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Philosopher. Nothing is easier to acquire today than the name philosopher ; an obscure and retired life, a few outward signs of wisdom, with a bit of reading, are enough to attract this name to people who are honored by it without deserving it.

Others, in whom freedom of thought takes the place of reasoning, regard themselves as the only true philosophers because they have dared to overturn the sacred boundaries established by religion, and have broken the shackles by which faith bound their reason. Proud of having undone the prejudices of education, in matters of religion, they regard others with disdain, as weak souls, servile geniuses, pusillanimous minds who allow themselves to be frightened by the consequences to which irreligion leads, and who, daring neither to depart for an instant from the circle of established truths, nor to walk in new paths, are lulled to sleep under the yoke of superstition.

But one ought to have a more just idea of the philosopher , and here is how we would characterize him.

Other men are determined to act without feeling, without knowing the causes that make them move, without even imagining that there are any. The philosopher , by contrast, brings causes to light to the degree that he is able, and often even anticipates them, and surrenders himself to them with full knowledge: he is, so to speak, a clock that sometimes winds itself. Thus he avoids those objects which could cause feelings that are suitable neither to well-being nor to a reasonable being, and seeks those which can excite in him affections suitable to the state in which he finds himself. Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace determines the action of the Christian; reason determines that of the philosopher .

Other men are carried away by their passions, without their actions being preceded by reflection: these are men who walk in the shadows; whereas the philosopher , even in his passions, acts only after reflection; he walks in the night, but he is preceded by a torch.

The philosopher forms his principles on the basis of an infinite number of discrete observations. The people adopt a principle without thinking about the observations that produced it: They believe that the maxim exists, so to speak, in itself; but the philosopher follows the maxim to its source; he examines its origin; he knows its true value, and only makes the use of it that is appropriate.

Truth is not for the philosopher a mistress who corrupts his imagination, and that he thinks he finds everywhere; he is satisfied to be able to bring it to light when he is able to perceive it. He certainly does not confuse it with probability; he takes as true that which is true, as false that which is false, as doubtful that which is doubtful, and as probable that which is only probable. He goes further – and here is a great perfection of the philosopher – when he has no proper motive for judging, he remains undecided.

The world is full of intelligent people and very intelligent people, who always judge; they always guess, because to judge without a sense of when one has a proper reason to judge is to guess. They do not know the extent of the human mind; they believe that everything can be known: thus they are ashamed not be able to pronounce judgement and imagine that intelligence consists in judging. The philosopher believes that it consists in judging well: he is more satisfied with himself when he has suspended the faculty of making a decision than he would be to have come to a decision before having a sense of the proper reason for a decision. Thus he judges and speaks less, but he judges more surely and speaks better; he does not avoid the bold strokes that are presented naturally to the mind by a swift assemblage of ideas that one is often surprised to see united. It is in this swift connection that what is commonly called wit consists; but this is also what he seeks least, and to this brilliance he prefers the care of distinguishing his ideas well, of knowing their proper extent and the precise connection between them, and of not allowing himself to be duped in taking too far some particular relationship there may be between ideas. It is in this discernment that what we call judgment and precise thinking consist: to this precision are then joined flexibility and clarity . The philosopher is not so attached to a system that he is unable to feel all the force of objections. The majority of men are so strongly attached to their opinions that they do not even take the trouble to penetrate those of others. The philosopher understands the sentiment that he rejects, to the same extent and with the same clarity that he understands the one he adopts.

The philosophic spirit is thus a spirit of observation and of precision, which relates all things to their true principles; but it is not the philosophic spirit alone which the philosopher cultivates, he carries his attention and his concerns further.

Man is not a monster who must live only in the abyss of the sea or in the depths of a forest: the very necessities of life make commerce with others necessary to him; and in whatever state he may find himself, his needs and well-being draw him to live in society. Thus reason compels him to know, to study, and to work to acquire sociable qualities.

Our philosopher does not find himself in exile in this world; he does not at all believe himself to be in enemy territory; he wants to enjoy like a wise housekeeper the goods that nature offers him; he wishes to find pleasure with others: and in order to do so, he must give it: thus he seeks to get along with those with whom he lives by chance or his own choice; and he finds at the same time those who suit him him: he is an honorable man who wishes to please and to make himself useful.

