He had promised Sophie Volland that there would be nothing in The Dream of d’Alembert about religion; actually, of course, the trilogy expressed a philosophy that quite dispensed with deity. Publicly he remained a deist, keeping God as Prime Mover only, and denying providence, or divine design. Theoretically he was an agnostic, disclaiming any knowledge of, or interest in, anything beyond the world of the senses and the sciences. Sometimes he spoke vaguely of a cosmic consciousness, which stumbled along through endless time, making experiments, producing now sterile freaks or lucky accidents—hardly a God to receive a prayer. In another mood he could become violently antagonistic. He told of the misanthrope who, in revenge upon life, propagated the idea of God; the idea spread, and soon “men fell to quarreling, hating, and cutting one another’s throats; and they have been doing the same thing ever since that abominable name was pronounced.” And Diderot added, in cautious ecstasy, “I would sacrifice my life, perhaps, if I could annihilate forever the notion of God.”22 Yet the same muddleheaded genius felt the amazing order and grandeur of the cosmos; he wrote to Mlle. Volland: “Atheism is close to being a kind of superstition, as puerile as the other”; and he added: “I am maddened at being entangled in a devilish philosophy that my mind cannot help approving and my heart refuting.”23 In his later years he admitted the difficulty of deriving the organic from the inorganic, or thought from sensation.24
But he never relented in his war on Christianity. A passionate paragraph in a private letter sums up his case against it:
The Christian religion is to my mind the most absurd and atrocious in its dogmas: the most unintelligible, the most metaphysical, the most entangled and obscure, and consequently the most subject to divisions, sects, schisms, heresies; the most mischievous for the public tranquillity, the most dangerous to sovereigns by its hierarchic order, its persecutions, its discipline; the most flat, the most dreary, the most Gothic and most gloomy in its ceremonies; the most puerile and unsociable in its morality; … the most intolerant of all.25
In Promenade du sceptique (1747) he had acknowledged the services of the Church in training character and forming morals; in later years he thought that while discouraging petty crime the Christian religion had fomented greater ones: “Sooner or later a moment comes when the notion which had prevented a man from stealing a shilling will cause 100,000 men to be slaughtered. Fine compensation!”26 However, “our religious opinions have little influence on our morals”;27 men fear present laws more than a distant hell and an invisible God. Even a priest “hardly relies upon praying to the gods except when he is little concerned about the matter.”28 In 1783 Diderot predicted that belief in God, and submission to kings, would be everywhere at an end within a few years;29 the prediction seemed verified in France in 1792; but Diderot also predicted that “the belief in the existence of God will remain forever.”30
Like most of those who have lost their faith in Catholic doctrine, this same Diderot who thought Christian ceremonies dreary and gloomy remained sensitive to the beauty and solemnity of Catholic ritual, and he defended it against Protestant critics in his Salon of 1765:
Those absurd rigorists do not know the effect of outward ceremonies upon the people. They have never seen our Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday, the enthusiasm of the multitude at the procession of Corpus Christi, an enthusiasm by which I am sometimes carried away. I have never seen that long file of priests in sacerdotal vestments, those young acolytes in white albs, … strewing flowers before the Holy Sacrament, that crowd preceding and following them in religious silence, so many men prostrate on the ground, I have never heard that grave, pathetic chant sung by the priests and affectionately answered by numberless men, women, girls, and children, without being stirred in my inmost heart, and without tears coming into my eyes.31
But after wiping his eyes he resumed the attack. In the Entretien d’un philosophe avec la maréchale de—(1776), he imagined a skeptic, whom he named Crudeli (Italian for cruel), talking with a titled lady who “held that the man who denies the Blessed Trinity is a ruffian who will end on the gallows.” She is surprised to find that M. Crudeli, who is an atheist, is not also a sensualist and a thief. “I think that if I had nothing to fear or hope after death I should allow myself a good many little pleasures here below.” Crudeli asks, “What are those things?” “They are only for my confessor’s ears.… But what motive can an unbeliever have for being good, unless he is mad?” She retreats a little before his arguments, then takes a new line of defense: “We must have something with which to frighten off those actions which escape the severity of the laws.” And besides, “if you destroy religion, what will you put in its place?” Crudeli answers, “Suppose I had nothing to put in its place, there would always be one terrible prejudice less.” He pictures Mohammedans on a Christian-killing rampage, and Christians burning Mohammedans and Jews.
MARÉCHALE. Suppose everything that you believe false should be true, and you were damned. It is a terrible thing to be damned—to burn through eternity.
CRUDELI. La Fontaine thought we should be as comfortable as fishes in water.
