Denis Diderot

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In existographies, Denis Diderot (241-171 BE) (1713-1784 ACM) (IQ:180|#188) (ID:2.57|70) (Cattell 1000:169) (RGM:215|1,350+) (PR:353|65AE / writer:46) (Becker 139:70|5L) (Stokes 100:43) (FA:90) (GJ:#) (CR:151) (LH:40) (TL:217|#41), pronounced: Dee-der-oh, was a French philosopher, physicist, chemist, encyclopedist, and writer, aka "modern Socrates" (Voltaire, 1749), and "jack-of-all trades genius" (Tancock, 1964), noted for []



The following is a work-in-progress listing of Diderot's creed table, showing his beliefs, disbeliefs, and or unlearns, ordered via the date when the creed solidified in print, letter, or verbal statement:

Type Date Description
Chance 1743 Anti-chance (Philosophical Thoughts)[1]
God 1749 Atheist (Letter on the Blind)[2]; formerly a deist
Afterlife 1759 Didn't believe in Christian afterlife model; ruminated, however, on a possible atom-based, affinity law (conserved), after-existence rejoining of lovers scheme of sort ("Letter to Sophie")[3]
Good / Evil 1762 I believe that nature is not concerned about good and evil. She has two ends: the conservation of the individual and the propagation of the species.” ("Letter to Sophie")
Origin of life 1769 Nothing at first, then "living points"; then "living units" and "living molecules"; then animals (Alembert's Dream).
Will 1769 "There is only one consciousness, there is an infinity of wills" (Alembert's Dream).
Human 1769 A type of "thinking matter" (Alembert's Dream).


In 1748 to 1749, Diderot, building on Pierre Bayle's 4-volume Historical and Critical Dictionary (1702) and Ephraim Chambers' two-volume Cyclopedia (1728), began to work as lead editor on his Encyclopedia, the first edition published in 1751, co-edited with Jean Alembert until 1759, involving a number of famous contributors, which by 1772 had amassed 20M words, in 17-volumes (Blum, 2010) or 35-volumes, becoming one of the gems of the French enlightenment. Diderot wrote 7,000 articles of the encyclopedia.[4]


In 1768, Diderot, with the Holbach salon meetings running in full force and with a new clutch of atheist pamphlets on the market, commented the following:

“It’s raining bombs on the house of the lord.”
— Denis Diderot (1768), “Letter to Sophie Volland”, Nov 22; in: Oeuvres, Volume Five: Correspondence (pg. 922); cited by Philipp Blom (2010) in A Wicked Company (pg. 110)

In 1780, Diderot, in his Elements of Physiology (AB:13), building on Epicurus and Lucretius, presented a world in flux, turning on the relationship between man, matter, and mind; dubbed the “atheist’s bible” (Warman, 2020).[5]

First name

Diderot's was named "Denis" after Dionysus the Greek god of wine and ecstasy.[6] It would seem to be the case here, as the saying goes, that Diderot's parents, knowingly or not, destined their son to speak the truth possibly, in the sense of "drunk words are sober thoughts".[7]


In 1754 to 1757, Diderot studied chemistry under Guillaume Rouelle (1703-1770). We also note, that Lavoisier and Jean Limbourg also studied under Rouelle and that the Limbourg affinity table (1758) was the prize winner of the Academy of Rouen’s contest to: “Determine the affinities that are found between the principals and mixeds as Geoffroy did, and find a physico-mechanical system of these affinities”; also that the Rouelle affinity table (1763) was the one printed in Diderot’s Encyclopedia.[8]

Philosophical Thoughts

In 1740s, Diderot translated the works of two English philosophers into French, one being Anthony Shaftesbury; in the Shaftesbury translation, Diderot began to add his own notes.

