Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Re

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Author: Denis Diderot

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DIDEROT, Œuvres complètes (Paris, 1876), XIII, 171 sqq. World History

89.

Diderot’s Preface to the Last Installment of the Encyclopœdia (1765)

When we began this enterprise we looked forward only to those difficulties to which its extent and the variety of the subjects to be treated would give rise; but this proved to be a momentary illusion and we soon beheld the multitude of material obstacles which we had foreseen reënforced by an infinite number of intellectual hindrances for which we were in no way prepared. The world grows old, but in vain, for it does not change. Perhaps the individual may become better, but the mass of our species grows neither better nor worse. The sum of noxious passions remains the same, and the enemies of every good and useful thing are innumerable, as they always have been.

Persecution suffered by the Encyclopædists

Among all the various forms of persecution inflicted, in all times and among all peoples, upon those who have yielded to the dangerous temptation of endeavoring to inscribe their names on the list of benefactors of the human race, there are almost none which have not been directed against us. We have ourselves experienced every species of aspersion springing from envy, falsehood, ignorance, and bigotry of which history furnishes us any example. During twenty consecutive years we can look back to hardly a moment of rest. After days devoted to continuous and ungrateful labor, how many nights have we passed in apprehension of the evils with which malice threatened us! How often have we risen uncertain whether, yielding to the cries of slander, we should not tear ourselves away from our relatives, friends, and fellow-citizens to seek the necessary peace and protection tendered us beneath a foreign sky. But our country was dear to us and we continued to hope that prejudice would give way to justice. Such, moreover, is the character of the man intent on good, and who is fully conscious of the righteousness of his purpose, that his courage is only increased by obstacles which he meets, while his innocence hides from him or leads him to despise the dangers which menace him. One with a high purpose experiences an enthusiasm of which the evil-minded can form no conception.

We have, moreover, met in a few others the same generous sentiments which have sustained us. All our colleagues have hastened to support us. When our enemies felicitated themselves upon having finally overwhelmed us, we found men of letters and men of affairs, who had previously contented themselves with encouraging or pitying us, coming to our aid and associating themselves with our work. Would that we might publish the names of all these capable and courageous allies, who well merit public recognition. . . .

Shortcomings of the work recognized

The public has already passed judgment on the first seven volumes; we ask only a similar indulgence for these. If they refuse to regard this Encyclopœdia as a great and finished work, they will only be in agreement with ourselves, provided, however, that they do not go so far as to question our achievement in having at least prepared a mass of materials for such a work. . . . Thanks to what we have done, those who came after us will be able to go farther. Without attempting to determine what still remains to be done, we at least hand on to them the finest collection of apparatus for their purposes that has ever been brought together,—the plates dealing with the mechanical arts, the hitherto unexcelled descriptions accompanying them, and the vast mass of valuable information relating to all branches of science.

Compatriots and contemporaries, however harshly you may judge this work, remember that it was undertaken, continued, and completed by a little band of isolated men, thwarted in their designs, exhibited in the most odious light, slandered, and outraged in the most atrocious manner, without other encouragement than their devotion to the good, with the support of a very few sympathizers and the assistance which they owed to three or four men of business. . . .

Service of the Encyclopœdia to education

No one will deny, I believe, that our work is on the level of our century, and that is something. The most enlightened person will find ideas there that are new to him and facts of which he was ignorant. May general education advance with such rapidity during the coming twenty years that there will be in a thousand of our pages scarce a line that will not then be known to everybody! It is the duty of the masters of the world to hasten this happy consummation. It is they who extend or contract the horizon of knowledge. Happy the time when they come to understand that their safety lies in ruling over educated men! Attacks on the lives of sovereigns have always been made by blind fanatics. How can we complain of our difficulties and regret our years of tabor if we can flatter ourselves that we have done even a little to weaken this mad spirit which is so hostile to social peace, and have encouraged our fellow-beings to love one another, tolerate one another, and recognize the superiority of universal reason over all individual systems which can only inspire hate, animosity, and disorder, and which always sever or weaken the common bonds which hold mankind together?

Such has been our aim. The enterprise is at last finished, which our enemies have had the distinguished honor of bitterly hampering and opposing in every way in their power. If it has any merits they are not due to them; indeed, they may some day be held accountable for its defects. However this may be, we invite them to turn the pages of these last volumes; let them heap their most bitter criticisms on our work, and pour out upon us the vials of their wrath; we are ready to forgive them anything for a single good and valuable observation. If they will but acknowledge that we have exhibited a consistent respect and veneration for two things which make for social happiness, and are alone truly worthy to be extolled,—namely Virtue and Truth,—they will find us quite indifferent to their unkind imputations. . . .

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Chicago: Denis Diderot, "Diderot’s Preface to the Last Installment of the Encyclopœdia (1765)," Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Re in Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Re, ed. James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936) and Charles A. Beard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1908), 185–187. Original Sources, accessed July 3, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=FYVI2K5X2NQPNC8.

MLA: Diderot, Denis. "Diderot’s Preface to the Last Installment of the Encyclopœdia (1765)." Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Re, in Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Re, edited by James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936) and Charles A. Beard, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1908, pp. 185–187. Original Sources. 3 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=FYVI2K5X2NQPNC8.

Harvard: Diderot, D, 'Diderot’s Preface to the Last Installment of the Encyclopœdia (1765)' in Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Re. cited in 1908, Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, Volume 1: The Eighteenth Century: The French Re, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.185–187. Original Sources, retrieved 3 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=FYVI2K5X2NQPNC8.