Denis Diderot Quotes

Denis Diderot, 1713 – 1784

Born: 5 October 1713, Langres, France
Died: 31 July 1784, Paris, France

Diderot earned a master of arts in philosophy with the intention of entering the clergy, switched to law, and then became a writer. His father, willing to accept only the “learned professions” for his son, disowned him and though Diderot was widely admired he was always poor as a result. In order to provide a dowry for his daughter he had to offer his library for sale, to the horror of intellectual society. Catherine the Great of Russia not only bought his library but instructed him to keep possession of it and paid him a small salary as her librarian. His work was filled with brilliant insights and original thought although never well organized. For example, he discussed natural selection and rejected “intelligent design” a hundred years before Darwin. He devoted twenty-five years to the creation of the Encyclopedie, at that point the most extensive work of its kind, but after the first volume he was harassed by the church and the police, actually spending three months in prison before being released on condition of not including some of his conclusions about religion in his work. As a result, many of his works were only available in France well after his death. As novelist, playwright, philosopher, satirist, and critic he was a major factor in the Enlightenment. He died of gastro-intestinal problems, “his” library was then shipped to Catherine who had it added to the National Library of Russia.

Denis Diderot quotes:

A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.
    Denis Diderot – Pensées Philosophiques (1746)

Belief in god is bound up with submission to autocracy. The two rise and fall together, and men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.
    Denis Diderot

Distance is a great promoter of admiration!
    Denis Diderot

Disturbances in society are never more fearful than when those who are stirring up the trouble can use the pretext of religion to mask their true designs.
    Denis Diderot – Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)

Every man has his dignity. I’m willing to forget mine, but at my own discretion and not when someone else tells me to.
    Denis Diderot – Rameau’s Nephew (1762)

Evil always turns up in this world through some genius or other.
    Denis Diderot

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.
    Denis Diderot – Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu (1745)

Gaiety — a quality of ordinary men. Genius always presupposes some disorder in the machine.
    Denis Diderot – Elements of Physiology (1875)

Genius is present in every age, but the men carrying it within them remain benumbed unless extraordinary events occur to heat up and melt the mass so that it flows forth.
    Denis Diderot – On Dramatic Poetry (1758)

Good music is very close to primitive language.
    Denis Diderot – Elements of Physiology (1875)

Gratitude is a burden, and every burden is made to be shaken off.
    Denis Diderot – Rameau’s Nephew (1762)

Happiest are the people who give most happiness to others.
    Denis Diderot

I believe in God, although I live very happily with atheists…. It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.
    Denis Diderot

I have often seen an actor laugh off the stage, but I don’t remember ever having seen one weep.
    Denis Diderot – “Paradox on Acting” (1830)

I let my mind rove wantonly, give it free rein to follow any idea, wise or mad, that may present itself…. My ideas are my harlots.
    Denis Diderot – Rameau’s Nephew (1762)

If there is one realm in which it is essential to be sublime, it is in wickedness. You spit on a petty thief, but you can’t deny a kind of respect for the great criminal.
    Denis Diderot – Rameau’s Nephew (1762)

Ignorance is less remote from truth than prejudice.
    Denis Diderot

In any country where talent and virtue produce no advancement, money will be the national god. Its inhabitants will either have to possess money or make others believe that they do. Wealth will be the highest virtue, poverty the greatest vice.
    Denis Diderot – Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)

In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.
    Denis Diderot – On the Interpretation of Nature (1753)

It has been said that love robs those who have it of their wit, and gives it to those who have none.
    Denis Diderot – Paradoxe sur le Comédien (1773 – 1777)

It is not human nature we should accuse but the despicable conventions that pervert it.
    Denis Diderot – On Dramatic Poetry (1758)

It is said that desire is a product of the will, but the converse is in fact true: will is a product of desire.
    Denis Diderot – Elements of Physiology (1875)

Justice is the first virtue of those who command, and stops the complaints of those who obey.
    Denis Diderot

