The Encyclopédie, said the Roman Catholic critic Brunetière, “is the great affair of its time, the goal to which everything preceding it was tending, the origin of everything that has followed it, and consequently the true center for any history of ideas in the eighteenth century.”21 “It belonged only to a philosophical century to attempt an encyclopedia,” said Diderot.22 The work of Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Spinoza, Bayle, and Leibniz in philosophy; the advances made in science by Copernicus, Vesalius, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Huygens, and Newton; the exploration of the earth by navigators, missionaries, and travelers, and the rediscovery of the past by scholars and historians: all this mounting knowledge and speculation waited to be put in order for public accessibility and use.

Chambers’ Cyclopoedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728) seemed at first to meet this need. In 1743 a Paris publisher, André François Le Breton, proposed to have it translated into French, with changes and additions suited to French needs. The project grew until it aimed at ten volumes. To meet the expense Le Breton took into partnership, for this undertaking, three other publishers—Briasson, David, and Durand. They engaged the Abbé de Gua de Malves as editor, obtained a license to print with theprivilège du roi, and issued (1745) a tentative prospectus. In December they or Gua de Malves enlisted the aid of Diderot and d’Alembert. In 1747 Gua de Malves withdrew, and on October 16 the publishers appointed Diderot editor in chief, with a salary of 144 livres per month, and asked d’Alembert to take charge of the articles on mathematics.

As the work proceeded Diderot became increasingly dissatisfied with the Chambers text. We can measure this by his giving fifty-six columns to anatomy, which in Chambers had received one, and fourteen columns to agriculture, which in Chambers had rated thirty-six lines. Finally he recommended that Chambers’ book be put aside, and that an entirely new encyclopedia be prepared. (Malves may have already suggested this.) The publishers agreed, and Diderot (not yet the heretical author of the Letter on the Blind)persuaded the earnestly orthodox Chancellor d’Aguesseau to extend the privilège du roi to the extended enterprise (April, 1748).

But how was this to be financed? Le Breton reckoned it would cost two million livres; actually it cost less—some 1,140,000; even so there must have been many doubts about securing sufficient subscribers to warrant going to press. Diderot had already commissioned many articles—and secured some—for the first volumes when his imprisonment at Vincennes interrupted the work. Released, he gave all his time to it, and in November, 1750, the publishers sent out eight thousand copies of a prospectus written by Diderot. (In 1950 the French government reprinted this in national commemoration of the event.) It announced that a company of well-known men of letters, experts, and specialists proposed to gather existing knowledge of the arts and sciences into an orderly whole, alphabetically arranged, and fitted with cross references that would facilitate use by scholars and students. “The word encyclopédie” said the prospectus, “signifies the interrelationship of the sciences”; literally it meant instruction, or learning, gathered in a circle. Not only had knowledge grown immensely, said Diderot, but the need for its dissemination was urgent; it would be of no use if not shared. All this, according to the prospectus, was to be compressed into eight volumes of text and two of plates. Subscriptions were solicited at 280 livres for the set, payable in nine installments. The whole was to be completed in two years. In our hindsight this prospectus appears as one of the first announcements that the reign of science had begun, and that a new faith had been offered for the salvation of mankind.

The response to the prospectus was inspiring, especially from the upper middle class. After Mme. Geoffrin’s death it was disclosed that she and her husband had contributed over 500,000 livres to the expenses of the Encyclopèdie.23 With this work in France, and Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) in England, European literature declared its independence of aristocrats and servile dedications, and addressed itself to the larger public whose eye and voice it proposed to be. The Encyclopédie was the most famous of all experiments in the popularization of knowledge.24

The first volume appeared on June 28, 1751. It contained 914 large double-columned folio pages. The frontispiece, engraved by Charles Cochin, was typical of the eighteenth century: it showed humanity groping for knowledge, which was represented by a beautiful woman in diaphanous gauze. The title was impressive: Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers, par une Société de gens de lettres. Mise en ordre et publiée par M. Diderot, … et quant à la partie mathématique par M. d’Alembert.… Avec approbation et privilege du Rot. The volume was judiciously dedicated to “Monseigneur le comte d’Argenson, ministre et secrétaire d’état et de guerre.” It was not encyclopedic in our present sense: it did not propose to include biographies or history; but some biographies, strangely enough, were given under the birthplace of the person. On the other hand, it was in part a dictionary, defining many terms, listing synonyms, and giving grammatical rules.