In 1743, Diderot, Philosophical Thoughts, presented his Shaftesbury notes in booklet form.[6]

Letter on the Blind

In 1749, Diderot, in the wake of a sensational case of a cataract operation that restored sight to a girl who had been blind since birth, published Letter on the Blind: for the Benefit of Those Who Can See, wherein he argued that to the blind the worst crime is "theft", to which they are terribly vulnerable, but a sight-dependent crime such as "public indecency" is of no concern to the blind, hence, accordingly morals are not universal or revealed, but depend on the physical constitution and social context of each individual, i.e. are specific to a particular place or time.[6]

This is followed by a fictional deathbed conversation between the blind mathematician Nicholas Saunderson (1682-1739) and a priest, who tries to explain to the blind Saunderson how the "beauty of nature" is proof of god's existence, to which Saunderson says that physical beauty as proof has no meaning to a blind person; the following famous quote resulted:

“If you want me to believe in god, you must make me touch him.”
— Denis Diderot (1749), Letters of the Blind (character: Nicholas Saunderson) [2]
“If nature presents us with a knot which is difficult to untangle, let us leave it as it appears and let us not cut it with a hand of a being which will afterwards become a knot even more impossible to untangle than the first.”
— Denis Diderot (1749). “Letter on the Blind: for those who Veil”[16]; cited by Philipp Blom (2010) in A Wicked Company (pg. 48)
An image of Voltaire helping Diderot up to the podium, stage, or platform; presumably a reference to Voltaire helping Diderot to the world stage, following his Letter on the Blind (1749), which Voltaire took great interest in.

This publication attracted the attention of Voltaire:

“I have read with extreme pleasure your Letter on the Blind (1749). I am concerned with the absence of an ‘infinitely cleaver workman’ in your universe? I desire passionately to converse with you, no matter whether you think you are one of his works or whether you think you are a necessarily organized portion of an eternal and necessary matter.”
Voltaire (c.1749), “Letter to Denis Diderot”[9]


In late 1749, the blasphemous content of Diderot's Letter on the Blind, eventually, after the theologians got wind of its contents, resulted in getting him imprisoned for several months. During this period, Diderot was visited by Jean Rousseau, whom Diderot advised to use the paradoxical method of writing his "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences".

Diderot was eventually released when associated booksellers backing his planned Encyclopedia, pleaded with the authorities to release him, per reason that the project created jobs for France, which could go to other countries if he is not released. Before his release, however, Diderot had to sign a letter stating that he promised never to write and publish anything blasphemous, or face imprisonment, with no release. Philipp Blom (2010) conjectures that this letter was the reason that Diderot never produced any further philosophical works of his own, after this date.

The group Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot latter came to be called the “three infidels” (Temmer, 1988); a reference to Samuel Johnson’s labeling of Rousseau as an “infidel”.[10]

Sophie Letters

An image of the 1930 edition of Diderot's Sophie Volland Letters.[11] Sophie Volland, his lover of 29-years, and curious intellectual, seems to have been to Diderot, and his discussions of atoms, affinity, atheism, and love, what Mary Shelley was to Percy Shelley, in respect to the same exact discussions in England in the 1810s.

In spring 1755, Diderot met Sophie Volland (1716-1784), in intellectually curious woman, who had studied science and philosophy, to whom, as his great love, Diderot, over the course of 29-years, wrote a total of 553 letters, of which 187 survived. Diderot died five months after Volland died.[12]

Affinity letter

In 1759, Diderot wrote his famous "affinity letter" to Volland, wherein he seems to outline his conception of "atheistic afterlife", so to say, wherein he might "blend" or rather re-blend with his lover when they no longer exist, per reason that the "laws will still exist"; the following seem to be two translation variants;

