Denis Diderot: A Portrait of the father of Encyclopaedia

Om Prakash is a Ph.D research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at ommeister[at]

Om Prakash

Om Prakash

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest, so argued the pre-eminent 18th Century European Enlightenment philosopher, writer and art-critic Denis Diderot (1713-1784) in one of his writings, whose birth tri-centenary falls today, on the 5th October.

Seldom could Diderot have realized the prophetic import of these words when he penned them that very soon they would not only resonate with the masses but they would also inspire thousands of his fellow French nationals who were living under the tyrannical rule of the then French emperor Louis XVI (successor of Louis XIV, who had once famously declared that I am the State) to unite, revolt and finally put an end to his absolutist rule during the French Revolution, an event that irrevocably changed the future course of history of the mankind forever. Although European monarchy was to live for some more time since this historic event, this was undoubtedly the beginning of the end of the ancien regime. Diderot, who died five years before the French revolution did not live to see it himself like other prominent contemporaries of him viz. Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu, who all had died before the historic event started but whose works were immensely inspirational for the revolutionaries.

Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

Diderot, by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

Diderot was born at Langres in the Champagne province of France. He was schooled at Jesuits in Langres. Later he attended the University of France in Paris where he completed his master’s degree in Philosophy in 1732. During this time, he decided to settle down in Paris and try his luck as a writer, a decision that angered his father so much that he disinherited his son, whom he wanted to choose a career in medicine or law. It is here in Paris that he befriended Rousseau and other intellectuals of his time. He wrote many literary pieces, translated certain works from English in French and wrote commentary on art.

Diderot: his work as the Chief Editor of Encyclopédie 

Diderot’s major breakthrough came in 1747 with the assignment of compiling an Encyclopédie in French on the basis of Chamber’s Universal dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Diderot took charge of the project as its chief editor and foremost contributor along with Jean dÁlembert, who later dropped out of the project. It was going to be a mammoth project involving more than two decades (1747-1772) of hard labor which would result in 28 volumes of Encyclopédie, on a range of topics to be covered under more than 72,000 articles contributed by various scholars and subject experts, including the greats like – Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu. Diderot introduced major changes in the said project – such as, he expanded the scope of themes by including the topics related to each branch of knowledge by encompassing all fields of life that would include – sciences, arts, history, religion and engineering. His involvement of hundred of subject experts (a total of 142) as contributor of different articles to be compiled in his project, was the first effort of its kind without any parallel in human history. This laid to the foundation of collaborative project, which has become the hallmark of any academic exercise in the modern age. This however does not fully capture the labour of Diderot, who alone contributed more than 2,000 articles in the said multi-volume project. It was the intellectual pre-cursor of Wikipedia of our time.ENC_1-NA5_600px

Diderot argued that the aim of the project was “to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, and to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow”. The underlying philosophy behind his effort and the project was to unify all the knowledge available to the mankind for their use that would promote scientific ideas and rational thinking. The project, itself became the manifestation of the Enlightenment thinking of the time, which challenged the orthodox biblical worldview of human existence and the divine right of King. Thereby it significantly contested the authority of the church on the one hand and the State on the other and finally succeeded in undermining the influence of the both in the life of the common man. It is therefore no surprise that Diderot came under the attack of the retrograde forces on many occasions. Despite various obstructions and challenges, he continued working for the Encyclopédie project, the first volumes of which were published in 1750s. It was undoubtedly, one of the most important works of the academic rigor of the 18th Century. Its reach and impact could be measured by the fact that by the 1789, more than 25, 000 copies had been distributed in France and across Europe.

Diderot who remained an inspiration for the French revolution, died of emphysema in a state of poverty on 31st July, 1784 in Paris.

Statue of Denis Diderot in the city of Langres, his birthplace (photo:Christophe Finot/wiki)

Diderot’s relevance for our time

Diderot envisaged a world, where the mankind would not simply rely on orthodoxy and merely be guided by belief but rather have a system in place to which would make it possible to accumulate and organise the knowledge produced in the past for their use by the larger masses for the betterment of their lot. The present time of information technology in which we live today may be seen as the extension of his ideas behind his Encyclopédie  project.

On his 300th birth anniversary, it would be worthwhile to ask ourselves the question, whether we have really moved beyond the obscurantist ideas that have no scientific basis and that have caused human race so much misery. The sad truth is that even in the 21st Century people like Narendra Davolkar are attacked and killed in the broad day light by the reactionary forces that see their influence eroded and their existence threatened by the spread of scientific temperament. Remembering his emphasis on human reason and his idea behind the monumental effort of compiling the knowledge of all time would, therefore, be a real tribute to this great soul of the European Enlightenment who famously said that the first step in the direction of philosophy is skepticism and who lifelong strove to provide the mankind a basis for rational thinking.