Diderot's Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers
Published at the height of the eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert was the first methodical endeavor to determine the entire scope of human knowledge. The work epitomizes the Age of Enlightenment as its contributors—known as the encyclopédistes—aimed to understand the world through reason, intellectual exchange, and the scientific method. As part of the Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection on military and naval science of the eighteenth century, the Society's complete first edition of the Encyclopédie is a valued resource providing researchers with insight into the intellectual discourse of the Enlightenment.
The story of the Encyclopédie begins in 1745, under a much different guise. André-François Le Breton, a prominent Parisian bookseller and publisher, initiated a venture with two partners to publish a French translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728), with expansions and corrections as needed. The collaboration was unsuccessful; Le Breton accused his partners of swindling him and even assaulted one of the two when he discovered the project's launch had been intentionally delayed. Le Breton broke off the business relationship and re-launched the encyclopedia with new collaborators. This time, he retained a senior stake in the project. The abbé Jean-Paul de Gua de Malves was hired as chief editor along with a small staff. Financial mismanagement on the part of the abbé forced his resignation in 1747—only a year after he had begun.
Le Breton selected two members of the editorial staff, Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D'Alembert, as the new editors. Under their leadership, the project took the shape of the Encyclopédie as we know it—a thirty-five-volume work including eleven volumes of engravings illustrating various subjects. The editors had lofty goals in mind. As stated in its preface, "the work ... has two goals. As an Encyclopedia, it is to define as well as possible the order and structure of human knowledge. As a Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades, it is to contain the general principles that form the basis of each science and each art, liberal or mechanical, and the most essential facts that make up the body and substance of each."Read More<
Diderot wrote of the encyclopedia: "it is an endeavor that must be patiently pursued rather than begun frivolously." The path to publication was fraught with delays, conflict, and controversy. Diderot was imprisoned for 102 days in 1749 for his subversive Lettre sur les Aveugles, delaying publication of the first volume. Work was again suspended three years later with the implication of Diderot and D'Alembert in a heretical thesis at the Sorbonne. The Encyclopédie's editors were cleared of heresy, but another controversy soon surfaced after the 1757 publication of the encyclopedia article on Geneva, in which D'Alembert attacked the Swiss city's Protestantism. The hostile reception of the article ultimately led to D'Alembert resigning as editor. Diderot alone filled the role of chief editor.
Soon after D'Alembert's resignation, clerical leaders suspecting anti-Catholic plots pushed to curb what they considered subversive projects. This resulted in the Parlement of Paris and Louis XV condemning the Encyclopédie and revoking its privilège, or publishing license, in 1759. Le Breton's status in the publishing world and the encyclopedia's notoriety among the elite allowed work to continue, though clandestinely.
The controversy worried Le Breton and strained his relationship with Diderot. The encyclopédistes learned to tread carefully when researching and writing their articles. The articles became less overtly editorial in favor of appearing more factual and objective. Many collaborators left the project as the Encyclopédie faced challenge after challenge. But by 1780 the work was complete, including the initial twenty-eight volumes, four supplementary volumes, and a two-volume index. Those who had subscribed to the Encyclopédie in the end paid 980 livres for the entire work—a significant inflation from the initial 280 livres subscribers had been charged.
Diderot wrote in the Encyclopédie that it is "a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and artisans, each separately occupied with his own part, and joined to each other solely by their dedication to the best interests of humankind and by a mutual feeling of good will." The encyclopédistes were young—their average age was thirty-two. They were academics, government officials, printers, architects, physicians, lawyers, army officers, police officials, engineers, pharmacists, horologists, and tax collectors, to name a few. Many were friends of either Diderot or D'Alembert, but in some cases a potential contributor heard of the project and lobbied the editors to be able to participate.
