Peter McPhee reviews 'Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely' by Andrew S. Curran

Peter McPhee reviews 'Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely' by Andrew S. Curran

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

by Andrew S. Curran

Other Press, $49.99 hb, 520 pp, 9781590516706

Andrew S. Curran recounts the only meeting between the two great philosophes Denis Diderot and Voltaire early in 1778 when Diderot, aged sixty-five, insulted Voltaire, then eighty-five, by averring that contemporary playwrights (including, by implication, the two of them) would not brush Shakespeare’s testicles if they walked between his legs. Two months later, Voltaire was dead; a few weeks later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau also died, aged sixty-six. Diderot – regarded by many as the greatest of the three – lived a little longer, until 1784. The last words his daughter Marie-Angélique heard him say were ‘the first step towards philosophy is incredulity’.

Diderot was born in 1713 into a family of master cutlers in the fortified hilltop town of Langres, north of Dijon in eastern France. Originally destined for a clerical career, he dismayed his respectable parents by turning his back on the church and then, after studies in Paris, on religion altogether. He lived a life of prodigiously creative brilliance, captured here with verve and deep erudition by Curran.

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Published in May 2019, no. 411

Peter McPhee

Peter McPhee was appointed to a Personal Chair in History at the University of Melbourne in 1993. He has published widely on the history of modern France, most recently Robespierre: A revolutionary Life (Yale University Press, 2012); and Liberty or Death: the French Revolution (Yale University Press, 2016). He was the University’s first Provost in 2007-09 AND chaired the Board of Melbourne University Publishing 2012–17. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of Social Sciences. See