Modern history

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An Enlightening Age


Topsy-like, the Encyclopédie just grew and grew. Some seventeen volumes of text appeared spasmodically between 1751 and 1772, with eleven volumes of plates intercalating from 1762 to 1777. When complete, the ‘Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Trades’, to give it its full title, the work of around 150 known and an indeterminate number of anonymous authors, contained over 70,000 articles and nearly 3,000 plates.1 Contributors included many – even most – of the greatest writers of the century: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Condillac, d’Holbach, Buffon, Quesnay, Turgot, Morellet, Duclos, Jaucourt, Grimm. Between 4,000 and 5,000 copies of the original folio edition were published, but with re-editions, supplements and reprints, around 25,000 sets of the work had been sold through Europe as a whole by 1789, roughly half of them within France. By then, its canonical, even mythical, status was assured, as the master-work of the French intellectuals and writers known as the philosophes(‘philosophers’).

The financial backers who originated the Encyclopédie project in 1745 had had no idea about what they were getting into. They planned a far less ambitious venture – a four-volumed French translation of Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728) – but did not reckon with the flair and vision of their product manager, Denis Diderot. The 3 2-year-old Diderot had renounced an artisanal background, preferring to live off his wits rather than by his hands. Alliance with the equally youthful Jean-le-Rond d’Alembert, tyro mathematician of genius and darling of the Parisian salons, led to the two men commissioning articles for the new venture straight away, and scheduling the launch of the first two volumes for 1751.

Had Diderot known what would be expected of him over the next two decades he would have written a job specification for himself at the outset which itemized the courage of a lion, the vision of a Conquistador, the ambition of a Caesar, the daemonic energy of a fury and the hide of a rhinoceros, to say nothing of a dazzling range of other diplomatic, financial, polemical, organizing and intellectual skills. Almost at once the enterprise came close to collapse and it would be endlessly dogged by trials and tribulations. In 1749, Diderot was imprisoned by lettre de cachet in the state prison at Vincennes for writing a work – his ‘Letter on the Blind’ – which was adjudged irreligious. The same year that the first volumes appeared, the Encyclopédic was almost caught up in a scandal caused by the abbé de Prades, a friend of Diderot who had contributed an article on ‘Certitude’, and who was condemned by his ecclesiastical superiors for atheistic writings. In February 1752, a royal decree forbade the sale of the first two volumes of Diderot’s work – a decision which proved less damning than it sounded partly because most copies were already under subscription rather than on open sale. The Encyclopédie had won enough friends and supporters to continue publication, but it attracted a good deal of hostility too, not simply from established authorities but also from other writers, including the prestigious figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who contributed a few articles, but then turned against the whole enterprise in general and d’Alembert in particular.2D’Alembert was in fact feeling the strain, and withdrew altogether in 1757, as the sixth and seventh volumes appeared and just as attacks were growing more venomous. The Encyclopédie’s enemies were able to get the work implicated in the furore caused by the publication of the openly atheistical De l’Esprit by Helvétius (who, though a philosophe, had not actually contributed to the Encyclopédie). In February 1759, the Parlement of Paris ordered the burning of both works, and the Royal Council officially revoked Diderot’s licence to publish, and later that year the work was placed on the papal Index. The Encyclopédie pulled through this crisis mainly through the amical assistance of Malesherbes, councillor in the Paris Cour des Aides, a member of the Lamoignon clan, and official Director of the Book Trade. The latter had already shown a tolerant attitude towards Diderot’s enterprise, on one occasion warehousing copies in his own house out of the way of prying police officials. Once the fuss was dying down, Malesherbes awarded Diderot a ‘tacit permission’ to continue publishing, and finessed the neutrality of Paris Police Lieutenant Sartine so as to allow the remainder of the text to appear in 1766. Although the work soon achieved international renown, the enterprise always retained a sulphurous scent and problems recurred: in 1770, some 6,000 copies of a subsequent edition were impounded in the Bastille and only released in 1776.

The Encyclopédie was a major capitalist venture, its production involving probably 20,000 workers and mobilizing over 7 million livres. Given the risks and dangers inherent in its distribution, there was safety in numbers – in regard to patrons, readers and authors. Malesherbes was strategically important in securing the enterprise sympathetic treatment within the political elite. With the help of the young abbé de Bernis, he acted as a liaison with Madame de Pompadour, who was generally well-disposed towards thephilosophes. Choiseul, the most important minister of state from the late 1750s, was another crucial prop. These contacts helped popularize the enterprise, so that members of the very bodies which condemned the work – such as the church and the Paris Parlement – purchased and read it. Any work of similar scale in the past had relied on state patronage – something that the risqué nature of the Encyclopédie’s contents put out of the question. Though subscription was not new – it was particularly widespread in England, for example – the Encyclopédie was the first major work to rely so heavily on attracting a public to invest by subscribing to the ongoing work of production. This meant that when Diderot was imprisoned and harassed for his writings, bringing the viability of the whole enterprise into doubt, support and protection came from powerful subscribers wanting their investment brought to fruition.

