Rameau's Nephew and D'Alembert's Dream (Penguin Classics) - Denis Diderot, Leonard Tancock
Devil take me if I really know what I am. As a rule my mind is as true as a sphere and my character as honest as the day: never false if I have the slightest interest in being true, never true if I have the slightest interest in being false. I say things as they come to me; if sensible, all to the good, but if outrageous, people don’t take any notice. I use freedom of speech for all it’s worth. I have never reflected in my life, either before speaking, during speech or after. And so I give no offence. pg. 79, Rameau’s Nephew
So says “He”, Diderot’s assignment of Rameau’s nephew in this likely fictional conversation. Casting aside social convention at every turn, Diderot uses “He” to explore the truly free man. A man who begs, borrows and steals without shame simply to… do what? With practiced ennui, “He” rejects everything valued by others to seek whatever whim strikes. Diderot never published this work in his life and there are countless interpretations for Rameau’s Nephew. Materialist ideal? Satire? Or was it simply a man struggling with the contradictory implications of his beliefs. There is probably a reason that the rather boring “I” is most likely Diderot in the conversation.

D’Alembert’s Dream is a slightly more straight-forward conversation. Using the voice of Doctor Theophile de Bordeu, Diderot attacks any notion of a meaningful natural world. What’s natural is natural. Science says so. In true Enlightenment fashion, he sees a world where natural selection and infinite variation is possible. Embrace it, don’t condemn it. As with Rameau’s Nephew, the problem is not with the world, but those who wish it put their interpretation on it.

Unfortunately, what I took away from both books was somewhat limited. Part of the problem is I’m part of his choir. Our obsessive need to assign right and wrong creates more harm than good. I get it. Everything goes. But does that mean there’s no course of action preferable to another? Diderot doesn’t really explore that part. For him, our actions are governed by the physical world. Value stops when the conversations end.