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Caroline Warman

28. d’Alembert, ‘Geometer’, from the Encyclopédie, 17571

Texte intégral

  • 1 Jean le Rond d’Alambert, ‘Géomètre’, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts (...)

1D’Alembert (1717-1783) was co-editor of the Encyclopédie with Diderot and the author of its ‘Preliminary Discourse’, a general introduction to all areas of knowledge and how they all connect up. The article on the ‘Geometer’, meaning here ‘mathematician’, defends the scientific way of thinking in opposition to ignorance and superstition.

2Among us, geometry has all kinds of critics. There are some who go so far as to contest its usefulness; we refer them to the well-known preface to the history of the Academy of Sciences, where mathematics are strongly defended against such attacks. Yet aside from the physical and tangible uses of geometry, we shall presently consider another facet of its efficacy, which up until now has perhaps not received enough attention: the way in which this area of study can serve to imperceptibly pave the way for a philosophical way of thinking, and to encourage and prepare an entire nation to receive such illumination as this way of thinking may bring. This is perhaps the only way for certain European nations to begin to shake off the yoke of oppression and profound ignorance beneath which they groan.

  • 2 D’Alembert is presumably thinking of Louis VII (1120-1180), King of France (1137-1180), who preside (...)

3The small number of enlightened men living in those countries under the rule of the Inquisition complain bitterly, although in secret, of the minimal progress that science has made thus far in those desolate climes. The precautions taken to stop any rays of light from getting through have been so successful that philosophy is in almost the same state there as it was for us in the time of Louis the Younger.2 It is undeniable that the most intolerable abuses of this court which has always so rightly horrified us are only the result of ignorance and superstition, and persist only due to them. Enlighten the nation, and the chancellors of these tribunals will readily forswear those excesses of which they will be the first to recognise the injustice and disadvantages. This is what we have seen happen in countries where an inclination for the arts and the sciences, as well as an understanding of philosophy, have been maintained. Study and reason prevail in Italy; and the Inquisition has much abated the tyranny it exercises in those parts, where it is still customary to swear not to teach any non-Aristotelian philosophy. Engender, if it is possible, geometers among these peoples; it is a seed which will in time produce philosophers, almost without us realising it. The most exacting and rigorous orthodoxy cannot contend with geometry. Those who might think it was in their interest to keep minds in darkness, supposing they were far-sighted enough to foresee the consequences of this science’s progress, would always lack any justification for preventing its spread. Soon the study of geometry will give rise to that of mechanics; this will lead, all by itself and without hindrance, to the study of sound natural science; and finally, natural science will lead in turn to true philosophy, which, through the general and swift enlightenment it will spread, will soon be more powerful than all of the efforts of superstition combined; for these efforts, however great they may be, become useless once the nation is enlightened.

Read the entry for ‘Geometer’ on the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (text):​cgi-bin/​philologic/​

Read the entry for ‘Geometer’ on the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (facsimile):​cgi-bin/​extras/​​ENC_7-627.jpeg


1 Jean le Rond d’Alambert, ‘Géomètre’, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1751-1772.

2 D’Alembert is presumably thinking of Louis VII (1120-1180), King of France (1137-1180), who presided over the building of the Basilica of St Denis, expelled the Jews from France on pain of death or mutilation in 1144, and led the Second Crusade in 1147, which was a failure. He divorced his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who then married Henry II of England, giving England extensive lands in France and leading ultimately to the One Hundred Years’ War.


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