A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry

485 Plates Selected from L’Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot

Dover Publications, New York. 1959

Charles Coulston Gillispie


The serried backs of numerous Encyclopedias stretch like a yawn across yards of shelf in the reference rooms of libraries, and seldom stimulate those who exhume facts to think of information as alive. Its soporific quality does not prepare the student to understand the alarums and excursions which attended publication in Paris of the first great compilation to range knowledge along the alphabet, the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers—Analytical Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades—by a “Society of Men of Letters.”1 This was no innocuous work of reference. In the words of its moving spirit and chief editor, Denis Diderot, a good dictionary ought to have “the character of changing the general way of thinking.”2 The first volume came off the press in 1751. Two years earlier Diderot had had to pass an uncomfortable and alarming hundred days as a crown prisoner in the fortress of Vincennes. There he was able to work on arranging the plates from which we reproduce a selection. He had been incarcerated, it appears, rather as a troublesome scribbler, author of the deistic Philosophic Thoughts and other questionable writings, than as editor of the projected Encyclopedia, but angry rumors about the threat posed by that undertaking to the “general way of thinking” were circulating ominously among policemen, princes, and priests.

“Up till now,” wrote the Bishop of Montauban, a powerful priest, à propos of the publication of Volume II in 1752, “Hell has vomited its venom, so to speak, drop by drop. Today there are torrents of errors and impieties which tend towards nothing less than the submerging of Faith, Religion, Virtues, the Church, Subordination, the Laws, and Reason.” What provoked his anger was the article “Certitude” by the Abbé de Prades, a freethinking churchman, who seated his subject in the reasonings of John Locke instead of the mystifications of Revelation, and who—it scandalously developed—had just been granted a doctorate for a thesis arguing this view by the faculty of the Sorbonne, professorial guardians of orthodoxy asleep at their post. The offending abbé prudently departed for Prussia. The Council of State forbade continuation of the Encyclopedia, only to be overborne by the forces of liberal opinion in Paris and mollified by promises of self-censorship. In the provinces blasphemy was less clever and more dangerous. In 1766 the 19-year old Chevalier de La Barre, a foolish gay blade, was arrested in Abbéville for having desecrated a wayside shrine. He was said to have scoffed at the dogma of the Virgin Birth. His judges of the local Parlement decreed that his tongue should be removed, and his right hand cut off, after which he was to be beheaded. His body was to be burnt. The latter two parts of the sentence were actually carried out in the great square of Abbéville. It was the opinion of the court that his mind had been seduced by the influence of the Encyclopedists.

The Encyclopedia appeared before its readers in the complementary guises of ideology and technology. I have drawn upon the latter aspect for this book. Its purpose is to reproduce many of the magnificent engravings which illustrate how things were made and how people got their livings. But of the two aspects, the ideology is the better known. For it is the ideology of progress and liberalism, conceived in the 18th century flirtation of the French Enlightenment with the English Constitution, which burst into life in the French Revolution and matured into the system of verities of modern democratic society. What with the dismay and disarray into which the disasters of the last decades have plunged France and England, it may be only in America that these beliefs, even when honored in the breach, continue to be associated with the idea of progress. Tolerance, education, representative government, individualism, equality before the law, opportunity, material betterment—they make a familiar list. But these good things could not be espoused in 18th century France except in the negative form of criticism of a society which was quite otherwise: monarchical, hierarchical, and priest-ridden; where dignity and recognition were denied the ablest elements of the population who did the work and paid the taxes; where the road to political power led, not through statesmanship, but through the bed of a king reduced by implacable boredom to the last stages of idleness; and where intellectuals or “philosophes” (by their own account men of wisdom, virtue, and wit, for the latter two qualities do not exclude each other in the French scheme of things) could make no impression on the world except by writing books and contriving all sorts of shifts to get them around the censor.

Handling censorship was as essential to literary communication as handling syntax. Nor must the gaiety of expression in a Diderot or a Voltaire lead his reader to suppose that it was a sport unaccompanied by humiliation and some little danger. To judge how far one dared go was a nice thing. Miscalculation might land a writer in prison and his publisher in bankruptcy. Liberal ideology, therefore, had to be clothed in innuendo, irony, and indirection. So, for example, the article on salt is not confined to the properties of sodium chloride. It deals also with the injustice to the poor of levying taxes on the necessities of life. So, too, the article “Political Authority” opens: “No man has received from nature the right to rule others. Liberty is a gift from heaven, and every individual of the race has the right to enjoy it as soon as he attains to the enjoyment of his reason.” In another vein, the word “Fornication” is introduced as a term in theology, and the verbs, “Adore, Honor, and Revere” are distinguished in religious and civil usage: “In religion one adores God, honors the saints, and reveres relics and images; in civil life one adores a mistress, honors the worthy man, and reveres those who are illustrious and distinguished.” The barbed cross-reference was an obvious device in the tactics of evading control. The reader is sent, for example, from an article on Belbuch and Zeombuch, gods of the Vandals, to one on Immortality and Soul. Tongue-in-cheek articles on religious and political practices recount absurdities in endless detail, to conclude with smug expressions of conformity so unctuous as to be utterly unconvincing. Not to multiply illustrations, however, there has recently been published for those who read French a brief and very useful selection of the pieces which epitomize the political, social, and religious ideas of the Encyclopedists.3

But to make an absolute distinction between those ideas and the technical contents of the Encyclopedia is to miss the point. For Diderot’s brilliant and original conception was to make the technology carry the ideology. This was his master stroke. Our own age sees science as power, but because relatively few people take the trouble to understand very much about it, we are less impressed with its purely intellectual triumph than was the 18th century. Over its sense of the world towered the figure of Isaac Newton, who had united knowledge of heaven and earth in a mathematical physics, and who symbolized the achievement of science, the new instrument of thought which had come into the world since the Renaissance with the unique capacity to be right about nature. Once understood, Newtonian science imposed assent with all the assurance of a geometrical theorem. In the Encyclopedia, therefore, a dictionary of science, it is not just Denis Diderot or Jean-Jacques Rousseau who seems to say that the institutions of the old Europe are absurd, immoral, and contrary to nature. It is science, and who is there to disagree except obscurantists and oppressors? In critical retrospect, there is, it is true, one little difficulty with this lesson. Diderot’s conception of science was drawn rather from Francis Bacon than from Newton. But this made no difference to his success. Indeed, to invest the utilitarian idea of progress with the high authority of Newton was itself a feat, whether or not of legerdemain.

