Diderot's series of posthumously published dialogues is perhaps one of the greatest and most fascinating examples of eighteenth-century pseudo-scientific/philosophical bizarrerie. It starts off with the Entretien entre d'Alembert et Diderot, an apparently conventional materialist-dualist debate--but soon, the conversation ends, because d'Alembert wants to go to sleep. The next part is where the fun begins. Diderot never returns; rather, d'Alembert begins to dream that the debate with him continues, while his sleep-addled ramblings are transcribed by the Mademoiselle de l'Espinasse and serve to start a wide-ranging exposition on ethics, physics, biology, medicine, and the dynamics of personal identity.
[D'ALEMBERT. -] Avez-vous quelquefois vu un essaim d'abeilles s'échapper de leur ruche ?... Le monde, ou la masse générale de la matière, est la grande ruche... Les avez-vous vues s'en aller former à l’extrémité de la branche d'un arbre une longue grappe de petits animaux ailés, tous accrochés les uns aux autres par les pattes ?... Cette grappe est un être, un individu, un animal quelconque ...
MADEMOISELLE DE LESPINASSE. - Et l'animal est sous le despotisme ou sous l'anarchie.
BORDEU. - Sous le despotisme, fort bien dit. L'origine du faisceau commande, et tout le reste obéit. L'animal est maître de soi, mentis compos.
MADEMOISELLE DE LESPINASSE. - Sous l'anarchie, où tous les filets du réseau sont soulevés contre leur chef, et où il n 'y a plus d'autorité suprême.
BORDEU. - A merveille. Dans les grands accès de passion, dans le délire, dans les périls imminents, si le maître porte toutes les forces de ses sujets vers un point, l'animal le plus faible montre une force incroyable.
MADEMOISELLE DE LESPINASSE. - Dans les vapeurs, sorte d'anarchie qui nous est si particulière.
BORDEU. - C'est l'image d'une administration faible, où chacun tire à soi l'autorité du maître. Je ne connais qu'un moyen de guérir ; il est difficile, mais sûr; c'est que l'origine du réseau sensible, cette partie qui constitue le soi, puisse être affectée d'un motif violent de recouvrer son autorité.
- Diderot, Le rêve de d'Alembert (1769)
But, although the views expounded here are (avowedly) materialist, they have nothing at all to do with the reductive and simplistic models of subjectivity embraced by many rationalist atheists. Diderot (or at least Bordeu, his mouthpiece) conceives of the universe as a network of infinitely small fibers, which interlock, vibrate harmonically to produce sensation, organize themselves into bundles, and so on. This means that, in the context of today's metaphysical and ontological debates about composition, he's a nihilist on the level of Peter Unger. Objects and individuals do not exist except as names for collections of fiber bundles--or, in his memorable metaphor, bees.
I've been interested in the eighteenth-century deployment of the bee-image for a long time. When bees are in a metaphorical relationship with human beings, they denote the strictly social and political aspect of man; bees are the crowd which is not composed of individuals but only of economic or sociological abstractions. Here, Diderot uses them in a very particular way. The animal is as a hive composed of compressed bees; the parts of the animal are constantly in conflict, because each bundle has its own will and desire; the animal is therefore either in a state of anarchy, where the parts are discordant and the animal cannot function, or despotism, Stoicism, self-mastery, where the central memory and intelligence reins them in. In other words, the political function of the bee-metaphor seems to inevitably resurface through the mediation of the body!
It has been easy, ever since the dawn of political thought, to compare the State to a body. But to compare the body to a state changes the problematic completely. In fact, this image opens the door for a reconciliation (if indeed one was ever needed) between Nietzsche and anarchism [I just can't escape talking about Nietzsche!]. Of course, one of his most central preoccupations is the fragmentation of subjectivity, the collapse of the Cartesian self. Diderot's dialogue does two things. First, it anticipates the fundamental linkage between the unitary subject and the ascetic ideal; self-mastery is precisely the art of forcing the discordant impulses to serve a central subject. Second, and more importantly, it draws a direct line between the ascetic ideal and the political, the mentis compos and the well-governed state. To expose and reject asceticism is also to reject politics for the same reason--the claim that self-mastery is vital and desirable ideologically hides the workings of slave morality, just as the claim that the State is vital and desirable does. The world may be a great hive; but the queen is negotiable.