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Denis Diderot

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Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
French philosopher and writer of L'Encyclopédie (1751–1772), epitomizing the spirit of Enlightenment thought: much more than a work of reference, L'Encyclopédie became a program for change, transferring knowledge and authority from the clerical to the secular domains; with its publication, religion and irreligion became polarized and the various shades of distinction within Deism and natural religion began to disappear. (Portions based upon Jim Herrick's book, Against the Faith)

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Denis DiderotThere are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination. Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound, and our experiments exact. We rarely see these three means combined; and for this reason, creative geniuses are not common.
-- Denis Diderot, On the Interpretation of Nature, no. 15 (1753), repr. in Lester G Crocker, ed, Selected Writings, ed. (1966), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

When superstition is allowed to perform the task of old age in dulling the human temperament, we can say goodbye to all excellence in poetry, in painting, and in music.
-- Denis Diderot, Philosophic Thoughts, ch. 3 (1746), repr. in Lester G Crocker, ed, Selected Writings, ed. (1966), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

To attempt the destruction of our passions is the height of folly. What a noble aim is that of the zealot who tortures himself like a madman in order to desire nothing, love nothing, feel nothing, and who, if he succeeded, would end up a complete monster!
-- Denis Diderot, Philosophic Thoughts, ch. 5 (1746), repr. in Lester G Crocker, ed, Selected Writings, ed. (1966), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: "My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly." This stranger is a theologian.
-- Denis Diderot, Addition aux Pensees philosophiques, from John Daintith, et al, eds. The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations (2000) p. 34, quoted from R, Rotando, in a personal letter to Cliff Walker (December 17, 2001)

At an early age I sucked up the milk of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Terence, Anacreon, Plato and Euripides, diluted with that of Moses and the prophets.
-- Denis Diderot, describing the impact which the classics had made upon him, quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 72

But if you will recall the history of our civil troubles, you will see half the nation bathe itself, out of piety, in the blood of the other half, and violate the fundamental feelings of humanity in order to sustain the cause of God: as though it were necessary to cease to be a man in order to prove oneself religious!
-- Denis Diderot, reproving religious conflict in a dedicatory epistle, quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), pp. 71-2

Superstition is more injurious to God than atheism.
-- Denis Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques (1746), quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 73

Denis DiderotIf there were a reason for preferring the Christian religion to natural religion, it would be because the former offers us, on the nature of God and man, enlightenment that the latter lacks. Now, this is not at all the case; for Christianity, instead of clarifying, gives rise to an infinite multitude of obscurities and difficulties.
-- Denis Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques (1746), quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 73

Gentleness and peacefulness regulate our proceedings; theirs are dictated by fury. We employ reason, they accumulate faggots. They preach nothing but love, and breathe nothing but blood. Their words are humane, but their hearts are cruel.
-- Denis Diderot, a favorable portrayal of the "tranquil abode" of the chestnut path of philosophical deism, in The Sceptic's Walk (1747), which Diderot described as a 'conversation concerning religion, philosophy and the world," quoted from and citation quips derived from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 73

I believe in God, although I live very happily with atheists.... It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.
-- Denis Diderot, conceding to Voltaire's defence of the concept of God (during a letter dialogue sparked by Voltaire's letter commenting on Letter to the Blind), though quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 75

One must be oneself very little of a philosopher not to feel that the finest privilege of our reason consists in not believing in anything by the impulsion of a blind and mechanical instinct, and that it is to dishonour reason to put it in bonds as the Chaldeans did. Man is born to think for himself.
-- Denis Diderot, articulating the philosophes' belief in their own capacities, in "Chaldeans" of L'Encyclopédie, quoted from and citation quip derived from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 78

I am more affected by the attractions of virtue than by the deformities of vice; I turn gently away from the wicked and I fly to meet the good. If there is in a literary work, in a character, in a picture, in a statue, a beautiful spot, that is where my eyes rest; I see only that, I remember only that, all the rest is well-nigh forgotten. What becomes of me when the whole work is beautiful!
-- Denis Diderot, quoted from Jean Starobinski, The Man Who Told Secrets, reviewed in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XX, No. 4, March 22, 1973, pp. 18-21.

