Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic and writer. Born at Langres and was schooled by Jesuits. He attended the University of Paris where he led a bohemian life, making a living doing odd jobs: tutorships, freelance writing, bookseller, and translator.
He supported John Locke's theory of knowledge in his Lettres sur les aveugles (1749), a work hostile to entrenched and conventional morality; for that intellectual attack he was imprisoned at Vincennes for three months.
A polymath with expertise in several fields, and much immersed in science and the scientific trends of his day, he was particularly qualified to take on the immense task of compiling an encyclopedia. Today we remember Diderot mostly as the co-founder and editor of the Encyclopédie, the foremost encyclopedia to be published as the French Revolution was taking place.
Among his good friends he included Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Claude Adrien Helvétius, Abbé Raynal, Lawrence Sterne, Jean-François Marmontel, and Michel-Jean Sedaine.
During revolutionary times, Diderot was not able to make much of a living off his work on the Encyclopédie. Through the intervention of friends, Catherine of Russia bought his library, providing him also with a salary and use of the library for life.
He died of emphysema in Paris in 1784.
In his Pensees philosophique (1746), he explored both atheism and Christianity; failing to gain the sympathy of the public, this work was burned by the Parisian parliament.
Other works include Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature [On the Interpretation of Nature], the Dialogue between D'Alembert and Diderot, Le Rêve de d'Alembert (D'Alembert's Dream), the Éléments de physiologie, Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew, and the picaresque novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître.
About Jacques The Fatalist
The picaresque novel Jacques the Fatalist, partially inspired by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, is an ironic critique of the morals of the time. While on the surface the novel might seem to be a simple narrative of humoristic events, adventures, and intrigues—down deep it is an interesting philosophical exploration of free will, determinism, and morality. In addition, this novel contains a continuous dialogue between author and readers. Much like Henry Fielding in Tom Jones, Diderot puts forth his views on writing techniques. Through this dialogue readers can appreciate the inner springs of the mind of a novelist in action.