Diderot and the Encyclopaedists (Vol 1 of 2)
by John Morley
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In a short continuation of the Philosophical Thoughts entitled On the Sufficiency of Natural Religion, Diderot took the next step, and turned towards that faith which the votaries of each creed allow to be the best after their own. Even here he is still in the atmosphere of negation. He desires no more than to show that revealed religion confers no advantages which are not already secured by natural religion. "The revealed law contains no moral precept which I do not find recommended and practised under the law of nature; therefore it has taught us nothing new upon morality. The revealed law has brought us no new truth; for what is a truth but a proposition referring to an object, conceived in terms which present clear ideas to me, and the connection of which with one another is intelligible to me? Now revealed religion has introduced no such propositions to us. What it has added to the natural law consists of five or six propositions which are not a whit more intelligible to me than if they were expressed in ancient Carthaginian, inasmuch as the ideas represented by the terms, and the connection among these ideas, escape me entirely."[38]

There is no sign in this piece that Diderot had examined the positive grounds of natural religion, or that he was ready with any adequate answer to the argument which Butler had brought forward in the previous decade of the century. We do not see that he is aware as yet of there being as valid objections on his own sceptical principles to the alleged data of naturalistic deism, as to the pretensions of a supernatural religion. He was content with Shaftesbury's position.

Shaftesbury's influence on Diderot was permanent. It did not long remain so full and entire as it was now in the sphere of religious belief, but the traces of it never disappeared from his notions on morals and art. Shaftesbury's cheerfulness and geniality in philosophising were thoroughly sympathetic to Diderot. The optimistic harmony which the English philosopher, coming after Leibnitz, assumed as the starting-point of his ethical and religious ideas, was not only highly congenial to Diderot's sanguine temperament; it was a most attractive way of escape from the disorderly and confused theological wilderness of sin, asceticism, miracle, and the other monkeries. This naturalistic religion may seem a very unsafe and comfortless halting-place to us. But to men who heard of religion only in connection with the Bull Unigenitus and confessional certificates, with some act of intolerance or cruelty, with futile disputes about grace and the Five Propositions, the naturalism which Shaftesbury taught in prose and Pope versified was like the dawn after the foulness of night. Those who wished to soften the inhuman rigour of the criminal procedure of the time[39] used to appeal from customary ordinances and written laws to the law natural. The law natural was announced to have preceded any law of human devising. In the same way, those who wished to disperse the darkness of unintelligible dogmas and degraded ecclesiastical usages, appealed to the simplicity, light, and purity of that natural religion which was supposed to have been overlaid and depraved by the special superstitions of the different communities of the world.

"Pope's Essay on Man," wrote Voltaire after his return from England (1728), "seems to me the finest didactic poem, the most useful, the most sublime, that was ever written in any tongue. 'Tis true the whole substance of it is to be found in Shaftesbury's Characteristics, and I do not know why Pope gives all the honour of it to Bolingbroke, without saying a word of the celebrated Shaftesbury, the pupil of Locke."[40] The ground of this enthusiastic appreciation of the English naturalism was not merely that it made morality independent of religion, which Shaftesbury took great pains to do. It also identified religion with all that is beautiful and harmonious in the universal scheme. It surrounded the new faith with a pure and lofty poetry, that enabled it to confront the old on more than equal terms of dignity and elevation. Shaftesbury, and Diderot after him, ennobled human nature by placing the principle of virtue, the sense of goodness, within the breast of man. Diderot held to this idea throughout, as we shall see. That he did so explains a kind of phraseology about virtue and morality in his letters to Madame Voland and elsewhere, which would otherwise sound disagreeably like cant. Finally, Shaftesbury's peculiar attribution of beauty to morality, his reference of ethical matters to a kind of taste, the tolerably equal importance attributed by him to a sense of beauty and to the moral sense, all impressed Diderot with a mark that was not effaced. In the text of the Inquiry the author pronounces it a childish affectation in the eyes of any man who weighs things maturely to deny that there is in moral beings, just as in corporeal objects, a true and essential beauty, a real sublime. The eagerness with which Diderot seized on this idea from the first, is shown in the declamatory foot-note which he here appends to his original.[41] It was the source, by a process of inverted application, of that ethical colouring in his criticisms on art which made them so new and so interesting, because it carried aesthetic beyond technicalities, and associated it with the real impulses and circumstances of human life.[42]

One of Diderot's writings composed about our present date (1747), the Promenade du Sceptique, did not see the light until after his death. His daughter tells us that a police agent came one day to the house, and proceeded to search the author's room. He found a manuscript, said, "Good, that is what I am looking for," thrust it into his pocket, and went away. Diderot did his best to recover his piece, but never succeeded.[43] A copy of it came into the hands of Naigeon, and it seems to have been retained by Malesherbes, the director of the press, out of goodwill to the author. If it had been printed, it would certainly have cost him a sojourn in Vincennes.

We have at first some difficulty in realising how he police could know the contents of an obscure author's desk. For one thing we have to remember that Paris, though it had been enormously increased in the days of Law and the System (1719-20), was still of a comparatively manageable size. In 1720, though the population of the whole realm was only fourteen or fifteen millions, that of Paris had reached no less a figure than a million and a half. After the explosion of the System, its artificial expansion naturally came to an end. By the middle of the century the highest estimate of the population does not make it much more than eight hundred thousand.[44] This, unlike the socially unwholesome and monstrous agglomerations of Paris or London in our own time, was a population over which police supervision might be made tolerably effective. It was more like a very large provincial town. Again, the inhabitants were marked off into groups or worlds with a definiteness that is now no longer possible. One-fifth of the population, for instance, consisted of domestic servants.[45] There were between twenty-eight and thirty thousand professional beggars.[46] The legal circle was large, and was deeply engrossed by its own interests and troubles. The world of authorship, though extremely noisy and profoundly important, still made only a small group. One effect of a censorship is to produce much gossip and whispering about suspected productions before they see the light, and these whispers let the police into as many secrets as they choose to know.

In Diderot's case, his unsuspecting good-nature to all comers made his affairs accessible enough. His house was the resort of all the starving hacks in Paris, and he has left us more than one graphic picture of the literary drudge of that time. He writes, for instance, about a poor devil to whom he had given a manuscript to copy. "The time for which he had promised it to me expired, and as my man did not appear, I became uneasy, and started in search of him. I found him in a hole about as big as my fist, almost pitch-dark, without the smallest scrap of curtain or hanging to cover the nakedness of his walls, a couple of straw-bottomed chairs, a truckle-bed with a quilt riddled by the moths, a box in the corner of the chimney and rags of every sort stuck upon it, a small tin lamp to which a bottle served as support, and on a shelf some dozen first-rate books. I sat talking there for three-quarters of an hour. My man was as bare as a worm, lean, black, dry, but perfectly serene. He said nothing, but munched his crust of bread with good appetite, and bestowed a caress from time to time on his beloved, on the miserable bedstead that took up two-thirds of his room. If I had never learnt before that happiness resides in the soul, my Epictetus of Hyacinth Street would have taught it me right thoroughly."[47]

The history of one of these ragged clients is to our point. "Among those," he wrote to Madame Voland,[48] "whom chance and misery sent to my address was one Glenat, who knew mathematics, wrote a good hand, and was in want of bread. I did all I could to extricate him from his embarrassments. I went begging for customers for him on every side. If he came at meal-times, I would not let him go; if he lacked shoes, I gave him them; now and then I slipped a shilling into his hands as well. he had the air of the worthiest man in the world, and he even bore his neediness with a certain gaiety that used to amuse me. I was fond of chatting with him; he seemed to set little store by fortune, fame, and most of the other things that charm or dazzle us in life. Seven or eight days ago Damilaville wrote to send this man to him, for one of his friends who had a manuscript for him to copy. I send him; the manuscript is entrusted to him—a work on religion and government. I do not know how it came about, but that manuscript is now in the hands of the lieutenant of police. Damilaville gives me word of this. I hasten to my friend Glenat, to warn him to count no more upon me. 'And why am I not to count upon you?' 'Because you are a marked man. The police have their eyes upon you and 'tis impossible to send work to you.' 'But, my dear sir, there's no risk, so long as you entrust nothing reprehensible to my hands. The police only come here when they scent game. I cannot tell how they do it, but they are never mistaken.' 'Ah well, I at any rate know how it is, and you have let me see much more in the matter than I ever expected to learn from you,' and with that I turn my back on my rascal." Diderot having occasion to visit the lieutenant of police, introduced the matter, and could not withhold an energetic remonstrance against such an odious abuse of a man's kindness of heart, as the introduction of spies to his fireside. M. de Sartine laughed and Diderot took his leave, vowing that all the wretches who should come to him for the future, with cuffs dirty and torn, with holes in their stockings and holes in their shoes, with hair all unkempt, in shabby overcoats with many rents, or scanty black suits with starting seams, with all the tones and looks of distressed worth, would henceforth seem to him no better than police emissaries and scoundrels set to spy on him. The vow, we may be sure, was soon forgotten, but the story shows how seriously in one respect the man of letters in France was worse off than his brother in England.

