The Enlightenment polymath Denis Diderot turns 300 this year, and his October birthday is shaping up to be special. President François Hollande has indicated that he plans to honor the philosopher and novelist with what may be France’s highest tribute: a symbolic reburial in the Panthéon. In the roughly two centuries since this massive neo-Classical church was converted into a secular mausoleum, fewer than 80 people have been admitted into its gravestone club. If inducted, Diderot will arguably be the first member to be celebrated as much for his attacks on reigning orthodoxies as for his literary stature.
Like many Enlightenment writers, Diderot preached the right of the individual to determine the course of his or her life. But the type of liberty that underpins Diderot’s body of work differs markedly from today’s hackneyed understanding of freedom. His message was of intellectual emancipation from received authorities — be they religious, political or societal — and always in the interest of the common good. More so than the deists Voltaire and Rousseau, Diderot embodied the most progressive wing of Enlightenment thought, a position that stemmed from his belief that skepticism in all matters was “the first step toward truth.” He was, in fact, the precise type of secular Enlightenment thinker that some members of the Texas State Board of Education have attempted to write out of their high school curriculum.
Rare are the writers whose legacy has shifted as dramatically as Diderot’s. When he died in 1784, at age 70, the vast majority of his short stories, novels and philosophical works lay hidden away in trunks. He was remembered primarily for two things: coediting the world’s first comprehensive encyclopedia, a project to which he contributed an astonishing 10,000 articles, and being a scandalous freethinker and atheist.
Articles in the “Encyclopédie” tweaked Christian dogma. A famous example was the cross-references provided for the word “anthropophagy,” or cannibalism: they directed readers to the entries for “Eucharist,” “communion” and “altar.” Small wonder that the publication of the “Encyclopédie” was twice banned and that the work was eventually driven underground.
The few works Diderot had published before becoming fully engaged in this project did not help his popularity. In 1748, he penned “The Indiscreet Jewels,” a forerunner to “The Vagina Monologues,” in which women’s “jewels” engaged in a frank discussion of their erotic adventures. The following year, he waded into deeper water when he challenged arguments supporting the existence of God in “Letter on the Blind” — a book that earned him three months in prison.
Armed with both hindsight and access to his unpublished writings, we now know a different Diderot. By the 19th century, the writer’s “discovered” texts began inspiring the likes of Goethe, Hegel and Nietzsche. Marx cited him as his favorite writer — twice. Freud, too, was a great fan. It was Diderot who had said that if you allowed a child to grow up totally without education, “he would in time combine the reasoning of the infant with the passions of the grown man, and would strangle his father and sleep with his mother.” Ring a bell?
Readers today never fail to be amazed by Diderot’s willingness to confront both the unconscionable and the uncomfortable, often embracing subject matter that his contemporaries fled. He vehemently condemned the enslavement of Africans (and gave a philosophical voice to the slave); he challenged his era’s views on religious celibacy and forced vocations (in a tear-jerking pseudo-memoir of a sexually abused nun); and he entertained the possibility that his cherished materialism denied us free will (in his novel “Jacques the Fatalist”).
An ardent empiricist, Diderot also took pride in questioning his own beliefs. In “Rameau’s Nephew,” Diderot gave life to a character who assailed the author’s deep-rooted humanism. One of the most memorable eccentrics in all of literature, the hedonistic protagonist preached the beauty of evil, the joys of social parasitism and the right to be a self-seeking individual. This same ability to think beyond his own perspective also generated Diderot’s most prophetic work of fiction, “D’Alembert’s Dream,” a text that conjures up a godless world of speculative “genetic” manipulation and proto-evolutionary theory, 90 years before Darwin.
After rejecting Diderot for panthéonisation 100 years ago because of his atheism, the French now seem ready to bestow upon their countryman the high honor he has long deserved. No doubt Diderot himself would have been pleased. “Posterity is for the philosopher what the next world is for the man of religion,” he once wrote. But we all might take pride as well — because if Diderot is, at long last, welcomed into the Panthéon, it will be a collective acknowledgment that part of what makes an artist great is having the courage to provoke and challenge.
The message ought to resonate on this side of the Atlantic, too. While it’s sometimes easy for Americans to forget, thumbing one’s nose at the establishment has been central to our own cultural and political traditions since, well, Diderot’s time. After all, that’s how we became Americans in the first place.
Andrew S. Curran, the dean of the arts and humanities and a professor of French at Wesleyan University, is the author, most recently, of The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment.