Liberty Matters

A Broadly Subversive Program


In his learned and sharp essay, Henry Clark proposes that the Encyclopédie "was 'not so much an ideology as a quarry' from which different readers were destined to draw different kinds of inspiration," and rightly stresses the "eclectic variety of perspectives" in the text. Such an approach serves to caution against discounting the many "conservative" and "reformist" aspects of Diderot's so-called "war machine." Clark is undoubtedly correct to a point, but his argument also risks occluding the genuinely and powerfully subversive currents within the text's nearly 73,000 articles. This is in part because the question posed – "How radical was the political thought of the Encyclopédie?" – can only incompletely assess its "radicalism." Extracting explicitly political thought from the work as a whole serves to sidestep many of the text's most political interventions, as many of the text's most "radical" elements do not materialize in response to questions of classical political thought, as important as they are. A brief consideration of three related subjects – religion, epistemology, and privilege – makes clear just how "radical" the Encyclopédie could in fact be.
The most obvious example is the Encyclopédie's treatment of religion. Its famous "Map of the System of Human Knowledge" placed the "Science of God" on an equal footing with the "Science of Man" and the "Science of Nature," all as part of "Philosophy" and attributed to the faculty of "Reason." The Map then took the further step of subdividing the "Science of God" into "Natural Theology," "Revealed Theology," and the "Science of Good and Evil Spirits," with the former two regrouped as "Religion, from which, through abuse, Superstition" and the latter divided into "Divination, Black Magic." The visual effect of the Map and the use of terms such as "Superstition" and "Black Magic" are striking. Moreover, the text was full of hidden jabs, such as the infamous cross-reference to "Eucharist, Communion, Altar" found at the end of the entry "Cannibals."[53] The point was, unmistakably, to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church and revealed religion, a point with no small political stakes in the context of France's still sacral monarchy.
The Encyclopédie did not simply mock the Church and revealed religion. Even more powerfully, it articulated a new epistemology that aggressively displaced religious knowledge in favor of knowledge derived from human experience and reason, imagination, and memory, the three faculties that structured the tree of knowledge. As Robert Darnton put it in The Business of Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie "made it clear that knowledge came from the senses and not Rome or Revelation.... They had rearranged the cognitive universe and reoriented man within it, while elbowing God outside."[54] Vincenze Ferrone categorizes this as no less than "a genuine epistemological revolution."[55] Diderot, in the entry "Encyclopedia," put the matter bluntly: "Man is the unique point from which one must set out, and to which everything must be brought back."[56]
With man established as the epistemological starting point, it was not only the epistemological authority of the Church that was "elbowed" aside. The Encyclopédie aimed to subject all received knowledge to critical analysis. A few pages after declaring the epistemological centrality of "man" in the article "Encyclopedia," Diderot called for "intellectual courage" and wrote that "all things must be examined, all must be winnowed and sifted without exception and without sparing anyone's sensibilities."[57] This sentiment was in many ways the animating impulse of the entire intellectual enterprise. And critical reason, once liberated from tradition, would question the foundational institutions and principles of the Old Regime throughout the Encyclopédie's 17 volumes of text. In the article "Trading Company," for example, the reader is told that "the purpose of the Encyclopédie is to instructhas not entirely dissipated" and, then, that the "prejudice" against commercial competition " ... because it is easier to imitate than to reason."[58]
Perhaps no traditional institution was subject to more withering attack than that of "privilege." Indeed, William Sewell describes the Encyclopédie as "the Philosophes' most important weapon in their attack on privileges."[59] Multiple articles addressed the topic, both under the heading "privilege" and as it pertained to other matters. The first entry under the head word "Privilege," categorized as "grammar" but clearly taking aim at a much broader range of issues, explained that privilege was an "advantage accorded to one man over another. The only legitimate privileges are those that nature accords. All others can be regarded as injustices carried out against all men in favor of a single individual."[60] The article, uncertainly attributed to Diderot, plainly called into question this pillar of Old Regime France. Crucially, it did so by invoking the authority of nature and implicitly downgrading that of tradition and established hierarchies. And Turgot, in his famous article on "Foundations," certainly did not pull any punches in arguing that the traditional privileges of corporate bodies should not be considered authoritative or binding. The "reflections" advanced in his article, he wrote in its final paragraph,
"ought to leave no doubt on the incontestable right possessed by the government ... to dispose of old foundations, to extend their funds to new objects, or, better still, to suppress them altogether. Public utility is the supreme law, and it ought not to be nullified by any superstitious respect for what we call the intention of the founder — as if ignorant and short-sighted individuals had the right to chain to their capricious wills the generations that had still to be born."
Strikingly, Turgot did not stop there and continued his assault on the privileges of corporate bodies by invoking the rights of citizens against corporate bodies.
"Citizens have rights, and rights sacred for the very body of society. They exist independent of that society. They are its necessary elements. They enter into it with all their rights, solely that they may place themselves under the protection of those same laws to which they sacrifice their liberty. But private bodies do not exist of themselves, nor for themselves; they have been formed by society, and they ought not to exist a moment after they have ceased to be useful."[61]
In a society saturated with privilege, one can hardly imagine a more "radical" political stance.
This brief discussion points to what could be considered a broadly subversive program that actively undermined key elements of Old Regime political culture. Such was the judgment of the royal historiographer Moreau, who in 1757 condemned the Encyclopédie as undermining "morality, religion and government."[62] Clark is undoubtedly correct that the Encyclopédie was a kind of "quarry." But a reader who carefully excavated the text would find less durable material for reinforcing the bases of Old Regime political culture than for laying the foundations of a rather different social and political order.
[53.] "Anthropophages [Cannibals]," Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds), <>, 1:498.
[54.] Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1979), 7-8.
[55.] Vincenze Ferrone, The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, trans. Elisabetta Tarantino (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015), 109.
[56.] "Encyclopédie [Encyclopedia]," Encyclopédie, 5:641. Quoted in Ferrone, The Enlightenment, 110, with a slightly different translation.
[57.] "Encyclopédie [Encyclopedia]," Encyclopédie, 5:644A. Quoted in Keith Michael Baker, "Enlightenment Idioms, Old Regime Discourses, and Revolutionary Improvisations," in From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution, ed. Thomas E. Kaiser and Dale K. Van Kley (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 174.
[58.] Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Encyclopedic Liberty: Political Articles in the Dictionary of Diderot and d'Alembert, ed. Henry C. Clark, trans. Henry C. Clark and Christine Dunn Henderson (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2016), 58.
[59.] William Sewell, Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 23.
[60.] "Privilège [Privilege]," Encyclopédie, 13:389.
[61.] See "Foundation" in Encyclopedic Liberty, 208, where it is the penultimate paragraph. In the original, it is the final paragraph. Encyclopédie, 7:75.
[62.] This is the paraphrase of the "General Chronology of the Encyclopédie" of the ARTFL project. <>.