Diderot, Denis (1713-1784), French Encyclopedist and philosopher, who also wrote novels, essays, plays, and art and literary criticism.

Diderot was born in Langres on October 5, 1713, and educated by Jesuits. He went to Paris in 1734 and spent ten years as an ill-paid tutor and hack writer. His first serious work, published anonymously, was Pensées philosophiques (1746), which stated his deist philosophy. In 1747 he was invited to edit a French translation of the English Cyclopaedia by Ephraim Chambers. Diderot, collaborating with the mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, converted the project into a vast, new, and controversial 35-volume work, Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers, which is usually known as the Encyclopédie.

Aided by the most celebrated writers of the day, including Voltaire and Montesquieu, the skeptical, rationalist Diderot used the Encyclopédie as a powerful propaganda weapon against Ecclesiastical authority and the superstition, conservatism, and semi feudal social forms of the time. Consequently, Diderot and his associates became the objects of clerical and royal antagonism. In 1759 the Conseil du Roi formally suppressed the first ten volumes (published from 1751 onward) and forbade further publication. Nevertheless, Diderot continued work on the remaining volumes and had them secretly printed. The 17 volumes of text were completed in 1765, with plates and supplements added until 1780.

Diderot's voluminous writings include the novels La religieuse (The Nun, written 1760, published 1796), an attack on convent life; Le neveu de Rameau (written 1761-1774, published 1805; translated as Rameau's Nephew, 1964), a social satire; and Jacques le fataliste (1796), which explored the psychology of free will and determinism. Lettre sur les aveugles (1749), about the way the blind learn, and the dramatic philosophical dialogue Le rêve d'Alembert (1830) contain his materialist theories. A pioneer in aesthetic criticism, he founded (1759) Les Salons, a journal for which he wrote criticism of the annual Paris art exhibitions. His correspondence was unexcelled in an age of famous letter writers. Diderot won the patronage of the enlightened monarch Catherine the Great of Russia and greatly influenced other Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. He died in Paris on July 30, 1784.BACK