Andrew Curran: “Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely” | Talks at Google

Andrew Curran: “Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely” | Talks at Google

Thank you so much. And thank you to the
team at Google Talks– Keith, and Jeremy, and Susanna. It’s a real honor to be here. It’s really a fun campus. And it’s true today
I’m going to be talking to you about Diderot. And I think the first question,
and Keith’s kind of alluding to that, is who is this guy? Who is Diderot and why is
this 18th century Frenchman of interest to us today? Let me start with a really
fast historical synopsis, then we’re going to get back
into his life a little bit more deeply in a second. So he’s born in a
small city near Dijon in Burgundy, which
is a very small city. We’ll talk about it in a second. He go to Paris at
age 14 to study to become a priest, which is
quite ironic because he ends up being the most notorious
atheist of the 18th century. While in Paris, he drops
out of the Sorbonne, which is the faculty of
theology at the time, then he spends 10 years
of doing not too much. So he has a great
dilettante phase, which I always recommend
to all of my students. During this time, he does
do a couple of good things. He teaches himself English. He teaches himself Italian. And he marries a barely
literate laundress. He then becomes a
translator of English, and then an author of
anonymous scandalous books. First, there is a
novel, and then there is a work of philosophy
that’s quite heretical. We’ll talk about that
in a second as well. 1749, he’s thrown into
prison for three months. He’s released,
and at that point, he starts work
much more earnestly on the “Encyclopédie”– this gigantic encyclopedia. And after he is
released from prison– you have to remember this
is a time in France when Paris is pretty much like Soviet
Moscow and Tehran combined– he is unable to publish. He’s followed by
spies at all times. It’s very difficult
for him to hang out in a cafe, for example,
and talk freely. And so he’s going to hide
his works for the second half of his career. He dies in 1784, five years
before the French Revolution. Now, if you’ve heard
about Diderot– and as Keith was saying– you probably know him
as a driving force behind the world’s first
comprehensive encyclopedia, which was published
between 1751 and 1772. And this is a
massive undertaking– 17 volumes of text,
11 volumes of plates, 3,000 individually
printed and compiled illustrations, 74,000 articles. And inside here are
23,000 cross-references. He really is one of
the first hyperlinkers of all time, Diderot. And he thinks this way. He thinks as a hyperlinker. The book itself
here, again published over the course of two
decades, weighs 150 pounds. It’s enormous. Each volume is about this big. Now, he wrote 7,000 articles
for this book, which is pretty amazing,
on articles ranging from political authority, the
authority of the king, also geographical articles
on West Africa. He wrote on everything. Jimmy Wales, one of the
founders of Wikipedia, told me he really is the
patron saint of Wikipedia. And he should be
also the patron saint of Google too in many ways. Why? Because he is perhaps
the first person to fully deploy the
democratic power of knowledge on a massive scale. He’s also among the first
people to conceive of philosophy as something of a
cudgel as a tool– a tool which he could
use to challenge received ideas and
long-standing traditions, be they political, social,
moral, or even sexual. His “Encyclopédie” was not
only about being the repository of knowledge. It was designed to change the
way his entire era thought. And it worked. Now, consider how
the “Encyclopédie” defined philosophy. And he was being far more
frank than Wikipedia’s mission statement. Philosophy, he writes, should
“trample underfoot prejudice, tradition, antiquity, shared
covenants, authority– in a word, everything
that controls the mind of the common herd.” Now, what I love about Diderot
is that, at least in the US, his mind and his
writings, even now, would still be considered very
dangerous, and certainly way too dangerous to
teach in high school. And even in France,
he remains the bad boy of the French Enlightenment. Now to begin with,
he’s a skeptic. He’s an unbeliever. He’s an atheist. He’s a philosopher who
believes that there’s one level of being, no
spiritual causality. He believes that we
should explain the world with natural causes
and derive our morality from these natural
causes as well. And all of this is part
of his overall mission– inviting us to question
our received ideas. And he has two mottos,
which are also my mottoes. Skepticism is the
first step toward truth and what has never been
called into question has never been proven. Now in many ways, you
could describe Diderot as a radical
empiricist, someone who interrogated everything
