ anonymously in 1748. Throughout his life, Diderot wrote several scientific books, one of his favorites being ‘Memoires sur differents sujets de mathematique’ (1748).
He garnered attention as an original thinker with his 1749 book ‘Letter on the Blind,’ where he took on the question of perception. His atheist stance was quite palpable from the work, which, at that time, was considered revolutionary. It resulted in his imprisonment under a “lettre de cachet.” He was sent to the outskirts of Paris and confined there for some months in the dungeons at Vincennes, where Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he had befriended in 1742, met him almost daily.
He explained his views on nature, evolution, experimental science, mathematics, and materialism in detail in his 1754 book ‘On the interpretation of Nature.’
His reports on the ‘Salons’ made for his philologist friend Friedrich Melchior Grimm’s literary newsletter, ‘La Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique,’ between 1759 and 1771, and then in 1775 and 1781, became the most celebrated contributions to the newsletter. Meanwhile, in 1769, he wrote ‘D'Alembert’s Dream,’ composed of three philosophical dialogues, introducing his theory on life and nature. It was initially featured in 1782, in Grimm’s ‘Correspondance littéraire,’ and was published independently in 1830.
Another notable work of Diderot was the imaginary philosophical conversation titled ‘Rameau's Nephew.’ It was mainly written during 1761–1762. It was revised in 1773–1774 and published posthumously for the first time in German (translation) by Goethe in 1805. Other writings of Diderot include the sentimental plays ‘Le Fils naturel’ (1757) and ‘Le Père de famille’ (1758). The concept of the “fourth wall,” an onstage performance convention, was introduced by him in 1758.
According to sources, Diderot’s perspective on religion was affected after his sister, who served as a nun, died in her convent. Sources mention that his novel ‘La Religieuse,’ which he finished in about 1780 and which was later published posthumously in 1796, drew inspiration from his sister’s life. The content of the novel included the corruption of the institutions of the ‘Catholic Church.’
Help from Catherine the Great
Diderot faced tough financial times for most of his career and also did not receive much recognition for his talent. He was not given a membership of the ‘Académie française.’ When Empress Catherine II of Russia came to know about his financial struggle, she made arrangements to buy a library for him and inducted him as its caretaker till his death, with an annual salary of 1,000 livres. The empress also paid him 50 years of salary in advance.
Diderot went to St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 9, 1773, and met the empress the following day. He shared a good rapport with her during his 5-month tenure at her court in 1773 and 1774. They discussed several topics, including Diderot's ideas on how Russia could be transformed into a utopia. Diderot later returned to France and continued to get support from the empress. He wrote her eulogy, too. The empress had also arranged a luxurious suite for Diderot in the Rue de Richelieu in July 1784, after hearing about his poor health.
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Family & Personal Life
Diderot married a devout Roman Catholic named Antoinette Champion, who was 3 years older than him, in a secret wedding, amidst parental opposition, in the church of Saint-Pierre-aux-Bœufs, on the night of November 6, 1743. Their only surviving child, a daughter named Marie-Angélique Diderot, was born in October 1743. His marriage with Antoinette lasted till his death, although he had mistresses, such as Madeleine de Puisieux, Mme de Maux, and Sophie Volland, at different points in time.
He succumbed to pulmonary thrombosis on July 31, 1784, in Paris, France, and was interred in the ‘Église Saint-Roch.’ His huge library was sent by his heirs to Catherine II. She arranged to deposit it at the ‘National Library of Russia.’
The ‘La Maison des Lumières Denis Diderot’ (MLDD), established in October 2013, is dedicated to Diderot and the ‘Encyclopédie.’
Facts About Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot was known for his love of cats and often had several feline companions throughout his life, finding solace and inspiration in their company.
Diderot was a skilled watchmaker and enjoyed tinkering with timepieces as a hobby, showcasing his dexterity and attention to detail outside of his intellectual pursuits.
He had a passion for gardening and spent many hours cultivating his own garden, finding joy in the process of nurturing plants and observing their growth.
Diderot was a talented writer of whimsical and humorous stories, showcasing a lighter side to his usually serious and intellectual persona.
He had a great appreciation for art and often spent time visiting galleries and discussing artistic techniques with painters, showing a deep interest in various forms of creative expression beyond his own writing.

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