A spirit of inclusiveness and collaboration was thus at the heart of the Encyclopédie enterprise. Marshalled and quality-controlled by Diderot, the work represented a triumph for collective authorship. Even Homer nodded, of course, and some dull drudge reached the page, particularly in the later volumes, when Diderot was getting jaded. Yet in general the standard of writing and editorial work was very high, involving as it did acknowledged authorities such as Daubenton of the Jardin du Roi for the natural history sections, Le Roy for astronomy and watch-making, Bourgelat for veterinary matters, Blondel for architecture and Véron de Forbonnais for finance and economics. In addition, Jaucourt, who became the enterprise’s jobbing author, writing maybe as many as 5,000 pieces, was an interdisciplinary all-rounder and synthesizer of rare talent, as were Diderot and d’Alembert themselves, who also did much in-filling.

The Encyclopédie aimed to bring knowledge of all disciplines within the grasp of the intellectually curious. They also extended the range of what the intellectually curious should be interested in. Notably, true to Diderot’s dictum that there was ‘more intelligence, wisdom and consequence in a machine for making stockings’ than ‘in a system of physics or metaphysics’,3 they included a great many descriptions of machines, inventions and methods of organizing production, also devoting numerous plates to precise visual depiction of such manufacturing. The inclusion of subjects traditionally seen as ‘low’ and ‘ignoble’ was justified on three grounds. First, there was the firm conviction that the measure of all knowledge was mankind. The Encyclopédie supplied an all-inclusive road-map of knowledge, which demonstrated ‘the order and linking together of the sciences’. ‘Man is the single term from which one must begin, and to which all must be brought back,’ Diderot argued, implicitly criticizing transcendent or divinely based conceptions of knowledge. ‘Make an abstraction of my existence and of the happiness of my fellow human beings and what will the rest of nature matter to me?’4 As this quotation suggests, human value was the critical yardstick of knowledge employed. The Encyclopédie’s notion of inclusiveness involved a radical critique as regards anything which did not conform to the editors’ notion of utility as grounded in the ‘social’. Indeed, the Encyclopédie popularized the terms ‘social’, ‘society’ and ‘sociability’ as justification for the exclusion of topics and subject-matters otherwise adjudged ignoble. The work performed a kind of utilitarian audit of all forms of knowledge, with theology in particular, erstwhile ‘queen of the sciences’, being found sadly wanting as a ‘social’ form of knowledge, and placed close to the black arts on a remote twig of the tree of knowledge. Philosophy in contrast was lauded as ‘the most extensive [and] the most important science’ – precisely because it was the most ‘social’.5 Institutions and individuals were criticized in much the same way as bodies of knowledge. Thus, the church was subjected to pitiless lampooning: its knowledge claims were vacuous, its cherished baroque piety was nonsensical, and much of its personnel were (like the nobility, for that matter) idle and socially parasitic. Utility enabled social improvement – the third reason why technical forms of knowledge were accorded such prestige in the Encyclopédie. In his ‘Preliminary Discourse’, d’Alembert specifically looked back to Francis Bacon as an early exponent of the empirical, inductive approach the Encyclopédie championed, in contrast to a priori approaches, whether derived from scriptural sources or even from Cartesian rationalism. He cited approvingly the empiricism of John Locke and the scientific method exemplified by Isaac Newton (Encyclopédie history tended to be of the ‘great man’ variety) as offering the critical approach which the philosophes had honed into a powerful instrument of analysis. ‘What progress has not been made in the sciences and the arts?’ he asked. ‘How many discoveries today were not foreseen then?’6 And what hopes there were for social improvement through the use of human reason!

Implicit in this view of progress was a very particular view of history, and the role of the Encyclopédie within it. In his article, ‘Encyclopédie’, Diderot claimed that the aim of his enterprise was

to assemble the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to expound its general system to the men with whom we live, and to transmit it to the men who will come after us; in order that the labours of past centuries will not have been in vain for the centuries to come; and that our children, becoming better instructed than we, may at the same time become more virtuous and happy and that we may not die without having deserved well of humankind.7

The collective enterprise was thus serving a humane, improving task. The progress of reason had not all been plain sailing, and indeed the past was invariably dramatized as a bitter struggle between reason and superstition. The engraving on the frontispiece of theEncyclopédie depicted Reason pulling a veil from the eyes of Truth, while dark clouds receded to brighten the skies. This Manichean allegorization made of history a chronicle of the progress of the human mind, represented as a process of incremental illumination. It made of the philosophes in general and the Encyclopédistes in particular the secular apostles of the project of Enlightenment, casting in the role of villain any idea or institution which threatened to inhibit the critical light of reason.

