Denis Diderot quotes

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Denis Diderot

Birthdate: 5. October 1713
Date of death: 31. July 1784

Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent figure during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie along with Jean le Rond d'Alembert.

Diderot's literary reputation during his lifetime rested primarily on his plays and his contributions to the Encyclopédie; many of his most important works, including Jacques the Fatalist, Rameau's Nephew, Paradox of the Actor, and D'Alembert's Dream, were published only after his death.

Works

„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.“

—  Denis Diderot

Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)
Context: 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.

„He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is only probable. He does more, and here you have a great perfection of the philosopher: when he has no reason by which to judge, he knows how to live in suspension of judgment…
The philosophical spirit is, then, a spirit of observation and exactness, which relates everything to true principles…“

—  Denis Diderot

Article on Philosophy, Vol. 25, p. 667, as quoted in Main Currents of Western Thought : Readings in Western European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present (1978) by Franklin Le Van Baumer
Variant translation: Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher. Other men walk in darkness; the philosopher, who has the same passions, acts only after reflection; he walks through the night, but it is preceded by a torch. The philosopher forms his principles on an infinity of particular observations. … He does not confuse truth with plausibility; he takes for truth what is true, for forgery what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is probable. … The philosophical spirit is thus a spirit of observation and accuracy.
L'Encyclopédie (1751-1766)
Context: Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian.
Grace causes the Christian to act, reason the philosopher. Other men are carried away by their passions, their actions not being preceded by reflection: these are the men who walk in darkness. On the other hand, the philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection; he walks in the dark, but by a torch.
The philosopher forms his principles from an infinity of particular observations. Most people adopt principles without thinking of the observations that have produced them, they believe the maxims exist, so to speak, by themselves. But the philosopher takes maxims from their source; he examines their origin; he knows their proper value, and he makes use of them only in so far as they suit him.
Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination and whom he believes to be found everywhere; he contents himself with being able to unravel it where he can perceive it. He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is only probable. He does more, and here you have a great perfection of the philosopher: when he has no reason by which to judge, he knows how to live in suspension of judgment...
The philosophical spirit is, then, a spirit of observation and exactness, which relates everything to true principles...

„There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation.“

—  Denis Diderot

No. 15
On the Interpretation of Nature (1753)
Context: There 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.

„There's a bit of testicle at the bottom of our most sublime feelings and our purest tenderness.“

—  Denis Diderot

Il y a un peu de testicule au fond de nos sentiments les plus sublimes et de notre tendresse la plus épurée.
Letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville (1760-11-03)

„The philosopher forms his principles from an infinity of particular observations.“

—  Denis Diderot

Article on Philosophy, Vol. 25, p. 667, as quoted in Main Currents of Western Thought : Readings in Western European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present (1978) by Franklin Le Van Baumer
Variant translation: Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher. Other men walk in darkness; the philosopher, who has the same passions, acts only after reflection; he walks through the night, but it is preceded by a torch. The philosopher forms his principles on an infinity of particular observations. … He does not confuse truth with plausibility; he takes for truth what is true, for forgery what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is probable. … The philosophical spirit is thus a spirit of observation and accuracy.
L'Encyclopédie (1751-1766)
Context: Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian.
Grace causes the Christian to act, reason the philosopher. Other men are carried away by their passions, their actions not being preceded by reflection: these are the men who walk in darkness. On the other hand, the philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection; he walks in the dark, but by a torch.
The philosopher forms his principles from an infinity of particular observations. Most people adopt principles without thinking of the observations that have produced them, they believe the maxims exist, so to speak, by themselves. But the philosopher takes maxims from their source; he examines their origin; he knows their proper value, and he makes use of them only in so far as they suit him.
Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination and whom he believes to be found everywhere; he contents himself with being able to unravel it where he can perceive it. He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is only probable. He does more, and here you have a great perfection of the philosopher: when he has no reason by which to judge, he knows how to live in suspension of judgment...
The philosophical spirit is, then, a spirit of observation and exactness, which relates everything to true principles...

