Behind this kaleidoscopic mind was a man of many virtues and almost every fault, each taking its turn on the stage of his life. When Michel Vanloo painted him Diderot protested that the face in the picture showed only a fleeting part of him, merely one expression of but one mood.
I had a hundred different expressions in a day, according to the mood that was on me. I was serene, sad, dreamy, tender, violent, passionate, eager. The outward signs of my many and varying states of mind chased one another so rapidly across my face that the painter’s eye caught a different me from moment to moment, and never got one right.95
Gradually, however, those many faces merged into a composite mold, and left him the rugged physiognomy that we see in the portrait by Greuze: as somber as Caesar, worn out by his passionate encounters with an army of ideas and enemies, and by attempts to express in static words the fluent nuances of his yes-and-no’s. High brow receding on a half-bald head; large rustic ears and big bent nose, firm mouth and fighting chin, brown eyes heavy and sad, as if recalling unrecallable errors, or realizing the indestructibility of superstition, or noting the high birth rate of simplicity. Usually in public he wore a wig, but when he lost himself in the ecstasy of monologue he might remove it, play with it, or rest it on his lap. He was absorbed in being, and had no time for seeming.
He yielded to no one in appreciation of his character. He admitted, “I get excited for a moment”; but “a moment later I am myself again, the frank, gentle, just, indulgent, honest, charitable, obliging man. Continue, if you please, this eulogy, for it isn’t complete. I haven’t said anything about my intelligence.” He doubted if any man alive was more honest than he, and he was sure that even the “pillars of the Church” would rely upon his word. “What beautiful souls yours, mine, and his are!” he wrote to his mistress, letting Grimm into the trinity. He spoke with rapture about his books and plays, confident of their immortality. He thought his morals excellent, and indeed he had only one mistress at a time. He spoke of himself as “the philosopher,” and acknowledged his likeness to Socrates. “What does it matter,” he asked, “whether I owe my estimable qualities to nature or experience, so long as they are solid, and vanity never spoils them?”96
Actually he had most of the virtues with which he credited himself. He was honest in the sense of candid, though he had done a deal of lying in his youth. There was no pose or affectation in him. He was gentle except in speech, where he was often wild and sometimes so coarse that Mme. Geoffrin had to call him to order and decency. He certainly had courage, for he continued to fight when so many friends deserted him, when even Voltaire advised him to quit. He was just, except to piety and Rousseau; we may see later that he did not sufficiently allow for Jean Jacques’ sensibility. He was unquestionably generous, always ready to aid those who appealed to him, and more lavish in praise of others than of himself. He spent many days substituting for Grimm in theCorrespondance, or putting into effective shape the literary efforts of his friends. He helped a long succession of poor people with gifts out of his modest income. When a needy scribe showed him a satire on Diderot and asked him to revise it, saying that he needed bread, Diderot revised and improved it, and suggested that he dedicate it to the current Duc d’Orléans, “who does me the honor to hate me.” It was so done, and the Duke sent the young author twenty-five louis.97 He was lenient in his criticisms of books and paintings (excepting Boucher’s), saying that he preferred to point to the good rather than belabor the bad.98 He was the most good-humored of the philosophes. Rousseau till 1758, and Grimm to the end, corroborated Diderot’s estimate of his own character. They spoke of him, said Mme. d’Épinay, with “the greatest veneration”; they admired his genius, but “his character was the object of their particular enthusiasm. M. Grimm says that he is the most perfect mortal he knows.”99 To such friends his faults were those of a child naïvely frank. They reckoned him profounder than Voltaire.
He was assuredly richer than Voltaire in ideas, for there were no checks and balances in his constitution. He was more imaginative, less rational, more impetuous, never mature. “Diderot,” said Voltaire, “is too hot an oven; everything that is baked in it gets burned”;100 even so, many things came out half baked. He was as keen as Rousseau in sensibility, as tender in his sentiments, as ready to weep over the loveliness of nature and the tragedies of life. He made his religieuse say, and it probably expressed himself, “For a tender soul the shedding of tears is a delicious condition.”101 His visitors sometimes found him in tears—or in a rage—over a book. Perhaps his friendship with Rousseau was based upon a community of sentiment, the same exaltation of feeling, the same love of nature, the same romantic conception of genius as instinct, passion, and imagination, the same enthusiasm for the novels of Richardson. He longed to warn Clarissa against Lovelace, and when he read of cruel kings he could easily imagine himself “using a dagger with marvelous facility.”102 Voltaire + Rousseau = Diderot; neither of those two could forgive him for including them both while remaining unique and himself.
