Diderot, D’Alembert, and the Encyclopedia
In 1751 Benjamin Franklin was busy in Philadelphia with, among other things, the publication of a Pocket Almanack and Poor Richard Improved. In this same year in Paris, the first two volumes of the Encyclopedia were rolling from the press under the watchful eye of Denis Diderot. The first volume appeared at the end of June 1751, and the second followed promptly seven months later. The appearances of Diderot’s folio volumes marked an epoch.
The Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences des arts et des métiers has been called the first of the great modern encyclopedias. As its editor in chief, Diderot’s purpose, as he himself made clear, was “to assemble the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth; to explain its general plan to the men with whom we live, and to transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the labors of past centuries may not be useless to future times.” The Encyclopédie was also an arsenal of philosophic thought in the Age of Reason. This great work, wrote Ira Wade, “organized definitely the knowledge of the eighteenth century; it created a close organization of the more liberal thinkers of the century; and, lastly, it welded the political, social and religious doctrines and theories into a compact whole.”1
Diderot himself was almost unknown when he began to work on the vast project, which occupied most of his time between 1746 and 1771. He supervised the publication of its first seventeen volumes of text and first eleven volumes of plates—plates which were to become blueprints of the modern world. The long and complicated story of the publication of the Encyclopédie need not detain us.2 The general reader knows, of course, that D’Alembert, already famous as a mathematician, wrote the Encyclopédie’s “Preliminary Discourse” and assisted Diderot until 1758. And that the two men were aided by a host of collaborators. The successful completion by Diderot of his part in the enterprise, in the face of powerful opposition, was possible only because of his intelligence, his courage, and his unwearying labor. He devoted the best years of his life to this monumental undertaking, which inspired the compilation of other encyclopedias. I shall mention only one. Charles-Joseph Panckoucke undertook a rearrangement and a reworking by subjects of Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières began to come from the press in 1782.3 And its last volume was not published until fifty years later. Darnton calls this the “second Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment.”
Important as it was for the advancement of knowledge and the philosophic cause, Diderot’s work on the Encyclopédie constituted only one phase of his extraordinary literary and philosophical activity. Indeed, the reputation today of Diderot and that of D’Alembert do not depend upon the encyclopedic venture. Diderot’s fame, especially, now rests on a number of writings, several of which were not even published during his lifetime.
In her book The Domestic Manners of the Americans (London, 1832), Frances Trollope let fly an opinion on Diderot in eighteenth-century America. Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire, she wrote, “were read by the old federalists, but now they seem known more as naughty words, than as great names.” Travelers are entitled to their opinions. The question is whether the facts warranted the inclusion of Diderot in her statement. Howard Mumford Jones, after a study of newspapers in New York in the last half of the eighteenth century, remarked, “It is, however, curious that Diderot and D’Alembert seldom figured in the book lists.”4 Following a similar examination of Philadelphia newspapers, he wrote, “There is curiously little interest in Diderot; his name appears in 1784, and The Nun’ is twice advertised at the close of the century.”5 It may surprise some to learn that this translation of Diderot’s novel, La Religieuse, was on sale in America at so early a date.
Some years ago, J. Robert Loy wrote an article on “Diderot aux Etats-Unis.”6 With regard to the eighteenth century, he spoke of the difficulties Americans had in obtaining his writings and of their habit of grouping Diderot with other philosophes without taking care to differentiate between them. Loy surmised that the French author was probably considered to be an atheist, a dreamer, and a builder of doctrinal systems rather than a man of action. I wish to examine more closely the fortune of Diderot in America in the last forty years of the century. I wish also to show something of the reception of the writings of D’Alembert, and finally, of the Encyclopédie itself.
One of the Founding Fathers, at least, knew Diderot personally. Benjamin Rush, physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that “Mr. Diderot entertained me in his library.”7 How many Americans were acquainted with his writings? H. M. Jones’s remark that the French writer seldom figured in the New York book lists seems to have been true generally. He found, as was seen, two advertisements of one of his novels in Philadelphia papers at the close of the century. I can only point to an advertisement of French books, the same one alluded to above by Jones, for sale by Daniel Boinod in Philadelphia. Boinod’s list included Diderot but no titles were specified.8 The dearth of Diderot offerings by the booksellers is understandable. Several of his works were not published until the end of the eighteenth century and a few were first published only in the nineteenth. But the booksellers’ advertisements constitute only one source of information regarding dissemination of the author’s writings.