„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

No. 15
On the Interpretation of Nature (1753)
Context: There 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.

„What is this world? A complex whole, subject to endless revolutions.“

—  Denis Diderot

Dying words of Nicholas Saunderson as portrayed in Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
Variant translation:
What is this world of ours? A complex entity subject to sudden changes which all indicate a tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings which follow one another, assert themselves and disappear; a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.
Context: 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.

„Time, matter, space — all, it may be, are no more than a point.“

—  Denis Diderot

Dying words of Nicholas Saunderson as portrayed in Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
Variant translation:
What is this world of ours? A complex entity subject to sudden changes which all indicate a tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings which follow one another, assert themselves and disappear; a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.
Context: 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.

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„The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad.“

—  Denis Diderot

"Refutation of Helvétius" (written 1773-76, published 1875)
Context: The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.

„How old the world is! I walk between two eternities…“

—  Denis Diderot

Salon of 1767 (1798), Oeuvres esthétiques <!-- p. 644 -->
Context: How old the world is! I walk between two eternities... What is my fleeting existence in comparison with that decaying rock, that valley digging its channel ever deeper, that forest that is tottering and those great masses above my head about to fall? I see the marble of tombs crumbling into dust; and yet I don’t want to die!

„Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.“

—  Denis Diderot

"Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage" (1796)
Variant translation:
Never allow yourselves to forget that it is for their own sakes and not for yours that all those wise lawgivers have forced you into your present unnatural and rigid molds. And as evidence of this, I need only produce all our political, civil, and religious institutions. Examine them thoroughly, and either I am very much mistaken or you will find that mankind has been forced to bow, century after century, beneath a mere handful of scoundrels has conspired, in ever age, to impose upon it. Beware of the man who wants to set things in order. Setting things in order always involves acquiring mastery over others — by tying them hand and foot.
As translated by Derek Coleman, in Diderot's Selected Writings (1966)
Context: As for our celebrated lawgivers, who have cast us in our present awkward mold, you may be sure that they have acted to serve their interests and not ours. Witness all our political, civil, and religious institutions — examine them thoroughly: unless I am very much mistaken, you will see how, through the ages, the human race has been broken to the halter that a handful of rascals were itching to impose. Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.

„Do you see this egg? With this you can topple every theological theory, every church or temple in the world.“

—  Denis Diderot

“Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot”, as quoted in Selected Writings (1966) edited by Lester G. Crocker, and The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (2004) by Louis K Dupré, p. 30
Variant translation: See this egg. It is with this that all the schools of theology and all the temples of the earth are to be overturned.
As quoted in Diderot, Reason and Resonance (1982) by Élisabeth de Fontenay, p. 217
D’Alembert’s Dream (1769)
Context: Do you see this egg? With this you can topple every theological theory, every church or temple in the world. What is it, this egg, before the seed is introduced into it? An insentient mass. And after the seed has been introduced to into it? What is it then? An insentient mass. For what is the seed itself other than a crude and inanimate fluid? How is this mass to make a transition to a different structure, to sentience, to life? Through heat. And what will produce that heat in it? Motion.

„The more man ascends through the past, and the more he launches into the future, the greater he will be“

—  Denis Diderot

As quoted in "Diderot" in The Great Infidels (1881) by Robert Green Ingersoll; The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll Vol. III (1900), p. 367
Context: The more man ascends through the past, and the more he launches into the future, the greater he will be, and all these philosophers and ministers and truth-telling men who have fallen victims to the stupidity of nations, the atrocities of priests, the fury of tyrants, what consolation was left for them in death? This: That prejudice would pass, and that posterity would pour out the vial of ignominy upon their enemies. O Posterity! Holy and sacred stay of the unhappy and the oppressed; thou who art just, thou who art incorruptible, thou who findest the good man, who unmaskest the hypocrite, who breakest down the tyrant, may thy sure faith, thy consoling faith never, never abandon me!

„Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian.
Grace causes the Christian to act, reason the philosopher.“

—  Denis Diderot

Article on Philosophy, Vol. 25, p. 667, as quoted in Main Currents of Western Thought : Readings in Western European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present (1978) by Franklin Le Van Baumer
Variant translation: Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace moves the Christian to act, reason moves the philosopher. Other men walk in darkness; the philosopher, who has the same passions, acts only after reflection; he walks through the night, but it is preceded by a torch. The philosopher forms his principles on an infinity of particular observations. … He does not confuse truth with plausibility; he takes for truth what is true, for forgery what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is probable. … The philosophical spirit is thus a spirit of observation and accuracy.
L'Encyclopédie (1751-1766)
Context: Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian.
Grace causes the Christian to act, reason the philosopher. Other men are carried away by their passions, their actions not being preceded by reflection: these are the men who walk in darkness. On the other hand, the philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection; he walks in the dark, but by a torch.
The philosopher forms his principles from an infinity of particular observations. Most people adopt principles without thinking of the observations that have produced them, they believe the maxims exist, so to speak, by themselves. But the philosopher takes maxims from their source; he examines their origin; he knows their proper value, and he makes use of them only in so far as they suit him.
Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination and whom he believes to be found everywhere; he contents himself with being able to unravel it where he can perceive it. He does not confound it with probability; he takes for true what is true, for false what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is only probable. He does more, and here you have a great perfection of the philosopher: when he has no reason by which to judge, he knows how to live in suspension of judgment...
The philosophical spirit is, then, a spirit of observation and exactness, which relates everything to true principles...

„All our virtues depend on the faculty of the senses, and on the degree to which external things affect us.“

—  Denis Diderot

Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
Context: As to all the outward signs that awaken within us feelings of sympathy and compassion, the blind are only affected by crying; I suspect them in general of lacking humanity. What difference is there for a blind man, between a man who is urinating, and man who, without crying out, is bleeding? And we ourselves, do we not cease to commiserate, when the distance or the smallness of the objects in question produce the same effect on us as the lack of sight produces in the blind man? All our virtues depend on the faculty of the senses, and on the degree to which external things affect us. Thus I do not doubt that, except for the fear of punishment, many people would not feel any remorse for killing a man from a distance at which he appeared no larger than a swallow. No more, at any rate, than they would for slaughtering a cow up close. If we feel compassion for a horse that suffers, but if we squash an ant without any scruple, isn’t the same principle at work?

„People praise virtue, but they hate it, they run away from it.“

—  Denis Diderot, book Rameau's Nephew

Rameau's Nephew (1762)
Context: People praise virtue, but they hate it, they run away from it. It freezes you to death, and in this world you've got to keep your feet warm.

„And his hands would plait the priest's entrails,
For want of a rope, to strangle kings.“

—  Denis Diderot

Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,
Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.
"Les Éleuthéromanes", in Poésies Diverses (1875)
Variant translation: His hands would plait the priest's guts, if he had no rope, to strangle kings.
This derives from the prior statement widely attributed to Jean Meslier: "I would like — and this would be the last and most ardent of my wishes — I would like the last of the kings to be strangled by the guts of the last priest". It is often claimed the passage appears in Meslier's Testament (1725) but it only appears in abstracts of the work written by others. See the Wikipedia article Jean Meslier for details.
Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.
Attributed to Diderot by Jean-François de La Harpe in Cours de Littérature Ancienne et Moderne (1840)
Attributions to Diderot of similar statements also occur in various forms, i.e.: "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."
Variant: Et des boyaux du dernier prêtre
Serrons le cou du dernier roi.

„From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.“

—  Denis Diderot

Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu (1745); a translation and adaptation of Inquiry concerning Virtue or Merit (1699) by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury
Source: Essai sur le mérite et la vertu

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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