The most memorable part of Volume I was the “Discours préliminaire.” D’Alembert was chosen to write this because he was known both as a leading scientist and as a master of French prose. Despite these distinctions he was living in stoic poverty in Paris. When Voltaire described the majestic view from Les Délices, d’Alembert replied: “You write to me from your bed, whence you command ten leagues of lake, and I answer you from my hole, whence I command a patch of sky three ells long.”25 He was an agnostic, but he had not joined in any public criticism of the Church. In the “Discours” he tried to disarm ecclesiastical opposition:

The nature of man is an impenetrable mystery when one is enlightened by reason alone. We can say the same of our existence present and future, of the essence of the Being to whom we owe it, and of the kind of worship he requires from us. Hence nothing is more necessary to us than a revealed religion which instructs us in such diverse subjects.26

He apologized to Voltaire for these obeisances: “Such phrases as these are notarial style, and serve only as passports for the truths that we wish to establish.… Time will teach men to distinguish what we have thought from what we have said.”27

Following a proposal by Francis Bacon, the “Discours préliminaire” classified all knowledge according to the mental faculty involved. So history came under “Memory,” science under “Philosophy,” and theology under “Reason”; literature and art came under “Imagination.” Diderot and d’Alembert were quite proud of this scheme, and made from it, as a folded insert after the “Discours,” a chart of knowledge which evoked great admiration in its day. Next to Bacon’s, the strongest influence in the Encyclopédie was that of Locke. “It is to sensations that we owe all our ideas,” said the “Discours.” From this statement the editors hoped, in the course of the eight volumes, to deduce an entire philosophy: a natural religion that would reduce God to an initial push, a natural psychology that would make mind a function of the body, and a natural ethic that would define virtue in terms of man’s duties to man rather than to God. This program was cautiously implied in the “Discours.”

From these first principles d’Alembert passed on to survey the history of science and philosophy. He praised the ancients, deprecated the Middle Ages, and rejoiced in the Renaissance.

We should be unjust if we failed to recognize our debt to Italy. It is from her that we have received the sciences which later produced such abundant fruit in all Europe; it is to her above all that we owe the beaux-arts and good taste of which she has furnished us with so great a number of inimitable models.28

The heroes of modern thought came in for laurels:

At the head of these illustrious personages should be placed the immortal Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon, whose works, so justly esteemed, … deserve our study even more than our praise. When we consider the sane and spacious views of this great man, the multitude of subjects surveyed by his mind, the boldness of his style—which everywhere combined the most sublime images with the most rigorous precision—we are tempted to regard him as the greatest, the most universal, and the most eloquent of philosophers.29

D’Alembert proceeded to show how the profound genius of Descartes, so fertile in mathematics, had been hampered in philosophy by religious persecution:

Descartes at least dared to show to alert minds how to free themselves from the yoke of Scholasticism, opinion, authority—in a word, from prejudice and barbarism; and by this revolt, of which we today gather the fruits, he rendered to philosophy a service perhaps more difficult than all those that it owes to his renowned successors. We may regard him as the chief of a sworn band, who had the courage to lead a revolt against a despotic and arbitrary power, and who, by his inspiring resolution, raised the foundations of a government more just and benevolent than any that he could live to see established. If he finished by thinking to explain everything, he at least began by doubting all; and the weapons that we must use to combat him are not the less his own because we turn them against him.

