2.3 Diderot and the Passions

Thursday, 27. August 2009


The opening words of the Philosophic Thoughts are the keynote to Diderot’s character, according to editor/journalist John Morley (1838-1923) who wrote also the following translation:


“People are for ever declaiming against the passions; they set down to them all the pains that men endures, and quite forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures. It is only passion, and strong passions, that can raise the soul to great things. Sober passions produce only the commonplace. Deadened passions degrade men of extraordinary quality. Constraint annihilates the greatness and energy of nature. See that tree: ’tis to the luxury of its branches that you owe the freshness and the wide-spreading breadth of its shade, which you may enjoy till winter comes to despoil it of its leafy tresses.

An end to all excellence in poetry, in painting, in music, as soon as superstition has once wrought upon human temperament the effect of old age! It is the very climax of madness to propose to oneself the ruin of the passions. A fine design truly in your pietist, to torment himself like a convict in order to desire nothing, love nothing, feel nothing; and he would end becoming a true monster, if he were to succeed!”


Yes, that’s typical Diderot, that’s him all over…

Btw, nothing wrong with following our very strong passions, no matter what,

or is this too romantic and have we become cynics instead…

1.7 Diderot and his soul mates

Tuesday, 25. August 2009


One day in 1742, when Diderot was passing time in a café, he was introduced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a young man coming from Geneva who had just arrived in town. Rousseau had moved to Paris to get rich. He had developed a complicated mathematical system that according to him could be useful for musical notation. He planned to sell it to some of the great musicians in Paris. However, nobody was interested in his ideas and Rousseau had to work in other ways for a living. He tried to do so by being a copyist of musical notation, before he became famous as a philosopher and writer.

Diderot and Rousseau liked each other. They were about the same age, around thirty. They shared several interests, for instance they both liked to play chess (although most of the games were won by Rousseau who was a much stronger player); they both loved music and mathematics. Later on Rousseau became one of the contributors to the Encyclopedia, for which he wrote a series of articles on music. The friendship lasted for fifteen years.

Gradually they drifted apart. Then Rousseau, suffering from paranoia, publicly broke off his bonds with Diderot.


The other fundamental friendship in Diderot’s life was with the German Friedrich Melchior Grimm who was ten years younger. Before Grimm arrived in Paris, coming from Regensburg, he had developed a keen interest in music and drama. He became the secretary to various aristocratic persons. Later he wrote a gazette for several royal courts in Europe. Diderot and Grimm stayed friends for many years and it is only three years before Diderot died that their relationship came to an end, because of a deep disappointment from Diderot’s side with regard to his friend’s political ambitions.   


We could say that Diderot has practised fully his ideas concerning friendship; we can see how his friendships sadly ended because of the habit forming part and when it came to interference with each other’s lives.

Apparently these are the touchy issues and not only three hundred years ago…    

5.3.6 Friendship and Equality

Saturday, 22. August 2009


“By means of the considerations that we have elaborated”, says Diderot in his article on Friendship, “we have thrown the light on a very important principle regarding friendship, to assume that friendship should find or establish equality between two people [in Latin: amicitia aut pares invenit, aut facit : friendship either finds or creates equals]. Therefore, is it possible for a Monarch to have friends? To have any, he must seek them among other Monarchs, or he must give to his un-king-like friends a character that is on an equal footing with sovereign power. This is the major significance of the principle. 

In proportion to the issues that create friendship there must be between the two friends a freedom in feeling and language large enough to make sure that neither one is superior nor the other inferior. Equality must be found on both sides in the indulgence of the amicable contact. This indulgence consists in offering to each other their thoughts, preferences, doubts and difficulties, but always within the area of the character of friendship that has been brought into being.”


It is in this atmosphere that Diderot finishes his article, equality between friends is his cherished conviction. Now you might wonder if did Diderot had such friends himself?

He had indeed… as a matter of fact, he had some very good friends. And did he practise his beliefs on Friendship with them?

Let us deepen these questions as we continue…

5.3.5 Friendship and Sacrifice

Friday, 21. August 2009


According to Diderot, the tokens of appreciation of a friendship extend further than we may  assume: we are obliged to maintain friendship in proportion to its level and character, which means many levels and characters, each with different duties. It’s an important reflection, meant for preventing the feeling of injustice of those who wail about having been abandoned, badly supported, or not much valued by their friends. A friend with whom we will have an other relationship than mere easy literary amusements finds it strange when we do not exert all our strength for him; friendship demands such behavior. A friend with whom we will cultivate a warm heartedness and an agreement to keep up the relationship, requires from us favours which could involve our fate; the friendship is an obligation, that demands such sacrifices.


