The encyclopedia edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert became famous–and controversial–principally because many of its articles reflected the impious attitudes of its contributors like Voltaire & Rousseau, many of whom were participants in the rationalist movement known as the Enlightenment. More than a summary of all contemporary knowledge, it served as a manifesto for a new way of looking at the world. One of its striking innovations was that it described and depicted in hundreds of engravings various mechanical processes which were in the process of transforming the world during the period known as the Industrial Revolution. D’Alembert’s insist-ence on the dignity and genius of the men usually scorned as commoners foreshadows the egalitarian attitudes which were to undermine the old aristocratic order.
Why have people come to despise the mechanical arts? What is their main advantage over the liberal arts (that is, more intellectual arts)?
The mechanical arts depend on manual operation and are enslaved, if I may be permitted the term, to a species of routine, and so are left to those men whom prejudice places within the lowest classes. Poverty has driven these men to apply themselves to such work more often than taste or native genius drew them towards it, and for this reason these arts have come to be despised, so much does poverty darken what accompanies it. On the other hand, the free operations of the intellect (1) are the lot of those who think themselves to be the most favored of nature. Nevertheless, the advantage which the liberal arts have over the mechanical, because the former demands hard, intellectual work and requires difficulty to excel, is sufficiently compensated by the far greater usefulness the latter arts for the most part provide for us. It is this very utility which forced these arts to be reduced to merely mechanical operations, so that a greater number of men could practice them. But society, in justly respecting the great geniuses which have enlightened it, need not on that account vilify the hands of those who serve it. The discovery of the compass is no less advantageous to the human race than the explanation of the properties of the compass needle is to physics. Finally, considering in itself the distinction we are discussing, how many of the so-called scholars are there for whom science is, in reality, only a mechanical art? And what is the real difference between a head filled with facts without any order, any usefulness or any connections, and the instinct of an artisan reduced to a mechanical operation?
The contempt shown to the mechanical arts seems to have been influenced in part by their inventors. The names of these great benefactors of the human race are almost entirely unknown, whereas the history of its destroyers, that is to say, its conquerors, is known by everyone.
Even so, it is perhaps among the artisans that one should go to find the most admirable proofs of the sagacity, the patience, and the resources of the intellect. I admit that the greater part of the arts have been invented little by little and that it has taken a very long period of centuries in order to bring watches, for example, to the point of perfection that we see.
But is it not the same for the sciences?
How many discoveries which immortalized their authors were prepared for by the work of the preceding centuries, even having been developed to their maturity, right up to the point that they demanded only one more step to be taken? And not to leave watch-making, why do we not esteem those to whom we owe the fusee, the escapement, and the repeating works [of watches] as much as we esteem those who have successively worked on perfecting algebra? Moreover, if I can believe those philosophers who do not so despise the mechanical arts that they refuse to study them, there are certain machines so complicated, and in which all the parts depend so much on each other, that it is difficult to imagine that the invention would be due to more than one man. The name of this rare genius is shrouded in oblivion, yet is it not more worthy of being placed beside that small number of creative intellects which have opened up to us new routes in the sciences?
Translated by Richard Hooker
(1) The “liberal” arts, i.e., the “free” arts.
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