Article Title

Jacques's Fatal Freedom


Frequently in the course of Diderot's novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître, reference is made to the grand rouleau or to the fact that Jacques believes that all human activity is écrit là-haui. These two phrases are key formulations of the fatalism in the novel's title. In the eighteenth-century debate on the origins of human knowledge and morality, much of it concerned with biology, we can locate Diderot's thought in reference to the opinions expressed, for example, in Helvétius's De I'homme, La Mettrie's L'Homme-Machine, Condillac's statue, Locke's metaphor of the tabula rasa, and Spinoza's doctrine of the one infinite substance and the need to see things sub specie aeternitatis. In passages like those concerning la fibre or la molécule paternelle in the Neveu de Rameau or the slow, incremental progression from species to species in the Rive de d'Alembert, Diderot suggests a version of biological determinism in which what will happen is already inscribed, written out, as it were, on the great scroll of physical inheritance. Future actions are already present in the propensities and possibilities of the nascent organism. Diderot's imaginative biological speculations have adumbrated a number of modem notions, most especially those concerning the role of genes, and his fatalism is an intuitive, embryonic version of the "nature versus nurture" issue in modem pedagogy.