College of Arts and Sciences

The Public Sphere of Past and Present, and the Place of the Liberal Arts

by Edward J. Woell

Good evening everyone and thank you for coming. Before I begin I want to take this moment to express my heartfelt gratitude to some individuals who made possible what I will say tonight. I first thank all my colleagues in the College of Arts of Sciences. The past year has been difficult for the university as a whole, but no college more so than our own. In the midst of such crisis I have drawn inspiration from many colleagues who, in ways often unseen and unremarkable, dare to value, uphold, and defend a liberal-arts education. Moreover, I thank my partner, Lisa Kernek, and our eight-year-old daughter, Julia, for three things. The first is for giving me the time and space to think deeply about tonight’s topic, especially whenever it led to neglect in my duties as father and spouse. The second is for showing me what binds all people together, a common humanity, through the life that we share. And the third is for helping me to realize that the greatest human liberation is a love transcending life itself. Moi, je suis à vous [I myself am yours]


Let me start with a short story.

At 7:30 in the morning on July 24, 1749, a 35-year-old writer named Denis Diderot awoke to a knock on his door on the rue de la Vieille Estrapade in Paris. When he opened the door two police officers entered the townhouse, arrested the writer, and ransacked his study before forcing him into a horse-drawn coach waiting outside. Diderot had fallen victim to a lettre de cachet, a warrant allowing the King of France or a high-ranking minister to arrest anyone in the kingdom without need of reason, charges, or any other legal due process. Despite the writer having produced only a few scandalous pamphlets, his work had angered a well-connected Catholic pastor who coaxed the minister of state censorship to issue the order.

The police led Diderot about three miles outside of Paris’s city walls to the Château de Vincennes. In that fourteenth-century fortress the prisoner was confined to a solitary cell and given only bread, water, and two candles per day—the latter so that he might dispel his chamber’s total darkness. His time in the cell was only broken up by interrogations, at which the writer confessed nothing. But since Diderot was inured to constant company, the stark loneliness he felt in that cell drove him to the breaking point. Less than three weeks after his arrival, he asked for pen and paper so he could admit writing the pamphlets in question. He blamed his offensive prose on what he called “moments of intemperance” that had long since left him, and stated regret for failing to submit his work to official censors.

No matter its insincerity, Diderot’s self-incrimination had the desired effect. He was freed from his solitary cell and led to a larger area in the château with better living quarters, which he nonetheless could not leave under threat of life imprisonment. For their part, the police had no doubt their prisoner had written the scandalous pamphlets; what they really wanted from him, and what they got, was a promise: he vowed never to publish anything again without first submitting it to the censors. Beginning that day and for the rest of his life, Diderot wrote under a pall; every word he composed—including some that belied his 1749 promise—held the potential of returning him to a lonesome terror, all because a piece of paper in a minister’s desk could be used against him at any moment. He spent three more months in the Château de Vincennes before he was freed to pursue what seemed like a very constricted writing career1.

For a number of reasons, however, Diderot got lucky after his release. Despite his struggles that summer, and another brief detention in 1757, he became a key figure in the movement that today we call the Enlightenment. After his confinement he assumed the role of chief editor for the most pivotal and successful body of literature in eighteenth-century Europe: the Encyclopédie, a twenty-eight-volume collection of Enlightenment thought whose 75,000 entries were published over a twenty-year span. Printed in many different languages, the work came out in manifold editions and was successfully sold throughout the world—even as some volumes were banned in several countries, including France. The historian Robert Darnton observed that “[a]s a physical object and as a vehicle of thought, the Encyclopédie synthesized a thousand sciences, arts, and crafts; it represented the Enlightenment, body and soul.2”  Continue Reading - .docx

Lecture PowerPoint - .pdf

Discussion and Comments

If you would like to leave a comment, please email Dr. Woell at

Left to Right: Edward Woell and Mark Mossman
Left to Right: Dr. Edward Woell and Dr. Mark Mossman.

Left to Right: Dr. Febe Pamonag; Dr. Ute Chamberlin; Dr. Peter Cole; Dr. Edward Woell; Dr. Jennifer McNabb; Dr. Ginny Boynton; Dr. Timothy Roberts.
Left to Right: Febe Pamonag; Ute Chamberlin; Peter Cole; Edward Woell; Jennifer McNabb; Ginny Boynton; Timothy Roberts.