There were in Diderot at least two characters, as in us all: a private self, preserving secretly all the impulses of human nature as found in primitive, savage, even animal, life; and a public self reluctantly accepting education, discipline, and morality as the price to be paid for protection by social order. There were still other selves in him: the Diderot who had not forgotten his youth, his Bohemian liberties and loves, his freedom from responsibilities except to the police; and there was the paterfamilias who, if allowed a mistress capable of understanding his language and ideas, could be also, intermittently, a fairly good husband, a doting father, a half-domesticated animal, a man with some appreciation of money, morality, and law.

This Jekyll and Hyde produced, between 1770 and 1772, two dialogues illustrating the vacillation of his views. In Entretien d’un père avec ses enfants he drew a loving picture of his father gently expounding “the danger of those who put themselves above the law.” But two years later he wrote the most radical of all his works. Louis Antoine de Bougainville had just (1771) published his Voyage autour du monde, recounting his experiences in Tahiti and other South Pacific isles. Diderot seized upon parts of the narrative as illustrating certain superiorities of savagery to civilization. To elucidate these he composed (1772), with his usual verve, imagination, and partiality, a Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville, which saw the light only in 1796. He took up an old Tahitian mentioned by Bougainville, and fancied him making a farewell address to the admiral of the departing French:

And you, chief of the brigands who obey you, quickly push off your vessel from our shore. We are innocent, we are happy; all you can do for us is to spoil our happiness. We follow the pure instinct of nature; you have sought to efface its character from our souls. Here all things belong to all men; you have preached some strange distinction between “thine” and “mine.” Our daughters and our wives were held in common by us all; you have shared this privilege with us, and … have inflamed them with frenzies unknown before.… You have slaughtered each other for them; they have come back stained with your blood.

We are free, and behold, you have planted in our earth the title of our future slavery.… On this metal blade you have written, This country is ours. .. . And why? Because you have set foot here? If a Tahitian disembarked one day upon your shores, and graved upon one of your stones … This country belongs to the inhabitants of Tahiti,what would you think of such a proceeding? …

He whom you wish to seize like an animal, the Tahitian, is your brother.… What right have you over him that he has not over you? You came. Did we fall upon you? Did we pillage your ships? … No. We respected our image in you. Leave us our customs, they are wiser and more honorable than yours. We have no wish to barter what you call our ignorance against your useless knowledge.48

The Nestor of Tahiti goes on to remind the Europeans how cordial was the welcome they had received; how they were housed and fed and loved. For (Diderot supposed) there was no Sixth Commandment in the island, and no jealousy; the native women could not understand the ship’s chaplain when he spoke of sin and shame; they gave the ultimate hospitality to the sailors. With what result? Syphilis, unknown to the islanders before, was now appearing in the native women, and was being communicated to the native men. The old man begs the visitors to leave the island and never return.

Diderot added a “Conversation of the Chaplain and Orou”—a native who had learned Spanish. Orou, on whose hut the chaplain has been billeted, offers him the choice of his wife and daughters as his bedmate. The chaplain explains that his moral code forbids him to accept such a favor, but one of the girls touches him and he becomes a man. He spends the next three days explaining Christian ethics to Orou, and the next three nights sleeping in turn with a second daughter and a third daughter, and “the fourth night, as in honor bound, he consecrated to the wife of his host.”49 His efforts to convert Orou to Christianity provide Diderot with a joyful page:

CHAPLAIN. What is marriage with you?

OROU. Agreement to share the same hut and sleep in the same bed as long as we wish to do so.

CHAPLAIN. And when you wish no longer?

OROU. We separate.

CHAPLAIN. And what happens to the children?

This is no problem, says Orou; the lady returns with them to her father; she is soon courted by another man, who is glad to accept her children, for children are economic assets in an agricultural society.

CHAPLAIN. Can a father sleep with his daughter, a mother with her son, a brother with his sister, a husband with another man’s wife?

OROU. Why not?

CHAPLAIN. I suppose, however, that even here a son does not often sleep with his mother.

OROU. Not unless he has a great deal of respect for her.50

The chaplain comes away almost won to “Tahitian” ways; he admits that he “was tempted to throw his clothes into the ship and pass the rest of his life among” these “children of nature.” Diderot concludes almost as his former friend Rousseau had argued in hisDiscourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) and his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755):

Would you like an abridged account of almost all our wretchedness? Here it is. There existed a natural man. There was introduced into this man an artificial man; and a civil war, enduring throughout life, arose.… Sometimes the natural man is stronger, sometimes he is struck down by the moral and artificial man. In either case the poor monster is pulled about, pinched with tweezers, tortured, stretched on the wheel, … ceaselessly unhappy.51

Diderot, of course, was very poorly informed about the Tahitians. Bougainville himself had described them as ridden with superstitions and taboos, terrified by imaginary evil spirits, and subject to priests, not to mention a variety of insects and diseases. Diderot, restless in monogamy, was in no mood to understand why the necessities of social order had placed so many restraints upon the lawless sexual instincts of mankind. He was one more example of the individual intellect imagining itself wiser than the customs of the race.