“When the cell is divided in a hundred thousand parts, the primitive animal dies, but all his laws still exist. Oh, my Sophie, I still have the hope to touch you, to feel you, to love you, to seek you, to blend with you when we no longer exist! If there were in our nature a law of affinity; if we were destined to blend into one common being; if in the space of eternity I could remake a whole with you; if the dispersed molecules of your lover became agitated and began to search for yours! Leave me this hope, this consolation. It’s so sweet. It assures me of eternity in you and with you.”
— Denis Diderot (1759), “Letter to Sophie Volland”, Oct 15[3]
“Oh my Sophie, there is just one hope of touching you, feeling new, loving you, of seeking you and uniting with you when we are no more! If there were a kind of ‘law of affinity’ among our organizing principles, if we could make up one shared being … if the molecules of your dissolved lover could become agitated, move and seek your molecules scattered through nature! Leave me this chimera; it is such a sweet thought, it assures me of eternity in you and with you.”
— Denis Diderot (1759), “Letter to Sophie Volland”, Oct 15[13]; cited by Philipp Blom (2010) in A Wicked Company (pg. 130)
“The remainder of the evening was spent teasing me about my paradox.... I was offered fine pears that lived, grapes that thought; and I said: Those who loved each other during their life and have themselves interred side by side are perhaps not as foolish as one might think. Perhaps their ashes come into contact, mingle and unite! Who am I to know? Perhaps they have not lost all feeling, all memory of their past state; perhaps they retain a remnant of warmth and life, which they enjoy in their own way at the bottom of the cold urn that holds them. We tend to judge the life of elements in the image of the life of clumsy masses; perhaps they are very different things. ... Oh, dear Sophie, I thus cling to the hope that I may touch you, feel you, love you, seek you, unite with you, and meld into you when we no longer are, if there were a law of affinity in our principles, if it were our prerogative to form a single being. if it were my fate to be one with you through the course of the centuries, if the molecules of your erstwhile lover were destined to become inspired, aroused, and to seek yours scattered in nature! Allow me this reverie, so sweet to me; it would assure me eternity in you and with you.”
— Denis Diderot (1759), “Letter to Sophie Volland”, Oct 15[14]

Diderot, here, of note, seems to be digging at a continuity theory of existence states, in some semblance of the matter? This presages the end of existence 1878 poetic statement by Maxwell: "we must find the ‘equation on continuity’. Great principle of all we see; thou endless continuity!”, themed in honor of Percy Shelley, who took his own life at age 30 after struggling to develop n affinity theory of existence and marriage in the context of explicit atheism, within the confines of great social resistance and opprobrium.[15] The Peter French (1972) translation, of note, gives a different wording from the above two.[16]


The following are other Volland letters:

I believe that nature is not concerned about good and evil. She has two ends: the conservation of the individual and the propagation of the species.”
— Denis Diderot (1762), “Letter to Sophie Volland”; in Oeuvres, Volume Five: Correspondence (pg. 399); cited by Philipp Blom (2010) in A Wicked Company (pg. 104-05)

Rameau's Nephew

In 1761, Diderot drafted Rameau’s Nephew, but never published it. The dialogue surrounds the "vanity puzzle", i.e. whether or not all we do is but vanity, looked at both from the point of view of young man of age 15 beginning to decide what to do with their existence, and a father who has a young child and is thinking about the pros and cons of actively directing their education and course of career or let them arise naturally, with back thoughts on Diogenes who resided naked in a barrel as his home (aka wise homeless man). The following (pg. 65) is the central dialogue on vanity:

He: “Long live philosophy and long lived wisdom of Solomon: drink good wine, blow yourself out with luscious food, and have a tumble with lovely women, lie on soft beds. Apart from that the rest is vanity.”
I: “What! fighting for one country?”
He: “Vanity! There’s no such thing left. From pole to pole all I can see is tyrants.”
I: “Helping one’s friends?”
He: “Vanity! Have we got any friends? And if we had, ought we to make them ungrateful? Have a good look round then you will see that it is what you almost always get for service rendered. Credit is a burden, and all burdens are meant to be shaken off.”
I: “Having a position in society and fulfilling its duty?”
He: “Vanity! What does it matter whether you have a position or not so long as you are rich, since you only take opposition in order to get rich? Fulfilling her duties, where does that land you?”
I: “Seeing to the upbringing of your children?”
He: “Vanity! That’s the teacher’s job.”

