Scherer's Diderot

IT is now about ten years since M. Scherer entered politics, and “ for party gave up what was meant for mankind.” During this time he has worked enthusiastically for the interests of his country, but we cannot help regretting the loss that literature has suffered from his comparative abandonment of writing. He is without doubt the leading French critic now living, and of late years he has published so little on literary matters, at least, and at a time when the most authoritative voice has been that of Zola praising his own writings, that we feel justified in our impatience at the sense of duty which has kept him occupied with other things. We feel as if some one else could have filled his chair in the senate, while there has been no one in France who so combines knowledge, taste, and authority in literary matters.

Scherer has the great merit that he is familiar with other literatures than the French ; and although some people maintain — and with a certain amount of plausibility — that a critic only incapacitates himself for fully appreciating the work of his fellow-countrymen by lingering over foreign models and learning to admire foreign graces, it is yet to be remembered that, so long as writers are moved by the example of what is done in other countries, they cannot themselves be fully understood except by those who trace their inspiration back to its original source. Who, for instance, can fairly comprehend the German literature of the last hundred years without knowing something of that of France and England ? How satisfactory is that man’s knowledge of Pope and his school who is ignorant of the literature of the reign of Louis XIV. ? Pope’s method of writing was but the outgrowth of French influence, and to discuss his formal accuracy without making this plain is to commit an error of omission. With what intelligence Scherer writes of foreign literature is evident from the essays on Goethe and Milton, that Mr. Matthew Arnold condensed and made the subject of his comments in two papers, bound up in his Mixed Essays.

In this volume,1 Scherer gives us a brief study of Diderot, taking for his text the new edition in twenty large volumes that has just appeared in Paris. This edition, the larger part of which came out under the care of M. Assézat, who died after finishing the sixteenth volume, may be taken as a final one. It is a great improvement on the best of those that had preceded it, and contains a new and doubtless more correct version of the Neveu de Rameau. A book about Diderot can hardly fail to be of value, because he is not one of those writers whom it is desirable, or even, one might almost say, possible, to read through. His work is of such different degrees of merit and treats of so great a variety of subjects that the interest of most readers would evaporate in the vain attempt to read every word he wrote. His work was above all things scattering, and it is by taking him up and reading him here and there that one gets the most good from this remarkable man.

He was in the first place a talker, and one of the charms that his writing has is its resemblance to talk. Of beauty of style, of graceful or really eloquent language, there is commonly no trace ; but we find, instead, Diderot himself telling us his views, or some incident of his life, often with a fascinating vigor, but seldom with the marked literary grace that we are accustomed to look upon as an essential quality of all French men of letters. More than this, he pours forth his ideas on art, literature, life, philosophy, with abundant fluency, contradicting himself, perhaps, at different times, and again abandoning himself to empty rhetoric, but more frequently surprising the reader with his novelty, truth, and ingenuity. He was one of the first of men to write naturally about art; many of his remarks on literature are of use ; and few writers have left a study of life that can compare in force with Rameau’s Nephew. He wrote well about the drama, hut his own plays were unsuccessful on the stage, and are now practically unreadable. Then, too, much of his work was of a sort that is treated tenderly when it is called disgusting. Yet the fact remains that Diderot was an author whose importance it is hard to exaggerate, and he was great on account of the singular sincerity and enthusiasm of his nature.

We are accustomed to speak of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot together, as if there were a much stronger bond of union between them than the fact that they were contemporaries, and were the objects of the admiration and the hatred of different sections of society. In fact, however, they were very unlike one another, and Diderot had certain qualities which make him especially interesting to people of the present time. Voltaire’s negative criticism has for us more a literary interest than any other; Rousseau’s inexactness is unsuited for the present scientific age ; while Diderot’s thorough-going materialism is not so very different from certain contemporary forms of thought. In art matters, too, he expressed himself in a manner that is peculiarly agreeable to the modern ways of looking at pictures. Moreover, Diderot has the additional charm of having been somewhat neglected of late years.

M. Scherer has no extravagant admiration of Diderot. He sees his faults quite as distinctly as his merits,—and it requires no extraordinary vision to do this — and he writes about him with great impartiality. At some length he expounds Diderot’s system of philosophy, which was, on the whole, more strongly marked by consistency and boldness than by other qualities. Evil, for instance, he defined as that which had more disadvantages than advantages, while the good was the contrary of this. Scherer selects a number of passages from Diderot’s writings, in which he treats of these questions, and comments upon them briefly. Thus, Diderot said, “ Evil is a result of the general laws of nature. In order that it should not exist, these laws must be different. I will say that I have often done my best to imagine a world without evil, but that I have never been able to do it.” “ Pope has very well shown, after Leibnitz, that the world could not be other than it is ; but when he drew the inference that everything is for the best, he uttered an absurdity ; he should have been satisfied with saying that everything is necessary.” Again, “ Let us take things as they are ; let us see how much they cost us and how much they give us, and leave the whole as it is ; for we do not know it well enough either to praise or blame it, and possibly, after all, it is neither good nor ill, if it is necessary, as so many good people suppose.”

