Oct 052018

Today is the birthday (1713) of Denis Diderot, French philosopher, art critic, and writer, best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie along with Jean le Rond d’Alembert. I could write a voluminous post on Diderot, but I will be brief, and leave it to you to find out more if you are interested. My set of quotes at the end of this short biography will give you the drift of a profoundly influential man who tends to be remembered for all the wrong reasons, if he is remembered at all. The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers is scarcely his most influential work in his day – or since.

Diderot began his advanced education by studying philosophy at a Jesuit college and receiving his degree in 1732. He considered working in the church clergy before briefly studying law. When he decided to become a writer in 1734, his father disowned him for not entering one of the learned professions. He lived a bohemian existence for the next decade. He befriended philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1742.

Though his work was broad as well as rigorous, it did not bring Diderot steady employment, and he remained a largely unrecognized scholar (sometimes vilified) throughout his lifetime. He secured none of the posts that were occasionally given to needy men of letters. He could not even obtain the bare official recognition of merit that was implied by being chosen a member of the Académie française. In desperation, he sold his library to provide a dowry for his daughter. Empress Catherine II of Russia heard of his financial troubles and commissioned an agent in Paris to buy the library. She then requested that the philosopher retain the books in Paris until she required them, and act as her librarian with a yearly salary. Between October 1773 and March 1774, the ailing Diderot spent a few months at the empress’s court in Saint Petersburg.

Diderot died of pulmonary thrombosis in Paris on 31st July 1784, and was buried in the city’s Église Saint-Roch. His heirs sent his vast library to Catherine II, who had it deposited at the National Library of Russia. He has several times been denied burial in the Panthéon with other French notables. The French government considered memorializing him in this fashion on the 300th anniversary of his birth but failed to follow through.

Diderot’s literary reputation during his lifetime rested primarily on his plays and his contributions to the Encyclopédie. Many of his most important works, including Jacques the Fatalist, Rameau’s Nephew, Paradox of the Actor, and D’Alembert’s Dream, were published only after his death, and are not household favorites outside France these days (or even in his homeland). Here are some salient quotes:

People will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

 We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

Happiest are the people who give most happiness to others”

One declaims endlessly against the passions; one imputes all of man’s suffering to them. One forgets that they are also the source of all his pleasures.

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.

A nation which thinks that it is belief in God and not good law which makes people honest does not seem to me very advanced.

Every man has his dignity. I’m willing to forget mine, but at my own discretion and not when someone else tells me to.

For me, my thoughts are my prostitutes.

Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.

Whether God exists or does not exist, He has come to rank among the most sublime and useless truths.

Life is but a series of misunderstandings.

There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it.

Diderot definitely enjoyed his food, and, so, any good 18th century French recipe would work as a tribute on his birthday. He wrote many, many tributes to dishes he ate when dining with friends. However, he died during dinner, and the events are reasonably well recorded by his daughter. He sat down to his noonday meal of soup, boiled mutton and chicory (endive), and then reached for a ripe apricot. His wife cautioned him against eating the fruit, but he ignored her saying, “What the Devil harm can come of it?” He then ate it, but dropped dead while helping himself to cherry compote.

You could finish what Diderot did not by making a cherry compote. For this you will need pitted cherries (I like to use bitter ones), brandy, and sugar. Put the cherries in a saucepan, cover with brandy and add sugar to taste. Stew the cherries in the brandy for about 15 minutes, remove them from the liquid, and reduce it to a thick syrup. Pour it back over the cherries and chill (not icy cold).

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