After discussing Newton, Locke, and Leibniz, d’Alembert concluded with an expression of faith in the beneficent effects of knowledge growing and spreading. “Our century believes itself destined to change the laws in every kind.”30 Warmed with that hope, d’Alembert made his “Discours” one of the masterpieces of eighteenth-century French prose. Buffon and Montesquieu joined in praising those introductory pages; Raynal rated them as “one of the most philosophical, logical, luminous, exact, compact, and best-written pieces that we have in our language.”31

Volume I was not visibly antireligious. The articles on Christian doctrine and ritual were almost orthodox; several of them pointed out difficulties, but they usually ended with a solemn obeisance to the Church. Quite often there were heretical asides and incidental attacks upon superstition and fanaticism, but these were hidden in articles on apparently innocent subjects like the Scythian lamb or the eagle; so the piece headed “Agnus scythicus” expanded into a treatise on evidence which left the belief in miracles in an unhappy state; and the article “Aigle,” after discussing popular credulity, concluded with transparent irony: “Happy the people whose religion asks it to believe only things true, holy, and sublime, and to imitate only virtuous actions. Such a religion is ours, in which the philosopher has only to follow his reason to arrive at the feet of our altars.”32 Slyly, here and there, the bubbles of myth and legend were pricked, and a spirit of rationalist humanism emerged.

Nevertheless the Jesuits gave the volume a friendly reception. Guillaume François Berthier, the learned editor of the Journal de Trévoux, politely objected to the stress laid upon heretical philosophers in the “Discours préliminaire”; he pointed out inaccuracies and plagiarisms, and asked for stricter censorship of future volumes; but he praised the Encyclopédie as a “very lofty, very solid enterprise, whose editors, when it is completed, will justly be able to apply to themselves the Horatian claim, Exegi monumentum aere perennius” And he added: “No one is more disposed to recognize the fine sections of the Encyclopédie; we shall review them with complaisance in our extracts to come.”33

Another priest was not so lenient. Jean François Boyer, former bishop of Mirepoix, complained to the King that the authors had deceived the censors. Louis sent him to Malesherbes, who had recently become chief censor of publication (directeur de la librairie).Malesherbes promised that future volumes would be more carefully screened; but during his tenure of various governmental offices he used all his influence to protect the philosophes. It was fortunate for the rebels that this Chrétien Guillaume de Malesherbes, who had been made a skeptic by reading Bayle, and who had written a book, La Liberté de la presse, was censor of publications from 1750 to 1763—the most critical period in the lives of Voltaire, Diderot, Helvétius, and Rousseau. “In a century in which every citizen can speak to the entire nation by means of print,” Malesherbes wrote, “those who have the talent for instructing men or the gift of moving them—in a word, men of letters—are, amid a dispersed people, what the orators of Rome and Athens were in the midst of a people assembled.”34 He fostered the intellectual movement by granting permission tacite to books that could not, even in his regime, receive the approbation et privilege du roi. For in his view “a man who had read only the books that … appeared with the express consent of the government … would be behind his contemporaries by almost a century.”35

This happy moment for the Encyclopédie was ended by one of the most curious incidents in the history of the Enlightenment. On November 18, 1751, Jean Martin de Prades, seeking a degree at the Sorbonne, offered to the theologians an apparently innocuous thesis—“Quel est celui sur la face duquel Dieu a répandu le souffle de la vie?” (Who is he over whose face God spread the breath of life?) While the examining pundits nodded or slept, the young abbé, in excellent Latin, exposed chronological conflicts in the Bible, reduced the miracles of Christ to a level with those of Aesculapius, and replaced revelation with a natural and liberal theology. The Sorbonne accepted the thesis and granted the degree. The Jansenists, now controlling the Parlement of Paris, denounced the Sorbonne; a rumor went about that Diderot had had a hand in the thesis; the Sorbonne revoked the degree, and ordered the abbé’s arrest. De Prades fled to Prussia, where he was lodged by Voltaire until he succeeded La Mettrie as reader to Frederick the Great.

