Denis Diderot, 1713 - 1784

portrait of Denis Diderot
Oil on canvas by Louis-Michel van Loo (1767)
Denis Diderot signature

Born: 5 October 1713, Langres, France
Died: 31 July 1784, Paris, France

Diderot earned a master of arts in philosophy with the intention of entering the clergy, switched to law, and then became a writer. His father, willing to accept only the "learned professions" for his son, disowned him and though Diderot was widely admired he was always poor as a result. In order to provide a dowry for his daughter he had to offer his library for sale, to the horror of intellectual society. Catherine the Great of Russia not only bought his library but instructed him to keep possession of it and paid him a small salary as her librarian. His work was filled with brilliant insights and original thought although never well organized. For example, he discussed natural selection and rejected "intelligent design" a hundred years before Darwin. He devoted twenty-five years to the creation of the Encyclopedie, at that point the most extensive work of its kind, but after the first volume he was harassed by the church and the police, actually spending three months in prison before being released on condition of not including some of his conclusions about religion in his work. As a result, many of his works were only available in France well after his death. As novelist, playwright, philosopher, satirist, and critic he was a major factor in the Enlightenment. He died of gastro-intestinal problems, "his" library was then shipped to Catherine who had it added to the National Library of Russia.

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