Encyclopedia » Politics & Economics » Encyclopedia, a Historic Milestone

Encyclopedia, a Historic Milestone

From the darkness of the Ancien Régime to the luminous freedom of «being able to do everything that does not harm another».

Juramento del Juego de Pelota, Revolución francesa

No hay revolución más poderosa que la del pensamiento... [Imagen: Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

This article, 'Encyclopedia, a historic milestone', begins in the mid-eighteenth century, when the French people guided the spiritual forces of humanity, converting certain ideas, the basis of the modern political world, into the common heritage of all men and it advanced them, more than any other country, along the paths of civil liberty.

In 1751, inspired by similar works by the Frenchman Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) and the Englishman Ephraim Chambers (1680-1740), Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783), with the collaboration of other writers and scholars, they published the first volume of the Encyclopedia, which gave name to an entire era and which was not finished until 1773 -it was made up of 33 volumes-. It collected the doctrines that its authors professed, based on deism, which affirms the existence of a personal God, but denies divine providence and revealed religion, in freedom of thought against all authority or tradition and rationalism, humanitarianism and faith in progress.

A Talented Work, without Limitations or Exclusivism

The Encyclopedia was a completely new work that gathered the collaboration of the most notable talents of France, without delimitations and exclusivism of any kind. It fed the purpose of presenting the sum of the knowledge of its time and, above all, of the new political doctrines in plain and understandable French. Its main objective was the exposition of facts that would satisfy the thirst for knowledge. Despite the forced limitations that the company carried, doubled by the pressure of censorship, the Encyclopedia meant a milestone in the history of culture, and even in general history, and deserves the attention that usually arouses.

Contemporary, and even somewhat earlier than it, was the Enlightenment, also called the "Age of Enlightenment", a cultural movement that predominated in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It owes its name to its aspiration to flood human life with the light of reason, so that the "darkness" of dogma and constituted authority would dissipate. It presented individual freedom and reason as supreme values. It fostered freethinkers's critical thinking and sense of nature; instead, he ignored religious revelation, tradition, and vested interests of all kinds. Its most outstanding representatives were, in England, John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smith (1723-1790); in France, D'Alembert, Diderot and Voltaire (1694-1778); and in Germany, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), Christian von Wolff (1679-1754), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

The ideas that were born robustly in England acquired sharpness and precision in France, albeit saturated with skepticism, and became serious, complex, profound and somewhat pedantic in Germany. Here, perhaps more than in France, the political discipline of the little courts was harsh and petty, receiving the individual and coercive support of the theologian and the domine; humanism had not penetrated deeply into his scientific and moral life, nor had the classical tradition of the arts rooted in other countries. In reality, the former was something like a schoolboy "duty" and the latter a hackneyed formula for use in academies and workshops.

The Reason, the Reduction of the State and Laissez-faire

When the French Republic established a special cult of reason, the German Kant went further in the revolution of thought: he established that only things that submit to the way of perceiving and reasoning of the individual are known. But apart from this reason, there are ethical principles beyond all possibility of experience, recorded in the personal conscience. Its existence, which is a common law or general duty, makes that behavior that one would like to see become a universal rule of conduct, the most sublime aspect of human limitation, be considered good.

French naturalism or physiocracy proclaimed the reduction of the State. Instead of imploring its help, which it considered burdensome in the long run, it longed to suppress it. The freedom granted to the activity of men, the laissez-faire, was to point the way to prosperity; the competition would be in charge of repressing the egoism, since the one of each one would act on the one of the others and this one on that one, and would order the interests in a harmonic way. At the same time, a philosophical orientation arose in England that reduced all existence to thought and that considered real only the contents of consciousness. That is why it was called idealism.

In the development of liberalism, doctrinal currents of diverse origin intertwined, which hinder the possibility of defining it, perhaps irremediably, with complete precision. Indeed, to its progress contributed men as opposed as Machiavelli, Calvin, Luther, Copernicus, etc. In its genesis, the reform was of great importance, as well as the geographical discoveries, the new cosmology and, above all, the different forms of economic life that were imposed.

The beginnings of the liberal movement can be seen in the Renaissance period. It triumphed with the French Revolution. The nineteenth century was par excellence that of liberalism. Between the Renaissance period and that of this revolution, a new social class grew up, which, almost totally altering the existing structure, came to seize power throughout the last century, as has been said.

Freedom, Property, Security and Resistance to Oppression, Essential Natural Rights

At least in its first expressions, it was the philosophy of that new class, that is, the bourgeoisie. In the society of that time, each member of the community, belonging to a given class, knew what its limitations were, which it rarely managed to overcome. Everything depended on its birthplace. The notion of a supreme end hierarchically harmonized the actions of men. The Reformation, which questioned the authority of Rome and promoted rationalism by attacking the principles accepted until then; technical inventions, creators of new wealth; the discovery of the New World, etc., gradually disrupted the habits, which no longer had validity to justify the opportunities, until then ignored, that were offered.

