The Encyclopédie: Open Season on the Wisdom of the Ages
Every one in Paris two hundred and fifty years ago was aware of the band of voluble enthusiastic men who were scurrying around town piling up notes and editing documents for a gigantic publishing enterprise with which they intended to change the world. It was to be called Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonnée des Arts Sciences et Métiers, Encyclopédie for short. It took all human knowledge for its province, it took a quarter of a century to complete, it sold enough copies to justify its being called the first commercial best-seller of modern times, and it did change the world.
Most people would agree that the last quarter millennium has seen more changes in human life and the ways of looking at human life than all the previous millennia put together. The Encyclopedists were not of course responsible for the changes. They can rather be seen as the ushers opening the doors to the onrush of the Novus Ordo Seclorum, the New World Order, proclaimed on every dollar bill ever printed by the Treasury of the United States of America.
The first two very handsome and very expensive folio volumes of the Encyclopédie, which took five years to assemble, were published in 1751, and the first subscribers had only to open to page 1 to see that something very new was loose in the world. There was the first article, on the letter A, starting off quietly enough with a historical summary of the letter and its ancestors, the Greek Alpha, the Hebrew Aleph, and so on, but then going on to turn the batteries of scorn and ridicule on all the previous authorities, headed by the famous Covarubias, who had laid down the generally accepted law on the subject. These authorities had explained that the letter A was the first letter of the alphabet because its sound was the first sound made by boy babies after being born, it being the first vowel in the syllable mas, root of the Latin adjective masculinus , while girl babies uttered an E sound, from the first syllable of the adjective feminina. The Encyclopedists, disdaining authority, insisted on listening to some live babies and reported that they "make different vowel sounds, depending on how wide they open their mouths."
A reader of our day is unlikely to find anything unusual or objectionable in this observation. But in 1751 it was a war cry of revolution. The Encyclopedists were proclaiming, in an insidiously mocking way, that direct observation of brute fact took precedence over all the accumulated pile of ancient wisdom
Denis Diderot, who wrote the A article, was never happier than when he could summon up all the ponderous columns of Authority which had been tramping down the centuries and blow them away with one gust of rational thought. A few dozen pages after A he found himself dealing with the AGNUS SCYTHICUS, or Scythian Lamb. The names of the Authorities roll along in his text like artillery caissons: Scaliger, Kircher, Sigismond Herberten, Hayton the Armenian, Serius, Fortunius Licetas, Andrew Laban, Eusebius of Nuremberg, Adam Olearius, Claus Vormius, "and an infinity of other botanists," who had gone on one after the other repeating in their learned treatises the same description of this plant growing on the steppes north of the Black Sea. A remarkable plant it was, not only shaped like a sheep but growing wool all over its body which made excellent garments and also cured spitting up blood. It had a fine skin from which the inhabitants of the country made caps, and sweet-tasting flesh much like that of shrimp, which bled when cut. More remarkable still, it browsed on plants growing around it and would die of starvation if these plants were moved beyond its reach. It took centuries of solemn repetition before another botanist named Kempfer took the trouble to visit the steppes and discover that there was no such thing as an Agnus Scythicus, only an outsize but otherwise ordinary fern with a kind of white down on its leaves, which never was and never had been guilty of herbicide. Reflecting on this episode of human folly, said Diderot, will be far more useful to the mind than the Scythian Lamb ever was to the lungs.
It was open season on the wisdom of the ages.
The Encyclopédie was not at all an ambitious project to start with. It had begun back in 1745 when an entrepreneur named Le Breton formed a consortium to finance a French translation of the popular and widely admired Cyclopedia of the Englishman Ephraim Chambers, which was the latest and in many ways the best of the these compendiums of human knowledge which had been coming out in a more or less steady stream since a scholar of Alexandria created the form in the second century BC. Le Breton's was a very modest project, with an original capital investment of only twenty thousand, and it soon ran into difficulties, partly because the thrifty publishers hired unskilled translators, with the result that no one could understand what they turned out. They then called in two of the brightest young lights of the Parisian intellectual world, the playwright and all-round man of letters Denis Diderot -- described in a police report as "a very bright and extremely dangerous fellow" -- and the mathematician Jean d'Alembert, and these two saw a chance of turning the project into a manifesto of the new age, the new way of thinking.
