Denis Diderot and the Book that Changed the World
An encyclopedia has an ambitious goal: to bring together all important information on an academic discipline into a single book. The challenges that face expert(s) who create such a compendium of knowledge are many: How do they determine which information is important and useful? How do they structure each article so as to present a summary of the material that gives readers a good understanding of its scope? Which reference works should they direct readers to for further information? What manner of person undertakes such a monumental task?
Denis Diderot (1713-1784) lived a life that epitomizes the struggles and achievements of philosophers ancient and modern. He came from a conventional background, but was himself highly unconventional. He was educated, receiving a master of arts degree in philosophy in 1732, but was also an autodidact, accumulating an enormous library during his life. His masterwork, the Encyclopidie, broke with tradition in several respects, and above all in its presentation of the emerging thought of the Enlightenment, creating a furor in the academic and scholarly communities of the time–yet never earned Diderot a penny. Officially banned by the French monarchy as it was being compiled, the Encyclopedie nonetheless was completed in secret with the support of such luminaries as Madame de Pompadour. The work comprised 28 volumes, with 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations. The first seventeen volumes were published between 1751 and 1765; eleven volumes of plates were finished by 1772. Diderot himself wrote several hundred articles, some very slight, but many of them laborious, comprehensive, and long–becoming a pariah in the process.
No less a person than Catherine the Great of Russia came to his rescue. She purchased Diderot’s library from him, then left it in Paris, paying Diderot an annual salary to act as her librarian. After his death, the library was sent to Russia, where the Queen had it deposited at the National Library of Russia.
As if all this were not enough, Diderot authored several important works of philosophy and literature.
Freedom of thought, religious tolerance, and the value of science and industry–these are some of the philosophical positions that Diderot championed. Diderot lived a life out of tune with his times because he practiced what he believed–and the excitement of helping birth modern Europe surely helped sustain him during the many difficulties he encountered. He had the courage of his convictions, and so remained at the front of his era’s intellectual vanguard.