Originally the term encyclopedists referred to the contributors to the French Encyclopédie, but it has come to be used for all the 18th-century Frenchmen who shared the scientific, political, and religious views popularized in that work.
Origins of the Encyclopedia. The Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, like many revolutionary ideas of its century, had its immediate source in England. In 1728 Ephraim Chambers had published a two-volume work titled Cyclopedia; or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences; Containing an Explication of the Terms, and an Account of the Things Signified Thereby, in the Several Arts, both Liberal and Mechanical, and the Several Sciences, Human and Divine … the Whole Intended as a Course of Ancient and Modern Learning. Between 1743 and 1745, John Mills, an Englishman, and Gottfried Sellius, a native of Danzig then residing in Paris, arranged for a French translation of this work, and requested the bookseller André LeBreton to undertake its publication. LeBreton obtained the necessary privilège royal, but shortly afterwards eliminated Mills and Sellius from the project, perhaps because their translation was found to be inadequate. In their place he recruited Jean Le Rond D'Alembert and Abbé Jean Paul Gua de Malnes. One year later Denis Diderot was added to the staff, and in 1747 he became the general editor. It is generally thought that Diderot was responsible for the decision to enlarge the general scope of the Encyclopédie; in his prospectus of 1750 he described it as a compilation "particularly from the English dictionaries of Chambers, J. Harris [Lexicon technicum, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 1704], and T. Dyche [A New General English Dictionary, 1740]."
The first volume of the Encyclopédie, published in Paris in 1751, caused great concern among the orthodox, especially the Society of Jesus. Some charged that the jesuits wished either to destroy the project or to take it into their own hands, pointing out that their Dictionnaire de Trévoux was actually a literary competitor, while their Journal de Trévoux regularly attacked the Encyclopédie. Leading Jansenists also expressed their dismay at the nature of the publication (see jansenism). However, the work found some favor at court, if only because Mme. de Pompadour cared for neither Jesuits nor Jansenists, and no official action was taken against the Encyclopédie until the appearance of the second volume in 1752. At that time the council of louis xv suppressed the two volumes in existence because they contained "maxims tending to destroy the royal authority, to establish a spirit of independence and revolt … to build the foundations of error, of moral corruption, of irreligion and of unbelief." Nevertheless, the license to publish further volumes was not revoked, and the work continued with a new volume appearing each year until 1757. During this period the Abbés Tamponnet, Millet, and Cotterel acted as official censors, reviewing all articles, not only those touching theological matters. By 1757 the original list of subscribers had grown from about 2,000 to about 4,000.
In 1759 there was a new suppression of the work, this time by the Parlement of Paris. Later the same year the privilége royal was revoked. At this juncture Diderot (D'Alembert had dissociated himself from the project the previous year) proceeded clandestinely with the remaining ten volumes of text, which were published together at Neufchâtel in 1765. These aroused little opposition, however, partly because LeBreton had taken it upon himself, without Diderot's knowledge, to eliminate all passages he thought might offend civil or ecclesiastical authorities. By the time Diderot discovered what had been done it was too late to repair the damage. Marie-Angélique Vandeul, Diderot's daughter, relates that her father ordered LeBreton to print a copy of the ten volumes with the deleted passages restored, but no such copy has ever been found.
Contents and Contributors. The Encyclopédie, in its completed form, consists of 17 folio volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates published by LeBreton, four supplementary volumes of text and one of plates published by C. J. Panckoucke in Paris (1776–77), and two volumes of index prepared by Pierre Mouchan and published in Amsterdam (1780). The first volume of the Encyclopédie contains D'Alembert's celebrated "Preliminary Discourse," in which he asserted that the purpose of the undertaking was to present the principles and essential details of all the sciences and arts; to provide a ready means of instruction, both for teachers and for
those who wished to learn by themselves; and to preserve man's knowledge for posterity. Following Francis bacon, D'Alembert divided all the sciences into three classes, depending on whether they pertained to memory (history), imagination (the beaux arts ), or reason (philosophy). The entire schema is delineated in a chart in the first volume. There are articles on various phases of biology, chemistry, cooking, gardening, grammar, history, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics, and religion, as well as on the trades and manufactures of 18th-century France.
In many instances the Encyclopédie articles are totally lacking in the objectivity that one expects to find in a 20th-century encyclopedia or dictionary. The authors availed themselves of any and every opportunity to introduce their own political, philosophical, or theological points of view, often in an indirect or satirical manner. While many articles reflect a completely orthodox point of view, others express atheistic or deistic ideas popular among French intellectuals. However, much of what shocked the more conservative segments of society is no longer thought daring, e.g., the advocacy of freedom of the press, the denial of supreme papal power in temporal affairs, the denunciation of slavery, the suggestion that Scripture often uses the language of the common man rather than that of the scientist, and the rejection of innatism in knowledge.
Approximately 60 writers contributed to the Encyclopédie. Some of the better-known authors are: the Chevalier de Jaucourt, Diderot's chief aid and practically his only assistant while the last ten volumes were in preparation; George Louis Buffon, a naturalist; the Marquis de condorcet, mathematician and philosopher; Baron Paul holbach, author of the Système de la Nature and other antireligious works; Baron de montesquieu, famous for his Esprit des lois and Les Lettres Persanes; Jacques Necker, financier and economist of sorts; Jean-Jacques rousseau, man of letters and political philosopher; Anne Robert Turgot, economist and statesman; and François Marie Arouet voltaire, philosopher and literateur.
It would be difficult to overestimate the influence the Encyclopédie exercised over French intellectuals at the time of its publication; it is generally conceded that it was one of the principal intellectual sources of the Revolution. In the 20th century, of course, it is very dated as an encyclopedia, and its chief value is as a historical document.
Bibliography: The Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert: Selected Articles, ed. j. lough (Cambridge, Eng. 1954). a. m. wilson, Diderot: The Testing Years, 1713–1759 (New York 1957). p. grosclaude, Un Audacieux Message: L'Encyclopédie (Paris 1951). f. venturi, Le Origini dell'Enciclopedia (Florence 1946). j. e. barker, Diderot's Treatment of the Christian Religion in the Encyclopédie (New York 1941). j. legras, Diderot et l'Encyclopédie (5th ed. Amiens 1928). l. ducros, Les Encyclopédistes (Paris 1900).
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