From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Diderot also contributed to literature, notably with Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Jacques the Fatalist and His Master), which emulated Laurence Sterne in challenging conventions regarding novels, their structure and content, while also examining philosophical ideas about free will. Diderot is also known as the author of the essay, "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown," upon which many an article and sermon about consumer desire has been based; and his risqué novels Les Bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse.
In 1732, he earned a master of arts degree in philosophy. He abandoned the idea of entering the clergy and decided instead to study law. His study of the law, however, was short-lived. In 1734, Diderot decided instead to become a writer. Because of his refusal to enter one of the learned professions, he was disowned by his father, and for the next ten years he lived a rather bohemian existence.
In 1743, he further alienated his father by marrying Antoinette Champion, a devout Roman Catholic. The match was considered inappropriate because of Champion's low social status, poor education, fatherless status, lack of a dowry, and at thirty-two she was four years his senior. The marriage produced one surviving child, a girl. She was named Angelique after Diderot's mother and his dead sister. The death of his sister, a nun, from overwork in the convent may have affected Diderot's opinion of religion.
He had affairs with the writer Madame Puisieux and with Sophie Volland, to whom he was constant for the rest of her life. His letters to her are among the most graphic of all the pictures that we have of the daily life of the philosophic circle in Paris.
Though his work was broad and rigorous, it did not bring him riches. He secured none of the posts that were occasionally given to needy men of letters; he could not even obtain that bare official recognition of merit which was implied by being chosen a member of the Académie française. When the time came for him to provide a dowry for his daughter, he saw no alternative than to sell his library. When Catherine II of Russia heard of his straits, she commissioned an agent in Paris to buy the library, and then requested that the philosopher retain the books in Paris until she required them, and act as her librarian with a yearly salary. In 1773 and 1774, Diderot spent some months at the empress's court at St Petersburg.
He died of emphysema and dropsy in Paris on July 31, 1784, and was buried in the city's Eglise Saint-Roch. His heirs sent his vast library to Catherine II, who had it deposited at the Russian National Library.
As a philosopher Diderot speculated on free will and held a completely materialistic view of the universe; he suggested all human behavior is determined by heredity. He therefore warned his fellow philosophers against an overemphasis on mathematics and against the blind optimism that sees in the growth of physical knowledge an automatic social and human progress. He rejected the Idea of Progress. In his opinion, the aim of explaining the universe through geometry was doomed to fail. Therefore, he founded his philosophy on experiment and the study of probabilities. He wrote several articles and supplements concerning gambling, mortality rates, and inoculation against smallpox for the Encyclopédie. There he discreetly but firmly refuted d'Alembert's technical errors and personal positions on probability.
Diderot's celebrated Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient ("Letter on the Blind") (1749), introduced him to the world as a daringly original thinker and got him into trouble with the French censor.
The essay revolves around a deathbed scene in which the dying blind philosopher, Nicholas Saunderson, says to a priest "If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him." After its publication, Diderot is arrested and will spend three months in prison. After signing a letter of submission and promising never to write anything prejudicial against the religion again (with the result that his most controversial works were henceforth published only after his death) and much of the irreligion in the Encyclopédie is hidden in insignificant articles and in the strategic placement of cross-references, much like Pierre Bayle had hid his doubts in footnotes in his main work Historical and Critical Dictionary.
- Essai sur le mérite et la vertu, written by Shaftesbury French translation and annotation by Diderot (1745)
- Pensées philosophiques, essay (1746)
- La promenade du sceptique (1747)
- Les bijoux indiscrets, novel (1748)
- Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (1749)
- L'Encyclopédie, (1750-1765)
- Lettre sur les sourds et muets (1751)
- Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature, essai (1751)
- Le Fils naturel (1757)
- Entretiens sur le Fils naturel (1757)
- Le père de famille (1758)
- Paradoxe sur le comédien (1758)
- Discours sur la poesie dramatique (1758)
- Salons, critique d'art (1759–1781)
- La Religieuse, Roman (1760; revised in 1770 and in the early 1780s; the novel was first published as a volume posthumously in 1796).
- Le neveu de Rameau, dialogue (1761?)
- Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie (1763)
- Mystification ou l’histoire des portraits (1768)
- Entretien entre D'Alembert et Diderot (1769)
- Le rêve de D'Alembert, dialogue (1769)
- Suite de l'entretien entre D'Alembert et Diderot (1769)
- Paradoxe sur le comédien (1769?)
- Apologie de l'abbé Galiani (1770)
- Principes philosophiques sur la matière et le mouvement, essai (1770)
- Entretien d'un père avec ses enfants (1771)
- Jacques le fataliste et son maître, novel (1771-1778)
- Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (1772)
- Histoire philosophique et politique des deux Indes, in collaboration with Raynal (1772–1781)
- Voyage en Hollande (1773)
- Éléments de physiologie (1773–1774)
- Réfutation d'Helvétius (1774)
- Observations sur le Nakaz (1774)
- Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron (1778)
- Lettre apologétique de l'abbé Raynal à Monsieur Grimm (1781)
- Aux insurgents d'Amérique (1782)