No venture lacks forerunners, and the century-old philosophy of Francis Bacon worked as inspiration and example in the minds of the Encyclopedists. It inspired them by its summons to a new birth of knowledge enlisted in the service of humanity where learning would find food for healthy growth. Science was to serve mankind and not the pedant’s pride or pocketbook. It set the example by seating the unity of learning in a classification of subjects according to their relations in nature. But Bacon’s strategy of natural history was a straightforward attack on ignorance and futility, as it could afford to be in the England of the 17th century where conservatism was not obscurantist. For the devious tactics of camouflage, flanking movement, and Trojan horse, the Encyclopedists looked rather to Pierre Bayle, author of a Historical and Critical Dictionary, whose vein was different.4 The work is at once a dictionary of biography and a set of historical attacks upon religious superstition and intolerance. Thus, the article on Pyrrho presents a sympathetic picture of that philosopher who “found in all things reasons to affirm and to deny; and therefore he suspended his assent after he had well examined the arguments pro and con . . . Hence it is that he sought truth as long as he lived.” The article on David, on the other hand, brings out the trickery, cruelty, and lust of that ancient king of the Jews and suggests that in any but a great figure in religious tradition, his actions would be those of a scoundrel. Depending on the point of view, Bayle’s Dictionary is a work of sacrilege or emancipation: either way it opened the Enlightenment in a spirit of critical skepticism.

Bacon and Bayle were distant progenitors. The entrepreneur was a publisher, André François Le Breton, a good bourgeois interested not in philosophical matters but in the opportunity to sell a compilation of technical information. Several such works had been published in England, the most successful being Ephraim Chambers’ two-volume Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (1728). Originally, Le Breton thought only to publish a translation and enlargement of this work. He can have had no conception of the imbroglios into which his editors would lead him, nor of the lengths to which Diderot’s imagination would go. His first translator, an Englishman called John Mills, had a command of the French language adequate for an attempted swindle but not for rendering Chambers’ text. Their association dissolved in fisticuffs and canings in 1745 after less than a year’s quarreling. We do not know exactly when or how Diderot was brought in, but it may have been at the instance of the Abbé Jean-Paul de Gua de Malves, a mathematician eccentric to the point of insanity. He, according to some accounts, had a fugitive connection with the enterprise as Mills’ successor. In any case, Le Breton already saw the need for further capital and took three other publishers into partnership. It was well that he did so. The first volume did not go on sale until 1751. When Diderot got his head, the translation of Chambers’ colorless and useful little work enlisted the collaboration of the foremost men of French letters, took twenty-five years, and ran ultimately to seventeen volumes of text and eleven of plates, followed by four supplementary volumes of text and another of plates. These additions, however, were edited by other hands than Diderot’s, and published by the house of Panckoucke.

The Diderot who expanded a translating commission into the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment was thirty-seven years of age and a nearly unknown writer in 1750, when he published his Prospectus inviting subscriptions. By birth he was a provincial, a country boy born in the ancient and very Catholic city of Langres in Champagne, where his father, Didier Diderot, was a cutler whose scalpels had earned the confidence of surgeons. His mother’s family were tanners. On both sides, therefore, Diderot was descended from people whose standing in the world was at the meeting place between artisan and bourgeois, a position comparable, perhaps, to that of the small businessman in contemporary America. This was precisely the level occupied by proprietors of the average enterprise pictured in the Encyclopedia. Diderot himself wrote the article “Cutlery,” which is illustrated in Plate 179 (though not from his own father’s shop). A rather elaborate tannery appears in Plate 389ff. But though he could admire, and sometimes sentimentalize, the artisan’s honest toil, Diderot was not the man to share it. An attempt to work for his father ended in a return to his studies after a few days.

An omnivorous and insatiable student, Diderot went to school to the Jesuits, the schoolmasters of Europe, and even toyed with the thought of becoming a priest himself. This was not utterly improbable, for the church was one avenue to a lettered career and wisely left it to the conscience of the priest what measure of devotion to expend. Many clerics performed the motions required of them in a spirit which, like that of a modern scholar adhering to the pieties formulated by some state legislature, partook rather of the practical than of the heroic or the hypocritical. But it was no doubt fortunate for both parties that instead of taking orders, Diderot ran away to Paris. There his father, with real generosity, supported further studies, probably at the famous Collège Louis-le-Grand, under the impression that the boy was preparing himself for a legal career. Only when it became apparent that Diderot was as averse to the law as to the psalter or the grinding wheel, did his father withdraw support, after which Diderot disappeared into the limbo of Bohemia. There he spent his youth, not unhappily it would seem, emerging into the view of his biographers only in flashes of reminiscence, and living no one knows how. One commission is said to have been ghost-writing six sermons for an inarticulate missionary about to depart for the Portuguese colonies. He was in rags much of the time and inhabited a garret, from which he later remembered seducing a hardworking neighbor’s wife simply by staring wordlessly but meltingly across the alley separating their lodgings, he shirtless and appealing in his window, she curious and mettlesome in hers. Out of this Beggar’s Opera world of attics, doubtful cafés, omnivorous reading, and catch-penny writing, Diderot emerged a “philosophe,” and a boon companion of d’Holbach, Grimm, and above all Rousseau, with whom his ties were closer than with any other until 1757, when Rousseau’s growing morbidity, exacerbated by Diderot’s untimely frivolity, brought a sad and angry parting. It was of this brilliant and unpredictable circle that the Marquis de Castries, a future Marshal of France, remarked that he could not understand it—these fellows kept up no estate; they inhabited lofts; and yet everyone talked of nothing but their doings.

