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Chicago: Open Court Pub., 1916. Pp. 246. 2

The New Statesman,8 (17 Mar 1917) 572-73

In all the active and restless eighteenth century, perhaps the most restless and active intelligence was that of Diderot. Yet his immortality is hardly more than the echo of a name. To the curious in literature much lesser names are almost as well known: Évremonde, Condillac, Chamfort, Lespinasse. 3 It is not the mere bulk of the man’s work which is forbidding. Voltaire’s fifty or sixty volumes have not crushed him: Candiderepresents him to the many, and personal attraction draws a few readers to the rest of his writings. 4 But Diderot is not fairly represented by the Neveu de Rameau, and his personality has not that simplicity which attracts all sceptical or destructive minds to Voltaire. The truth is that his personality is not important; that he created no masterpiece in any genre; that his genius was essentially diffuse. Wherever the intellect of the century stirred, Diderot dropped a grain into the ferment; his was one of those minds which provide leading ideas, ideas which prepare an environment, ideas which force the scientist to look in certain directions, which force the artist to develop certain forms. For Biblical criticism, for physiology, for biology, psychology, evolution, for aesthetics and new literary genres, Diderot supplied such ideas. Yet he made no scientific discovery, and he left no literary masterpiece.

To select “philosophic writings” from Diderot is, therefore, a little difficult. Possibly this is why Miss Jourdain has confined her selections to the early works: she has chosen the Philosophic Thoughts, the Letter on the Blind, and the Letter on the Deaf and Dumb. On any other principle of selection, the later Entretien avec la maréchaleis an incomparably more brilliant and witty exposition of Diderot’s religious views than the Philosophic Thoughts. But as the “Thoughts” were chosen, it seems a pity that the “Supplement” to them was omitted; however unpleasant to the English reader, it certainly casts some light on Diderot’s attitude in morals. And one regrets also that so competent an editor could not have included the Entretien avec d’Alembert. 5 But Miss Jourdain has done a most useful piece of work in presenting a good translation of three of Diderot’s essays with careful introduction, appendices, and notes. The translation is as good as that of Mrs. Tollemache, the apparatus is more adequate, and the selection, though smaller, is more important. 6

The two “Letters” are, in substance, rather unsystematic applications of the sensationalistic psychology of the eighteenth century. One observes, as in every writer of Diderot’s time, the vast influence of Locke. 7 As an exposition of sensationalism, the letters are inferior to the systematic treatise of Condillac. 8 They contain some acute observations of the behaviour of a blind man and a deaf mute, their means of communication with the world, and their interpretation of this world to themselves. Diderot’s point of view is summed up in the words:

As to me it has always been very clear that the state of our organs and our senses has a great influence on our metaphysics and our morality, and that those ideas which seem purely intellectual are closely dependent on the conformation of our bodies, I put some questions to the blind man about the virtues and vices. [80]

And he finds, on questioning the blind man, that “Modesty he makes no great account of” [81].

Diderot gives himself a wide field. The second essay runs into observations on language, literary criticism, music, the relation of the arts to one another. The first contains a famous refutation, from the lips of the blind man, of the argument from design. He suggests how such a world as ours might have evolved without Divine control...

Published By:   Johns Hopkins University Press