The world would have suffered no irreparable loss if the police had thrown the Sceptic's Walk into the fire. It is an allegory designed to contrast the life of religion, the life of philosophy, and the life of sensual pleasure. Of all forms of composition, an allegory most depends for its success upon the rapidity of the writer's eye for new felicities. Accuracy, verisimilitude, sustention, count for nothing in comparison with imaginative adroitness and variety. Bunyan had such an eye, and so, with infinitely more vivacity, had Voltaire. Diderot had not the deep sincerity or realism of conviction of the one; nor had he the inimitable power of throwing himself into a fancy, that was possessed by the other. He was the least agile, the least felicitous, the least ready, of composers. His allegory of the avenue of thorns, the avenue of chestnut-trees, and the avenue of flowers, is an allegory, unskilful, obvious, poor, and not any more amusing than if it's matter had been set forth without any attempt at fanciful decoration. The blinded saints among the thorns, and the voluptuous sinners among the flowers, are rather mechanical figures. The translation into the dialect required by the allegorical situation, of a sceptic's aversion for gross superstition on the one hand, and for gross hedonism on the other, is forced and wooden. The most interesting of the three sections is the second, containing a discussion in which the respective parts are taken by a deist, a pantheist, a subjective idealist, a sceptic, and an atheist. The allegory falls into the background, and we have a plain statement of some of the objections that may be made by the sceptical atheist both to revelation and to natural religion. A starry sky calls forth the usual glorification of the maker of so much beauty. "That is all imagination," rejoins the atheist. "It is mere presumption. We have before us an unknown machine, on which certain observations have been made. Ignorant people who have only examined a single wheel of it, of which they hardly know more than a tooth or two, form conjectures upon the way in which their cogs fit in with a hundred thousand other wheels. And then to finish like artisans, they label the work with the name of it's author."

The defender justifies this by the argument from a repeater-watch, of which Paley and others have made so much use. We at once ascribe the structure and movement of a repeater-watch to intelligent creation. "No—things are not equal," says the atheist. "You are comparing a finished work, whose origin and manufacture we know, to an infinite piece of complexity, whose beginnings, whose present condition, and whose end are all alike unknown, and about whose author you have nothing better than guesses."

But does not its structure announce an author? "No; you do not see who nor what he is. Who told you that the order you admire here belies itself nowhere else? Are you allowed to conclude from a point in space to infinite space? You pile a vast piece of ground with earth-heaps thrown here or there by chance, but among which the worm and the ant find convenient dwelling-places enough. What would you think of these insects, if, reasoning after your fashion, they fell into raptures over the intelligence of the gardener who had arranged all these materials so delightfully for their convenience?"[49]

In this rudimentary form the chief speaker presses some of the objections to optimistic deism from the point of view of the fixed limitations, the inevitable relativity, of human knowledge. This kind of objection had been more pithily expressed by Pascal long before, in the famous article of his Thoughts, on the difficulty of demonstrating the existence of a deity by light of nature.[50] Diderot's argument does not extend to dogmatic denial. It only shows that the deist is exposed to an attack from the same sceptical armoury from which he had drawn his own weapons for attacking revelation. It is impossible to tell how far Diderot went at this moment. The trenchancy with which his atheist urges his reasoning, proves that the writer was fully alive to its force. On the other hand, the atheist is left in the midst of a catastrophe. On his return home, he finds his children murdered, his house pillaged, and his wife carried off. And we are told that he could not complain on his own principles.

If the absence of witnesses allowed the robber to commit his crime with impunity, why should he not? Again, there is a passage in which the writer seems to be speaking his own opinions. An interlocutor maintains the importance of keeping the people in bondage to certain prejudices. "What prejudices? If a man once admits the existence of a God, the reality of moral good and evil, the immortality of the soul, future rewards and punishments, what need has he of prejudices? Supposing him initiated in all the mysteries of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, the Trinity, hypostatical union, predestination, incarnation, and the rest, will he be any the better citizen?"[51]

In truth, Diderot's mind was at this time floating in an atmosphere of rationalistic negation, and the moral of his piece, as he hints, points first to the extravagance of Catholicism, next to the vanity of the pleasures of the world, and lastly, to the unfathomable uncertainty of philosophy. Still, we may discern a significant leaning towards the theory of the eternity of matter, which has arranged itself and assumed variety of form by virtue of its inherent quality of motion.[52]

It is a characteristic and displeasing mark of the time that Diderot in the midst of these serious speculations, should have set himself (1748) to the composition of a story in the kind which the author of the Sofa had made highly popular. The mechanism of this deplorable piece is more grossly disgusting—I mean aesthetically, not morally—than anything to be found elsewhere in the too voluminous library of impure literature. The idea would seem to have been borrowed from one of the old Fabliaux.[53] But what is tolerable in the quaint and naif verse of the twelfth or thirteenth century, becomes shocking when deliberately rendered by a grave man into bald unblushing prose of the eighteenth. The humour, the rich sparkle, the wit, the merry gaillardise, have all vanished; we are left with the vapid dregs of an obscene anachronism. Mr. Carlyle, who knows how to be manly in these matters, and affects none of the hypocritical airs of our conventional criticism, yet has not more energetically than truly pronounced this "the beastliest of all past, present, or future dull novels." As "the next mortal creature, even a Reviewer, again compelled to glance into that book," I have felt the propriety of our humorist's injunction to such a one, "to bathe himself in running water, put on change of raiment, and be unclean until the even." Diderot himself, as might have been expected, soon had the grace to repent him of this shameful book, and could never hear it mentioned without a very lively embarrassment.[54]

As I have said before,[55] it was such books as this, as Crebillon's novels, as Duclos's Confessions du Comte X., and the dissoluteness of manners indicated by them, which invested Rousseau's New Heloisa (1761) with its delightful and irresistible fascinations. Having pointed out elsewhere the significance of the licentiousness from which the philosophic party did not escape untainted,[56] I need not here do more than make two short remarks. First, the corruption which had seized the court after the death of Lewis XIV. in the course of a few years had reached the middle class in the town. The loosening of social fibre, caused by the insenate speculation at the time of Law, no doubt furthered the spread of demoralisation. Second, the reaction against the Church involved among its other elements a passionate contempt for all asceticism. This happened to fall in with the general relaxation of morals that followed Lewis's gloomy rigour. Consequently even men of pure life, like Condorcet, carried the theoretical protest against asceticism so far as to vindicate the practical immorality of the time. This is one of those enormous drawbacks that people seldom take into account when they are enumerating the blessings of superstition. Mediaeval superstition had produced some advantages, but now came the set-off. Durable morality had been associated with a transitory religious faith. The faith fell into intellectual discredit, and sexual morality shared its decline for a short season. This must always be the natural consequence of building sound ethics on the shifting sands and rotting foundations of theology.

Such literature as these tales of Diderot's, was the mirror both of the ordinary practical sentiment and the philosophic theory. A nation pays dearly for one of those outbreaks, when they happen to stamp themselves in a literary form that endures. There are those who hold that Louvet's Faublas is to this day a powerful agent in the depravation of the youth of France. Diderot, however, had not the most characteristic virtues of French writing; he was no master in the art of the naif, nor in delicate malice, nor in sprightly cynicism. His book, consequently, has not lived, and we need not waste more words upon it. Chaque esprit a sa lie, wrote one who for a while had sat at Diderot's feet;[57] and we may dismiss this tale as the lees of Diderot's strong, careless, sensualised understanding. He was afterwards the author of a work, La Religieuse, on which the superficial critic may easily pour out the vials of affected wrath. There, however, he was executing a profound pathological study in a serious spirit. If the subject is horrible, we have to blame the composition of human character, or the mischievousness of a human institution. La Religieuse is no continuation of the vein of defilement which began and ended with the story of 1748—a story which is one among so many illustrations of Guizot's saying about the eighteenth century, that it was the most tempting and seductive of all centuries, for it promised full satisfaction at once to all the greatnesses of humanity and to all its weaknesses. Hettner quotes a passage from the minor writings of Niebuhr, in which the historian compares Diderot with Petronius, as having both of them been honest and well-intentioned men, who in shameless times were carried towards cynicism by their deep contempt for the prevailing vice. "If Diderot were alive now," says Niebuhr, "and if Petronius had only lived in the fourth instead of the third century, then the painting of obscenity would have been odious to them, and the inducement to it infinitely smaller."[58] There is no trace in Diderot of this deep contempt for the viciousness of his time. All that can be said is that he did not escape it in his earlier years, in spite of the natural wholesomeness and rectitude of his character.

It is worthy of remark that the dissoluteness of the middle portion of the century was not associated with the cynical and contemptuous view about women that usually goes with relaxed morality. There was a more or less distinct consciousness of a truth which has ever since grown into clearer prominence with the advance of thought since the Revolution. It is that the sphere and destiny of women are among the three or four foremost questions in social improvement. This is now perceived on all sides, profound as are the differences of opinion upon the proper solution of the problem. A hundred years ago this perception was vague and indefinite, but there was an unmistakable apprehension that the Catholic ideal of womanhood was no more adequate to the facts of life, than Catholic views about science, or property, or labour, or political order and authority.

Diderot has left some curious and striking reflections upon the fate and character of women. He gives no signs of feeling after social reorganisation; he only speaks as one brooding in uneasy meditation over a very mournful perplexity. There is no sentimentalising, after the fashion of Jean Jacques. He does not neglect the plain physical facts, about which it is so difficult in an age of morbid reserve to speak with freedom, yet about which it is fatal to be silent. He indulged in none of those mischievous flatteries of women, which satisfy narrow observers, or coxcombs, or the uxorious. "Never forget," he said, "that for lack of reflection and principles, nothing penetrates down to a certain profoundness of conviction in the understanding of women. The ideas of justice, virtue, vice, goodness, badness, float on the surface of their souls. They have preserved self-love and personal interest with all the energy of nature. Although more civilized than we are outwardly, they have remained true savages inwardly.... It is in the passion of love, the access of jealousy, the transports of maternal tenderness, the instants of superstition, the way in which they show epidemic and popular notions, that women amaze us; fair as the seraphin of Klopstock, terrible as the fiends of Milton.... The distractions of a busy and contentious life break up our passions. A woman, on the contrary, broods over her passions; they are a fixed point on which her idleness or the frivolity of her duties holds her attention fast.... Impenetrable in dissimulation, cruel in vengeance, tenacious in their designs, without scruples about the means of success, animated by a deep and secret hatred against the despotism of man—it seems as if there were among them a sort of league, such as exists among the priests of all nations.... The symbol of women in general is that of the Apocalypse, on the front of which is inscribed Mystery.... If we have more reason than women have, they have far more instinct than we have."[59] All this was said in no bitterness, but in the spirit of the strong observer.

