Diderot, after seeing Voltaire in 1778, asked a friend, “Why must he die?”94 The funeral march of the philosophes, from the death of Helvétius in 1771 to that of Morellet in 1819, seemed to be a sardonic commentary on vanity and pride, but we might also wonder why some of these men lived so long, inviting all the pains and humiliations of senility.
The more fortunate among them died before the Revolution, comforted by a hundred signs that their ideas were approaching victory. Condillac disappeared in 1780, Turgot in 1781. D’Alembert reluctantly survived the death of Mlle, de Lespinasse. She had left her papers to his care, and from them it was evident that during the last twelve years of her life her love had been given to Mora or Guibert, leaving for himself only a friendship sometimes tinged with irritation. “D’Alembert is badly hit,” Condorcet told Turgot; “my whole hope for him now is that his life may prove bearable.”95 He returned to his studies, but he wrote nothing more of importance. He attended some of the salons, but the life had gone out of his once brilliant conversation. He rejected Frederick’s invitation to Potsdam, and Catherine’s invitation to St. Petersburg. He wrote to Frederick: “I feel like a man with a long stretch of desert in front of him and the precipice of death at its end, and no hope of coming across a single soul who would grieve if he saw him fall into it, or give himself another thought after he had disappeared.”96
He was mistaken; many cared, if only those to whom he regularly sent part of his income. Hume, in his will, left £ 200 to d’Alembert,97 confident that it would be spread around. Despite various pensions, d’Alembert lived simply to the last. In 1783 both he and Diderot were stricken with serious illnesses—Diderot with pleurisy, d’Alembert with a disorder of the bladder. Diderot recovered; d’Alembert died (October 29, 1783), aged sixty-seven.
Diderot had returned from his Russian adventure in October, 1774. The long trip in a confining carriage had weakened him, but he correctly predicted that he had “ten years of life left in his sack.”98 He worked on a Plan of a University for the Government of Russia (which was not published till 1813); anticipating pedagogical developments by 150 years, he advocated predominant attention to science and technology, and placed Greek, Latin, and literature almost at the end of the list, with philosophy between. In 1778 he began an Essai sur les r ègnes de Claude et de Néron, et sur la vie et les écrits de Sénèque. He digressed to beg the victorious Americans, in their new commonwealth, to “prevent the enormous increase and unequal distribution of wealth and luxury, idleness, and the corruption of morals.”99 And in the section on Seneca he made place for a hot defense of Grimm, Mme. d’Épinay, and himself against the charges that Rousseau had made in public readings of the Confessions:
If, by a bizarrerie without exception, there should ever appear a work where honest people are pitilessly torn to pieces by a clever criminal [un artificieux scélérat], … look ahead and ask yourselves if an impudent fellow, … who has confessed a thousand misdeeds, can be … worthy of belief. What can calumny cost such a man?—what can one crime more or less add to the secret turpitude of a life hidden during more than fifty years behind the thickest mask of hypocrisy? … Detest the ingrate who speaks evil of his benefactors; detest the atrocious man who does not hesitate to blacken his old friends; detest the coward who leaves on his tomb the revelation of secrets confided to him.... As for me, I swear that my eyes shall never be sullied by reading his work; I protest that I would prefer his invectives to his praise.100
In 1783 Mme. d’Épinay died. Diderot felt this loss deeply, for he had enjoyed her friendship and her salon. Grimm and d’Holbach were alive, but his relations with them were tepid; each of the three was sinking into the narrow egoism of old age; all they could talk of to each other was their pains. Diderot’s assortment included nephritis, gastritis, gallstones, and inflammation of the lungs; he could no longer climb the stairs from his fourth-floor rooms to his fifth-floor library. He felt lucky now to have a wife; he had reduced his infidelities to wistful memories, and she had worn out her vocabulary; they lived in a peace of mutual exhaustion.
In 1784 he fell seriously ill. Jean de Tersac, the curé of St.-Sulpice, who had failed with Voltaire, tried to redeem himself with Diderot, visited him, begged him to return to the Church, and warned him that unless he received the sacraments he could not enjoy burial in a cemetery. Diderot answered, “I understand you, Monsieur le Curé. You refused to bury Voltaire because he did not believe in the divinity of the Son. Well, when I am dead, they can bury me wherever they like, but I declare that I believe neither in the Father nor in the Holy Ghost, nor in any of the Family.”101
Hearing of his infirmities, the Empress Catherine secured for him and his wife a splendid suite of rooms in the Rue de Richelieu. They moved into it about July 18. He smiled as he saw new furniture being carried in; he could use it, he said, for only a few days. He used it for less than two weeks. On July 31, 1784, he ate a hearty meal, had an attack of coronary thrombosis, and died at the table, aged seventy-one. His wife and his son-in-law persuaded a local priest to give Diderot a church burial despite his notorious atheism. The corpse was buried in the Church of St.-Roch, from which, at some unknown time, it mysteriously disappeared.
The procession continued. Mably died in 1785, Buffon in 1788, d’Holbach in 1789. Raynal, as we have seen, outlived the Revolution, denounced its barbarities, and surprised himself by dying a natural death (1796). Grimm met all strokes of fortune with Teutonic patience. In 1775 Joseph II made him a baron of the Holy Roman Empire, and in 1776 the Duke of Saxe-Gotha made him minister to France. His Correspondance littéraire, after 1772, was mostly written by his secretary Jakob Meister, but Grimm contributed trenchant articles on literature, art, religion, morals, politics, and philosophy. He was the only thorough skeptic among the philosophes, for he doubted philosophy too, and reason, and progress. While Diderot and others of the faithful looked toward posterity with utopia mirrored in their eyes, Grimm noted that this was a very ancient mirage, “an illusion which has been handed down from generation to generation”; and we have noted his prediction, in 1757, of an imminent “fatal revolution.”102 When the Revolution came and became murderous, he returned to his native Germany and settled in Gotha (1793). Catherine relieved his poverty and made him her minister at Hamburg (1796). On the death of his imperial benefactress he went to live with Émilie de Belsunce, granddaughter of his beloved Mme. d’Épinay. He survived till 1807, chiefly on memories of those exciting days when the mind of France was leading Europe to the dizzy brink of freedom.