Each article is marked with a symbol or initial signifying its author. Diderot was represented by an asterisk, D'Alembert by an uppercase O. The most prolific author, who was responsible for roughly a quarter of the 74,000 entries, was Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt, a French aristocrat who styled himself as a gentleman scholar. Other significant encyclopédistes included Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose article on economics foreshadowed the same philosophical stance he would take in his Contrat Social; and Voltaire, the philosopher and author of Candide. Among others, Voltaire authored the articles "History," "Idolatry," and "Elegance." The authors' varied intellectual backgrounds ensured that the Encyclopédie would stand as evidence of the intense debates of the time—focusing on subjects in the arts, the sciences, philosophy and religion, economics, and arts et métiers. The articles could range from a sentence-long definition to a several-page technical article to a deeply personal diatribe.
The significance of the Encyclopédie's unprecedented effort to democratize human knowledge was recognized in its day. The emphasis on arts et métiers highlighted the everyday accomplishments of working people, rather than solely the achievements of the aristocracy. The detailed articles and plates showed that what had been generally regarded and derided as "humbler trades" were in fact vocations that required sophisticated skills. The overall political, economic, and religious philosophy of the Encyclopédie underlined the individual's responsibility in the world and placed greater emphasis on man's significance in and of himself. Today, the Encyclopédie offers us a window into the eighteenth century on the eve of social and industrial revolution. Not only does it serve as representative of the complex philosophical, social, and scientific debates during the Enlightenment—on a practical level the Encyclopédie provides detailed descriptions and illustrations of everyday life.
The Encyclopédie allows researchers a comprehensive understanding of eighteenth-century life; so too does it encapsulate the growing significance of the art of war in an evolving eighteenth-century military. Close to 1,250 of the Encyclopédie's articles are classified as military subjects, focusing on military history, training and techniques, technology, and philosophy. Nearly three-quarters of these entries were written by Guillaume Le Blond, a mathematics professor and tutor to the children of Louis XV. Though he possessed no practical military experience, Le Blond focused on the technical aspects of military theory; he took care to present the views of well-known contemporary and historical military theorists, citing Puységur, Vauban, Folard, Caesar, and Vegetius among others. The prolific chevalier de Jaucourt also contributed, tackling historical subjects as well as the political and moral questions of war. The efforts of Le Blond and Jaucourt to synthesize the significant theoretical and practical questions of war cannot be overlooked; the quality of this body of work on military topics was the reason for the Society's purchase of the Encyclopédie.
Though the provenance of the Society's set of the Encyclopédie is incomplete, the volumes have provided tantalizing clues as to its particular history. Just a few examples of these unique characteristics are displayed in the gallery below. The only annotations in the Encyclopédie are found on an engraving detailing the human skeleton. On the engraving, the name and location of each bone of the skeleton is inscribed, taken from a key at the start of the volume—presumably for ease of study. In the eighth volume of text, a page of notes had been laid in. The notes refer to two articles in the volume; the first tells the tale of Georges and Madeleine de Scudéry, two literary figures of the seventeenth century arrested by mistake as they were overheard discussing an assassination plot featured in one of Madeleine's novels. The second article addresses the historical period of Hijra, during which Mohammed and his followers fled Mecca for Medina. The handwriting and paper appear to be from the eighteenth century. The handwriting on the page of notes corresponds with that of the skeleton engraving, providing some continuity and demonstrating the varied intellectual interests of at least one user.
There is evidence of a previous owner's interest in botany, given the multitude of vegetation preserved within. Ferns, reeds, and wildflowers are carefully pressed between the pages throughout the volumes. Lastly, a piece of blank stationary laid into volume fifteen gives an indication of one possible location for this Encyclopédie. The quality of the stationary and the typography suggests the late nineteenth century. The heading lists a "Ferme de Chevry, P. Giot, cultivateur, par Brie-Comte-Robert, Seine-et-Marne," and in fact the Briard Almanach Républicain of 1896 published the obituary of Parfait Giot, a farmer and community leader in Brie-Comte-Robert, a small town southeast of Paris. This cannot paint a full picture of its particular history; however, the ephemera discovered throughout the Encyclopédie's volumes provides an intriguing glimpse into how such a resource could have been put to practical use.Read Less<