During the eighteenth century a group of writers, publicists, and political reformers waged a war of words against the upholders of tradition, authority, and status quo. This verbal battle came to be known as the Enlightenment. During this period, questioning the authority was forbidden, and could land one in jail. The philosophers of this era risked their very beings in order to present propositions, which exploited principles such as freedom of press, trade, toleration, reason, and education. During this time, being a part of the Aristocrat class was a mark indicating quality of life. Aristocrats lived in cities like London, or Paris where they were surrounded by extreme beauty. They dressed beautifully and attended balls. This way of life did not seem fair to the workers of society. Conversely, ideas of Enlightenment sounded promising. Denis Diderot, one of the philosophers of the Enlightenment era, pioneered revolutionary thoughts, which gained him a place among the great thinkers that formed part of the Enlightenment movement. Through his works, specially the Encyclopedia, Diderot undusted extensive information and recent scientific discoveries like the size of the universe. His humanitarian and radical ideals helped transform society’s view of the human being. He robustly opposed slavery. By expressing his modern and liberal ideas Diderot incited people to think and join him in the struggle for social and political change. Denis Diderot collected and presented scattered knowledge of the divine rights, reasoning, and toleration, and in doing so, ushered in Europe’s modern era.
Denis Diderot lifework, the Encyclopedia, was a powerful weapon against ecclesiastical and governmental institutions. It revealed the truth; it contained “maxims that would tend to destroy royal authority… and lay the foundations for the corruption of morals and religion” (Perry 76). It covered all the areas, science and technology, politics, religion, art, social and humanitarian issues. Diderot invited people to think and become knowledgeable. Wilson wrote: “ The Encyclopedia conveyed to its readers a stimulus that was frequently as much emotional as it was intellectual” (Wilson 149). Denis Diderot invited society to ask questions never asked before: Does God Exist? What was he meaning of government and religion? “Which is the true voice of humanity, the persecutor who strikes or the persecuted who moans?” (Diderot 77). He wrote, “We must … overturn the barriers that reason never erected (Diderot 158).”
Diderot rose up against the doctrine that stated the right of a prince to hold power over others because it was God’s will. He questioned the authority allegedly given to them by God. He stated his opinion in his article ‘Political Authority’: “No man has received from nature the right of commanding others. Liberty is a present from Heaven (Diderot 77).” But Diderot attacks to the totalitarian semi-feudal system ruled by the clergy did not end there.
His frequent appeals to reason are shown through the articles. Example of it is his article ‘To Adore’. Here Diderot did not deny God’s existence, however he associated Him with reason and freedom. He wrote, ‘The manner of adoring the true God ought never to deviate from reason…He has desired it to be used even in the judgment of what is suitable to do or not to do in respect to Him.’ (Diderot 144). Diderot indicated that reason was to be used by everyone. According to what the article said, everyone had the right to decided whether to believe in God or not. Not one soul should be persecuted or prejudiced because of their choice.
Diderot was extremely humanitarian and sensible to the social decline of his time. He accused contemporary legal and clerical institutions of being responsible for the atrocities and abuses. He asked them to take action on the matter; “ I saw examples of inhumanity… Therefore I invite those who are charged with taking care of disorders that occur in society to keep an eye on this one” (Diderot 141). He strongly opposed to slavery and did not doubt to include an article on the subject: ‘The Slave Trade.’ Even though Diderot addressed the issue to the ‘Negro’ population he tried to make society think of human kind in general. He denounced the crimes against a human being that deserved and had a right to enjoy his freedom. ‘There is not,’ he wrote, ‘therefore, a single one of these unfortunate people regarded only as slave who does not have the right to be declare free… since he is their fellow man.’ (Diderot 77)
Denis Diderot should always be remembered as one of the great philosophers of the Age of Reason. The Encyclopedia was intended not to only inform about things that no one knew existed, but to provide the knowledge necessary to change those things. He always expressed support for social, and political reforms. He was not afraid to show his disagreement with the church. The Age of Reason was characterized for liberalism and also for ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humankind. Diderot was vigorously involved in all these matters. Through the Encyclopedia he intended to provide the rational individual with knowledge and introduced them to a new way of think it. Diderot ushered in Europe’s modern era by presenting scattered knowledge of divine rights, reasoning, and toleration. This magnificent work that Diderot helped create resulted to be extremely influential. It inspired the French Revolution and the American Revolution.
Jacob, Margaret C. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2001
Perry, Peden, Von Lauc. Sources of the Western Tradition. Vol. 2, 4th Ed. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1999
Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972