The crimes of organized religion – intolerance, fanaticism, persecutions, auto-da-fés, etc. – were described in loathsome detail, with the church routinely indicted as prime obstacle to the cause of improvement. Although the editors had to be more circumspect about temporal power, implicitly the state too was not exempt from criticism. Some of the work’s most coruscating pages – Turgot on ecclesiastical foundations, for example – were attacks on the corporatism which lay at the heart of the Bourbon polity and which ran counter to social utility. ‘Even the names of princes and great personages’, d’Alembert noted, ‘have no right to be in the Encyclopédie except by virtue of the good they have done for science … It is the history of the human spirit, not of men’s vanity.’8This stern intellectual hygiene extended even to a precursor of the collective endeavour of the Encyclopédie, namely, the royal academies which the Sun King had established to channel and promote scientific research. The Encyclopédie’s editors devoted much energy to highlighting the intellectual and organizational deficiencies of the academy tradition. The Académie française’s notorious failure to bring to fruition its dictionary was hardly an example to follow. Government hindered rather than helped such projects: ‘if the government gets involved it will never get done’, Diderot claimed, not least because ‘a new minister does not as a rule adopt the projects of his predecessor’.9 The academies in any case, he argued, were dominated by noblemen who had no real interest or humanitarian commitment to science: something like the Encyclopédie was required because it contained ‘a great number of men from all the classes of society, men of value but to whom the doors of the academies are no less closed because of their status’. If anything, the Encyclopédie had a preference for merchants, traders and artisans, to whom empirical method came more naturally.

Intellectual collaboration was extended not simply to the ‘society of men of letters’ producing the Encyclopédie and the ‘skilled workers’ who served as consultants. In addition, the work was inclusive enough to enrol its readers in this joint project and challenge. This was evident in the rhetorical technologies utilized. The requirements of the censors obliged the work’s editors to encourage its readers to read against the grain, to engage the same critical spirit on the knowledge embodied in the pages of the Encyclopédie as the work was itself deploying on the field of human knowledge. Learning thus became an interactive, associational activity with the reader invited to reject pre-ordained meanings in favour of a more dynamic construal of meaning.

This strategy was particularly evident in regard to religion. The bulk of the Encyclopédie’s attack on Christianity was made through winks and nudges rather than by frontal attack. Due lip-service was paid to the proprieties, but the editors encouraged their readers to enter into collusion. Allegory played a part here, and so did the strategy of placing the harshest attacks where they were least expected: the article on the pagan goddess Juno was the site of an acerbic attack on Marian devotion, for example; that on ‘Siako’ (the Japanese emperor), for an assault on the papacy; and the plant Agnus Scythicus, for a ridiculing of the doctrine of the incarnation.10 A related technique was the subtle use of cross-reference, made necessary by the alphabetical ordering of the volume (itself an implicit rejection of hierarchical presentation of fields of knowledge with theology in first place). Diderot regarded the cross-reference as having profoundly heuristic and hermeneutic (rather than merely instrumental) value: cross-references, he maintained,

clarify the object, indicate adjacent relations with those that touch them closely and remote links with others which appear isolated; they recall common notions and analagous principles; they strengthen consequences, connect the branch to the tree and give everything this unity which is so favourable to the establishment of truth and persuasion … they will attack, shake and secretly overturn certain ridiculous opinions which we would not dare to insult openly.11

Thus, at the end of the article on cannibalism (‘anthropophagie’) the editors had put ‘See eucharist, communion, altar, etc.’ – a subtle dig at the doctrine of transubstantiation. Truth lay in such coded connections, rapprochements and juxtapositions – processes in which the reader’s involvement was vitally necessary.

The Encyclopédie extended the parameters of the knowable and used a critical approach to outpourings of the intellect with the aim of producing socially useful knowledge. That the light of Reason should be preferred to the Light of the World or the radiance of the Sun King was already a radical step. Yet in many ways the most striking aspect of the epistemological revolution on offer within the pages of the Encyclopédie was the collusive collective relationship it proposed and exemplified between writers and readers, within a network of lumières (‘lights’) putatively held together by a unitary and rational project of enlightenment. Communication was posited not only as the basis of society but also the way in which knowledge was constructed and in which human beings were changed. At the heart of the Encyclopédie lay a yearning for a new kind of politics appropriate to a ‘century of lights’ (siècle des lumières), and new, empowering forms of sociability driven by the critical and self-reflexive use of reason. It aspired to nothing less than to embody ‘the power to change men’s common ways of thinking’, so as to make a ‘revolution [ … ] in the minds of men and the national character’.12

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