Who was Denis Diderot?

   Denis Diderot was a French writer, philosopher, and encyclopedist. Born Langres, France, Oct. 5, 1713. Died Paris, France, July 31, 1784.
   Diderot was one of the great thinkers of the 18th century as well as one of its most prolific writers. One of his greatest achievements was his Encyclopédie (1751-1772), the first extensive encyclopedia in history. It contained articles by Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and other philosophers of the time. Much of the work was dedicated to the subject of political liberty, and it was suppressed for a short time by the French authorities.
   Diderot was educated in Langres and Paris. He first aroused official discontent and was imprisoned for three months in 1749 for his Lettre sur les aveugles ("Letter on the Blind"), a satirical piece in which he attacked traditional religious ideas. He later wrote two plays, Le Fus naturel ("The Natural Son," 1757) and Le Pére de famille ("The Father of the Family," 1758), which contributed to the development of modern realistic drama. His best-known fictional work is Le Neveu de Rameau ("Rameau's Nephew," 1762), a criticism of society presented in the form of a dialogue. In Le Revé de d'Alembert ("D'Alembert's Dream," 1769), Diderot presented elements of his materialist philosophy that foreshadowed some of the biological concepts of Charles Darwin a century later. The Salons, a series of writings based on the Paris art exhibitions, show Diderot to have been a forerunner of art criticism.
   Very few men have had as much influence as Diderot. So great was the fame of his encyclopedia, for example, that Catherine the Great of Russia invited him to visit her in St. Petersburg in 1773. After this trip, Catherine became Diderot's patroness and remained so until his death.