Victor Nuovo: Diderot on duty and justice

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism.
Denis Diderot’s father, Didier Diderot, was a master craftsman, a maker of fine cutlery and surgical instruments. He had higher ambitions for his children. He desired that they enter the church and he was disappointed when Denis, the eldest, chose to study law. His disappointment increased when Denis abandoned the legal profession and became a writer, then, adding injury to insult, he became a professing atheist.
His younger brother followed his father’s wishes and ultimately became an Archdeacon. A sister, Angelique, became a nun. Yet despite their differences, affection between father and son remained strong. It was rumored that the father favored him over his clerical son. Diderot’s affection and respect are evident in a short story in which he memorializes his father. He entitled it “Conversation of a Father with his children.” In it is a central divide between liberalism and conservatism.
The story reveals that Diderot’s father also practiced a second vocation. He probated wills and settled estates and did so with such care and integrity that he was held in high reputation as an honest man and his services were in much demand. The narrative presents the father, now old and in poor health, reflecting on his life.
The father comments on the dangers faced by anyone reputed to be “a man of principle,” and adds, “would you believe, my children, there was a moment when I was on the verge of ruining you—yes, utterly ruining you,” which evoked the eager response, “How Papa?”
And so he told the following story.
An aged priest had died and Diderot’s father was asked by the priest’s relatives to settle his estate. They were all very poor and expected that their poverty would be relieved; they presented, according to the narrative, “the most hideous spectacle of poverty you could hope to see.” Charity compelled Diderot’s father to accept: “How could I refuse to paupers a service I had done for so many wealthy families,” he asked.
It turned out that the priest had amassed a fortune — 100 thousand francs, equivalent perhaps to a million or more in today’s currency. He made an inventory of the dead priest’s tangible goods, and in his search he discovered a strongbox under the floor boards, which seemed to contain only “useless stuff,” letters, receipts, expense lists. All discarded. The strongbox had no cover, which suggested that it also had been discarded.
Yet, in the box, beneath these discarded papers, Diderot’s father found a will that appeared to have been written long ago. The executors named in it had been dead for 20 years. He read the will, and he was disheartened. The priest left nothing to his natural heirs, but everything to a rich bookseller in Paris.
Diderot’s father was alone in the priest’s house, seated by a fire. He despaired over what he had just read. He read the will over and over, and it became more and more odious to him because it was unjust. He thought, “What am I to do? I am seated near the fire? Shall I burn it?” He held it out toward the fire, drew it back; he repeated this gesture over and over again.
What made him hesitate?
He was sure the will would cause a great injustice, not to mention anguish, disappointment and misery among the heirs. On the other hand, this additional wealth would mean nothing to the designated legatee. But the will was clear, and he felt obliged to honor it. His vocation required it, and his reputation depended on it. Yet he worried that by honoring the will he would commit a great injustice.
He remained awake all night, seated by the fire, pondering what to do. The next morning he left the house and sought the advice of a well-known casuist, a learned priest, Father Bouin.
Here there is a break in the father’s story. The family doctor pays a visit to check on the father’s health; the father enquires after the physician’s other patients, one in particular, a former mayor of the town. He is a scoundrel and had just been convicted of embezzling. He also had become critically ill, yet the doctor says he is confident he can save him. This draws from Diderot the remark that it would be a disservice to the patient and to the public, for the gallows awaits him and, besides, “there are enough scoundrels in the world.”
The doctor responds: “My business is to heal people, not to judge them, and if by healing a man, I only save him for the hangman, so be it.”
The father resumes his tale.
He visits Father Bouin, the casuist, who directs him to do exactly what the will dictates. When the father objects, the casuist scolds him. What authority has he to do otherwise? Can he interpret the mind of the dead priest? Can he stand in his place? No. “No one has the right to infringe the law or to read the mind of the dead, or dispose of his property.”
His duty is clear and he must do it.
Returning from his visit to the priest, Diderot’s father thought, what if he had yielded to temptation and destroyed the will? He would now be obliged to pay the bequest himself, and this would have ruined him financially.
On his return, Diderot’s father carefully locks up all the valuables. The dead priest’s heirs were waiting anxiously. He calls them in. “There I was, pale as death, trembling, opening my mouth and shutting it again, beginning sentences I could not finish, weeping,” he says in telling his story. But finally, the words come out: “A will, a will which disinherits you.” What followed was a scene he shuddered to recall. “I can see them now: some rolling on the ground, tearing their hair; some gouging their cheeks and breasts; some foaming at the mouth and swinging their children by the feet, ready to dash their skulls on the pavement, if not prevented.”
 The designated legatee appears. The father’s one last hope was that this very rich man, having no need of an inheritance, would take pity on the poor relatives. But his very appearance suggested that he would not. “Great shaggy black eyebrows, tiny furtive eyes, a big mouth with a twist in it, and a pock marked face.” And, in fact, he did not.
The younger Diderot upbraids his father. “Duty required you to listen to your heart, which has been in pain ever since,” he said to him. Granted that had he destroyed the will he would have been obliged to pay the legatee out of his own savings, but for the same reason, having followed the dictates of the will, was he not likewise obliged to pay the rightful heirs what they deserved? His father asks him to drop the subject; it is too painful to continue.
Diderot wrote this narrative for a philosophical purpose: to illustrate a dilemma that we all confront from time to time between duty and justice. Duty is the clear and compelling mandate; justice is a sentiment that is no less compelling. The story reveals a split impulse of the moral will — the one conservative, the other liberal — which shows that the divide between liberal and conservative is within us, just as it is all around us.

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