They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, May 18, 2008



By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

Encyclopedia: a word derived from misspelling the original Greek "enkyklios paideia", which means "general education". That name passed from Greek into Latin and from Latin into almost every European language, and became a synonym for "general knowledge".

Encyclopedias were a solid ground on which libraries built their reference collections. Even nowadays, in a world were digital media become dominant day after day, they continue being the first step that anyone must take before carrying out a research on any subject. A good example of the importance that they presently have is the astounding development and diffusion attained by Wikipedia, where, under the leadership of a plural team of editors, an even bigger group of contributors provides a variety of information about the topics concerning their area of expertise.

A similar process happened, some centuries ago, when the most famous European encyclopedia was being elaborated by Diderot and d'Alambert. There are a good number of curiosities related to it. Allow me to share a bit of its history with you.

In 1728, Ephraim Chambers published in London his "Cyclopaedia", subtitled "A Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences". It consisted of two thick volumes in folio, with almost 2500 pages, which became soon one of the first –and most celebrated– general encyclopedias in English language. It had a solid cross-reference system and the articles were ordered following one of the first subject headings classifications (which included 47 subjects). Based on previous works (such as the one carried out by John Harris in 1704), Chambers's work stand out because of his seriousness and good judgment. In fact, it remained very popular for a long time and turned out to be the origin of the famous French "Encyclopédie".

The "Encyclopédie" or "Reasoned Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts" was published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later reviews and supplements (1772, 1777 and 1780), and numerous subsequent translations and derivative works. Originally, it intended to be a simple translation from Chamber's into French. For that purpose, in 1743 the publisher André Le Breton asked John Mills to do the job. Mills was an Englishman settled in Paris, a modest writer who has produced a few texts on agriculture in his native country. In May, 1745 –two years later– Le Breton announced that the work was ready to be sold. His surprise and dismay were great when he discovered that Mills was not only unable to speak or write properly in French (many affirm that he was only just coming out with his first faltering words in that language), but he did not have a copy of the "Cyclopaedia" either. As you may guess, the job had not even been begun.

Le Breton had been shamelessly swindled. He looked angrily for Mills and beat him up (some say that he used a cane, others that it was a stick) so badly that the "translator" took the publisher to court for hitting him. The court, after studying this case, reached a decision and agreed that Le Breton had his reasons for acting like that. In their opinion, the aggression was justified by negligence on the part of Mills.

Mills was replaced by Jean Paul de Gua de Malves in 1745. Among those hired by Malves to carry out the huge work of translation were Étienne Bonnot de Codillac, Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot. In August, 1747, Malves was removed from his job due to his rigid working methods. Other version explains that Malves himself decided to abandon because he had grown tired of his employment. Then Le Breton hired Diderot and D'Alambert as new editors. From that moment onwards, the initial work of translation would turn into a complex work of writing.

Diderot would remain in his position over 25 years and was able to see the completion of his work. It consisted of 35 volumes, 71.818 articles and more than 3.000 illustrations. Many of the most celebrated figures during French Enlightment took part in the elaboration of those articles: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu... Louis de Jaucourt was the author that contributed the highest number of writings: 17.266 articles. Eight every day, between 1759 and 1765...

Even Le Breton allowed himself to write an article for the "Encyclopédie": the one related to black ink, "Encre noire". He also had the "satisfaction" of censoring a good number of texts to turn it less "radical". This fact annoyed Diderot on many occasions. Le Breton especially cut out articles related to "Saracens or Arabs" and "Pyrrhic Philosophy". In all cases, there were political reasons for his policy of censorship.

The writings that make up the "Encyclopédie" were revolutionary due to the confrontation between those lines and Catholic dogmas. In fact, the whole work was forbidden by a Royal Decree in 1759. Fortunately, thanks to the support given to it by influential characters –like famous Madame de Pompadour– the work went on "secretly". In reality, civil authorities did not want to give up an economic activity that employed so many people. The ban was actually a sort of "front" in order to silent the furious attacks from the Church.