Diderot was interested in the relation of everything to humanity. Among his many enthusiasms—the theatre, the fine arts, music, the classics—he reserved perhaps the keenest for medical science and lore. He had learned the language of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. It was, therefore, not simply as a literary hack that he undertook the translation into French of a three-volume Medicinal Dictionary, compiled and published in London by Robert James. It seems probable that this, in turn, is what recommended him to Le Breton. At the same time, Diderot was becoming known for other writings, not only known but—witness the Vincennes interlude—notorious. Only following his death in 1784, however, were the manuscripts of several purely literary masterpieces published. They had circulated through various devious channels, one of which led incongruously through the bedizened court of Catherine the Great of Russia, where Diderot went for a time as a pet philosopher in his later years.

Diderot was not primarily a creative writer or a systematic thinker. He was, in the largest and most favorable sense, a publicist, one who believed in his wares, a propagandist who worked for love of the game. All his writings are illuminated by quick perception and a highly personal response to issues. Thoroughly, even aggressively masculine in character and behaviour, his intellectual temper was almost feminine. His thought, therefore, escapes definition. One modern critic compares it to the parry and thrust of a fencing match. But his great quality was a sensibility keen but not narrow, highly polished, first by the Jesuits, then by self-education, until it was like a many faceted jewel catching and sparkling out to the reading public all the main themes of the 18th century Enlightenment.

Like the Enlightenment itself, Diderot began with Locke. The Letter on the Blind develops the sensationalist psychology according to which man is what he makes of his experience. The Nun attacks the practise of disposing of unwanted daughters to the convent, where they were doomed to lives of inane sterility. Philosophical Thoughts advances the deist case that a religion of reason and humanity is the best. The Bijoux Indiscrets (Naughty Jewels) is a work of mild obscenity, a dirty book written for money or for fun, perhaps for both. Though he published minor mathematical papers, he parted company with Voltaire and the rationalists in his dismay at the irrelevance to the human condition of analytical and descriptive Newtonianism, that is to say of classical mathematical physics. His Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature followed by the Dream of d’Alembert were among the first writings to protect a sentient nature from the doom of physical science (which kills the quality of what it measures and describes) by cloaking reality in the biologist’s veil of process and organism, under which nature can be thought continuous with personality. This romantic defense of an intimate nature, sympathetic to man, was to prove a lost but not a forlorn cause in the next century, though since Darwin it only flutters ineffectually in the breasts of those who love nature but resent science.

Conversation is a great art in France. It has little in common with the leaden exchanges which thump about in drawing rooms where English is spoken, and the Dream of d’Alembert is an imaginary exchange between d’Alembert, Mlle. de l’Espinasse, his mistress and a great hostess, and Dr. Bordeu, a famous physician and man of wit, wisdom, and prescience. Amongst them they sketch out an astonishing vision of a sentient universe in evolution, its matter pulsing with consciousness like a cosmic polyp, with which to replace the deadly world of physics containing only bodies in motion. This is a fanciful anticipation of the Lamarckian theory of evolution (though it has nothing important in common with the Darwinian theory). In a letter to his mistress, Sophie Volland, Diderot explained why he chose to put such startling ideas in the mouth of a dreaming mathematician: “Wisdom must often be given the air of madness . . . I would rather people say, ‘But that’s not as crazy as you might think,’ than tell them, ‘Listen, what I am going to say is very wise.’”5 Except Plato and possibly Galileo, no one has excelled Diderot in the dialogue. He is at the top of his disturbing form in the satire Rameau’s Nephew. The title character, a ne’er-do-well relative of the musician, is half genius, half clochard. He fascinates the interlocutor, Diderot himself, by the outrageous degradation of his squandered talent. But is the fault in him or in the society which casts the artist as clown and parasite? (Diderot, who has been variously claimed as a forerunner of Goethe, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and Joyce, might equally well be said to have anticipated the tragic buffoonery of Dylan Thomas). And we recognize our secret springs of action in the inadmissible views which the ragged Rameau expresses on life and morals. Diderot’s indignation is eminently unconvincing and skillfully calculated to reveal glimpses of the hypocrisy behind the mask of respectability. This is Diderot’s literary masterpiece. It is a complicated, somewhat diabolistic book.

Jacques the Fatalist anticipates more straightforwardly the novel of realism and naturalism, and—not to catalogue Diderot’s entire works—in Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville a Tahitian chieftain offers his daughters to the young priest accompanying the expedition. This frank and kindly hospitality converts that functionary, beneath whose cassock beats a full-blooded heart of gold, to the naive decency of free love in an unspoiled society. So it was that each of Diderot’s writings served as a vehicle in praise of some aspect of the natural man. He cannot be assigned to either the rationalist or the romantic moods. He belonged to both and to neither. Intelligent, amorous, sensuous, cultivated, critical, sentimental, humane, hard-working, humorous and pagan—he was in his own eyes above all else virtuous, in that his life and writings were affirmations of the innocence of nature—of nature in general, of his own nature in particular, and of the opportunities offered by their congruence.

But despite Diderot’s virtuosity (or because of it), his achievement of the Encyclopedia is what brings him forward from among the crowd of interesting writers to the front rank of French letters. He had collaborators, of course, although all the volumes were edited in his own lodgings without secretaries or office paraphernalia. The foremost was the eminent mathematician, Jean-le-Rond d’Alembert, whose views in real life were not at all those of the Dream. D’Alembert’s reputation was already established, as Diderot’s was not. His ancestry was also more distinguished. Both parents belonged to aristocratic families. The only difficulty was that they were not married. Nor could this be remedied, for though his father, the Chevalier des Touches was a dashing cavalry officer, his mother, Mlle. de Tencins, was a nun. She had abandoned the baby on the steps of the church of St. Jean-le-Rond, to which words he added the surname by which he is known. His father saw to his upbringing and education. As he outlived what has been called that “athleticism of the intellect” essential to creative mathematics, his mind mellowed and softened as the minds of mathematicians will, and he turned his attention to philosophy and the problems of humanity in society, which meant the same thing in the French Enlightenment.

