Thursday, December 24, 2009

Diderot, Denis. Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Vol. 5. Paris, 1755.

On display is a Volume 5 of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, published in 1755. In this almost comical passage written by Diderot (1713–1784) in the section under Philosophy, Diderot attacks the satiric genre for its inherent inadequacies and literary limitations over time.

I detest satires in a book a hundred times more than I favor praise: personal attacks are odious in any kind of writing; you are sure to amuse most people when you make a point of feeding their mean spirit. The tone of satire is most out of place in a dictionary, and a satirical dictionary, the only kind we lack, would be the most impertinent and tedious dictionary conceivable. In a great book, such offhand remarks, subtle allusions, and dainty flourishes as would make the fortune of a frivolous tale must be wholly avoided; barbs that have to be explained go stale, or soon become unintelligible. It would be quite ridiculous to require a commentary in a work of which the various sections are intended to provide reciprocal interpretation. . . . .

The Encyclopédie originated as a simple French translation of Ephraim Chamber’s Cylopaedia by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. It eventually became an instrument of radical and revolutionary thought when Denis Diderot joined d’Alembert as chief co-editor and contributor. The Encyclopédie is considered the most influential encyclopedia when it was published. It was written over a twenty-year period and was organized using an alphabetical arrangement. The complete set is comprised of 72,000 entries contained in 35 volumes, including 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates, primarily dedicated to technological illustrations. Over 100 authors contributed to the set, including well-known authors such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. At various times throughout its publication history, the Encyclopédie was politically censored and written in secret, contributing to its popularity and widespread circulation.

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