MARÉCHALE. Yes, yes, but your La Fontaine became very serious at the end, and I expect the same of you.
CRUDELI. I can answer for nothing when my brain has softened.
The most anticlerical of the philosophes kept a special bitterness for what seemed to him the waste of human seed and energy in monasteries and nunneries. One of his angriest pages excoriated parents who condemned unwilling daughters to convent life; and his technically most finished production is an imaginary re-creation of such a nun’s career. La Religieuse (The Nun) was written in 1760 as the result of a prank by which Grimm and Diderot hoped to bring back to their company the Marquis de Croixmare from Caen to Paris. About this time Diderot was aroused by a nun’s appeal to the Parlement of Paris to release her from the vows that (she claimed) her parents had constrained her to take. The kindly Marquis wrote to the Parlement in her behalf, but in vain. We know nothing more of this nun, but Diderot reconstructed her history with such realistic fancy that she will live for centuries. He supposed that she had escaped from her convent, and he sent to Croixmare, as if from her pen, a series of letters describing her conventual experiences and asking his help in beginning a new life. The Marquis answered; Diderot replied in her name; and this correspondence continued through four months and 150 pages.
Diderot pictured Suzanne persecuted by a harsh abbess, imprisoned, stripped, tortured, starved. She complains to a priest, who secures her transfer to another convent; there, however, the abbess is a Lesbian who overwhelms her with love and solicits her co-operation. Diderot probably exaggerated the cruelties of abbesses and the griefs of nuns, but he made all the priests in his story amiable and benevolent, and he treated the Lesbian theme with a delicacy rare in his works. The Marquis was moved, and came to Paris. The hoax was revealed to him; he forgave it. The strange device had produced a remarkable study in psychology, perhaps influenced by Richardson’s Clarissa; never had a skeptic entered so vividly into the feelings of a reluctant saint. A visitor who came upon the author during the composition of these letters found him, says Grimm, “plunged in grief … and tears.”32 Diderot confessed that he was weeping over his own tale, for tears came to him as readily as to Rousseau. He was forgivably proud of his epistolary novel, of its verisimilitude, sentiment, and style; he revised it carefully, and bequeathed it for publication after his death. It saw the light in 1796, under the Revolution. In 1865 La Religieuse was publicly burned by order of the Tribunal of the Seine.33
Published with it in 1796, burned with it in 1865, was Jacques le fataliste et son maître, which Diderot, with the pathos of nearness, considered his greatest work.34 It may be so, but it is also the most absurd. Infatuated with Tristram Shandy (1760–67), he adopted Sterne’s trick of composing a story largely of interruptions, intruding upon it whimsically now and then to talk to the reader about the characters and the plot. He began and ended the book with passages and incidents copied directly from Sterne,35 and he bettered Sterne’s example of startling the reader with an occasional indecency. The two characters that carry the story reflect Cervantes’ device of contrasting master and man in temperament and philosophy. The master rejects, Jacques professes, fatalism; “Everything … that happens down here,” he says, “is written up yonder.”36 Jacques “believed that a man wended his way just as necessarily to glory or ignominy as a ball … would follow the slope of the mountain” down which it rolled. “His [former] captain had filled Jacques’ head with all these ideas drained out of Spinoza, whom he knew by heart”37—a rare captain.
Midway in the story Diderot tarries to tell, with verve and skill, the story of the Marquise de la Pommeraye, mistress of the Marquis des Arcis. Suspecting that he has tired of her, she resolves to find out by hinting that their liaison has become a bore. She is deeply offended by his admission that he is willing to relapse from a lover into a friend. She plans a unique revenge. She finds a pretty prostitute, finances her rehabilitation, teaches her grammar, manners, and an impressive piety, introduces her to the Marquis as a lady of lineage, trains her to arouse his humors and reject his advances, guides her in the art of eliciting a proposal of marriage. Some months after the marriage Mme. de la Pommeraye reveals to the Marquis the past of his mate. But the Marquise’s revenge is spoiled by an anomalous development. The reformed sinner has learned to love her Marquis; in shame and tears she confesses her deception, and proposes to disappear from his life. Meanwhile she has been so faithful and affectionate a wife that the Marquis has discovered more happiness in marriage than ever in adultery. He forgives her, and refuses to let her go; he lives with her in brave content, and Mme. de la Pommeraye eats her heart out in defeat.
This intermezzo is by all means the most striking part of Jacques le fataliste; it has the close texture, the subtle touches of psychological realism, the concentrated feeling quietly expressed, which are missing in the novel as a whole. Schiller recognized it as a gem of literary art, and translated it into German in 1785.