The following are other noted dialogue points:

“There are two kinds of laws: some absolutely and equitable and universal, others capricious and only owing their authority to blindness or force of circumstances.”
— Denis Diderot (1661), Rameau’s Nephew (character: I) (pg. 39)[17]
“We shall prove that Voltaire has no brains, Buffon is always highfalutin and nothing but a windbag, Montesquieu merely wag, Alembert will be relegated to his mathematics and we shall smite him and by all those little Catos like you, or despise us out of envy, whose modesty is a cook for pride in his sobriety is dedicated by necessity.”
— Denis Diderot (1661), Rameau’s Nephew (character: He) (pg. 64)
“People laud virtue, by today hate and avoid it, for it freezes you to death, and in this world you have to keep your feet warm.”
— Denis Diderot (1661), Rameau’s Nephew (character: He) (pgs. 68-69)

In 1784, at his destating, the manuscript, along with other works by Diderot, were sent to Catherine the Great. In 1804, a copy of Rameau’s Nephew reached Jena, where it was read by Schiller, who passed it to Goethe, who immediately translated it into German, officially publishing it for the first time in spring 1805. This influenced Georg Hegel, who, in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), gave in interpretation of the dialogue of Rameau’s Nephew, which thereafter became a topic of considerable interest.[18]

Alembert's Dream

See main: Alembert's Dream

In 1754, Diderot, in his Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature (Pensees sur l'interpretation de la Nature), had renewed the call for a purely experimental and practical science, as opposed to the Cartesian type of theoretical reasoning, amid which he skirmished with problems such as: living, organic nature of matter, origin of life, evolution. At the end of this essay, Diderot listed fifteen points or questions, which summarized his perplexities in the face of the mysteries of nature, e.g. living matter and dead matter.[19] He then left these question sit in the back of his mind, until the summer of 1769, when his wife and daughter were away, and he had a few free months.

Elements of Physiology

In 1780, Diderot, in his Elements of Physiology (AB:16), building on Epicurus and Lucretius, presented a world in flux, turning on the relationship between man, matter and mind; example quote:

Love is harder to explain than hunger, for a piece of fruit does not feel the desire to be eaten.”
— Denis Diderot (1780), Elements of Physiology (pg. #)

The book has been dubbed the “atheist’s bible” (Warman, 2020).[20]


An image of Diderot editing and or writing an article.


Diderot was influenced by: Horace, Montaigne, Francois Rabelais, Benedict Spinoza, Jean Bruyere, Moliere, Anthony Shaftesbury, John Toland, Pierre Bayle, and Ephraim Chambers.


Diderot associated with: Jean Rousseau and Baron Holbach.


Diderot influenced: Julien Mettrie and Voltaire.


Quotes | On

The following are quotes on Diderot:

“At the distance of a few centuries from the time when he lived, Diderot will appear a prodigious man; we will look at this universal head from afar with admiration mixed with astonishment, as we look today at the heads of Plato and Aristotle.”
Jean Rousseau (c.1770), Publication; cited by Max Cushing (1914) in Baron d’Holbach (§1, pg. #)[21]
Diderot’s conversations are ostentations of total unbelief.”
— Samuel Romilly (1781), Publication[22]
Voltaire was the last mind of the old France, Diderot the first of the new.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (c.1885), Nachgelassene Fragmente[23]
Diderot is the patron saint of Wikipedia.”
Jimmy Wales (c.2018), “Comment to Andrew Curran”[4]

Quotes | By

The following are quotes by Diderot:

