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Diderot’s Great Encyclopedia

George A. Rothrock describes how the age of Enlightenment was eager for secular, rational explanations of the world, and welcomed the scepticism of Diderot’s contributors.

In 1772, after a quarter century of unremitting toil, Denis Diderot produced the last volume of his monumental Encyclopedia or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences. The project, originally conceived in the 1740’s as a modest five-volume set, had grown through the participation of the best writers of the mideighteenth century into twenty-eight volumes, seventeen of text and eleven of illustrations. The first great encyclopedia, so important to the development of man’s understanding of his world, was one of the stormiest publishing ventures of all time.

The modern attempt at encyclopedic compilations of human knowledge goes back to the late seventeenth century. Under the patronage of Jean Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s great minister, the French Academy of Sciences had been founded. In 1675 Colbert instructed the Academy to undertake the preparation of a work eventually entitled Description and Perfection of Arts and Crafts, with a practical emphasis and copious illustrations. The set began to be published only in the middle of the eighteenth century, but its preparation greatly influenced other works.

The encyclopedic idea was further developed in France by the publication of Corneille’s Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (1694) and Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697), each a work in two volumes, while early in the eighteenth century England produced Dyche’s New General English Dictionary and Chambers’ Cyclopcedia. Thus, in this period when human understanding of the natural world was expanding with bewildering rapidity, the idea of organized summations found several expressions on both sides of the Channel.

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