John Banville on a lucid and lively biography of Diderot
Book review: Andrew S Curran adroitly traces the triumphs and miseries of the Encyclopédie
Joys of freethinking: Denis Diderot
Let us begin with last words, or at least the last words spoken in his daughter’s hearing by one of France’s greatest thinkers and one of its most congenial spirits, Denis Diderot. In 1784 the ailing 71-year-old philosopher was lodging in a fine house on the rue de Richelieu on Paris’s right bank, the rent of which was paid partly by his friend Catherine the Great of Russia. Diderot’s daughter, Marie-Angélique de Vandeul, visiting him on July 30th of that year, was pleased to find him holding court amidst a group of friends and in full, unstoppable voice. As she was leaving she heard him paraphrase a quote of his own from years before: “The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.”
Next day, at table, he helped himself from a dish of stewed cherries, against his wife’s advice – “What the devil type of harm can it do me now?” he demanded – and in the act of reaching out for more fruit, died. As his latest biographer, Andrew Curran, has it: “While having anything but a heroic death à la Socrates, Diderot had nonetheless expired in a way that was perfectly compatible with his philosophy: without a priest, with humour, and while attempting to eke out one last bit of pleasure from life.”
The pleasure to be derived from life was one of Diderot’s chief preoccupations, a thing that cannot be said of many philosophers. Socrates insisted the unexamined life is not worth living; Diderot would have said the same of the unenjoyed life. He loved to be among his friends, eating, drinking, swapping witticisms, and above all, talking. When he was at the Empress Catherine’s court in St Petersburg it was said she complained of a constant small pain in her knee where the visiting savant used to tap her hard with a fingertip to emphasise the profusion of points he had to make to her – in the end she made him sit at the other side of a table so that he could not get at her.