There is an amusing contrast between the ethical philosophy of Diderot the writer and that of Diderot the man. Theoretically, at times, his moral ideas verged upon anarchism. In those moments he described human nature as basically good, and on this assumption he proposed to “follow nature”—i.e., instinct. Only through instinct, he felt, could the individual free himself from the bonds that religion and society lay upon him with their thousand conventions, prohibitions, and laws. In this mood he described coitus as “the sovereign happiness”;52 he defined love as “the voluptuous rubbing of two membranes,” and “the voluptuous loss of a few drops of liquid”;53 and he assured his mistress that adultery “is a fault less reprehensible than the slightest lie.”54 He was a philosopher longing to live like a rooster.

As his experience of life widened he reversed almost all his ethical views. Veering from Rousseau toward Voltaire, he took an increasingly gloomy view of man as bad by nature as well as through social deterioration. “Nothing shows so well how detestable human nature is as the facility with which people consent to the most wicked acts when [as in a crowd] … nobody is personally responsible for the evil that is done.”55 “Believe me,” says Jacques the Fatalist, “we never pity anyone but ourselves.”56 Now Diderot cancels his earlier exaggerations with new ones: “The natural man” would “twist his father’s neck and sleep with his mother were it not for the development of his reason by education.”57 As his sexual needs diminished, Diderot came to agree with Epicurus that “the pleasures of the soul” are more steadily satisfying than physical delights.58 “Is there,” he asks, “only physical pleasure in possessing a beautiful woman? Is there only physical pain in losing her by death or inconstancy? Is not the distinction between physical and moral as solid as that between the animalcule that feels and the animal that reasons?”59

Now that he had arrived at the biological conception of virtue as any quality that makes for survival, he came vaguely to understand that the highest virtues are those that make for the survival of the group, since social organization is the chief means of individual survival. Diderot recognized, in the nephew of Rameau, what happens to one who tries to cast off the restraints imposed upon the individual for the preservation of the group; such a man becomes a derelict without faith, food, mate, or hope. So Diderot concludes his dream of Tahiti with a tardy council of moderation: “We will preach against insensate laws until they are reformed. But meanwhile we will submit to them. He who of his own authority infringes a bad law authorizes everyone else to infringe a good one. It is less inconvenient to be mad among madmen than to be wise all alone.”60

When his daughter Angélique developed the charms of young womanhood, Diderot began to worry about her morals. He watched over her virginity as a precious and marketable asset, and after he had seen her safely married he warned her against adultery; the very suspicion of infidelity on her part, he told her, would crush him with grief and make him die of shame.61 In his art criticisms he denounced Boucher as corrupt, and exalted modesty and other Christian virtues as pictured by Greuze and Chardin; in his plays he preached the old virtues like any settled and prosperous bourgeois. Diderot amused himself with such pieces of reckless humor as the Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville, and with anarchistic revels of imagination at the dinners of d’Holbach; but when he came home he insisted upon all the middle-class virtues, and tried to practice them if only he might be allowed a little adultery.

His political ideas were as confused as his views of morality, and with his good-humored candor he admitted it. He did not agree with Voltaire that an enlightened monarch would prove the best available instrument of reform; he condemned Frederick the Great as a tyrant, and he tried to convert Catherine the Great to democratic ideas. He accepted constitutional monarchy, but proposed a national assembly—chosen by property owners as having a stake in good and economical government.62 (When he wrote this, none but the propertied middle class could be imagined as a possible substitute for the aristocracy in the government of France.) He dreamed of a benign society in which both liberty and equality (those natural enemies) would be assured to all, but he doubted if any reforms would be effective until widespread education should have raised the average intelligence of the people.I

His economic ideas were radical in theory, moderate in application. Even in old age he clung to an anarchistic communism as his ideal. “I am convinced that there cannot be any real happiness for mankind except in a social state in which there would be no king, no magistrate, no priest, no laws, no thine or mine, no ownership of property, no vices or virtues”;65 but he confessed that this prospect is “diablement idéal”66 “What a devilish social economy we have!” exclaimed the nephew of Rameau. “There are some men who are gorged with everything, while others, who have stomachs just as importunate, haven’t a bite to put between their teeth.”67 Diderot knew, in his sober moments, that inequality of possessions will continue as long as inequality of ability remains. He dismissed socialism as impracticable because as yet there was only a small, disorganized, and hardly conscious proletariat; but he hoped that the status of these workers would soon be raised. When it came to practical reforms, he stood with the physiocrats on the side of nascent capitalism. He declared the rights of property to be sacred and absolute, condemned any infringement of those rights by the state, and joined with Quesnay, Turgot, and Voltaire in calling for the liberation of industry and commerce from governmental controls.68 He favored state subsidies to agriculture as that part of the economy that was most vital and yet most at the mercy of the rest.69 Like all of us, he grew more conservative as his years and his income increased.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!