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Denis Diderot

French, 1713 - 1784

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Denis Diderot was a French man of letters and philosopher who from 1745-1772 served as the chief editor of the Encyclopédie. He was educated first by the Jesuits in his native Langres, then in Paris, either at the Collège d'Harcourt or the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, or both. In 1732 he received the degree of Master of Arts from the University of Paris, and went on to work as a clerk in the law office of Clément de Ris. He left this employment, and relatively little is known about the next decade of his life, during which he underwent a religious crisis, progessing in his beliefs from faith to atheism. In 1741 he met the philopopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with whom he was friends for fifteen years. In that same year he married Antoinette Champion, with whom he had three children, only one of which, Angélique, survived. His marriage is not reputed to have been a happy one, perhaps due to his various mistresses, including Sophie Volland, with whom he had a relationship for twenty years. In 1745 Diderot was asked by the publisher André le Breton to work on a translation from the English of Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia; Diderot and the mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert undertook the project, expanding its scope to include original material. After d'Alembert dropped out of the project in 1758, Diderot supervised the remaining volumes on his own. The final of 17 volumes was published in 1772. In addition to the Encyclopédie, Diderot published throughout his life, including philosophical treatises, for example, Pensées philosophiques (1746), Lettres sur les aveugles (1749; translated 1750 as An Essay on Blindness), which earned him 3 months incarcerations at the prison of Vincennes, L'Entretien entre d'Alembert et Diderot (1769, published posthumously); novels, including Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748), Le Neveu de Rameau (written between 1761-1774, translated into German by Goethe in 1805); and plays, including Le Fils naturel (1757) and Le Père de famille (1758). After the publication of the final volume of the Encyclopédie, Diderot was supported by Catherine the Great of Russia, who purchased Diderot's library, though allowing Diderot to retain possession, and paid him an annual salary for the remainder of his life. The Empress invited the writer to St. Petersbourg, where Diderot spent 5 months in 1773. Diderot died in 1784, only a few months after the death of his mistress Sophie Vollard. [Compiled from sources and references recorded on CMS]

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Nouveau Larousse Illustré. 7 vols. Paris, 1898-1904:3:721-713

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