Denis Diderot. October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784. French writer, philosopher, and educator. Foreign honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences.


Life and Work:

1. Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts is considered to be the largest reference publication of the 18th century. It had been published for thirty years, from 1751 to 1780, with a total of 35 volumes: 72,000 text articles, 11 volumes of illustrations. It sold more than 4,000 copies in France alone. It was reprinted in Italy, Switzerland, and Russia. The list of the Encyclopedia authors includes Voltaire, D’Alembert, Montesquieu, Holbach – all the luminaries of science and enlightenment of the time. And its main creator was Denis Diderot.


2. Diderot was not only the soul and organizer of the Encyclopedia, as well as its executive editor – he also wrote more than six thousand articles.


3. Denis Diderot was born in the city of Langres, located among the famous vineyards of Champagne. His father made knives, scalpels, and other surgical instruments.


4. Denis Diderot’s mother was tanner’s daughter and a priest’s sister. This may have influenced the family’s desire to see the eldest son as a member of the clergy. Denis did not defy his parents’ will: after studying at a Jesuit college, he became an abbot and even went to Paris to finish his education. He was very pious at the time: he often fasted and even wore a sackcloth.


5. In Paris, however, he was turned away from religion: various movements within the Catholic Church quarreled so fiercely that Diderot abandoned the spiritual path.


6. His search for the life path led him to the master of arts degree at the University of Paris. Then he briefly considered a career as a lawyer but opted for a bohemian lifestyle. Diderot’s parents did not approve of the choice and deprived him of allowance.


7. Later, Denis Diderot caused his parents’ displeasure again by marrying Anne-Antoinette Champion against their will. The bride was a penniless orphan and stood below Diderot on the social ladder. They got married in secret and under the cover of night.


8. At that time, Denis Diderot worked as a translator, and translations led him to writing philosophical works of his own. Influenced by translations of philosophical works, he wrote and anonymously published Philosophical Thoughts. The work was publicly burned, which, in some way, indicates its success. There, Diderot showed himself as an atheist, materialist, determinist, and skeptic.


9. In 1747, Denis Diderot and his friend Jean Leron D’Alembert, a philosopher and mathematician, were invited to supervise the publication of the Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts. At first, they only wanted to translate Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, published in 1728, but Diderot and D’Alembert managed to turn it into an independent and comprehensive work.


10. Denis Diderot did not create any philosophical theory of his own. Yet, the Encyclopedia put him among the greatest thinkers of the time. It is believed that Diderot was the ideologist of the third estate and the creator of those Enlightenment ideas that prepared the minds for the Great French Revolution.


11. While working on the Encyclopedia, Diderot spent some time in prison, where he wrote Letter on the Blind for the Use of those Who Can See, angered the religious and secular authorities so much that he was arrested and imprisoned for four months in the Château de Vincennes.


12. Diderot’s main literary works – the novels Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist and his Master – were never read by his contemporaries. For the first time, they were published only after the author’s death.


13. At the invitation of Catherine II, Diderot visited Russia and worked out his stay with projects, which, however, had absolutely no chance for implementation: for intance, serfdom was abolished almost a hundred years after his visit to St. Petersburg.


14. Empress Catherine found communication with the recognized moral and scientific figure flattering. She favored the scientist and provided generous financial support. Diderot, with his permanent financial issues, agreed to sell Catherine his personal library, but under the condition that all the books should remain with him in France, while the empress should pay Diderot a generous allowance as the keeper of the library. Diderot’s books arrived in Russia only after his death in 1784. But they were not valued as a collection of books and disappeared into the depths of the Hermitage Library.


15. Many things in Russian remind about Denis Diderot. It was Denis Diderot who advised Catherine to entrust the creation of the Bronze Horseman to Étienne Maurice Falconet. The first Russia’s educational institution for the fair sex – the Smolny Institute of Noble Maidens – was created on the advice of Denis Diderot, as well as Rousseau and Voltaire.


16. Much later, the Bolsheviks used another Denis Diderot’s advice – they moved the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow. What does Diderot have to do with it? It was he who wrote to Catherine II that it was unreasonable to place one’s heart on the tip of one’s fingers, that is, to have the capital situated on the outskirts of the empire.