he knew and everything he’d been told as a child. At the same time, Diderot
is far more joyful than many unbelievers. He believed that life
itself was miraculous. And he believed in the
wonderful product of chance and that we should savor
every minute of our lives. He described us humans
and our existences as a series of contingencies. And he said that
we, as individuals, are walking on both
sides of eternity or within two sides of eternity. And he said the same
thing about our species. He thought that
we, as a species, were going to
disappear eventually. Now, another reason
why I think Diderot is such a great
lifelong companion when you start to read him
over and over again, you can see his writing– you could see his mind
functioning within his writing. It’s vibrant. It’s fresh. It’s dynamic. It’s not old at all. It seems so modern. And this is the way
his mind functioned. He was so fertile, so dynamic
that his friends claimed that he didn’t have ideas. They claimed that ideas had him. And the most telling
anecdote regarding Diderot’s intellectual
exuberance comes from Catherine the Great– the great Empress of
all the Russians– who invited Diderot to her
court for three months in 1773. She wrote that after
several visits from Diderot, she ordered that a table be put
between them because Diderot would often go into
these fevered monologues and start banging
his hand on her leg, and slapping her knees, grabbing
her thighs to make a point. And she said she was
getting black and blues. This is part of his personality. He’s a talker. He’s enthusiastic. He’s warm and he’s wonderful. And you really see this in his
books because many of his books feature him in dialogue
with himself and others. Diderot fell desperately
in love with every subject he studied, be it mathematics,
science, medicine, philosophy, politics, classical antiquity,
drama, literature, musicology, or the fine arts. His friends called
him “le philosophe,” which means “the philosopher”
because his passion for learning made him seem
like an ancient truth seeker– a simple and honest soul who
was born without ambition– but he also believed in
the emancipatory power of philosophy and thought. Now despite all this
in the United States, Diderot is the lesser known
of the three major French Enlightenment figures. And contrasting him
with the other two, I think is quite helpful. The first of this kind
of group of three men is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He’s probably the best known of
the three in the United States. He used to be
Diderot’s best friend. They become mortal enemies
by the end of their life. He’s one of the few
thinkers, a few writers who is taught in political
science departments. He’s also taught in
philosophy departments. And he’s also taught in
literature departments. So he gets a lot of play
in the United States. He was the most successful
novelist of the 18th century, but we don’t read his
novels anymore really. But we do know him as
an incredibly prescient political thinker. He wrote “The Social Contract.” He was a voice for
the downtrodden. He’s an inspiration
for Robespierre– the French Revolution
revolutionary– for Karl Marx, and for today’s
social justice warriors– Bernie Sanders, AOC–
whether they know it or not. He was also the
philosopher who introduced an anti-progress
view of civilization, which is of course, very
different from the way Diderot thought. He claimed that the more
we civilize ourselves, the more we
dehumanize ourselves. The other 18th century great
is, of course, Voltaire. Voltaire, we know
probably from high school, as the author of “Candide”
and some other kind of philosophical stories. And like Rousseau
and like Diderot, he was a great polymath. He thought about everything. He was a polygraph. He wrote in all sorts of
different genres as well. He’s a historian. He’s by far the era’s
most famous playwright. He’s the most famous
internationally-known public intellectual. He’s a fierce champion
of human rights, and particularly
freedom from religion. And all three of these men
contributed to what we now call the Enlightenment era. Enlightenment era was thought. But there’s one big difference
between Rousseau and Voltaire on the one hand and
Diderot on the other. Voltaire and Rousseau
both believed in God, although they had no
use for scripture. They were what the 18th
century called deists. And Diderot thought
you could only think your greatest
and most outrageous thoughts if you thought
beyond God, after God. And his thought and his
writing proves this. He went way beyond what
Rousseau or Voltaire were writing about during his era. Now, Diderot as a subject
is a pretty tough guy to write about. Personally speaking, the biggest
challenge from my point of view is that it’s very difficult
to write about a genius when you’re not one. The second thing is his
life doesn’t lend itself to a tidy chronology. Diderot is the kind of guy
