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_First published elsewhere_

_New Edition 1886. Reprinted 1891, 1897, 1905_





(1) _The Conversations of a Father with his Children_ 1
Remarks upon it.
(2) _The Inconsistency of Public Judgment on Private Actions_ 8
(3) _Supplement to Bougainville's Travels_ 14
Philosophical qualities of the discussion not satisfactory 19
Nothing gained by his criticism on marriage 21



Digression inevitable in dealing with Diderot 24
Richardson's influence in Europe 26
Diderot's _Éloge_ upon him 28
Rousseau and Richardson 29
Diderot writes _The Nun_ (1796) 31
Circumstances of its composition 32
Its intention 33
And characteristics 35
Sterne 36
Diderot writes _Jacques le Fataliste_ 37
Its history 38
Goethe's criticism on it 38
Nature of Diderot's imitation of Richardson and Sterne 40
No true creation in _Jacques le Fataliste_ 41
Its unredeemed grossness 43
Its lack of poetry and of flavour 44



The _Salons_ 45
Qualities of their criticism 45
Deep foundation of Diderot's critical quality 46
French art-criticism 48
Dufresnoy, Dubos, Webb, André, Batteux 48, 49
Travellers in Italy 50
Diderot never in Italy 52
Spirit of French art in his day 52
Greuze, Diderot's favourite 56
Greuze's _Accordée de Village_ 57
Hogarth would have displeased Diderot 59
Diderot's considerateness in criticism 60
Boucher 62
Fragonard 62
Diderot adds literary charm to scientific criticism 63
His readiness for moral asides 65
His suggestions of pictorial subjects 68
His improved versions 69
Illustration of his variety of approach 72
Diderot's Essay on Painting 73
Goethe's commentary 73
Difference of type between Goethe and Diderot 76
Diderot's Essay on Beauty 78
His anticipation of Lessing 82
Music 83



Diderot's resolution to visit the Empress of Russia 84
The Princess Dashkow 84
Prince Galitzin 85
Diderot in Holland (1773) 86
St. Petersburg and Russian civilisation 89
The Empress 91
Accounts of her by men of affairs 92
Her pursuit of French culture 94
Her interest in the French philosophic party 96
Partly the result of political calculation 98
The philosophers and the Partition of Poland 101
Rulhière's narrative of Catherine's accession 102
Falconet, the first Frenchman welcomed by her 104
Diderot arrives at St. Petersburg (1773) 106
His conversations with the Empress 107
Not successful as a politician 108
General impression of him 109
Grimm outstrips him in court favour 110
Diderot's return to the Hague 112
Björnstähl's report of him 114
Contemporary literature in Holland 117
Hemsterhuys 118
The Princess Galitzin 119
Diderot's return to Paris 121



Three works of which Diderot was regarded as the inspirer 123
Helvétius's _L'Esprit_ 123
Contemporary protests against it 123
Turgot's weighty criticism 124
Real drift of the book 127
Account of Helvétius 127
The style of his book 134
The momentous principle contained in it 135
Adopted from Helvétius by Bentham 136
Helvétius's statement of doctrine of Utility 137
Miscarriage of the doctrine in his hands 139
His fallacy 140
True side of his objectionable position 140
Helvétius's reckless presentation of a true theory 141
Confusion of beneficence with self-love 142
Imitation from Mandeville 143
Mean anecdotes 144
Nature of Helvétius's errors 144
Explanation of them 146
Positive side of his speculation 147
Its true significance 149
Second great paradox of _L'Esprit_ 149
Benjamin Constant's _Adolphe_ 152