Do you agree with Diderot, that friends are allowed to interfere with your fate…

5.3.4 Shy and Sincere

Wednesday, 19. August 2009


In the last section we found Diderot’s statement that friendship does not fill the void that it has promised to fill, and he follows his observation:

“Subsequently we find the faults in each other that we were concealing; or we decline to passions that have an aversion to friendship, like gruesome illnesses cause an aversion against the sweetest pleasures.

This is why radical characters, capable of giving the strongest proofs of devotion to duty, are not the most capable persons of maintaining  steadfast friendships.  Nowhere else we find persistent friendships so scintillating and so stable as in shy and sincere spirits whose moderate soul knows what virtue is;  the gentle, calm feeling of friendship shores their hearts, relaxes their minds,  extends it, makes them more self-confident and lively, enhances their delights, their work and their mysterious pleasures: the soul of their lives as a whole.”

Friendship in relation to modesty, how is that… does it ring a bell, does it make sense…

5.3.3 Friendship: the Content and the Void

Tuesday, 18. August 2009

Let’s have a look at what Diderot is saying about habit forming when we get involved in a friendship :


“It is the deficiency of our being that gives birth to friendship; next it is the deficiency of friendship itself that destroys it. When we are alone, we feel our misery; we feel that we have a need for support; we look for a protector of our preferences, a journeyman for our joys and sorrows; we want someone of whom we could confiscate their heart and thoughts. Until this very moment friendship seems the sweetest thing on earth. But then, do our feelings change when we get what we’ve wished for? 

The moment that we see something we like from a distance, at first it bonds our desires. Then, when we reach it, we perceive its void. Our soul whose sight was limited by the distance, cannot rest when she sees further down.

Thus friendship, which restricts our claims at a distance, stops restricting our claims when we come close by: friendship does not fill the void that she has promised to fill. She leaves us with the needs that guide us away and lead us to other things we like. Which means that we start neglecting ourselves, we become difficult, we soon require like an homage the kindnesses that we in the beginning received as a gift. It is in the character of men to appropriate bit by bit the favours that one have once been given to them; a long possession gets us used by nature to consider those things that we have been given by others as our own: custom convinces us that we have a natural right to the will of our friends; we would like to rule over them; on the moment that these claims are mutual, like it happens often, the love gets irritating,  there is yelling from both sides, it produces bitterness, coolness, nasty explications, and the break.” 


An interesting observation: friendship can never be for granted, it’s a gift from one person to another. So, are our ideas of friendship unrealistic, or is Diderot’s structure too pessimistic?

5.3.2 Friendship and Charity

Sunday, 16. August 2009


Yesterday we had a look at the first part of Diderot’s Encyclopedia article on friendship, saying that while our more businesslike approach is addressed to casual acquaintances, we can speak of an amicable contact, a friendship, when our heart is volved. Let us see today how Diderot elaborates this view, when he continues: 

“Friendship is in this nature distinguished from charity, which is a mentality to do good to all, while friendship applies only to those with whom we are actually trading. On the whole the human species is too extensive to keep up  with everyone, neither can everyone keep up with us.

Friendship assumes a sort of natural charity, a benevolence: but it incorporates as well a habit that creates a special connection between two people who are having a business with each other.”

According to Diderot we could say that charity is a general attitude addressed to mankind; we can’t be friends with the whole human race; so friendship is a more restricted, private connection with those we are actually ‘trading’… 

5.3.1 Friends and Acquaintances

Saturday, 15. August 2009


We could easily say that the Encyclopédie is the masterwork in Diderot’s career, at least in speaking of the time it took him to finish it (27 years). He edited more than seventy thousand articles. Over four thousand articles were written by himself. A greater part of these writings are translated into English by now but this process is still running. Some translations are very well done and some are less so, not really that brilliant…

I stumbled on this excellent, still modern article on Friendship (l‘Amitié) and noticed a very poor English translation, which is such a pity. So I decided to make a new translation. The following is the first part of Diderot’s article on Friendship:    


“Friendship is nothing else than maintaining an honest and pleasant trade with someone. Is this completely true… shouldn’t friendship be more than that? Because, one will say, friendship cannot be restricted to such a condition, it transcends the borders of just a simple exchange. 

In a way, that is correct. But those who make this observation don’t bear in mind the following: that two people who maintain a connection that is decent and gives pleasure to both, automatically will be friends. 

