How to be good: Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew

Diderot’s most well known piece, the dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, is a discourse on what good behavior is – delivered with droll irony by one who has found being good beyond his capabilities….

Denis Diderot by Louis Michel van Loo (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Part of the pleasure of reading is finding those odd connections between works that at first seem unlikely to be related in any way. Such is my experience with this re-reading of Denis Diderot’s masterful dialogue concerning good behavior and bad, Rameau’s Nephew. As I made my way again through this witty, ironic masterpiece of argument about morals and ethics, for some reason I was reminded of another work whose thematic focus was on that elusive goal of being good: Nan, the late Victorian children’s book by Lucy C. Lillie that I read (and wrote about) a year and a half ago. The object lessons of Nan are simple and straightforward, of course: tell the truth, don’t steal, mind your manners, obey your elders. One of Nan’s most ingratiating traits is her desire to help the less fortunate – a trait that the book clearly describes as more than compensating for her lack of intellectual and artistic talent. She may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, but she’s a good, kind-hearted bulb and that, Ms. Lillie tells us, is what matters.

Rameau’s nephew is a sort of “anti-Nan.” He has talent, wit, intellect. He more than compensates for these gifts by being lazy, conniving, and morally and ethically questionable. As you have probably already guessed, he’s a hell of a lot more fun to read about than Nan.

Before we examine the work further, however, we should probably say something about its author. Denis Diderot may be the least well known of that group of French intellectuals known in “the philosophes,” a group that also included Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Diderot’s great contribution to the literary, philosophical, and intellectual life of his time was a vast compendium of knowledge called the Encyclopédie. Like Samuel Johnson’s great Dictionary, Diderot’s Encylopédie (which was written almost contemporaneously to Johnson’s work) is one of the great achievements of The Age of Reason. It offered audiences reference material that both served that function and also aimed at changing “the way people think,” bringing many of the ideas of the Enlightenment to the general public, so much so that it is sometimes given credit for contributing to the fomenting of the French Revolution.  It was an enormous financial success (as was Johnson’s Dictionary) – at least for Diderot’s publishers – and made Diderot’s reputation, much as the Dictionary made Johnson’s. Unlike, Johnson, however, Diderot did not become financially secure as the result of his work on the Encyclopédie and struggled to support his family all his life, only achieving a measure of financial security when Catherine the Great of Russia bought his library (and control of his papers) and made him the lifetime custodian/caretaker of those documents.

The reasons for Diderot’s difficulties are twofold and lead us neatly into our look at Rameau’s Nephew. The first of these has to do with Diderot’s philosophical and social views. Like his contemporaries Voltaire and Rousseau, Diderot espoused views about human freedom and independence of thought and religious belief that did not make him popular with the Crown or the Catholic Church. In those last, declining years of the Ancien Regime, repression and punishment of those who espoused “radical” political, religious, and philosophical views touched all the great philosophes. Both Voltaire and Rousseau ran afoul of Louis XV (and his successor, the doomed Louis XVI) and spent time as exiles. Diderot found the Encyclopédie repressed at one point. While he and his publisher eventually circumvented the repression, it may have played a role in his decision not to publish Rameau’s Nephew during his lifetime. Its indictment of the corrupt, decayed French aristocracy and of those who, like Rameau’s nephew and, indeed, Rameau himself, made their way in life by pandering to their tastes would certainly have brought official censure, perhaps even stronger punishment, upon him.

There was an actual “neveu de Rameau.” Jean Francois Rameau, the nephew of the Baroque composer (Jean Philippe for those interested) was a minor musician and, by some accounts, a bit of an eccentric. He made, therefore, a perfect foil for Diderot’s attack on aristocratic privilege, the love of money above all else, and talent waylaid by personality.

To the work, then.

Diderot sets the context for Rameau’s Nephew by explaining to us that he is one of those sorts who, on occasion, regularly visits public haunts, sometimes talking with those he would normally avoid. He does this, he says, because it helps him “…let my mind rove wantonly, give it free rein to follow any idea, wise or mad….” If the weather permits, he takes turns in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. If the weather is bad, he frequents the Regency Café where he can watch chess played – and think and talk, or think and not talk as his humor inclines him. It is here that he runs into Rameau’s nephew who has been thrown out of his comfortable place living with a stupid but wealthy aristocratic family for refusing to compromise himself on a point where he believed the truth could not be bent, traduced, ignored. Now he finds himself living a meager existence.