Cynical bitterness is as misplaced as frivolous adulation. Diderot had a deep pity for women. Their physical weaknesses moved him to compassion. To these are added the burden of their maternal function, and the burden of unequal laws. "The moment which shall deliver the girl from subjection to her parents is come; her imagination opens to a future thronged by chimaeras; her heart swims in secret delight. Rejoice while thou canst, luckless creature! Time would have weakened the tyranny that thou hast left; time will strengthen the tyranny that awaits thee. They choose a husband for her. She becomes a mother. It is in anguish, at the peril of their lives, at the cost of their charms, often to the damage of their health, that they give birth to their little ones. The organs that mark their sex are subject to two incurable maladies. There is, perhaps, no joy comparable to that of the mother as she looks on her first-born; but the moment is dearly bought. Time advances, beauty passes; there come the years of neglect, of spleen, of weariness. 'Tis in pain that Nature disposes them for maternity; in pain and illness, dangerous and prolonged, she brings maternity to its close. What is a woman after that? Neglected by her husband, left by her children, a nullity in society, then piety becomes her one and last resource. In nearly every part of the world, the cruelty of the civil laws against women is added to the cruelty of Nature. They have been treated like weak-minded children. There is no sort of vexation which, among civilised peoples, man cannot inflict upon woman with impunity."[60]

The thought went no further, in Diderot's mind, than this pathetic ejaculation. He left it to the next generation, to Condorcet and others, to attack the problem practically; effectively to assert the true theory that we must look to social emancipation in women, and moral discipline in men, to redress the physical disadvantages. Meanwhile Diderot deserves credit for treating the position and character of women in a civilised society with a sense of reality; and for throwing aside those faded gallantries of poetic and literary convention, that screen a broad and dolorous gulf.



It is a common prejudice to treat Voltaire as if he had done nothing save write the Pucelle and mock at Habakkuk. Every serious and instructed student knows better. Voltaire's popularisation of the philosophy of Newton (1738) was a stimulus of the greatest importance to new thought in France. In a chapter of this work he had explained with his usual matchless terseness and lucidity Berkeley's theory of vision. The principle of this theory is, as every one knows, that figures, magnitudes, situations, distances, are not sensations but inferences; they are not the immediate revelations of sight, but the products of association and intellectual construction; they are not directly judged by vision, but by imagination and experience. If this be so, neither situation, nor distance, nor magnitude, nor figure, would be at once discerned by one born blind, supposing him suddenly to receive sight. Voltaire then describes the results of the operation performed by Cheselden (1728) on a lad who had been blind from his birth. This experiment was believed to confirm all that Locke and Berkeley had foreseen, for it was long before the patient could distinguish objects by size, distance, or shape.[61] Condillac had renewed the interest which Voltaire had first kindled in the subject, by referring to Cheselden's experiment in his first work, which was published in 1746.[62]

It happened that in 1748 Reaumur couched the eyes of a girl who had been born blind. Diderot sought to be admitted to the operation, but the favour was denied him, and he expressed his resentment in terms which, as we shall see, cost him very dear. As he could not witness the experiment, he began to meditate upon the subject, and the result was the Letter on the Blind for the Use of those who See. published in 1749—the date, it may be observed in passing, of another very important work in the development of materialistic speculation, David Hartley's Observations on man, his frame, his duty, and his expectations. Diderot's real disappointment at not being admitted to the operation was slight. In a vigorous passage he shows the difficulties in the way of conducting such an experiment under the conditions necessary to make it conclusive. To prepare the born-blind to answer philosophical interrogatories truly, and then to put these interrogatories rightly, would have been a feat, he declares, not unworthy of the united talents of Newton, Descartes, Locke, and Leibnitz. Unless the patient were placed in such conditions as this, Diderot thinks there would be more profit in questioning a blind person of good sense, than in the answers of an uneducated person receiving sight for the first time under abnormal and bewildering circumstances.[63] In this he was undoubtedly right. If the experiment could be prepared under the delicate conditions proper to make it demonstrative evidence, it would be final. But the experiment had certainly not been so prepared in his time, and probably never will be.[64]

Read in the light of the rich and elaborate speculative literature which England is producing in our own day, Diderot's once famous Letter on the Blind seems both crude and loose in its thinking. Yet considering the state of philosophy in France at the time of its appearance, we are struck by the acuteness, the good sense, and the originality of many of its positions. It was the first effective introduction into France of these great and fundamental principles; that all knowledge is relative to our intelligence, that thought is not the measure of existence, nor the conceivableness of a proposition the test of its truth, and that our experience is not the limit to the possibilities of things. That is an impatient criticism which dismisses the French philosophers with some light word as radically shallow and impotent. Diderot grasped the doctrine of Relativity in some of the most important and far-reaching of all its bearings. The fact that he and his allies used the doctrine as a weapon of combat against the standing organisation, is exactly what makes their history worth writing about. The standing organisation was the antagonistic doctrine incarnate. It made anthropomorphism and the absolute the very base and spring alike of individual and of social life. No growth was possible until this speculative base had been transformed. Hence the profound significance of what looks like a mere discussion of one of the minor problems of metaphysics. Diderot was not the first to discover Relativity, nor did he establish it; but it was he who introduced it into the literature of his country at the moment when circumstances were ripe for it.

Condillac, as we have said, had published his first work, the Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, three years before (1746). This was a simple and undeveloped rendering of the doctrine of Locke, that the ultimate source of our notions lies in impressions made upon the senses, shaped and combined by reflection. It was not until 1754 that Condillac published his more celebrated treatise on the Sensations, in which he advanced a stride beyond Locke, and instead of tracing our notions to the double source of sensation and reflection, maintained that reflection itself is nothing but sensation "differently transformed." In the first book, again, he had disputed Berkeley's theory of vision: in the second, he gave a reasoned adhesion to it. Now Diderot and Condillac had first been brought together by Rousseau, when all three were needy wanderers about the streets of Paris. They used to dine together once a week at a tavern, and it was Diderot who persuaded a bookseller to give Condillac a hundred crowns for his first manuscript. "The Paris booksellers," says Rousseau, "are very arrogant and harsh to beginners; and metaphysics, then extremely little in fashion, did not offer a very particularly attractive subject."[65] The constant intercourse between Diderot and Condillac in the interval between the two works of the great apostle of Sensationalism, may well account for the remarkable development in doctrine. This is one of the many examples of the share of Diderot's energetic and stimulating intelligence, in directing and nourishing the movement of the time, its errors and precipitancies included. On the other hand, the share of Condillac in providing a text for Diderot's first considerable performance, is equally evident.

The Letter on the Blind is an inquiry how far a modification of the five senses, such as the congenital absence of one of them, would involve a corresponding modification of the ordinary notions acquired by men who are normally endowed in their capacity for sensation. It considers the Intellect in a case where it is deprived of one of the senses. The writer opens with an account of a visit made by himself and some friends to a man born blind at Puisaux, a place seventy miles from Paris. They asked him in what way he thought of the eyes. "They are an organ on which the air produces the same effect as my stick upon my hand." A mirror he described "as a machine which sets things in relief away from themselves, if they are properly placed in relation to it." This conception had formed itself in his mind in the following way. The blind man only knows objects by touch. He is aware, on the testimony of others, that we know objects by sight as he knows them by touch; he can form no other notion. He is aware, again, that a man cannot see his own face, though he can touch it. Sight, then, he concludes, is a sort of touch, which only extends to objects different from our own visage, and remote from us. Now touch only conveys to him the idea of relief. A mirror, therefore, must be a machine which sets us in relief out of ourselves. How many philosophers, cries Diderot, have employed less subtlety to reach notions just as untrue?

The born-blind had a memory for sound in a surprising degree, and countenances do not present more diversity to us than he observed in voices. The voice has for such persons an infinite number of delicate shades that escape us, because we have not the same reason for attention that the blind have. The help that our senses lend to one another, is an obstacle to their perfection.

The blind man said he should have been tempted to regard persons endowed with sight as superior intelligences, if he had not found out a hundred times how inferior we are in other respects. How do we know—Diderot reflects upon this—that all the animals do not reason in the same way, and look upon themselves as our equals or superiors, notwithstanding our more complex and efficient intelligence? They may accord to us a reason with which we should still have much need of their instinct while they claim to be endowed with an instinct which enables them to do very well without our reason.

When asked whether he should be glad to have sight, the born-blind replied that, apart from curiosity, he would be just as well pleased to have long arms: his hands would tell him what is going on in the moon, better than our eyes or telescopes; and the eyes cease to see earlier than the hands lose the sense of touch. It would therefore be just as good to perfect in him the organ that he had, as to confer upon him another which he had not. This is untrue. No conceivable perfection of touch would reveal phenomena of light, and the longest arms must leave those phenomena undisclosed.

