IV. THE ENCYCLOPÉDIE ITSELF

Nearly all its contents have been superseded by the intellectual revolution which it helped to foment; they engage our interest only as events in the history of ideas, and as weapons used by the philosophes in their conflict with the only Christianity that they knew. The attack, as we have seen, was seldom direct. The articles “Jesus” and “Christianity,” both by Diderot, were essentially orthodox; the second was praised by an Italian abbé. Several priests contributed articles; so the Abbé Yvon wrote “Atheists.” TheEncyclopédiesupported not atheism but deism. However, the cross references were sometimes seductive; appended to an orthodox article, they often pointed to other articles that suggested doubts; so the exemplary piece on God referred to the article “Demonstration,” which laid down principles of evidence lethal to miracles and myths. Sometimes the least reasonable elements in the Christian creed were expounded with apparent acceptance, but in a way to evoke questioning. Chinese or Mohammedan doctrines similar to those of Christianity were rejected as irrational. The article “Priests,” probably by d’Holbach, was outspoken in hostility, for the philosophes hated the clergy as foes of free thought and as prods to persecution. The author pretended to be writing of pagan priests:

Superstition having multiplied the ceremonies of the diverse cults, the persons conducting the ceremonies soon formed a separate order. The people believed that these persons were entirely devoted to the divinity; hence the priests shared in the respect given to the divinity. Vulgar occupations appeared to be beneath them, and the people believed themselves obliged to provide for their subsistence … as depositories and interpreters of the divine will, and as mediators between gods and men. …

To more surely establish their domination, the priests depicted the gods as cruel, vindictive, implacable. They introduced ceremonies, initiations, mysteries, whose atrocity could nourish in men that somber melancholy so favorable to the empire of fanaticism. Then human blood flowed in great streams over the altars; the people, cowed with fear and stupefied with superstition, thought no price too high to pay for the good will of the gods. Mothers delivered without a tear their tender infants to the devouring flames; thousands of victims fell under the sacrificial knife. …

It was difficult for men so reverenced to remain long within the borders of subordination necessary to social order. The priesthood, drunk with power, often disputed the rights of the kings.… Fanaticism and superstition held the knife suspended over the heads of sovereigns; thrones were shaken whenever kings wished to repress or punish holy men, whose interests were confounded with those of the gods.… To wish to limit their power was to sap the foundations of religion.54

Generally the war on the old faith took the form of praising the new beliefs and methods of science and philosophy; to replace religion with science, and priests with philosophers, at least in the educated classes, was the dream of the philosophes. The sciences received lengthy expositions; for example, fifty-six columns were given to “Anatomy.” Under “Geology” there were long articles on minerals, metals, strata, fossils, glaciers, mines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and precious stones. Philosophy, in the new view, was to be based entirely on science; it would build no “systems,” it would shun metaphysics, it would not pontificate on the origin and destiny of the world. The article “École” made a frontal assault upon the Scholastic philosophers as men who had abandoned the search for knowledge, had surrendered to theology, and had lost themselves safely in logical cobwebs and metaphysical clouds.

Diderot contributed a remarkable series of articles on the history of philosophy; they leaned heavily on Johann Jakob Brucker’s Historia critica Philosophiae (1742–44), but they showed original research in French thought. The essays on the Eleatics and Epicurus expounded materialism; other articles extolled Bruno and Hobbes. In Diderot philosophy became a religion. “Reason is for the philosopher what grace is for the Christian.”55 “Let us hasten to render philosophy popular,” he cried;56 and in the article“Encyclopedia” he wrote like an apostle: “Today, when philosophy advances with giant steps, when it submits to its empire all the objects of its interest, when its voice is the dominant voice, and it begins to break the yoke of authority and tradition, to hold to the laws of reason . . .” Here was the brave new faith, with a youthful confidence not often to be found again. Perhaps with an eye to his imperial protectress in Russia he added, like Plato: “Unite a ruler [Catherine II] with a philosopher of this kind [Diderot], and you will have a perfect sovereign.”57

If such a philosopher could replace the priest as guide-confessor to a king, he would counsel, first of all, a spread of freedom, especially to speech and press. “No man has received from nature the right of commanding others”;58 so much for the divine right of kings. And as for revolution:

