10/07/2013 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2013

The Godfather of All Encyclopedias

One of the greatest of the Enlightenment philosophers, Denis Diderot, was born 300 years ago this October. In the witty and iconoclastic French eighteenth century -- arguably, the period during which the modern world was shaped -- Diderot had as effervescent a mind as anyone. His activity was astonishing; his influence, profound.

Besides directing a team that produced the awesome Encyclopédie, he left us a dazzlingly original series of works that range in their subject matter from religion to science and morality: The Nun, Jacques the Fatalist, Rameau's Nephew, D'Alembert's Dream. He also wrote numerous other plays, dialogues and short stories. Paradoxically, few of these works (and none of the four just mentioned) were known to his contemporaries: to keep out of trouble, and to keep his Encyclopédie safe, he had to write largely for future generations. After an imprisonment of a few months in the Château de Vincennes because of the atheistic implications of an early work, Diderot learned how to avoid scandal. Having published little on politics and government, moreover, he failed to become, like Voltaire and Rousseau, a hero of the French Revolution. Also unlike them, he did not have to live a substantial portion of his life in exile.

Inspired by the two-volume Cyclopædia that Ephraim Chambers published in London in 1728, the French Encyclopédie is the godfather of all modern encyclopedias. Its seventeen folio volumes of text, published between 1751 and 1765, purport to assemble and update all fields of human endeavor. The most distinguished scientists and theorists of the age contributed, and Diderot himself wrote thousands of articles. As he asserts in the article titled "Encyclopedia," the aim is

[...] to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come, and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race.

Diderot's linking of education with virtue, happiness and usefulness resonates with what we might call today the mission of the liberal arts. In creating the Encyclopédie, moreover, he displayed teamwork and leadership, the courage to challenge received ideas, the application of reason to human dilemmas, an emphasis on tolerance, a determination to make intelligible to all educated people the great achievements of the age, and a willingness to work unimaginably hard for long years with no hope of present or foreseeable glory -- habits of mind and work we seek to instill in our students today.

It is impossible to convey in just a few words the vastness of the enterprise or the depth of information that the Encyclopédie presents in its more than 70,000 entries. The text, moreover, was complemented by eleven volumes of mostly original copperplate engravings to show the ins and outs of all the trades and crafts, machines and mines, monuments and medicine. Articles and illustrations meticulously describe and illustrate such things as musical instruments and the mechanical arts; glassblowing, cabinetmaking and bookbinding; the geography of the known world; men, women and nature -- to mention only a handful of subjects. An exhibition mounted in the Hamilton College library showcases an exquisitely detailed rendering of a flea under the microscope, a drawing of great power.

Ever since its publication, the Encyclopédie has been pored over by scholars in search of data, method and information about myriad categories of knowledge disseminated (and often hidden) in its thousands of pages. Diderot's way of thinking was new; his scholarly ambition was staggering; his method was the model of scrupulous research. In the same article quoted above, he explains that "One must examine and stir up everything, without exception and without cautiousness ... We must ... restore to the sciences and arts their precious liberty." Respect for history, science and technology, the preservation of knowledge and its presentation in such a way as to engage the mind -- this is what he and his team stood for, and this of course is, to a large extent, what we in higher education stand for even now. Like Diderot, we are all, in this sense, encyclopédistes.

And this is why we take note of the tercentennial of his birth. The most eclectic figure of the Enlightenment, Diderot was also in many ways its most representative, a suitable inspiration for us today.