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.

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.

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