His habits expressed the ambivalence of his qualities. He liked good food to the point of gourmandizing and gallstones, but he was alive to all the cultural offerings of his time. He hated and ridiculed travel,103 but he crossed Europe to slap the thighs of Catherine the Great. He wept over beautiful poetry, and indulged in coarse obscenity. He despised money, and talked of poverty as the inspiring friend of philosophers; but when his father died he went to Langres (1759) and was glad to get his third of the patrimony, so that by 1760 he had an income of four thousand livres per year. “I need a carriage,” he said, “a comfortable apartment [it was a duplex], fine linen, a perfumed woman, and I could easily put up with the other curses of our civilized state”; here the Voltaire in him checked and laughed at the Rousseau.
His wife was too busy with frustrated motherhood and unperfumed housework to provide a fit and necessary audience for his proliferating ideas. Like Milton he cried out for divorce on grounds of intellectual incompatibility. Not allowed this, he did what the French still do—he took a mistress. There was, briefly, Mlle. Babuti, who became Mme. Greuze. Then Mme. de Puisieux, who held him for a decade. In 1755 he found just what he needed: a young woman who for eighteen years gave him love, fidelity, and understanding. Louise Henriette Volland (whom he re-christened Sophie because she seemed to him the soul of wisdom) was already thirty-eight when they first met—unmarried, plump, shortsighted; he described her as wearing spectacles on a rather “dried-up” face, and he had to scold her, now and then, for rivaling his appetite. But she had gathered books instead of lovers; she had read widely, even in politics and philosophy; she talked well, and listened better. Diderot found her legs too thick, but he was grateful for her ears, and loved her mind and heart.
Ah, Grimm [he wrote], what a woman! How tender she is, how sweet, how honest, delicate, sensible! She reflects … We don’t know any more than she does in customs, morals, feelings, in an infinity of important things. She has her judgment, views, ideas, her own way of thinking, formed according to reason, truth, and common sense; neither public opinion nor authorities, nor anything, can subjugate them.104
This could not all be infatuation, for the objective Dr. Tronchin saw in her “the soul of an eagle in a house of gauze”;105 that is, she loved fine clothes and intellectual flights.
To her, through twenty years, Diderot wrote his finest letters, which remain among the literary treasures of the eighteenth century. He could write to her frankly about everything; he could send her his bawdy stories and his latest speculations; he would write to her as he would talk “if I were at your side, an arm on the back of your chair.”106 In his relationship with her he realized, as never before, the part that feeling and sentiment can play in life. Now he could hardly believe in determinism; it seemed incredible that their complex exchange of devotion and ideas could be the physicochemical result of some primeval nebula. Sometimes, in such a mood, he could even speak of God. He told Sophie how, walking in the countryside with Grimm, he plucked a blade of wheat and fell into thought over the mystery of growth. “What are you doing?” asked Grimm. “I am listening.” “Who is talking to you?” “God.”107
After some twelve years of his liaison with Sophie Volland his love subsided, his letters grew shorter, his protestations of fidelity more forced. In 1769, aged fifty-seven, he succeeded his dead friend Damilaville as the lover of Mme. de Meaux, aged fifty-four. A year later a younger gallant displaced Diderot. Meanwhile Denis continued to assure Sophie of his “eternal love.”