It seems to me that if one had kept silence up to now regarding religion, people would still be submerged in the most grotesque and dangerous superstition ... regarding government, we would still be groaning under the bonds of feudal government ... regarding morals, we would still be having to learn what is virtue and what is vice. To forbid all these discussions, the only ones worthy of occupying a good mind, is to perpetuate the reign of ignorance and barbarism.
-- Denis Diderot, from "an essay on Seneca was expanded into a work on Claudius and Nero" (Herrick), quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 84

Denis DiderotScepticism is the first step towards truth.
-- Denis Diderot, Pensées Philosophiques (1746), quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 77

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.
-- Denis Diderot, Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu (1745)

The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.
-- Denis Diderot, Observations on Drawing Up of Laws (1774), repr. in Lester G Crocker, ed, Selected Writings, ed. (1966), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

No man has received from nature the right to give orders to others. Freedom is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he is in enjoyment of his reason.
-- Denis Diderot, "Political Authority," from L'Encyclopédie

In any country where talent and virtue produce no advancement, money will be the national god. Its inhabitants will either have to possess money or make others believe that they do. Wealth will be the highest virtue, poverty the greatest vice. Those who have money will display it in every imaginable way. If their ostentation does not exceed their fortune, all will be well. But if their ostentation does exceed their fortune they will ruin themselves. In such a country, the greatest fortunes will vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Those who don't have money will ruin themselves with vain efforts to conceal their poverty. That is one kind of affluence: the outward sign of wealth for a small number, the mask of poverty for the majority, and a source of corruption for all.
-- Denis Diderot, Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (written 1774 for Catherine the Great), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

Every man has his dignity. I'm willing to forget mine, but at my own discretion and not when someone else tells me to.
-- Denis Diderot: Rameau's nephew, in Rameau's Nephew (1762; published: 1821), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

The most dangerous madmen are those created by religion, and ... people whose aim is to disrupt society always know how to make good use of them on occasion.
-- Denis Diderot, Conversations with a Christian Lady (1777), repr. in Lester G Crocker, ed, Selected Writings, ed. (1966), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

There is not a Musselman alive who would not imagine that he was performing an action pleasing to God and his Holy Prophet by exterminating every Christian on earth, while the Christians are scarcely more tolerant on their side.
-- Denis Diderot, Conversations with a Christian Lady (written 1774; published 1777), repr. in Lester G Crocker, ed, Selected Writings, ed. (1966), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

Which is the greater merit, to enlighten the human race, which remains forever, or to save one's fatherland, which is perishable?
-- Denis Diderot, quoted from Joseph Lewis, The Ten Commandments (p. 571)

Patriotism is an ephemeral motive that scarcely ever outlasts the particular threat to society that aroused it.
-- Denis Diderot, Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (written in 1774 for Catherine the Great; published 1921), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations

The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty. It is to the state what health is to the individual.
-- Denis Diderot, from L'Encyclopédie

It has been said that love robs those who have it of their wit, and gives it to those who have none.
-- Denis Diderot, Paradoxe sur le comédien (1773, published 1830 -- Näyttelijän paradoksi)

It is raining bombs on the house of the Lord. I go in fear and trembling lest one of these terrible bombers gets into difficulties.
-- Denis Diderot (1768). "When Diderot wrote these words, his close friend d'Holbach was secretly leading the bombing raid. Between 1760 and 1770 d'Holbach masterminded the publication of some twenty or thirty pamphlets, edited, translated and partly written by himself. Their theme was clearly stated in the title of the first of the batch, Christianity Unveiled, attributed posthumously to Nicolas Boulanger." Quoted from and citation quip by Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 85.

Mankind shall not be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.
-- Denis Diderot, Dithyrambe Sur La Fête Des Rois

We are a free people; and now you have planted in our country the title deeds of our future slavery. You are neither god nor demon; who are you, then, to make slaves? Orou! You understand the language of these men, tell us all, as you have told me, what they have written on this sheet of metal: "This country is ours." This country yours? And why? Because you have walked thereon? If a Tahitian landed one day on your shores, and scratched on one of your rocks or on the bark of your trees: "This country belongs to the people of Tahiti" -- what would you think?
-- Denis Diderot, from Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville (Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage, not published until 1796)

There comes a moment during which almost every girl or boy falls into melancholy; they are tormented by a vague inquietude which rests on everything and finds nothing to calm it. They seek solitude; they weep; the silence to be found in cloister attracts them: the image of peace that seems to reign in religious houses seduces them. They mistake the first manifestations of a developing sexual nature for the voice of God calling them to Himself; and it is precisely when nature is inciting them that they embrace a fashion of life contrary to nature's wish.
-- Denis Diderot, comparing religious feelings to psychological experiences, particularly those during adolescence, in James the Fatalist, quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 72. Compare this with Lord Byron's likening of philosophy with adolescent stirrings in Don Juan.

