Common section

The Encyclopedia

Arguably the greatest work of the Enlightenment came in 1751 with the appearance of the first volume of the Encyclopedie, or Encyclopedia: The Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts, and the Crafts.

Although Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783) edited the Encyclopedie, over a hundred intellectuals in fields such as mathematics, religion, law, and industry contributed thousands of articles to the manuscript that eventually reached seventeen volumes. The two editors hoped to do two things with the Encyclopedie. First, by making vast amounts of knowledge available, they hoped to promote the greater good of mankind. Second, they hoped to change Europeans’ way of thinking. They believed the Encyclopedie would cause people to question dogmas and abandon superstitions, thus leading to the formation of a more educated public.

Would You Believe?

Because the Encyclopedie openly challenged religious intolerance and the Catholic Church while praising Protestant thought, the work in its entirety was banned by the Church. However, for those who subscribed to the work and paid the steep price, the volumes were delivered secretly upon completion.

By 1780, the 35 volumes contained over 70,000 articles and over 3000 illustrations. The articles covered every imaginable topic from science to math to religion to morality to manufacturing to the arts. Diderot firmly believed that every topic should be examined and explored regardless of what anyone thought or felt, and that this examination ultimately would lead to progress. For 15 years, Diderot and the others labored to produce the volumes, despite pressure from Rome and efforts by the publisher to dilute the contents. The Encyclopedie, which openly questioned the intolerance of religion and government, made a huge impact on all of Europe.

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