D’Alembert, then, did not confine himself to supervision of the mathematical and scientific articles. On the contrary, it was he who wrote the Introductory Essay, which summarized the encyclopedic ideal of a progress to be achieved by unifying knowledge in the service of mankind. This piece created a great impression and remains a cardinal document of the Enlightenment. But though much more than a simple contributor, d’Alembert turned out something less than a co-editor. More ambitious than Diderot for official status, he tended to oscillate between indiscretion and alarm. His article on Geneva in Volume VII provoked an acute crisis. In implied comparison to France, that Protestant city-state was represented as a model of civic virtue, spotted only by the universal vice of intolerance which there took the form, incomprehensible to a Parisian, of a ban on the theater.

Not only did the article give offense to the authorities as a critical Utopia, but it embarrassed them as an unwarranted interference in the sumptuary laws of a neighboring republic. Moreover, it compromised the Calvinist ministers of Geneva by suggesting, in the guise of a compliment to their good sense, that they were at heart Unitarians. This was an unlucky article from every point of view. It strained to the breaking point the fragile connivance by which the chief censor (of all people) had been protecting the Encyclopedia from the scurrilous and rabid campaign mounted by clerics and reactionaries. For Lamoignon de Malesherbes, who held that office, was a young and liberal nobleman, a believer in regulating the press so as to assure its freedom so far as possible and politic. He was one of the heroes of the story.

But “Geneva” made the situation impossible, coming at a time when the authorities were alarmed by other subversive books and portents. While Volume VIII was still in press, the Council of State, the highest administrative body in the land, took the matter out of Malesherbes’ hands and decreed suppression and seizure of the Encyclopedia, together with other dangerous writings. Malesherbes managed, to warn Diderot that a search of his notes and papers was impending, in time for him to hide them until the storm blew over, as ultimately it did. But all these menaces and rumors proved too much for d’Alembert, who henceforth dissociated himself from the Encyclopedia, putting it about that the times were not ripe. He was right, of course, but his attitude left it up to Diderot to ripen them, to honor the subscriptions, and to save the publishers from losing the large sums invested. It is consistent with Diderot’s gaiety of mind that he should not have reproached d’Alembert too openly for desertion, nor resented the prestige which had earlier accrued to d’Alembert as author of the Introductory Essay and as the more philosophical collaborator.

It was Diderot, the scribbler, rather than d’Alembert, the scientist, who displayed fidelity to his engagements and admirable persistence. From the outset he surmounted the insurmountable. He assembled writers and assigned subjects. He arranged for the engraving of plates. It is one instance of the attention required by detail that these were not printed until many years after the articles, yet in only one case (passementerie) do the key-letters which refer the reader from text to plate fail to correspond. He blue-pencilled overlong articles and padded the overshort. He got contributions out of Rousseau, out of Montesquieu, out of d’Holbach, out of Saint-Lambert, out of Condorcet. He found a workhorse, the Chevalier de Jaucourt, who would write in the Encyclopedic idiom on anything, and not badly. He dealt with Voltaire’s coquettishness. When the success of the early volumes transformed that great man’s early disdain into a desire to participate, Diderot delicately handled this waspish prestige so that it augmented rather than diminished the Encyclopedia’s. He kept an eye on the censor, resigned himself to weakening his effect, and withstood the rising clamor of clericals and conservatives.

Nor must it be supposed that Diderot and the liberals had a monopoly of wit. The damaging term “Cacouacs”—Quack-Quacks—was coined for the Encyclopedists by the right-wing journalist Moreau, whose kind passionately pursued them with charges of plagiarism and impiety and sought to envenom those prejudices of the ignorant to which intellectuals and rich men are, in their different ways, peculiarly vulnerable. Yet it was the publisher to whom he had been loyal who, with the best intentions, struck Diderot the lowest blow. Ten volumes covering the letters “H” to “Z” were still to appear after the “Geneva” crisis. Apprehensive about his investments, not trusting Diderot’s judgment, Le Breton began himself to delete passages which he feared overbold, but only after Diderot had corrected and passed page-proof.6

Yet even when he discovered this treachery, this surreptitious mutilation of his own articles and those of many contributors, Diderot was determined to complete the Encyclopedia, and he did so, not on the best terms, but on the best terms he could get. The extent of Diderot’s responsibility for the Encyclopedia is a question that has been much discussed among literary historians. For a time the tendency was to denigrate his efforts, to say that the original idea was not his, that the philosophy was Bacon’s or Locke’s, the science d’Alembert’s, the psychology Condillac’s, the wit Voltaire’s, the feeling Rousseau’s, that Diderot worked with scissors and paste rather than ideas of his own. Recent scholarship appreciates his merit at a higher and juster level. As a bicentennial commemoration sensibly points out, Diderot’s contribution to the Encyclopedia was that he produced it.7

To the Anglo-Saxon who admires French culture but regards French politics with a certain dismay, it seems one of the misfortunes of that fearful game that every interest instantly perceives, with a Gallic clarity excluding compromise, the reality of some threat masked by the humane appearance of its opponents’ projects. So it was in the 18th century. The enemies of the Encyclopedia were quite right to fear it. Knowledge was not innocuous, not when it was democratized, and that is the most important feature of the plates reproduced in this book: they represent democratization of systematic learning. The term may, perhaps, seem inappropriate, for “democracy” refers to government, not to scholarship, and in 18th century France the philosophic movement of opinion was liberal in tenets without being democratic in politics. But no one was, before the Revolution of 1789, and by planting in men’s minds criticisms of the existing order and belief in the possibility, indeed the certainty, of a better one to be achieved simply by taking thought, the Encyclopedists prepared the Revolutionary mentality without foreseeing how it would change the government of the world.

