The cosmopolitan qualities of the century were expressed in the Enlightenment. Yet the Age of Reason also marked the high point of French cultural leadership, when, as Thomas Jefferson put it, every man had two homelands, his own and France.
By the eighteenth century French was the accepted international language. Louis XIV had made it supreme in diplomacy; the writers of his age, like Boileau, La Rochefoucaud, Racine, and Molière, had made it preeminent in literature. There was much justice in the claim that “a dangerous work written in French is a declaration of war on the whole of Europe.”
The great organ of the philosophes was the Encyclopedic, begun in 1751 and completed a generation later. Its contributors included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Condorcet, Quesnay, and Turgot. Its editorin-chief, Denis Diderot (1713-1784), did not intend to compile an objective compendium of information; rather, he and his encyclopedists sought to assemble knowledge and experience “in order that the labors of past centuries should not prove useless for succeeding centuries; that our descendants, by becoming better informed, will at the same time become happier and more virtuous.”
The purposes of the Endyclopedie were didactic, the effect subversive: to expose and thereby ultimately to destroy what its contributors saw as the superstition, the intolerance, and the gross political and religious inequalities of the Old Regime and to instruct the public in the virtues of natural law and the wonders of science.
It accomplished its purposes, antagonizing many defenders of the Old Regime while gaining enough subscribers to prove a profitable business venture. Louis XV tried to prevent its being printed or circulated, the church condemned it for its materialism and skepticism, and even the publishers, without consulting Diderot, ordered the printers to cut out passages likely to cause offense—to no avail. The Encyclopedic reached a substantial reading public.