Enlightenment on the Market

The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800

by Robert Darnton
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 642 pp., $20.00

The Encyclopédie may well be the most famous (and is certainly the biggest) of those great books much talked about but little read. Probably it never had many readers: encyclopedias usually do not. But it was much nibbled at, consulted, read in. Though never measured and perhaps exaggerated, its cultural impact has been little questioned by either its detractors or its admirers. For good or ill, the Encyclopédie quickly took its place as a milestone in the history of civilization.

This was as Diderot and d’Alembert and its other begetters hoped. The very conception of the work was a conscious step toward the rationalization of human life—which is one view of civilization. The Encyclopédie announced a new epistemology, the doctrine that knowledge and what the era called “philosophy”—the critical, progressive mode of the intellectual life—were not only compatible and combinable, but indissolubly connected. Beyond this it also spelled out specific lessons of an “enlightened” kind. In cross references, satirical asides, transparent parallels and analogies, many articles provided implicit commentary on the abuses of the day (as writers saw them) in the light of “philosophy.”

The resulting scandal gave the work additional repute. Unsurprisingly, later ages in search of the roots of modernity went on seeing what Diderot and d’Alembert did as among the driving forces of human liberation. This vision now persists mainly among liberals and progressives, but it was once shared by conservatives, who deplored it. As early as 1759 the Parlement of Paris saw behind the Encyclopédie a plot against church—indeed, religion—and the state; a royal prohibition (the second) on publication followed. In the same year came the special cachet of Papal condemnation. Nor was this the end of the publishers’ troubles—6,000 volumes of a reprint were later seized by police and walled up in the Bastille. Such persecution settled, for many people, the work’s lasting and honored primacy in progressive mythology.

Nevertheless, for all its traditional importance in the interpretation of modern history as the unfolding of liberty (an interpretation none the less vigorous and persuasive today because it now comes in sociological wrappings), the Encyclopédie gets little scrutiny except from specialists. We tend to take it and its influence for granted, though the extent and nature of that influence remain ill-defined. Given the size and costliness of the original twenty-eight volumes, and given, too, Diderot’s wish for a revised edition (he felt the publisher had corrupted the text without his knowledge), questions about who read it and what they got from it can hardly be regarded as settled.

Professor Darnton has now made a splendid contribution toward exploring these questions by setting out in his new book the publishing history of the later versions of the Encyclopédie. The adjective is explicit: this is the story of the way they came to be published. Yet this seemingly limited approach reveals more of the scope and limits of the Encyclopédie‘s influence than any other has done …

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