They never pretended to have invented the new way of thinking, they were only systematizing it, publicizing it, letting it loose to spread its rays of enlightenment and disperse the clouds of ancient superstition and prejudice. They traced its origins back a century and a half to the great Francis Bacon, Chancellor of England, "the greatest, the most universal and the most eloquent of philosophers." It was Bacon, said d'Alembert, who first recognized the necessity of experimental physics, which is the basis of the modern scientific-technological world. It was Bacon who wrote in his Novum Organum that it was not enough to simply observe nature, it was necessary to put nature to the question, a legal term meaning torture. That is to say, controlled experiments under artificial conditions, what has since been known as the scientific method.
Bacon was not only the initiator of the scientific method, he died a martyr to it. He was driving through snow in his carriage one evening when his eye was caught by some chickens, and the thought occurred to him that if meat can be preserved by salt, perhaps it can be preserved by snow as well. If he had been a philosopher of the old school ("haughty reasoners and useless contemplators," as Diderot called them in the article ART),he would have gone to his library to find what Aristotle and other authorities had to say about the preservative principle which protects natural bodies from decay. Being the first of the scientific experimenters, he jumped out of the carriage, bought a chicken from an old woman, helped to kill and gut it, and stuffed it with snow. "The snow," says John Aubrey in his Brief Lives, "so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his lodgings, but went to the Earl of Arundel's house at Highgate, where they put him into a good bed warmed with a pan, but it was a damp bed that had not been lain-in in about a year before, which gave him such a cold that in two or three days he died of suffocation"before he could invent the deep-freeze industry.
Bacon could not shake off all the shackles of the old ways of thinking all by himself - he was taken in, like everybody else, by the Scythian Lamb. But he was far ahead of his time in insisting that thought had to be practical as well as abstract, that accurate investigation of the phenomena of the world took precedence over ancient officially approved dogma.
Following the Baconian principles, the Encyclopédie dealt with the random pieces of vulgar reality on the same level as the broad abstract principles that held them together. As d'Alembert wrote in his preface to the work, it tried to explain "for every science art and trade the principles which are its base and the essential details which are its body and substance."
The theme of the Encyclopédie, as explained in the article ANIMAL, was that the world was a logical structure, a perfectly integrated structure which the human mind could grasp, a book which anyone could read if provided with the vocabulary and syntax. You didn't need a witch-doctor or the abstract speculations of Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas to tell you how the universe worked, here it was all set out clearly and rationally. Here in crystal-clear prose illustrated by crystal-clear engravings you could learn how to solve mathematical problems and analyze human emotions and how to construct a coal-mine, how to cast an equestrian statue of Louis XV, how to fight a duel, make soap, perform a bladder operation (strapping your patient first into a special surgical chair), study a flea under a microscope. What was new about the Encyclopédie's method was that it mixed the theoretical with the practical, indeed it had no use for theory without practical application, and that was the secret weapon which unleashed the scientific-technological-industrial revolution of modern times.
Everything started with facts, and no fact was beneath Diderot and D'Alembert.
Hence their insistence that the volumes of illustrative plates were as important as the volumes of text. They brought everything up to date, they showed just how the world was being run at the very moment the books were being read. It was this more than anything else which marked this Encyclopedia off from all its predecessors, which had been content to pass along the accumulated wisdom of the past. Chambers, said Diderot, had read all the books, but he had never been in a workshop.
The editors and authors of the Encyclopedia were perfectly willing to devote 25 pages to AME, the Soul, a long account of how generations of thinkers had tied themselves into metaphysical and epistemological knots trying to pin down the nature and attributes of something that was at best very difficult to define. But they also devoted fifteen pages to the manufacture of BAS, silk stockings, one of the principal industrial products of their day, showing in text and engravings all 86 steps of a process involving machines so rational and complex that removing a single strut or screw would put a stop to the whole process. The universe, to the Encyclopedists, was just such a machine, and they were providing the training manual that would enable mankind to use it with maximum efficiency. That is why they added a significant word to their title. Previous encyclopedias had aimed to summarize the arts and sciences. They added - trades and crafts - insisting that no sharp line could be drawn between theory and practice.
