A bookseller named André-François Le Breton hired an Englishman named John Mills to translate Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia from English into French in the early 1740s. It turns out that Mills’ fluency in French was rather limited – a fact he kept concealed from Le Breton. Le Breton went on to secure the publishing rights, engage a printer, and sell advanced copies. But he soon discovered that Mills had not produced a single translation, and didn’t even possess a copy of Chambers’ work – and so, on August 7th of 1745, Le Breton finally caught up with Mills and beat him with a stick. Le Breton then set about finding some other men to share his financial risk, as well as a new editor and translator. He settled on Abbé Jean-Paul Gua de Malves, and in the new contract with the publisher, it was understood that the French version of the English encyclopedia should expand upon Chambers’ work, and particularly extend its treatment of the arts. Witnessing this new contract, and guiding Gua in this expanded edition, were two further figures – the young author Denis Diderot and the brilliant mathematician Jean d’Alembert. Gua proved himself not entirely up to the task – he struck most of his contemporaries as a mad man – and so eventually Diderot and d’Alembert took over the editorship. It was expected that the project would take three and a half years.
This was in 1747. Twenty-five years later, the French Encyclopédie existed in glorious completion: 17 volumes of 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations, with an additional 11 volumes of plates, five volumes of supplements, and a two-volume index. (Chambers’ Cyclopedia, on which the French work originally was to be based, consisted of two volumes.) It remains the single greatest publication of the Enlightenment. The articles covered the higher realms of knowledge – the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy – but it also went into great detail about grubby trades like papermaking and the manufacturing of pins (thus providing Adam Smith with his key example for The Wealth of Nations). The overall intent of the work is best expressed by the Encyclopédie’s own article on “Encyclopédie”:
The goal of an Encyclopédie is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the work of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.
Every Enlightenment ideal is right there: the trust that knowledge will make us virtuous and happy, that knowledge is for “the people with whom we live,” and that compiling the entirety of knowledge in a single work is the best part of being human. There were over 160 contributors to the work, including the Olympian Voltaire, the brilliant but obstreperous Rousseau, and the caustic atheist d’Holbach – though the person who contributed the greatest share of content was a man whom history has largely forgotten: the Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt, who wrote a whopping 14,000 articles over ten years, averaging at least four articles each day. He was rich, learned, passionately devoted to the cause, and evidently had little else to do. (De Jaucourt had once written a medical dictionary that would have run to six folio volumes, but his only manuscript was lost at sea on its way to be published in Amsterdam. He shrugged off the loss and went to work for Diderot.)
While we think of encyclopedias nowadays as studiously neutral accounts of the facts, this clearly was not the vision of the encyclopédistes. Certainly, the articles were meant to inform and instruct; but they also offered knowing insights drawn from sharp satire – as well as sheer delight for the ironic mind. So, for example, are you curious to know what AGUAXIMA is? Diderot dutifully tells us that it is “a plant growing in Brazil and the islands of middle America.” But then he adds:
This is all we are told; & I would like to ask for whom descriptions like this are made at all. It cannot be for the natives of the country, who obviously know more characteristics of the aguaxima that this description contains…. It is also not made for us; for what does it matter if there is in Brazil a tree that is called aguaxima of which we know nothing but the name? To whom is this name useful? It leaves ignorant those who were ignorant in the first place; it teaches nothing to anyone.
One strains to find this sort of theatrical aside in other reference works. The Encyclopédie was meant above all to be a human work, aimed at readers with moral sentiments, beating hearts, inquisitive minds, and senses of humor – not the idealized, disinterested consumer of neutralized information.
The road to completing this great work – the “stormy triumph,” as it has been called – was laden with potholes, obstacles, and near-failures. The work clothed itself in Enlightenment ideals, but this was still the France of Louis XVI, and the police were routinely tasked with interrupting the work. On one occasion in 1759, the Royal Council condemned the scandalous contents of the Encyclopédie and ordered the police to raid Diderot’s house and confiscate all materials – only to find an empty house. The Director of the Book Trade had been tipped off and had taken the precaution of hiding the materials in his own office, which was off-limits to the police. The moralistic worries of some, it seems, were equally opposed by the enlightened faith of others who saw the profit and fame the project would bring to France. And there was plenty in the project to cause supporters of the ancien régime to worry. Consider the entry on BEES:
The drones are smaller than the queen, but larger than the worker bees; they have a rounder head; they live off nothing but honey, while the workers eat raw wax. With the rising of the sun the latter part for a day’s toil, while the drones go out much later; then only to frolic around the hive, without working. They come back in before the calm & cool evening; they have neither stings nor claws, nor prominent teeth as do the workers… The only usefulness of the drones is to impregnate the queen. As soon as this is done, the workers hunt them down and kill them.
It is impossible to read this, then or now, without thinking of the bloody revolution to come. What Diderot didn’t know was that Le Breton – still presiding over the Encyclopédie’s publication – had been secretly censoring articles he regarded as too controversial or polemical on their way to print. When Diderot finally found out, there was little to do but weep and rage, as Le Breton had burned the original manuscripts. But in 1933 there surfaced in Berlin a set of the Encyclopédie that, as it turns out, had belonged originally to Le Breton. In this set was an additional volume of blank pages into which Le Breton had pasted page proofs containing evidence of what had been altered or deleted – and while this came far too late to console poor Diderot, we can see now that Le Breton’s damage was fairly minimal. His main concern was to excise passages sure to send Jesuits or Jansenists over the edge. Plenty of the original flair survived.
Encyclopedias, by their very nature, are doomed to be books whose largest parts are never read. But the Encyclopédie must win the prize for the highest ratio of cultural importance to percentage of pages actually read. Its very existence served as a demonstration that humanity could wrap its arms around the whole of knowledge while retaining surety of judgment and confidence in its own resources. Indeed, the Encyclopédie’s entry on the PHILOSOPHER beautifully expresses the ideal toward which the massive project aspired:
The world is full of intelligent people and very intelligent people, who always judge; they always guess, because to judge without a sense of when one has a proper reason to judge is to guess. They do not know the extent of the human mind; they believe that everything can be known: thus they are ashamed not be able to pronounce judgment and imagine that intelligence consists in judging. The philosopher believes that it consists in judging well: he is more satisfied with himself when he has suspended the faculty of making a decision than he would be to have come to a decision before having a sense of the proper reason for a decision. Thus he judges and speaks less, but he judges more surely and speaks better; he does not avoid the bold strokes that are presented naturally to the mind by a swift assemblage of ideas that one is often surprised to see united. It is in this swift connection that what is commonly called wit consists; but this is also what he seeks least, and to this brilliance he prefers the care of distinguishing his ideas well, of knowing their proper extent and the precise connection between them, and of not allowing himself to be duped in taking too far some particular relationship there may be between ideas. It is in this discernment that what we call judgment and precise thinking consist: to this precision are then joined flexibility and clarity . The philosopher is not so attached to a system that he is unable to feel all the force of objections. The majority of men are so strongly attached to their opinions that they do not even take the trouble to penetrate those of others. The philosopher understands the sentiment that he rejects, to the same extent and with the same clarity that he understands the one he adopts.