A lively biography of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), provocateur, polymath, and central figure in the French Enlightenment.
Ironically, the philosopher whose name is strongly associated with freethinking kept his freest thoughts under wraps: Thanks to an early lesson in the consequences of candor, he intentionally left mountains of unpublished writings to be discovered after his death. Early writings skewering organized religion and questioning God’s existence earned him public book-burnings and a three-month prison stint. In the ensuing years, he would save his most provocative thoughts about sex and politics for the drawer; his posthumous novel The Nun questioned the immorality of incest and adultery. But he put some of his most challenging ideas in plain sight, if subtly, through his life-consuming, multivolume Encyclopédie, which tweaked the sensibilities of religious leaders while also striving to “pull back the world’s curtain” through anatomical and mechanical illustrations that were rarely available to the public. Curran (Humanities/Wesleyan Univ.; The Anatomy of Blackness, 2011, etc.) gamely sifts through the mountain of Diderot’s output—he was a prolific art critic, lead writer of the Encyclopédie, and an inveterate correspondent—without for a moment making it feel burdensome. Rather, he ably balances the details of Diderot’s life with thoughtful considerations of the source and depth of his philosophical byways, taking his more peculiar ideas seriously but not literally. Curran’s mission is served by his subject’s wealth of experiences: In addition to his run-ins with state and religious leaders, he found a patron and intellectual sparring partner in Catherine the Great and corresponded with Benjamin Franklin before the American Revolution his writings helped inspire. As Curran writes, Diderot argued that kings and religious leaders “were complicit in running a massive illusion factory”; a more skeptical world may be Diderot’s greatest legacy.
An intellectually dense and well-researched yet brisk journey into one of history’s most persuasive dissenters.