Man was born to live with his fellow human beings. Separate him, isolate him, his character will go bad, a thousand ridiculous affects will invade his heart, extravagant thoughts will germinate in his brain, like thorns in an uncultivated land.
    Denis Diderot – La Religieuse [The Nun] (1796)

My ideas are my harlots.
    Denis Diderot – Rameau’s Nephew (1762)

No man has received from nature the right to give orders to others. Freedom is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he is in enjoyment of his reason.
    Denis Diderot – L’Encyclopédie (1751 – 1766)

One declaims endlessly against the passions; one imputes all of man’s suffering to them. One forgets that they are also the source of all his pleasures.
    Denis Diderot

One may demand of me that I should seek truth, but not that I should find it.
    Denis Diderot – Pensées Philosophiques (1746)

Only a very bad theologian would confuse the certainty that follows revelation with the truths that are revealed. They are entirely different things.
    Denis Diderot – Apology for the Abbé de Prades (1752)

Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.
    Denis Diderot – Pensées Philosophiques (1746)

Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound, and our experiments exact. We rarely see these three means combined; and for this reason, creative geniuses are not common.
    Denis Diderot – On the Interpretation of Nature (1753)

Patriotism is an ephemeral motive that scarcely ever outlasts the particular threat to society that aroused it.
    Denis Diderot – Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)

People praise virtue, but they hate it, they run away from it. It freezes you to death, and in this world you’ve got to keep your feet warm.
    Denis Diderot – Rameau’s Nephew (1762)

Pithy sentences are like sharp nails which force truth upon our memory.
    Denis Diderot

Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast, and wild.
    Denis Diderot – On Dramatic Poetry (1758)

Power acquired by violence is only a usurpation, and lasts only as long as the force of him who commands prevails over that of those who obey.
    Denis Diderot – L’Encyclopédie (1751 – 1766)

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.
    Denis Diderot – Pensées Philosophiques (1746)

The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.
    Denis Diderot – “Refutation of Helvétius” (written 1773-76, published 1875)

The best doctor is the one you run for and can’t find.
    Denis Diderot

The decisions of law courts should never be printed: In the long run, they form a counterauthority to the law.
    Denis Diderot – Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)

The general interest of the masses might take the place of the insight of genius if it were allowed freedom of action.
    Denis Diderot – Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)

The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty. It is to the state what health is to the individual.
    Denis Diderot – L’Encyclopédie (1751 – 1766)

The most dangerous madmen are those created by religion, and … people whose aim is to disrupt society always know how to make good use of them on occasion.
    Denis Diderot – Conversations with a Christian Lady (1774)

The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.
    Denis Diderot – Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)

The pit of a theatre is the one place where the tears of virtuous and wicked men alike are mingled.
    Denis Diderot – On Dramatic Poetry (1758)

Strong thoughts are iron nails driven in the mind, that nothing can draw out.

Denis Diderot

A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness, J. De Finod, translator and compiler (1886)
The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.

Denis Diderot

“Refutation of Helvétius” (written 1773-76, published 1875)
The best doctor is the one you run for and can’t find.

Denis Diderot
The decisions of law courts should never be printed: In the long run, they form a counterauthority to the law.

Denis Diderot

Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)
The general interest of the masses might take the place of the insight of genius if it were allowed freedom of action.

Denis Diderot

Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)
The good of the people must be the great purpose of government. By the laws of nature and of reason, the governors are invested with power to that end. And the greatest good of the people is liberty. It is to the state what health is to the individual.

Denis Diderot

L’Encyclopédie (1751 – 1766)
The most dangerous madmen are those created by religion, and … people whose aim is to disrupt society always know how to make good use of them on occasion.

Denis Diderot

Conversations with a Christian Lady (1774)
The only thing that has been taught successfully to women is to wear becomingly the fig-leaf they received from their first mother. Everything that is said and repeated for the first eighteen or twenty years of a woman’s life is reduced to this: “My daughter, take care of your fig-leaf;” “your fig-leaf becomes you”; “your fig-leaf does not become you.”