After recounting various other peculiarities of thought, Diderot notices that the blind man attaches slight importance to the sense of shame. He would hardly understand the utility of clothes, for instance, except as a protection against cold. He frankly told his philosophising visitors that he could not see why one part of the body should be covered rather than another. "I have never doubted," says Diderot, "that the state of our organs and senses has much influence both on our metaphysics and our morality." This, I may observe, does not in the least show that in a society of human beings, not blind, but endowed with vision, the sense of physical shame is a mere prejudice of which philosophy will rid us. The fact that a blind man discerns no ill in nakedness, has no bearing on the value or naturalness of shame among people with eyes. And moreover, the fact that delicacy or shame is not a universal human impulse, but is established, and its scope defined, by a varying etiquette, does not in the least affect the utility or wisdom of such an artificial establishment and definition. The grounds of delicacy, though connected with the senses, are fixed by considerations that spring from the social reason. It seems to be true, as Diderot says, that the born-blind are at first without physical delicacy; because delicacy has its root in the consciousness that we are observed, while the born-blind are not conscious that they are observed. It is found that one of the most important parts of their education is to impress this knowledge upon them.[66]

But the artificiality of a moral acquisition is obviously no test of its worth, nor of the reasons for preserving it. Diderot exclaims, "Ah, madam, how different is the morality of a blind man from ours; and how the morality of the deaf would differ from that of the blind; and if a being should have a sense more than we have, how wofully imperfect would he find our morality!" This is plainly a crude and erroneous way of illustrating the important truth of the strict relativity of ethical standards and maxims. Diderot speaks as if they were relative simply and solely to our five wits, and would vary with them only. Everybody now has learnt that morality depends not merely on the five wits, but on the mental constitution within, and on the social conditions without. It is to these rather than to the number of our senses, that moral ideas are relative.

Passing over various other remarks, we come to those pages in the Letter which apply the principle of relativity to the master-conception of God. Diderot's argument on this point naturally drew keener attention than the more disinterestedly scientific parts of his contribution. People were not strongly agitated by the question whether a blind man who had learned to distinguish a sphere from a cube by touch, would instantly identify each of them if he received sight.[67]

The question whether a blind man has as good reasons for believing in the existence of a God as a man with sight can find, was of more vivid interest. As a matter of fact, Diderot's treatment of the narrower question (pp. 324, etc.) is more closely coherent than his treatment of the wider one, for the simple reason that the special limitation of experience in the born-blind cannot fairly be made to yield any decisive evidence on the great, the insoluble enigma.

Here, as in the other part of his essay, Diderot followed the method of interrogating the blind themselves. In this instance, he turned to the most extraordinary example in history, of intellectual mastery and scientific penetration in one who practically belonged to the class of the born-blind; and this too in dealing with subjects where sight might be thought most indispensable. From 1711 to 1739 one of the professors of mathematics at Cambridge was Nicholas Saunderson, who had lost his sight before he was twelve months old. He was a man of striking mental vigour, an original and efficient teacher, and the author of a book upon algebra which was considered meritorious in its day. His knowledge of optics was highly remarkable. He had distinct ideas of perspective, of the projections of the sphere, and of the forms assumed by plane or solid figures in certain positions. For performing computations he devised a machine of great ingenuity, which also served the purpose, with certain modifications, of representing geometrical diagrams. In religion he was a sceptic or something more, and in his last hours Diderot supposes him to have engaged in a discussion with a minister of religion, upon the arguments for the existence of a deity drawn from final causes. This discussion Diderot professes to reproduce, and he makes Saunderson discourse with much eloquence and some pathos.

By one of those mystifications which make the French polemical literature of the eighteenth century the despair of bibliographers, Diderot cites as his authority a Life of Saunderson, by Dr. Inchlif. He sets forth the title with great circumstantiality, but no such book exists or ever did exist. The Royal Society of London, however, took the jest of fathering atheism on one of its members in bad part, and Diderot was systematically excluded from the honour of admission to that learned body, as he was excluded all his life from the French Academy.

The reasoning which Diderot puts into the professor's mouth is at first a fervid enlargement of the text, that the argument drawn from the wonders of nature is very weak evidence for blind men. Our power of creating new objects, so to speak, by means of a little mirror, is far more incomprehensible to them, than the stars which they have been condemned never to behold. The luminous ball that moves from east to west through the heavens, is a less astonishing thing to them than the fire on the hearth which they can lessen or augment at pleasure.[68] "Why talk to me," says Saunderson, "of all that fine spectacle which has never been made for me? I have been condemned to pass my life in darkness; and you cite marvels that I cannot understand, and that are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him." The minister replied that the sense of touch ought to be enough to reveal the divinity to him in the admirable mechanism of his organs. To this, Saunderson:—"I repeat, all that is not as fine for me as it is for you. But the animal mechanism, even were it as perfect as you pretend, and as I daresay it is—what has it in common with a Being of sovereign intelligence? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are in the habit of treating as a prodigy anything that strikes you as being beyond your own strength. I have been myself so often an object of admiration for you, that I have a poor opinion of what surprises you. I have attracted people from all parts of England, who could not conceive by what means I could work at geometry. Well, you must agree that such persons had not very exact notions about the possibility of things. Is a phenomenon in our notions beyond the power of man? Then we instantly say—'Tis the handiwork of a God. Nothing short of that can content our vanity. Why can we not contrive to throw into our talk less pride and more philosophy? If nature offers us some knot that is hard to untie, let us leave it for what it is; do not let us employ for cutting it the hand of a Being, who then immediately becomes in turn a new knot for us, and a knot harder to untie than the first. An Indian tells you that our globe is suspended in the air on the back of an elephant. And the elephant! It stands on a tortoise. And the tortoise? what sustains that?... You pity the Indian: and yet one might very well say to you as to him—Mr. Holmes, my good friend, confess your ignorance, and spare me elephant and tortoise."[69]

The minister very naturally then falls back upon good authority, and asks Saunderson to take the word of Newton, Clarke, and Leibnitz. The blind man answers that though the actual state of the universe may be the illustration of a marvellous and admirable order, still Newton, Clarke, and Leibnitz must leave him freedom of opinion as to its earlier states. And then he foreshadows in a really singular and remarkable way that theory which is believed to be the great triumph of scientific discovery, and which is certainly the great stimulus to speculation, in our own time. As to anterior states "you have no witnesses to confront with me, and your eyes give you no help. Imagine, if you choose, that the order which strikes you so profoundly has subsisted from the beginning. But leave me free to think that it has done no such thing, and that if we went back to the birth of things and scenes, and perceived matter in motion and chaos slowly disentangling itself, we should come across a whole multitude of shapeless creatures, instead of a very few creatures highly organised. If I have no objection to make to what you say about the present condition of things, I may at least question you as to their past condition. I may at least ask of you, for example, who told you—you and Leibnitz and Clarke and Newton—that in the first instances of the formation of animals, some were not without heads and others without feet? I may maintain that these had no stomachs, and those no intestines; that some to whom a stomach, a palate, and teeth seemed to promise permanence, came to an end through some fault of heart or lungs; that the monsters annihilated one another in succession, that all the faulty (vicieuses) combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism implied no important mis-adaptation (contradiction), and who had the power of supporting and perpetuating themselves.

"On this hypothesis, if the first man had happened to have his larynx closed, or had not found suitable food, or had been defective in the parts of generation, or had failed to find a mate, then what would have become of the human race? It would have been still enfolded in the general depuration of the universe; and that arrogant being who calls himself Man, dissolved and scattered among the molecules of matter, would perhaps have remained for all time hidden in the number of mere possibilities.

"If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to insist that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical hypotheses. But the order is not even now so perfect, but that monstrous products appear from time to time."[70]

We have here a distinct enough conception, though in an exceedingly undigested shape, first, of incessant Variability in organisms as an actual circumstance, which we may see exemplified in its extreme form in the monstrous deviations of structure that occur from time to time before our own eyes; second, of Adaptation to environment as the determining condition of Survival among the forms that present themselves. Even as a bald and unsustained guess, this was an effective side-blow at the doctrine of final causes—a doctrine, as has been often remarked, which does not survive, in any given set of phenomena, the reduction of these phenomena to terms of matter and motion.

"I conjecture then," continues Saunderson, enlarging the idea of the possibilities of matter and motion, "that in the beginning when matter in fermentation gradually brought our universe bursting into being, blind creatures like myself were very common. But why should I not believe of worlds what I believe of animals? How many worlds, mutilated and imperfect, were peradventure dispersed, then re-formed, and are again dispersing at each moment of time in those far-off spaces which I cannot touch and you cannot behold, but where motion combines and will continue to combine masses of matter, until they have chanced on some arrangement in which they may finally persevere! O philosophers, transport yourselves with me on to the confines of the universe, beyond the point where I feel, and you see, organised beings; gaze over that new ocean, and seek across its lawless, aimless heavings some vestiges of that intelligent Being whose wisdom strikes you with such wonder here!