Diderot was well represented in the 1804 catalog of Caritat’s circulating library in Manhattan. It included an edition of his Oeuvres, Jacques le fataliste in French and in English, La Religieuse, also in French and English, and “The natural son; a novel; in two volumes [unintelligible].”9 Both Jacques le fataliste and La Religieuse were first published in French in 1796. It is reasonable to assume that some if not all of these books were acquired before 1800. Writings of Diderot were also occasionally to be found in libraries here and there. In the library of the American Philosophical Society there is an undated letter in English from Louis Guillaume Le Veillard to Benjamin Franklin. “I send you,” wrote Le Veillard, “the Book of M. Diderot called L’Interprétation de la nature where you will find those ridiculous explanations of the causes of the Aurora Borealis.” For interesting information on this book the reader may wish to consult I. Bernard Cohen, “A Note Concerning Diderot and Franklin,” in Early American Science, edited by Brooke Hindle (New York: Science History Publications, 1976). John Adams owned Diderot’s Oeuvres de théâtre, two volumes, listed as having been published in Paris in 1771.10 Thomas Jefferson’s second library contained a number of Diderot’s writings, the titles of which are reprinted here as they appear in the catalog of this library.11 As for James Madison, according to one scholar, “There is evidence that he was thoroughly familiar with the works of… Diderot.”12 James Kent, the eminent jurist, had in his library the first eight volumes of an edition of the author’s Oeuvres published in Paris in 1798.13 St. John de Crèvecoeur, author of the Letters from an American Farmer, knew something of Diderot but only through his reading of Raynal.14 The Harvard library possessed a 1749 edition of the Lettre sur les aveugles.15 And the Library Company of Philadelphia had some of Diderot’s writings on its shelves.16 Diderot’s name appeared only rarely in magazines and newspapers.17 A Philadelphia paper printed in translation almost half a column from his piece Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre.18 In 1797 a New York magazine reprinted extracts from Diderot’s eulogy of Richardson and from his novel The Nun.19 Theater-goers had the opportunity to see one of his plays. In the decade 1789–99, different English adaptations of Diderot’s Le Père defamille were performed a number of times in Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.20 This play was also apparently used in the teaching of declamation.21 Zoltán Haraszti found that John Adams did not comment on the works of Diderot as he was wont to do with the writings of other philosophes.22 He occasionally mentioned his name. “I know,” wrote Adams in 1790, “that encyclopedists and economists, Diderot and d’Alembert, Voltaire and Rousseau, have contributed to this great event [the French Revolution] more than Sidney, Locke, or Hoadly, perhaps more than the American Revolution.”23 In Adams’s correspondence after 1800, one finds more than one reference to Jacques le fataliste, which had obviously impressed him, and barbed references to the author himself. In a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1807 Adams spoke, for example, of “a miserable piece of Sophistry, worthy of Diderot.” Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, included the philosophe in an attack on French philosophy.24 William Cobbett lashed out against “the savage and impious Diderot, who hoped to see ’the last of kings strangled with the guts of the last of the priests.’”25 And finally, Samuel Miller, the Presbyterian minister and intellectual historian of his day, wrote about the fictional writings of Diderot and Voltaire which, he said, “were of different kinds, and possessed different degrees of literary merit; but chiefly designed, like most of the other writings of those far-famed infidels, to discredit Religion, both natural and revealed, and to destroy the influence of those institutions which have proved so conducive to human happiness. The novels of Diderot, in particular, abound in every species of licentiousness, and have a most pernicious tendency.”26
From all indications, it seems clear that Diderot’s writings did not enjoy any wide dissemination here. The diffusion of his books could not begin to compare with the spread of those of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. He was read by a few of the “old federalists” such as Adams and Cobbett but not by nearly so many as Frances Trollope implied. It is also obvious, as Loy affirmed, that Diderot was often grouped with other philosophes and castigated, along with them, as an infidel and fomenter of revolution. And finally, American interest in Diderot, however slight, appears to have been as much literary as philosophical.
In the first sentence of his well known Eloge de D’Alembert (1784), read before the Académie des Sciences, Condorcet enumerated the many learned bodies in Europe to which D’Alembert belonged and concluded his list by mentioning membership in “la société philosophique de Boston.” He meant the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But oddly enough, the distinguished mathematician and philosopher was never elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.27 To my knowledge, no monograph has been written on D’Alembert in the United States. What did Americans know of him and his many writings?