It is in a sense deeper than the political, that Diderot’s Encyclopedia was truly popular. From this point of view, it is the technology which is the fundamental aspect of the Encyclopedia and not the ideology. For the sardonic and skeptical influence of the Encyclopedia could never move beyond criticism of what was, to evocation of what should be. Nor could it ever touch any but the literate and educated, aristocrats flirting thrillingly with liberalism, intellectuals who already believed what it flattered them to be told cleverly. Wit is never really popular. The people sense its malice. It reaches them, if at all, only to make them uneasy and unsure of themselves. What was democratic in the Encyclopedia, therefore, was not the persiflage. It was the technology, the dignification of arts and trades. By taking craftsmanship seriously Diderot’s Encyclopedia set values in motion which have indeed taught the artisan to think well of himself. For when they did not joke, the skeptical Encyclopedists preached, and the subject of their great long sermon was the dignity of labor.

In general the humanitarianism of the Enlightenment secularized and put to work assertions which had originated in Christianity. The contempt for manual labor which Diderot ascribed to the liberal arts was a Greek legacy revived in the Renaissance and instilled into the aristocracy by humanistic education in the classics. Nor was the idea new that philosophy is words while true knowledge is embodied in the skills of the artisan, that the blacksmith knows metals and the metallurgist only books. Both Roger Bacon in the 13th century and after him Francis Bacon in the 17th had urged philosophers to go to school to craftsmen.

It would have been easy to repeat this injunction. Instead, Diderot obeyed it. In doing so, however, he quietly and perhaps unwittingly switched roles of pupil and schoolmaster as between science and industry. One frequently reads of science as the fruitful element in western technology, as the progenitor of industrialization. So it has been, but not in the sense often implied. Basic theoretical science had very little to offer industry in the 18th century. The law of gravity, after all, could be admired but neither used nor evaded. It was descriptive science addressed to industry which first dignified and then transformed it by rationalizing and publicizing processes, and that was the importance to technology of the Encyclopedia as a dictionary of science. The different trades and industries were investigated and classified according to the principles revealed by the investigation. Thus, these hitherto obscure matters were brought within the unity of the human understanding. Henceforth, dyeing is not just a set of rules of thumb. It depends on a particular science, chemistry, one of the natural sciences which form part of philosophy, that branch of knowledge drawn from the reason. So, too, the manufacture of mirrors is an aspect of glass-making, a mechanical art, one belonging to extractive industry, which is dependent on natural history, itself one division of history, that branch of knowledge drawn from the memory. Thus, all the arts can be seated in one of the three human faculties, reason, memory, or imagination, the latter ruling over the fine arts.

It is true that for convenience the Encyclopedia is arranged alphabetically rather than schematically. But the act of analysis exalted the trades. It raised them from lore to science. Some of the crabbed processes depicted in these volumes—the third beating of gold-leaf in the hide taken from the abdomen of certain cattle—could scarcely withstand the light of day. The Encyclopedia took a giant step toward replacing the Gothic instinct that techniques are trade secrets, mysteries to be concealed by the practitioner, with the concept of uniform industrial method to be adopted by all producers.8 “To the tableau of the sciences,” wrote Condorcet of this process of rationalizing publicity, “should be united that of the industrial arts which, leaning on science, have progressed more steadily and broken the chains in which routine had hitherto bound them.”9

Science in the Enlightenment was the educator of industry, though not the source of its techniques. It needed education and, as happens in that situation, sometimes resented the process. Diderot’s posture before the artisans exhibits a little of the ambivalence of those Russian intellectuals of a hundred years later, the “Narodniki,” who in gusts of sentimental guilt went to the peasants, rude but richly human through centuries of suffering, to drink of virtue at the springs of folk wisdom, and who on arrival were greeted not by a great-hearted Russian people, but by churlish clodhoppers in a mood of canny suspicion none the more agreeable for being shrewd. Diderot’s disillusionment was less severe, but expressions of impatience did escape him. It proved extremely difficult to find out about a great many trades. Language alone presented enormous difficulties. Each trade had its own barbarous jargon. For some a whole lexicon was needed. Worse, a great many artisans neither understood what they did nor wanted to understand. In their mulish way they preferred working by rote. “It is only an artisan knowing how to reason who can properly expound his work,” exclaimed Diderot (a complaint which might seem to render circular the conception of the function of the Encyclopedia). While freely acknowledging numerous defects, Diderot challenges the inevitable detractor to do better: “He will learn by his own experience to thank us for the things done well and pardon us for those done ill. Especially will he learn, after having for some time gone from workshop to workshop with cash in his hand and after having paid dearly for the most preposterous misinformation, what sort of people craftsmen are, especially those at Paris, where the fear of taxes makes them perpetually suspicious, and where they look upon any person who interrogates them with any curiosity as an emissary of the tax farmers, or as a worker who wants to open shop.”

A picture speaks what words conceal, and although the text of the Encyclopedia carries long accounts of the principles and practices of crafts both major and minor, descriptions alone would have been arid, and would have fallen far short of the purpose. The plates to which most of the articles are keyed contain the essential record of 18th century technology. But it is precisely in relation to the origin of the plates that the nastiest accusations have been brought against Diderot’s publishing ethics. Publication of the text, it will be remembered, was interrupted with volume VII (1757) by withdrawal of the license (in 1759). This was to be restored only on the understanding that the remaining volumes—ten as it turned out—would appear (in 1765) as a unit, in order to facilitate control of their contents. Meanwhile, there could be no objection to going ahead with the technical plates, which contained no sensitive matter, and publication of a Collection of 1,000 Plates . . . on the Sciences, the Liberal Arts, and the Mechanical Arts in four volumes (to grow to eleven) was announced to the subscribers in 1759, the first volume reaching them in 1762.

It was preceded by ugly charges of plagiarism, extending to the execution as well as the conception of the work. The French Royal Academy of Science (with the Royal Society of London one of the two most venerable and distinguished scientific bodies in the world) had been founded in 1666 under the aegis of Colbert, Louis XIV’s great minister of state. Like most statesmen, Colbert took a thoroughly Baconian view of science, and in 1675 fixed upon the new Academy the responsibility of undertaking a scientific investigation and description of French industry. This work had been languishing in academic good intentions for eighty-six years. Its former director, the naturalist and metallurgist Réaumur, was a perfectionist who had not published a line. But he had commissioned a large number of plates. No sooner had Diderot’s publisher announced their Collection than enemies came forward with injured complaints first put about by Réaumur (who died in 1757) that Diderot’s agents had seduced Réaumur’s engravers, that they had secured access to the proofs of the plates which were the property of the Academy, and that Diderot’s illustrations were copies of those prepared for its Description of the Arts and Trades.