would wake up in the morning and write about Chinese
poetry, and then he would tackle the
question of sugar cane, and slavery, plantations
before lunch. After lunch, he
would write a play, and then he would
go to the Louvre and write a review of
the year’s art salon. And then after dinner, he’d work
on a novel about sexual abuse in convents, and then dash off a
20-page letter to his mistress. He did a million things a day. And it’s literally
impossible and would be terribly boring to try to
reconstruct it in that way. Ultimately if you decide to
pick up my book and read it, you’ll see that I figured the
best way to divide up his life is just smack dab in the middle. In the first half,
I introduce him from his humble origins
as a wannabe priest coming from the small city of Langres. I follow him to Paris, where
he drops out of the Sorbonne as I said, and then finally
to Vincennes prison. This is really a dramatic
pause in his life. He was 35 at this point. And he lived another
35 years after this. He was thrown into jail for
writing a smutty novel, which is essentially a precursor to
“The Vagina Monologues,” which featured talking sex organs. He also wrote another
book, as I said, that refutes the
existence of God called the “Letter
on the Blind.” Now in the second half of
the book after we get out of Vincennes, at this point,
Diderot is being harassed, and pursued, and
surveilled at all times. I move into a more
thematic mode. And at this point, he is writing
for posterity because he cannot publish. So he’s a man who is
suffering from censorship in the second half of his life. Nonetheless, I resurrect
what’s going on here and talk about his
life as a sexologist– a man who naturalizes
homosexuality, something that nobody
did in the 18th century. I read about Diderot
the natural historian, the thinker who presented a
godless chronicle of the world and the human species,
anticipating natural selection 90 years before Darwin. We talk about Diderot
the art critic, the person who invites us all
to break free of our conventions and make the viewing of art
as personal and as inspired as possible. There’s also a chapter on
Diderot the political thinker, the advisor to
Catherine the Great. And in 1776, he actually writes
to the so-called American insurgents. These revolutionaries in
the fledgling United States were putting together this
experiment in democracy. There’s a chapter on
Diderot the skeptic, the critic of religion, and
Diderot the political prisoner, which is very an intriguing
part of his life. Now, I want to
read from the book a little bit to give a more
of a taste of who he is. But before I do so, I
want to talk a little bit about my favorite
part of writing this book because
getting to know a life is something that’s
really very intense, very intimate. Some moments are difficult.
Some moments are fun. And the part I had
the most fun doing was working with the people
of the small town of Langres. Now, Langres is a
really neat town. As I said, it’s not too
far from Dijon in Burgundy. It’s home of a really great
cheese called Langres– L-A-N-G-R-E-S– which you can
find occasionally at Whole Foods. Quite stinky, but delicious. There are 8,000 people living
in Langres in the 18th century. There are now 8,000
people living there now. It’s one square
mile, essentially the size of the kind of a
small old part of old Venice. It’s surrounded by
ramparts, as you can see, some of them dating
from the Roman Empire. And nothing has
really changed there. It looks like a “Game
of Thrones” set. I actually took the liberty of
stealing one image from Google. I hope you won’t be
too mad about this, but this comes from Google
Maps down here at the bottom. And there you have an early 19th
century watercolor from up top. The only thing that’s
changed is there’s one Renaissance building
which has disappeared here. Really, it has not
changed too much. Now, Diderot here was born
into a family of tradespeople. And this is quite significant
because later on, he’s going to look at the trades
as being intrinsically superior to aristocratic values. He’s much more of a Democrat
than he is an aristocrat. His father was a master
knifemaker, a cutler. Here is his father
here, Didier Diderot, who’s got the same bulbous
forehead as Diderot did. His mother came from
a family of tanners, which is to say people who
dealt with animal skins and the odoriferous and smelly
trade of making leather, which is a really awful thing. Diderot grew up in
a house, which was a house of industry and labor. This is a cutlery shop
where his father would make cutlery, surgical instruments. You can imagine he grew up in
a place where he would hear the hammer– the tapping
of the hammer all the time, the pumping and
smell of the bellows, and then the grinding
of the stone. And you can see here, a
man down at the bottom here who has actually got his