Such a line had been always drawn as a matter of course in the pre-Baconian past, when the idea of treating the human soul and silk stockings on the same level of seriousness would have seemed obscene if not blasphemous.. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas could reason as well as any one who ever lived, but it would never have occurred to them to reason about the humdrum tools of daily life. A century before the Encyclopédie, when the French Academy began to create the official dictionary of the French language in the 1670's, one of its members, the abbé Furetière, was caught putting in some "common and trivial" technical words from the artistic and scientific spheres He was promptly expelled from the Academy before he could pollute polite minds with such base mechanic stuff, which was the province of lower-class artisans working with their hands.
These artisans might be supremely gifted with their hands, but their brains were fixed in traditional patterns, and any improvements they made were very slow to be adopted. It might take centuries or millennia for a better plough or a better sailing-ship or a better mousetrap to spread over the world. The cannons of the armies of Louis XV were only marginally better than the cannons with which the Turks had knocked down the walls of Constantinople three hundred years before. The Greek philosopher Hero of Alexandria had built two steam engines, and a slot machine, in the first century AD, but they were only considered curiosities or toys, no one dreamed of using them for anything so vulgar as making money. No one in the ancient world had noticed that when you harness horses the way you harness oxen you choke them, and it took some barbarians from central Asia in the 9th Century AD to start a revolution in agriculture by letting horses breathe freely while they pulled their ploughs.. Chinese scholars of the T'ang dynasty had invented a powder which if you set a match to it would make a pretty firework display, but it took a thousand years for some one to realize that it could also be used for blowing up enemy walls and enemy people.
It was a changed world that the Encyclopedist were working in. While they were busy with their texts, James Watt on the other side of the Channel, unknown to them but unconsciously using their principles, was re-inventing the steam engine, and within a century it had revolutionized transportation and social structures and the very notions of space and time.
Diderot, as managing editor of the project, kept a strict eye on his collaborators, even when he had to spend four months in jail, to make sure they were accurate and up to date. He had Louis-Jacques Goussier, the superb draughtsman who did more than 900 of the plates, spend six weeks in paper-mills, six months in iron-works and glass-works, a month watching anchors being made.
It would take more than twenty years to get the first edition out, 71,818 articles arranged alphabetically in 17 volumes, plus eleven volumes containing 2885 illustrative plates. New editions, revised editions, supplementary editions, rival editions, would go on appearing for another half a century.
There may have been as many as 300 men (and one anonymous woman) who collaborated on writing the articles of the original Encyclopédie. They came from different backgrounds; of those whose backgrounds can be identified, fifteen percent were doctors, twelve percent were administrative officials, eight percent were priests, four percent were titled nobility, four percent merchants or manufacturers. They included famous scientists, famous writers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. Diderot, the son of a provincial artisan who wrote over 5000 of the articles himself was aged 34 when he started the work. He got a fairly substantial lump sum payment from the businessmen who were underwriting the project -- royalties for authors were unknown in those days. Many of the contributors worked for no monetary compensation whatever, among them the good tempered and indefatigable Chevalier de Jancourt, a learned aristocrat with a noble lineage going back to the early Middle Ages, who wrote no less than seventeen thousand articles. One of them was the last article in the last volume, ZZENUE; or ZZEUNE, about which there being nothing to say but that it was "a city on the right bank of the Nile in upper Egypt not far from Ethiopia," he could go on to a paean of joy over the successful completion of the "admirable conspiracy" which had been foretold by Lord Bacon:, that assemblage of habiles gens who would flood with light the world of the arts and sciences. "A time will come," said Bacon, "when philosophers will undertake this effort. Then will arise, from the dark realm of the sophists and the envious, a dark swarm which, seeing these eagles soaring and being unable either to stop or to follow their rapid flight, will try by their vain croakings to belittle their accomplishment and their triumph."
The croakings were not long in coming.
