Curran, Andrew. “Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely”, Other Press, 2018.
Andrew Curran brings us a new biography of one the philosophers who built the foundations of the modern world in “Diderot and the Art of Thinking”. Denis Diderot is credited with helping to bring the first comprehensive encyclopedia but this is only part of the man. Now we learn that Diderot’s personal writing was just that, personal, and that he left behind many writing that were never published and were discovered after his death. He wrote of natural selection long before Darwin, of the Oedipus complex long before Freud and of genetic manipulation long before the first animal was cloned. Certainly some of these were written during the period that he spent in jail after having been arrested in 1749 for his atheism. Diderot challenged all of the accepted
truths of his time including from the monarchy, the racial justification of the slave trade and the complications of human sexuality. He wrote about the dangers of absolute power and this led to Catherine the Great financial support and her invitation to St. Petersburg.
Curran has arranged this biography by theme and he gives us accurate descriptions of Diderot’s relationship with Rousseau, his feud with Voltaire, his marriage and affairs, as well as his positions on art, morality, and religion. What we really see here is how his character flaws and limitations are “part of his genius and his ability to break taboo, dogma, and convention.”
This is not the Diderot I learned about in university philosophy classes but the man who was one of the great thinkers of the eighteenth century. Above all else, we see the results of thinking freely at a time when very few did.