Georges Huard, who has recently investigated these charges, hitherto dismissed by admirers of the Encyclopedia as typical Jesuitical calumnies, concludes that there is much substance in them.10 He goes further and points out that Diderot was not the first to carry science to the workshops—that members of the Academy were there before him. As to the latter argument, there can be no disagreement, though its edge is, perhaps, dulled by the reflection that Bacon was there before both, and that what finally brought the Academy to break the ice of publication was the threat of being forestalled. The first volume of the Academy’s own series was rushed into print in 1761, a year before Diderot’s first plates.

It is less easy to pass judgment on whether Diderot’s unauthorized borrowing of the Academy’s designs constituted plagiarism. Similar charges were laid against many of the articles. But the line between plagiarism and consulting authorities was not drawn very fine in the 18th century. One must admit that it would have been quite characteristic of Diderot’s demi-monde of scribblers to wine, dine, and bribe Réaumur’s faithless assistants into parting with proofs in order to have the designs re-engraved with slight alterations by Diderot’s own stable of artists. Moreover, he must have planned on it from the outset, for the first seven volumes of text contain reference letters to the plates in question. Nevertheless, the conditions imposed on publication by the authorities turned it into a game like love or war where much was fair, if not all, and Diderot’s most high-minded critics will agree that whereever the plates came from, he it was who got them between covers. At this distance, therefore, we need not, perhaps, pursue too closely the question of authorship. For we are not in any case concerned with these engravings as documents in the history of art (though they seem very fine and may merit study from that point of view—what other encyclopedia has ever been illustrated so well?) but rather as records of industry and life.

What of them, then, as records? It is immediately apparent that they are uneven. The glass industry, for example, is splendidly illustrated—one could take the text and plates, construct a plant with divisions for plate, smallware, and crown glass, and produce 18th century glass. Textiles, on the other hand, are not so well handled. Gobelins tapestries are handsomely covered, but the humbler operations of spinning and weaving are scattered throughout the volumes. The plates depicting them are repetitive, pesky, and unclear in the detail and structure of handloom and spinning devices. In the iron industry, smelting and forging are thoroughly covered, casting is depicted rather cryptically, and rolling and slitting are badly slighted. For all his pride of progress, Diderot’s use of designs prepared many years earlier for the Academy dropped him well behind the times here and there. So, too, did his going to the artisans rather than the experts. On occasion, he even fell back on the 16th century, copying two plates from the 16th century metallurgist Agricola and (in the anatomy section not reproduced in the present volumes) a number from Vesalius, On the Fabric of the Human Body of 1543. Elsewhere, as if to strike a balance, Diderot’s parade of modernity was better than the last word, and he included drawings of machines which, like those of Leonardo da Vinci, existed only in the minds of their inventors.11

Nevertheless, it would be churlish to begrudge Diderot the expedients by which single-handed he put together uncounted articles and eleven volumes of technical drawings. With the Academy’s Description of the Arts and Trades, from which he borrowed, and the Encyclopédie méthodique, beginning in 1782, which unimaginatively corrected many of Diderot’s errors and extravagances, the illustrations of the Encyclopedia provide a unique record of a century of technology.

At their best, Diderot’s plates have a sweep and stylishness which put them at the summit of the genre of technical illustrations. It is a genre which goes back in inspiration and method to the Renaissance, to Vesalius and to Leonardo da Vinci. In Leonardo’s sense of form, mechanics and anatomy are expressions of a single marvelous vision of the world, which simply sees how things are. There is no more practical example of the importance of Renaissance naturalism than the illustrations of Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body. (J. B. de C. M. Saunders and Charles D. O’Malley have recently reproduced these in a handsome edition, and the reader may be interested to compare it to the Encyclopedia).12 Vesalius gives us the human body in two series, front and back views. First, the skin is flayed away to show the muscular structure. Then the student penetrates ever deeper through successive layers of muscle to skeletal structure and ultimately to the individual organs dismounted for his inspection. So it is with Diderot’s technique of illustration, which is in inspiration and effect an anatomy of machines (a further instance, by the way, that it was descriptive rather than theoretical science which was applicable to industry). Typically, we are given first an over-all picture of an installation, then two sections at right angles, one lengthwise and the other crosswise. Thereafter, we penetrate by cutaway views to the essential assemblies, shown in place or in isolation, until finally we come down to the individual parts (or organs). To have shown all this in full would have surpassed the limits of the present selection and exhausted the interest of the modern reader in the detail of obsolete mechanisms. But the identification under each plate will lead the specialist to the last nut and bolt in the original.

The plates illustrate a state of industry which immediately preceded that rapid complex of developments known to text books as the industrial revolution. This capital event has recently been the subject of a considerable scholarly controversy, turning on two points. First, did it occur at all? Second, whether evolutionary or revolutionary, was industrialization good for mankind? These are questions which have been agitated very deeply by scholars drawing on vast funds of economic data, social conscience, and political disagreement.13 It would be presumptuous to think of settling them on the evidence of a picture book. Nevertheless, certain impressions do suggest themselves which it may be appropriate to set out, and first of all about the question of revolution. This is not just a matter of rate. No one doubts the fast pace of industrial development after 1760, or that industry became the forward sector of the British economy by the 1830’s. France, Germany, the United States, Japan and Russia followed in turn, and China and India will be next. But the problem of the point at which rapidity of evolution becomes revolution is metaphysical.

