Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

April 17, 2020


Politics, Education, and Ideology
Dear friends,

In this, my last installment of this #ReadWithMe series, I wish you continued good health and happy reading. We'll be back in this space in a few weeks with another #ReadWithMe. Are there any titles you'd be particularly interested in reading along with us? Please do let us know in the Comments!

This last section of Curran's book featured Diderot's friendship with Catherine the Great, the end of his life, and an exploration of his complicated legacy. As before, I'll take each in turn.



Much has been said about Diderot's relationship with the autocratic Catherine. Diderot began as a sort of cultural attache for her; in fact, he brokered the sale of Louis-Antoine Crozat's art collection, which became the core of the collection at The Hermitage. Curran suggests that part of the appeal of Catherine to Diderot, though he disavowed despotism, was his disillusionment with the political climate in France at the time. Why he chose a despot to soothe him during his own country's slide into despotism remains a bit of a mystery to me. (This also gives me pause to consider the crazed relations in American politics today...)
  • Diderot considered Catherine a souverain civilisateur, "a monarch who had declared herself interested in promoting a tolerant, enlightened empire." (page 322) Irrespective of what we know of Catherine, to what extent do you think such a project is ever possible?
  • Curran tells us that, "While Diderot believed that princes had the validated right to rule over their nation, they still had an obligation to reflect or embody what he called the 'general will' of the nation," and that, political authority "flowed directly from the consent of the people and the natural and civil codes that define their relationship." (page 336) To what extent do you think it's possible to maintain such a structure of sovereignty? And just how liberal does this make Diderot, in your opinion?


Curran transitions from Diderot's relationship with Catherine to his thoughts on French politics and the American colonies at the end of his life. What most interested me in this section were Diderot's thoughts on education in his Plan of a University for the Government of Russia, requested by Catherine. Curran tells us Diderot regarded education as "the motor of social and moral progress." (page 351) "... the function of education was not to produce a better-educated aristocracy; it was a weapon to be deployed against superstition, religious intolerance, prejudice, and social injustice." 
  • IS THIS the appropriate purpose of education? Does your answer to this question differ whether we're thinking of higher education versus lower (K12)?
  • How closely does Diderot's ideal university system mirror the one we see today? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What would Diderot think about today's university system?

Diderot's thought on America, and chattel slavery, in particular, I found very interesting. Indeed Diderot's stance on slavery reminded me of what I take to be that of our dear Adam Smith, particularly with regard to its pernicious moral effect on ALL parties to these "transactions." (For more, I highly recommend Jack Weinstein's essay on Smith and slavery here at ASW.)



Finally, and again because of what I see as parallel to the case of Smith, Curran explores Diderot's complicated- and fluctuating- ideological legacy. The French Revolution naturally looms large in this part of the story. Robespierre and his cohorts initially branded the then-deceased Diderot as a sinful counter-revolutionary. Jean-Francois La Harpe held Diderot singularly responsible for The Terror post-Revolution. For over 100 years Curran tells us, "traditionalists effectively portrayed Diderot as a godless radical, a sex fiend, a peddler of smut, and one of the causes of the 19th century's unbridled secularism, individualism, and moral decline." (page 397) But Diderot's reputation, he tells us, turned dramatically in the very end of the 19th century.
  • What is it about thinkers such as Diderot and Adam Smith that make their legacies so complicated from an ideological standpoint? Why is one "side" or the other seemingly so determined to 'adopt' each as their own? Is it, as Curran suggests, that they are fundamentally "free thinkers?" (Admittedly, Curran does not discuss Smith. Should we characterize Smith as a "free thinker" in the same way?_

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