From Montaigne to Diderot: Pascal, Jansenism and the Dialectics of Inner Theater

  • Allan Janik
Part of the Artificial Intelligence and Society book series (HCS)


Coming from Plato’s dialogues to Rameau’s Nephew can be compared with emerging from bright sunlight into complete darkness, if it is allowed to use an analogy from Plato himself, inasmuch as our first impression of Diderot after Plato will assuredly be one of incompetence, superficiality, chaos and confusion. After Plato, Rameau’s Nephew, for all its amusing social criticism, will almost certainly strike the reader as formally structureless, thematically trivial and philosophically pointless. Even in comparison with an early Platonic dialogue such as the Euthyphro, which reaches no conclusion, Diderot’s dialogue seems to the student raised on Plato to suffer under the comparison. At least in the case of the early dialogues there is a philosophical point to their inconclusiveness. Thus Euthyphro’s failure to provide anything more than examples of what it is to be pious, without being able to explain why they are indeed examples of the same phenomenon, allegedly shows us that he cannot be said to know what piety is. From this admission of ignorance readers should, presumably, learn that they must look outside of the world of everyday experience to the world of forms to discover the universal and necessary characteristics of piety. To know that you do not know something is, paradoxically, to know something very important, as every student of Plato learns. But this is precisely what frustrates the student of Plato, i.e., the typical philosopher, in approaching Rameau’s Nephew.


Practical Wisdom Practical Philosophy Bright Sunlight Early Dialogue Royal Opinion 
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  1. 10.
    Pascal, Entretien avec M. de Saci, Oeuvres complètes ed. Jacques Chevalier (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 560–574.Google Scholar

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© Springer-Verlag London Limited 1995

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  • Allan Janik

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