Diderot Publishes the

The publication of Diderot’s Encyclopedia was one of the great events of the French Enlightenment. A massive work of scholarship designed to assist the triumph of reason, progress, and tolerance, the Encyclopedia shaped French intellectual life for several decades.

Summary of Event

Denis Diderot, who was to become editor of the Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, 1965), was born in Langres, France, on October 5, 1713. Educated by the Jesuits, he then left for Paris to complete his studies, where he showed a marked aptitude for languages, mathematics, and philosophy. After receiving a master of arts degree from the University of Paris in 1732, he led a rather aimless life for an extended period, characterized chiefly by a severe shortage of funds. Yet already he was becoming known for his wit, clever conversation, pleasant personality, and imaginative and powerful intellect. [kw]Diderot Publishes the Encyclopedia (1751-1772)
[kw]Encyclopedia, Diderot Publishes the (1751-1772)
[kw]Publishes the Encyclopedia, Diderot (1751-1772)
Encyclopedia (Diderot)
[g]France;1751-1772: Diderot Publishes the Encyclopedia[1340]
[c]Philosophy;1751-1772: Diderot Publishes the Encyclopedia[1340]
[c]Literature;1751-1772: Diderot Publishes the Encyclopedia[1340]
Diderot, Denis
Alembert, Jean le Rond d’
Le Breton, André
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
Volland, Sophie

Diderot’s marriage to Anne-Toinette Champion was largely unhappy, but he was devoted to his daughter Angélique and took personal charge of her education. To compensate for his marriage, he found himself attracted to women of influence and intelligence, such as Sophie Volland, with whom he had an intense friendship spanning two decades. Among Diderot’s closest male friends were Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’Holbach, Holbach, Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’ Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, Grimm, Friedrich Melchior von and the political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, until an unpleasant falling out between Rousseau and Diderot occurred in 1758.

Historians have subsequently labeled the eighteenth century the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. It produced a number of remarkable intellects, collectively known in France as the philosophes Philosophes , of whom Diderot is a prime example. They were interested not simply in philosophy, but in politics, religion, science, education, and economics as well. Relying upon sensory experience and skepticism, the philosophes tended to deny the existence of a personal god, being either Deists (that is, subscribing to the notion of God as creator but as otherwise inactive) Deism or, in the case of Diderot, atheists. They vigorously attacked the failings of society and in turn worked to ensure the triumph of reason, progress, science, and human happiness. The printed word was one of their most effective weapons.

In 1745, the publisher André Le Breton expressed a desire to print a French translation of Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopedia
Cyclopedia (Chambers) (1728). Although this project never materialized, he conceived a more ambitious one, hiring a noted mathematician, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, to serve as editor, and soon Diderot was invited to be coeditor, an understandable choice given Diderot’s translation abilities and wide range of intellectual interests. By 1747, Diderot became in effect the editor in chief, with d’Alembert confining himself largely to the mathematical articles.

A facsimile of the cover page of the first volume of Denis Diderot’s Encylopédie, 1751.

Diderot expanded the scope of the project and dramatically changed its purpose. This work was not intended to be simply a compilation of existing knowledge presented in an objective manner. Rather, its purpose was to change the way people thought and inspire them to action. The Encyclopedia: Or, Classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts, and Trades (to translate its full French title) challenged tradition and authority, particularly the Church and the monarchy, attacking corruption, despotism, superstition, ignorance, and poverty. It sought to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and for this reason heavy emphasis was placed upon articles giving the most current information on the mechanical arts and industrial processes. The Encyclopedia was to be a tool whereby the Old Regime was discredited and weakened, to be replaced by a society that embraced reason, tolerance, and progress. Its audacity, originality, and unity of purpose differentiated it from other previous works.

The Encyclopedia consumed twenty-five years of Diderot’s life. Published between 1751 and 1772, it eventually totaled seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates. After Diderot completed his work, another seven volumes were added, including a two-volume index. There were more than sixty thousand entries, written by approximately 150 authors. The contributors, known as encyclopedists, varied widely in background, talent, and opinions. One encyclopedist, the chevalier de Jaucourt, Jaucourt, Chevalier de wrote an astounding seventeen thousand articles, or more than one-fourth of all the entries. Among some of the more famous contributors were Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Montesquieu Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Turgot, Anne-Robert-Jacques and the marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet, marquis de

Diderot was deeply involved in all aspects of the enterprise, lining up contributors, editing manuscripts, proofreading, and attending to business details. In addition, he wrote about six thousand entries himself, particularly on philosophy and the industrial arts. In order to become acquainted with a topic, he would spend months in a workshop talking with artisans and craftspeople in order to better understand a technical or industrial process.

The threat of censorship Censorship;France
Book censorship;France continuously dogged the Encyclopedia. In 1752, the government suspended publication for a year, and in 1759, Pope Clement XIII condemned the work and the royal license to publish was withdrawn. Yet the work continued to be published in a clandestine fashion for several reasons. Most important, the encyclopedists practiced self-censorship, cleverly using subtlety, nuance, and irony to avoid the authorities’ wrath. Contributors also made full use of their powerful friends in the king’s court. Madame de Pompadour, Pompadour, Madame de Louis XV’s mistress, used her influence as a protector, as did Chrétien-Guillaume de Malesherbes Malesherbes, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de , the government censor, who was actually an enlightened individual supportive of the project.