Printing books in France, as it was in the whole world of the mid eighteenth century except for England and Holland, was, like most other aspects of life, a matter of what the French called Privilège. A tight little cartel had the monopoly of printing books, and each book they printed had to receive a Privilège signed by the King, which indicated his gracious permission that it might serve for the edification of his loyal subjects.
The King could hardly be expected to put his seal of approval on misleading or dishonest or subversive work. And there was no lack of authorities to point out that the Encyclopédists made many factual errors, often borrowed (some said plagiarized) the work of others, and wrote in a tone that was subversive from the word go. Folded under the front cover was a sheet containing what was a sort of table of contents in the form of an allegorical tree of knowledge, showing how all human understanding flowed up the one trunk of Reason and out into many branches,. This was a perfectly traditional device, except that in traditional books the root of the tree was Revealed Religion, or Theology, and in the Encyclopédie's tree, THEOLOGY was only one branch of the limb called METAPHYSICS, and it in turn was divided into twigs labeled RELIGION, SUPERSTITION, DIVINATION and BLACK MAGIC, higher up on the tree but no thicker or more handsome than the twigs further down labeled DIFFERENTIAL ALGEBRA, SPELLING, HERALDRY, HYDROSTATICS, INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC, DRAPERY, SYNTAX, CLOCK-MAKING, FIREWORKS.
A Jesuit publication, the Journal de Trévaux, accused the Encyclopedists of favoring freedom of thought, a capital crime as well as a mortal sin.. Why, it was asked, were there so many articles devoted to obscure pagan deities and so few to kings and saints? Why did the abbé Mallet, the priest who wrote the article ARCHE (Ark, Noah's Ark) spend no time at all on its spiritual significance and so much time on ignoble calculations of how big the vessel must have been to hold all those animals, how many man-hours Noah and his sons must have put in cleaning out the mountains of daily manure, how many extra sheep and cattle had to be brought aboard to provide food for the wolves and lions? Pope Clement XII put the Encyclopédie on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1759 and ordered all good Catholics who owned a copy of the work to have it burned by a priest or be excommunicated.
On occasion the encyclopedists might be banished or jailed, their books might be burned (seven volumes were ceremoniously burned in Paris in 1759), and they themselves threatened with hellfire. They were accused of atheism, free thought, political subversion, plagiarism, corruption of morals. Hitherto, said a bishop, "Hell has vomited its venom drop by drop. Today there are torrents of errors and impieties."
A priest, the abbé Prades, had received a degree of Bachelor of Theology after writing a very long and learned thesis about biblical miracles, so long it was said that it had to be printed in very small type which his superiors had difficulty in reading. When his bishop eventually got around to putting on the right glasses, he discovered that it "appeared to have come straight out of the Preliminary Discourse of the Encyclopédie if not hell itself." The abbé; was stripped of his degree and he had to flee to the court of Frederick the Great in Prussia to keep out of a French jail.
The French government, faced with increasing pressure from defenders of traditional values, took a course, common to all governments, of playing both sides of the board. With one hand it condemned and punished. Diderot, who spent four months in jail in 1749, Six thousand copies were seized in 1757 and kept in a locked chest in the Bastille for several years. The government twice revoked the Privilège that allowed the Encyclopédie to be printed, and publicly denounced it for "maxims tending to establish the spirit of independence and revolt, and under the cover of obscure and equivocal phrases to raise the foundations of error, corruption of morals, irreligion and incredulity."
With the other hand, it quietly signaled to the Encyclopedists to go on doing just what they were doing. This was possible because the man in charge of suppressing it was actually devoted to its principles. He was Chrétien-Guillaume Lamoignon de Malesherbes, a very cultivated and very brave man who forty years later would again stick his neck way out by undertaking the defense of King Louis XVI at the trial which condemned him to death. During the Encyclopédie's early years he was Directeur de la Librairie, the government official charged with overseeing the production and distribution of books in France. He was one of the enlightened aristocrats who were convinced that the whole system of Privilèges and thought control on which the old order was based was both irrational and hopelessly inefficient for dealing with the challenges of the modern world. While he signed decrees revoking the Encyclopédie's privilège, he also found time to give Diderot advance warning that a police raid was coming, and offer his own cellar as a safe hiding-place for all the thousands of pages of his notes and drafts until the police were back in their barracks. He found in the arsenal of French government administrators a pleasant little weapon known as Permission tacite which meant that, for instance, while there might be a decree forbidding the printing of the Encyclopédie in France, the publishers might, by suitably greasing the palm of a printer in Neuchâtel, arrange to issue the last ten volumes in Paris with fraudulent title pages saying they were printed by Samuel Faulche et Compagnie in Switzerland.. .