Talking of his student days at Yale in the early 1790s the Reverend Lyman Beecher wrote that “most of the class before me were infidels, and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert.”28 That collection of French prose extracts published in 1792 for the use of Harvard students, L’Abeille françoise, bore on its title page a quotation from D’Alembert: “Les hommes ne se haïront plus quand ils s’entendront tous.”29 And Moreau de Saint-Méry, in a book intended primarily for the instruction of French-speaking youth but which he hoped Americans might also profitably use in learning French, wrote that “les ouvrages de d’Alembert prouvent, irrésistiblement, qu’on peut être tout à la fois & grand Géomètre, & Homme d’esprit & de goût.”30
In the public press D’Alembert seems to have been mentioned only rarely. A not unfavorable reference was made to him by “A Country Clergyman” in the Virginia Gazette on July 18, 1771. He was referred to as one of the teachers of the atheistic school in Europe by Judge Jacob Rush in a grand jury charge, in which he attacked French philosophers. The jurist’s remarks appeared in a Philadelphia paper, the Gazette of the United States, September 18, 1798. D’Alembert and Voltaire were branded as “either deists or atheists” in a belaboring of Jefferson printed in the Columbian Centinel on July 5, 1800. Adrian H. Jaffe found only one mention of D’Alembert in an investigation of American magazines.31
H. M. Jones, in the two studies mentioned above, commented that D’Alembert seldom figured in the book lists published in the newspapers and that in Philadelphia papers he had found only one advertisement for D’Alembert. This was in 1787. Sales notices of his writing were indeed infrequent but there were a few others. In Philadelphia, Daniel Boinod included D’Alembert’s name in an advertisement of French books for sale in 1784 but specified no titles.32 A Boston bookdealer advertised “Dalembert’s works” in 1786.33 In 1795 Moreau de Saint-Méry, the Philadelphia bookdealer, included D’Alembert’s Académie Française and Mélanges in a catalog of books for sale.34 And as early as 1765, D’Alembert’s essay on taste could be purchased at the Williamsburg Printing Office.35
I have found few books by the author in private and other types of libraries. But from references made to him, various individuals had some knowledge of certain of his writings. Charles Carroll, barrister, sent to England for a copy of “Jean D’Alembert’s Analysis of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws.”36 The Harvard library owned two sets of his Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire, et de philosophie, listed as a work in four volumes, published in Amsterdam in 1764. It also had an edition of this title in English bearing a London imprint of the same year, as well as his An Account of the Destruction of the Jesuits in France.37 In 1772 D’Alembert was named secretary of the Académie Française and in this capacity began to compose eulogies of academicians who had died since the beginning of the eighteenth century. A translation of some of these, Select Eulogies of Members of the French Academy, was published in two volumes in London in 1799. This book was on the shelves of two institutional libraries.38 John Adams once betook himself to a meeting of another academy at which the philosopher spoke. He made this entry in his Diary for April 29, 1778: “Apres diner, went to the Academy of Sciences and heard Mr. D’Alembert pronounce Eulogies upon divers Members deceased.”39
D’Alembert was interested in the American scene. He wrote to Frederick, king of Prussia, from Paris in 1777, “Nous sommes ici fort occupés des insurgens [American], et fort impatiens de voir quel sera le succès de la campagne décisive qui va s’ouvrir.”40 He translated Turgot’s famous epigram on Franklin, “Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis,” and sent the French verses to Doctor Franklin.41 What of American opinion with regard to D’Alembert?
The only appreciation of his work encountered was expressed by Samuel Miller. He pointed out his contributions to physics, mathematics and astronomy. He quoted the French writer in a discussion of medicine and he cited his Eléments de musique théorique et pratique suivant les principes de M. Rameau.42 Timothy Dwight made passing and insignificant references to D’Alembert in a baccalaureate address at Yale College.43 Dwight censured him and other philosophes, as was seen in the discussion on Diderot, for “loose and undefined Atheism.” But the heaviest attack of all came from John Adams.
