Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Introduction


THE word encyclopædia was first used by the Greeks, not for a book, but for a system of instruction in the whole circle of learning. Knowledge in their time was still so limited in extent that it could be thought of as taught by one man and covered in a single educational curriculum. The oldest book which has come down to us attempting to comprise all information is the "Natural History" of Pliny the elder, who died in A. D. 79. Pliny himself was not a scientist, but a Roman lawyer, soldier, and administrator, with a passion for study; and he lost his life in an attempt to observe at close quarters the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. His work is a compilation from some two thousand books, and he himself says that he recorded twenty thousand facts. His chief successors were Martianus Capella, an African, who wrote in the 5th century, also in Latin, a compendium long used as an educational textbook, and Isidore of Seville (600-630), who was regarded for centuries as a high authority.

The most noted of mediæval compilers of universal learning was Vincent of Beauvais, who used the word "speculum" or mirror for his account of the world and man. He wrote in the 13th century and his method was chiefly that of quotation, which, though it reduces his credit as an original writer, led to his preserving large numbers of authors who would otherwise have been lost, and at the same time to his giving an impetus to the study of classical authors. In his "Mirror of Nature" he takes up things in the supposed order of their creation, not a very convenient system for consultation, but his subdivisions are frequently alphabetical. He is, of course, uncritical and far from scientific in the modern sense, but he was extraordinarily learned and industrious.

Vincent had many successors in the Middle Ages, the list closing with the work of John Heinrich Alsted in 1630, for which he used the name "Encyclopædia." Hereafter, such works generally adopt the alphabetical order instead of an attempt at a system of knowledge, and modern languages take the place of Latin.

The first book of the new type in English was John Harris' "Lexicon Technicum, or an Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences," 1704. As its title suggests, the distinction between a dictionary and an encyclopædia was not yet clearly grasped, this work being an attempt both to define words and to explain subjects. The same confusion is seen in Ephraim Chambers' "Cyclopædia; or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Containing an Explication of the Terms and Account of Things Signified Thereby in the Several Arts, Liberal and Mechanical, and the Several Sciences, Human and Divine," 1728. But Chambers attempted to overcome the defect of scattering articles on related subjects, which inheres in the alphabetical arrangement, by a system of cross references.

A new principle appeared in the famous French "Encyclopedié." This work originated in a translation of Chambers' "Cyclopædia," but its revision was finally intrusted to Diderot, who enlisted the co-operation of men like d'Alembert, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Turgot. It began to appear in 1751, and went on through many difficulties till 1772. It opposed dogmatism in religion and despotism in government, and thus incurred the opposition of both Church and State. No other work of this kind ever attained such importance in political and intellectual history, and it is one of the most influential documents in the history of 18th century thought. Much of it was brilliantly written, and the articles of its more distinguished contributors belong to permanent literature; but as an encyclopædia in the modern sense it lacks proportion, exactness, and impartiality.

These ideals were adopted when a society of gentlemen in Scotland issued in 1771 the first edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica" in three volumes; and this work, now in its eleventh edition, and expanded to twenty-eight volumes and an index, is the most comprehensive attempt of modern times to include the "whole circle of learning." But its very comprehensiveness has resulted in qualities which unfit it for many purposes. Articles written by eminent authorities are too technical and special for the lay reader, and there is need of a more compact and concise treatment for the uses of these crowded times.

But a more serious limitation attaches not only to the "Encyclopædia Britannica" but to all hitherto existing works of this kind. The Britannica was completed in 1910, and since then the world has gone through the most catastrophic upheaval in historic times. It is almost impossible to grasp the extent and the profundity of the changes which have been produced by the World War. To realize these is to see that all previous works of reference are now out of date, and to appreciate at a glance the justification and the necessity of this the first post-war Encyclopædia. Let us consider some of the more striking features of which a new compendium of knowledge must take account.

First, there is the history of the great conflict itself. This begins with the political system of Europe as it had been modified by the military and industrial developments of Germany since the defeat of France and the formation of the German Empire in 1870–1871. The diplomatic history of the last fifty years is now to be seen in a new perspective, and the events of the summer of 1914 especially demand study. The course of the actual fighting involves naval events in all the oceans, and land fighting from Flanders eastward to Vladivostok. The forces include the populations of countries hardly known previously to the Western nations, and economic and geographical features hitherto familiar only to specialists. The methods of warfare were throughout the struggle continuously developing, and science was making vast contributions to the agencies of destruction, as well as to the prevention and healing of disease and wounds. Great figures of the pre-war period suffered eclipse and new personalities emerged. Almost every branch of human thought was affected by the impact on the minds of men of the unexpected turn of events and by the unforeseen developments of the psychology of nations and of individuals. The treaties which brought the conflict to a formal close have modified the frontiers of half the countries of the world, and have produced an entirely new arrangement of economic forces; while inside the various countries the experiences of the war have produced far-reaching changes in industrial economy and the position of women.

This is but a sketch of some of the main considerations which show how unavoidable is the recasting of a work like the present which attempts to hold a mirror up to the world. The task of revision has been no easy one, especially since so much is still unsettled. But to follow the events that each day is still bringing forth men need to have accessible a precise account of what has happened in the last seven years.