nose next to the grindstone from which we get
the expression. Now, Diderot only spent
14 years or so in Langres, but his legacy looms large. In Paris, there’s so
many writers and ghosts of writers who are elbowing
each other for room. You really can’t get a sense
of people sometimes here. But in Langres, his spirit
kind of infuses the town. First of all, there is the big
statue in the main square here. There used to be a big
statue of a cross– a big marble cross here
in the 18th century. And now, Diderot has
replaced this– symbolically, the victory of positivism
over so-called superstition. The kind of wiseacre
politicians who put this statue here
were very careful to– oops, I’m sorry– they were
very careful to position his back toward the cathedral
as something of an affront. Hanging out in a city
like this was a ride. I’ve spent a lot of time there. The place is full of
commerce and businesses which kind of are
named in his honor. There is here the Diderot
Boulangerie bread shop, the Diderot driving school, the
Diderot cigar shop– remember, this place is really tiny– the Diderot stationery store,
and the Diderot Junior High. And my favorite, the
Diderot Senior High. They’re both there. There is also a
fantastic Diderot museum. I stayed at the hotel Le
Cheval Blanc, where there’s the great Diderot Restaurant. And people have been so nice
to me during this whole time. They’re just so welcoming
and grateful to have an American biographer
write about their hero. When I’ve been there,
just a tiny anecdote. The last time I
was there, somebody gave me a knife, which was
a replica of a knife that was made by Diderot’s father. And I had a little tiny
bag, and somebody gave me a marble bust of
Diderot to carry home with me to the United States. So much of Diderot– and you’ll find
this out in a second when I read– is about legacy. He was very interested
in talking to us, and so the people
of Langres are very delighted that I’m trying
to carry this legacy on here in the United States. So at this point, I want to read
a little bit from the book– a little short segment
from the prologue. It should give you more of a
sense, I think, of this guy. And this is called
“Unburying Diderot.” “Sometime during the
snowy winter of 1793 under cover of night, a
small group of thieves pried open a wooden door leading
into the Church of Saint-Roch. Forced entry into
the Paris sanctuary was nearly a weekly occurrence
during this time of revolution. In the early 1790s,
anti-clerical vandals had pulled enormous religious
paintings off the walls and slashed the canvases. Other trespassers had made
off with more portable works of art, including an exquisite
statue sculpted by Étienne Maurice Falconet. On this particular night
however, the intruders came to steal whatever
copper, silver, or lead they could find in the crypt located
under the Chapel of the Virgin. Setting to work in the
front of the chapel’s altar, the grave robbers
used long iron bars to lever aside the
mattress-sized marble slab in the center of the floor. Though they surely had no idea
who was buried in the vault, the most loutish of the
group, assuming he could read, would still have recognized
the name of the writer Denis Diderot inscribed
on one of the caskets. Dead for nine years, the
notorious atheist had been the driving force behind
the most controversial book of the 18th century,
the “Encyclopédie.” This massive
dictionary had not only dragged sacrilege and
freethinking out into the open, but triggered a
decades-long scandal that involved the Sorbonne, the
Paris Parliament, the Jesuits, the Jansenists, the
king, and the pope. And none of this old history
mattered to the burglars. After removing Diderot’s
lead coffin from the vault, the men simply shook
his decomposing body onto the church’s marble floor. The following day,
Diderot’s remains, along with the other
desiccated cadavers from the crypt, where presumably
gathered up and transferred without ceremony to a mass
grave about a mile to the east. Nobody noticed. Nobody reported it in the press. Assuming the church’s
few remaining Paris priests had realized
that Diderot had been buried in the church, they
were undoubtedly relieved to be rid of the
scandalous unbeliever. Some 20 years before his remains
were carted out of Saint-Roch, Diderot had
prophetically remarked that, whether you rot beneath
marble or under the ground, you still rot. Yet being discarded
and forgotten among a mound of
recently-guillotined aristocratic corpses would
not have been his preference. Atheist or not, Diderot had
long expressed a keen interest in being remembered, and
if all things worked out, celebrated by
future generations. Posterity is to the
philosophe, he once stated, as heaven is
to the man of religion. Diderot’s interest in
speaking to future generations from beyond the grave had
come out of necessity. In 1749, shortly after the
