Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master

Synopsis

Jacques the Fatalist is a provocative exploration of the problems of human existence, destiny, and free will. In the introduction to this brilliant translation, David Coward explains the philosophical basis of Diderot's fascination with fate and examines the experimental and influential literary techniques that make Jacques the Fatalist a classic of the Enlightenment.

Excerpt

The eighteenth century was the self-proclaimed Age of Enlightenment. In England and particularly France, a concerted attack was launched on old ways of thinking which had at their centre the theology of the Christian Church. Already by 1700, cosmopolitan citizens of the Europe-wide 'Republic of Letters' had begun to dismantle the belief that God was the mysterious creator and curator of the universe and all that lies therein. They no longer raised their eyes to heaven but began to scrutinize the world around them. What they saw was order: days which followed nights, tides which rose and fell, seasons which came and went. They observed that what was true of the external world seemed also to be true of human beings, even of whole civilizations, for everything has its season, is born, and dies.

Reluctant at first to jettison God, they persevered in their suspicion that the cosmos was a gigantic, physical, self-perpetuating, orderly system. They called it 'Nature' and began to subject it to analysis, starting from the premiss that the universe was an enigma only because the human brain did not understand it. Through science and philosophy, its secrets could be unlocked. By proving mathematically that the planets hold their stations by the principle of gravity, Newton did more than make an important discovery: he made the first discovery of the New Age. Nature had been made to yield tip a great mystery. Surely it was only it matter of time before other principles, no less mighty, would emerge and dispel the darkness of human ignorance. Observation and experiment replaced surmise and speculation, and conclusions were valid only until they were overtaken by new evidence and new conclusions.

Thus was born the scientific optimism of an age which came to believe that everything was explicable. For if there were laws which governed external nature, it was reasonable to assume that there were also laws which controlled the world of man: physical laws governing his body, and social, political, economic, and moral laws controlling his collective affairs. Instead of bowing to a divine order which could not . . .

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