Denis Diderot is having a moment in the literary world.
The 18th century theorist of the French Enlightenment is the subject of two new biographies, "Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely," by Andrew S. Curran (Other Press), and "Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment," by Robert Zaretsky (Harvard University Press).
In recent weeks, positive reviews of the books have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the New Republic and the New Yorker.
Diderot, a free-thinker, pornographer, journalist, sexual libertine and encyclopedia editor, enjoyed chatting about ideas with his longtime friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Paris coffee houses. The hero of rational thought suffered for his ideas; his writings against religion and the Catholic church landed him in prison. Another leading figure of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, wrote letters that led to Diderot's release. He continued speaking out against the state and church's repression.
Not as much of an original thinker as Rousseau and Voltaire, Diderot was a synthesizer of ideas. Diderot was famous for co-editing the mammoth Encyclopédie, a compendium of the era's knowledge. The work ran to 24 volumes, 72,000 articles and 3,000 illustrations. The best-seller allowed Diderot to escape his fraught freelance existence. Curran in his book looks at Diderot's influence in the development of scientific thought.
As an author, Diderot is mainly remembered for his philosophical treatise "Rambeau's Nephew," a dialogue about ideas, the freedom of thought, and human relationships. He also wrote a pornographic work narrated by women's sexual organs.
Toward the end of his eventful life, he served as an adviser to Russia's Catherine the Great. Zaretsky examines how Diderot in the end failed to get Catherine to accept his ideas of enlightened rule. While keeping her iron control over the vast country, Catherine purchased Diderot's library and gave him a generous financial endowment.
The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik points out in his review that the Enlightenment's beneficial reputation has been tarnished. Revisionist historians now blame the movement for leading to totalitarianism and social control. In France, the Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution and Napoleon's rule.
Diderot in the recent reviews is seen as a charming, colorful figure and a pioneer of social freedom. He was apparently an amorous adventurer rivaling Don Juan, and a tireless foe of oppression.
As the Western alliance fractures and truth is disparaged, it's heartening that Diderot's free-spirited life still receives homage.
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