EDITED BY DENIS DIDEROT AND JEAN D'ALEMBERT
ANDRÉ ALEXIS MAKES THE CASE
December 13, 2008
l'Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (The Encyclopedia, or systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts and crafts) was published in France between 1751 and 1772. There wasn't enough money to publish it all at once, so its existence depended on subscribers, sales and pleading. One of the earliest European encyclopedias, it was, by 1772, 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of illustrations, edited by the writer Denis Diderot and the great mathematician Jean le Rond d'Alembert. A wonderful work, it can be approached in a number of ways.
First, as the product of a remarkable generation of French intellectuals. Among its contributors were Jean-Jacques Rousseau (music and political theory), Voltaire (history, literature, philosophy), Montesquieu (on the idea of "taste"), Baron d'Holbach (the sciences, politics, religion) and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (philosophy). Its aim, as set out by d'Alembert in his Preliminary Discourse, was the unveiling of the order within and interconnection among the various forms of human knowledge. Its fundamental idea was to include accounts of the first principles of all the arts, sciences and crafts.
A second approach might begin with The Encyclopedia's chief editor and guiding spirit, Denis Diderot, who is himself fascinating. The Encyclopedia can be seen as the culmination of his industry, idealism and ideals - ideals shared, of course, with many of his contemporaries. Diderot was a novelist of great talent: Jacques le fataliste (Jacques the Fatalist) is his best-known fiction, but Les Bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels), a work he later disowned for its childish elements (it is a novel about a magic ring that allows vaginas to speak), mixes philosophy, pornography, comedy and social satire in a way that is still startling and not without moments of real thoughtfulness. Diderot, a subversive philosopher and a talented art critic to boot, embodies the breadth of curiosity and the intellectual daring and perversity that are the hallmarks of the best of the Enlightenment.
A third approach: Though The Encyclopedia is a repository of the philosophical and religious debates that shaped the Enlightenment, it is more. It's a living document whose entries are sometimes important works of philosophy in themselves. For instance, d'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse is a fine introduction to Enlightenment ideas, but it's also a clear, well-written essay in empiricism (the belief that knowledge is derived first from the senses).
Frederick the Great thought d'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse greater than any of his own military accomplishments, and he wrote of it: "Many men have won battles and conquered provinces, but few have written a work as perfect as the preface to The Encyclopedia," a sentiment that shows just how in touch with the spirit of his time d'Alembert actually was.
Obviously, not all of The Encyclopedia's entries have the same value today. We know more than the men of the 18th century did about the natural world, and our prejudices are not the same as theirs. We see certain things more clearly than they did. On the other hand, it's hard to think of another encyclopedia (save, maybe, the 1911 Britannica) whose articles - well, some of them - have kept their relevance for so long. The entry on Baruch Spinoza, for example, is a vivid presentation of Spinoza's philosophy, a vigorous critique of his ideas and a sometimes snide account of Spinoza himself.
That entry's liveliness comes from one of Diderot and d'Alembert's main objectives: a deep engagement with ideas and a questioning of received wisdom. Beneath it all is a (radical for the time and, perhaps, still radical) belief that one could return to the "origin" of any idea and sort things out for oneself.
This attitude is at the heart of the Enlightenment's ongoing relevance. Its critics accused the encyclopedists - and Enlightenment thinkers as a whole - of supplanting God with Reason, of placing their faith exclusively in rationality. This is not at all true. As the entry on Spinoza demonstrates, they were heretics of Reason as well, as skeptical about ways of thinking as they were ways of worship. Their iconoclasm was wide-ranging, because their chief enemy was not God or Reason or Government but, rather, authority. The Encyclopedia, in bringing knowledge to the people, allowing a citizen to question the dictates of priests, politicians, scientists and even poets, gave him or her a way to independence of thought.
As philosopher Susan Nieman recently pointed out, in a time when authority can be as brutal and hard of hearing as it was in the 18th century, the example of Diderot, d'Alembert and the encyclopedists is of much more than historical relevance. They have become, again, our contemporaries and The Encyclopedia (still valuable in its abridged versions) is a great place to become reacquainted with dissent.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis's most recent book is the novel Asylum.