Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
Andrew S. Curran
Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world’s first comprehensive Encyclopédie into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to reserve his best books for posterity—for us, in fact. In the astonishing cache of unpublished writings left behind after his death, Diderot challenged virtually all of his century’s accepted truths, from the sanctity of monarchy, to the racial justification of the slave trade, to the norms of human sexuality. One of Diderot’s most attentive readers during his lifetime was Catherine the Great, who not only supported him financially, but invited him to St. Petersburg to talk about the possibility of democratizing the Russian empire.
In this thematically organized biography, Andrew S. Curran vividly describes Diderot’s tormented relationship with Rousseau, his curious correspondence with Voltaire, his passionate affairs, and his often iconoclastic stands on art, theater, morality, politics, and religion. But what this book brings out most brilliantly is how the writer’s personal turmoil was an essential part of his genius and his ability to flout taboos, dogma, and convention.
Andrew S. Curran is the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities at Wesleyan University. His new book Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely was recently published by Other Press. His major publications include an edited volume, Faces of Monstrosity in Eighteenth-Century Thought in Eighteenth-Century Life, and two books: Sublime Disorder: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot’s Universe and The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment. Elected a Fellow in the history of medicine at the New York Academy of Medicine in 2010, Curran has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He was the co-winner of the James L. Clifford Prize for the best article in eighteenth-century studies in 2011 and received a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars award in 2016.
The Athenæum holds one of only 70 copies printed of Diderot Project, a 150-page meditation on concepts encountered in printer and publisher Ken Botnick’s study of the plates and writings of the Encyclopédie of Diderot.