How To Respond When That Moment Has Gone

The ‘too late’ French philosopher

You know that moment, when somebody has said something smug and witty to put you in your place? That moment when you stand, mouth agape, mind blank, unable to retort in equal manner?

And then, when the moment’s gone, ten minutes later your brain hits inspiration? Denis Diderot knew that moment all too well.

The Party

Denis was at a fancy dinner party at the home of statesman Jacques Necker sometime mid 18th century. He had dressed well for the occasion and couldn’t wait to entertain. The guests were a mixture of French aristocracy and statesmen to the King’s court. During the dinner, a remark was made to Diderot which left him speechless at the time. Angry at the exchange, Denis left the room in a huff.

As Denis reached the ground floor, descending the long staircase from the reception room, he suddenly thought of the most brilliant riposte. A reply so stunning that the whole room would bow their heads in admiration. Denis turned around ready to make his way back up the staircase and confront the insulter. Fortunately, reason took over and Denis knew the moment had passed. He would look foolish to make his retort long after everyone had moved on from the conversation. Or as Denis explained:

“A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and [can only think clearly again when he] finds himself at the bottom of the stairs”

And thus the phrase ‘L’esprit de l’escalier’ or ‘Staircase mind’ was born. Staircase wit — the art of thinking up the perfect putdown too late.

The Encyclopedia

This phrase didn’t make Denis Diderot famous. It would be his ground-breaking work on an Encyclopedia that would make him a household name. His revolutionary idea was to ask his peers to contribute entries for which he would edit. Unlike every other encyclopedia before his, all of which contained knowledge only from the author.

Some of the entries, like the expanded idea of allowing multiple entries from other authors, were deemed revolutionary. The French authorities were outraged at some of the suggestions posed in the book. One of them, that governments should be concerned with the welfare of its citizens, drew particular attention. Mired in controversy, the project was suspended by the courts in 1752. Just as the second volume was completed, accusations arose regarding seditious content concerning the editor’s entries on religion and natural law.

Denis was a pessimist. He believed human beings lacked free will and that our characters and behaviors were completely determined by our genetic inheritance. We couldn’t change who we are. Nature over nurture. A man who was associated with such a positive project, the Encyclopedia, that would bring enlightenment to so many, didn’t believe people could be enlightened. In effect, he was a progressive thinker who didn’t believe in the possibility of progress!

“Diderot wanted the Encyclopédie to give all the knowledge of the world to the people of France. However, the Encyclopédie threatened the governing social classes of France (aristocracy) because it took for granted the justice of religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and the value of science and industry. It asserted the doctrine that the main concern of the nation’s government ought to be the nation’s common people. It was believed that the Encyclopédie was the work of an organized band of conspirators against society, and that the dangerous ideas they held were made truly formidable by their open publication. In 1759, the Encyclopédie was formally suppressed.” — Wikipedia

The Encyclopedia was banned by the Church in 1758. One year later, the government had followed suit. Many of his contributors was thrown in jail.

It would be twelve years from finishing the final chapters of the manuscript to being fully published. By then, the publishing house had got cold feet. Not wanting to court controversy, the editors heavily censored Denis’s words, removing anything that formed an opinion against the church or the state.

Pessimist Denis would later express his concerns to his friends that the twenty-five years he had spent on the project had been wasted. Yet the Encyclopedia was considered one of the forerunners of the French Revolution such was its impact.

The End

Denis struggled financially through most of his career. He died of pulmonary thrombosis in Paris on 31 July 1784 with his most important works all published long after he died. He did, however, make it to court as the official librarian to the Russian Queen, Catherine the Great. A position that finally afforded him financial stability in the latter years of his life.

The Queen, wisely, ignored his advice. As she wrote to him in one letter:

“Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with great interest to everything that your brilliant mind has inspired. But your grand principles, which I understand quite well, make for good books and bad actions. Your plans for reform neglect the difference between our two positions. You work on paper, which accepts everything. It is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to either your imagination or pen. I, a poor empress, work on human skin, which is rather irritable and sensitive.”

He would bequeath his Encyclopedia notes to Catherine which explained in more detail his pessimistic view of the world and how exactly governments should act. Catherine was said to be furious and commented that they were “an incoherent gibberish devoid of prudence, insight, and verisimilitude.” But Denis had finally got the last word!

Denis Diderot (1713–84), a man whose staircase wit, like his works, were always a moment too late.

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