SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Before there was Wikipedia, there were encyclopedias - heavy books that consumed a bookshelf and spanned much of human wisdom from A to Z. Well, the father of one of the world's most important encyclopedias celebrates his 300th birthday today. Denis Diderot, the 18th-century French philosopher, was the driving force behind the "Encyclopedie," one of the first compendiums of human knowledge. The anniversary of his birth has prompted calls for Diderot to receive France's highest honor, which is to have his remains reinterred in the Pantheon, a kind of mausoleum for France's national heroes. Christopher Werth has more from Paris.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: Denis Diderot was one of the major figures of the French Enlightenment, a time when guys like Voltaire and Rousseau expounded on things like the freedom of religion and expression, and the power of reason over blind faith. But walk down into the depths below the Pantheon in Paris....
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WERTH: OK. So, here I am in the crypt below the Pantheon. And down here there are these huge, glorious tombs to Voltaire and Rousseau, but no Diderot. As a philosopher, Diderot has kind of been lost to history. A block or so away at the Sorbonne Library in Paris, the library's director, Philippe Marcerou, flips through an original, leather-bound edition of Diderot's crowning achievement.
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WERTH: His "Encyclopedie" is a 28-volume collection of just about everything that was known at the time.
PHILIPPE MARCEROU: The "Encyclopedie" is the major intellectual adventure of the 18th century.
WERTH: First published in 1751, it took Diderot over 20 years to complete, with the help of over a hundred other writers. And Marcerou says the big innovation of Diderot's "Encyclopedie" was his system of cross-references that link disparate but related articles together - what Marcerou calls a kind of search algorithm for the 1700s.
MARCEROU: Today, everybody knows Google. The major invention of the "Encyclopedie" is the same system. The cross-reference is a way of making a kind of web out of the knowledge.
WERTH: And he says it helped Diderot avoid censorship while tackling some very controversial issues. As a result, Caroline Warman of the University of Oxford in England says even the simplest of entries can lead readers on a wild journey. Take the definition for apricots.
CAROLINE WARMAN: Apricot. OK.
WERTH: Warman says it's just a run-of-the-mill botanical entry. But at the end there's this little asterisk.
WARMAN: The asterisk introduces a recipe written by Diderot himself about how to make apricot jam. So, um, take green apricots. Fill a basin half full with water.
WERTH: Warman says things get really interesting when you get to the sugar in the jam.
WARMAN: So, how do you make sugar? Well, immediately therefore you're in sugar plantations. So, there's an article called "Sucrerie," which is very enthusiastic, clear instructions about how to set up a sugar plantation and how to manage slaves.
WERTH: Then, Warman says if you follow the cross-reference to slavery...
WARMAN: What you then find is the most impassioned diatribe against the use of slaves.
WERTH: And if you're Philippe Marcerou at the Sorbonne, that might prompt you to look up liberty, which he says is one of the "Encyclopedie's" most important entries.
MARCEROU: So, here, Liberty. The definition is: Liberty consists in the power that an intelligent being has to make what he wants according to his own determination. This particular definition, in the middle of the 18th century, is something absolutely incredible.
WERTH: Ultimately, he says Diderot challenged the authority of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church. Some scholars say the ideas he circulated in the "Encyclopedie" helped lay the foundation for the French Revolution, and even the American Revolution that came before it. Andrew Curran, an expert on Diderot at Wesleyan University, says with over 20,000 copies in print, Diderot's encyclopedias were among the most widely distributed and influential books of the era.
ANDREW CURRAN: Commercially, the encyclopedia did extremely well. Diderot himself made very little money off the whole project, but the publishers became extremely rich.
WERTH: Now, French President Francois Hollande has hinted he might give Diderot his due with a reburial at the Pantheon.
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WERTH: But it's also sparked a wider debate about who belongs in the Pantheon.
ANNE-CECILE MAILFERT: Today, there are 72 men buried here, and only two women.
WERTH: Anne-Cecile Mailfert is with Osez le Feminisme, a group that's urging Hollande to reduce the gender gap. And she says there are plenty of women who've been overlooked by French history, such as Olympe de Gouges, another 18th century figure, who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman.
MAILFERT: So, this is what we are saying. Diderot is dead. He's going to be dead in 50 years. So, he can wait, and now it's women's turn to get into the Pantheon.
WERTH: The director of France's national monuments will deliver a report on the matter to Hollande next week. But even if Diderot does get the nod, historian Philipp Blom says there's another question. While everyone knows the church where Diderot is buried today, no one's quite sure which remains are his.
PHILIPP BLOM: All the bones are apparently in a complete jumble. So, how you want to reconstruct Diderot's skeleton short of a full-scale genetic analysis of everything in there will be a very interesting question.
WERTH: After all, he says you don't want to put just any old bones in the Pantheon. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth, Paris.
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SIMON: Liberty, fraternity, equality and WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.