then 34-year-old writer had published a work of
intemperate atheism entitled the “Letter on the
Blind,” two gendarme showed up at his house, arrested
him, and dragged him off to Vincennes prison. Three months later shortly
before he was released, le lieutenant général de
police made a special trip to the prison to warn the
writer that any further immoral or irreligious publications
would bring a jail sentence measured in decades, not months. He took this threat seriously. For the next 33
years, he avoided publishing the kind
of inflammatory books that he’d authored
as a young man. Much of the energy that he might
have devoted to such endeavors was redirected toward the
all-consuming “Encyclopédie.” When he finally completed the
last volume of illustrations in 1772, the now-elderly
writer was well aware that he was a celebrity
throughout Europe, and even in parts of North America, but
he was not really considered a literary great. His fate, as he
admitted quite openly, was perhaps to survive
long after his reputation as an encyclopedist had
faded, growing ever older and vanishing without leaving
a significant work behind. This in fact, seemed to be
the case when he died in 1784. Although several
obituaries credited him for being the leader of the
generation of thinkers that had utterly changed
the country, they also hinted that he had not lived
up to his indisputable genius. Even his friends
reluctantly agreed. Jacques-Henri Meister,
who revered the man, wistfully acknowledged
that Diderot never produced a book that
would have placed him among the first tier of our
philosophers or our poets. Charitable friends blamed the
writer’s supposedly limited literary production on the
burden of the “Encyclopédie.” Others privately
ascribed his failing to his famously whirligig brain. As was often the case, the
sharp-tongued Voltaire, who both admired and
distrusted Diderot, came up with the cleverest
remark on the subject. He apparently joked that,
the encyclopedist’s mind was an oven that burned
everything that it cooks. What Voltaire and virtually
everybody else did not know was that Diderot
had actually written an astonishing range of
improbably modern books and essays for the drawer,
as the French like to say. Holed up in his
sixth-floor garret office on the rue Taranne for
the last third of his life, Diderot produced this cache
of writing with the hope that it might one day
explode like a bomb. This moment was
prepared for carefully. When the author reached his
60s, which was borrowed time during the 18th century,
he hired copyists to produce three separate
collections of manuscripts. The first and most complete set
was entrusted to his daughter, Angélique. A second, less complete group of
writings was transferred to his designated literary heir and
devotee, Jacques-André Naigeon. And six months after his death,
32 bound volumes of manuscripts along with Diderot’s entire
library of 3,000 books traveled by ship to Catherine
the Great in Saint Petersburg. Diderot’s unpublished
books, essays, and criticism far surpassed what he had
published during his lifetime. Among these writings
were two very dissimilar, but equally brilliant novels. The first of these, “The Nun,”
is a gripping pseudo-memoir of a nun who suffers unspeakably
cruel abuse after she announces that she wants to
leave her convent. The second, “Jacques
the Fatalist,” is an open-ended antinovel where
Diderot used fiction to take up the problem of free will. But there were also thick
notebooks of revolutionary art criticism, a godless
science-fiction-like chronicle of the human race, a
secret political treatise written for Catherine the
Great, a humorous satire on the absurdity of Christian
sexual mores set in Tahiti, as well as some of
the most moving love letters in the history
of French literature. To become familiar
with Diderot’s work is to be stupefied. Among other things,
the philosophe dreamt of natural selection
before Darwin, the Oedipus complex
before Freud, and genetic manipulation 200
years before Dolly the Sheep was engineered. These hidden works did
not appear in the months after Diderot died. They trickled out over
the course of decades. Several of his lost books were
published during the waning years of the French Revolution. Others appeared
during the course of the Bourbon
Restoration, 1814 to 1830, while still more of
his writings emerged during the Second
Empire, 1852 to 1870. Perhaps the most significant
addition to Diderot’s corpus came in 1890 when a
librarian discovered a complete manuscript version
of Diderot’s masterpiece, “Rameau’s Nephew,” in
a bouquiniste’s stand on the banks of the Seine. In this riotous
philosophical dialogue, the writer
courageously gave life to an unforgettable
antihero who extolled the virtues of evil
and social parasitism, while preaching the right
to unbridled pleasure. To say that the arrival
of these lost books had an effect on