The proponents of revolution hold rather that industrial changes were in kind and not simply in degree, and they point to three factors: the substitution of iron for wood and stone as the fundamental structural material; the shift to factory production by an extension to all industry of externally powered machinery of the type introduced into the English textile trades by Richard Arkwright; and James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser which turned the steam engine into a practicable prime mover. (In recent years engineers, who always tend to think they were born yesterday, have also been fascinated to find in Watt’s governor the “feedback” principle, and hence automation). Reflection on these plates suggests that of these three factors, the steam engine was the truly revolutionary element. There is no more beautiful example of slow and steady evolution in technique than that offered by the history of the iron industry. The shift from charcoal to coke was an essential change of fuel, but the modern steel plant is the 18th century foundry writ large, as that in turn was the forge diversified (Pl. 86ff.). As to the factory system, Arkwright’s cotton mills embody no principles beyond those to be observed in the paper factory of l’Anglée (Pl. 359ff.) or the Piedmont mill which had been throwing silk in Italy for centuries (Pl. 316).

Nor is the industrial dream itself a new vision. Eighteenth century experts were as aware as any latter-day technologists of the merits of rationalization, division of labor, standardization of parts, and displacement of uncertain labor by certain machines. But what they never foresaw was power, the exponential increments of power, in the steam engine, then in electricity, then in the internal combustion engine, next in the atom. Power was new, going infinitely beyond what could be pullied, levered, geared and screwed out of the forces of man and animal, wind and falling water. Power was the truly revolutionary instrument lying to hand, which has so transformed the world that hundreds of millions of men otherwise doomed by material insufficiency have lived.

The Encyclopedists’ dream of a progressive industry illuminated by rational technique has been abundantly surpassed. What would be their astonishment, then, to read certain of their successors among modern men of letters, keening over culture and craftsmanship, who complain of the success of the dream in clichés like vulgarization, Americanization, subordination of man to the machine, or whatnot? “How bizarre is the working of the human mind!” (as Diderot once wrote), “Is it a question of discoveries? The mind distrusts its powers. It stumbles in self-created difficulties. Things seem impossible to find. But are they found?—It no longer sees why it had to look for them, and falls into self-pity.”

But it is not just a question of men of letters. The social conscience has bitten deeply into history, and the belief is very widespread that industrialization came initially as a catastrophe. In part this reflects the influence of Karl Marx. His picture of independent artisans turned into wage-slaves has possessed generations of students who got it from a text book but do not know where the author got it (even when he does himself). Historically, however, this picture of laborers herded impersonally into mushrooming factories is related to the very concept of the industrial revolution itself, an idea only about eighty years old which was invented by the elder Arnold Toynbee (uncle of the historian) and a school of Christian socialists who imparted to the British Labor Party much of its idealism. Just as recent research in economic history has tended to spread industrialization much more gradually along the decades or even centuries, until the notion of revolution is attenuated to vanishing, so the idea that the standard of living of the working class suffered from mechanization has been questioned, and in the present writer’s opinion, overthrown. Not that work and life were not wretchedly hard for unskilled labor in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but they always had been, and there is evidence that mechanization brought easement rather than impoverishment and subjection to the machine. Both Marxism and the more moderate socialist indictment of industrial capitalism have always turned on a rather halcyon view of craftsmanship and on an exaggeration of the independence of the artisan from the capitalist. And it is just here that the plates of the Encyclopedia bear on the question. For they give little encouragement to sentimentalize the work they display.

There was, certainly, beautiful handwork in the old Europe. It is exemplified in this book in crafts like enamelling, jewelry and cabinet-making, where something of loving care may be discerned in the attitude of the workers. (Though it must be remembered that the strictness of the regulations had much to do with the results, as it does once again in the contemporary French wine industry, where growers love their work but are held to standards). The plates themselves are a witness to the sort of work in which the artisan could be an artist. The words have the same root, and the French “artiste” may mean both. There may probably have been more of creativity then than there is now. But at best how slight a sector of life it filled! Most of what we see is hard, back-breaking, routine-bound labor for long hours with clumsy tools and little to show for it. Neither are we afforded many glimpses of Marx’s independent artisan, enjoying the dignity of self-reliance through ownership of his tools. These workmen—most of them—whether in large foundry or small shop—look not less, but vastly more dependent on their employers than is the labor force of modern France, England, or America. The Encyclopedists foresaw the much deplored displacement of man by the machine with optimistic enthusiasm. They embraced the prospect as one of plenty, and as a liberation from the brutalizing drudgery to which tradition-bound routine condemned the peasant on the land and the laborer in the shop.

But that is by way of digression: it goes far beyond the purpose of the present publication to restore economic history to the optimistic mood of the Encyclopedia itself. It is offered, not as an analysis, but simply as a panorama of 18th century France at work. Even for this a word of warning will be wise. The scene, if not idealized, has certainly been tidied a bit by Diderot’s artists, in accord, doubtless, with his enthusiasm for the arts and trades, and in deference to the sensibility of an 18th century public which preferred its portrait without warts. But this can be redressed with a little vicarious and therefore pleasurable discomfort, if the reader will exercise his other senses through the eye: if he will listen in the mind’s ear to the cacophony of the forge, if in imagination he will smell the lime and offal of the tannery, if he will let his skin shrivel in the heat of the glass furnace. And occasionally the vast Hogarthian reality glares through the veil. It does so, for example, from the underside of the handicrafts in the basket-weaver’s cellar (Pl. 459), and again in the shaft of the slate mine (Pl. 159). No machine sullies those picturesque scenes. But a few dips into squalor will suffice. Traveling in a far land, a little slumming goes a long way, and the main impression to be brought back from this trip through 18th century France is of the people who lived and worked there, not the scented aristocrats (though without them the picture would be incomplete, and we do have glimpses of dueling and powdering of hair), but the substantial people. They are strong, industrious, and competent, these manufacturers and shopkeepers. They know what they are doing and they do it well. Lawyers came arguing to the surface of politics in the great Revolution which loomed over this country. But these are the people who gave it body and who in every land built the world we all inhabit.