Adams reported that D’Alembert owed his place in the Académie des sciences to the influence of persons who could “make members at pleasure.”44 And in commenting on a remark of D’Alembert in a letter to Frederick, Adams exploded. The French thinker had written that “had he been present when God created the world, he could have given Him some good advice.” This was too much. Adams gave full vent to his anger against D’Alembert: “Thou Louse, Flea, Tick, Ant, Wasp, or whatever Vermin thou art, was this Stupendous Universe made and adjusted to give you Money, Sleep, or Digestion?”45 Haraszti was at a loss to account for Adams’s animosity.46
For some conservatives, D’Alembert was a philosophe and that was enough. It is interesting to note, however, that here and there efforts were made to absolve him from the then all too common accusations of atheism. In the appendix to the Reverend Uzal Ogden’s book Antidote to Deism, there is reprinted a paragraph of foreign origin entitled “D’Alembert.” The philosophe is here reported to have said “that he had carefully examined Christianity, and found nothing in it repugnant to reason.”47 Another writer, who attempted to defend D’Alembert from the charge of atheism, was fulsome in his praise of the mathematician’s character.48
D’Alembert’s career was a most distinguished one. His work in science was acclaimed in Europe. His services were coveted by Frederick the Great and by Catherine, empress of Russia. But in America he was known only to a handful of people and then for reasons that had nothing to do with the work on which his celebrity was based. Only Samuel Miller, to my knowledge, voiced appreciation of his contributions to science. D’Alembert’s writings were less widely disseminated in the United States than even those of Diderot.
Brissot de Warville, French lawyer and journalist, visited Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1788. He was much moved by what he discovered in a tour of the Harvard library. “The heart of a Frenchman,” he wrote, “palpitates on finding the works of Racine, of Montesquieu, and the Encyclopaedia, where, 150 years ago, arose the smoke of the savage calumet.”49 As late as 1826, according to H. M. Jones, another foreign traveler, this time to New Orleans, “finding there a complete set of the French Encyclopaedia, observed that the books were difficult or impossible to get in the United States.”50 Was this really the case? There is an obvious discrepancy between the observations of these two travelers. What were the facts of the matter as regards the eighteenth century? Gilbert Chinard wrote an essay on “L’Encyclopédie et le rayonnement de l’esprit encyclopédique en Amérique.”51 Actually, his concern was more with the diffusion of the encyclopedic spirit than with the dissemination of the Encyclopédie itself. I would like to add, as a complement to his essay, my own gleanings concerning the reception here of “the greatest publishing venture” of the century.
Jones found only two advertisements of the Encyclopédie in his study of the Philadelphia newspapers, mentioned above. Both were in 1787. Daniel Boinod, a bookseller in this city, had, however, advertised it in the Independent Gazetteer on November 27, 1784. Bookdealers’ advertisements of it in the newspapers, admittedly, were few in number. An edition in twenty-eight volumes published in Italy had been advertised in Virginia newspapers about 1780. As governor of Virginia, Jefferson bought this edition for the use of the public.52 The Columbian Centinel (Boston) for May 24, 1794, carried an announcement of the sale of a French library, which contained the Encyclopédie. It was also to be had from Moreau de Saint-Méry, the Philadelphia bookdealer, in 1795.53 The great work was not translated into English in the eighteenth century. But even back in the 1760s, “Voltaire’s select Essays from the Encyclopédie” appeared in a catalog of books for sale at the Williamsburg Post Office.54 In 1772 an octavo volume, Select Essays from the Encyclopedy, was published in London and a copy of this was on the shelves of the Library Company of Philadelphia.55 Our concern, however, is with the dissemination of the Encyclopédie itself. Who possessed this expensive work?
Benjamin Franklin owned it.56 In 1780 John Adams paid a Parisian bookseller 360 livres for an edition in thirty-nine volumes.57 The work was in Thomas Jefferson’s second library, also in thirty-nine volumes.58 James Madison had a copy, and in the preparation of his memorandum “Of Ancient & Modern Confederacies” he referred five times to the Encyclopédie.59 It was in the library of William Short, and also in John Randolph’s.60 Others either owned copies or had access to the work. Haraszti noted that “the first twenty pages of d’Alembert’s Discours préliminaire was translated or paraphrased by John Quincy Adams on the margins.”61 In support of a point he was making, Alexander Hamilton quoted from the article “Empire” of the Encyclopédie in Number 22 of The Federalist.62 Joel Barlow was familiar with it.63 Charles Brockden Brown, the novelist, “read through a considerable library [French refugees] had brought with them, including the voluminous ‘Encyclopédie.’”64 But familiarity with the work was not limited to a well-known few.65 The Encyclopédie was in institutional libraries. The Charleston Library Society ordered the work in 1773.66 It was in the Harvard Library.67 Incidentally, the Harvard librarian, Thaddeus Mason Harris, underwent its influence. In 1793 Harris published “A Selected Catalogue of Some of the Most Esteemed Publications in the English Language, Proper to Form a Social Library.” He wrote in this catalog that he had adopted in it the principles of classification of books (memory, reason, imagination) delineated “by the immortal Bacon and since illustrated and enlarged by the learned D’Alembert.”68 A set of the Encyclopédie was also on the shelves of the New York Society Library.69 Such a spread of a many-volumed and expensive work is rather impressive. Ownership of other sets could doubtless be found. It was, for example, among the books of Father Gabriel Richard, of Michigan.70 But my concern is with the eastern section of the United States.