subsequent generations would be putting it mildly. Diderot’s effusive art criticism
inspired Stendhal, Balzac, and Baudelaire. Émile Zola credited Diderot’s
vivisections of society as the foundation of the
naturalism that characterized his and Balzac’s novels. Social theorists
too were spellbound by Diderot’s prescient thought. Karl Marx, who borrowed
deeply from Diderot’s musings on class struggle, listed the
writer as his favorite author. And Sigmund Freud credited
the ancien régime thinker for recognizing the unconscious
psychosexual desires of childhood in
“Rameau’s Nephew” long before he and his fellow
psychoanalysts had done so. If many critics continued
to disdain the writer as too atheistic, too
paradoxical, and too unrestrained, he was nonetheless
becoming the preferred writer of the 19th-century avant-garde. The full extent of
Diderot’s influence was not known, however, until a
young German academic, Herbert Dieckmann, located
the final lost cache of Diderot’s writings. Having heard rumors
that Diderot’s conservative
descendants continued to possess some of
the lost manuscripts originally given to
the writer’s daughter, the Harvard professor
finally obtained permission to visit the family chateau
in Normandy in 1948. After overcoming the
postwar suspicions of the caretaker,
who was put off by the German-accented
French professor, Dieckmann was ultimately
directed to some armoires on the chateau’s second floor. Entering a room that contained
several large freestanding closets, he sidled
over to the first one and peeled back the door
panel, hoping perhaps to find a lost work or two. He was confronted with
an enormous stockpile of Diderot’s bound manuscripts. So stunned was the
professor that he simply dropped to the floor. Diderot’s final cache, the
lost collection of manuscripts that he had given
to his daughter, had at last been found. These archives have become
the most important source for what we know about
Diderot and his works. Most astonishing,
perhaps, was the discovery of several manuscripts
annotated in his hand that revealed that he had been
the primary ghostwriter for the “Philosophical and
Political History of the Two Indies,” which was the
best-selling critical examination of
European colonization. It had been Diderot,
as it turned out, who had penned the most
influential and best-known anticolonial sections of
this multi-volume book, including an imagined exchange
between an enslaved African who not only claimed
the right to be free, but who predicted a day
when Caribbean slaves would justifiably put their
masters to the sword. Composed in 1779, a
decade before the events in Saint-Domingue, Haiti,
would prove him right, this is perhaps the
most telling example of the writer’s
radical politics, not to mention his ability
to see into the future. Some 300 years
after he was born, Diderot has now become
the most relevant of Enlightenment philosophers. That he refrained from
publishing or taking credit for his most forward-looking
ideas during his lifetime was not simply a matter
of avoiding persecution. He intentionally chose
to forgo a conversation with his contemporaries
in order to have a more fruitful dialogue
with later generations– us, in short. His heartfelt hope was that we,
the sympathetic and enlightened interlocutors of the future,
might finally be capable of sitting in judgment
of his hidden writings– writings that not only
question the moral, aesthetic, political, and philosophical
conventions of the ancien régime, but our
own era as well.” Thank you. [APPLAUSE] And I’d be delighted
to take some questions. SPEAKER 1: Yeah, so
anyone, question? AUDIENCE: So many, I have to
figure out where to start. So his thoughts on free will– one reason for people
rebelling against the church is the idea of
predestination and people finding that difficult
to deal with. On the other hand, you
have a very scientific mode of thought going back
to Greek skeptics and Buddhists of the
world just is what it is. It’s laid out. There is no God or anything,
but we are just mapping out this path in space and time that
is already there and existing. As you say, “Jacques
the Fatalist” touches on these issues, but
it wasn’t clear to me, at least when I read
it, that it was taking a particular point of view. It was more just sort of
playing with the ideas. Did he write about ideas
of free will more directly and address these things? ANDREW CURRAN:
Yeah, the question of free will in
Diderot is fascinating. Are we really free
in a material world? That’s his question. So certainly, there are
examples in religion of predestination
in the Calvinists and the Jansenists for example. Diderot looks at predestination
in a different kind of sense– a materialist sense. If all the world is
ruled by physical laws, how can we possibly escape
our physical destiny? That’s the kind of problem
he was grappling with. And in some of his
