I recently read a fascinating book by Simon Winchester entitled ‘Knowing what we know’1,2. I have a soft spot for Winchester, as he also wrote the book ‘The map that changed the world’ which is about the first nation-scale geological map produced by geologist William Smith, which was effectively the beginning of modern geology and biostratigraphy*3,4. A copy of this large map hangs in Burlington House in Piccadilly (London, UK), the headquarters of the Geological Society. I happened to travel to London for a conference in 2013 and got to see the map. But I digress.
Winchester’s ‘Knowing what we know’ is an excellent read on how humans obtain, store and transmit knowledge. One part of it which intrigued me was the history of what amounts to the encyclopaedia. While French philosopher Denis Diderot is often credited with coming up with the concept, this is not so, as there were other such compendia in existence at the time, not least of which was the massive, 852,000 page, ten thousand volume Gujin Tushu Jicheng of Qing Dynasty China, later known in the west as the Great Imperial Encyclopaedia5,6. It was produced decades before Diderot produced his. Another predecessor was the two volume Cyclopaedia compiled and edited by Ephraim Chambers in England in 1728.
In 1745, publisher André Le Breton approached Diderot with a view to bringing out a French translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, after two other translators had withdrawn from the project. Diderot undertook the task with mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert as co-editor. However, Diderot profoundly changed the nature of the publication, broadening its scope and turning it into an important organ of radical and revolutionary opinion. He gathered around him a team dedicated to furthering knowledge and, in so doing, strike a resounding blow against reactionary forces in the church and state. The now entitled Encyclopédiewas to bring out the essential principles and applications of every art and science. The underlying philosophy was rationalism7.
In 1751, Le Breton released eight thousand copies of a Prospectus for Diderot’s work, which invited readers to buy advanced subscriptions for a radically new kind of compendium. The Prospectus promised that the first volume of the new work would appear within six months. In the Prospectus, Diderot began to reveal his conception of what the Encyclopédie would become8. The Encyclopédie was, in the end, a twenty-eight volume reference book published between 1751 and 1772 by Le Breton and was written by a collaborative group including people like Voltaire and Rousseau, and edited by Diderot. It is commonly viewed as one of the principle works of the Enlightenment and was highly influential in shaping and spreading the kind of progressive thinking that eventually led to the French Revolution9.
As an example; hostility toward the nobility was present in the Encyclopédie. In the entry on “Nobility,” Louis Jaucourt wrote, “Democracies have no need for nobility, they are even more peaceful when there are no noble families”, and “noble birth commonly stifles industry and emulation. Nobles do not have so far to go as do others in order to reach the highest levels.” Even in illustrations, the affluent, when they are depicted at all, are generally pictured as pompous and lazy9. The French Revolution of 1789 abolished the nobility and hereditary titles.
The subtitle of the Encyclopédie is, in part, Dictionnaire Raisonné or “Rational dictionary,” highlighting its emphasis on reason, which frequently put it at odds with the conservative church. The project was subjected to censorship multiple times during its publication for its liberal and controversial material9. The first volume of the Encyclopédie appeared in 1751, and the second the following year. The Archbishop of Paris quickly identified passages that questioned the literal truth of the Bible. One Lamoignon de Malesherbes, in charge of policing the book trade, put a stop to the publication. After a while, work did resume but only on condition that all the articles relating to religion and other contentious matters would be checked by censors10.
This assertion that the Encyclopédie led to the French Revolution, which I originally found in Winchester’s book, made me wonder if there was a similar connection between the internet and the fact that the younger generation are not becoming more conservative with age as their forebears did. Indeed, they are becoming less conservative11. This trend away from conservatism by the young is fascinating because it is so different to trends of previous generations, which tend to get more conservative with age. I belong to one of the generations (i.e. baby boomers) that is supposedly getting more conservative with age, but I am not becoming more conservative with age. Quite the reverse, in fact. All I can assume is that, as many people get older they simply tend to not look at what is happening in Australia and around the world as much as they used to do, and are therefore more susceptible to lies told by conservatives. That is not what I have done.
One thing I have noticed among those of around my age, is that some are very internet-aware, while others are not. I am able to find out stuff relatively easily, simply using keywords on one of the two browsers I use, and occasionally by simply asking questions of the browsers. However, I have noticed just by talking to others that some seem to be incapable of doing even that. It would be interesting to find out if those among my generation who are not engaged online tend to be more conservative.
If Diderot’s Encyclopédie was one of the distal causes of the French Revolution, could the internet be the distal causes of the coming revolution where politicians will not be bribed by big business and the wealthy, where corrupt politicians will be punished, where nobody will be allowed to live in poverty, where the poor will not be derided, where the disabled will get what they require for a decent life, where the quality of your health care will not be dependent on your bank balance, where everyone is treated equally before the law, where the quality of your legal representation is not dependent on your bank balance, where the wealthy are taxed fairly, where bigotry will be unacceptable, where all people are treated equally, where polluters will be punished, where peaceful protest will not be criminalised, where there will be some semblance of morality and adherence to human rights in foreign affairs. One can only hope. As you can see from the above, I am not becoming more conservative with age, I am simply becoming angrier at all the injustices of the system under which we live.
*Biostratigraphy: This is the branch of geology that uses fossils to establish the relative ages of sedimentary rocks and to correlate successions of sedimentary rocks between regions. Some sedimentary rock layers are characterised by certain fossil species and such intervals are often referred to as ‘biozones’ or more often, simply ‘zones’. It was William Smith’s understanding that particular fossils were restricted to particular layers of rocks, that allowed him to produce his ground-breaking geological map.
- Winchester, S., 2023. Knowing what we know. William Collins, London. 415 pp.
- Winchester, S., 2001. The map that changed the world. Harper Collins, London. 352 pp.