We shall never know how much solid use Americans made of the Encyclopédie and its volumes of plates, a mine of designs and practical information on a multitude of subjects then not easily obtainable. Unfortunately, contemporary comment as to the helpfulness of the magnificent plates is lacking. But there are a number of reactions from the orthodox and conservatives to the volumes of text themselves, and these were unfavorable. In short, they charged that the work was part of a vast conspiracy to undermine Christianity and to promote atheism. President Timothy Dwight of Yale believed Voltaire to be the leader of the plot and named Frederick II, Diderot, and D’Alembert, “all men of talents, atheists,” as accomplices. The first step in the conspiracy, he said, was “the compilation of the Encyclopédie; in which with great art and insidiousness the doctrines of Natural as well as Christian Theology were rendered absurd and ridiculous; and the mind of the reader was insensibly steeled against conviction and duty.”71 One other opinion, similar in nature to Dwight’s, will suffice to illustrate the conservative attitude. The Reverend Samuel Miller wrote:
It is probable that they were prompted to this undertaking by the fame and success of Mr. Chamber’s work [Cyclopedia]; and also by a premeditated and systematic design to throw all possible odium on revealed religion. … A leading feature of the Encyclopédie is the encouragement which it artfully gives throughout to the most impious infidelity; and though much valuable science is undoubtedly diffused through its pages, yet it is so contaminated with the mixture of licentious principles in morals and religion, that nothing but its great voluminousness prevents it from being one of the most pernicious works that ever issued from the press.72
Let me conclude with a few observations concerning the fortune of Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie méthodique in the United States. I wish to do so because one or two of the remarks made by contemporaries about Panckoucke’s enterprise, mentioned earlier, have some bearing on attitudes toward Diderot’s Encyclopédie.
Jefferson was the most enthusiastic American promoter of the Encyclopédie méthodique. In a letter written in 1783, he referred to “this valuable depository of science” and suggested to Panckoucke “the expediency of appointing some agent in Philadelphia who may open a subscription for this work, deliver the copies to the subscribers and receive the money from them.”73 This encyclopedia had its place in his second library. The Virginian urged friends and acquaintances to subscribe, corresponded with them about it. To one he wrote from Paris in 1784, “I know of no other work here lately published or now on hand which is [as?] interesting.”74 His correspondence shows that Franklin, Francis Hopkinson, James Madison, James Monroe, and the College of William and Mary were subscribers.75 Madison called the Encyclopédie méthodique “a complete scientific library.”76 Hamilton, no friend of Jefferson’s, also had the work in his library.77 As enthusiastic as he was about this encyclopedia, Jefferson was sorely disappointed by the errors in J.-N. Demeunier’s article, “Etats Unis,” in one of its volumes. “He has still left in … a great deal of falsehood, and he has stated other things on bad information. I am sorry I had not another correction of it.”78 The only other comment on the Encyclopédie méthodique encountered was that of Samuel Miller. He wrote that it was begun by some of the literati of France who were not pleased either with the plan or execution of Diderot’s Encyclopédie. And, Miller added, “it is scarcely necessary to say that this last work [the Encyclopédie méthodique], executed by many of the persons who were engaged in the preceding, bears, like that, an anti-religious complexion; and that, while it displays much genius, learning, industry, and perseverance, its general tendency is highly unfavorable to the interests of virtue and piety.”79
Miller’s ambivalent attitude toward both the Encyclopédie and the Encyclopédie méthodique was rather characteristic of eighteenth-century American thought with regard to things French. Much could be learned from France. But the fear of French “infidelity” and its moral consequences was very real. A fine subject for a new and lengthy Entretien entre D’Alembert et Diderot in the Elysian fields!