“Monsieur, look at me; a lemon is less yellow than my face. I make men out of your children, but every day I became a child with them. I am a thousand times too rich and too comfortable in your house, but I simply have to leave; what I really want is not to live better, but not die.”
— Denis Diderot (1732), “notice of termination as tutor to children of rich Parisian”[24]
“We do not know nature at all; causes hidden deep within her may have produced everything. Look in your turn at Trembley’s polyp! Does it not contain inside it the causes of its own regeneration? Why then would it be absurd to believe that there exist physical causes for which everything was made and to which the whole chain of this vast universe is so necessarily linked and subordinated that nothing that happens could not have happened; that it is our absolutely invincible ignorance of these causes that has made us look to a god, who is not even a being of reason, according to some? Thus, destroying chance does not mean proving the existence of a supreme being, for there may be something else which is neither chance nor god; I mean ‘nature’, the study of which can as a result only produce unbelievers, as is proved by the manner of thinking of all its most successful observers.”
— Denis Diderot (1743), Philosophical Thoughts[1]; cited by Julien Mettrie (1747) in Man: a Machine (pg. 24)
“The passions are endlessly reviled; one accuses them of every evil in man, and one forgets that they are also the source of all his pleasures, and yet, only the pasbecome a knot even more impossible to untangle than the first.”
— Denis Diderot (1749). “Letter on the Blind: for those who Veil”[25]; cited by Philip Blom (2010) in A Wicked Company (pg. 48)
“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings. We must run roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected.”
— Denis Diderot (1755), Article: "Encyclopaedia", in: Encyclopedia, Volume Six (pg. 635)[26][27]
Philosophy should trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, shared covenants, authority, in a word, every thing that controls the ‘mind’ of the common herd.”
— Denis Diderot (c.1760), Publication[4]
“I was going to ‘take the fur’, i.e. obtain a doctorate in theology, and install myself among the doctors of Sorbonne. On my way, I meet a beautiful woman as an angel; I want to sleep with her, and I do; I have three children by her an I am ‘forced’ to abandon my mathematics, which I loved, my Homer and Virgil, which I always had in my pocket, the theater, for which I had a taste, and was only too happy to undertake the Encyclopedia [1751], to which I devoted 25-years of my life.”
— Denis Diderot (c.1780), “Reflections of 1743”[28]

