Denis Diderot (1999)
by John Patrick Michael Murphy
Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was the brightest light of the French Enlightenment-a man of intelligence, passion and genius. He yearned for knowledge as he sought the answer to the ultimate enigma of all-our Universe. He wanted to know why we are here?… why is there a universe?…why is there anything at all?
He studied history and developed a great fear that knowledge would continue to be destroyed by the Christians, who had a one-thousand year's history of destroying libraries, burning books, ripping paintings, smashing marbles, and torturing anyone who voiced an unorthodox thought. To prevent it from happening in the future he produced the Encyclopedie, a history of what was known, and then distributed it world wide. He wrote almost a thousand of its articles, over a 20 year period. The rest were submitted by the scholars of the world including our own Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Rush. It took 35 volumes and a lot of commotion to get it all together.
State and Church were immediately threatened. The Crown needed the Church to remind the people of that tidy biblical concept known as the Divine Right of Kings and the Church needed the Crown to keep its prodigious holdings (about half of Europe) tax free. If church authority was weakened, then so was the king's. They knew that knowledge could bring doubt and vainly tried to ban the first two volumes of the Encyclopedie. It was too popular to be stifled, and in short order it became the most used resource in all libraries and homes that were fortunate enough to possess it. Even today encyclopedias are left open and accessible, not shelved, in our libraries due to their utility.
He never found the answer of the whence and whither of humankind but he helped enlighten his world that was filled with ignorance, slaves and serviles-the children of illiteracy, superstition and piety. In sum, it was a very Christian world, consistent with Jehovah and Jesus, who never said a word in favor of education, investigation, science and art, or against the enslavement of humankind. Apparently they, and the Holy Ghost were ignorant of these subjects or perhaps they were just too busy looking after the sparrows to mention them. The Vatican would howl at Diderot and routinely place his works on its Index of Forbidden Books, but by then, the Pope of Rome was getting as much respect as the Wizard of Oz after his curtain was lifted. Folks were realizing papal threats were just hollow pretensions and they doubted that Jesus was really upset with Diderot just because the pope was.
Diderot went about his business of investigating what really went on in the monasteries and nunneries of France and made it public. He died just before France would become so resentful at the oppressive miscegenation of royalty and clergy that they ran them both out of the country or, in their irrational zeal, chopped off their heads.
Diderot was a freethinker who disregarded any dogma, tradition or authority, ecclesiastical or secular, over his mind-his right to think and express his thoughts. He never found the answer of his quest, but he described the enigma of our existence-
LIFE: "To be born in imbecility, in the midst of pain and crisis to be the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness, and passions; to return step by step to imbecility, from the time of lisping to that of doting; to live among knaves and charlatans of all kinds; to die between one man who takes your pulse and another who troubles your head; never to know where you come from, why you come and where you are going! That is what is called the most important gift of our parents and nature. Life."
"Denis Diderot" is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.
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