Freedom consists in being able to do whatever does not harm another.

The banker, and industrialist, the man of the city, in short, the "plain state" struggled to conquer the situations denied them by a society founded on privileges. Royal absolutism oppressed intellectual freedom and did not guarantee the security of each and every person. Likewise, the guild organization presented an enormous obstacle to the economic development of the individual. The plain state had steadily expanded and made itself heard in the days of the French Revolution. It is mandatory to refer to its famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, of 1789. In it, in the face of each of the oppressions suffered, a new right was solemnly proclaimed, to the point that it became the Carta Marga of liberalism modern. It consisted of 17 articles, the first of which recognized and declared that "men are born free and equal in rights and social distinctions can only be based on common utility." Liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression are essential natural rights. Sovereignty resides in the nation and no authority can be exercised that does not emanate from it. "Freedom consists in being able to do everything that does not harm another." Only the law can determine its limits, since it is the expression of the general will. "No one can be punished except by virtue of a law established prior to the crime and legally applied." "No one can be bothered by its opinions, even if they are religious." It recognizes itself freedom of thought, expression, etc.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, more than the fruit of theoretical principles, was engendered by the opposition to the preceding political circumstances. Each of the articles referred to a specific abuse of the Ancien Régime.

«The Best Judge for Self-Interest is Oneself»

To speak of liberalism is, without a doubt, a simplification, since in England, France, Germany, Spain, etc. acquired in the course of time peculiar nuances. For this reason, rather than liberalism, it would be possible to deal with «liberalisms». Its different forms show a process of reciprocal assimilation, crucible of a European liberal conscience, in which all the particular expressions melt, without, however, disappearing. The characteristic of liberalism consists in starting from the individual, not from the social group. He understands society as “the sum of the members that compose it”. As they are equal by nature, all individuals have the same right to develop their personal existence and the duty to respect this aspiration in others. The motive of men lies in the interest, which does not need any exile, which does not need any help to develop. "The best judge of self-interest is oneself." It believes, on the other hand, that interests can be harmonized with each other. By attending to its own affairs, each one produces an element of common utility, which represents the sum of the particular utilities. For classical liberals, the natural order was something "inherently simple, harmonic and beneficial", for which reason they opposed any action by government or social groups that would alter the action of natural laws. For this reason it is known as the liberalism of the laissez faire. This conception applies to both the economic and political worlds; as far as economics is concerned, it derives from the work of Adam Smith, who already upholds the theory of natural harmony between private and general interest. The liberals of this time were convinced that economic laws came from human nature itself, so they considered them independent of all circumstances of time and place. They thought, therefore, that there was no interdependence between economy and government.

Liberal economic thought reached wide development and great political force in Great Britain, mainly because of the organization called Manchester League, from which the new liberalism would emanate. In the fall of 1838 a few industrialists met in the Chamber of Commerce of that city and determined to found an association against protectionism. Their defender and mentor was Richard Cobden (1800-1865).

Individual Rights, Division of Powers and Submission of the State to the Law

The political liberalism of the 19th century arose from the economic movement just cited. In upholding the superiority of private initiative over government action, it declared that government intervention was an evil in itself. But a pacifying and regulatory function is attributed to the State, because the free competition of social forces and initiatives would not motivate an orderly civil community without a moderating power. The liberal State uses various instruments to fulfill this mission:

  1. Solemn recognition of individual rights prior to the State, which delimit a sphere of personal freedom against the power of the State.
  2. Limitation of the organization of power to guarantee the validity of such rights (the separation of powers).
  3. Submission of the activity of the State to legal norms that eliminate any arbitrariness that is dangerous for the security of the individual.

Political sovereignty rests with the people, because only in this way can the interests of the Government and the general coincide. For this to be effective, the Government must be regulated by the Legislative Power, which must be elected by universal suffrage referring to the middle class.

Liberal capitalism is summarized with the following scheme:

  1. From a legal point of view. The capitalist system is based on the principle of private appropriation of the means of production. There is a separation between ownership of the means of production and productive work.
  2. From a technical point of view. It is characterized by highly sophisticated means of production. It implies the substitution of manual work for a more productive one, which requires the intervention of intermediate instruments between the operator and the raw materials. They are, precisely, capital goods those that serve to endow human work with greater efficiency, such as machines and tools, and also the money that allows them to be acquired. It follows that capitalist technology implies both highly sophisticated machinery and a widespread division of labour. This has the possibility of significantly increasing individual performance and overall production.
  3. From a psychological point of view. The characteristic of the capitalist system is the search for profit. The producer seeks not so much to satisfy needs as to make a profit. For this reason, as well as to expand product markets, free trade arose with the desire to erase customs barriers between nations as a faster means of increasing the volume of sales and the average profit, at least in the most industrialized countries.


[Source: Va.Aa. (1978). Encyclopedism, naturalism and idealism. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor Didáctico (Tome VIII, pp. 9-13). Milan (Italy): Editrice Europea di Cultura]