Encyclopédie

Encyclopédie (äNsēklôpādēˈ) [key], the work of the French Encyclopedists, or philosophes. The full title was Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers. This work was originally planned as a translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopedia (1st ed. 1728), and the first editor was the Abbé Gua de Malves. The project was abandoned because of disagreements, and Le Breton, the publisher, agreed to let Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert edit an entirely new work. With the aid of Quesnay, Montesquieu, Voltaire, J. J. Rousseau, Turgot, and others, the two editors produced the first volume in 1751, with a famous "preliminary discourse" signed by Alembert. The discourse indicated the aims of the project and then presented definitions and histories of science and the arts. The rational, secular emphasis of the whole volume infuriated the Jesuits, who attacked the work as irreligious and used their influence to convince the government to withdraw (1759) the official permit. Alembert resigned as editor. The project was able to continue, however, as a result of Diderot's perseverance and the support he received from the statesman Malesherbes. With the help of the chevalier de Jaucourt, Diderot brought the clandestine printing of the work to completion in 1772. Of the 28 volumes, 11 were devoted to plates illustrating the industrial arts; Diderot compiled this information and made the drawings. When the work was in page proof, Diderot discovered that deletions made by the printer had mutilated many articles containing liberal opinions. Despite this unofficial censorship the Encyclopédie championed the skepticism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. By 1780 a five-volume supplement and a two-volume index were added, compiled under other editors. The success of the Encyclopédie was immediate, and its influence was incalculable. Through its stress on scientific determinism and its attacks on legal, juridical, and clerical abuses, the Encyclopédie was a major factor in the intellectual preparation for the French Revolution.

See selections ed. by N. S. Hoyt and T. Cassirer (tr. 1965); R. N. Schwab et al., Inventory of Diderot's Encyclopédie (1971); J. Lough, The Encyclopédie (1971).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: French Literature