Now the “trade” that we keep up with others takes account of either the mind or the heart; the more businesslike approach is meant for casual acquaintances, while the exchange by which the heart feels fascinated, is a friendship. 

In my view this is the most precise and clear definition of friendship and even of its surrounding fields.”


So far, of the first part:

What do you think, does this division make sense? Nowadays we have many connections, which could mean we have a lot of friends, at least… those people in our network with whom it’s a pleasure to communicate with…

5.2 Cheese and Butter

Thursday, 13. August 2009

The contributions made by the collaborators to the Encyclopedie covered many issues. For instance Diderot wrote a series of articles on topics such as the following:  



Milk is made up of three different substances: cream, the liquid part and the solid, curled part or cheese. These three substances can be separated in all kinds of milk, so that there are at least as many sorts of cheeses as there are lactating animals.

Our ordinary cheeses come from cow’s milk. Good cheeses are made at the beginning of spring or the beginning of the autumn. The best and freshest skimmed or non-skimmed milk is used to make cheese.

Cheese is made with curdled milk, which is salted and kept in a calf’s stomach, hung up somewhere warm, near the fireplace. Take this milk; mix it in a spoon with a little of the milk you want to turn into cheese; add half a dram of this diluted curdled milk to two pints of milk and the milk will turn into cheese.

It is then separated with a creaming spoon. Take some containers pierced with holes on the sides and at the bottom, and put the cheese in them to strain and mould it. Once it is  moulded and drained, the cheese can be eaten, salted or otherwise prepared.



Butter, a smooth, rich, creamy substance, prepared or separated from milk by churning. The Romans used butter for medicinal purposes only and never as food. The inhabitants of the East Indies owe their knowledge of butter  to the Dutch; in Spain it was only used as a medicine to cure ulcers; there is nothing better to whiten teeth than to rub them with butter.

A part of Suffolk, in England, called High Suffolk, has rich land that is entirely given over to dairy farming. It is reputed to supply the best butter and possibly the worst cheese in England.  

This is how butter is made in the French countryside. When the milk has cooled down and rested, the cream is removed with a large, very clean spoon and transferred in a pot. The pot must be spotless. The cream is beaten with the dasher until it thickens.

There are two sorts of butter : salted and melted. To salt butter, take two pounds at a time; roll it out with a rolling-pin on a clean table; sprinkle it with fine-grained salt; fold it over three or four times; knead it well; roll it out again; add more salt and knead it. Then taste it, and if it seems salty enough, take a stoneware pot, put a layer of salt on the bottom, add the butter and seal the pot with another layer of salt.

To melt butter : place it in a cauldron, on a bright, low flame; boil it until it is cooked; skim it and pour it into stoneware pots. It will keep for two years, even without being salted. 


My question to you: Is it true? this reputation of Suffolk, I mean…


1.6 A Tour de Force, a waste of time?

Wednesday, 12. August 2009


It was in the late 1740s that Diderot and Jean d’Alembert were selected as co-editors of the Encyclopédie, a taxonomy of human knowledge with three main branches of knowledge: Memory from which comes History, Reason from which comes Philosophy and Imagination from which comes Poetry. Diderot formulated the taxonomy as follows:

“The universe is the infinite work of God. A science is a finite work of human understanding. There are first principles, general notions, given axioms. These are the roots of the tree. The tree must ramify as much as possible; it must shoot off from the general object as from a trunk, rise first to the large branches or primary divisions; go on from these master branches to smaller ones; and so on, until it has reached out to the particular terms which are like the leaves and crown of the tree.”

Diderot conceived a scheme of an universal compendium of human knowledge in his day. It took him took twenty-five years (1748-1772) to carry it out.

He was the living cornerstone within of this collective structure, and also the target of all the persecution, all the threats from outside. D’Alembert, who may have joined him mainly from self-interest, deserted when the work was not even half-executed, leaving Diderot to contend against the frenzy of the pietists, the cowardice of the booksellers and the struggle beneath an enormous increase of editorial labour. Think of the history of philosophy (which included science), the description of the mechanical arts; over four thousand plates which he caused to be drawn under his own eye… in short, it was Diderot who carried the responsibility and superintendence of the whole affair.

He contrived to incorporate `dangerous’ views in seemingly minor articles to which the reader is directed by cross-references given in the more prominent, orthodox ones. Thanks to his prodiguous activity and to the universality of his knowledge,  thanks to his talent to rally all the contributers, to inspire and arouse them, he succeeded in completing that daring edifice.


Twenty-five years… it takes a stubborn mind to keep going for such a long period… What do you think, is this a strength?

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