I learned of the scandalous Diderot Encyclopedia and it’s chief editor, Denis Diderot, shortly after I launched The Blue Twig. After purchasing an astronomy engraving at an antique paper show, I rushed home to research the 260 year old print. Turns out it was one of 3-4 thousand engravings included in the Diderot Encyclopedia. The discovery of Mr. Diderot’s curious life and influential encyclopedia is exactly what I love most about my job… the juicy stories behind each piece of antique paper that I find. Since that first Diderot purchase, I’ve unearthed more engravings from the encyclopedia. I think of Mr. Diderot and his notorious publication every time I glance at any one of them.
Here’s his story…
Denis Diderot was born to Didier and Angelique Diderot on October 5th, 1713 in Langres, France. His dad was a well known master cutler (made his own cutting tools) but little is know about his mother. From an early age, Denis was considered brilliant and was educated by Jesuits throughout his youth. At the age of 13, he was “tonsured” which meant his head was shaved as a sign of religious devotion. His parents and teachers were certain this kid was destined for a ecclesiastical career. It wasn’t until Denis left home to study in Paris that his views on religion began to shift. After receiving a masters in philosophy, Denis resisted family pressure to join the priesthood or practice law – his true passions were language, literature and philosophy.
During his 20s and into his 30s, Diderot threw himself into the intellectual and bohemian scene in Paris. He became a coffeehouse regular, befriending writers and philosophers (including Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and squeaked by financially with tutoring wealthy children, translating books and writing sermons for missionaries. His father wasn’t happy with his lifestyle, including his reputation for “chasing women”. Around this time, Denis’s sister died. She had been a nun and Denis was convinced she died of being overworked. The Diderot family knew something about loss – only 3 of their 7 children made it into adulthood. After losing his sister, Denis began to distance himself from his Roman Catholic roots, embraced deism and, eventually, atheism.
In his late 20s, he fell for Antoinette Champion and secretly married her in 1943 as his dad, once again, disapproved. He may have thought Antoinette was beneath his son as her father sold fabric for a living. Denis and Antoinette had three children but only their daughter, Angelique, survived. Diderot remained close with his daughter throughout his life but his marriage went south. He went back to “chasing women”.