“Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with great interest to everything that your brilliant mind has inspired. But your grand principles, which I understand quite well, make for good books and bad actions. Your plans for reform neglect the difference between our two positions. You work on paper, which accepts everything. It is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to either your imagination or pen. I, a poor empress, work on human skin, which is rather irritable and sensitive.” As recalled by her in a conversation with a French diplomat, this was the response of Catherine the Great to Denis Diderot, the philosophe and leading spirit of the Encyclopedists, who accepted Catherine’s invitation to travel to Russia with the aim of guiding her in transforming Russia into a state founded on Enlightenment ideals.
It was the era of enlightened despotism, when advanced thinkers hobnobbed with Europe’s monarchs and emperors in the hope that these rulers would use their authority to drag their subjects into the light of reason. As Voltaire put it, philosophers would “govern those who govern us”. Diderot never fully subscribed to the idea that tyrants could be relied on to advance human progress. Yet he shared with Voltaire the belief that he could act as a pedagogue to power. Making laws was like moulding clay, he believed: an enlightened legislator could fashion a new people. The monumental Encyclopédie – 28 volumes containing 74,000 entries and plates, written by more than a hundred authors and published between 1751 and 1772 with Diderot as general editor – was not just a summary of human knowledge to date. It was an intended as an inspirational guide to reformers, who could use it promote the cause of reason and humanity.
By applying the ideas presented in its pages, Diderot told Catherine, Russia could become a state as advanced as any that existed in Europe. More intelligent than the Encylopedist, Catherine responded: “All your grand philosophies… would do marvellously in books and very badly in practice.” Summing up her impressions of her excitable guest, she observed that “at times he seems to be one hundred years old, but at others he doesn’t seem to be ten”. In 1794, as the empress reflected on the descent of the French Revolution into blood-letting during the Terror, Catherine condemned Diderot and the rest of the philosophes, who “served only to destroy” and bring about “calamities without end and innumerable wretched people”.
So why read Diderot today? In the prologue to his exhaustive and refreshingly well written biography, Andrew S Curran describes Diderot as “the most relevant of Enlightenment philosophers”. In the epilogue, he spells out in what this relevance consists: “Although Diderot is undoubtedly the steward of the age of the Encyclopédie, he is also, paradoxically, the only major thinker of his generation who questioned the rational perspective that is at the heart of the Enlightenment project.” Here, Curran points to another paradox, which lies in the current revival of interest in the Enlightenment. When liberals turn to Enlightenment thinkers today they do so for intellectual reassurance and moral comfort. The threatening shadow of Donald Trump looms behind their nostalgia for a time when power seemed ready to listen to reason. Their hope is that rationality can be recaptured if we immerse ourselves in the thinkers who embodied it.
Yet Diderot, as Curran portrays him, does not quite fit the stereotype of the rationalist philosophe. In his voluminous novels and dialogues, many of them uncovered only after his death, he put into his characters’ mouths doubts about the Enlightenment project that he publicly promoted. Diderot is regularly described as an iconoclastic thinker. He was most free-thinking, however, not when he propounded the tenets of the Enlightenment but when he questioned these orthodoxies in works of fiction.
Diderot’s encounter with Catherine was the high point in an otherwise relatively uneventful existence. Unlike his fellow philosophe the Marquis de Condorcet, who died in prison after being on the run from the authorities in revolutionary France, Diderot had the good fortune of living before the grand political experiment of which he dreamt was tried in practice. Born in 1713 as the son of a cutler in Langres, a quiet provincial town 200 miles from Paris, he was educated by the Jesuits with the aim of becoming a priest. But after he went to Paris to continue his studies in theology he drifted, making a living as a tutor and from occasional work for law firms. He died in Paris in 1784.
Life as a free-ranging intellectual seems to have suited him. He became friends, for a time, with the irascible Jean-Jacques Rousseau, only to split with him as everyone else did when the paranoid suspicions of the prophet of human goodness became too much to endure. He had many affairs both before and after he entered a long and not altogether happy marriage, which produced a daughter to whom he was devoted. He built up a copious library, which the empress Catherine bought from Diderot while allowing him to retain and use it for his lifetime and paying him a salary to curate it.
He came into conflict with the French authorities with his “Letter on the Blind”, published anonymously in 1749, in which he sketched an early version of evolutionary theory and came close to embracing whole-hearted atheist materialism. Quickly identified as the author, Diderot was arrested and spent just over a hundred days as a prisoner in the Chateau de Vincennes. Although he later compared his imprisonment to the death of Socrates, he cannot be said to have suffered greatly during these months of incarceration. Paid for at the king’s expense, his daily food consisted of pot roast, liver or tripe, with a large serving of bread and a bottle of wine. He was frequently visited by Rousseau and, towards the end of his stay, his publishers were allowed to see him. Otherwise he lived a conventional life as a French man of letters, delighting in polite society, enjoying the company of women and never being financially secure.
Diderot was not alone among Western thinkers in seeing Russia as a site for an experiment in enlightened government. Samuel Bentham, the younger brother of the English utilitarian moral and legal philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham, travelled to Russia to work as an engineer and architect, and while supervising a factory devised the first plan for a Panopticon in which the workforce could be kept under constant surveillance. Voltaire pursued a 15-year correspondence with Catherine, whom he flattered brazenly in the belief she would impose enlightenment on what he and other European thinkers regarded as a country sunk in “Asiatic barbarism”. So pervasive was the influence of the European progressive intelligentsia in late 18th-century Russia that when the counter-Enlightenment thinker Joseph de Maistre arrived there in 1802 he found to his distaste a country that had been “scribbled on by philosophers”.
