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New Light on the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert

A characteristic product of eighteenth-century liberalism, the twenty-eight volumes of French Encyclopedia are here reviewed and reassessed by John Lough.

The encyclopedia—seventeen massive folio volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates—which Diderot succeeded in bringing out in Paris, despite all obstacles, between 1751 and 1772, is a landmark in the history of reference works of this type and in the development of French thought during the decades that preceded the Revolution of 1789. Yet, two centuries after its appearance, scholars are still divided as to its precise importance.

According to one view, the twenty-eight folio volumes were a mighty engine of war that served to batter down the gates of the Bastille and to destroy the whole absolutist, aristocratic and obscurantist fabric of monarchy, society and church under the Old Regime. Indeed, if one accepts this view, one can almost imagine the very peasants in the fields poring over its unwieldy folio volumes and stuffing their heads with subversive doctrines.

Diderot’s encyclopedia was denounced as “that pestiferous work” in the dedication to George III of the supplement to the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which appeared in 1801 after the upheaval of the French Revolution; “it has been accused, and justly accused,” the editor continued, “of having disseminated, far and wide, the seeds of Anarchy and Atheism.”

Although, in the last century and a half, the influence of Diderot’s work on the outlook of his contemporaries has generally been more sympathetically appraised, it has often been held to have been highly revolutionary. In recent years this view has been challenged. All sorts of awkward questions have been asked.

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