The guardians of orthodoxy were shocked to find that this same Prades had contributed the article “Certitude” to Volume II of the Encyclopédie, which appeared in January, 1752. This article also had a tang of Diderot in it. The outcry against the undertaking mounted. Berthier, while praising the volume for its many contributions to knowledge, rebuked the editors for a piece in which it was said that most men honor literature as they do religion—i.e., “as something they can neither know nor practice nor love.” Such a statement, said the Jesuit, deserved “the greatest attention on the part of the authors and the editors of the Encyclopédie, in order that henceforth nothing similar be inserted in it.”36 On January 31 Christophe de Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, condemned theEncyclopédie as a subtle attack upon religion; and on February 7 a decree of the Council of State forbade any further sale or publication of the work. On that day the Marquis d’Argenson wrote in his journal:

This morning appeared an arrét du conseil which had not been foreseen: it suppressed the Dictionnaire encyclopédique, with some appalling allegations, such as revolt against God and the royal authority, [and] corruption of morals … It is said on this score that the authors of this dictionary … must shortly be put to death.37

It was not as bad as that. Diderot was not arrested, but nearly all the material that he had gathered was confiscated by the government. Voltaire wrote from Potsdam urging Diderot to transfer the enterprise to Berlin, where it could proceed under Frederick’s protection; but Diderot was helpless without his material, and Le Breton was hopeful that the government, after the storm had subsided, would modify its prohibition. Malesherbes, the Marquis d’Argenson, and Mme. de Pompadour supported Le Breton’s appeal to the Council; and in the spring of 1752 it consented to the publication of further volumes with “tacit permission.” Mme. de Pompadour advised d’Alembert and Diderot to resume their work, “observing a necessary reserve in all things touching religion and authority.”38 To appease the clergy, Malesherbes agreed that all future volumes should be censored by three theologians chosen by ex-bishop Boyer.

Volumes III to VI appeared at yearly intervals, 1753–56, all subjected to strict censorship. The furor had given the Encyclopédie wide publicity and had made it the symbol of liberal ideas; the number of subscribers rose to 3,100 with Volume III, 4,200 with Volume IV.

D’Alembert emerged from the ordeal somewhat shaken. To secure his personal safety he stipulated that henceforth he would be responsible only for the mathematical articles. Diderot, however, was for fighting the censorship. On October 12, 1752, he published, ostensibly at Berlin and in the name of de Prades, a Suite de l’apologie[Continuation of the Defense] de M. l’abbé de Prades. Referring to a recent episcopal denunciation of the Sorbonne thesis, he spoke out angrily:

I know nothing so indecent, and so injurious to religion, as these vague declamations against reason on the part of some theologians. One would say, to hear them, that men cannot enter into the bosom of Christianity except as a flock of beasts enters a stable, and that one has to renounce common sense to embrace our religion or to persist in it. To establish such principles, I repeat, is to reduce man to the level of the brute, and place falsehood and truth on an equal footing.39

He continued in Volume III the indirect attacks upon Christianity, usually covering them with professions of orthodoxy. His article “Sacred Chronology” exposed again contradictions in the Old Testament, and cast doubts upon the accuracy of Biblical texts. His article on the Chaldeans stressed their achievements in astronomy, but lamented their subjection to priests. “It is to dishonor reason to put it in bonds as the Chaldeans did. Man is born to think for himself.” The article “Chaos” listed difficulties in the idea of creation, and detailed—in pretending to refute—the arguments for the eternity of matter. Mingled with such controversial pieces were his excellent articles on commerce, competition, composition (in painting), and comédiens— which meant actors. Diderot explained that he was neither a painter nor a connoisseur of paintings, but he had been compelled to write on the subject because the “vaunted amateur” whom he had commissioned to write on pictorial composition had submitted a worthless fragment. Diderot’s article expressed some of the ideas that later enlivened his Salons. The article “Comédiens” carried on Voltaire’s campaign for the civil rights of actors.

Volume III won much praise, tempered by criticism from the Jesuits and Élie Fréron’s Année litteraire. New contributors raised the prestige of the work: Duclos began to take part with Volume IV, Voltaire and Turgot with Volume V, Necker and Quesnay with Volume VI. During the first four years of the undertaking Voltaire had been absorbed or embroiled in Germany; now (1755), settled in Geneva, he sent in the articles “Élégance,” “Eloquence,” and “Esprit” (Intelligence)—all graced with elegance, eloquence, andesprit. Diderot himself wrote for Volume VI an article, “Encyclopedia,” which some scholars have rated the best piece in the whole work. It was certainly one of the longest, running to 34,000 words. He told of the difficulties the enterprise had faced, not only from forces aiming at its destruction, but also from restricted funds inadequate to pay contributors and printers, and from the human frailties of authors harassed in health and cramped for time. He admitted the many defects of the first five volumes, which had been produced in haste and trepidation; he promised improvement, and with some feeling he made his own act of faith:

The end of an encyclopedia is to assemble the knowledge scattered over the earth, to expound it to contemporaries, and to transmit it to posterity, to the end that the labors of past centuries should not be useless to those who are to come, and that our successors, becoming better instructed, may become at the same time more virtuous and happy, and that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race.