Publication of the _System of Nature_ (1770) 155
Its startling effect 156
Voltaire's alarm 158
He never understood Holbach's position 159
Account of Holbach 160
Disregard of historic opinion in his book 163
Its remarkable violence against the government 165
The sting of this violence 166
The doctrine from which Holbach's book arose 167
Account of Holbach's Naturalism 168
His proposition concerning Man 173
He uses the orthodox language about the pride of man 177
His treatment of Morals 178
Onslaught upon the theory of Free Will 178
Connection of necessarianism with humanity in punishment 181
His answer to some objections against necessarianism 181
Chapter on the Immortality of the Soul 183
His enthusiasm for reforms 185
The literature of a political revolution 187
Misrepresentation of Holbach's ethical theory 188
The _System of Nature_, a protest against ascetic ideals 191
The subject of the second half of the book 193
Repudiation of the _à priori_ method 194
Replies to the common charges against atheism 197
The chapter on the superiority of Naturalism 198
Political side of the indictment against religion 199
Holbach's propagandism 202



Contemporary estimate of _The History of the Indies_ 204
Account of Raynal 205
Composition of the book 207
Its varied popularity 209
Frederick the Great dislikes it 210
Signal merit of the History 213
Its shortcomings 214
Its idyllic inventions 215
Its animation and variety 218
Superficial causes of its popularity 220
Its deeper source 221
Catholicism in contact with the lower races 222
The other side of this 223
Raynal's book a plea for justice and humanity 224
Morality towards subject races 226
Slavery 227
Raynal's conduct in the Revolution 229
His end 231



Diderot's meditation on life and death 232
Age overtakes him on his return from Russia 233
Writes his life of Seneca 235
Its quality 236
Interest to Diderot of Seneca's career 237
Strange digression in the Essay 239
Reason for Diderot's anger against Rousseau 240
His usual magnanimity 241
Diderot's relations with Voltaire 244
Naigeon 246
Romilly's account of Diderot 247
Palissot and the conservative writers 249
The ecclesiastical champions of the old system 251
The precursors gradually disappearing 253
Galiani 254
Beaumarchais's _Mariage de Figaro_ 255
Diderot's famous couplet 256
His fellow-townsmen at Langres 257
Last days 258



The variety of Diderot's topics 261

(1) _Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature_ 262
Maupertuis's _Loi d'Epargne_ 262
General scope of Diderot's aphorisms 263
Prophecy about geometry 264
Utility made to prescribe limits to speculation 267
The other side of this principle 267
On Final Causes 268
Adaptation of the Leibnitzian law of economy 269

(2) _D'Alembert's Dream_ 271
Diderot not the originator of French materialism 272
Materialism of the three dialogues 273
Mdlle. Lespinasse's moral objections 274

(3) _Plan of a University for Russia_ 275
Religious instruction 276
Latin and Greek 277
Letter to the Countess of Forbach 278

(4) _Conversation with the Maréchale de - - _ 278
Parable of the young Mexican 279

(5) _Letters to Falconet_ 281
Diderot defends the feeling for posterity 283


_Rameau's Nephew: a Translation_ 285




We may now pass to performances that are nearer to the accepted surface
of things. A short but charming example of Diderot's taste for putting
questions of morals in an interesting way, is found in the _Conversation
of a Father with his Children_ (published in 1773). This little dialogue
is perfect in the simple realism of its form. Its subject is the peril
of setting one's own judgment of some special set of circumstances above
the law of the land. Diderot's venerable and well-loved father is
sitting in his arm-chair before the fire. He begins the discussion by
telling his two sons and his daughter, who are tending him with pious
care, how very near he had once been to destroying their inheritance. An
old priest had died leaving a considerable fortune. There was believed
to be no will, and the next of kin were a number of poor people whom the
inheritance would have rescued from indigence for the rest of their
days. They appointed the elder Diderot to guard their interests and
divide the property. He finds at the bottom of a disused box of ancient
letters, receipts, and other waste-paper, a will made long years ago,
and bequeathing all the fortune to a very rich bookseller in Paris.
There was every reason to suppose that the old priest had forgotten the
existence of the will, and it involved a revolting injustice. Would not
Diderot be fulfilling the dead man's real wishes by throwing the
unwelcome document into the flames?