The "Encyclopédie" became a famous work considering both the ideas presented and their authors. However, other works done by single authors some centuries ago were much more relevant. Regrettably, many of them have vanished or disappeared into oblivion. Some examples might be the following:

– The medical encyclopedia written by Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, the father of modern surgery, in the year 1000, which consisted of 30 volumes.

– The first scientific encyclopedia ever known, "Kitab al-Shifa", by Ibn Sina or Avicena, written between 1000 and 1030. It consisted of 9 volumes about Logic, 8 about Natural Science, 4 about Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry and Music, and the same number about Philosophy, Psychology and Metaphysics.

– The "Canon of Medicine", an encyclopedia with 14 volumes also written by Avicena around 1030. This work was reference and model in many European and Muslim universities until XVII century. In it pages, experimental medicine and a good number of new infectious-contagious diseases were explained together with many other findings.

– The "Canon Masudicus" by Abu al-Rayhan al-Bisudi (1031), an extended encyclopedia on Astronomy.

– The 43 volumes encyclopedia by Ibn al-Nafis (1242-1244) entitled "The Comprehensive Book on Medicine", one of the greatest medical encyclopedias in history, though very few volumes have survived.

Sadly, the majority of the most important works of Islamic knowledge –whose information, understanding and skills were the basis for many "discoveries" made in Europe centuries later– disappeared in Baghdad when the Mongol invasions took place; in Damascus with the Crusades; and in Al-Andalus during the Reconquest (of Spain from the Moors). Most of it was burnt and destroyed. Only the texts translated into Latin –during XII and XIII centuries– in culture and knowledge centers such as Toledo, Segovia, Catalonia, Sicilia or southern France, could be preserved and handled down to posterity.

Centuries later, there were many who thought they succeeded in discovering such and such and went down in the books of history and science as great figures when, in reality, those findings had been done hundreds of years ago. History matters...

Actually, Eurocentric history matters..."Euro-whatever", would say Eduardo Galeano: that is the headline ("Eurotodo" in Spanish) chosen by the Uruguayan writer in page 103 of his last work, "Espejos" (Mirrors):

"Copernicus published, when he was dying, the book that laid the foundations of modern Astronomy.

Three centuries in advance, Arab scientists Muhayad al-Urdi and Nasir al-Tusi had elaborated theorems that were very important for carrying out his work. Copernicus used them but did not quote those sources.

Europe saw the world looking at itself in a mirror.

Further away, there was nothing.

The three inventions that made it possible for the Renaissance to take place –the compass, the gunpowder and the printing press– came from China. Babylonians had announced Pythagoras one thousand and five hundred years in advance. Before anyone else, Hindus knew that the Earth was round and had even calculated its age. And better than anyone else, Mayans had known the stars, the eyes of the night and the mystery of time.

This trifling little things were not worthy of attention."

Galeano also affirms in the same page of his book, under the title "Sur" (South):

"Arab maps still outlined the South at the top and the North at the bottom; however, in the XIII century, Europe had just established the natural order of the universe [upside down]."

The author tells us that the Imperial Library of Beijing had, in the XV century, 4000 books that gathered together the knowledge of the world. The king of Portugal had only six books at that time.

History matters. Memory matters. Fortunately, today's virtual encyclopedias –such as the already mentioned Wikipedia– allow easy access to versions in Chinese, Arab, Russian, Greek and many other languages. Sadly enough, those of us who can only read Latin alphabet and know just a couple of European languages will never find out what happened and is happening on the other side of the mirror.

I go back to the beginning in order to finish this post. The word "encyclopedia" derives from Greek and means "general education". Maybe someday we will have a "generality" that will bring together and take notice of everyone and everything. Perhaps, that day we can learn something new, diverse and of great value. Meanwhile, we will have to make it with the only hitherto known "generality".