When asked what he wanted to do with his life, a young man supposedly replied, “Nothing, nothing at all. I like to study; I am very happy, very content; I don’t ask for anything else.”
That was me at age 23, except it wasn’t. It was Denis Diderot (1713–1784).
Which is bizarre.
Diderot could’ve been the bizarro me. He was an ex-Catholic-turned-rationalist deist. I’m an ex-anti-Catholic-turned-realist Catholic.
But we both loved to study as young men.
We also both liked women. Though I’ve limited my interest to just one, Diderot enjoyed many, including a woman who had such a virile tongue and “male mind” that men called her “the hermaphrodite.” He lost interest in her after a while, since he couldn’t get past rumors that she was involved in a lesbian affair with her sister.
My love interest, though not a hermaphrodite, played catcher for her high school's softball team for four years.
The bizarro parallels continue.
Diderot, like me, also had a lot of children. Four, to be exact, though all but one died young. Although he loved his surviving daughter tenderly, his home life wasn’t good. His wife was a harridan (which is one of the most under-utilized words in the English language (thanks to Joseph Epstein for putting it back on my mental radar)).
Diderot also said, through a literary persona, that the point of life was “to keep emptying one’s bowels easily, freely, copiously, every night.” I often have that same sensation, though I believe love and service might be yet more important.
This Weird Kid I Knew Did Nothing but Read the Encyclopedia
I worked at K-Mart for three years during my teens. That’s a lot of time, especially when you consider that a man, no matter how long he lives, lives half his life at age 20 (I wish I could remember who said that).
For awhile, I worked with a peculiar and pathetic kid. In retrospect, he had “Columbine wannabe” written on his forehead.
A friend told me the kid had a hard life. His dad wasn’t in the picture and his mom, determined that her son would be a success, locked him in his room for prolonged periods and made him read the encyclopedia.
Nothing but the encyclopedia.
I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, that sucks. . . Kinda.”
I always loved the encyclopedia. My parents had a complete Encyclopedia Britannica in our family room, and we kids had a “junior” Britannica in our bedroom. I spent hours lying on my stomach, reading random entries.
When I heard that A.J. Jacobs wrote a popular book about reading the entire set, I immediately bought his book . . . and loved it, though I loathed him like only envy can loathe, realizing he made a lot of money doing something I would’ve done free.
When I first discovered Wikipedia, I loved it so much, I thought I'd have to list “adultery” on my next visit to the confessional. I donated a few bucks to Wikipedia over the years, which is something I never do for an online giant. As of this writing, I still consider Wikipedia the greatest casualty of the Trump Wars (splendid institutions that sold their soul to politics because they hated Trump so vigorously).
The Encyclopedia was Meant to Undermine the Catholic Church
I arguably owe my encyclophilia to Denis Diderot, the godfather of the modern encyclopedia.
But whereas I love encyclopedias because they help me understand this crazy thing we call “creation,” Diderot loved it because it would undermine the idea of a Creator . . . at least undermine the idea of a Creator who means anything to anyone (remember, he was a Deist).
To Diderot, the purpose of the encyclopedia was, like everything else in the French Enlightenment, “changer la facon commune de penser,” to change how people thought. It was a clandestine work meant to undermine Church and monarchy. He thought that, if he could get as much information to the people as possible without censorship (Diderot knew censorship, having spent three months in prison for an essay he wrote), they wouldn’t need priest or king to guide them.
The French Enlightenment, of course, was grossly wrong in all such things.
Diderot's fellow Enlightened, Voltaire, thought he had to let a homosexual sodomize him in order to form an opinion about anal sex, which is like letting Hitler transport me to Auschwitz before forming an opinion about him.
Another Enlightened, Condorcet, thought that, once society reached a level in which men had substantial resources and free time, we’d have 37,000,000 poets like Homer and 37,000,000 philosophers like Newton. Instead, we got Netflix binges, California, and those dudes who attend the NFL Draft in oversized football jerseys.
Many of the most outrageous lies about the Catholic Church and its beliefs that are accepted as common knowledge originated with the Enlightenment, with Voltaire simply making stuff up to discredit Catholicism.
Which makes me wonder:
Is it a good thing to love the encyclopedia? To drool over Wikipedia? To weigh many times the costs and benefits of a digital Britannica subscription (as I’ve done over the past five years)?
I don’t know.
The encyclopedia seems like such a good thing.
But if it came from the Enlightenment, it’s quite possibly the stuff that Diderot’s literary persona copiously emptied every night.