Great Throughts Treasury

This site is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan William Smolowe who gave birth to the creation of this database.

Denis Diderot

French Encyclopedist, Philosopher, Author and Art Critic

"When we know how to read our own hearts, we acquire wisdom of the hearts of others."

"Religion is a support that in the end almost always ruins the edifice."

"Ignorance is less remote from the truth than prejudice."

"We are far more liable to catch the vices than the virtues of our associates."

"Passions destroy more prejudices than philosophy does."

"It is not the man who is beside himself, but he who is cool and collected, who is master of his countenance, of his voice, of his actions, of his gestures, of every part of his play, who can work upon others at his pleasure."

"Examine the history of all nations and all centuries and you will always find men subject to three codes: the code of nature, the code of society, and the code of religion; and constrained to infringe upon al three codes in succession, for these codes never were in harmony. the result of this has been that never was in any country... a real man, a real citizen, or a real believer."

"Generally speaking, the more civilized and polished a people become, the less poetic its ways; everything weakens as it mellows."

"Only God and some few rare geniuses can keep forging ahead into novelty."

"I maintain that superstition is more hurtful to God than atheism is."

"I can be expected to look for truth, but not to find it."

"The best doctor is the one you run for and can't find."

"Supposing a man-hater had desired to render the human race as unhappy as possible, what could he have invented for the purpose better than belief in an incomprehensible being about whom men could never be able to agree?"

"Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things."

"Nothing is more dangerous than to deceive ourselves about the world in which we find ourselves. We need an ethic of truth to coexist with nature."

"What has not been examined impartially has not been well examined. Skepticism is therefore the step toward truth."

"There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it."

"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."

"A nation which thinks that it is belief in God and not good law which makes people honest does not seem to me very advanced."

"All abstract sciences are nothing but the study of relations between signs."

"Although a man may wear fine clothing, if he lives peacefully; and is good, self-possessed, has faith and is pure; and if he does not hurt any living being, he is a holy man."

"All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings."

"Always sit here like a majestic cock between two contrary balls... I always sit here like a majestic prick between two balls."

"Are we not madder than those first inhabitants of the plain of Sennar? We know that the distance separating the earth from the sky is infinite, and yet we do not stop building our tower."

"And I do not like lies, unless it is useful and necessary."

"At an early age I sucked up the milk of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Terence, Anacreon, Plato and Euripides, diluted with that of Moses and the prophets."

"As to all the outward signs that awaken within us feelings of sympathy and compassion, the blind are only affected by crying; I suspect them in general of lacking humanity. What difference is there for a blind man, between a man who is urinating, and man who, without crying out, is bleeding? And we ourselves, do we not cease to commiserate, when the distance or the smallness of the objects in question produce the same effect on us as the lack of sight produces in the blind man? All our virtues depend on the faculty of the senses, and on the degree to which external things affect us. Thus I do not doubt that, except for the fear of punishment, many people would not feel any remorse for killing a man from a distance at which he appeared no larger than a swallow. No more, at any rate, than they would for slaughtering a cow up close. If we feel compassion for a horse that suffers, but if we squash an ant without any scruple, isn’t the same principle at work?"

"As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes."

"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."

"Could we not say that all religions of the world are only sects of natural religion, and that Jews, Christians, Muslims, pagans do that even naturalists heretics and schismatics?"

"Bad company is as instructive as licentiousness. One makes up for the loss of one's innocence with the loss of one's prejudices."

"Black-letter record of the ages."

"Do you see this egg? With this you can topple every theological theory, every church or temple in the world. What is it, this egg, before the seed is introduced into it? An insentient mass. And after the seed has been introduced to into it? What is it then? An insentient mass. For what is the seed itself other than a crude and inanimate fluid? How is this mass to make a transition to a different structure, to sentience, to life? Through heat. And what will produce that heat in it? Motion."

"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."

"Distance is a great promoter of admiration!"

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

"Every man has his dignity. I'm willing to forget mine, but at my own discretion and not when someone else tells me to."

"From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step."

"For me, my thoughts are my prostitutes."

"Gaiety is a quality of ordinary men. Genius always presupposes some disorder in the machine."

"Gratitude is a burden, and every burden is made to be shaken off."

"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."

"Happiest are the people who give most happiness to others."

"Go further, and require each of them to make a contribution: you will see how many things are still missing, and you will be obliged to get the assistance of a large number of men who belong to different classes, priceless men, but to whom the gates of the academies are nonetheless closed because of their social station. All the members of these learned societies are more than is needed for a single object of human science; all the societies together are not sufficient for a science of man in general."

"Good music is very close to primitive language."

"His hands would plait the priest’s guts, if he had no rope, to strangle kings."

"How did they meet? By chance, like everyone else. What were they? What does it matter? Where did they come from? The nearest place. Where were they? Do you know where we're going?"

"How easy it is to tell tales!"

"How old the world is! I walk between two eternities... What is my fleeting existence in comparison with that decaying rock, that valley digging its channel ever deeper, that forest that is tottering and those great masses above my head about to fall? I see the marble of tombs crumbling into dust; and yet I don’t want to die!"

"I am more affected by the attractions of virtue than by the deformities of vice; I turn gently away from the wicked and I fly to meet the good. If there is in a literary work, in a character, in a picture, in a statue, a beautiful spot, that is where my eyes rest; I see only that, I remember only that, all the rest is well-nigh forgotten. What becomes of me when the whole work is beautiful!"