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At 300, Encyclopedia Pioneer May Yet Get A Hero's Burial

Denis Diderot's work on the <em>Encyclopédie</em><em> </em>faced stiff resistance in its time, but some scholars credit it with laying the foundations of the French Revolution.
Louis-Michel con Loo
Diderot Collection/Gift of M. de Vandeul to the French State in 1911
Denis Diderot's work on the Encyclopédie faced stiff resistance in its time, but some scholars credit it with laying the foundations of the French Revolution.

Before there was Wikipedia, there were encyclopedias — and Saturday marks the 300th birthday of the father of one of the world's most important.

Eighteenth-century French philosopher Denis Diderot was the driving force behind the Encyclopédie, one of the first compendiums of human knowledge of its time. The anniversary of his birth has prompted calls for Diderot to receive France's highest honor: have his remains reinterred in Paris' Pantheon, a mausoleum of sorts for France's national heroes.

'The Major Intellectual Adventure Of The 18th Century'

Diderot was one of the major figures of the French Enlightenment, a time when thinkers like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau expounded on the freedoms of religion and expression, as well as the power of reason over blind faith.

As a philosopher, though, Diderot has kind of been lost to history. Walk down into the crypts below the Pantheon and you will find huge, glorious tombs to Voltaire and Rousseau — but no Diderot.

A block or so away at the Sorbonne Library, Philippe Marcerou flips through an original, leather-bound edition of Diderot's crowning achievement. The 28-volume Encyclopédie was first published in 1751 and took Diderot more than 20 years to complete, with the help of more than a hundred other writers.

"The Encyclopédie is the major intellectual adventure of the 18th century," says Marcerou, the library's director.

The collection's big innovation was Diderot's system of cross-references that link disparate but related articles together — what Marcerou calls a kind of search algorithm for the 1700s.

"Today everybody knows Google," Marcerou says. "The major invention of the Encyclopédie is the same system: The cross-reference is a way of making a kind of web out of the knowledge."

Caroline Warman, a French scholar at the University of Oxford, says even the simplest of entries can lead readers on a wild journey. Take the definition for apricot: It's just a run-of-the-mill, botanical entry, but at the end there's this little asterisk.

"The asterisk introduces a recipe written by Diderot himself about how to make apricot jam," Warman says. Diderot recommends using green apricots and filling a basin half full with water, but the sugar is where things get really interesting.

"So how do you make sugar?" Warman asks. "Well, immediately, therefore, you're in sugar plantations. So there's an article called sucrerie, which is very enthusiastic, clear instructions about how to set up a sugar plantation and how to manage slaves."

If you follow the cross-reference to slavery, Warman continues, "what you then find is the most impassioned diatribe against the use of slaves."

And if you're Marcerou, that might prompt you to look up liberty, which he says is one of the Encyclopédie's most important entries.

"The definition is: 'Liberty consists in the power [of] an intelligent being [to do] what he wants according to his own determination,' " Marcerou says, reading from the Encyclopédie. "This particular definition, in the middle of the 18th century, is something absolutely incredible."

Ultimately, he says, Diderot challenged the authority of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Some scholars say the ideas circulated in the Encyclopédie helped lay the foundation for the French Revolution, and even the American Revolution that came before it. Andrew Curran, an expert on Diderot at Wesleyan University, explains that with over 20,000 copies in print, Diderot's encyclopedias were among the most widely distributed and influential books of the era.

"Commercially, the encyclopedia did extremely well," he says. "Diderot himself made very little money off the whole project, but the publishers became extremely rich."

Closing The Mausoleum's Gender Gap

Now, French President François Hollande has hinted he might give Diderot his due with a reburial at the Pantheon, but this anniversary has also sparked a wider debate about who belongs in the Pantheon.

"Today there are 72 men buried [t]here and only two women," says Anne-Cécile Mailfert, a member of Osez le Féminisme, a group that's urging Hollande to reduce the gender gap. Mailfert says there are plenty of women who have been overlooked by French history, such as Olympe de Gouges, another 18th-century figure, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman.

"So this is what we are saying: Diderot is dead; he's going to be dead in 50 years; so he can wait," Mailfert says. "And now it's women's turn to get into the Pantheon."

The director of France's national monuments will deliver a report on the matter to Hollande next week.

Even if Diderot does get the nod, though, historian Philipp Blom says there's another question: While everyone knows the church where Diderot is buried today, no one's quite sure which remains are his.

"All the bones are apparently in a complete jumble," he says. "So how you want to reconstruct Diderot's skeleton, short of a full-scale genetic analysis of everything in there, will be a very interesting question."

After all, Blom says, you don't want to put just any old bones in the Pantheon.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Werth