Following a year-long process of conservation by the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium, Queens’ 28 volume first folio edition of the Encyclopédie (1751-72), has now returned to the Old Library. As the published embodiment of one of the key intellectual advances of modern times we are delighted to have all volumes now in a fully usable form for the first time in many decades. Mouldy paper has been cleaned, water damage has been rectified and, most importantly, the beautiful and characteristically French 18th-century bindings have been painstakingly restored with, where possible, the original spine labels reattached.
Why are 18th-century publications such as this important to Queens’ Old Library? Although justly remembered most for its Renaissance and Medieval treasures, Queens’ Old Library hosts an extensive collection of 18th-century books, pamphlets, and journals most of them acquired by the library during the 18th century. The presence amongst these of cutting edge science along with politically progressive and sometimes controversial publications helps to counter the oft cited but by no means justified image of 18th-century Cambridge as a somnolent backwater unmoved by the modernising forces of the French Enlightenment. No publication suggests more that engagement with the new thinking than the Encyclopédie (in English translation its full title is Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts).
Before establishing its position as a landmark in both scholarship and book history, the decidedly secular and implicitly anti-authoritarian ethos underlying the work’s conception had spooked the French ancien regime, which famously (& unsuccessfully) tried to censor it. Edited by Denis Diderot (1713-84) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-83) this grand undertaking aspired at being nothing less than the first modern and scientific treatment of all spheres of knowledge. On completion 70,000 articles had been written by a discrete group comprising the editors and other Francophile ‘men of letters’ (known as philosophes) many of whose names are now considered synonymous with the Enlightenment. Underlying their quest was a belief that the acquisition of rational knowledge would empower mankind in the widest sense to escape the bounds of all authority, intellectual and political. Indeed, it is now widely argued that the broader agenda for social and political reform that motivated the philosophes contributed ultimately to the French Revolution in 1789.
The Encyclopedie’s status as one of France’s great intellectual achievements is in no way diminished by the fact that the project initially grew from an unrealised and more modest plan to translate into French the two volume Cyclopaedia, or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences by the Englishman, Ephraim Chambers, published in London in 1728. A more profound debt to English philosophy is evident in the Encyclopedie’s ‘System of Human Understanding’, a genealogical tree of all forms of knowledge that was adapted from a similar scheme devised over one hundred years earlier by Francis Bacon (one of the work’s dedicatee’s). The Enyclopedie’s radical re-conception of Bacon’s scheme famously divided human knowledge into three branches: Memory (history); Reason (philosophy); and Imagination (sacred and profane poetry). Its inclusion of theology and black magic as subsets of Reason inevitably ruffled establishment feathers. This ‘System of Human Understanding’ was further explained in d’Alembert’s lengthy ‘Preliminary Discourse’ which became one of the defining pronouncements of the Enlightenment. In it he expressed his aspiration that man through his intelligent efforts might transform the conditions of human life (see English translation).
As an instrument for the education and improvement of society the Encyclopédie was devoted as much to the more practical, mechanical and technical domains of human endeavour as to abstract philosophising. Thus alongside articles by leading philosophers attacking orthodox opinion on nearly every front, there were accounts of mining, glass blowing, iron smelting and wind mills together with detailed illustrations on engraved plates.
It is unfortunate that we do not know exactly when our copy of the Encyclopédie came to Queens’. Its current presence amongst the vast 18th-century collections of sermons, philosophy, and science bequeathed to the library by the two Queens’ clerics David Hughes (1727-77) and Isaac Milner (1788-1820) is fitting. Although not sharing the agenda for social reform propounded in France, these clerics played a key part in articulating for Cambridge a distinct intellectual alternative inspired by a ‘holy alliance’ of Newtonian science and Anglicanism. As avid collectors and participants in Cambridge’s ‘Enlightenment’ we can be sure they would have saluted the intellectual ambition of the Encyclopédie and the continued interest it holds for readers today.
Tim Eggington, College Librarian