- L' Encyclopédie by The Encyclopedists


In 1728 Ephraim Chambers published the first of two volumes of Cyclopaedia; or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences in London. A supplement in two volumes followed in 1753 after he died. Its novelty lay in the fact that it covered information on mechanical arts which previous encyclopedias had never included. This attention to practical crafts was the harbinger of the industial revolution.

It was decided to publish a French version in 1745 but after a conflict with the translator the French publishers embarked on an extended version. In 1747 Denis Diderot took on the task of translator and publisher, except for the mathematical sections which d'Alembert managed.

Diderot was jailed in 1749 for his liberal views and criticised by the Jesuits in 1751 when the first volumes were published. It was a conflict between scepticism and faith.This feud was continued in the first two volumes of the printed Encyclopédie

The problem was that the philosophes writing the Encyclopédie were rationalists. The work emphasised determinism and criticised the legal, social and religious institutions of the day. They turned the work into a treatise on human affairs allowing the man in the street to learn how the world worked. They believed everyone should have access to all rational truths. This turned it into a revolutionary endeavour. In fact Diderot wanted to build, not a dictionary of codified knowledge, but a motor for change. He included his vision for the work in Volume VIII, published in 1765.

"Our principal purpose was to assemble the discoveries of earlier centuries. We have not lost sight of this objective, but we do not exaggerate when we estimate at several folio volumes the new wealth that we have brought into this storehouse filled with the knowledge of the past. A revolution may even now be burgeoning in some remote region of the world, or be smouldering at the very center of a civilized country; [1] should it break out, destroy the cities, scatter the nations anew, and bring back ignorance and darkness, all will not be lost, if a single copy of this work survives."

The French government twice tried to ban the work but it was published in 1771 just over 10 years before the French revolution which it had encouraged. It included not only arts but also science and trades like printing, tanning and metal foundry thus forging a link between culture and technology.

The text was published in 17 volumes between 1751 and 1756. 11 volumes of plates were published between 1762 and 1772. This was a total of 28 volumes. By 1780 four more text volumes and one of illustrations plus two of index were compiled. In this way a total of 35 volumes made up the first edition.


In his introduction d'Alembert writes that philosophy is another name for science. The divisions of knowledge were those adopted from Bacon's proposals in 1605. These divided human learning into three parts: memory, reasoning and imagination. Philosophy's area of expertise was reason. This was further divided into natural and human philosophy. The latter subdivided into logic and morals. Morals were either general or particular. Particular morals were jurisprudence, the 'science of laws', which today means political theory.

Locke in the 17th. century, followed by Montesquieu, had argued that political authority was not divinely given but a contract between the rulers and the people. Diderot continued this line of thought claiming that only parental authority was founded on nature. This implied that political governors owed their power, not to a higher realm but to the consent of the governed. The philosophes applied this rule to all governments including the French absolute monarchy. They contended that the king could not transfer the crown without the consent of the nation since the nation had crowned the monarch and he was simply the usufructuary. It was accepted, though, that the eldest son could inherit the crown. 

The Encyclopédie included a long article on 'liberty' subdivded into natural freedom, the right to do anything which does not hurt to others; civil freedom, the need to obey laws enforced by an independent judiciary; political freedom which comes from the separation of powers; freedom of thought, the ability to think rationally.

The Encyclopédistes

Diderot and d'Alembert gathered a group of relatively unknown writers, except for Baron d'Holback and Jean Jacques Rousseau, for the task of assembling the Encyclopédie. However, the authorities began to attack the work and it became famous. Contributors like Turgot, Voltaire, Marmontel and Necker were attracted to write for it. They often disageed on philosophy but were united through the shared ideas of the Enlightenment.

'On Political Authority' by Diderot

Diderot opened the Encyclopédie with a text that challenged the nature of the monarch's political authority, which at the time was based on the divine right of kings.

"No man has received from nature the right to command others. Liberty is a gift from heaven, and each individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he enjoys the use of reason. If nature has established any authority, it is paternal control; but paternal control has its limits, and in the state of nature, it would terminate when the children could take care of themselves. Any other authority comes from another origin than nature. If one seriously considers this matter, one will always go back to one of these two sources: either the force and violence of an individual who has seized it, or the consent of those who have submitted to it by a contract made or assumed between them and the individual on whom they have bestowed authority."

It was dangerous to defy the king's power in 18th. century France. Diderot had already been imprisoned for expressing liberal ideas. However this essay openly defended the theory of consent and criticised that of 'might is right'. He meant that political power resided in the people, not the monarch. Diderot also argued that European authorities had gained their power through violence and called it 'usurpation'.

Diderot died 5 years before the French revolution in 1789 which his Encyclopédie had helped to prepare.

Preliminary Discourse by D'Alembert 

This primer to the Encyclopédie is an outline of the articles and their philosophical basis. It also provides a background to the other contributors to the work. D'Alembert insists on the dignity of the commoners who were gradually transforming the european world through the industrial revolution. This is also an indication of the egalitarian attitude which characterised the coming political revolution.

"Why have people come to despise the mechanical arts? What is their main advantage over the liberal arts (that is, more intellectual arts)?"

'Soul' by Voltaire

This is an ironical essay on the concept of the soul which Voltaire claims is a tradition from Aristotle through Aquinas to the Church teaching of his time.

He laughs at the idea that there is a spiritual item which exists separately from the body. He views humans as part of nature like flowers and dogs and asserts that religious teachers, not reason, are the sole source of knowledge about the soul. Voltaire goes on to use Newton's theory of gravity to argue that being alive does not imply possessing a soul. He repeats that the soul cannot be known except through revelation and faith. The implication is that this knowledge is not based on reason but on authority, a thinking process rejected by the Encyclopedists.