This sets the stage for the series of observations, claims, and contradictions that  “He” (Rameau’s nephew) and “Myself” (Diderot – or a suitable representative) dispute during their “dialogue” (“He” dominates the work). Through these disputations Diderot gives us a picture of his society that is critical of its venality, ignorance and lack of appreciation of artists and intellectuals in particular, of knowledge and “enlightenment” in general. “He” begins this, oddly enough, with an attack on his famous uncle, the composer, of whom he says:

If he has ever done anything for anybody, it must be without knowing it. He is a philosopher after a fashion: he thinks of no one but himself; the rest of the universe doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn to him.

Why “He” undercuts his uncle is something the reader must note, because without it his later self-contradiction in attacking those who do not support artists will seem too straightforwardly heartfelt. With Rameau’s nephew, one must always remember that nothing is heartfelt: he has spent so much of his time and energy toadying and pandering that he seems unable to be sincere – even when he is trying to be. Here “Myself’ tries to make him see that arguing that great artists should also be good people is pointless:

He: But if nature is as powerful as she is wise, why not make them as good as they are great?

Myself: Don’t you see that if you argue this way you upset the general order of things? If everything were excellent, nothing would be excellent.

He: You are right. The important point is that you and I should exist, and that we should be you and I. Outside of that, let everything carry on as it may.

One has the sneaking feeling that “Myself” has not carried his point – as “He” a little later proves by this bit of wisdom:

The important thing is to keep the bowels moving freely, agreeably, copiously every night. O stercus pretiosum!

The slightly less tasteless translation of the Latin is “O precious manure!” Since “He” at this point is arguing that every day moves us closer to the sweet release of death, hence making us “richer” in having less of life to endure, one can rest assured that his condemnation of wealth is almost the opposite of what he really believes. His later biological argument defending his past as a toady and panderer to wealthy families as an ecological system working well is, at best, specious, at worst, amoral:

In Nature all species live off one another; in society all classes do the same. We square things up with one another without benefit of the law.

When he offers this justification for his own buffoonery, he’s already shown himself to be a master of double talk (and double think, for that matter), so we can enjoy his verbal gymnastics without too much concern for deciphering of their intent:

There is no fitter role in high society than that of a fool. For a long time the king had an appointed fool; at no time was there an appointed sage…. In any event, remember that in a a subject as variable as manners and morals nothing is absolutely, essentially true or false–unless it be that one must be whatever self-interest requires, good or bad, wise or foolish, decent or ridiculous, honest or vicious.

Rameau’s nephew is an example of self-interest followed to its breaking point: his intelligence finally betrays him and makes him, in one fatal instance, refute nonsense – and costs him his livelihood (such as that was – playing the buffoon with ladies and acting as a pimp for gentlemen). He realizes his mistake – and that he was likely bound to make it – but he rationalizes his plight by noting that, for a poor artist, there is little choice, destructive as it is, but to try to entertain the wealthy, no matter how doltish they are:

But how in the name of sense can one think, feel, rise to heights, and speak with vigor while frequenting people such as those I must frequent to live–in the midst of gossip and the meaningless words that one says and hears….

In the end, Diderot accepts that his arguments for virtue, integrity, determination have fallen on deaf ears. But he makes one last effort at suggesting a kind of integrity to Rameau’s nephew that he simply can’t accept. Diderot has suggested Cynicism (the philosophy espoused by Diogenes) as a way for the Rameau’s nephew to manage his moral and ethical conundrums. This suggestion provokes this exchange:

He: What if the courtesan was busy and the Cynic in haste?

Myself: He went back to his tub and went without.

He: Do you advise me to do the same?

Myself: I’ll stake my life it is better than to crawl, eat dirt, and prostitute yourself.

He: But I want a good bed, good food, warm clothes in winter, cool in summer, plenty of rest, money, and other things that I would rather owe to kindness than earn by toil.

Myself: That is because you are a lazy, greedy lout, a coward, and a rotting soul.

He: I believe I told you so myself.

Myself: The good things of life have their worth, no doubt, but you overlook the price you give up for them. You dance, you have danced, and you will keep on dancing the vilest pantomime.

He: True enough. But it’s cost me little and it won’t cost me anything more.

At this point Diderot gives up the fight. It’s just as well. Rameau’s nephew must leave to attend the opera. So they part in witty fashion:

He: Farewell, Master Philosopher, isn’t it true that I am ever the same?

Myself: Alas! Yes, unfortunately.

He: Here’s hoping this misfortune lasts me another forty years. He who laughs last, laughs best.

As my beloved grandmother was wont to say: You can’t tell some people anything….



1 reply »

  1. When I was at Booz Allen, we had a fellow who was the most self-centered person I’ve ever met. Not all bad–amiable, well mannered, could plod his way to the right answer, the occasional unexpected insight, but an absolute master of double think. I’ll never forget him standing up at a staff meeting and arguing that we were doing fifty year old middle managers a favor when we did a cost reduction study that resulted in them being fired.