BookPage starred review, January 2019
The ambitious effort to publish the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia was completed in the late 18th century with the Encyclopédie, which clocked in at 35 volumes. Its creators sought, in the midst of severe censorship by the French government and much controversy, not only to educate but also to raise questions about the established orders of knowledge, including the monarchy, the institution of slavery and religious belief. The Encyclopédie is now considered the supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment. It was an instant bestseller and was influential throughout Europe and beyond.
Denis Diderot was the lead editor and contributor of the encyclopedia project from 1745 to 1772. However, he considered the project to be the most thankless chore of his life. He neglected his family, his health and his literary ambitions in the process of creating the Encyclopédie. But during the last third of his life, Diderot produced an astonishing range of work. His unedited books of essays, the last cache of which was made public only in 1948, greatly surpassed what he published in his lifetime.
Wesleyan University professor Andrew S. Curran details the life of this extraordinary man—who played the role of philosopher, playwright and novelist, among others—in his absorbing Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely. In his mid-30s, before he began work on what was to become his best-known achievement, Diderot was imprisoned for heretical writings and branded as one of the most dangerous evangelists of freethinking and atheism in France. Upon his release from prison, he promised to never again personally publish heretical works. He kept that promise, but his work on the Encyclopédie allowed him to challenge conventional thinking in other ways. Curran notes Diderot’s once-close relationship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and their dramatic break, as well as Diderot’s contact with Voltaire, who both admired and distrusted him. The most surprising of his admirers was Catherine the Great, who gave him substantial financial support and hosted him in St. Petersburg, although she was not interested in bringing Diderot’s democratic ideal to Russia. In this extremely well-written biography, Curran vividly portrays Diderot as a brilliant man filled with contradictions and passions who acted as a central figure in the advancement of intellectual freedom.