Robert Zaretsky’s short, sparkling and compellingly readable account of Diderot’s encounter with Catherine is more than a study in the history of ideas. It is also a study in character in which the empress – sober, thoughtful and decisive – emerges as a more impressive and interesting figure than the rather scatterbrained and often dithering man of ideas.
A passionate reader from her childhood years, Catherine reached the imperial throne in 1762 at the age of 33 by way of a coup d’état in which her eccentric and ineffectual husband Tsar Peter III lost his life. While Peter was away training troops for a needless and widely opposed war on Denmark, Catherine inspired a conspiracy against him, organised by her lover Grigory Orlov, a daring army officer. Flouting her husband’s order that she remain on the royal estate, she travelled to St Petersburg and walked down Nevsky Prospect with Orlov and the Russian Guards behind her. Reaching the Winter Palace, she appeared on a balcony to cheers from massed crowds below.
Next day, in full military uniform, she set off on horseback with several regiments to demand her husband’s abdication. When he complied he was taken by Orlov to the royal estate. Three days later news arrived that he had died in a scuffle. Catherine released a bulletin announcing Peter’s death, attributing it to “an acute attack of haemorrhoids”, adding that in leading her to the throne her husband’s unfortunate demise was divine providence at work.
Ruling until her death in 1796, Catherine gave Russia its longest period of stable government, which some have described as a Russian Age of Enlightenment. She secured this golden age of reason, however, by ignoring Diderot’s advice. The philosopher constantly urged the empress to limit her own powers and those of her successors by binding laws. But Catherine grasped a fact that few Enlightenment thinkers, then or today, have faced. In any confrontation with powerful social and political forces, law has little or no force of its own. A new-model regime in which the power of government is strictly limited will be replaced by a regime more tyrannical than the one that existed before, or else by a condition of anarchy in which nothing of civilisation can thrive.
Even as Diderot began his conversations with Catherine her empire was rocked by a revolt of Cossacks and peasants that was ended only by full-scale military repression. Diderot counselled that she should take care that the people retained a sense of freedom – even if it was illusory. Zaretsky praises what he takes to be the realistic insight Diderot displayed at this point. But a popular illusion of freedom would have counted for nothing if the Russian state had fractured and fallen.
Diderot was a reformer rather than a revolutionary. Yet his proposals often had an air of utopian unreality about them. He recommended that Catherine order schools to teach young girls about their sexuality using lifelike wax models, as he had done with his daughter Angélique. Imaginative as the idea may have been, it could only have been implemented in Russia – where it would have been strongly resisted by the Orthodox Church – by using the autocratic power that he deplored. Diderot’s strength was not in any understanding of politics but in the fertility of his mercurial mind, and his readiness to question the Enlightenment faith.
In Rameau’s Nephew, a fictional dialogue he began writing in the spring of 1761 and continued working on until 1779, five years before his death, Diderot presents two characters, Moi and Lui (“Me” and “He”), debating the possibility of a rational morality in a world ruled by chance and necessity. Lui ridicules the fond belief of the “Master Philosopher” that enlightened minds derive pleasure from doing good: “I say hurrah for wisdom and philosophy – the wisdom of Solomon: to drink good wines, gorge on choice food, tumble pretty women, sleep in downy beds – outside of that, all is vanity.” The philosophes maintained that atheist materialism opened the way to universal well-being. But Lui – representing a side of Diderot he kept concealed from others and perhaps himself – suggests that a materialist philosophy may instead prompt a life of amoral, egoistic pleasure-seeking.
In D’Alembert’s Dream, completed in 1769, Diderot again probed the basis of a materialist morality, presenting the human animal as a cosmic fluke lacking in free will. In Jacques the Fatalist, a dialogue between master and servant he wrote over 20 years beginning in 1760, he questioned the possibility of enduring community, arguing that as constantly changing physical beings humans cannot retain the attachment to one another they briefly experience during sexual love. In The Nun, a fictional exchange of letters written around 1760 but published only in 1796, Diderot explored the types of sexuality that emerge among cloistered women, such as sadomasochism. The novel proved controversial long after Diderot’s death, with a film version censored in 1966 under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle.
The case for Diderot as an original thinker rests on these literary fictions, not on anything he contributed to the Encyclopédie. Even with regard to the ideas presented in these fictional texts, however, the claim to originality is unconvincing. A hundred year earlier, Benedict Spinoza published a critique of monotheistic religion more thoroughgoing than anything in Diderot. At the end of the 17th century, the French Protestant Pierre Bayle published the Historical and Critical Dictionary – sections of which Catherine read in her teens – that was more consistently sceptical than any of Diderot’s critiques. The French physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie mounted a spirited defence of sexual pleasure in the 1740s. Perhaps most intriguingly, Diderot’s near-contemporary the Marquis de Sade used materialist philosophy not only to attack religion but also to subvert the optimistic visions of the Encyclopedists. Unlike Diderot, who never resolved the conflict between a materialist world-view and humanist hope, de Sade was ready to follow his philosophy to the end, however grim the conclusion might be.
A wayward figure of some charm, Diderot has little to teach anyone today. Offering solace in a time of uncertainty, he enables 21st century liberals to imagine themselves as freethinkers like him, even as they cling anxiously to an Enlightenment orthodoxy he helped to establish. The most penetrating view of the philosopher remains that of the empress Catherine, who listened to his flights of fancy with admiration without ever confusing them with reality.
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
Andrew S Curran
Other Press, 320pp, £21.92
Catherine and Diderot: the Empress, the Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment
Harvard University Press, 272pp, £20