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The Encyclopédie

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 26 October 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the French encyclopédie, the European Enlightenment in book form. One of its editors, D’Alembert, described its mission as giving an overview of knowledge, as if gazing down on a vast labyrinth of all the branches of human ideas, observing where they separate or unite and even catching sight of the secret routes between them. It was a project that attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment - Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot - striving to bring together all that was known of the world in one comprehensive encyclopaedia. No subject was too great or too small, so while Voltaire wrote of “fantasie” and “elegance”, Diderot rolled up his sleeves and got to grips with jam-making.

The resulting Encyclopédie was a bestseller - running to 28 volumes over more than 20 years, amidst censorship, bans, betrayals and reprieves. It even got them excited on this side of the Channel, with subscribers including Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson and Charles Burney.

So what drove these men to such lengths that they were prepared to risk ridicule, prison, even exile? How did the Encyclopédie embody the values of the Enlightenment? And what was its legacy – did it really fuel the French Revolution?

With Judith Hawley, Senior Lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, University of London; Caroline Warman, Fellow and Tutor in French at Jesus College, Oxford; David Wootton, Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York.

  • Further Reading

    Denis Diderot and Jean Le Ronde D’Alembert, eds, Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metièrs, 17 vols text, 11 vols plates (Paris: Briasson, David l’aîné, Le Breton, Durand, 1751-1772)

    D’Alembert, Jean Le Rond, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, Translated with the collaboration of Walter E. Rex by Richard N. Schwab. Introduction and Notes by Richard N. Schwab. The Library of Liberal Arts. (Bobs-Merrill, 1963)

    Blom, Philipp, ‘Encyclopédie’: The Triumph of Reason in an Unreasonable Age. (Fourth Estate, 2004)

    Furbank, P. N. Diderot: A Critical Biography. (Secker and Warburg, 1992)

    Brewer, Daniel and Julie Candler Hayes, eds, Using the ‘Encyclopédie’: Ways of Knowing, Ways of Reading, SVEC 2002:5 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2002)

    Darnton, Robert. The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the ‘Encyclopédie’ 1775-1800. (Harvard, 1979)

    Darton, Robert. The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (April 1996)

  • Further Reading (cont.d)

    Kafker, Frank A., ed. Notable Encyclopedias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Nine Predecessors of the "Encyclopédie". Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 194. (Oxford, 1981)

    Kafker, Frank A., ed. Notable Encyclopedias of the Late Eighteenth Century: Eleven Successors to the ‘Encyclopédie’. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1994)

    Kafker, Frank A., ed. The Encyclopédists as a Group: A Collective Biography of the Authors of the ‘Encylopédie’. (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1996)

    Kafker, Frank A., ed. The Encyclopédists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the ‘Encylopédie’. (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988)

    Brewer, Daniel. The Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France: Diderot and the Art of Philosophizing. (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

    Bradbury, Malcolm. To the Hermitage (2001)

Credits

Presenter
Melvyn BRAGG
Producer
Elaine LESTER

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