June 1, 2013
In 1747 Denis Diderot and and his co-editor, Jean D’Alembert, redirected their efforts from the translation of Ephraim Chamber’s Cyclopaedia—a prior attempt at capturing universal knowledge—and focused on the compilation of a new work intended to collect all human knowledge: the Encyclopédie. The resulting work was published in twenty-eight volumes beginning in 1751 and ending in 1772. It stands as a monument of Enlightenment thought. This display of Hamilton College’s copy of the Encyclopédie honors the 300th anniversary of Diderot’s birth at Langres, France, on October 5, 1713.
The European Enlightenment of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries encouraged the investigation of the world through the paradigms of science and reason. Intellectuals collected, codified, and published existing knowledge and new discoveries in massive compendiums. As the Enlightenment flowered in France the philosophes—led by Voltaire and Rousseau—challenged the existing order of both Church and State, laying the groundwork for the Revolution of 1789.
“The goal of an Encyclopédie is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past are not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.”
- Denis Diderot