The aim of the Encyclopédie was to gather all available knowledge, to examine it critically and rationally, and to use it for social advancement. The subtitle, translated from French to English, reads ‘A Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts’.
Research, production and publication took over 40 years. By 1772, when the final volume appeared, there were 17 huge volumes of text and 11 volumes of illustrations. Topics ranged from Absolute Monarchy and Beekeeping to Intolerance, Pin Making and Zanzibar.
The trades plates
Most of the illustrations show crafts and manufacturing processes. The Encyclopédie aimed to show that modern civilisation depended on the skills and labour of the people who made ‘all the necessary things of life’. The editors claimed to have visited workshops, to ensure that the information was as accurate as possible. The illustrators certainly had to work from actual examples.
The illustrations are deliberately idealised. Work is shown to be calm, ordered and dignified, not chaotic, noisy and dangerous, as it often was in reality.
The project started in 1745 as a straightforward proposal to translate a recent English dictionary compiled by Ephraim Chambers. Reference books were very popular in the 18th century, both fuelling and reflecting the expansion of knowledge at this period.
The French bookseller Le Breton, who commissioned the translation, was confident of a healthy profit from his investment.
As work began, it was agreed that the scope of the English two-volume dictionary should be widened to include recent advances in science, technology, travel and the arts. From being a simple translation, the project became a massive undertaking.
In 1747, a mathematician called Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and a brilliant but little-known writer called Denis Diderot were recruited as editors. But they had their own agenda. Their goal was to use knowledge and reason to challenge the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church and the authority of the state.
A lifetime’s work
The bulk of the work fell to Denis Diderot. As sole editor from 1757, he recruited over 140 contributors as well as writing, or rewriting, many of the articles himself. He also briefed the illustrators, liaised with printers and publishers, and negotiated with the authorities.
In doing so, Diderot devoted his whole life to the project. He did this in the belief that knowledge would make people happier and more virtuous. His novels and other literary works were published only after his death.
Contributors to the Encyclopédie ranged from wealthy amateurs to respected scholars. They included some of the most famous names of 18th-century Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau supplied an article on Political Economy and many others on music.
Voltaire wrote on History, Fornication and Taste. One of the lesser known, but most productive, authors was Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt. With the help of secretaries, he supplied 17,266 articles out of the total of 71,818.
Diderot in trouble
The French authorities and the Catholic Church viewed Diderot as a dangerous subversive. In 1749 he was imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes on the grounds that he had written a book that showed him to be an atheist.
Diderot faced the alarming prospect of being held indefinitely, without trial, and unable to work. Friends and publishers lobbied to save the Encyclopédie and get him released. Eventually Diderot was let out, but only with a promise to keep his opinions to himself.
The first volume of the Encyclopédie appeared in 1751, and the second the following year. The Archbishop of Paris quickly identified passages that questioned the literal truth of the Bible. Lamoignon de Malesherbes, in charge of policing the book trade, put a stop to the publication.
After a while, work did resume but only on condition that all the articles relating to religion and other contentious matters would be checked by censors.
Friends in high places
Although the Encyclopédie had many enemies, it also had well connected supporters. Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, had put in a good word for the project. Malesherbes, whose job was to censor the publication, actually saved it by warning Diderot of an impending police raid.
Eventually, the French authorities allowed the publication of the plates volumes. The Encyclopédie now had around 3500 subscribers: it was too important, both intellectually and commercially, to collapse.
Printing and publishing
The volumes with illustrations could be published without difficulty. The text volumes were more problematic. They were probably printed in Paris but from Volume 8 onwards, the title pages give Neufchâtel in Switzerland as the place of publication. This was a convenient fiction, since books published outside France were not subject to censorship.
As well as the threat of censorship, there were the practical challenges of editing, setting, correcting and printing a work of this size.
Success and impact
The last volume appeared in 1772 and Diderot died eight years later. As well as the big, expensive folio edition, there were also smaller, cheaper editions, all of them the offspring of Diderot’s great work.
These reached every corner of Europe and as far as America. Readers included scholars, intellectuals and professionals. Many of these people played a leading role in the political events that followed later in the century.