Denis Diderot and his magnificent dressing gown

Hi everyone just dropping a quick blog off the cuff today, if you’re wondering part two of Mt Tambora is still set to drop next week, Tuesday morning NZ time. I can only imagine all New Zealanders will know our national lottery has jackpotted up to $50 Million on Saturday – and must be won (shhh American readers, to us this is a LOT of money). A pessimist might choose to blog on all the people who won big, spent up large, and now live off unemployment cheques- embittered and mournful for the days before the win. I choose to share a different kind of story altogether…. Well slightly less cynical anyway.

Denis Diderot (5th October 1713 – 31st July 1784) was a French philosopher, critic and writer. He edited an encyclopedia, and was a highly regarded thinker of the Age of Enlightenment – my understanding is he was an early atheist writer who stated we don’t need religion to be moral people (possibly why he is the centre of Fyodor Karamazov’s rambling tale to Father Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov? This is a theme of that book). He also loved the way science was throwing light into the deep crevices of our knowledge. This tale is about none of that however – it is about his dressing gown.

In 1769 Diderot wrote an essay ‘Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune’. Diderot, the story goes, was gifted a marvelous new dressing gown by a friend, who had noticed his old gown was looking a little threadbare. Diderot recounts how this affected his outlook stating “poverty has it’s freedoms, opulence has it’s obstacles”.

At first the new dressing gown made Diderot feel rather special -as a poor academic he was not terribly accustomed to the finer things – but soon he began looking askance at other objects in his sitting room. First it was the rough old paintings on the wall, which must be replaced by a Rubens of an old man (less well known than his voluptuous ladies) and a Claude Vernet seascape. This was all fine, but then Diderot started thinking about how much nicer a leather chair would look than the old straw chair he had. One day, while sitting in his comfy armchair, reading a book and occasionally looking up to marvel at his paintings – a thought occurred to him what he really needed in his life was an ostentatious mirror over the mantelpiece. His library of books, for many years torturing a couple of lengths of fir, were soon after housed in a fitting bookshelf (fit for a queen no less – Diderot sold his library to Catherine the Great later in his life. Catherine let him keep them till he passed, and paid him a stipend to be their ‘librarian’).

Next he had replaced some old clay statues with an antique bronze of Venus. Some time after he was looking at his growing pile of bills at his old table, Diderot decided the thing to do would be to buy a nice new bureau to store them in. Another day, while staring up from his armchair, it struck Denis Diderot a Geoffrin clock would look grand atop his mantelpiece. Next, a writing desk was called for. On this went till the only item which represented the old Mr Diderot was a worn out old rug. It was at this point Diderot realized he had become captive to a cycle of runaway consumerism, that he had lost his love of the things he had previously prized – and that he felt trapped under the weight of items he thought would bring him great joy.

a la Geoffrin clock

To quote Diderot on his old dressing gown “Why didn’t I keep it? It was used to me and I was used to it. It molded all the folds of my body without inhibiting it; I was picturesque and handsome. The other one is stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy. There was no need to which its kindness didn’t loan itself, for indigence is almost always officious. If a book was covered in dust, one of its panels was there to wipe it off. If thickened ink refused to flow in my quill, it presented its flank. Traced in long black lines, one could see the services it had rendered me. These long lines announce the litterateur, the writer, the man who works. I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am”

In 1988 an anthropologist studying consumerism came to the same conclusions. We may buy things because they are fit for purpose, but we choose ‘that’ specific thing because something about that thing reflects us. If our things become incongruent i.e. we buy a fancy dressing gown, it can lead to a downward spiral of consumerism in an effort to match everything to the new, nicer thing. The anthropologist, Grant McCracken named the effect after it’s most famous victim – The Diderot Effect.

Someone in New Zealand this Saturday may soon discover this effect, in spades. I don’t begrudge them – I’ve bought my ticket in the hopes of being that unfortunate soul saddled with $50 Million burning a hole in their pocket. I can’t help but think though the two most important things Saturday night will bring to someone (or several someones?) is the freedom from doing the things they don’t want to do, and the opportunities to do the things they really want to.

Good luck to all the other gamblers out there (not really, I want to win). Enjoy the win, and spend that money in a way which will bring you joy.


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