Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements and revisions in 1772, 1777 and 1780 and numerous foreign editions and later derivatives.

Denis Diderot (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784), a French philosopher and writer during the Enlightenment, had a major contribution to  the Encyclopédie and to Enlightenment.

Its introduction, the Preliminary Discourse, is considered an important exposition of Enlightenment ideas. The Encyclopédie’s self-professed aim was “to change the way people think.” It was hoped that the work would eventually encompass all of human knowledge; Denis Diderot explained the goal of the project as “All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”

The work comprised 35 volumes, with 71,818 articles, and 3,129 illustrations.

The writers of the encyclopedia saw it as a vehicle to covertly destroy superstitions while overtly providing access to human knowledge. It was a summary of thought and belief of the Enlightenment. In ancien régime France it caused a storm of controversy, due mostly to its tone of religious tolerance. The encyclopedia praised Protestant thinkers and challenged Catholic dogma, and classified religion as a branch of philosophy, not as the ultimate source of knowledge and moral advice.

The entire work was banned by royal decree and officially closed down after the first seven volumes in 1759 but because it had many highly placed supporters, notably Madame de Pompadour, work continued “in secret”. In truth, secular authorities did not want to disrupt the commercial enterprise which employed hundreds of people. To appease the church’s enemies of the project, the authorities had officially banned the enterprise, but they turned a blind eye to its continued existence.

It was also a vast compendium of the technologies of the period, describing the traditional craft tools and processes. Much information was taken from the Descriptions des Arts et Métiers.

The Encyclopédie played an important role in the intellectual ferment leading to the French Revolution. It created the auspicious climate.”No encyclopaedia perhaps has been of such political importance, or has occupied so conspicuous a place in the civil and literary history of its century. It sought not only to give information, but to guide opinion,” wrote the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

This work was very unorthodox and had many forward thinking ideas for the time. Diderot stated within this work, “An encyclopedia ought to make good the failure to execute such a project hitherto, and should encompass not only the fields already covered by the academies, but each and every branch of human knowledge.” Upon encompassing every branch of knowledge this will give, “the power to change men’s common way of thinking.” This idea was profound and intriguing, as it was one of the first works during the Enlightenment. Diderot wanted to give all people the ability to further their knowledge and, in a sense, allow every person to have any knowledge they sought of the world. The work sought to bring together all knowledge of the time and condense this information for all to use. Using not only the expertise of scholars and Academies in their respective fields but that of the common man in their proficiencies in their trades. These people would amalgamate and work under a society to perform such a project. They would work alone in order to shed societal conformities, and build a multitude of information on a desired subject with varying view points, methods, or philosophies. He emphasized the vast abundance of knowledge held within each subject with intricacies and details to provide the greatest amount of knowledge to be gained from the subject. All people would benefit from these insights into different subjects as a means of betterment; bettering society as a whole and individuals alike.

This message under the Ancien Régime would severely dilute the regime’s ability to control the people. Knowledge and power, two key items the upper class held over the lower class, were in jeopardy as knowledge would be more accessible, giving way to more power amongst the lower class. An encyclopedia would give the layman an ability to reason and use knowledge to better themselves; allowing for upward mobility and increased intellectual abundance amongst the lower class. A growth of knowledge amongst this segment of society would provide power to this group and a yearning to question the government. The numerated subjects in the folios were not just for the good of the people and society, but were for the promotion of the state as well. The state did not see any benefit in the works, instead viewing them as a contempt to contrive power and authority from the state.

The Encyclopedie on BBC 4

Source: Wikipedia