The Encyclopedists

An author assesses the importance of the landmark Encyclopédie and the three men who created it

The eighteenth century has bequeathed to us one work which embodies in itself the spirit of the century,—that is the Encyclopédie. There are, of course, other works of that epoch more perfect, or nearer that perfection which was always the aim of its great authors. These are, however, the works of individual authors, and they give us only the labors of each author separately, while the Encyclopédie gives us the picture of an age which was one of the most important in the history of the world. With the subsidence of the bitter quarrels that characterized the publication of the Encyclopédie, not a little of the popular interest in the work has ceased. It remains, however, the intellectual fortress of its epoch, and although its defenders and its besiegers have lost much of their heat and ardor, it is not because the world of letters is grown more just or more peaceful, but because there are new fields of battle on which the warlike intellects of our own day find plenty to try their mettle. The Encyclopédie may well be read to-day, not for the interest of novelty which it once possessed, but for its importance in the history of literature and philosophy.

There is no recent summary of the lives of the Encyclopédistes; for the most part they are obscure men; and without going as far as Lebas (Dictionnaire Encyclopédique de la France, forming part of Didot's Univers Pittoresque) in depreciating them, or as far as Lord Brougham in extolling them, it is doubtful whether there is any-where an exact account of all of them. Indeed, many of the numerous contributors wrote only an article or two; the Biographie Universelle probably contains all that is worth knowing of the principal writers, and Grimm's corre-spondence tells a thousand stories and anecdotes about these. D'Alembert and Voltaire are treated especially by Brougham in his "Men of Letters and Science," but it is in a merely popular way. It is not easy anywhere to obtain satisfactory and direct reference to authorities on the subject; but perhaps the lives of the three great chiefs, Voltaire, D'Alembert, and Diderot, cover all the necessary grounds of knowledge with regard to their followers.

Two new works of interest, if not of authority, have appeared within this year, and each in its way is worth attention, and is sure to command it, as showing the hold which the Encyclopédistes still have on art and letters. Fichel, the cleverest painter in the newest school of French genre, has lately given us a capital picture, Les Encyclopédistes,—a group of the famous men of that large family,—in a library with the furniture, dress, and appointments of the period. Some of the faces are familiar to us even here,—Voltaire, Diderot, D'Alembert, Rousseau, Buffon,—and the others have also the sharp lines and speaking features of truthful portraits. A desire to find out the unnamed persons in the painting first caused the inquiry into the subject, which now takes this shape. Almost at the same time that Fichel's picture was given to the world, the Librairie Internationale in Paris published Les Encyclopédistes, leurs Travaux, leurs Doctrines, et leur Influence, par Pascal Duprat,—a readable and attractive volume of nearly two hundred pages. It tells the story of the Encyclopédie, the political and moral state of France when it began, the incidents of its publication, and, sketching the authors who took part in its composition, explains its object and plan, its general spirit, its philosophical doctrine, its politics, its political economy, its influence on the eighteenth century, and the French Revolution, its opponents then and its value now. All this is done briefly, clearly, and well by one of the lesser lights of French letters, who, however, reflects fairly enough the influence, good and bad, which the Encyclopedists continue to exert.

It is of course generally known that the Encyclopédie was not a proles sine matre, as Montesquieu vaunted, but a translation and expansion of Chambers's "Cyclopaedia," which was noteworthy simply because the title, borrowed from the Greek, was then for the first time applied to modern literature. It had been used, for the first time in the sixteenth century, by Ringelberg, in his " Cyclopaedia," printed at Basle in 1541 ; then by Paul Scalich, in his "Encyclopaedia," Basle, 1599; by Martinuss, in his Idea methodica et brevis Encyclopaediae, sive adumbratio Universitatis, Herborn, 1606; and by Alsted, in his "Encyclop-aedia," Herborn, 1620. These were all written in Latin, each by its own single author, and with a limited, field. Chambers, a century later, at Dublin, 1728, produced a work vastly beyond all his predecessors in merit; but it was perhaps the greatest triumph of his work, that it gained such favor as to command the labor of men like Diderot and his brethren in the task of reproducing it in French.

It was in 1750 that the Prospectus, written by Diderot, announced the publication of the first volume of the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, par une Société des Gens de Lettres. D'Alembert wrote the Preliminary Discourse, and these papers give the key-note of the work itself. But, after all, the Encyclopedists were not the discoverers of a new world of letters and philosophy, in spite of their fond belief and loud proclamation of that fact. They were the last product of a long intellectual cultivation, of a gradual development of principles which culminated in the great French Revolution, and which included Church and State, politics, religion, letters, in France, in Europe, and in almost the whole modern and civilized world. It was a revolution which began at least with Bacon, was advanced by Hobbes, was furthered by Locke, and was brought to its social and scientific results in France. In that country the philosophy of Descartes was taught by the Jansenists, by Arnauld, Pascal, and Nicole; yet, the Church, which by its oppression limited their power, was one of the first institutions to suffer by its gradual decline. The interweaving of English and French philosophy runs through a long course of years and events. France sought in England what it wanted, what of its own strength it could never attain,—-first, philosophical culture, next, political principles. England received from France the influence of some of the greatest minds of modern philosophy, but each drew from the other much of the doctrine which characterized the nation for over a century. Toland, Tindal, Collins, Shaftesbury, Wollaston, and, last and greatest of all, Bolingbroke, reflected the tone and temper of French philosophy, with its grace of style, and charm of clearness,—next best to truth.

It was in his exile at Touraine, after the death of Queen Anne, that Bolingbroke met Voltaire, found in him intelligence and inclination, and inspired him to become the apostle of a new philosophy of pure reason. It was Voltaire's journey to and residence in England that brought him in close intimacy with the Freethinkers there. About the same time, Montesquieu made his studies in England of the English Constitution, as a preparation for his greater work. It was the reverence which Voltaire saw exhibited in England for Newton at the time of his almost royal funeral in 1727, that led him to study Newton's physical theories and to translate them into French. He felt all the more strongly from the contrast of English liberty the weight imposed in his own country by heavy despotism, official corruption, the censorship, and all the burdens put on intellectual freedom. He worked courageously and steadily, for a long time alone, to produce some change in the philosophical atmosphere of France. The weakening influence and the gradual decline of political and religious power favored the emancipation of the spirits hitherto held in check. New ideas began to show themselves, and literature spread them throughout France. Authors became a power, and showed it by adopting the name of gens de lettres; they were almost a fourth estate. Literature ceased to be a pompous luxury of the great; it gave up its solemn, measured steps; it threw off the elegance and perfection at which it had hitherto always striven as essentials; but in becoming light and even frivolous in form, it became popular in itself and powerful in forming public opinion, and then it was that the Encyclopédie was announced.

A year's advertisement of Diderot's circular produced four thousand subscriptions of two hundred dollars each,—a prodigious price for the time. The first and second volume followed in rapid succession, and the world of letters and philosophy was fired with the quarrels that grew out of them. The Jesuits and the Jansenists suspended their own quarrels and joined forces to attack a common enemy, for as such they looked on the authors of the Encyclopédie. And yet the two volumes were written with great moderation; and the articles on religious questions carefully avoided all theological discussions. Nevertheless, they were bitterly attacked, and finally the publication was suspended by the government. Diderot and his associates, however, knew where to look far help, and they found it in the right quarter.

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