At this point in the dialogue the doctor enters the room and interrupts
the tale. It appears that he is fresh from the bedside of a criminal who
is destined to the gallows. Diderot the younger reproaches him for
labouring to keep in the world an offender whom it were best to send out
of it with all despatch. The duty of the physician is to say to so
execrable a patient - "I will not busy myself in restoring to life a
creature whom it is enjoined upon me by natural equity, the good of
society, the well-being of my fellow-creatures, to give up. Die, and let
it never be said that through my skill there exists a monster the more
on earth!" The doctor parries these energetic declamations with
sufficient skill. "My business is to cure, not to judge; I shall cure
him, because that is my trade; then the judge will have him hung,
because that is his trade." This episodic discussion ended, the story of
the will is resumed. The father, when on the point of destroying it, was
seized with a scruple of conscience, and hastened to a curé well versed
in casuistry. As in England the agents of the law itself not seldom play
the part of arbitrary benevolence, which the old Diderot would fain have
played against the law, the scene may perhaps be worth transcribing:

"'Nothing is more praiseworthy, sir, than the sentiment of
compassion that touches you for these unfortunate people. Suppress
the testament and succour them - good; but on condition of restoring
to the rightful legatee the exact sum of which you deprive him,
neither more nor less. Who authorised you to give a sanction to
documents, or to take it away? Who authorised you to interpret the
intentions of the dead?'

'But then, father Bouin, the old box?'

'Who authorised you to decide whether the will was thrown away on
purpose, or mislaid by accident? Has it never happened to you to do
such a thing, and to find at the bottom of a chest some valuable
paper that you had tossed there inadvertently?'

'But, father Bouin, the far-off date of the paper, and its

'Who authorised you to pronounce on the justice or injustice of the
document, and to regard the bequest as an unlawful gift, rather
than as a restitution or any other lawful act which you may choose
to imagine?'

'But, these poor kinsfolk here on the spot, and that mere
collateral, distant and wealthy?'

'Who authorised you to weigh in your balance what the dead man owed
to his distant relations, whom you don't know?'

'But, father Bouin, that pile of letters from the legatee, which
the departed never even took the trouble to open?'

'There is neither old box, nor date, nor letters, nor father Bouin,
nor if, nor but, in the case. No one has any right to infringe the
laws, to enter into the intention of the dead, or to dispose of
other people's property. If providence has resolved to chastise
either the heir or the legatee or the testator - we cannot tell
which - by the accidental preservation of the will, the will must

[1] _Oeuv._, v. 289.

Diderot the younger declaims against all this with his usual vehemence,
while his brother, the abbé, defends the supremacy of the law on the
proper ground, that to evade or defy it in any given case is to open the
door to the sophistries of all the knaves in the universe. At this point
a journeyman of the neighbourhood comes in with a new case of
conscience. His wife has died after twenty years of sickness; in these
twenty years the cost of her illness has consumed all that he would
otherwise have saved for the end of his days. But, as it happens, the
marriage portion that she brought him has lain untouched. By law this
ought to go to her family. Equity, however, seems to justify him in
keeping what he might have spent if he had chosen. He consults the party
round the fire. One bids him keep the money; another forbids him; a
third thinks it fair for him to repay himself the cost of his wife's
illness. Diderot's father cries out, that since on his own confession
the detention of the inheritance has brought him no comfort, he had
better surrender it as speedily as possible, and eat, drink, sleep,
work, and make himself happy so.

"'Not I,' cried the journeyman abruptly, 'I shall be off to

'And dost thou think to leave remorse behind?'

'I can't tell, but to Geneva I go.'

'Go where thou wilt, there wilt thou find thy conscience.'

The hatter went away; his odd answer became the subject of our
talk. We agreed that perhaps distance of place and time had the
effect of weakening all the feelings more or less, and stifling the
voice of conscience even in cases of downright crime. The assassin
transported to the shores of China is too far off to perceive the
corpse that he has left bleeding on the banks of the Seine.

