Forget Diderot

John Gray at The New Statesman:

Perhaps most intriguingly, Diderot’s near-contemporary the Marquis de Sade used materialist philosophy not only to attack religion but also to subvert the optimistic visions of the Encyclopedists. Unlike Diderot, who never resolved the conflict between a materialist world-view and humanist hope, de Sade was ready to follow his philosophy to the end, however grim the conclusion might be.

A wayward figure of some charm, Diderot has little to teach anyone today. Offering solace in a time of uncertainty, he enables 21st century liberals to imagine themselves as freethinkers like him, even as they cling anxiously to an Enlightenment orthodoxy he helped to establish. The most penetrating view of the philosopher remains that of the empress Catherine, who listened to his flights of fancy with admiration without ever confusing them with reality.

more here.