'History' by Voltaire 

"History is the narrative of facts presented as true, in contrast to the fable, which is the recitation of facts presented as false."

Voltaire illustrates his view of historiography by demanding more facts, details, precision of dates, descriptions of customs, laws, commerce, agriculture and finance.

He helped liberate the study of the past from simple antiquarianism centred on Europe, intolerant religion, warfare and great men.

"Finally, the great utility of modern history , and the advantage that it has over its ancient counterpart, is to teach all autocratic rulers that since the fifteenth century, [nations have] repeatedly united against a power that becomes too preponderant. This system of equilibrium was unknown to the ancients, and this is why the Romans were so successful. They formed an armed force superior to all other peoples and subjugated them, one after the other, from the Tiber to the Euphrates." '

'Priests' by Baron d'Holbach

The aim of the article is to define the role of the priest in all religions. The word takes on a religious and a political meaning and is written un an ironical style.

It is a review of the power of priests throughout history. In his own 18th. century Holbach presents the priesthood as a political movement dedicated to grasping power, for example through the Inquisition.

Holbach was a declared atheist whereas many philosophes were deists, including Voltaire. He did not hold back in his criticism of clerical power:

"Cruelty seems to be the general tendency of priests which is worse than blaming the Catholics."

The author was using the cover of historical neutrality to write a pamphlet against clerics and religion. He blames them for abuse of power through encouraging fanaticism, superstition and warfare.

Following the Illustration vision he places the clergy as citizens who have no power over other citizens. He advocates reason as the light which will guide humanity out of the servitude to religion which it has chosen for itself.

"... vain pretensions were sometimes cemented by rivers of blood; they established themselves out of the ignorance of the masses, of the weakness of sovereigns, and of the skill of the priests; these latter often managed to safeguard the rights they had usurped; in countries where the terrible inquisition is established, it provides frequent examples of human sacrifices lacking none of the barbarism of those of the Mexican priests . This is not the case in countries enlightened by the light of reason and philosophy; here, the priest never forgets that he is man, subject and citizen."

'Economy' by Rousseau

In trying to define the qualities possessed by a good State, Rousseau tackles the question from the viewpoint of the daily life of its citizens. The State is to be judged following an analysis of the reactions and behaviours of its members. This is the approach if political economy describes as a cluster of decisions taken by the government in order to adjust economic activity in a proposed way.

The author's plan is in three stages:

- include the countryside, not only the towns

- take an equal interest in all crafts avoiding big distinctions between manual and intellectual work

- make public finances efficient to avoid heavy taxes

The author thus appears as favouring an interventionist State, Big Government, over the free market model proposed by Adam Smith who had visited the philosophes in France. He argues that if the economy is not controlled by the State then the law of the strongest prevails. The State must prevent money from ruling the economy by applying the law and tending to the common good.

"The first and most important maxim of legitimate or popular government, that is to say, of government whose object is the good of the people, is, therefore, as I have said, to follow in everything the general will. But to follow this will it is necessary to know it and above all to distinguish it from the particular will, beginning with one's self; this distinction is always difficult to make, and only the most sublime virtue can provide us with sufficient enlightenment. As, in order to will, it is necessary to be free, another difficulty no less great than the former presents itself; namely, to secure at one and the same time the public liberty and the authority of the government."

 The Slave Trade by Jaucourt

The slave trade is presented as illegal from the point of view of the law. It is also unacceptable to justify it for economic reasons.

"One might say that these colonies would be quickly ruined if the slavery of Negroes were abolished. If this is true, must we then presume that the Negro population must be horribly wronged for us to enrich ourselves, or provide for our luxury? It is true that robbers’ purses would be empty if stealing were put to an end: but do men have the right to enrich themselves in such cruel and criminal ways in the first place? What gives a bandit the right to steal from passer-bys? Who is permitted to become wealthy by robbing his fellow men of their happiness? Is it legitimate to strip the human species of its most sacred rights, only to satisfy one’s own greed, vanity, or particular passions? No...European colonies should be destroyed rather than create so many unfortunates!"

The philosophical argument is that liberty is a natural right when one is the subject of a king. The fact is that slaves are bought and sold like merchandise.

"Everyone knows that Negroes are being purchased from their princes, who believe they have the right to own their freedom. Everybody is also aware that merchants transport these Negroes as if they were merchandise, either to their colonies or to America, where they are put on display to be sold.

...Kings, princes, and magistrates are not owners of their subjects; therefore they are not entitled to their subjects’ freedom, nor do they have the right to sell anyone into slavery."

Refugees (Anonymous)

This text is part of a group of writings called 'Struggle against the prejudices of the 18th. century.'

The topic is the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict had been promulgated in 1598 in order to end the religious wars provoked by the Protestant reformation. It granted rights to the Huguenots who were French Calvinists. The Revocation of this Edict in 1685 led to the suppression of the Reformed Church in France and forced Protestants into exile or hiding. As a result they lost all social identity.

"Refugees. This is what people called the French Protestants whom the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes forced to leave French soil and to look for sanctuary in foreign nations in order to hide from the persecutions that a blind and rash zeal made them endure in their own country."

The economic argument is that the protestants are an economic strength in the kingdom. They have shown talent in the arts, resourcefulness and know-how. These citizens had proved productive and their banishment impoverishes the country.

"Louis XIV in persecuting the Protestants deprived his kingdom of close to a million industrious men whom he sacrificed to the interested and ambitious purposes of some bad citizens who are the enemies of all freedom of thought, because they can only reign in the shadow of ignorance."

The political argument criticises the king for abuse of power. He is accused of negating freedom of thought and the author proposes replacing the absolute ruler with a Parliamentary monarchy. The use of the word 'citizen' announces the Revolution and the text questions the foundations of the Ancien Regime.

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