Diderot was acutely aware of the imperfections of his Encyclopedia, its mistakes, omissions, and infelicities of arrangement. He disarmed criticism by presenting it as a first attempt, to be superseded as soon as practicable by successors who would profit from his mistakes. It will, therefore, be gracious to take this, rather than Diderot’s cavalier treatment of his own sources, as a license to make the omissions and rearrangements practised in the present selection. Unlike him, the present editor has taken pains to cite the location of each plate in the original volumes. Eight plates are reproduced from the supplementary volume published by Panckoucke, Suite du Recueil de Planches sur les Sciences, les Arts Libéraux et les Arts Méchaniques, avec leur Explication, which was not edited by Diderot. They complete the illustration of certain crafts. The arrangement, too, reflects a modern sense of continuity. In the Encyclopedia, certain industries—notably glass and iron—are presented en bloc in the order in which raw materials were worked up into finished product. The basic organization was alphabetical, and the operations of other trades, tanning, for example, and weaving, are scattered under the initial letters of subsidiary processes. As already indicated, and as is obvious from the scale of the original, the omissions have been extensive. The Encyclopedia includes some 2,900 plates, mainly on arts and crafts, but also on the sciences, engineering, the fine arts, sports, heraldry, and other subjects.

In choosing, the editor has been guided by the desire to achieve continuity and to preserve human interest. Hundreds of plates of the nature of blueprints have been omitted. In illustrating the smaller crafts, which sometimes took only two or three plates, often only one, the Encyclopedia gives a vignette of the shop in the upper half of the page, with an enlargement of the characteristic tools of the trade below. Only where these tools have a special interest, or where their detail is essential to understanding the trade, are they reproduced. Otherwise, the vignette alone is given. Perhaps it is a pity that the whole Encyclopedia cannot be simply reprinted. But the editor consoles himself for his mutilations by reflecting that it is available in libraries to readers who cannot have too much of a good thing, and he will justify human interest as a principle of selection in Diderot’s own words: “Why not introduce man in our work, as he is placed in the Universe? Why not make of him a common center? . . . . Man is the sole and only limit whence one must start and back to whom everything must return, if one wishes to please, interest, touch, even in the most arid considerations and the driest details.”


1. In 1951 the bicentennial of Volume I gave occasion for a number of scholarly commemorations. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris published the catalogue of its exposition under the title Diderot et l’Encyclopédie (Paris, 1951) to serve as a chronology and bibliography of the great venture. In addition, two learned journals devoted special issues to papers on the Encyclopedia: “L’Encyclopédie et le progrès des sciences et des techniques,” Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications (1952); and Annales de l’Université de Paris (Numéro spécial, Octobre 1952), printing “Conférences faites à la Sorbonneà l’occasion du 2e centenaire de l’Encyclopédie du 3 mars au 23 avril 1952.”

2. There has recently appeared an excellent biography covering the first half of Diderot’s life: Arthur M. Wilson, Diderot, the Testing Years, 1713-1759 (New York: awaited. The reader who turns to Mr. Wilson will perceive how much I have profited from his narrative. I have also taken the liberty of adopting some of his felicitous translations of certain passages from Diderot’s writings which I quote in the Introduction.

3. J. Lough, The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, Selected Articles (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1954).

4. Two books of selections will exemplify the nature of the influence of Bacon and Bayle: Francis Bacon, Essays, Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis, and Other Pieces, ed. Richard F. Jones, (New York: Odyssey, 1937), and E. A. Beller and M. du P. Lee, Jr., Selections from Bayle’s Dictionary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952).

5. Diderot, Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Paul Vernière, (Paris: Garnier, 1956), p. 251. This is the best edition of Diderot’s philosophical writings. It accompanies a selection of his fictional pieces also published by Garnier, Oeuvres romanesques, ed. Henri Bénac (1951).

6. Douglas H. Gordon and Norman L. Torrey, The Censoring of Diderot’s Encyclopedia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947). This is the best account of the vicissitudes of publication. Mr. Gordon came into possession of a set of the Encyclopedia which included much of the proof corrected in Diderot’s own hand. This has enabled the authors to confirm the fact of Le Breton’s mutilations and to re-establish portions of the text.

7. Jean Thomas, “Le rôle de Diderot dans l’Encyclopédie,” Annales de l’Université de Paris (Numéro spécial, 1952), p. 25.

8. I have myself discussed this question of science and industry at greater length and with a certain amount of technical detail in two articles in Volume 48 of the journal ISIS: Charles G. Gillispie, “The Discovery of the Leblanc Process,” and “The Natural History of Industry,” (June and December, 1957), and I have pursued what seem to me some of the less happy implications of Diderot’s Baconianism in a longer paper, “The Encyclopédie and the Jacobin Philosophy of Science: A Study in Ideas and Consequences,” Critical Problems in the History of Science, ed. Marshall Clagett, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959).

9. Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Paris, 1795), p. 296.

10. “Les planches de l’Encyclopédie et celles de la Description des arts et métiers de l’Académie des Sciences,” L’Encyclopédie et le progrès des sciences et des techniques (note 1, above), pp. 35-46.

11. Bertrand Gille discusses the merits of the Encyclopedia and points out its shortcomings with somewhat more asperity than I feel inclined to summon: “L’Encyclopédie, dictionnaire technique,” L’Encyclopédie et le progrès des sciences et des techniques, pp. 187-214.

12. The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius (Cleveland and New York: World, 1950).

13. The best statement of the case for a social catastrophe remains the work of J. L. and B. Hammond, The Village Labourer, The Town Labourer, and The Skilled Labourer (London and New York: Longmans, 1912, 1918, and 1919). An introduction to the revisionist view will be found in T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution (London: Home University Library, 1948), and F. A. Hayek, ed., Capitalism and the Historians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

14. The writings of John U. Nef have been fundamental in establishing the evolutionary aspect of technology. They will, moreover, be very rewarding to any reader interested in the relation of industrialization to civilisation: Industry and Government in France and England, 1540-1640 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1940); War and Human Progress (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950); La naissance de la civilisation industrielle et le monde contemporain (Paris: Colin, 1954).