He thought of the Encyclopédie as a blow for posterity, and trusted that posterity would vindicate him. He imagined “some great revolution that has suspended the progress of the sciences and the work of the [industrial] arts, and has replunged into darkness a part of the world,” and he warmed himself with hopes of the “gratitude such a generation will have for men who feared and foresaw this ravage, and gave a shelter to the knowledge accumulated by past ages.” “Posterity,” he said, “is for the philosopher what the ‘other world’ is for the man of religion.”40

Volume VII, published in the fall of 1757, brought another crisis, worse than any before it. Quesnay and Turgot contributed famous expositions of physiocratic laissez-faire economics. Louis de Jaucourt, who was now one of the most frequent contributors, authored an insultingly brief article, “France,” in which most of the nine hundred words went not to the history but to the faults of France: the dangerously extreme inequality of wealth, the poverty of the peasants, the hypertrophy of Paris, and the depopulation of the provinces. And in an article “Government” Jaucourt wrote: “The people’s greatest good is its liberty.… Without liberty happiness is banished from states.” Voltaire wrote for this volume an ostentatiously learned article on fornication. But the pièce de rèsistance—at least the piece that aroused most resistance—was that article on Geneva which we have already encountered in its Swiss milieu. D’Alembert forgot his “notarial” caution and his resolve to confine himself to mathematics. He brought both Geneva and Paris down upon his head by representing the Calvinist clergy as discarding the divinity of Christ.

Grimm at once saw that this article was a tactless blunder, and reported that it was creating an uproar. A Jesuit denounced the volume in a sermon delivered at Versailles before the King. “It is asserted,” d’Alembert wrote to Voltaire, “that I praise the ministers of Geneva in a fashion prejudicial to the Catholic Church.”41 On January 5, 1757, an attempt had been made to assassinate the King. He responded by reviving an old law that condemned to death the authors, publishers, and sellers of books that attacked religion or disturbed the state. Several writers were imprisoned. None suffered death, but the sensitive d’Alembert was understandably frightened. Shrinking from the turmoil, he severed his connection with the Encyclopédie (January 1, 1758). For a moment he lost perspective; he accused Mme. de Pompadour of favoring the antiphilosophes, and asked Malesherbes to suppress their leader Fréron. Voltaire urged him not to resign; d’Alembert replied (January 20): “You do not know the position we are in, and the fury of the authorities against us.… I doubt that Diderot will continue without me; but I know that if he does he is preparing for himself trials and tribulations for ten years.”42 Eight days later his terror had increased. “If they [the enemies] print such things today by express order of those in authority, it is not to rest there; it means a heaping of fagots around the seventh volume, and to throw us into the flames for an eighth.”43 Voltaire yielded to d’Alembert, and counseled Diderot to abandon the Encyclopédie, since, if it continued at all, it would be under a censorship nullifying the value of the work as a means of checking the power of the Church over the French mind.44 Turgot, Marmontel, Duclos, and Morellet refused to contribute further articles. Diderot himself for a time lost heart. “There is hardly a day,” he wrote, “but I am tempted to go and live in obscurity and tranquillity in the depths of my province of Champagne.”45 But he would not surrender. “To abandon the work,” he wrote to Voltaire (February, 1758), “is to turn one’s back on the breach, and do what the rascals who persecute us desire. If you but knew with what joy they learned of d’Alembert’s desertion, and what maneuvers they undertake to prevent him from returning!”

