The story of Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia is fascinating. In the country of France during the ancien régime, a time long before the freedom of press, a group of philosophers, scientists and other kinds of bohemians congregated in the literary cafes of Paris. Their goal: to write a dictionary that would make all the world’s knowledge accessible for everyone. And as if it wasn’t tricky enough to undermine the clergy’s monopoly on knowledge, Diderot and company aimed to describe all the arts and crafts in their work, and they were not planning to spend lots of words on the biographies of noblemen. To say this was a revolutionary and dangerous goal would be an understatement.
Originally, it was only planned to translate the English Cyclopaedia by Ephraim Chambers into French. Diderot was involved as one of the translators, but after two editors successively had stepped out of the project, Diderot took over the role as the main editor in 1747. His colleague and friend Jean le Rond d’Alembert, a mathematician, was hired to be the second editor. Since Chambers’s Cyclopaedia was published in 1728, the information in it had to be checked and, in certain cases, updated. For this reason, and also because Diderot made the description of the crafts the main theme of the dictionary, it soon grew to be a completely new project instead of a mere translation of an existing work.
Writing an encyclopedia is a massive task even today, so just imagine what it must have been like in the 18th century. The manuscripts of all 72.998 articles and every image in the 11 volumes of illustrations had to be written and drawn by hand. And although over 1,000 people were involved in writing, printing and binding, it took 26 years before the Encyclopédie was finished. But the workload was not the only hurdle the encyclopedists had to deal with. The governmental censorship was another problem which could not be underestimated. In the 18th century, every publication had to be licensed by the royal censor office. Having a license, however, did not mean that you were free to write anything you wanted. All books were proofread by the censors, and if they violated the king’s taste, the license could be withdrawn, the book could be banned and the author could be hanged.
That means freethinkers who had the courage to publish what they thought always had to fear for an arrest. So had Diderot, but that didn't stop him from publishing a controversial book called 'Letter on the Blind', in which he defends the empiricist theory that knowledge comes from sensory experience only. He questions if we can be sure that God exists, since we cannot perceive him. He did not exactly deny God's existence - he was raised as a catholic and had planned to be a priest before he became a bohemian - but the questioning alone was shocking already. Although Diderot had been clever enough to publish the essay anonymously, he had also been proud enough to highly talk about his work in literary circles, and the police had little troubles identifying the author of the book. Only one month after publication, in July 1749, Diderot was arrested and sent to the state prison of Vincennes, despite his fierce denial of having written the text. The libertine did not endure the conditions in the tiny tower room he was locked in for long: he confessed his crime after three weeks. He was immediately permitted to move freely within the castle, to receive visits from friends and family, and to continue his work on the encyclopedia. In November of that same year, he was released from Vincennes, but only after he had signed a letter in which he promised to never publish a philosophical text ever again.
That, of course, was a hard pill to swallow for le Philosophe. He had finally gained attention in the philosophical circles, his hero Voltaire had personally written him, and he did not stand behind his coeditor D'Alembert, who was a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, any longer when it came to authority. But now he had signed his own death warrant... Or not? Not at all, as it turns out. Diderot soon found other ways to express his opinion. Today, an encyclopedia is a gathering of dry, double and triple checked facts, but In Diderot's time, this was slightly different. Many hearsay knowledge was blindly written down, causing the quality of the articles to be extremely varying. Also, Diderot used the articles in the dictionary as an excuse to express his opinion on topics as the Catholic church, absolute monarchy, the position of aristocracy and to plea for equality among the social classes. For example, in the article on eagles, Diderot criticizes the absolute position of the king, and in the article Market, he pleas for economical liberalism and free competition. Sometimes the cross references alone held a strong message: in Cannibalism, the Encyclopédie refers to Eucharist and Communion. Criticism on the system was thus often expressed in between the lines, or were ironically formulated, but no reader would have problems understanding the true message of the essays. The main articles on tricky (i.e. religious) subjects, however, were cautiously kept perfectly orthodox. In that way, the censors, who were still monitoring the encyclopedia, were tricked out. The mood in the dark corners of the Parisian literary cafes must have been cheerful.
But the tide would turn. In the beginning of 1757, a fanatic called Robert-Francois Damiens attempted to assassinate the king. It was presumed he wanted to kill Louis XV because the Catholic church refused to grant holy sacraments to Jansenists, a religious movement that was considered heretical. The government reacted by ordering that everyone criticizing the king or the clergy in any way was to be arrested and treated with extreme rigor. The philosophes* and the Encyclopédie were in danger. In the same year, D'Alembert attracted negative attention when he wrote a controversial article on the key word Geneva, in which he praised the Genevian clergy for their supposed deist beliefs - which led to indignation in both Geneva and France. Even Diderot did not stand behind D'Alembert in this instance, and finally D'Alembert gave up his position as coeditor. Another reason why the government held a suspicious eye on the encyclopedists was their connection with Frederick II, King of Prussia, who was not only the founder of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, of which Diderot was a member, but also happened to be one of Louis XIV's worst enemies since France had been at war with Prussia since 1756.
All these factors led to the suspension of the encyclopedia's publishing license in 1759. Attorney General Joly de Fleury had held a speech, in which he claimed that the encyclopedists were "a sect of so-called philosophers who ... imagined a project … to destroy the basic truths engraved in our hearts by the hand of the Creator, to abolish his cult and his ministers, and to establish instead Materialism and Deism." The benefits for science and arts cannot outbalance the irreparable damage on faith and morality, declared De Fleury. The seven volumes that had already been published were banned - which was not that big a deal, since they had already been sold. And before the already existing manuscipts for the upcoming volumes could be seized, Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, a statesman and then director-general of the library, who was actually in charge of the censor office, saved them: he warned Diderot and took the texts to the one place were the police would never search for them: his own office.
The encyclopedists now gathered to think about the future of the Encyclopédie. Diderot and the other philosophes still had their ideological goal and wanted to continue their work underground. The involved booksellers eagerly supported this decision, not in the least because they would have to refund the upcoming volumes to the subscribers if those were not going to be published - a massive sum they would never be able to pay. The work was thus continued in secret, and was thereby protected by influential personalities like Madame de Pompadour and Malesherbes. Nevertheless, the number of contributors decreased dramatically, since many had left the project after the crisis. The scholar Louis de Jaucourt made up for that: he wrote most of the articles (almost 18,000 in total) for the next ten volumes, and sort of took over D'Alemberts position. Sort of, for although his contributions constitute 25 percent of the entire encyclopedia, Diderot never acknowledged him as a coeditor.
After an eight-year publication break, the government finally permitted the publication of the ten remaining volumes. After 18 years of hard working, argues and betrayal while being in constant danger of getting arrested, the text part of Encyclopédie was finished (the last volume of illustrations was published in 1772). But a last frustration, and maybe the worst of all, was to confront Diderot. Just before publication, Diderot noticed that Le Breton, the bookseller who had originated the project, had done 'some reviewing' on the manuscripts. Le Breton had moderated numeral questionable phrases and removed paragraphs or even entire articles that were too controversial, i.e. too dangerous in his opinion. The original manuscripts were destroyed and lost forever; there was no way of making Bretons revisions undone. Therefore, the last volumes made a way less clearer statement than the first seven - a great disturbance for the man who strove for political and social reforms. Diderot would never be able to look back on his time as an encyclopedist without having a bitter feeling - even the French Revolution could not make up for his dissatisfaction.
*It's not a typo, I use the French word on purpose!