In honor of Banned Books Week and the upcoming 300th birthday of Denis Diderot, the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center would like to recognize the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers in the McDonald Rare Book Collection. This famous encyclopedia was a beacon of free thought that helped fuel the French Enlightenment and revolutionize social and political order in the Western world. Authorities saw it as a dangerous work-it was banned in France, and the Catholic Church placed it on the Index librorum prohibitorum, or Index of Prohibited Books.
The Encyclopédie began as a humble project. In 1743, French publisher Andre Le Breton asked encyclopedist John Mills to complete a French translation of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia. When Mills failed to complete the project, it was transferred to Jean Paul de Gua de Malves who proved similarly ineffective and was summarily fired. In a desperate attempt to save the project, Breton assigned two of de Malves’ employees, Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, to the task.
Diderot and d’Alembert, both French intellectuals at the vanguard of the Enlightenment, took to their task with zeal. Rather than simply translate Chambers’ work, they set out to bring together the entire range of human knowledge in one great collection. Beginning in 1747, the two men commissioned more than one hundred scientists, doctors, writers, scholars, and craftsmen to write for their Encyclopédie including the likes of Francois-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They divided their work into three categories: history, philosophy, and poetry and assigned subjects within industry, political theory, theology, agriculture, and the arts and sciences to these three groupings.
The first volume was published in 1751 and succeeded in appalling France’s political and religious elite. The Encyclopédie made little distinction between Christianity and other religions, provided extensive writings on the work of craftsmen and day laborers, espoused the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution, and in some cases openly supported radical political theories and challenged the source of power of the ruling class. Unlike the Church and aristocracy, the French intellectual community received the Encyclopédie with enthusiasm. The popularity of the work grew quickly and the number of subscribers increased with each volume published.
Not to be challenged, ranking members of the Church began a campaign of harassment against Diderot, d’Alembert, and their contributors. In 1752 King Louis XV placed a ban on the enterprise but revoked it three months later. The attacks continued, however, and many of the individuals writing for the Encyclopédie resigned. Even d’Alembert was forced to abandon the project when he was threatened with imprisonment. In 1759, with only seven volumes published, Louis XV placed a permanent ban on the Encyclopédie. Undeterred, Diderot and ordered the creation of several companion volumes of illustrations (which were exempt from the ban) while he and his remaining contributors continued to write new entries in secret.
In addition to the threats from French officials, Diderot also found himself on the brink of poverty. He was ultimately forced to sell his personal library to Catherine II of Russia who allowed him to keep the volumes at his home in France and paid him a stipend to serve as her librarian. Supported by the generosity of the Russian Empress, Diderot was able to continue his work. In 1765, volumes 1 through 17 were published by a printer in Switzerland and disseminated across France and throughout Western Europe. Much to Diderot’s despair, it was discovered that the printer had removed many controversial articles from the final version. Despite this, the Encyclopédie was well received and marked a historic victory for free thought.
Diderot continued his work on the Encyclopédie until 1772. Twenty-five years of difficult and sometimes dangerous work culminated in the publication of approximately 4200 sets, each comprised of twenty-eight volumes containing nearly 72,000 articles and more than 3,000 illustrations. Diderot’s work persists today in libraries and museums around the world and has gained even greater exposure through the advent of the Internet.
–Contributed by Trevor Sandgathe, images selected by Mike Mehringer