"What is this world? A complex whole, subject to endless revolutions. All these revolutions show a continual tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings who follow one another, press forward, and vanish; a fleeting symmetry; the order of a moment. I reproached you just now with estimating the perfection of things by your own capacity; and I might accuse you here of measuring its duration by the length of your own days. You judge of the continuous existence of the world, as an ephemeral insect might judge of yours. The world is eternal for you, as you are eternal to the being that lives but for one instant. Yet the insect is the more reasonable of the two. For what a prodigious succession of ephemeral generations attests your eternity! What an immeasurable tradition! Yet shall we all pass away, without the possibility of assigning either the real extension that we filled in space, or the precise time that we shall have endured. Time, matter, space—all, it may be, are no more than a point."[71]

Diderot sent a copy of his work to Voltaire. The poet replied with his usual playful politeness, but declared his dissent from Saunderson, "who denied God, because he happened to have been born blind."[72] More pretentious, and infinitely less acute critics than Voltaire, have fixed on the same point in the argument and met it by the same answer; namely, that, blind as he was, Saunderson ought to have recognised an intelligent Being who had provided him with so many substitutes for sight; he ought to have inferred a skilful demiurgus from those ordered relations in the universe, which Thought, independently of Vision, might well have disclosed to him. In truth, this is not the centre of the whole argument. When Saunderson implies that he could only admit a God on condition that he could touch him, he makes a single sense the channel of all possible ideas, and the arbiter of all reasoned combinations of ideas. This is absurd, and Diderot, as we have seen, rapidly passed away from that to the real strength of the position. All the rest of the contention against final causes would have come just as fitly from the lips of a man with vision, as from Saunderson. The hypothetical inference of a deity from the marvels of adaptation to be found in the universe is unjustified, among other reasons, because it ignores or leaves unexplained the marvels of mis-adaptation in the universe. It makes absolute through eternity a hypothesis which can at its best only be true relatively—not merely to the number of our senses, but—to a few partially chosen phenomena of our own little day. It explains a few striking facts; it leaves wholly unexplained a far greater number of equally striking facts, even if it be not directly contradicted by them. It is the invention of an imaginary agency to account for the scanty successes of creation, and an attribution to that agency of the kind of motives that might have animated a benevolent European living in the eighteenth century. It leaves wholly unaccounted for the prodigious host of monstrous or imperfect organisms, and the appalling law of merciless and incessant destruction.

To us this is the familiar discussion of the day. But let us return to the starting-point of this chapter. In France a hundred and twenty years ago it was the first opening of a decisive breach in the walls that had sheltered the men of Western Europe against outer desolation for some fifteen centuries or more. The completeness of Catholicism, as a self-containing system of life and thought, is now harder for Protestants or Sceptics to realise, than any other fact in the whole history of human society. Catholicism was not only an institution, nor only a religious faith; it was also a philosophy and a systematised theory of the universe. The Church during its best age directed the moral relations of individual men, and attempted, more or less successfully, to humanise the relations of communities. It satisfied or stimulated the affections by its exaltation of the Virgin Mary as a supreme object of worship; it nourished the imagination on polytheistic legends of saints and martyrs; it stirred the religious emotions by touching and impressive rites; it surrounded its members with emblems of a special and invincible protection. Catholicism, we have again and again to repeat, claimed to deal with life as a whole, and to leave no province of nature, no faculty of man, no need of intelligence or spirit, uncomprehended. But we must not forget that, though this prodigious system had its root in the affections and sympathies of human nature, it was also fenced round by a theory of metaphysic. It rested upon authority and tradition, but it also sought an expression in an intellectual philosophy of things. The essence of this philosophy was to make man the final cause of the universe. Its interpretation of the world was absolute; its conception of the Creator was absolute; its account of our intellectual impressions, of our moral rules, of our spiritual ideals, made them all absolute. Now Diderot, when he wrote the Letter on the Blind, perceived that mere rationalistic attacks upon the sacred books, upon the miracles, upon the moral types, of Catholicism, could only be partially effective for destruction, and could have no effect at all in replacing the old ways of thinking by others of more solid truth. The attack must begin in philosophy. The first fruitful process must consist in shifting the point of view, in enlarging the range of the facts to be considered, in pressing the relativity of our ideas, in freeing ourselves from the tyranny of anthropomorphism.

Hobbes's witty definition of the papacy as the ghost of the old Roman Empire sitting enthroned on the grave thereof, may tempt us to forget the all-important truth that the basis of the power of the ghost was essentially different from that of the dissolved body. The Empire was a political organisation, resting on military force. The Church was a social organisation, made vital by a conviction. The greatest fact in the intellectual history of the eighteenth century is the decisive revolution that overtook that sustaining conviction. The movement and the men whom we are studying owe all their interest to the share that they had in this immense task. The central conception, that the universe was called into existence only to further its Creator's purpose towards man, became incredible. This absolute proposition was slowly displaced by notions of the limitation of human faculties, and of the comparatively small portion of the whole cosmos or chaos to which we have reason to believe that these faculties give us access. To substitute this relative point of view for the absolute, was the all-important preliminary to the effectual breaking up of the great Catholic construction.

What seems to careless observers a mere metaphysical dispute was in truth, and still is, the decisive quarter of the great battle between theology and a philosophy reconcilable with science. When the Catholic reaction set in, Joseph de Maistre, by far its acutest champion in the region of philosophy, at once made it his first business to attack the principle of relativity with all his force of dialectic, and to reinstate absolute modes of thinking, and the absolute quality of Catholic propositions about religion, knowledge, and government.[73] Yet neither he nor any one else on his side has ever effectively shaken the solid argument which Diderot fancifully illustrated in the following passage from his reply to Voltaire's letter of thanks for the opuscule: "This marvellous order and these wondrous adaptations, what am I to think of them? That they are metaphysical entities only existing in your own mind. You cover a vast piece of ground with a mass of ruins falling hither or thither at hazard; amid these the worm and the ant find commodious shelter enough. What would you say of these insects, if they were to take for real and final entities the relations of the places which they inhabit to their organisation, and then fall into ecstasies over the beauty of their subterranean architecture, and the wonderfully superior intelligence of the gardener who arranges things so conveniently for them?"[74] This is the notion which Voltaire himself three years afterwards illustrated in the witty fancies of Micromegas. The little animalcule in the square cap, who makes the giant laugh in a Homeric manner by its inflated account of itself as the final cause of the universe, is the type of the philosophy on which Catholicism is based.

In the same letter Diderot avows his dissent—hypocritically, we find reason for suspecting—from Saunderson's conclusion. "It is commonly in the night-time," he says, "that the mists arise which obscure in me the existence of God; the rising of the sun never fails to scatter them. But then the darkness is ever-enduring for the blind, and the sun only rises for those who see." Diderot's denial of atheism seems more than suspicious, when one finds him taking so much pains to make out Saunderson's case for him, when he urges the argument following, for instance: "If there had never existed any but material beings, there would never have been spiritual beings; for then the spiritual beings would either have given themselves existence, or else would have received it from the material beings. But if there had never existed any but spiritual beings, you will see that there would never have been material beings. Right philosophy only allows me to suppose in things what I can distinctly perceive in them. Now I perceive no other faculties distinctly in the mind except those of willing and thinking, and I no more conceive that thought and will can act on material beings or on nothing, than I can conceive material beings or nothing acting on spiritual beings." And he winds up his letter thus: "It is very important not to take hemlock for parsley; but not important at all to believe or to disbelieve in God. The world, said Montaigne, is a tennis-ball that he has given to philosophers to toss hither and thither; and I would say nearly as much of the Deity himself."[75]

In concluding our account of this piece, we may mention that Diderot threw out a hint, which is a good illustration of the alert and practically helpful way in which his mind was always seeking new ideas. We have common signs, he said, appealing to the eye, namely, written characters, and others appealing to the ear, namely, articulate sounds; we have none appealing to touch. "For want of such a language, communication is entirely broken between us and those who are born deaf, dumb, and blind. They grow, but they remain in a state of imbecility. Perhaps they would acquire ideas, if we made ourselves understood by them from childhood in a fixed, determinate, constant, and uniform manner; in short, if we traced on their hand the same characters that we trace upon paper, and invariably attached the same significance to them."[76] The patient benevolence and ingenuity of Dr. Howe of Boston has realised in our own day the value of Diderot's suggestion.

One or two trifling points of literary interest may be noticed in the Letter on the Blind. Diderot refers to "the ingenious expression of an English geometer that God geometrises" (p. 294). He is unaware apparently of the tradition which attributes the expression to Plato, though it is not found in Plato's writings. Plutarch, I believe, is the first person who mentions the saying, and discusses what Plato exactly meant by it. In truth, it is one of that large class of dicta which look more ingenious than they are true. There is a fine Latin passage by Barrow on the mighty geometry of the universe, and the reader of the Religio Medici (p. 42) may remember that Sir Thomas Browne pronounces God to be "like a skilful geometrician."

An odd coincidence of simile is worth mentioning. Diderot says "that great services are like large pieces of money, that we have seldom any occasion to use. Small attentions are a current coin that we always carry in our hands." This is curiously like the saying in the Tatler that "A man endowed with great perfections without good breeding is like one who has his pockets full of gold, but wants change for his ordinary occasions." Yet if Diderot had read the Tatler, he would certainly have referred to the story in No. 55, how William Jones of Newington, born blind, was brought to sight at the age of twenty—a story told in a manner after Diderot's own heart.


It is proper in this place to mention a short philosophic piece which Diderot wrote in 1751, his Letter on the Deaf and Dumb for the Use of those who Hear and Talk. This is not, like the Letter on the Blind, the examination of a case of the Intellect deprived of one or more of the senses. It is substantially a fragment, and a very important fragment, on AEsthetics, and as such there will be something to say about it in another chapter. But there are, perhaps, one or two points at which the Letter on the Deaf and Dumb touches the line of thought of the Letter on the Blind.

The Letter opens on the question of the origin and limits of inversion in language. This at once leads to a discussion of the natural order of ideas and expressions, and that original order, says Diderot, we can only ascertain by a study of the language of gesture. Such a study can be pursued either in assiduous conversation with one who has been deaf and dumb from birth, or by the experiment of a muet de convention, a man who foregoes the use of articulate sounds for the sake of experiment as to the process of the formation of language. Generalising this idea, Diderot proceeds to consider man as distributed into as many distinct and separate beings as he has senses. "My idea would be to decompose a man, so to speak, and to examine what he derives from each of the senses with which he is endowed. I have sometimes amused myself with this kind of metaphysical anatomy; and I found that of all the senses, the eye was the most superficial; the ear, the proudest; smell, the most voluptuous; taste, the most superstitious and the most inconstant; touch, the profoundest and the most of a philosopher. It would be amusing to get together a society, each member of which should have no more than one sense; there can be no doubt that they would all treat one another as out of their wits."

