*Encyclopedias and the Essay
Encyclopedias and the Essay
Encyclopedias, or comprehensive systems of learning, developed independently of one another in three distinct cultural traditions in Europe, the Near East, and the Orient. The earliest Chinese encyclopedia is recorded in 220 CE but has been completely lost; part of the text of its successor, the Bian zhu (String of pearls of literature), survives and was followed by at least eight other attempts before the appearance in the late 13th century of the Wen xian tong kao (General study of literary remains). The first Arabic encylopedia is the 9thcentury work of Ibn Qutayba, arranged in ten books, each with a defining topic: power, war, nobility, character, eloquence, asceticism, friendship, prayer, food, and women. European encyclopedia-making has its generally accepted origins in Pliny’s Historia naturalis (Natural history) in 77 CE.
The word “encyclopedia” was first used by Paul Scalich in 1559, the term “cyclopedia” having been employed initially by Joachim Sterck van Ringelbergh in 1541.
Both are derived from the Greek and translate as a “cycle of learning.” There are easily hundreds of examples of compilations which could be loosely described as encylopedias, deriving from all literary traditions from as early as 350 BCE. They share the common purpose of bringing together in one source their culture’s accumulated learning, but few if any of these efforts provide a unifying philosophical context for the knowledge they catalogue. Encyclopedias continued to be no more than “strings of pearls” until well into the 18th century, when in the West, the phenomenon of the periodical essay had a great impact on the format and especially on the ideology of encyclopediamaking. At that point the seminal European examples of the encylopedia appeared under the editorship of Denis Diderot in France and of William Smellie in Scotland, relying on the essay to anchor and give to the encyclopedia the integrity of a true literary construct. Such works continued to be ambitiously comprehensive in content and elaborately schematic in structure, but the whole was made to give place to the part; these encyclopedias are distinguished not for their general attempt to embrace all learning but for the particular achievement of individual contributions on discrete topics. This essayistic approach to
compiling encyclopedias, working as it does from part to whole, characterizes all the national encyclopedias which appeared throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Increasingly in the 17th century, beginning with Francis Bacon’s plan for the Instauratio magna (1620), which sets out new principles for schematizing learning, and culminating in Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary), the first truly “modern” work of this kind, encylopedias in Europe incorporated the sensibility of the rationalists and became more scientific in their structure and content. But even the influential work of Ephraim Chambers, whose Cyclopaedia (1728) would inspire both Diderot and Smellie, lacked a strong editorial direction; Bayle and Chambers still relied on the traditional illusion of inclusiveness, the impression that their work was exhaustive in its scholarship, to assert their credentials. It was the weight of their learning rather than any professional expertise and opinions that distinguished their efforts. Theirs remained notably the achievements of individuals,
encyclopedias produced by the prodigious labors of one man, not the cooperative discourse of a society of scholars and practitioners.
By the mid-18th century, quite a different sort of approach to compiling encyclopedias began to emerge. Innovations appeared in three areas: a new emphasis on the trades and professions with their technical and applied learning; a collaborative approach that enlisted some 160 contributors to Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751–72,); and the editorial choice of the essay to embrace the more important and controversial entries with an individualistic and even polemical tone that challenges the reader to reflection rather than simply providing information. Diderot recruited an international body of experts to write essays that argued theoretical positions often at the expense of facts and particulars, as was the case with Rousseau’s notorious entry on Music, a discussion which continues to matter not for what it tells us about music but for what it reveals about Rousseau. Many of the articles Diderot solicited assumed socially and politically critical stances, employing the style of the polemical essay to attack the notion of privilege in European society. The essay as it developed after Montaigne and Bacon, with its emphasis upon the values of the written word and upon subjectively contextualizing its topics, makes possible during the Enlightenment a style of encyclopedia-making that is more critical, more aggressive, and more literary.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica made its first appearance in 1768 in Edinburgh, issued in parts. The editor, William Smellie, compiled much of the material himself, although he seems to have been aided in the original articles by fellow Scot and historian Gilbert Stuart. Smellie’s approach to the encyclopedia was novel in one very important respect:
as a practicing journalist, distinguished essayist, and recent editor of the Scots Magazine, he compiled the Britannica using the methods of periodical journalism. Smellie mixed in brief factual entries and definitions with long specialized essays written in the periodical style. The article on Medicine is over 100 pages long and closely reflects the essayistic method prevalent in magazine writing in the mid-18th century. In fact, Smellie conceived the Britannica in a periodical format; his first prospectus suggested an ongoing publication, the total number of parts not predetermined. He argued with his partners about this and the paper size; he wanted octavo, the printing size of magazines, but his partners prevailed and the Encyclopaedia was issued in three volumes, quarto. Still Smellie compiled and composed as if he were publishing a periodical paper, and each of the first Britannica’s 100 issues has the feel of a magazine.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica owes as much to the influence of the periodical press in the early 18th century as it does to the example of the French encyclopedists. Beginning with John Dunton’s innovation, a question-and-answer periodical called the Athenian Gazette (1690–97), English popular journalism displayed a recurrent interest in collecting
and disseminating technical and cultural knowledge through periodical essays. Most magazines carried regular columns on medicine, science, and literature, through which the editors provided serialized compilation on various topics which, taken together, comprised crucial popular reference works. William Smellie’s own essays on medical and scientific topics written, extracted, and compiled for the Scots Magazine between
1760 and 1765 were a rudimentary version of what he would do for the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Dunton’s stunning popular success with the Athenian Gazette did much to influence Ephraim Chambers in his undertaking of the Encyclopaedia in the 1720s.
As the encyclopedia became a European phenomenon through the later 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the essay remained its dominant literary feature, and national encyclopedias whose knowledge and learning are now out of date continue to be important historical and cultural documents, because they contain seminal examples of the writing of important figures in the genre of the essay.
Collison, Robert, Encyclopaedias: Their History Throughout the Ages, New York: Hafner, 1964
Darnton, Robert, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encylopédie (1775–1800), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1979
Kafker, Frank A., “Notable Encylopedias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Nine Predecessors of the Encyclopédie,” Studies on Voltaire 194 (1981)
Kafker, Frank A., “Encyclopédie,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment, edited by John W.Yolton and others, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991:145–50
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