End matter

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Diderot, Denis. (1743). Philosophical Thoughts: Commentary Notes on Shaftesbury (Pensees Philosophques). Publisher.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Diderot, Denis. (1749). Letters of the Blind (character: Nicholas Saunderson) (WQ). Publisher.
  3. 3.0 3.1 (a) Diderot, Denis. (1759), “Letter to Sophie Volland”, Oct 15.
    (b) Anon. (2010). “Lucidity and Passion: Denis Diderot’s Love Letters to Sophie Volland”, Literature Salon, WordPress, Sep 20.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Curran, Andrew. (2019). “Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely” (YT), Talks at Google, Sep 5.
  5. Warman, Caroline. (2020). The Atheist’s Bible: Diderot’s Elements of Physiology. Open.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Blom, Philipp. (2010). A Wicked Company: Holbach’s Salon and the Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Amz) (pg. 6; Shaftesbury, pg. 22; Letter on the Blind, pgs. 47-48; Alembert's Dream, pgs. 105-08). McClelland, 2011.
  7. Greatest Greek philosophers –
  8. Affinity table – Hmolpedia 2020.
  9. (a) Crocker, Lester G. (1954). The Embattled Philosopher: a Biography of Denis Diderot (pg. 102). Publisher.
    (b) Stephens, Mitchell. (2014). Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Shape the Modern World (pg. 47). St. Martin's Press.
  10. Temmer, Mark. (1988). Samuel Johnson and the Three Infidels: Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot (pg. 3). Georgia Press.
  11. Diderot, Denis. (1930). Lettres a Sophie Volland, Three Volumes (editor: Andre Babelon) (Ѻ). Gallimard.
  12. Sophie Volland – Wikipedia.
  13. Diderot, Denis. (1818). Oeuvres, Volume Five: Correspondence (pg. 813). Publisher.
  14. (a) Diderot, Denis. (1784). Letters to Sophie Volland (Lettres a Sophie Volland), Three Volumes (editor: Andre Babelon). Publisher, 1930).
    (b) Diderot, Denis. (1784). Diderot’s Letters to Sophie Volland: a Selection (translator: Peter France) (law of affinity, pg. 38). Publisher, 1972.
    (c) Guyot, Charly. (1982). Diderot (pg. #). Publisher.
    (d) Pullman, Bernard. (1995). The Atom in the History of Human Thought (translator: Axel Reisinger) (animate atoms, pg. 151). Oxford University Press, 1998.
    (e) Stenger, Victor J. (2013). God and the Atom: from Democritus to the Higgs Boson: the Story of a Triumphant Idea (pg. 76). Prometheus Books.
  15. (a) Maxwell, James. (1878). “A Paradoxical Ode / After Shelley”, in: Life of Maxwell (editor: Lewis Campbell) (continuity, pgs. 453, 626, 650). MacMillan, 1882. (b) Thims, Libb. (2021). “Top Level Genius!” (Ѻ), r/RealGeniuses, May.
  16. Diderot, Denis. (1784). Diderot’s Letters to Sophie Volland: a Selection (translator: Peter France) (law of affinity, pg. 38). Publisher, 1972.
  17. Diderot, Denis. (1661). Rameau’s Nephew (Le Neveu de Rameau); in: Rameau’s Nephew and Diderot’s Dream (§:15-130) (translator: Leonard Tancock). Penguin, 1964.
  18. Schmidt, James. (1996). “The Fool’s Truth: Diderot, Goethe, and Hegel” (Jst), Journal of the History of Ideas, 57(4):625-44, Oct.
  19. Diderot, Denis. (1669). D’Alembert’s Dream (Le Reve D’Alembert); in: Rameau’s Nephew and Diderot’s Dream (§:131-237) (translator: Leonard Tancock) (Introduction, pgs. 133-34). Penguin, 1964.
  20. Warman, Caroline. (2020). The Atheist’s Bible: Diderot’s Elements of Physiology. Open.
  21. Cushing, Max. (1914). Baron d’Holbach: a Study of Eighteenth Century Radicalism in France (PhD dissertation) (txt) (salon, pg. #; Plato and Aristotle [Platon et des Aristote], pg. #). Alexandria.
  22. Flynn, Tom. (2007). The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (pg. 277). Prometheus.
  23. (a) Nietzsche, Friedrich. (c.1885). Nachgelassene Fragmente; in: Samtliche Mwerek, Volume 13 (pg. 122). De Gruyter, 1999.
    (b) Blom, Philipp. (2010). A Wicked Company: Holbach’s Salon and the Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Amz) (pg. 317). McClelland, 2011.
  24. (a) Vandeul, Marie-Angeliquie. (1992). Diderot, mon pere (pg. 15). Circe.
    (b) Blom, Philipp. (2010). A Wicked Company: Holbach’s Salon and the Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Amz) (pgs. 15-16). McClelland, 2011.
  25. Diderot, Denis. (1749). “Letter on the Blind: for those who Veil” (“Lettre sure les aveugls a l’usage de ceux qui violent”); in: Oeuvres, Volume One (pg. 167). Publisher.
  26. Encyclopedia –
  27. Diderot, Denis. (1784). The Portable Enlightenment Reader (editor: Isaac Kramnick) (pg. 18). Penguin, 1995.
  28. (a) Diderot, Denis. (c.1780). Works, Volume Four (Oeuveres, Volume Four: Esthetique et Theatre) (pgs. 730-31). Laffont, 1997.
    (b) Blom, Philipp. (2010). A Wicked Company: Holbach’s Salon and the Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Amz) (pg. 21). McClelland, 2011.
  29. Diderot-Barthelemy dialogue – Hmolpedia 2020.
  30. Maupertuis-Diderot debate – Hmolpedia 2020.


Further reading


  • Anderson, Addison. (2016). “The Controversial Origins of the Encyclopedia” (YT), Ted-Ed, Feb 18.
  • Anon. (2019). “Denis Diderot: Heroes of the Enlightenment” (YT), Honeysup1234, Jul 16.

External links

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