Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Encyclopedias before L’Encyclopédie

The circle of knowledge and its gaps

William N. West

The idea of an encyclopedia long predates the Enlightenment projects of the Britannica or Diderot and d’Alembert. The desire to know everything is old—Plato wrote that the sophist Hippias professed to be able to lecture on any subject, and even to wear, use, and eat only what he himself had made. The name we give to works containing all knowledge is newer. There was no such word until one day in 1471, when a letterer correcting books in a print shop wrote the unprecedented term into a blank space on a page of Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria (The Orator’s Education). The original text had something in Greek, but the printers had no Greek type and lettered in the occasional phrase by hand. Quintilian prescribed for his young student attention to “what the Greeks call ——,” something unintelligible, the result of being copied from manuscript to manuscript with increasingly extravagant error. Manuscripts of Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic Naturalis historia (Natural History) gesture to his project using the same phrase, “what the Greeks call ——,” a lacuna tempting the same range of guesses. Corrections to editions and manuscripts of Quintilian and Pliny from the period range from the farfetched to the nonsensical. This particular scribe guessed ΕΓΚΥΚΛΟΠΑΙΔΕΙΑΝ: encyclopedia. Knowing everything now had a name.

For readers at the turn of the twenty-first century, the word encyclopedia conjures an arm’s length of books, containing articles on everything from A-ch’eng to Zywiec. But the earliest encyclopedia we can in fact point to is not a book but a person. Around 1490, Francisco Puccio, congratulating his friend Angelo Poliziano on the publication of his Miscellanea, a book of one hundred philological problems, praised his “kaleidoscopic encyclopedia”—not the book, but the exhaustive brilliance that allowed Poliziano to write it. The word was carefully chosen, for encyclopedia was one of Poliziano’s pet ideals: in Miscellanea, he insisted that understanding the works of the ancients demanded “that circle of learning that we call encyclia.” It was nearly thirty more years before encyclopedia referred to an object, in the title of the 1517 edition of Johannes Aventinus’s Rudimenta grammaticae ... Encyclopedia orbisque doctrinarum in calce (The elements of grammar ... in sum, an encyclopedia and circle of teachings). The word first has something like its modern meaning, a written account of all that is known, in the title of Skalich de Lika’s Encyclopaedia, seu orbis disciplinarum (Encyclopedia, or circle of disciplines, 1559).

The ancient Mediterranean, medieval Europe, and Imperial China all produced copious texts to document all knowledge. But the metaphysical addition of the name encyclopedia was particular to the European Renaissance, and contagious. Humanists recognized the word enkuklopaideia because it made a kind of portmanteau sense for a desire that predated it: circular (enkuklo-) education (-paideia). What Quintilian and Pliny had probably written, though, was not the compelling hapax enkuklopaideia, but enkuklios paideia, ordinary Greek for ordinary education. It is as if someone understood a university education to comprehend knowledge of the universe. Misreading this Greek phrase, Renaissance humanists interpolated one that instead conjured a utopia of total knowledge, a fantastic orbis doctrinarum lost in antiquity, an érudition circulaire (Guillaume Budé, 1519) or circle of doctrine (Thomas Elyot, 1531). Retroactively, Pliny and Quintilian became encyclopedias, pressed into the service of a tradition that they had never imagined.

The perfectly formed knowledge of the encyclopedia always seemed to belong somewhere else, as alien as the strange name it was given. Even for Quintilian and Pliny, whatever they had written, it was something for which the Romans had no exact word. It demanded translation: linguistic, cultural, epistemological. This was even truer for the humanists who read enkuklopaideia into their recovered texts. To these Renaissance thinkers—who invented the word, believing they had discovered it—kuklos suggested the actual spatiality of an orderly circle of knowledge in which, as Budé said, “all the disciplines support one another like the parts of a circle, which has no beginning and no end.” The encyclopedia’s imaginary space was as important as anything it held.

Before alphabetization became the dominant principle of organization in the eighteenth century, most encyclopedic texts tried to reflect a real order in what they represented, such as a chain of being from God down to minerals, or a developmental pedagogy from the alphabet to astronomy. Regardless of their contents, premodern encyclopedias are works of in-form-ation: giving shape to the rush of facts, words, things, and experiences that comprise the world. The circle of the encyclopedia signaled that knowledge, even if infinitely rich, was nevertheless bounded, structured, symmetrical. Everything that could be known could find its place within it. Anything missing would detract from its perfection. This fantasy that the encyclopedia could or even must cover everything extends into the Enlightenment—in his Encyclopédie article on “Encyclopedia,” Diderot insisted that it was better that an article be badly done than not done at all—and even into the present, where Wikipedia and Google seem driven by it. The encyclopedia does not expand; it fills in, in increasingly fine tessellation. Its detail risks reduplicating the world in such fractal complexity that a reader can be swallowed up by it. In Pantagruel (1532), Rabelais called it a well and an abyss. This, too, is part of its schizophrenic, utopian claim: encyclopedias record and order the world, making it accessible, comprehensible. But they also make another world, for better or worse.

The integrity of the encyclopedia’s circle of knowledge crumbles if we follow any of the circuitous paths through it. When any actual example is traversed, the encyclopedia as ideal disintegrates, falling to pieces inside its circumscribed order. It is precisely because of its commitment to universality—to present what Johannes Amos Comenius’s Pampaedia (Total learning, ca. 1666) calls omnia omnes omnino, “all things in all ways for all people”—that every encyclopedia goes astray: by making a place for everything, the circle of learning becomes unending, makes itself illegible, unravels into chaos, or all three. Because to explore them is to dismantle them, it is easier to imagine an encyclopedia than to write or to read one. At his death, Leibniz’s papers included multiple prefaces, plans, and even mock title pages for encyclopedias he never began.

Completeness and absoluteness are the defining fantasies of the encyclopedia, but encyclopedias before the seventeenth century seem more at ease with their own impossibility than later ones. They dutifully record their internal contradictions, their precisian distinctions, their numbing trivialities—sometimes almost with glee. Perhaps they serve not only to present readers with knowledge, but to reassure them that absolute knowledge is not, in the end, possible; that we can be forgiven for not knowing everything. Their failures are a kind of relief. Often they conclude by demonstrating their collapse, in apocalyptic gestures that expose how their incommensurable data fail to cohere. Joachim Fortius Ringelbergius’s Lucubrationes vel potius absolutissima (Considerations, or better, most absolute cyclopedia, 1541), for instance, ended with a section called “Chaos,” for all the things that had not found any other place in his kuklopaideia. It is later encyclopedias, closer to the Enlightenment, and to us—Alsted’s, Kircher’s many projects, Chambers’s, Diderot and d’Alembert’s—that start dreaming that their undertaking is possible. In his Preparative Toward Natural and Experimental History (1620), Bacon suggests to King James I of England that if his plan for collecting knowledge of all things human and worldly is followed, “the investigation of nature and of all sciences will be the work of a few years.” We are still waiting.

William N. West teaches early modern literature and performance at Northwestern University, where he also edits the scholarly journal Renaissance Drama. His publications include Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and As If: Essays in As You Like It (punctum books, 2016), as well as recent articles on early modern fantasies of Euclid’s geometry; Aby Warburg’s delight in detail; and John Ruskin’s seeing Venice through Edmund Spenser.

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