At their assembly in 1758 the bishops of France offered an unusually large don gratuit to the King, and begged him to end the “tacit permission” that allowed the Encyclopédie to be published in France. Abraham de Chaumeix began in 1758 to issue a series of volumes called Préjugés légitimes contre l’Encyclopédie. The publication of Helvétius’ radical De l’Esprit (July 27, 1758) roused further protests; the Encyclopédie was involved in that storm because Diderot was widely rumored to have close connections with Helvétius. To make the situation more desperate Rousseau, who had been contributing articles on music to the Encyclopédie, refused further participation; and on October 22, 1758, his Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur les spectacles made public his break with thephilosophes. The camp of the Encyclopedists seemed irrevocably broken up. On January 23, 1759, the King’s attorney, Omer de Fleury, warned the Parlement of Paris that “there is a project formed, a society organized, to propagate materialism, to destroy religion, to inspire a spirit of independence, and to nourish the corruption of morals.”46 Finally, on March 8, an order of the Council of State completely outlawed the Encyclopédie; no new volume was to be printed, and none of the existing volumes was to be sold. The decree explained: “The advantages to be derived from a work of this sort, in respect to progress in the arts and sciences, can never compensate for the irreparable damage that results from it in regard to morality and religion.”47

The edict threatened not only the personal security of the philosophes but the financial solvency of the publishers. Many subscribers had paid for future volumes; how could these advances be refunded? Most of that money had been spent in publishing Volumes I-VII and preparing Volume VIII, which was ready for distribution when the royal decree fell. Diderot persuaded the publishers not to give up. Perhaps this ukase too would be modified in time; if not, the remaining volumes could be printed abroad. At the request of the publishers Diderot secluded himself in his home and toiled on Volume IX. Meanwhile Malesherbes and others labored to appease the government.

At this juncture—in the summer of 1759—there appeared in Paris a surreptitious and anonymous pamphlet entitled Mémorandum pour Abraham Chaumeix, a piece at once dull and violent, attacking with the crudest insults not only the government, the Parlement, the Jesuits, and the Jansenists, but Christ himself and his mother. Diderot reported that “the work is being attributed to me, and that almost with unanimity”48 He went to Malesherbes, to the lieutenant general of the police and to the advocate general of the Parlement, and swore that he had nothing to do with this explosion of street-corner atheism. His friends believed him, but advised him to leave Paris. He refused; such flight, he argued, would be a confession of guilt. Malesherbes warned him that the police were planning to raid his rooms and confiscate his papers; he must hide these at once. “But where?” asked the harassed rebel; how could he in a few hours find hiding places for all the materials that he had accumulated? “Send them to me,” said Malesherbes; “no one will come here to look for them.”49 Meanwhile the police discovered the printers of the scandalous pamphlet, and concluded that Diderot had had no connection with it. No order for the seizure of his papers was issued. He was relieved, but verged on a nervous breakdown. D’Holbach, his rich friend, took him away on a vacation to various places near Paris. “I carried everywhere with me,” Diderot wrote, “stumbling steps and a melancholy soul.”50

Back in Paris, he signed with the publishers a new contract to prepare nine additional volumes of the Encyclopédie, for 25,000 livres. D’Alembert offered to resume responsibility for mathematical articles; Diderot rebuked him for desertion in the face of the enemy, but accepted his contributions. Voltaire too rejoined the fold. Diderot hoped to finish the seventeenth and final volume in 1760, but in September, 1761, he wrote: “The terrible revision is over. I have spent twenty-five days in succession at it, at the rate of ten hours a day.”51 Ten days later he was still immured in his room, examining plates. Volumes VIII-XVII were printed in Paris in quick succession, but were marked as published in Neuchâtel; Sartine, the new lieutenant general of the Paris police, winked at the deceptíon;52 and the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1762 eased the way.II In September, 1762, Catherine the Great offered to complete the Encyclopédie under governmental protection at St. Petersburg; a similar offer came from Frederick the Great through Voltaire; perhaps these proposals persuaded the French officials to allow the printing in Paris. The final volume of text appeared in 1765; eleven volumes of plates were added between 1765 and 1772. A five-volume Supplément and a two-volume Table générale (index) were issued between 1776 and 1780. Diderot was asked to edit these, but he was worn out, and refused. The most important publishing enterprise of the century had consumed him, but had made him as immortal as the vicissitudes of civilization will permit.

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