Through all the wanderings of his heart and mind his wife, Antoinette, bore with him faithfully, scolded him incontinently, and sought consolation in religion and cards. They quarreled almost daily, and time did not bridge the gap between the man with a thousand ideas and the woman with one God. When his friends came to visit him they never stopped to greet her. When she discovered his affair with Sophie she burst into a fury which seemed to him quite unproportioned to so common a diversion. For a while he had his meals served to him in his study. “She is beginning to feel the effects of this little divorce,” he wrote to Grimm. “The exhaustion of her funds, which is not distant, will bring reconciliation.”108 She fell sick, he relented, and tended her with grumbling care. She responded with such sweetness that he thought she must be dying; however, he described her illness jokingly in a letter to Sophie. When his friend Suard proposed to marry, Diderot advised him to drown himself instead. (Suard’s marriage was one of the happiest in that unhappy age.)
Probably Diderot would have fled from his home had he not so loved his domestic comforts and his pretty daughter. Antoinette was forty-three when (1753) she bore her fourth child. As Marie Angélique grew up through all the charms of girlhood, Diderot concentrated all his tenderness upon her. He joined her in her games; we picture the topheavy philosopher playing hopscotch with her, and hide-and-seek, and blindman’s buff. “I was crazy about my little girl. What a lovely character! What a woman I could make of her if her mother would let me!” He took care to preach to her all the Christian virtues, and as she neared nubility he gave her explicit instructions on guarding herself against the wolves of Paris. What did their proposals mean? “They mean: ‘Mademoiselle, out of complacence for me, will you dishonor yourself, lose all social status, banish yourself from society, have yourself locked up in a convent, and make your father and mother die of grief?’”109 So, like any French father, he saved up money to provide her dowry, and negotiated with divers families to get her a husband in due time. He made the choice, Antoinette disapproved, Angélique approved, and was married (1772). Diderot wept at losing her, and wept still more when he saw her happiness in marriage. He helped the young couple generously, saying, “Isn’t it better to help them at a difficult moment than to wait until they no longer need anything?” The son-in-law became a successful manufacturer, whose descendants, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy (1814), became cautious conservatives.
As Diderot matured through parentage he began to understand his father better, and to honor the code of morals that helped a man to bring up a good family. But much of the Bohemian remained in him. Though he loved his den, his old clothes and slippers, and liked to toast his toes before a fire, he absented himself from such felicity now and then, as when he spent a month with d’Holbach at Grandval. He still frequented the cafés, and was a familiar figure in some salons. Mme. Geoffrin loved him despite his rough speech, and in a burst of maternal affection she sent him a new desk, cozy armchairs of leather, a great clock of gold and bronze, and a luxurious dressing gown. He thanked her, and sadly let his old furniture be taken away; but he expressed tender regrets for his discarded robe de chambre:
Why did I not keep it? It was just made for me, and I was made for it. It followed every fold in my body without inconveniencing me. It was picturesque and handsome. The new robe, stiff and starched, makes a mannequin of me. There was no call to which its good nature did not lend itself.… If a book was covered with dust, one of its flaps was ready as a duster. When the ink on my pen was thick and would not flow, its side was ready. You could see, traced in long black stripes, the frequent services it had rendered me. These long stripes announced the man of letters, the writer, the toiler. At present I look like one of the idle rich; no one recognizes me.… I was absolute master of my old dressing gown; I have become the slave of the new one.110
He counted his friendships the chief solace and inspiration of his life. His association with Grimm was closer and more permanent than any of his loves. In 1772, when they had known each other for twenty-two years, he wrote to him: “My tender, my only friend, you have always been, you will always be, my dear and only friend.”111 Yet there were times when he was keenly hurt by Grimm’s coldness and seeming indifference. The German exploited Diderot’s good nature, often delegating to him the writing of hisCorrespondance; Diderot substituted for him not only in reporting the Salon exhibitions but in reviewing the latest books; and sometimes he worked through the night to meet the deadline that Grimm had laid down.112 Grimm offered to pay him; Diderot refused to be paid. It is sad to relate that when (1773) Stanislas II Poniatowski, King of Poland, hearing that Diderot was planning to visit St. Petersburg, proposed to invite him to stop in Warsaw, Grimm advised the King that there would be no profit in making the philosopher’s acquaintance. “Instead of utilizing his time to share the glory of genius with Voltaire, Diderot wastes it writing scrap for these [Correspondance] sheets, or giving it away to all who are bold enough to ask for it. I dare say to your Majesty that he will die unknown.”113