Let us not talk of that great and beautiful spectacle which was never made for me! ...
     We encounter some phenomenon that is, in our opinion, beyond the powers of man, and immediately we say, 'Is it the work of God'. Our vanity will admit no lesser explanation. Can we not reason with a little less pride and a little more philosophy? If nature presents us with a knot that is difficult to untie, then let us leave it as it is, let us not insist on cutting it there and then and on employing for the task the hand of a being who thereupon becomes a knot even more difficult to untie than the first. Ask an Indian why the globe remains suspended in the air and he will reply that it is borne on the back of an elephant. And on what does the elephant rest? On a tortoise. And the tortoise, who supports that?
-- Denis Diderot, using the perspective of a blind person to query natural religion and the idea that a deity was evident in the marvels of nature, in a dying speech invented for the famous English mathematician Nicholas Saunderson (although Saunderson had made no such speech and the Royal Society was indignant: this kind of inaccuracy gave an advantage to Diderot's opponents, but was characteristic of his prodigious and effervescent talent), during the aftermath of his Letter to the Blind (two editions published in 1749), which was occasioned by the successful cataract operation on a young girl, quoted from and citation quips derived from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), pp. 73-4

Mme La Maréchale: Are you not Monsieur Crudeli?
Crudeli: Yes, Madame.
Mme La Maréchale: Then you're the man who doesn't believe in anything.
Crudeli: In person, madame.
Mme La Maréchale: Yet your moral principles are the same as those of a believer?
Crudeli: Why should they not be -- as long as the believer is an honest man?
Mme La Maréchale: And do you act upon your principles?
Crudeli: To the best of my ability.
Mme La Maréchale: What? You don't steal? You don't kill people? You don't rob them?
Crudeli: Very rarely.
Mme La Maréchale: Then what do you gain by not being a believer?
Crudeli: Nothing at all, madame. Is one a believer from motives of profit?
-- Denis Diderot, "Conversation with a Christian Lady" (1774), trans. Derek Coltman, quoted from S T Joshi, ed, Atheism: A Reader, p. 229

A man had been betrayed by his children, by his wife, and by his friends; some disloyal partners had ruined his fortune, and had plunged him into poverty. Pervaded with a profound hatred and contempt for the human race, he left society and took refuge alone in a cave. There, pressing his fists into his eyes, and contemplating a revenge proportional to his grievances, he said: "Evil people! What shall I do to punish them for their injustice and to make them all as unhappy as they deserve? Ah! if it were possible to imagine it -- to intoxicate them with a great fantasy to which they would attach more importance than to their lives, and about which they would never be able to agree!" Instantly he rushed out of thc cave, shouting, "God! God!" Echoes without number repeated around him, "God! God!" This fearful name was carried from pole to pole, and heard everywhere with astonishment. At first men prostrated themselves, then they got up again, asked each other, argued with each other, became bitter, cursed each other, hated each other, cut each other's throats, and the fatal wish of the misanthropist was fulfilled. For such has been in the past, such will be in the future, the story of a being at all times equally important and incomprehensible.
-- Denis Diderot, Addition to the Philosophical Thoughts, quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 82

In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.
-- Denis Diderot (attributed: source unknown)

To be born in imbecility, in the midst of pain and crisis to be the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness, and passions; to return step by step to imbecility, from the time of lisping to that of doting; to live among knaves and charlatans of all kinds; to die between one man who takes your pulse and another who troubles your head; never to know where you come from, why you come and where you are going! That is what is called the most important gift of our parents and nature. Life.
-- Denis Diderot, from L'Encyclopédie, quoted from John Patrick Michael Murphy, "Murphy's Law: Denis Diderot" (1999)