Power acquired by violence is only a usurpation, and lasts only as long as the force of him who commands prevails over that of those who obey.… If these in turn become stronger and shake off their yoke, they do so with as much right and justice as did the former who had imposed it upon them. The same law that made the authority unmakes it; it is the law of the stronger.… Therefore true and legitimate power necessarily has limits.… The prince holds from his subjects themselves the authority that he has over them; and this authority is limited by the laws of nature and of the state.… It is not the state which belongs to the prince, but rather the prince who belongs to the state.59

The Encyclopédie was not socialistic, nor democratic; it accepted monarchy, and rejected that notion of equality which Rousseau expounded so forcefully in 1755. Jaucourt’s article “Natural Equality” advocated equality before the law, but added: “I know too well the necessity of different conditions, grades, honors, distinctions, prerogatives, subordinations, which must rule under all governments.”60 Diderot at this time considered private property the indispensable basis of civilization.61 The article “Man,” however, had a communistic moment: “The net profit of a society, if equally distributed, may be preferable to a larger profit if this is distributed unequally and has the effect of dividing the people into classes.” And—talking of almshouses—“it would be of far more value to work for the prevention of misery than to multiply places of refuge for the miserable.”62

A philosophical king would periodically examine the title deeds to feudal domains, and would abolish feudal privileges no longer merited by seignorial services to the peasantry or the state.63 He would find a humane substitute for the forced labor of thecorvée,and he would forbid the trade in slaves. He would, so far as his power extended, put an end to wars of dynastic rivalry or greed. He would seek to cleanse the trial courts of corruption, to end the sale of offices, and to mitigate the ferocity of the penal code; at the very least he would put an end to judicial torture. And instead of lending his aid to the perpetuation of superstition he would dedicate his labors to advancing that golden age in which statesmanship would ally itself with science in an unremitting war upon ignorance, illness, and poverty.

By and large the economic ideas of the Encyclopédie were those of the middle class to which most of the philosophes belonged. Often they were the views of the physiocrats who, under the lead of Quesnay and Mirabeau pére, dominated economic theory in midcentury France. Free enterprise—and therefore free commerce and free competition—were held vital to free men; hence guilds, as impediments to all these, were condemned. These ideas were destined to take the stage of history in the ministry of Turgot (1774).

The Encyclopédie gave alert and enthusiastic attention to the industrial technology that was beginning to transform the economic face of England and France. The mechanical arts, Diderot maintained, should be honored as the application of science, and surely the application is as precious as the theory. “What absurdity in our judgments! We exhort men to occupy themselves usefully, and we despise useful men.”64 He hoped to make the Encyclopédie a treasury of technology so thorough that if the mechanical arts were by some tragedy destroyed they could be rebuilt from one surviving set of its volumes. He himself wrote long and painstaking articles on steel, agriculture, needles, bronze, the boring machine (“Alésoir”), shirts, stockings, shoes, bread. He admired the genius of inventors and the skills of artisans; he went in person, or sent his agents, to farms, shops, and factories to study new processes and products; and he supervised the engravings, numbering almost a thousand, that made the eleven volumes of plates the marvel of their kind in their age; to those volumes the government was proud to extend the approbation et privilege du roi. Here were fifty-five plates on the textile industry, eleven on minting, ten on military technics, five on making gunpowder, three on the manufacture of pins; the last were a source for Adam Smith’s famous passage on the division of labor into “eighteen distinct operations” in producing a pin.65 To get this knowledge, said Diderot,

we turned to the ablest artisans in Paris and throughout the kingdom. We took the trouble … to ask them questions, to write at their dictation, … to get from them the terms used in their trades, … to rectify, in long and frequent interviews with one group of workmen, what others had imperfectly, obscurely, or sometimes inaccurately explained.… We have sent engravers into the shops, who have drawn designs of the machines and tools, omitting nothing that could make them clear to the eyes.’66

When, in 1773, the Ottoman Sultan asked Baron de Tott to manufacture cannon for the forts of the Dardanelles, the Baron used the Encyclopédie article on cannon as one of his constant guides.67

After his work on the text was completed, Diderot suffered a mortification that almost broke his spirit. Happening to examine an article, he discovered that many parts of the proofsheets that he had corrected and approved had been omitted in print. A survey of other articles showed a similar bowdlerization in Volumes IX to XVII. The omissions were usually of passages that might have further aroused the clergy or the Parlement; and the deletions had been made with no regard for the logic or continuity of what remained. Le Breton confessed that he had performed the surgery to save the Encyclopédie from further tribulation, and himself from bankruptcy. Grimm reported the results:

