‘Enlightening the World: Encyclopedie’ changed history

April 11, 2019

Encyclopedie, ou Dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers (a Systematic dictionary of the sciences, arts, and crafts), better known simply as Encyclopedie, was published in Paris during the latter half of the 18th century. The volumes were edited by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert with engravings by Denis Diderot.

The Encyclopedie is considered to be one of the great works of the Enlightenment. It was a collaborative effort with contributions from such well-known thinkers and scholars as Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire. The authors sought to assemble, examine, and critique all available knowledge. The final product would be made widely accessible to the public, a radical idea in 18th century France and a contributing factor to the French Revolution.

The encyclopedia may seem mundane to us now but in its day was considered highly controversial. Firstly, the contents were organized based on human reason instead of an assumed “natural” or “divine” order. Religious ideas were not given a prominent or special position within the work but shared a common location with other beliefs such as magic and divinationan organizational tactic that was not looked at favorably by 18th century church officials.

Secondly, many of the contributors emphasized a changing political landscape in which authority came directly from the people as opposed to divine right or inheritance. This philosophy is a recognizable cornerstone of modern democracies.

Thirdly, it was Diderot’s belief that people had “natural rights,” that is, rights not bestowed by a ruler or government, and that knowledge and reason had the potential to enfranchise humanity. These were philosophies that would upset the carefully constructed social hierarchies, thus the Encyclopedie received widespread suppression, an early example of a “banned book.”

To learn more about the Encyclopedie, check out the book Enlightening the world: Encyclopedie, the book that changed the course of history by Philipp Blom available at the downtown branch of Cabell County Public Library. Several volumes of a later edition of the Encyclopedie are on display at the library on the second floor.

Crystal Kendrick works at the Cabell County Library.