We just celebrated, or perhaps forgot to celebrate, an important moment in intellectual history. Denis Diderot was born on October 5, 1713 in France. This may not seem like the most dramatic piece of news to hear on a Monday morning three hundred years after the event, but every time Mr. Google, Wikipedia, or any of the online search engines answers one of our questions we are benefitting from the genius and determination of Denis Diderot.
His idea, which was as simple as it was brilliant, was to gather together all the knowledge in the world in a systematic way so that anybody could find information about anything. In other words, Diderot invented the encyclopedia.
It was a project on a heroic scale, completed in 1772 and filling twenty-seven large volumes containing seventy-five thousand entries. It was not at all popular among the rich and powerful of the time. The idea of spreading knowledge is never welcomed by people whose position depends on the ignorance of those less fortunate. Knowledge really is power. That’s why universal education evokes such mixed feelings. On the one hand it is an engine of economic progress. On the other, once people start thinking for themselves who knows what might happen?
Diderot was said to have written 10,000 of the Encyclopedia articles himself. Some of them were so radical that the entire book was banned for a while. But now it is treated as an intellectual monument, and The French state will be honoring the author in his centennial year.
When I was growing up encyclopedia salesmen came from door to door. “The encyclopedia man” became a kind of joke, spoofed by Monty Python among others. My parents had two different sets in multiple volumes, one for adults and one for children – that is to say, for me, my very own encyclopedia. An encyclopedia in the house was supposed to guarantee that your child would grow up both intelligent and knowledgeable, and obviously it worked in my case. You can still find printed encyclopedias gathering dust in public libraries, but rarely on family bookshelves – the internet has seen to that. I leave it to you to decide whether the internet in the house will guarantee that your child will grow up both intelligent and knowledgeable.
The great thing about an encyclopedia in book form, and especially a big one like Britannica or Americana, is that you can read it, explore it, and get lost in it. One thing leads to another, and another, and another. You may start by looking up (say) Diderot and end up reading about speculative fiction. I know, because it happened to me. Internet search engines simply seek out a target and hit it: here’s your question, here’s your answer, end of story. This is very practical and useful, but there’s no adventure in it, and precious little chance of making any strange or unexpected discoveries.
Intellectual giants of the past like Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Freud all admired Diderot, not just for his massive encyclopedia but for his subversive satirical writing. He was a man with a mission, to promote knowledge in all its forms without prejudice and without censorship. It is ironic to reflect that if he were to pursue the same passion now, three centuries later, he would probably be in as much trouble with the authorities as he was then.
Copyright: David Bouchier