TheEncyclopedia of Diderot and D'Alembert, composed of 35 volumes, was published between 1751 and 1772. The Encyclopedia's project was originally to bring together the knowledge acquired by mankind and thus produce a critique of religion. The materialism and the struggle against Christianity of Diderot are part of the foundations of the Encyclopedia, which will be worth the hostility of the Court and the Church. It will be a huge success in France and in Europe, contributing to the propagation of the Enlightenment.
The century of philosophers
In the 18th century, many French writers and thinkers began to call themselves "philosophers". Voltaire, Montesquieu or even Diderot then set themselves the objective of fighting the darkness of ignorance by the dissemination of knowledge. Confident in the capacity of man to be determined by reason, the philosophers of the Enlightenment show an optimism towards history and believe in the progress of humanity.
Among these philosophers is Denis Diderot, one of the boldest thinkers of his time. He embraced a literary career in 1743 translating various works in the English language before publishing, three years later, his first book, entitled Pensées philosophiques. Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748) and Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) followed, which led to him being locked up in the dungeon of Vincennes for three months. However, he is constantly on the lookout for new profitable projects.
In 1745, the bookseller Le Breton decided to translate an illustrated dictionary of the sciences and the arts written by the Englishman Ephraïm Chambers entitled the Cyclopedia and published in 1728. When he submitted his idea to Diderot, he did not propose a translation. , but an original work, which would constitute a "general picture of the efforts of the human spirit in all kinds and in all centuries". To embark on this adventure, he joined forces with one of his friends, the mathematician and philosopher Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, illegitimate son of the famous woman of letters, Madame de Tencin.
The beginnings of the Encyclopedia
In October 1750, Diderot set out his project in a Prospectus and succeeded in convincing 2,000 subscribers. This success allows him to achieve, with d'Alembert until 1759, a gigantic work, which will involve the greatest minds of the time. Among these, we must quote Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Buffon, Helvétius, Condillac, d'Holbach, Daubenton, Marmontel, Quesnay, de Jaucourt, Grimm and Turgot. The first volume of theEncyclopedia or dictionary reasoné sciences, arts and crafts appeared on July 1, 1751.
In the " Preliminary speech by the editorsD'Alembert explains to readers how the articles are structured and their philosophy. He also writes that the work " has two objects: as an Encyclopedia, it must expose as much as possible, the order and the sequence of human knowledge; as a Reasoned Dictionary of Sciences, Arts & Crafts, it must contain on each Science & on each Art, either liberal or mechanical, the general principles which are the basis of it, & the most essential details, which make it the body & the substance».
Years of hard work
The Encyclopedia's success was immediate, and circulation increased significantly over the years. However, publishing each volume is not without difficulty. Not only did Diderot and D'Alembert have to order the articles from the authors, reread them and correct them, which took a lot of time, but they also had to face the attacks of the anti-philosophers, foremost among which were the devout party and the Jesuits. From 1752, the latter obtained the prohibition to sell, buy or hold the first two volumes published, following a scandal caused by the thesis presented in the Sorbonne by one of the authors, the Abbé de Prades. Fortunately, the protection of Madame de Pompadour and that of the director of the Bookstore, Malesherbes, allow publishers to resume publication the following year.
In 1759, it was the coup de grace. The Council of State again prohibited the sale of the Encyclopedia and ordered the reimbursement of subscribers. Malesherbes intervenes but cannot prevent the ban on publishing. D'Alembert gave up and Diderot continued alone the work of preparing the last ten volumes, which were published clandestinely. Finally, in July 1765 appears the last of seventeen volumes of texts (the last volume of plates will be published in 1772). In the end, 150 collaborators and 1,000 workers wrote 71,818 articles for 17 volumes of text. A true bestseller, this first edition of the Encyclopedia will bring in, according to estimates, around 2.5 million books.
The posterity of Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopedia
The enterprise of Diderot and his collaborators allowed the development of encyclopedic production. She also remains the symbol of the Enlightenment spirit. In Catholic circles, in the middle of the 19th century, attempts were still made to erase its traces with even more important monuments. Father Jacques-Paul Migne (1800-1875), founder of the Universal Clergy Library and publisher of the monumental collections of texts from the Fathers of the Church, Greek Patrology and Latin Patrology, thus published an ecclesiastical Encyclopedia (1851-1859 ) in sixty-six volumes in order to relegate the “fatal” Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert to being only “a pygmy of science and utility”.
The posterity of Diderot’s work also has another side: the Encyclopédie des sciences philosophiques (1817), produced by the German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, heirs to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. A synthesis of knowledge as much as of philosophical knowledge, Diderot's Encyclopedia, polemical mystification, catalog or Great Work, remains a unique work.
- Diderot and L'Encyclopédie, by Jacques Proust. Albin Michel, October 1995.
- The encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert and the encyclopedic projects of the 18th century. Editions L'Harmattan, 2018.
- La France des Lumières 1715-1789, by Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire. Belin, October 2014.