Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

33

The 'War of the Encyclopédie':
The First Stage (1746–1752)

Diderot's situation at the end of the 1740s was indeed embattled. The atmosphere in the country, and Paris especially, was unusually tense. The interruption in the work on the Encyclopédie, by the summer of 1749 already a vast and diversifying body of up-to-date material on all the arts, sciences, and crafts, gravely threatened the whole project. Serious in itself, his suspected authorship of the anonymously published Lettre sur les aveugles with its clear materialistic and atheistic tendencies, while precipitating his incarceration at Vincennes under a royal lettre de cachet on 9 July 1749, was by no means the sole reason for his arrest. Rather it capped a considerable list of complaints, and charges of illicit publication, which the Paris police, having had him under surveillance for some time, had gradually accumulated.

The 36-year-old philosophe was now a prominent figure in Parisian intellectual life, an érudit and café personality of exceptional range, intellectual acuteness, and versatility, as well as one of the more experienced editors and compilers in the capital. It was therefore with some justification that the consortium of publishers investing in the project of the Encyclopédie reacted with unusual consternation to his arrest. Jointly petitioning the comte d'Argenson, pleading for his release, they styled Diderot an 'homme de lettres' of acknowledged merit and probity who alone was capable of controlling such a vast enterprise, 'et qui possède seul la clef de toute l'opération; '1 for it was true that it was he who had all along, and latterly more and more, shouldered most of the editing burden, rather than his (then close) friend d'Alembert who prior to 1751 was still nationally and internationally the better known of the two.2

Interrogated at Vincennes by the lieutenant-general of police, Berryer, on 31 July, Diderot initially stuck to his refusal to admit any offence, denying all knowledge of the anonymously published Pensées philosophiques, Bijoux indiscrets, and Lettres sur les aveugles, claiming he had been unjustly arrested and that various prominent persons, Mme Du Châtelet, d'Alembert, Buffon, the aged Fontenelle, and Voltaire among them, would vouch for his good character. It was not until mid August 1749

1 Diderot, Correspondance, i. 81; Venturi, Jeunesse de Diderot, 170–1, 178; Diderot, Œuvres complètes,
i. 278.

2 Gordon and Torrey, Censoring, 12–13.

-840-

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