One of the more clever subterfuges employed by Diderot was to allow a conservative author to write an article but then to cross-reference this article to a more radical entry that in effect refuted the arguments advanced in the original one. Perhaps the unhappiest moment in Diderot’s life occurred in 1764, when he discovered that Le Breton had surreptitiously edited more than three hundred pages of Diderot’s manuscripts in an attempt to make them more acceptable to the censors. Nevertheless, most scholars believe the changes did not detract from the overall impact of the final product.

Diderot’s fame did not rest exclusively upon his editorship of the Encyclopedia. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer who could effortlessly write a five-thousand-word letter or a treatise of several hundred pages. He wrote novels, essays, art reviews, theatrical plays, and philosophic dissertations. Almost invariably, his themes dealt with first principles and weighty philosophic questions. Much of what he wrote, however, was either circulated in very narrow circles or remained unpublished because of its controversial content. Among some of his noteworthy books, published posthumously, were La Religieuse (1796; The Nun, 1797), Jacques le fataliste et son maître (wr. c. 1771, pb. 1796; Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1797), Le Neveu de Rameau (1821, 1891; Rameau’s Nephew 1897), and Le Rêve de d’Alembert (wr. 1769, pb. 1830; D’Alembert’s Dream, 1927). Some of the greatest minds in modern history acknowledged their intellectual debt to Diderot or admired his works; these thinkers include Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Auguste Comte, Arthur Schopenhauer, Honoré de Balzac, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Charles Baudelaire, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Nevertheless, Diderot’s death on July 31, 1784, did not evoke the same widespread public response as did those of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.


The reputation of the Encyclopedia, unlike that of Diderot, has had a mixed history. Even by the end of the eighteenth century, its glory had faded, since much of the information it contained had become outdated and the radicalism of the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789, far exceeded the more modest reforms called for in the Encyclopedia. It remains of interest as a historical document, however. At the time of its publication, it had tremendous impact: It attracted more than four thousand subscribers, an impressive figure given its high cost and sheer size.

The Encyclopedia dominated the intellectual debate of the period, generating plays, articles, books, and angry debates as to its wisdom or folly. Conservatives, clerics, and courtiers denounced the work as destructive of religion and assaulting the very fabric of society. Admirers later claimed with obvious hyperbole that it was the bible of the Enlightenment and a blueprint for the French Revolution. Yet historians generally agree that the work was highly influential, it reached the cultural and political elites of Europe, it played a significant role in undermining the legitimacy of the Old Regime, and it inspired similar encyclopedic works in other countries. The Encyclopedia is quite rightly regarded as an important landmark in the cultural and political history of modern Europe.

Further Reading

  • Blom, Philipp. Enlightening the World: “Encyclopédie,” the Book That Changed the Course of History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Blom relates the history of the Encyclopedia, describing the book’s conception, efforts to suppress its publication, and the authors who faced exile, jail, and censorship to complete the work.
  • Brewer, Daniel, and Julie Candler Hayes, eds. Using the “Encyclopédie”: Ways of Knowing, Ways of Reading. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2002. Collection of essays analyzing how the Encyclopedia compiled knowledge, then reshaped and redirected that knowledge. Some of the essays discuss translating the Encyclopedia, reading the book on-line, and the book’s garden references and medical discourse.
  • Darnton, Robert. The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the “Encyclopédie,” 1775-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. Deals with the technical and business side of publishing subsequent editions of the Encyclopedia after the original edition had been completed.
  • Donato, Clorinda, and Robert M. Maniquis, eds. The “Encyclopédie” and the Age of Revolution. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992. Examines the influence of the Encyclopedia upon future encyclopedic works in several countries. Superb collection of plates and engravings.
  • Furbank, Philip Nicholas. Diderot. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. An entertaining, well-balanced account of Diderot’s life, placing him within the political and cultural context of his times.
  • Gordon, Douglas H., and Norman L. Torrey. The Censoring of Diderot’s “Encyclopedia” and the Re-established Text. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947. A short but major scholarly contribution to the subject, delineating the areas where censorship took place. Best read by advanced-level students.
  • Mason, John Hope. The Irresistible Diderot. New York: Quartet Books, 1982. Contains lengthy translated segments of Diderot’s writings, accompanied by skilled commentary. Chapter 5, “Encyclopedia,” includes a sample of Diderot’s contributions to that work.
  • Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. This lengthy, scholarly, two-part biography is generally regarded as the finest study of Diderot, designed for specialists and general readers.

Early Enlightenment in France

D’Alembert Develops His Axioms of Motion

Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws

Rousseau Publishes The Social Contract

Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket

Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature

Goethe Inaugurates the Sturm und Drang Movement

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

Jean le Rond d’Alembert; Marquis de Condorcet; Denis Diderot; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’Holbach; Louis XV; Montesquieu; Madame de Pompadour; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot; Voltaire. Encyclopedia (Diderot)