5.1 Diderot’s confession

Monday, 10. August 2009


So was Diderot arrested? Yes, he was.

But first it has to be said that the main French intellectual enterprise of the eighteenth century was the “Encyclopédie”, that came into existence under the supervision of Diderot.

The French “Encyclopédie”, as it stands today on the shelves of library treasure rooms is an enormous work consisting of seventeen volumes of letterpress and eleven of engravings, plus four volumes of supplement, two of index and one of supplementary plates.

Yet at the start the “Encyclopédie” was planned to be no more than a translation in four volumes of Ephraim Chambers’ “Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences”, a very successful work first published in 1728. Diderot was principally responsible for the expansion from the smaller project to the larger one. Together with the mathematician d’Alembert he was asked by a group of publishers to take the lead in the project as chief editor. The job involved not only the translation of a host of articles from Chambers’ “Cyclopaedia”, combined with much planning for a greatly extended project, but carried with it concomitant necessities of looking for collaborators and directing them in their assignments.  

So at the moment of his arrest, Diderot was a very busy man…

In the early morning when the policemen knocked at his door, Diderot had no choice but to let them in. They searched his apartment, but all they found were two printed copies of “Letter on the Blind” – not the handwritten manuscript that they needed to prove that Diderot was the author. Nonetheless, they arrested Diderot and brought him in for questioning.

Diderot was locked in a tower in the grim castle at Vincennes, six miles east of Paris. Under interrogation he denied that he was the anonymous author of  “Letter on the Blind” and “Philosophic Thoughts”. The police also questioned his publishers, who told a different story. It was decided to hold Diderot in the tower until he confessed…

The publishers addressed a petition to the head of police in which they declared that ‘the detention of M. Diderot, the only man of letters we know of capable of so vast an enterprise and who alone possesses the key of the whole operation, can bring about our ruin…’

Still, nothing happened. The days passed, in which Diderot wrote a great number of letters to the authorities, all in vain. Although they let him out of his tiny room in the tower and allowed him to receive visits from his wife and others, he did not know what would happen to him next. Perhaps he would be left to meditate infinitely longer than he desired. Every day the jailer brought Diderot two candles. But he, who got up and went to bed with the sun, had no use for them and tried to return them. ‘Keep them, monsieur’, cried the jailer; ‘you have too many of them now but they’ll come in very handy in the winter!’

Then after three disturbing weeks, Diderot confessed. He wrote: ‘I therefore avow to you, as my worthy protector, what the tediousness of a prison and all the imaginable penalties would never have made me say to my judge, that the “Philosophic thoughts”, the “Indiscreet Jewels” and the “Letter on the Blind” are excesses that slipped out of me; but that I can on the other hand pledge my honour (and I have some) that they will be the last, and that they are the only one.”

This confession got results: after three months of imprisonment, on 3 November 1749, Diderot was released.


So, did Diderot’s confession make him a coward or is it only human…What would you have done, in his shoes, at that time…

3 Responses to “5.1 Diderot’s confession”

  1. Stan Wright Says:

    Perhaps Diderot wasn’t so much a coward as a realist; his confession as far as I am aware would only have an influence on what happened to him and not others. If this is the case then deciding on whether or not to confess would be more about a negotiation with those in authority as to what would happen to him given the two scenarios of confession or denial.

    Clearly 3 months all though not very nice in the tower wasn’t that long in the scheme of things and one would imagine that he would have probably known the length of sentence given that he confessed.

    I just wonder what Diderot would have done had is confession had a detrimental effect on others and not just himself; that is what would defines whether or not Diderot was a coward.


  2. jeremy_dent Says:

    Confessing was one thing. Promising that what he had written would be his last either compromised his integrity or, perhaps, he really didn’t write anything else in the same vein?

  3. Cora Says:

    After his imprisonment Diderot never published books nor articles with a critical tone. He did write them though, but he did not publish them. He kept his opinion in the drawer. A lot of his work has been published only after his death.

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