Encyclopedia comes from Greek and it means "circular knowledge or learning". Prior to the French Encyclopedia, there were some other projects of compiling knowledge in the past. The first of these projects was made during the Roman Empire by Pliny the Elder, who wrote Historia Naturalis. In the 7th century Saint Isidore of Seville, a Visigothic bishop and wiseman, wrote the Etymologiae or Origenes, a 20 volume work that included all the knowledge of that period. The Chinese also wrote their own encyclopedic book in the 15th century: the Yongle Encyclopedia had 11,095 handwritten volumes and it was written between 1403 and 1408. Only another copy was made. After a fire in 1557 the Chinese Emperor ordered a third copy. The surviving volumes (less than 400) are in libraries and private collections.
In 1728 Ephraim Chambers, a British publisher, edited Cyclopedia: An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. This book was the direct precedent of the French Encyclopedia. André Le Breton, a French publisher, wanted to translate the Cyclopedia and hired Denis Diderot and Jean Rond D´Alembert, but they completely changed the original project, because they asked different scientists and thinkers of their time to write articles about very different topics. The Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts) became a completely original work. Denis Diderot wrote in the article about the Encyclopedia that its objective was "to change the way people think". That´s why the Encyclopedia has been considered one of the Enlightenment capital books, where the new spirit of this intellectual movement (the use of Reason) was better expressed. The most important enlightened philosophers wrote articles in the Encyclopedia (Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu), but also some other important experts, such as the Baron D´Holbach, Quesnay, Turgot and La Chapelle. Louis de Jaucourt was the most prolific author: he wrote more than 17,000 articles about different subjects.
The edition of the Encyclopedia was controversial, due to its attacks to superstitions, Catholicism and in favour for religious tolerance. In 1759 the Encyclopedia was included in the Index of Forbidden Books, because its authors praised Protestant thinkers and defied Catholic dogma by classifying Religion as a branch of philosophy and not as the last resource of knowledge and morale.
All the modern and contemporary Enciclopediae come from the French Encyclopédie, even Wikipedia, a collaborative project students like so much ;)
Here you have some links to explore the French Encyclopédie on line:
- In French: http://www.alembert.fr/
- In English: http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/