scientific writings, he thinks about
this a little bit. But as you said, in
this novel, he actually does this in a very playful way. First as a narrator, the
narrator is completely crazy. He says, how does
this novel start? I don’t know. I’ll start it this way. And so you can see the kind of
a demonstration of free will by the novelist himself by the
narrator, which is fascinating. And yet, the characters are
kind of these Spinozist, super kind of overdetermined
kind of events are happening and there’s a discussion
of predestination. So what’s happening there is
that there’s kind of clash. And Diderot, in some of
his other scientific works, thinks about almost this
physiological freedom. The mind is not just a machine. It’s not a clock. It’s something that
can do almost anything. It’s like a keyboard
that plays itself. And so some of this kind
of neurophysiological kind of speculation he
indulges in kind of sounds like there’s freedom on
a physical level too. So I think it’s a great
question because it shows us that he’s kind of grappling
with this in different contexts. AUDIENCE: Thanks. So the last few
years, I’ve thought a lot about the
Enlightenment, as it seems to be under
threat in our society. And I think about Diderot
especially of what– he seems to be very much a
pioneer of deriving truth from looking at facts, and
interrogating them, and so on. And we’re now in this
phase where that process seems to even be contested. What would he have
to say about this? I mean, I assume there
are parallels in the past. ANDREW CURRAN: Yeah, so this
is one of those questions which brings Diderot into dialogue
with contemporary society. And it’s true, the
Enlightenment is a time where he had a real belief
in rationality, progress, education, and these
Universalist principles that we can all better
ourselves through education. It’s these kind of
nice, lofty ideals. And the Enlightenment has
some problems as well. It’s the heyday of the slave
trade at the same time. And so people look back
at the Enlightenment and say, how could this
supposedly great era also justify and actually
rationalize the slave trade in thinking about, for example,
racial classification schemes? And so the Enlightenment– the
time of great classification, categorizing, the
“Encyclopédie”– is also a time of
great problems. So that’s one of
the things that’s going on with the Enlightenment
being under attack right now. What would Diderot
think of right now? Based on the way that people
are talking to each other, I think he’d be quite sad
because again, the people who are talking to each other
are not skeptics, which is to say they’re dogmatic. And philosophically speaking,
these are two kind of opposed– these are polarities. Dogmatists will not
deviate from their truth and skeptics are
willing to kind of look at everything–
you know, skeptics in a kind of
philosophical sense. And so I think
he’d be quite sad. And hopefully, he’d
be smart enough to kind of poison
the other side and be kind of a tai chi master
with some of these discourses because he was so
smart and interesting. So I’m not sure
exactly what he’d do, but he’d be
disappointed, I think. He’d be sad. AUDIENCE: A more practical
question for those of us who haven’t read
a lot of Diderot, are his works generally
available in translation? And is you mentioned
one or two that are sort of he’s well-known
for, but is there, like, a great entry
point into his writings if we want to read
him directly, after we read your book obviously? ANDREW CURRAN: That’s right. So what I’d really
love is starting with a book called the
“Philosophical Thoughts,” which is very, very short. And the “Philosophical Thoughts”
are these pithy aphorisms. They’re almost like maxims,
which really kind of give us kind of an interesting
take on his view of life, the basic philosophy. Again, the skepticism of
the first step toward truth comes from that book. And these are really great kind
of things you can kind of keep in your head your whole life. And then I think the best book,
in addition to “Jacques le fatalist,” which is kind of a
fun Laurence Sterne-type read, is “Rameau’s Nephew.” It’s almost good to act out. It’s quite complicated, but
it shows Diderot in discussion with somebody who
is like him, Lui– him and me. And in “Rameau’s
Nephew,” he kind of takes his most skeptical
beliefs and puts them in the mouth of somebody. And they have this fabulous
debate about the Enlightenment, about identity, about
who we are as people. And that’s really
kind of a great thing. I think also,
“D’Alembert’s Dream” would be interesting for
this crowd, quite frankly, because he gets into, as
I said, natural selection and this wonderful,
fabulous kind of history of
humankind and again, dealing with identity
in a material world. Another great book. All in translation–
these are all available in multiple editions. Yeah. AUDIENCE: Hi. Could you talk some more