These statements, as Scherer says, make it clear that Diderot is neither an optimist nor a pessimist; he is satisfied with knowing the facts, and judges it unnecessary to rebel against them. “ I may be wrong,” he adds, concerning the last quotation from Diderot, “ but there seems to me to be more real philosophy in this than in the bad humors of Schopenhauer and Hartmann.”

In a few pages at the end of this chapter, Scherer points out more precisely Diderot’s exact place in philosophy. Every movement in philosophy, he says, is a development from some previous doctrine, which it contradicts. Thus, the philosophy of the seventeenth century received from theology the notion of the duality of nature. God was distinguished from the world, the soul from the body. The Creator was conceived of as a clockmaker in front of the clock he had just completed ; the body and the soul were looked upon as two watches that ran together in marvelously harmonious union. But this notion in time disappeared, and while now it is wholly dead, it was attacked by the encyclopædists with extraordinary vigor. “ Diderot in particular was the author of a synthesis, the originality and power of which would have been sooner recognized if his writings had not been fragmentary, often even rhapsodical, or if they had been at. once thoroughly collected. It would be exceedingly unjust to confound him with his rivals, Helvetius, Maupertius, La Mettrie, and D’Holbach. He is head and shoulders above them. He belongs to the same school, possibly to the same race, but he is no less alone among them all by the breadth of his conceptions and the intelligence of his views.”

In this way Scherer lets his instructive comment run along by the side of extracts from Diderot, pointing out his most striking qualities, and helping the reader to a sympathetic comprehension of this remarkable man. When he comes to speak of the Salons, he is naturally enthusiastic ; for they are certainly wonderful pieces of writing, and they show perhaps more than anything else the great adaptability of Diderot’s genius. He was fifty years old when he began to write them, in 1759, and he discussed all the biennial exhibitions, with one exception, —when he was absent from France, — until 1781. They were, like almost everything that he wrote, but side work. Before he began them he had tried his pen at everything else: he had, when young, studied and taught mathematics ; he had written on philosophical matters ; he had published various essays, and had tried his hand at the drama. For nine years he had been the master-spirit of the Encyclopædia, on which he continued to work for many years ; but whatever attention he had given to art matters had been of the slightest kind. Yet it would be hard to exaggerate the charm, the intelligence, and the truthfulness of his descriptions of the pictures, and of his comments upon them. He branches into all sorts of side matters ; he puts in bits of autobiography, and illustrates his meaning by countless anecdotes; and, as Madame Neaker said, he translates the pictures into poetry that every one can comprehend. He describes them so that one might almost say a blind man could see them. It is one of the many things to be regretted in the life of Diderot that he never saw Italy. This journey was once proposed, in which he was to have the company of Grimm and Rousseau ; but nothing came of the plan, and the world has missed the descriptions he would have given of the masterpieces of painting.

His excellence in this sort of writing is but one of the abundant proofs of Diderot’s many-sidedness. In the Encyclopædia he turned his pen to any and every subject. His versatility is to be found on almost every page, and he gave himself great pains about even the most practical subjects of trade and manufactures. Scherer mentions an article on the weaving of stockings which has received the highest praise from competent judges.

This overflowing ability never produced any one great work ; it was never devoted to one serious, all-engrossing object. Throughout his life, Diderot was desultory, though busy ; and while this scattering of one’s force only too often makes any lasting impression impossible, this has not been the case with him. The Encyclopædia, to be sure, is no longer an object of present interest; as Morley suggests, it is like an old fortress that stands where the boundarylines once ran, but it has long since been succeeded in importance by works that in these days of “ scientific frontiers ” defend more advanced positions. We turn to it to see how people thought a century ago, rather than to learn how to solve our different problems. Though he wrote about pictures of the fourth or fifth rate, he has taught later critics how works of art are to be written about; but what lie has not been excelled in is the intelligence, naturalness, and what we may call the geniality of his digressions. Here, for example, is an extract from one of his letters to Mademoiselle Volland ; he is speaking of a monk with whom be dined at a friend’s house. They were talking of paternal love, and Diderot said that it was one of the strongest of the affections. " ‘ A father’s heart,’ I went on, — 'no, only those who have been fathers know what that is ; it is a secret that is fortunately kept hidden, even from children.’ And then I added, ‘The first years I spent in Paris were very wild. My conduct was bad enough to make my father angry, even when only the truth was told him; but there was no lack of backbiting. They told him — what didn’t they tell him? I had a chance to go to see him. I did not hesitate. I started off full of confidence in his kindness. I thought that as soon as he saw me, I should fall into his arms, that we should burst into tears, and that everything would be forgotten. I was right.’ Then I stopped and asked the monk if he knew how far it was to my home. ‘ Sixty leagues, father ; and if it were a hundred, do you think that I should have found my father less indulgent, less tender? Far from it.

Or if it had been a thousand ? How could one be harsh to a child who had come so far ? And if he had been in the moon, in Jupiter, in Saturn?’ As I was saying these words, my eyes were turned up to the heavens, and my monk, with downcast glance, was pondering over my parable.”

Scherer’s volume points out very clearly the most marked of Diderot’s traits, and it maybe read very profitably in connection with Mr. John Morley’s admirable volume.

  1. Diderot. Etude. Par EDMOND SCHERER. Paris: C. Lévy. Boston: C. Schönhof. 1880.