Wikipedia 250 Years Ago

Middlebury Special Collections
On display in Middlebury

The Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, was published in France between 1751 and 1772. It was a general encyclopedia that, with later supplements and revisions. A set of all 35 volumes were on display for one day, July 18, at Middlebury College Special Collections.

Like Wikipedia today, the Encyclopédie intended to assemble all knowledge, in fields ranging from philosophy to theology to science and the arts. Diderot hoped that collecting all that information and then disseminating it to the world would allow people to educate themselves, then share their knowledge with “the people who will come after us, so that… our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier.”

Useful knowledge about bakeries

The 35 volumes provided a vast compendium of, among other things, technological information, including tools and then-current production processes. It applied a scientific approach to understanding them and explained how to improve machines to make them more efficient. Diderot wanted people to have access to “useful knowledge” so they could apply it to their everyday life. Moreover, the Encyclopédie considered artisans, technicians, and laborers to have equal status with intellectuals, clerics, and rulers, preparing the way for an egalitarian political outlook

Also like today’s Wikipedia, the Encyclopédie was a collaborative effort. Among its numerous contributors were the Enlightenment intellectuals (philosophes) like Diderot himself, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Thanks to their contributions, the Encyclopédie represents in great part the thought of the Enlightenment. 

Encyclopédie title page
A title page–Neufchastel!

It not only gave information but expressed opinions. It denied that the Catholic Church was authoritative in matters of science. It questioned the authenticity of miracles, the Resurrection, and other events in the Bible. It sought to secularize learning and distinguish between truth and “superstition.” “The philosopher,” according to one article, “takes for truth what is true, for forgery what is false…. The philosophical spirit is thus a spirit of observation and accuracy.”

As a result of this outlook, the Encyclopédie contributed to the social ferment that culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. The article “Political Authority” emphasized that the source of political authority was neither God nor tradition but the people, who have the right to consent to their form of government.  Overall the Encyclopédie recommended social and political reforms to improve society for everyone. 

Reacting against this radicalism, church and state authorities tried suppress the Encyclopédie. Pope Clement XIII placed it on the Catholic Church’s list of banned books. In 1759 the French government suspended its privilège

But production of the many volumes continued illicitly.  For volumes 8 through 17, to deflect government interference, the editors listed a phony place of publication, outside France in “Neufchastel.” And to avoid detection by censors, writers sometimes buried their criticisms in obscure articles or expressed them in ironic terms.  

Middlebury Special Collections put its complete set on rare display on July 18. Visitors were free to page through them and find state-of-the-art (for 1760) descriptions of things related to our part of the world, such as Quebec …

Beginning of the entry for Quebec
Beginning of the entry for érable (maple)

… and maple trees.

That a set of this monumentally important work is housed in our region—c’est formidable!

–Janet Biehl