The majority of the highborn, to whom dissipation leaves insufficient time to meditate, are ferocious towards those whom they do not consider their equals. Ordinary philosophers who meditate too much, or rather who meditate badly, are ferocious towards everyone; they flee men, and men avoid them. But our philosopher , who knows how to divide his time between retreat and the commerce of men, is full of humanity. He is Terence's Chremes, who feels that he is a man, and whose humanity alone makes him interested in the fortunes of his neighbor, good or bad. Homo sum, humani a me nihil alienum puto ["I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me"].

It would be useless to remark here how much the philosopher is zealous for all that which is called honor and probity . For him, civil society is, as it were, a divinity on earth; he flatters it, he honors it by his probity, by an exact attention to his duties, and by a sincere desire not to be a useless or embarrassing member of it. Feelings of probity enter as much into the mechanical constitution of the philosophe as the enlightenment of the mind. The more reason you find in a man, the more probity you will find in him. In contrast, where fanaticism and superstition reign, there reign the passions and anger. The temperament of the philosopher is to act according to the spirit of order or by reason; as he loves society deeply, it is more important to him than to the rest of men to make sure that all of his actions produce only effects that conform to the idea of the honorable man. Have no fear that because no one is watching him, he will abandon himself to an action contrary to probity. No. Such an action does not conform to the mechanical disposition of the sage; he has grazed, as it were, on the leaven of order and rules; he is filled with the ideas of the good and of civil society; he knows its principles better than do other men. Crime would find in him too much opposition, he would have too many natural ideas and too many acquired ideas to destroy. His faculty of action is, as it were, like the string of a musical instrument tuned to a certain key; it would not be able to produce a contrary one. He is afraid to be off-key, to be out of harmony with himself; and this reminds me of what Velleius said of Cato of Utica. "Never," he said, “did he do good deeds in order to appear to have done them, but because it was not in him to do otherwise.”

Moreover, in all the actions that men take, they seek only their own immediate satisfaction: it is the present good, or rather the present attraction, following the mechanical disposition where they find themselves, that makes them act. Now, the philosopher is disposed more than anyone else by his reflections to find more attraction and more pleasure in living with you, in attaining your confidence and your esteem, in acquitting himself of the duties of friendship and gratitude. These sentiments are still nourished at the bottom of his heart by religion, where the natural lights of his reason lead him. Once again, the idea of the dishonorable man is as antithetical to the idea of the philosopher as that of stupidity; and experience shows everyday that the more reason and enlightenment one has, the more one is steady and correct in the commerce of life. A fool, says La Rochefoucauld, does not have enough material to be good: one sins only because one's enlightenment is weaker than one's passions; and thus a theological maxim that is true in a certain sense, that every sinner is ignorant.

This love of society so essential to the philosopher , makes clear how true is the remark of the emperor Marcus Aurelius: "The people will be happy when kings are philosophers , or when philosophers are kings!"

The philosopher is thus an honorable man who acts in everything according to reason, and who joins to a spirit of reflection and precision, morals and sociable qualities. Graft a sovereign onto a philosopher of whatever stripe and you will have a perfect sovereign.

From this idea it is easy to conclude how far removed the insensitive sage of the stoics is from the perfection of our philosopher : such a philosopher is a man, and their sage was nothing but a phantom. Humanity would make them blush, and he glories in it; they wished foolishly to deny the passions, and to raise us above our nature by means of a chimerical insensitivity: as to him, he makes no claim to the chimerical honor of destroying the passions, because that is impossible; but he works at not being dominated by them, at benefitting from them, and at making reasonable use of them, because that is possible, and because reason directs him to do so.

What we have just said can still be seen everywhere, how far removed from the true idea of the philosopher are these idlers who, abandoning themselves to lazy meditations, neglect the care of their temporal affairs, and of everything that is called fortune . The true philosopher is not at all tormented by ambition, but he wishes to have the comforts of life; beyond what is strictly necessary, he requires an honest superfluity necessary to an honorable man, and by means of which alone he is happy: this is the basis of proprieties and pleasures. It is false philosophers who have given rise to this prejudice that the strictest necessity is sufficient, by their indolence and by their dazzling maxims.


Title: Philosopher
Original Title: Philosophe
Volume and Page: Vol. 12 (1765), pp. 509–511
Author: César Chesneau Du Marsais
Translator: Dena Goodman [University of Michigan,]
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Du Marsais, César Chesneau. "Philosopher." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Dena Goodman. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2002. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Philosophe," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 12. Paris, 1765.
Citation (Chicago): Du Marsais, César Chesneau. "Philosopher." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Dena Goodman. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2002. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Philosophe," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 12:509–511 (Paris, 1765).