Probably Diderot’s happiest hours (aside from those he spent with Angélique) were when he took the floor at the dinners of d’Holbach or Mme. Geoffrin, and sailed forth rudderless on a stream of eloquence on any subject whatever. He was not at his best in polite gatherings where wit, rather than ideas, was in demand. Mme. Geoffrin herself was frightened by his enthusiasms, and her counsels of moderation and decency weighted his flights. But at the Baron’s table, where, as Hume was assured, “seventeen atheists” assembled, he could let himself go; and then (nearly all agreed) there was nothing so fascinating, so absorbing, in all the brilliant conversation of Paris. “He who has known Diderot only in his writings,” said Marmontel, “has not known him at all.… I have experienced few greater intellectual pleasures.”114 Henri Meister, who often heard him, described him in an apt comparison:
When I recall Diderot, the immense variety of his ideas, the amazing multiplicity of his knowledge, the rapid flight, the warmth, the impetuous tumult of his imagination, all the charm and all the disorder of his conversation, I venture to liken his character to nature herself, exactly as he used to conceive her—rich, fertile, abounding in germs of every sort, gentle and fierce, simple and majestic, worthy and sublime, but without any dominating principle, without a master, and without a God.115
Or hear a firsthand report on Diderot’s conversation, by Proteus himself:
I seemed extraordinary to them, inspired, divine. Grimm hardly had eyes enough to see me, nor ears enough to hear me. Everybody was astonished. I myself felt a contentment within me that I can’t express. It was like a fire burning in my depths that seared my breast, spread over them, and set fire to them. It was an evening of enthusiasm, for which I was the hearth.116
His contemporary reputation was greater among those who knew him than among those who had merely read his published works, which were chiefly the Encyclopédie and his plays; the best of them—La Religieuse, Jacques le fataliste, Le Rêve d’Alembert, Le Neveu de Rameau—were still unprinted at his death. Partly for this reason, partly because of the radicalism of his ideas on religion and sex, he failed—and never tried—to win admission to the Academy. To his friends, however, he was le philosophe—thephilosopher, leader of the rebel tribe. Rousseau, even after coming to hate him as a secret enemy, wrote in the Confessions: “At the distance of some centuries Diderot will seem a prodigious man. People will look from afar at that universal head with mingled admiration and astonishment, as we look today at the heads of Plato and Aristotle.”117
Goethe, Schiller, Lessing were fascinated by Diderot’s writings; Stendhal, Balzac, Delacroix joined in the admiration; Comte rated him the supreme genius of that exciting age;118 Michelet called him “the true Prometheus,” and said that one could draw upon Diderot’s works for a hundred years and infinite riches would still be left.119 Or shall we hear Mme. Geoffrin, who knew him well but had not read his books? “He is a good and honest man,” she wrote, “but he is so wrongheaded, and is so badly balanced, that he sees and hears nothing as it is; he is always like a man who dreams, and who believes his dreams to be real.”120
He was good and bad, honest and dishonest, wrongheaded and intuitive, badly balanced and brilliantly creative, a dreamer, warrior, and seer, whose stature in history seems to grow as his time recedes, until today some think him “the most interesting and provocative figure of the French eighteenth century.”121 Let us leave the matter there until we meet him again—face to face with an empress, and then in the rendezvous of the philosophes with death.
I. The often quoted, often mangled lines,
Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre
Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois63
—“and his hands would twist the entrails of the priest for lack of a rope to strangle the kings”—were put by Diderot into the mouth of a fanatic in his play Les Eleuthéromanes, ou les furieux de la liberté (The Freedom Maniacs, or the Madmen of Liberty); they cannot be taken as Diderot’s view, for he explicitly condemned regicide: “Let the people never see royal blood flow for any cause whatever.”64 The lines could have had no influence on the fate of Louis XVI, for they were not published till 1795.
II. Comédie and comédien meant drama and actor rather than comedy and comedian. Any play with a happy ending was called a comédie.