about the “Encyclopédie?” How many people were
involved in the project? What was his contribution? When was it published? ANDREW CURRAN: Well,
the “Encyclopédie” is kind of the fat
part of the book here. There’s two big chapters on it. And it’s interesting because it
started off as this translation project in the 1740s. And Diderot was hired
as a translator. And the main editors
keep on getting fired. And eventually, the editors
say, OK, we might as well just hire this guy as the editor. The publishers hire
him as the editor. And that’s how it kind of
starts, again, by chance. And he looks at this
translation project from an English dictionary as
this incredible opportunity. It’s like you made him CEO
of Google all of a sudden. He said, I can change
the world with this. Now, this is somebody who’d
been thrown in jail already, and so the publishers were
a little nervous about it. And so he created
the “Encyclopédie” like a labyrinth. He hides all sorts of different
kind of heretical thinking inside the “Encyclopédie.” It becomes really fun to read. We think about dictionaries as
being objective and neutral. And he didn’t think about that. He didn’t think that
was true at all. He thought this could be
just an astonishingly fun, and interesting, and useful, and
a world-changing kind of book. He gets in a lot of trouble. The book gets him
in a lot of trouble. In 1752, it gets shut down. In 1758, it gets shut down
permanently by the king. And they have to
take it underground. And the publishers actually buy
a second publishing house all the way in Léon and publish the
remaining volumes there while it’s forbidden. The pope said that the
books should be burned. And eventually after
the political climate shifted a little bit, they
were able to bring them back together. They bring back 40,000
volumes of the “Encyclopédie” and distribute it. 4,400 subscribers
subscribe to this. It was a luxury edition. It wasn’t for everybody. It cost a fortune to
have a book like that, but there were a lot of
pirated editions as well. And so it took off all over the
country and all over Europe. The United States– people
in the United States had it. Catherine the Great had it. It really disseminated
Enlightenment ideology in a way that had
never been done before. Scandalous ideas often
circulated in small books. You can pass them from
one person to the other. This was this gigantic book– a proud book with the king’s
and [INAUDIBLE] stamp on it. And it was big business too. It was kind of the
Silicon Valley of the day. I mean, it was making so
much money publishing, so the king was quite
nervous about canceling it. But eventually he just said,
we just can’t do it anymore, and canceled it. I could go on for six
hours, but that’s probably what I should do for now. AUDIENCE: Thank you. ANDREW CURRAN:
It’s a great story. The “Encyclopédie” is
a fascinating story. AUDIENCE: So I’m
kind of curious how he went from a small town
of, like, 8,000 people to the court of
Catherine the Great. What was the impetus
for him showing up in that part of the world? ANDREW CURRAN: So why
would this– true, why would this small town
wannabe priest end up with Catherine the Great? It’s a great question. So he became very
famous, obviously, with the “Encyclopédie.” And she had taken over
through a coup in Russia. And Russia wanted to
become part of Europe, and so she wanted to
import some talent. She wanted to lure Voltaire
there, and d’Alembert there– the other co-editor of the
“Encyclopédie”– and Diderot. Diderot was the only one
who really went there among the kind of
the varsity team of the French Enlightenment. So he goes there
for three months. And he went there because she
had given him a lot of money. She was his great protector. And he also thought he could
reform Russian society. He produced all sorts of
political treaties for her. And eventually when
they all got to her, she was very unhappy
about some of these things because she said, you
know, you are a despot and if you don’t
change your ways, Russia is going to end
up in a revolution. Said the same thing
about France as well. So but it was really funny. There was a huge social
class distinction, but you could see that these
philosophers really function as rock stars at the time. SPEAKER 1: All right,
thank you very much. Let’s all give one more round of
applause for Professor Curran. ANDREW CURRAN:
Thank you so much. [APPLAUSE]

6 thoughts on “Andrew Curran: “Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely” | Talks at Google

  1. Diderot, the guy who inspired Wikipedia and The Enlightenment, today would have been labeled an alt-right nazi. Outrage culture truely is a Plague. 🙂

  2. Andrew, do the same on John .P Morgan please. You've done incredible job! So inspiring and also seem to be objective

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