This is interesting, because it was said at the time to be the source of one of the most famous fancies in the philosophical literature of the century, the Statue in Condillac's Treatise on the Sensations. Condillac imagined a statue organised like a man, but each sense unfolding itself singly, at the will of an eternal arbiter. The philosopher first admits the exercise of smell to his Frankenstein, and enumerates the mental faculties which might be expected to be set in operation under the changing impressions made upon that one sense. The other senses are imparted to it in turn, one by one, each adding a new group of ideas to the previous stock, until at length the mental equipment is complete.

We may see the extent of the resemblance between Condillac's Statue and Diderot's muet de convention, but Diderot at least is free from the charge of borrowing. Condillac's book was published three years (1754) after the Letter on the Deaf and Dumb, and he afterwards wrote a pamphlet defending himself from the charge of having taken the fancy of his Statue from Diderot; nor, for that matter, did Diderot ever make sign or claim in the matter. We have already spoken of the relations between the two philosophers, and though it is a mistake to describe Diderot as one of Condillac's most celebrated pupils,[77] yet there is just as little reason to invert the connection, or to doubt Condillac's own assertion that the Statue was suggested to him by Mademoiselle Ferrand, that remarkable woman to whose stimulating and directing influence he always professed such deep obligation. Attention has been called to the fact that in 1671 a Parisian bookseller published a Latin version of a much more intelligent and scientific fancy than the Statue—the Philosophus Autodidactus of the Arabian, Ibn Tophail. This was a romance, in which a human being is suckled by a gazelle on a desert island in the tropics, and grows up in the manner of some Robinson Crusoe with a turn for psychological speculation, and gradually becomes conscious, through observation, of the peculiar properties belonging to his senses.[78]

Of the part of the Letter that concerns gesture, one can only say that it appears astonishingly crude to those who know the progress that has been made since Diderot's time in collecting and generalising the curious groups of fact connected with gesture-language. We can imagine the eager interest that Diderot would have had in such curious observations as that gesture-language has something like a definite syntax; that it furnishes no means of distinguishing causation from sequence or simultaneity; that savages can understand and be understood with ease and certainty in a deaf-and-dumb school.[79] Diderot was acute enough to see that the questions of language could only be solved, not by the old metaphysical methods, but experientially. For the experiential method in this matter the time was not ripe. It was no wonder, then, that after a few pages, he broke away and hastened to aesthetics.


Penalties on the publication of heretical opinion did not cease in England with the disappearance of the Licensing Act. But they were at least inflicted by law. It was the Court of King's Bench which, in 1730, visited Woolston with fine and imprisonment, after all the forms of a prosecution had been duly gone through. It was no Bishop's court nor Star Chamber, much less a warrant signed by George the Third or by Bute, which in 1762 condemned Peter Annet to the pillory and the gaol for his Free Inquirer. The only evil which overtook Mandeville for his Fable of the Bees was to be harmlessly presented (1723) as a public nuisance by the Grand Jury of Middlesex. We may contrast with this the state of things which prepared a revolution in France.

One morning in July, 1749—almost exactly forty years before that July of '89, so memorable in the annals of arbitrary government and state prisons—a commissary of police and three attendants came to Diderot's house, made a vigorous scrutiny of his papers, and then produced a warrant for his detention. The philosopher, without any ado, told his wife not to expect him home for dinner, stepped into the chaise, and was driven off with his escort to Vincennes. His real offence was a light sneer in the Letter on the Blind at the mistress of a minister.[80] The atheistical substance of the essay, however, apart from the pique of a favourite, would have given sufficiently good grounds for a prosecution in England, and in France for that vile substitute for prosecution, the lettre-decachet. And there happened to be special causes for harshness towards the press at this moment. Verses had been published satirising the king and his manner of life in bitter terms, and a stern raid was made upon all the scribblers in Paris. At the court there had just taken place one of those reactions in favour of the ecclesiastical party, which for thirty years in the court history alternated so frequently with movements in the opposite direction. The gossip of the town set down Diderot's imprisonment to a satire against the Jesuits, of which he was wrongly supposed to be the author.[81] It is not worth while to seek far for a reason, when authority was as able and as ready to thrust men into gaol for a bad reason as for a good one. The writer or the printer of a philosophical treatise was at this moment looked upon in France much as a magistrate now looks on the wretch who vends infamous prints.

The lieutenant of police (Berryer) treated the miserable author with additional severity, for stubbornly refusing to give up the name of the printer. Diderot was well aware that the printer would be sent to the galleys for life, if the lieutenant of police could once lay hands upon him. This personage, we may mention, was afterwards raised to the dignified office of keeper of the seals, as a reward for his industry and skill in providing victims for the royal seraglio at Versailles.[82] The man who had ventured to use his mind, was thrown into the dungeon at Vincennes by the man who played spy and pander for the Pompadour. The official record of a dialogue between Berryer and Denis Diderot, "of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion," is a singular piece of reading, if we remember that the prisoner's answers were made, "after oath taken by the respondent to speak and answer the truth."

"Interrogated if he has not composed a work entitled Letters on the Blind.

"Answered no.

"Interrogated by whom he had caused said work to be printed.

"Answered that he had not caused the said work to be printed.

"Interrogated if he knows the name of the author of the said work.

"Answered that he knows nothing about it.

"Interrogated whether he has not had said work in manuscript in his possession before it was printed.

"Answered that he had not had the said manuscript in his possession before or after it was printed.

"Interrogated whether he has not composed a work which appeared some years ago, entitled Philosophic Thoughts.

"Answered no."

And so, after a dozen more replies of equal veracity, on reading being made to the respondent of the present interrogatory, Diderot "said that the answers contain the truth, persisted in them, and signed," as witness his hand. A sorrowful picture, indeed, of the plight of an apostle of a new doctrine. On the other hand, the apostle of the new doctrine was perhaps good enough for the preachers of the old. Two years before this, the priest of the church of Saint Medard had thought it worth while to turn spy and informer. This is the report which the base creature sent to the lieutenant of police (1747):—

"Diderot, a man of no profession, living, etc., is a young man who plays the free-thinker, and glories in impiety. He is the author of several works of philosophy, in which he attacks religion. His talk is like his books. He is busy at the composition of one now, which is very dangerous."

The priest's delation was confirmed presently by a still lower agent of authority, who, in bad grammar and bad spelling, describes "this wretch Diderot as a very dangerous man, who speaks of the holy mysteries of our religion with contempt; who corrupts manners, and who says that when he comes to the last moment of his life, he will have to do like others, will confess, and will receive what we call our God, but it will only be for the sake of his family."[83]

All these things had prepared an unfriendly fate for Diderot when his time at last came, as it came to most of his friends. For a month he was cut off from the outer world. His only company was the Paradise Lost, which he happened to have in his pocket at the moment of his arrest. He compounded an ink for himself, by scraping the slate at the side of his window, grinding it very fine, and mixing with wine in a broken glass. A toothpick, found by happy accident in the pocket of his waistcoat, served him for pen, and the fly-leaves and margins of the Milton made a repository for his thoughts. With a simple but very characteristic interest in others who might be as unfortunate as himself, he wrote upon the walls of his prison his short recipe for writing materials.[84] Diderot might easily have been buried here for months or even years. But, as it happened, the governor of Vincennes was a kinsman of Voltaire's divine Emily, the Marquise du Chatelet. When Voltaire, who was then at Luneville, heard of Diderot's ill-fortune, he proclaimed as usual his detestation of a land where bigots can shut up philosophers under lock and key, and as usual he at once set to work to lessen the wrong. Madame du Chatelet was made to write to the governor, praying him to soften the imprisonment of Socrates-Diderot as much as he could.[85] It was the last of her good deeds, for she died in circumstances of grotesque tragedy in the following month (Sept. 1749), and her husband, her son, Voltaire, and Saint Lambert alternately consoled and reproached one another over her grave. Diderot meanwhile had the benefit of her intervention. He was transferred from the dungeon to the chateau, was allowed to wander about the park on his parole, and to receive visits from his friends. One of the most impulsive of these friends was Jean Jacques. Their first meeting after Diderot's imprisonment has been, described by Rousseau himself, in terms at which the phlegmatic will smile—not wisely, for the manner of expressing emotion, like all else, is relative. "After three or four centuries of impatience, I flew into the arms of my friend. O indescribable moment! He, was not alone; D'Alembert and the treasurer of the Sainte Chapelle were with him. As I went in, I saw no one but himself. With a single hound and a cry, I pressed his face close to mine, I clasped him tightly in my arms, without speaking to him save by my tears and sobs; I was choking with tenderness and joy."[86] After this Rousseau used to walk over to see him two or three times a week. It was during one of these walks on a hot summer afternoon, that he first thought of that memorable literary effort, the essay against civilisation. He sank down at the foot of a tree, and feverishly wrote a page or two to show to his friend. He tells us that but for Diderot's encouragement he should hardly have executed his design. There is a story that it was Diderot who first suggested to Rousseau to affirm that arts and sciences had corrupted manners. There is no violent improbability in this. Diderot, for all the robustness and penetration of his judgment, was yet often borne by his natural impetuosity towards the region of paradox. His own curious and bold Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville is entirely in the vein of Rousseau's discourse on the superiority of primitive over civilised life. "Prodigious sibyl of the eighteenth century," cries Michelet, "the mighty magician Diderot! He breathed out one day a breath; lo, there sprang up a man—Rousseau."[87] It is hard to believe that such an astonishing genius for literature as Rousseau's could have lain concealed, after he had once inhaled the vivifying air of Paris. Yet the fire and inspiring energy of Diderot may well have been the quickening accident that brought his genius into productive life. All the testimony goes to show that it was so. Whether, however, Diderot is really responsible for the perverse direction of Rousseau's argument is a question of fact, and the evidence is not decisive.[88] It would be an odd example of that giant's nonchalance which is always so amazing in Diderot, if he really instigated the most eloquent and passionate writer then alive to denounce art and science as the scourge of mankind, at the very moment when he was himself straining his whole effort to spread the arts and sciences, and to cover them with glory in men's eyes.

