Encyclopedias of Everything
Lately I’ve been dipping into the great encyclopedias, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be the same. Last week I revisited two old favorites, Aristotle’s History of Animals and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Yesterday I spent seven hours reading from Alexander von Humboldt’s magnum opus, Cosmos. By the end of the day, having plowed ahead to page 100 of the first volume and jumped around in a few chapters of the second, it was clear that the only suitable response was awed silence or a discussion so lengthy that it would rival Cosmos itself in length. I’ll take the coward’s path, for now, and maintain an awed silence.
Not completely silent, though, because I have to wonder: why is this work that was so influential to Darwin, Thoreau, and other 19th century thinkers so little known today? And, also: what in the world possessed Humboldt to think he could write it?
Like encyclopedic writers before him, Humboldt’s ambition was to produce nothing less than a detailed catalog of everything known about the physical universe in his time (he was born in 1769 and died in 1859). He had “the crazy idea,” as he wrote in a letter in 1834, “to represent in one work the entire material universe, everything we know today of the phenomena in the celestial spaces and of life on earth, from the stars in the nebulae to the geography of mosses and gigantic rocks, in a vivid language that will stimulate the imagination.” Unlike most of his predecessors, however, Humboldt did not include hearsay, superstition, folklore, or other information that could not be supported with objective evidence. His scientific integrity made the task more daunting, for he could not report what others had written without first investigating their veracity. To add to the difficulty, he was determined to find unity in nature’s complexity, or, as he wrote in the introduction to the first volume, “the Common and Intimately-connected in all terrestrial phenomena.” No wonder many scholars consider Humboldt a precursor to the modern science of ecology.
The result was four large volumes published at intervals from 1845 to 1858 (a fragment of a fifth was published after his death). To present some idea of the scope of the project, here is a portion of the contents included in Volume 1, which he called “the domain of objects” in the universe:
Volume 2 represents the “domain of sensations,” and includes detailed discussions of how nature was described by writers from the time of the Ancients to Goethe; a history of landscape painting; a guide to the cultivation of tropical plants and an analysis of Western and Eastern traditions of landscape gardening; events in human history that influenced our views of the universe; astronomical discoveries made possible by the invention of the telescope; and a general survey of advancements in various sciences.
The three remaining volumes are, according to Wikipedia, elaborations on the subjects introduced in the first two volumes. I’ve been unable to find downloadable editions on Google Books or Project Gutenberg, and the few hard copies available are beyond my budget, so I have to take Wikipedia’s word for it.
Speaking of Wikipedia… Everybody probably already knows this or could guess it, but this vast online compendium is now officially the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known. With 3,597,344 articles published (as of today, March 29, 2011) and more than one billion words, it easily surpasses the old record-holder, the Yongle Encyclopedia of ancient China, which is estimated to have contained up to 770 million words. Commissioned by the emperor Yongle in 1403 and finished in 1408, it was the work of 2,000 scholars who compiled 8,000 texts covering everything written up to that time in China about history, philosophy, religion, technology, agriculture, astronomy, geology, medicine, drama, and art. Only two copies were made, and only a few fragments have survived.