Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Diderot and Political Power

On a recent Monday Red Baron took part in an all-day seminar jointly sponsored by Freiburg's University and the Frankreich Zentrum: Diderot und die Macht (Diderot and political power). One paper by Dr. Michel Kerautret of the Assemblée Nationale Française in Paris had my special attention: Diderot et la Révolution américaine.

My readers already met the French editor of the famous Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers Denis Diderot in an earlier blog although in addition to being an atheist he was a philosopher, critic, narrator, dramatist, essayist, moralist, materialist, scientist, psychologist, an entertaining letter writer and regarded as a witty discussion partner among his peers.

As a philosopher of the Enlightment Diderot advocates a positive philosophy in the education of man (and woman). That is all that counts for him. In his view any religion is pernicious and priests start poisoning people at birth with prejudices. Man (and woman) are contaminated by rules that hamper their natural development.

With respect to political power Diderot welcomes enlightened absolutism but criticizes its bureaucratic excesses. He stigmatizes the princes who market themselves with slogans like: I am the foremost servant of my state but who nevertheless remain despots. Even when princes force their subjects to their well-being they still remain nothing other than "enlightened despots".

Diderot points out the social injustice in France to his king without any hope of improvement. With high hopes, however, he travels to St. Petersburg in 1773 taking his message to Catharine the Great only to find out that she likes to listen to him but does what she considers best for her and her country. She just had exercised the First Partition of Poland jointly with the "enlightened" princes of Austria and Prussia. Disappointed, Diderot returns to France just one year later. During his travels he avoids his special friend Frederick the Great in bypassing Potsdam as the map shows: J'etais bien resolu ... d'eviter le roi de Prusse qui ne m'aime pas, a qui je le rends bien ... Ce roi est certainement un grand homme; mais quinteux comme une peruche, malfaisant comme un singe, et capable en meme temps des plus grands comme des plus petites choses. C'est une mechante ame, et, je trancherai le mot: une tete mal faite par quelque coin (I was well decided to avoid the Prussian king who does not love me and I return it to him ... This king certainly is a great man but grumpy as a parakeet, malicious as an ape, and at the same time is capable of the greatest as well as the smallest things. He is a vicious soul, and I say it distinctly: a somehow badly done head).

Diderot's travel to and from St. Petersburg (©Wikipedia)
For Diderot Frederick is the arch-model of a Machiavellian ruler. Once in power, he who had written an anti-Machiavelli in his youth throws his earlier principles completely overboard and develops Prussia into a brutal military state.

Already as early as 1769 Diderot predicts the secession of the American colonies from Britain for she does not observe her own principles. For Diderot one nation suppressing another is worse than a despotic ruler. With the outbreak of the American Revolution Diderot who as an unmitigated adversary of slavery accuses the British of being tyrants over other people treating their possessions in America like those in Africa. Britain considers the colonists as backwoodsmen not having any rights. Diderot takes on the British who regard the revolting colonists as rebels: Yes, they are rebels for they do not want to be your slaves. Rebellion is the legitimate exercise of the natural and inalienable right of oppressed people. Turning to the Americans and thinking about the slaves they in turn exploit he hopes that the revolution may provide wisdom to the people so that they may apply their freedom reasonably.

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