There is only one virtue, justice; only one duty, to be happy; only one corollary, not to overvalue life and not to fear death.
-- Denis Diderot, from "notes for Elements of Physiology, probably in preparation for a larger work on the nature of man" (Herrick), quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 84

The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.
-- Denis Diderot, his alleged final words to his daughter, quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 84

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Parlement: The Venom of Criminal Opinions

"[Pensées Philosophiques] presents to restless and reckless spirits the venom of the most criminal and absurd opinions that the depravity of human reason is capable of; and by an affected uncertainty places all religions on almost the same level, in order to finish up by not accepting any."
-- Paris Parlement, condemning Diderot's Pensées Philosophiques to be burned, thereby giving a useful advertisement to those who sought sceptical works, quoted from and citation quip derived from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 73

Bishop: Hell Now Vomits its Venom in Torrents

"Up till now Hell has vomited its venom, so to speak, drop by drop. Today there are torrents of errors and impieties which tend toward nothing less than the submerging of Faith, Religion, Virtues, the Church, Subordination, the Laws, and Reason. Past centuries have witnessed the birth of sects that, while attacking some Dogmas, have respected a great number of them; it was reserved to ours to see impiety forming a system that overturns all of them at one and the same time."
-- The Bishop of Montaubon, upon the Abbé de Prades having contributed to L'Encyclopédie.a thesis that was thought to defend natural religion and to contain parallels with the Preliminary Discourse. It was condemned by the Sorbonne, the Archbishop of Paris and the Pope. Quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 79.

Attorney General: Materialism Nourishes Moral Corruption

"There is a project formed, a Society organized, to propagate materialism, to destroy Religion, to inspire a spirit of independence, and to nourish the corruption of morals."
-- The Attorney General of Paris, which warning resulted in a decree that the sale and publication of L'Encyclopédie be suspended in 1759, forcing the undaunted Diderot, amidst the desertion of many contributors, to work underground and publish the final ten volumes abroad, if necessary, quoted from and source quip based upon Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 80

D'Alembert: Worn Out by the Opposition

"I am worn out by the insults and vexations that this work brings down on us."
-- Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Diderot's original partner, showing reluctance to continue in the face of continual hostility, writing to Voltaire in 1758, quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 80

Modern Jesuits: Most Formidable Against Religion

"The most formidable machine that was ever set up against religion."
-- The Jesuit Periodical Études, the Jesuits being bitterly hostile to L'Encyclopédie even some 200 years after its publication, in an article titled "Deuxieme centenaire de L'Encyclopédie, Études (CCLXXII: 1952), quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 79n

Ingersoll: Diderot: Christ was Guilty of Suicide

"Diderot took the ground that, if orthodox religion be true Christ was guilty of suicide. Having the power to defend himself he should have used it."
-- Robert Green Ingersoll, quoted from Joseph Lewis, Ingersoll the Magnificent! (the Lewis work contains no source citations)

Ingersoll: Diderot's Mind Was at Perfect Rest

"Of course it would not do for the church to allow a man to die in peace who had added to the intellectual wealth of the world. The moment Diderot was dead, Catholic priests began painting and recounting the horrors of his expiring moments. They described him as overcome with remorse, as insane with fear; and these falsehoods have been repeated by the Protestant world, and will probably be repeated by thousands of ministers after we are dead.
     The truth is, he had passed his threescore years and ten. He had lived for seventy-one years. He had eaten his supper. He had been conversing with his wife. He was reclining in his easy chair. His mind was at perfect rest. He had entered, without knowing it, the twilight of his last day. Above the horizon was the evening star, telling of sleep. The room grew still and the stillness was lulled by the murmur of the street. There were a few moments of perfect peace. The wife said, "He is asleep." She enjoyed his repose, and breathed softly that he might not be disturbed. The moments wore on, and still he slept. Lovingly, softly, at last she touched him. Yes, he was asleep. He had become a part of the eternal silence.
-- Robert Green Ingersoll, quoted from Joseph Lewis, Ingersoll the Magnificent! (the Lewis work contains no source citations)

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* Portions of the Denis Diderot biographical quip were based on Jim Herick's biography of Denis Diderot in Herick's book, Against the Faith.
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