Malesherbes realized that the Encyclopédie, and all it represented in the way of freedom of thought and experimental physics, formed the wave of the future. So did Le Breton and other far-sighted, greedy and unscrupulous printer-booksellers (the word "publisher" was not yet known) who realized that the thirst for new sciences and new knowledge spreading through the world was a potential gold mine for them. It would be more than a century before the term would be invented, but they had stumbled on to the world's first commercial best-seller.
It was a stupendous undertaking The making and merchandising of books was still in the 18th century a handicraft industry, offering de luxe products to the tiny minority of the population which was both literate and rich. Everything had to be done by hand. The production of paper involved an army of homeless itinerant laborers who turned ragpicker after the harvest was done and armies of skilled artisans to turn the rags into paper and then print and bind the volumes, working always to high standards - customers in bookstores routinely tested the quality of the paper by rubbing it between their fingers and holding it up to the light to see the threads of the linen of which it was made. They wanted their characters precise and clear, their margins wide, the design of the page elegant. The quantity of such paper needed for the Encyclopédie was enormous. A single volume in the quarto edition called for more than a million pieces of paper, and there were thirty-six volumes in the quarto edition. There were times that work was held up for weeks when the supply of paper ran out in eastern France and Switzerland, and even with a steady supply of paper it took five months of hard labor by five compositors and twenty pressmen to turn out a volume...A barrel of ink cost as much as a printing press, and a bad walnut crop in the south of France or a revolution in the American colonies might cause the price of ink to go through the roof.
Very little information has survived of the actual details of book publishing before the 19th century. The Encyclopédie is an exception. Professor Robert Darnton of Princeton discovered about thirty years ago in Switzerland a treasure-trove in the form of 50 thousand business documents and letters in the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel, an important publisher of French books in the eighteenth century. From them he was able, in an admirably thorough and thoroughly enjoyable book called The Business of Enlightenment, to construct a full picture of how a book like the Encyclopédie was created, manufactured and sold in those years.
It is not a pretty picture. As far as trade practices and merchandising are concerned, it must be admitted that modern publishing houses, so often denounced for their crass commercialism, are paragons of honesty and integrity compared to their forebears of the courtly 18th century who routinely lied and cheated and swindled and bribed and conspired and spied, published false sales figures, blackmailed one another, snitched on one another to the authorities for pirating editions and smuggling books by the ton. They also routinely mangled and distorted their authors' texts: any article in the Encyclopédie might have a different slant depending on whether it was for sale in a Catholic or a Protestant country, and Diderot when he saw the printed volumes was horrified to find that LeBreton, chief of the publishing syndicate in Paris, had not only corrected factual errors but changed the contents or tenors of whole articles to make them more palatable to the authorities of church and state.
If the publishers thought the original edition's explanation of how to construct an oyster bed, or its comment that 150 oysters as a first course never spoiled a good eater's appetite, did not grab the reader's attention adequately, they found it perfectly normal to add a report that Maria Leczynska, Queen of France, got deathly sick after eating fifteen dozen oysters at a sitting; plus the chemical composition of the prescription that saved her life.
They disregarded all our modern standards of taste and decency in their advertisements. One publisher touted the Encyclopédie as a sure-fire cure for "the most stubborn venereal diseases, scurvy, and pimples of all kinds."
Diderot came to think that his own work, after it had passed through all these dirty hands, was a "monstrosity." When he was asked to collaborate on a revised version of the work, he replied in a few words of colloquial French best translated as, Get lost.