Among Diderot's other visitors was Madame de Puisieux. One day she came clad in gay apparel, bound for a merry-making at a neighbouring village. Diderot, conceiving jealous doubts of her fidelity, received assurance that she would be solitary and companionless at the feast, thinking mournfully of her persecuted philosopher lying in prison. She forgot that one of the parents of philosophy is curiosity, and that Diderot had trained himself in the school of the sceptics. That evening he scaled the walls of the park of Vincennes, flew to the scene of the festival, and there found what he had expected. In vain for her had he written upon virtue and merit, and the unhallowed friendship came to an end.

After three months of captivity, Diderot was released. The booksellers who were interested in the Encyclopaedia were importunate with the authorities to restore its head and chief to an enterprise that stirred universal curiosity.[89] For the first volume of that famous work was now almost ready to appear, and expectation was keen. The idea of the book had occurred to Diderot in 1745, and from 1745 to 1765 it was the absorbing occupation of his life. Of the value and significance of the conception underlying this immense operation, I shall speak in the next chapter. There also I shall describe its history. The circumstances under which these five-and-thirty volumes were given to the world mark Diderot for one of the few true heroes of literature. They called into play some of the most admirable of human qualities. They required a laboriousness as steady and as prolonged, a wariness as alert, a grasp of plan as firm, a fortitude as patient, unvarying, and unshaken, as men are accustomed to applaud in the engineer who constructs some vast and difficult work, or the commander who directs a hardy and dangerous expedition.



The history of the encyclopaedic conception of human knowledge is a much more interesting and important object of inquiry than a list of the various encyclopaedic enterprises to be found in the annals of literature. Yet it is proper here to mention some of the attempts in this direction, which preceded our memorable book of the eighteenth century. It is to Aristotle, no doubt, that we must look for the first glimpse of the idea that human knowledge is a totality, whose parts are all closely and organically connected with one another. But the idea that only dawned in that gigantic understanding was lost for many centuries. The compilations of Pliny are not in a right sense encyclopaedic, being presided over by no definite idea of informing order. It was not until the later middle age that any attempt was made to present knowledge as a whole. Albertus Magnus, "the ape of Aristotle" (1193-1280), left for a season the three great questions of the existence of universals, of the modes of the existence of species and genus, and of their place in or out of the bosom of the individuals, and executed a compilation of such physical facts as had been then discovered.[90] A more distinctly encyclopaedic work was the book of Vincent de Beauvais (d. 1264), called Speculum naturale, morale, doctrinale, et historiale—a compilation from Aquinas in some parts, and from Aristotle in others. Hallam mentions three other compilations of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and observes that their laborious authors did not much improve the materials which they had amassed in their studies, though they sometimes arranged them conveniently. In the mediaeval period, as he remarks, the want of capacity to discern probable truths was a very great drawback from the value of their compilations.[91]

Far the most striking production of the thirteenth century in this kind was the Opus Majus of Roger Bacon (1267), of which it has been said that it is at once the Encyclopaedia and the Novum Organum of that age;[92] at once a summary of knowledge, and the suggestion of a truer method. This, however, was merely the introductory sketch to a vaster encyclopaedic work, the Compendium Philosophiae, which was not perfected. "In common with minds of great and comprehensive grasp, his vivid perception of the intimate relationship of the different parts of philosophy, and his desire to raise himself from the dead level of every individual science, induced Bacon to grasp at and embrace the whole."[93] In truth, the encyclopaedic spirit was in the air throughout the thirteenth century. It was the century of books bearing the significant titles of Summa, or Universitas, or Speculum.

The same spirit revived towards the middle of the sixteenth century. In 1541 a book was published at Basel by one Ringelberg, which first took the name of Cyclopaedia, that has since then become so familiar a word in Western Europe. This was followed within sixty years by several other works of the same kind. The movement reached its height in a book which remained the best in its order for a century. A German, one J.H. Alsted (1588-1638), published in 1620 an Encyclopaedia scientiarum omnium. A hundred years later the illustrious Leibnitz pronounced it a worthy task to perfect and amend Alsted's book. What was wanting to the excellent man, he said, was neither labour nor judgment, but material, and the good fortune of such days as ours. And Leibnitz wrote a paper of suggestions for its extension and improvement.[94] Alsted's Encyclopaedia is of course written in Latin, and he prefixes to it by way of motto the celebrated lines in which Lucretius declares that nothing is sweeter than to dwell apart in the serene temples of the wise. Though he informs us in the preface that his object was to trace the outlines of the great "latifundium regni philosophici" in a single syntagma, yet he really does no more than arrange a number of separate treatises or manuals, and even dictionaries, within the limits of a couple of folios. As is natural to the spirit of the age in which he wrote, great predominance is given to the verbal sciences of grammar, rhetoric, and formal logic, and a verbal or logical division regulates the distribution of the matter, rather than a scientific regard for its objective relations.

For the true parentage, however, of the Encyclopaedia of Diderot and D'Alembert, it is unnecessary to prolong this list. It was Francis Bacon's idea of the systematic classification of knowledge which inspired Diderot, and guided his hand throughout. "If we emerge from this vast operation," he wrote in the Prospectus, "our principal debt will be to the chancellor Bacon, who sketched the plan of a universal dictionary of sciences and arts at a time when there were not, so to say, either arts or sciences." This sense of profound and devoted obligation was shared by D'Alembert, and was expressed a hundred times in the course of the work. No more striking panegyric has ever been passed upon our immortal countryman than is to be found in the Preliminary Discourse.[95] The French Encyclopaedia was the direct fruit of Bacon's magnificent conceptions. And if the efficient origin of the Encyclopaedia was English, so did the occasion rise in England also.

In 1727 Ephraim Chambers, a Westmoreland Quaker, published in London two folios, entitled, a Cyclopaedia or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences. The idea of it was broad and excellent. "Our view," says Chambers, "was to consider the several matters, not only in themselves, but relatively, or as they respect each other; both to treat them as so many wholes, and as so many parts of some greater whole." The compiler lacked the grasp necessary to realise this laudable purpose. The book has, however, the merit of conciseness, and is a singular monument of literary industry, for it was entirely compiled by Chambers himself. It had a great success, and though its price was high (four guineas), it ran through five editions in eighteen years. On the whole, however, it is meagre, and more like a dictionary than an encyclopaedia, such as Alsted's for instance.

Some fifteen years after the publication of Chambers's Cyclopaedia, an Englishman (Mills) and a German (Sellius) went to Le Breton with a project for its translation into French. The bookseller obtained the requisite privilege from the government, but he obtained it for himself, and not for the projectors. This trick led to a quarrel, and before it was settled the German died and the Englishman returned to his own country. They left the translation behind them duly executed.[96] Le Breton then carried the undertaking to a certain abbe, Gua de Malves. Gua de Malves (b. 1712) seems to have been a man of a busy and ingenious mind. He was the translator of Berkeley's Hylas and Philonous, of Anson's Voyages, and of various English tracts on currency and political economy. It is said that he first suggested the idea of a cyclopaedia on a fuller plan,[97] but we have no evidence of this. In any case, the project made no advance in his hands. The embarrassed bookseller next applied to Diderot, who was then much in need of work that should bring him bread. His fertile and energetic intelligence transformed the scheme. By an admirable intuition, he divined the opportunity which would be given by the encyclopaedic form, of gathering up into a whole all that new thought and modern knowledge, which existed as yet in unsystematic and uninterpreted fragments. His enthusiasm fired Le Breton. It was resolved to make Chambers's work a mere starting-point for a new enterprise of far wider scope.

"The old and learned D'Aguesseau," says Michelet, "notwithstanding the pitiable, the wretched sides of his character, had two lofty sides, his reform of the laws, and a personal passion, the taste and urgent need of universality, a certain encyclopaedic sense. A young man came to him one day, a man of letters living by his pen, and somewhat under a cloud for one or two hazardous books that lack of bread had driven him to write. Yet this stranger of dubious repute wrought a miracle. With bewilderment the old sage listened to him unrolling the gigantic scheme of a book that should be all books. On his lips, sciences were light and life. It was more than speech, it was creation. One would have said that he had made these sciences, and was still at work, adding, extending, fertilising, ever engendering. The effect was incredible. D'Aguesseau, a moment above himself, forgot the old man, received the infection of genius, and became great with the greatness of the other. He had faith in the young man, and protected the Encyclopaedia."[98]

A fresh privilege was procured (Jan. 21, 1746), and as Le Breton's capital was insufficient for a project of this magnitude, he invited three other booksellers to join him, retaining a half share for himself, and allotting the other moiety to them. As Le Breton was not strong enough to bear the material burdens of producing a work on so gigantic a scale as was now proposed, so Diderot felt himself unequal to the task of arranging and supervising every department of a book that was to include the whole circle of the sciences. He was not skilled enough in mathematics, nor in physics, which were then for the most part mathematically conceived. For that province, he associated with himself as an editorial colleague one of the most conspicuous and active members of the philosophical party. Of this eminent man, whose relations with Diderot were for some years so intimate, it is proper that we should say something.