The discovery threw Diderot into a frenzy which I shall never forget. “For years,” he cried to Le Breton, “you have been basely cheating me. You have massacred … the work of twenty good men who have devoted their time, their talents, their vigils, from love of right and truth, in the simple hope of seeing their ideas given to the public, and reaping from them a little consideration richly earned.… You will henceforth be cited as a man who has been guilty of an act of treachery, an act of vile hardihood, to which nothing that has ever happened in this world can be compared.” 68

He never forgave Le Breton.

Looking back upon the great enterprise, we see it to have been, by its history as well as its contents, the outstanding achievement of the French Enlightenment. And as Diderot’s part in it was central and indispensable, his stature rises to a place only after Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s in the intellectual panorama of eighteenth-century France. His industry as editor was pervasive and exhausting. He made the cross references, corrected errors, read the proofs. He ran about Paris seeking and prodding contributors. He himself wrote hundreds of articles when contributors could not be found or when they proved incompetent. He was the last resort when all others had failed. So we find him writing on philosophy, canvas, Christianity, boa constrictors, beauty, playing cards, breweries, and consecrated bread. His article “Intolerance” anticipated Voltaire’s treatise, and may have suggested several of its ideas. Many of his pieces were studded with errors, and some of them were indiscriminately hostile and unjust, like that on the Jesuits. But he was a man in a hurry, embattled and pursued, and fighting back with every weapon he could find.

Now that the excitement of battle has subsided, we can recognize the shortcomings of the Encyclopédie There were a thousand errors of fact. There were careless repetitions and flagrant omissions. There were substantial plagiarisms, as Jesuit scholars pointed out; some articles were “a mosaic of borrowings.”69 Berthier, in three issues of the Journal de Trévoux, showed, with exact references and parallel quotations, over a hundred plagiarisms in Volume I. Most of these thefts were brief and unimportant, as in definitions, but several extended to three or four columns copied almost word for word.

There were serious intellectual defects in the Encyclopédie. The contributors had too simple a view of human nature, too sanguine an estimate of the honesty of reason, too vague an understanding of its frailty, too optimistic a prospect of how men would use the knowledge that science was giving them. The philosophes in general, and Diderot in particular, lacked historical sense; they seldom paused to inquire how the beliefs they combated had arisen, and what human needs, rather than priestly inventions, had given them birth and permanence. They were quite blind to the immense contribution of religion to social order, to moral character, to music and art, to the mitigation of poverty and suffering. Their anti- religious bias was so strong that they could never lay claim to that impartiality which we should now consider essential to a good encyclopedia. Though some Jesuits, like Berthier, were often fair in their criticism, most of the Encyclopédie’s critics were as partial as the philosophes.

Diderot felt keenly the factual faults of the work. He wrote in 1755: “The first edition of an encyclopedia cannot but be a very ill-formed and incomplete compilation”;70 and he expected that it would soon be superseded. Even so the bulky product found its way into the centers of thought on the Continent. The twenty-eight volumes were thrice reprinted in Switzerland, twice in Italy, once in Germany, once in Russia. Pirated editions came back into France to spread the influence of the contraband ideas. All in all, there were forty-three editions in twenty-five years—a remarkable record for so costly a set. Families read its articles together in the evening; eager groups were formed to study it; Thomas Jefferson advised James Madison to buy it. Now the gospel of reason as against mythology, of knowledge as against dogma, of progress through education as against the resigned contemplation of death, all passed like a pollen-laden wind over Europe, disturbing every tradition, stimulating thought, at last fomenting revolt. TheEncyclopédiewas the revolution before the Revolution.


I. According to his friends Saunderson died a pious death. The Royal Society of London resented Diderot’s ascription of atheism to one of its members; and it never admitted him to corresponding membership.

II. The pleasant story that Mme. de Pompadour induced Louis XV to withdraw his opposition to the publication of Volumes VIII-XVII by showing him the article on gunpowder is now generally rejected as a fancy of Voltaire’s.53 The story is given in Vol. XLVIII of Beuchot’s edition of Voltaire’s works, and also in the Goncourts’ Madame de Pompadour, p. 147.

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