Denis Diderot

A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness, J. De Finod, translator and compiler (1886)
The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.

Denis Diderot

Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)
The pit of a theatre is the one place where the tears of virtuous and wicked men alike are mingled.

Denis Diderot

On Dramatic Poetry (1758)
The possibility of divorce renders both marriage partners stricter in their observance of the duties they owe to each other. Divorces help to improve morals and to increase the population.

Denis Diderot

Observations on the Drawing Up of Laws (1774)
The world is the house of the strong. I shall not know until the end what I have lost or won in this place, in this vast gambling den where I have spent more than sixty years, dicebox in hand, shaking the dice.

Denis Diderot

Elements of Physiology (1875)
There are things I can’t force. I must adjust. There are times when the greatest change needed is a change of my viewpoint.

Denis Diderot
There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge… observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.

Denis Diderot

On the Interpretation of Nature (1753)
There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination. Our observation of nature must be diligent, our reflection profound, and our experiments exact. We rarely see these three means combined; and for this reason, creative geniuses are not common.

Denis Diderot

On the Interpretation of Nature (1753)

There is no kind of harassment that a man may not inflict on a woman with impunity in civilized societies.

Denis Diderot

“On Women” (1772)
There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it.

Denis Diderot
There is only one passion, the passion for happiness.

Denis Diderot

Elements of Physiology (1875)
There’s a bit of testicle at the bottom of our most sublime feelings and our purest tenderness.

Denis Diderot

letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville (3 November 1760)
Time, matter, space — all, it may be, are no more than a point.

Denis Diderot

Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
To attempt the destruction of our passions is the height of folly. What a noble aim is that of the zealot who tortures himself like a madman in order to desire nothing, love nothing, feel nothing, and who, if he succeeded, would end up a complete monster!

Denis Diderot

Pensées Philosophiques (1746)
To say that man is a compound of strength and weakness, light and darkness, smallness and greatness, is not to indict him, it is to define him.

Denis Diderot

Pensées Philosophiques (1746)
Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.

Denis Diderot

“Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage” (1796)
We are all instruments endowed with feeling and memory. Our senses are so many strings that are struck by surrounding objects and that also frequently strike themselves.

Denis Diderot

D’Alembert’s Dream (1769)
We are constantly railing against the passions; we ascribe to them all of man’s afflictions, and we forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures.

Denis Diderot

Pensées Philosophiques (1746)
We are far more liable to catch the vices than the virtues of our associates.

Denis Diderot
We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

Denis Diderot

Rameau’s Nephew (1762)
What has not been examined impartially has not been well examined. Skepticism is therefore the first step toward truth.

Denis Diderot
What is this world of ours? A complex entity subject to sudden changes which all indicate a tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings which follow one another, assert themselves and disappear; a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.

Denis Diderot

Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)
What is this world? A complex whole, subject to endless revolutions. All these revolutions show a continual tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings who follow one another, press forward, and vanish; a fleeting symmetry; the order of a moment. I reproached you just now with estimating the perfection of things by your own capacity; and I might accuse you here of measuring its duration by the length of your own days.

Denis Diderot

Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind] (1749)

What we call a gentleman is no longer the man of nature.

Denis Diderot

A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness, J. De Finod, translator and compiler (1886)
When superstition is allowed to perform the task of old age in dulling the human temperament, we can say goodbye to all excellence in poetry, in painting, and in music.

Denis Diderot

Pensées Philosophiques (1746)
Woman: man’s first domicile.

Denis Diderot

A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness, J. De Finod, translator and compiler (1886)
Women swallow at one mouthful the lie that flatters, and drink drop by drop a truth that is bitter.

Denis Diderot

A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness, J. De Finod, translator and compiler (1886)

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