The Encyclopedists

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

Mme. de Châteauxroux belonged to that honest and virtuous family of Nesle which had already furnished Louis XV. with two mistresses,—Mme. de Mailly and Mme. de Vintimille. For four years her protection proved sufficient, and in that time five volumes appeared in which Voltaire and the Encyclopédie lent each other strength. New success brought new attacks, and the Jesuits and the Jansenists repeated their assaults,—the one column led by the Archbishop of Paris, the other by the Advocate-General Joly de Fleury and the Parliament. The Encyclopédie was again suspended, and with it the privilege of publication. It was made the target for unnumbered pamphlets, and the subject of a comedy, Les Philosophes, by Palissot. Then came the loss of D'Alembert, and with him of many of the contributors. Diderot, however, found in Voltaire an ally worth all that had abandoned him. For eight years they worked together, first to prepare material for future volumes, and next to gain the privilege of publishing them. At last, and again by help of a woman, and that woman the king's mistress, —this time Mme. de Pompadour, —the privilege was renewed, but still with a loss of some of its earlier and exclusive rights. However, in 1765 the work again began, and in 1771 it was completed, making seventeen volumes of text, and eleven of plates; and in 1776 and 1777 five volumes of supplement were printed, nominally, at least, in Amsterdam, and the great work was then peacefully concluded.

In looking over this great work, and its army of authors,—not much short of a hundred,—two names are specially distinguishable,—Diderot in all that relates to philosophy, D'Alembert in all that relates to science. D'Alembert, too, has the credit of having gained Voltaire to their aid, and from the fifth volume on he furnished nearly all the articles on literature, beginning with the word "esprit,"—tout à propos pour se définir lui-même! But his labor did not nearly end with that which was printed in the successive volumes his correspondence shows untiring zeal, in-terest, and activity on behalf of the work which in his eyes was big with the fate of the eighteenth century. Rousseau, on the other hand, wrote only two articles,—one on Music, the other on Political Economy, and shone in neither. Montesquieu, too, appeared but once; but his works preceded and inlpecl to make the Encyclopédie, while the Encydopédie helped to make the success of those writings of Rousseau which succeeded it. Buffon, too, was one of those we may call the group of the first rank, who lent little but a name to the new enterprise.

Of those of less importance in the eyes of the world then, but of more use in the work, who stand together on another level, there were Duclos, Dofresnoy, Marmontel, Holbach, Turgot, Condorcet, and some others of mark in their own way and time. A third group is made up of the theologians whose names and writings appear in the Encyclopaedia: put there, it has been suggested, as the conquerors of Egypt, in moving towards the Nile, put in front of their army the sacred animals of Egypt,—with the hope of allaying the prejudices which they could not conquer. Morellet, Yvon, De Prades, and Mallet were the Abbés of the Encyclopaedia; and later Polier, a neighbor and recruit of Voltaire's, who claimed the merit of softening his theological fury and bringing his liberty of thought within the reasonable limits of his own.

But the individual contributors, who furnished articles on their own special subjects, were among those who gave much of its value to the work. The art of war was discussed by a professor of strategy seamanship, by a sailor; salt-works, by a manufacturer; sugar, by a planter; silks, by a Lyons merchant; and so in succession through every class of articles. There was, therefore, a concert of action on the part of the intellect of France, an alliance of literature and science in the war for the truth, realizing Bacon's anticipation of the time when the world would profit by just such men and just such measures. This was, however, carried on with very irregular steps. The two first volumes were wisely restrained in tone, then five volumes were published under a permission which exacted a somewhat similar limitation; still the spirit of the book improved, although its most marked, features were traced rather in subsidiary articles than in those of prime importance; and the boldest proposals for political and moral reform were conveyed in articles on grammar or philology. With the eighth volume there was almost entire liberty of speech; but the editor then in charge has his own fears awakened, and did not hesitate to lay a sacrilegious hand on the articles sent in. A letter of Diderot, dated November 12, 1764, berates his subordinate roundly for his treachery. In spite, however, of the mutilation, the concluding volumes show a hearty hatred of existing abuses and a zeal for reform, strong protests against prejudice, error, and injustice, and warm encouragement to every movement looking to social, moral, or political progress. The writers speak with greater elevation, the work takes a loftier position, and in its pages can be heard the rustling of the storm that was then gathering, and was soon to break over the devoted head of France. It is this that gives it to this day an importance that no literary or scientific merit alone could have perpetuated.

The persecutions that environed the Encyclopédie gave it its first success the influences brought to bear upon the king, to secure its continued publication, gave it value in his eyes and in those of the court; it was addressed to the nobility and to the better classes, because there were no readers in a public which could not read. Its readers were confined necessarily to the ruling classes, and its conquests were the more effective on that account. Its influence can be traced out step by step; the liberty in trade which it advocated in 1750 was granted in 1764; between 1761 and 1774 Turgot carried out in the administration of Limoges the reforms which the Encyclopédie had demanded,—new and better roads, the abolition of internal tariffs, military requisitions, etc., etc. In 1774, when he became minister of Louis XIV., he applied to the kingdom those reforms which he had tried in a province. The same resistance which the ideas of the Encyclopédie had met and overcome met and overcome Turgot, but the final result was the same. Necker, Calonne, and Brienne in vain sought to govern the nation by other principles. The government appealed to the nation by convoking the Tiers état, and the three orders met and told their wishes. It was again the plan, the principle, almost the text of the Encyclopédie. In the midst of the Revolution the same voice could be heard, and it was that voice which triumphed over the storm, and brought France once more to peace, to industry, and progress, material, intellectual, political. Those who made and the pilot who rode the storm safely are all graduates of the school and indoctrinated with the lessons of the Encyclopédie. Its opponents and their attacks are long since forgotten, and the weapons with which they were overcome are obsolete, but still the fact remains that the Encyclopédie was a powerful lever with which its authors overturned the past and raised the standard of reform for the future; and this it is that gives it value even in our own day.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In