Remorse springs perhaps less from horror of self than from fear of
others; less from shame for the deed, than from the blame and
punishment that would attend its discovery. And what clandestine
criminal is tranquil enough in his obscurity not to dread the
treachery of some unforeseen circumstance, or the indiscretion of
some thoughtless word? What certainty can he have that he will not
disclose his secret in the delirium of fever, or in dreams? People
will understand him if they are on the scene of the action, but
those about him in China will have no key to his words."[2]

[2] v. 295, 296.

Two other cases come up. Does the husband or wife who is the first to
break the marriage vow, restore liberty to the other? Diderot answered
affirmatively. The second case arose from a story that the abbé had been
reading. A certain honest cobbler of Messina saw his country overrun by
lawlessness. Each day was marked by a crime. Notorious assassins braved
the public exasperation. Parents saw their daughters violated; the
industrious saw the fruits of their toil ravished from them by the
monopolist or the fraudulent tax-gatherer. The judges were bribed, the
innocent were afflicted, the guilty escaped unharmed. The cobbler
meditating on these enormities devised a plan of vengeance. He
established a secret court of justice in his shop; he heard the
evidence, gave a verdict, pronounced sentence, and went out into the
street with his gun under his cloak to execute it. Justice done, he
regained his stall, rejoicing as though he had slain a rabid dog. When
some fifty criminals had thus met their doom, the viceroy offered a
reward of two thousand crowns for information of the slayer, and swore
on the altar that he should have full pardon if he gave himself up. The
cobbler presented himself, and spoke thus: "I have done what was your
duty. 'Tis I who condemned and put to death the miscreants that you
ought to have punished. Behold the proofs of their crimes. There you
will see the judicial process which I observed. I was tempted to begin
with yourself; but I respected in your person the august master whom you
represent. My life is in your hands: dispose of it as you think right."
Well, cried the abbé, the cobbler, in spite of all his fine zeal for
justice, was simply a murderer. Diderot protested. His father decided
that the abbé was right, and that the cobbler was an assassin.

Nothing short of a transcript of the whole would convey a right idea of
the dramatic ease of this delightful dialogue - its variety of
illustration with unity of topic, the naturalness of movement, the
pleasant lightness of touch. At its close the old man calls for his
nightcap; Diderot embraces him, and in bidding him good-night whispers
in his ear, "Strictly speaking, father, there are no laws for the sage.
All being open to exception, 'tis for him to judge the cases in which we
ought to submit to them, or to throw them over." "I should not be
sorry," his father answers, "if there were in the town one or two
citizens like thee; but nothing would induce me to live there, if they
all thought in that way." The conclusion is just, and Diderot might have
verified it by the state of the higher society of his country at that
very moment. One cause of the moral corruption of France in the closing
years of the old _régime_ was undoubtedly the lax and shifting
interpretations, by which the Jesuit directors had softened the rigour
of general moral principles. Many generations must necessarily elapse
before a habit of loosely superseding principles in individual cases
produces widespread demoralisation, but the result is inevitable, sooner
or later; and this, just in proportion as the principles are sound. The
casuists practically constructed a system for making the observance
alike of the positive law, and of the accepted ethical maxims, flexible
and conditional. The Diderot of the present dialogue takes the same
attitude, but has the grace to leave the demonstration of its
impropriety to his wise and benevolent sire.

* * * * *

II. We shall presently see that Diderot did not shrink from applying a
vigorous doubt to some of the most solidly established principles of
modern society. Let us meanwhile in passing notice that short piece of
plangent irony, which did not appear until many years after his death
(1798), and which he or some one else entitled, _On the inconsistency of
the Public Judgment on our Private Actions_. This too is in the form of

Online LibraryJohn MorleyDiderot and the Encyclopædists (Vol 1 of 2) → online text (page 1 of 24)