In the attempt to render this service the editors of the present work have had the Great War itself treated in a compendious article of thirty-eight pages, covering the whole military record; while the part played by our own country is treated under the article "The United States." Similarly the achievements of the other nations involved are recounted under the names of the different countries, and special articles deal with the greater battles, such as the Marne, the Meuse-Argonne, the Isonzo, and Jutland. The Navy of the United States has been intrusted to Rear-Admiral Austin M. Knight, who writes also on such allied subjects as Blockade, Torpedoes, Safety at Sea, and International Law. The modifications of methods of warfare are described, and special articles are devoted to poison gas, tanks, aeroplanes, artillery, and the like. Dr. Joseph H. Odell, one of the Advisory Board, has summarized the activities of the Red Cross, and has dealt with the completed career of Theodore Roosevelt. To President Sills were intrusted the career of Woodrow Wilson and the account of the Peace Treaty. Other advisory editors have taken active part in the task of describing the New World. Maps have been brought up to date, and the geographical data in general made more adequate for the understanding of the problems of the hour.

All the new material, however, is by no means the result of the war. The census of 1920 has made it possible to include new figures for all the cities and States of the United States, all towns of over 5,000 inhabitants being now listed. The generalizations based on the census are summarized in the general article "Census." The progress of science outside of warfare, the advance of medicine and mechanical invention, the evolution of motor vehicles, the rise of the moving picture, new economic and industrial developments, recent political changes, all have called for new treatment.

Meantime, amid all the confusion and revolution, scholars have not intermitted their labors, and the harvest of their efforts is gathered up in the revision of articles on literature and philosophy. Education, physical, technical, professional, and general has progressed; and one of the striking by-products of the war has been the fresh realization of the necessity of more and better education if the world is to make permanent progress. These themes have been handled by authorities like President Thwing, Chancellor Kirkland, and Professor Councilman, all of the Advisory Board. The problem of the assimilation of the various elements of our immigrant population is discussed by Dr. Odell under "Americanization of Foreigners" and allied topics in various articles on the Negro. The special phases of education have received attention at the hands of Drs. Thwing and Sills. The former has contributed articles on legal education, coeducation, technical education, and colleges; the latter, articles on medical education and physical education. Professor Irving Fisher has written an illuminating article on Capital. Chancellor Kirkland's contributions include articles on university extension and universities in America. A remarkable series of biographies has been prepared by Dr. Edwin Greenlaw, who also wrote the articles on Bacon, Emerson, Hawthorne, Irving, Milton, Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser, Whitman, and Whittier. Dr. Henry S. Canby of the Advisory Board has written for the Encyclopædia a brilliant article on the short story. Dr. Councilman has prepared articles on physical education, biology, and eugenics. All the statistical matter has been brought up to the latest possible date, so that, in respect to correspondence to the facts as they are at the present moment, the Encyclopædia can claim to be the most complete work of reference of its sort in existence.

The nature and amount of knowledge with which a man can get through life has varied enormously according to time and circumstances. A South Sea islander, to whom nature supplies food almost without effort on his part and for whom climate makes clothing and shelter almost matters of indifference, needs to trouble little about politics, foreign or domestic, and may be so little curious that he does not miss the results of science. A Lloyd George or a Wilson at the Peace Table, planning for the future of a world, has need of all knowledge. It is not so long since even in our United States there were many whose intellectual appetites and whose needs lay nearer to the former than the latter. But this time has gone by. There is not the remotest farmer on our prairies whose welfare is not involved in the fluctuations of international exchange or in the deliberations of a Reparations Commission. The self-sufficing community becomes rarer and rarer, the purely self-dependent individual has become impossible. In the Western World democracy has given every man a voice in his government, and his government has a voice in the affairs of all other governments. We are all importers and exporters, direct or indirect, and our merely personal affairs force us to look abroad with interest or anxiety. Education is no longer a thing to be forced on the unwilling, because he does not feel the need of it; it is sought for because the common man is perplexed and knows his need to be informed. So we have to act on historical grounds, however little history we may know; our farm or our business depends for its prosperity on conditions in parts of the world which we can no longer leave to the writers of the school geography. The man least interested in mechanics is forced to learn the principles of the motor; the healthiest of us is no longer at ease without some knowledge of preventive medicine.

We are surrounded by oceans of print, but our newspapers are full of inaccuracies, and their despatches, even when well informed, call for further information to be intelligible. We realize as never before the inconveniences and the perils of ignorance. In point of time we are, as it were, standing on a great watershed of history—a height of land between the slope down which run streams back into the distances of the pre-war period, and the slope down which are beginning to wear their channels the currents of the new time. We are all agents in determining the course of these currents. We need to know, as we stand on the Great Divide, the signs of wind and sky and the points of the compass. A great work of reference is our chief resort for the information that we must have if we are to save ourselves and be intelligent and beneficent as members of the society of the future. The two great needs of the day are the power to think clearly and logically, and the knowledge of the facts with which our thinking is to deal. The power to think can come only through hard and persistent and conscientious effort; the facts are to be had for the seeking. It has been the effort of the makers of this book to make these facts available, to arrange them for the greatest convenience of the reader, to corroborate them so that they can be trusted. The editors have finished their task, and they hand the results to the reader that he may take up his.

[Signed] W. A. Neilson