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The Cyclopaedia or, An universal dictionary of arts and sciences, created by  encyclopaedist and freethinker Ephraim Chambers, was a groundbreaking and enormously influential work, typifying the 18th century ‘Age of Reason’. In striving to collect, collate, and classify knowledge, Chambers and his Cyclopaedia were distinctly of the Enlightenment, during which people sought to understand the world through science, evidence, and rational thinking. Chambers was driven too by his own love of learning and a sense of being, in his own words, ‘bound to all offices of Humanity’: confident of the role of knowledge in improving humankind. His own religious scepticism and devotion to freedom of thought can be glimpsed in the Cyclopaedia, with entries on religion and religious groups advocating tolerance, diversity of opinion, and the freedom to think for oneself – cornerstones of the humanist approach. The Cyclopaedia also directly inspired the work of fellow freethinkers in France Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert in compiling their Encyclopédie, published from 1751, by which they sought to ‘change the common way of thinking’ and establish their own radical philosophy.

Chambers’ two volume Cyclopaedia, published in 1728, drew on but significantly elaborated the work of previous encyclopaedists. He introduced a system of cross-referencing which transformed the encyclopaedic tradition, underpinned by his belief in the interconnectedness of knowledge. The Cyclopaedia, Chambers wrote, was ‘an attempt towards a survey of the republic of learning,’ representing ‘the boundary that circumscribes our present prospect; and separates the known, from the unknown parts of the intelligible world.’ It was a compilation of human knowledge, but also a clarion call for continued discovery and record, which Chambers believed ‘enrich’d’ the mind ‘with sentiments which lead to virtue and glory’.

The Cyclopaedia represents a key period in the movement towards modern humanism, as Enlightenment values heralded a more scientific view of the universe, and religious scepticism began to be more openly expressed (despite remaining punishable). Chambers himself embodied this, as both an encyclopaedist and a known freethinker, whose life and work influenced so many others.

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