D'Alembert was the natural son of Madame de Tencin, by whom he had been barbarously exposed immediately after his birth. "The true ancestors of a man of genius," says Condorcet finely upon this circumstance, "are the masters who have gone before him, and his true descendants are disciples that are worthy of him." He was discovered on a November night in the year 1717, by the beadle, in a nearly dying condition on the steps of the church of St. John the Round, from which he afterwards took his Christian name. An honest woman of the common people, with that personal devotion which is less rare among the poor than among the rich, took charge of the foundling. The father, who was an officer of artillery and brother of Destouches, the author of some poor comedies, by and by advanced the small sums required to pay for the boy's schooling. D'Alembert proved a brilliant student. Unlike nearly every other member of the encyclopaedic party, he was a pupil not of the Jesuits but of their rivals. The Jansenists recognised the keenness and force of their pupil, and hoped that they had discovered a new Pascal. But he was less docile than his great predecessor in their ranks. When his studies were completed, he devoted himself to geometry, for which he had a passion that nothing could extinguish. For the old monastic vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he adopted the manlier substitute of poverty, truth, and liberty—the worthy device of every man of letters. When he awoke in the morning, he thought with delight of the work that had been begun the previous day and would occupy the day before him. In the necessary intervals of his meditations, he recalled the lively pleasure that he felt at the play: at the play between the acts, he thought of the still greater pleasure that was promised to him by the work of the morrow. His mathematical labours led to valuable results in the principles of equilibrium and the movement of fluids, in a new calculus, and in a new solution of the problem of the precession of the equinoxes.[99]

These contributions to what was then the most popular of the sciences brought him fame, and fame brought him its usual distractions. As soon as a writer has shown himself the possessor of gifts that may be of value to society, then society straightway sets to work to seduce and hinder him from diligently exercising them. D'Alembert resisted these influences steadfastly. His means were very limited, yet he could never be induced to increase them at the cost either of his social independence or of his scientific pursuits. He lived for forty years under the humble roof of the poor woman who had treated him as a son. "You will never be anything better than a philosopher," she used to cry reproachfully, "and what is a philosopher? 'Tis a madman who torments himself all his life, that people may talk about him when he is dead." D'Alembert zealously adhered to his destination. Frederick the Great vainly tempted him by an offer of the succession to Maupertuis as president of the Academy of Berlin. Although, however, he declined to accept the post, he enjoyed all its authority and prerogative. Frederick always consulted him in filling up vacancies and making appointments. It is a magnanimous trait in D'Alembert's history that he should have procured for Lagrange a position and livelihood at Berlin, warmly commending him as a man of rare and superior genius, although Lagrange had vigorously opposed some of his own mathematical theories. Ten years after Frederick's offer, the other great potentate of the north, Catherine of Russia, besought him to undertake the education of the young grand duke, her son. But neither urgent flatteries and solicitations under the imperial hand, nor the munificent offer of a hundred thousand francs a year, availed to draw him away from his independence and his friends. The great Frederick used to compare him to one of those oriental monarchs, who cherish a strict seclusion in order to enhance their importance and majesty. He did not refuse a pension of some fifty pounds a year from Berlin, and the same amount was bestowed upon him from the privy purse at Versailles. He received a small annual sum in addition from the Academy.

Though the mathematical sciences remained the objects of his special study, D'Alembert was as free as the other great men of the encyclopaedic school from the narrowness of the pure specialist. He naturally reminds us of the remarkable saying imputed to Leibnitz, that he only attributed importance to science, because it enabled him to speak with authority in philosophy and religion. His correspondence with Voltaire, extending over the third quarter of the century, is the most instructive record that we possess of the many-sided doings of that busy time. His series of eloges on the academicians who died between 1700 and 1772 is one of the most interesting works in the department of literary history. He paid the keenest attention to the great and difficult art of writing. Translations from Tacitus, Bacon, and Addison, show his industry in a useful practice. A long collection of synonyms bears witness to his fine discrimination in the use of words. And the clearness, precision, and reserved energy of his own prose mark the success of the pains that he took with style. He knew the secret. Have lofty sentiments, he said, and your manner of writing will be firm and noble.[100] Yet he did not ignore the other side and half of the truth, which is expressed in the saying of another important writer of that day—By taking trouble to speak with precision, one gains the habit of thinking rightly (Condillac).

Like so many others to whom literature owes much, D'Alembert was all his life fighting against bad health. Like Voltaire and Rousseau, he was born dying, and he remained delicate and valetudinarian to the end. He had the mental infirmities belonging to his temperament. He was restless, impatient, mobile, susceptible of irritation. When the young Mademoiselle Phlipon, in after years famous as wife of the virtuous Roland, was taken to a sitting of the Academy, she was curious to see the author of the Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopaedia, but his small face and sharp thin voice made her reflect with some disappointment, that the writings of a philosopher are better to know than his mask.[101] In everything except zeal for light and emancipation, D'Alembert was the opposite of Diderot. Where Diderot was exuberant, prodigal, and disordered, D'Alembert was a precisian. Difference of temperament, however, did not prevent their friendship from being for many years cordial and intimate. When the Encyclopaedia was planned, it was to D'Alembert, as we have said, that Diderot turned for aid in the mathematical sciences, where his own knowledge was not sufficiently full nor well grounded. They were in strong and singular agreement in their idea of the proper place and function of the man of letters. One of the most striking facts about their alliance, and one of the most important facts in the history of the Encyclopaedia, is that henceforth the profession of letters became at once definite and independent. Diderot and D'Alembert both of them remained poor, but they were never hangers-on. They did not look to patrons, nor did they bound their vision by Versailles. They were the first to assert the lawful authority of the new priesthood. They revolted deliberately and in set form against the old system of suitorship and protection. "Happy are men of letters," wrote D'Alembert, "if they recognise at last that the surest way of making themselves respectable is to live united and almost shut up among themselves; that by this union they will come, without any trouble, to give the law to the rest of the nation in all affairs of taste and philosophy; that the true esteem is that which is awarded by men who are themselves worthy of esteem.... As if the art of instructing and enlightening men were not, after the too rare art of good government, the noblest portion and gift in human reach."[102]

This consciousness of the power and exaltation of their calling, which men of letters now acquired, is much more than the superficial fact which it may at first seem to be. It marked the rise of a new teaching order and the supersession of the old. The highest moral ideas now belonged no longer to the clergy, but to the writers; no longer to official Catholicism, but to that fertilising medley of new notions about human knowledge and human society which then went by the name of philosophy. What is striking is that the ideas sown by philosophy became eventually the source of higher life in Catholicism. If the church of the revolution showed something that we may justly admire, it was because the encyclopaedic band had involuntarily and inevitably imparted a measure of their own clearsightedness, fortitude, moral energy, and spirit of social improvement, to a church which was, when they began their work, an abominable burden on the spiritual life of the nation. If the Catholicism of Chateaubriand, of Lamennais, of Montalembert, was a different thing from the Catholicism of a Dubois, or a Rohan, from the vile corruptions of the Jesuits and the grovelling superstitions of the later Jansenists, it was the execrated freethinkers whom the church and mankind had to thank for the change. The most enlightened Catholic of to-day ought to admit that Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, were the true reformers of his creed. They supplied it with ideas which saved it from becoming finally a curse to civilisation. It was no Christian prelate, but Diderot who burst the bonds of a paralysing dogma by the magnificent cry, Detruisez ces enceintes qui retrecissent vos idees! Elargissez Dieu![103] We see the same phenomenon in our own day. The Christian churches are assimilating as rapidly as their formula will permit, the new light and the more generous moral ideas and the higher spirituality of teachers who have abandoned all churches, and who are systematically denounced as enemies of the souls of men. Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes! These transformations of religion by leavening elements contributed from a foreign doctrine, are the most interesting process in the history of truth.

The Encyclopaedia became a powerful engine for aiding such a transformation. Because it was this, and because it rallied all that was then best in France round the standard of light and social hope, we ought hardly to grudge time or pains to its history. For it was not merely in the field of religious ideas that the Encyclopaedists led France in a new way. They affected the national life on every side, pressing forward with enlightened principles in all the branches of material and political organisation. Their union in a great philosophical band gave an impressive significance to their work. The collection within a single set of volumes of a body of new truths, relating to so many of the main interests of men, invested the book and its writers with an aspect of universality, of collective and organic doctrine, which the writers themselves would without doubt have disowned, and which it is easy to dissolve by tests of logic. But the popular impression that the Encyclopaedists constituted a single body with a common doctrine and a common aim was practically sound. Comte has pointed out with admirable clearness the merit of the conception of an encyclopaedic workshop.[104] It united the members of rival destructive schools in a great constructive task. It furnished a rallying-point for efforts otherwise the most divergent. Their influence was precisely what it would have been, if popular impressions had been literally true. Diderot and D'Alembert did their best to heighten this feeling. They missed no occasion of fixing a sentiment of co-operation and fellowship. They spoke of their dictionary as the transactions of an Academy.[105] Each writer was answerable for his own contribution, but he was in the position of a member of some learned corporation. To every volume, until the great crisis of 1759, was prefixed a list of those who had contributed to it. If a colleague died, the public was informed of the loss that the work had sustained, and his services were worthily commemorated in a formal eloge.[106] Feuds, epigrams, and offences were not absent, but on the whole there was steadfast and generous fraternity.

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