The fact remained that, one way or another, for all the wrangling and the mendacities and the troubles with the law, the volumes kept coming out, for the very good reason that the bottom line always showed a more than healthy profit. No matter how much money they lost to thievery and disloyal competition, the publishers made money on a scale never seen before in the book business, and that would not be seen again till the arrival of mechanized publishing and cheap pulp paper in the middle of the next century.
. By 1789 almost 25,000 sets of authorized folio, quarto and octavo editions printed more or less legally in Paris, Lyons, Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel, Bern, Lausanne, Lucca, Leghorn, Liège, Amsterdam, had been sold throughout Europe. At an average of thirty volumes per set that makes three quarters of a million books. And there were several thousand more sales of pirated editions, and of rival and imitation encyclopedias riding on the popularity of the first..This would translate into the tens of millions, a figure that would impress even Rupert Murdoch in the immensely enlarged book-buying public of today.
The first folio edition was terribly expensive, affordable only by very rich people like government ministers, archbishops, Russian princes, German princelings. But as fiercely competitive publishers poured put out less expensive quarto and octavo editions, the Encyclopédie came to be read by more and more thousands of more or less ordinary people. It was still far beyond the reach of most of the population. A skilled locksmith or printer would have had to cough up the equivalent of fifteen and a half weeks wages for the cheapest octavo edition. If Diderot himself had had to buy it, it would have taken four a half weeks of his pay for the project. Still, the publishers had accurately judged that there was a huge untapped market for books like this, and their profits went up all around.
Any stratagem that would turn a profit was worth trying. The bookseller Duplain in Lyons was continually ordering more copies from publishers in Switzerland, and making plenty of money. He saw a chance of making still more by telling them that the market had become saturated, but he was lucky to find a suburban bookseller named Perrin "a commercial agent in Strasbourg who has a business in Lyon, or rather, I believe, in Paris, anyhow an extremely rich man," who would take copies off his hands for half price. After several hundred copies had gone Perrin's way, the publishers got suspicious and sent a spy to make surreptitious copies of Duplain's sales receipts, which more than confirmed their suspicions: there was no such person as Perrin, he was just a device to get books at half price and sell them at full. In addition, Duplain had, as professor Darnton notes, "cheated on the costs of paper and transport and even collaborated in a technique of fraudulent spacing and paragraphing worked out by a Genevan publisher - an item that might have seemed trivial to a lesser embezzler but that expanded a volume 19 by 96 unnecessary pages, worth 744 livres." The Swiss then arranged a boisterous meeting in Lyons in the style of a Hollywood godfather movie and persuaded Duplain to pay back somewhat more than what he had stolen from them. But he came out with a handsome profit all the same, enough not only to buy himself a title of nobility for 115,000 and live in ostentatious luxury with a chateauful of servants and a seventeen-year-old bride, but also to bribe the leader of his enemies into giving him a certificate that his conduct had been above reproach. And every one connected with the Encyclopédie on the business side appears to have done at least as well as Duplain..
No one can tell how many people actually read the Encyclopédie, but by the standards of the time it was surely very considerable. Every one in every country of Europe who wanted to keep up with current knowledge and current standards had to read it, or at least say he did.
Apparently few if any copies got to colonial America. But there were American revolutionaries in France, and they were clearly influenced by it. Benjamin Franklin was being an Encyclopedist when, after sages had been speculating for untold centuries about what exactly was the nature of lightning, he put a kite up in the sky in an effort to find out.
Jefferson was following the Encyclopedic rules when he heard that pious people were saying that the fossils of shellfish found at the top of mountains must have been put there by Noah's flood, and he took time out to calculate that if all the moisture suspended in the earth's atmosphere were to be condensed into solid H2O, the oceans would not rise half way up the mountains.
By the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Diderot and d'Alembert and almost all of the original contributors were dead. However, a new generation had come along to digest the enormous mass of new theoretical and technical knowledge that was piling up year after year. The new encyclopedists were less philosophical, more technical and more specialized than the old, and the new version in 202 volumes which came out between 1787 and 1832 was called the Encyclopédie Méthodique. But their aims and their methods were basically the same.
Their enemies were quick to proclaim, and have gone on proclaiming ever since, that the Encyclopedists were responsible for the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the guillotine and all the horrors of the modern world. Their friends were equally quick to give them credit for the rise of liberty and equality, universal suffrage, freedom of the press, and all the progress of the modern world.
In point of fact, the Encyclopedists were a very mixed bag of people, who never presented a unified political program. Diderot, in his article on AIUS LOCUTIUS (a Roman god who, having once spoken, refused to speak ever again), argued that while free thought was essential for the progress of learning, it was only common sense to write it down in a learned language like Latin so that it would not give dangerous ideas to the ignorant common people, and only prosecute people who translated it into understandable language.
The Encyclopedists had no common political program, and their direct influence on political and social events was probably very small. Darnton's analysis of the account books shows that most of the sales went to people very much like the Encyclopedists themselves, sedentary upper-class people brought up in a world of privilege and unchallenged authority. An edition which sold 338 copies in the placid provincial town of Besançon, where the population of 28,000 consisted largely of priests, professors, lawyers, officials, landholders, sold only 28 in Lille, (population 61,000), where they were starting to build the factories which would change the face of the world, but where the people building them were too busy to read anything beyond their balance sheets..
Keenly aware of change, the Encyclopedists had little more prescience than anyone else of where and how the change was coming. They lived at the dawn of the industrial age but they were barely aware of it. The technology they admired and illustrated so lovingly was a highly developed handicraft, mostly devoted to luxury goods like silk stockings, watches. They were not themselves revolutionaries though their belief in free inquiry and their contempt for irrational authority must have had considerable influence on revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic..
When the revolution in France did come, dismantling the whole vast structure of privilege at one swoop, they had different opinions about it, responded in different ways, and had different fates. Some were guillotined, some were pressed into service to make saltpeter and cannons, and to create a rational system of weights and measures to replace the old traditions that gave each province its own pound or foot or acre. The naturalist Daubenton was asked to dissect a rhinoceros from the former king's menagerie for revolutionary leaders eager to disseminate knowledge.
The great mathematician Condorcet, who had hailed the Revolution but had voted against the death penalty for the king, was forced to flee for his life. It was while hiding from the authorities that he wrote his classic demonstration that the progress of knowledge proved that "nature has placed no limit to our hopes," and that the human race was bound to approach ever closer to perfection. Wandering in the country, and starving, he ordered an omelet in a country inn, and when they asked him how many eggs he wanted in it, he faced one of those unexpected practical problems that pop up in times of great social change. He was a marquis by birth, and there would have been no reason for him at any time in his life to see the inside of a kitchen. So he was at a complete loss. He answered at random, Forty-eight, raising doubt as to the reality of his claim to being an unemployed workman. He was thrown into jail, and swallowed the poison he had hidden in his ring to avoid the guillotine.
Most of the surviving encyclopedists were content to wait the revolution out, and eventually got jobs at universities and government institutes, continuing to amass and channel and analyze the immense flood of knowledge pouring at an ever increasing rate over the earth.
Whatever happened to the individual Encyclopedists, the Encyclopedia itself survived. The solemn old volumes may sit unread in libraries, but some of the livelier articles are continually being reprinted in anthologies of 18th century prose.
Few people today share the Encyclopedists' ingenuous faith that all human knowledge could be satisfactorily summarized in 28, or in 202, volumes; or that greater diffusion of knowledge must necessarily lead to greater happiness for mankind.
But in a sense the Encyclopédie has been triumphant. The spirit of Lord Bacon, the combination of free curiosity and empirical evidence, roams unchecked over most of the world. When the Church which once ordered the Encyclopédie to be burned wishes to settle the question of whether the Shroud of Turin really wrapped a crucified man nineteen centuries ago or was created by an artist some centuries later, it did not rely on consultation of ancient authorities, as Pope Clement XII would surely have done. It sent the Shroud to a laboratory. When the Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston was called to testify in the case of a priest accused of sexually molesting 86 little boys, he did not put the blame on temptations of the Devil, as twenty centuries of theologians before him would have done; he said it was a matter of a "terrible l pathology" about which recent research has provided an understanding unavailable when he was a younger man.
This is just the way Diderot would have handled both of these questions..
© 1997 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine April 1997