The Encyclopedia Galactica and the Enlightenment Roots of Asimov’s Foundation

At the beginning of Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi novel Foundation, Hari Seldon introduces his idea for a massive project to create the ultimate set of world knowledge in the Encyclopedia Galactica. Using the science of psychohistory, Seldon has predicted that the current Galactic Empire will fall and a dark age will follow. By creating a store of the collective knowledge of the world, Seldon argues that humanity will be able to reduce the length of the dark age from thirty thousand years to just one thousand years. Seldon describes saving knowledge from being scattered so that, “if we prepare a giant summary of all knowledge, it will never be lost. Coming generations will build on it, and will not have to rediscover it for themselves.” While the creation of the Encyclopedia Galactica will ultimately be revealed to be a cover for Seldon’s true purposes, the novel retains a strong encyclopedic focus, but not a futuristic one.

Rather, Seldon’s encyclopedia draws inspiration from the past, specifically an Enlightenment-era encyclopedic project with goals very similar to those that Seldon mentions. Even as the Encyclopedia Galactica loses importance and disappears from the narrative, the project behind it informs the arc of the novel and reveals the true nature of Seldon’s plan.

The Encyclopedia Galactica is important to the novel and the series for two reasons. The first is the encyclopedia’s purpose in preserving knowledge in order to communicate it to future generations, which affords Seldon an opportunity to extend his influence for thousands of years after his death. The second reason is that the presence of the encyclopedia in Seldon’s galaxy creates a broader sense of scope and purpose that inspires the citizens of the Empire to think beyond themselves and into the future. The project that Seldon creates extends far beyond the Foundation and mimics the Enlightenment project of 18th-century Europe, and specifically the project Denis Diderot outlines in his Encyclopedie. All of this adds to an understanding of Asimov’s novel because it helps to show the importance of knowledge as powerful, revolutionary, and democratizing, an attitude that was developed during the Enlightenment period. Asimov also displays an intimate knowledge of Enlightenment-era encyclopedism in the novel.

One of the important shifts in the encyclopedia that occurs during the Enlightenment concerns what its central purpose should be. One of the earliest encyclopedias, Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, is an example of the old model. Pliny read other texts and basically copied the material he thought was relevant into his own book. He would add commentary here and there, but he mainly compiled what he believed to be necessary to one’s education. His encyclopedia was also organized by subject so that it moved from one topic to the next. The idea was that you would read through the entire text as though it was a course. Later, encyclopedia editors would organize their encyclopedias alphabetically and cross-reference topics so that readers could skip about and learn what they wanted. Their main purpose was to provide easily accessible information, rather than a guided tour of knowledge.

The alphabetically arranged encyclopedias are designed for use as a reference, a place to go to read up on information versus the guided curriculum of a topically arranged encyclopedia. To a modern reader this may seem like a trivial distinction, but the end goal was to make information freer to obtain with the idea that individuals had the wherewithal to make these sort of decisions for themselves, as opposed to the old method of relying on some self-appointed “authority” to dictate the direction of learning. This shift was compounded by the fact that Diderot commissioned some of the leading philosophers and experts of the day to write entries for his Encyclopedie—Diderot himself and Voltaire both wrote for the set. His goal was to bring together great minds rather than allowing a single compiler to make decisions about inclusion and omission, as Pliny did.

Asimov demonstrates the competing approaches to knowledge—the authority-based system of knowledge used by Pliny the Elder versus the scientific method of the Enlightenment—in a discussion between the mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, and Lord Dorwin, a nobleman of the empire. Lord Dorwin expresses his interest in archaeology and, specifically, the question of where the human species originated. He notes an interesting tract written some eight hundred years prior that posits a view counter to the commonly held beliefs. When Hardin asks if Dorwin had gone to the planet to poke around and try to find out for himself, the Lord responds, “But wheah’s the necessity? It seems uncommonly woundabout and hopelessly wigamawolish method of getting anywheahs.” Lord Dorwin’s method, as he expounds it, is to read the great masters of the past so that he can balance the views against one another, at which point he can “decide which is pwobably cowwect—and come to a conclusion.” Dorwin also has the audacity to call this the “scientific method” as he understands it.

In the midst of Terminus City, the seat of the Encyclopedia Galactica, Lord Dorwin presents a decidedly unscientific approach to knowledge that reflects an older model of learning. He misunderstands the scientific method and is mired in the past without the ability to come upon any new discoveries, since his views will necessarily be limited to those he has already read. Hardin will hold up Dorwin’s mistaken method as symptomatic of a galaxy-wide “worship of the past” that is the cause of its stagnation and deterioration. In similar fashion, Diderot’s Encycolpedie works against Pliny’s own method of revering past masters and privileging their conclusions over new discovery.

All of this relates to Foundation because of the core values that Diderot expressly wrote about in his work. Diderot saw his project as a compilation of human knowledge that would expedite a return to Enlightenment if the world were to fall into a Dark Age again. Hari Seldon exactly copies Diderot’s purpose in Foundation. Diderot wrote of a “transhistoric dialogue” between scholars of his day and scholars of the future. This reveals a second important aspect of the encyclopedic project, namely, a far-reaching interest in the progress of humanity based on the principles of the Enlightenment. In this sense, Seldon also mimics Diderot. Both men value knowledge for the progress and freedom they thought it would bring. However, this is also the fatal flaw of the encyclopedic project: future generations need to be interested in continuing along the same lines originally set forth.

In fact, it does not take long for even the Encyclopedists to become disenchanted with Seldon’s encyclopedic project. Fifty or so years after the Foundation is established on Terminus, the Encyclopedists are split between continued interest in their charge and the political changes that they witness all around them. This split will plague Terminus for the rest of the novel. However, the reader will learn that Seldon takes an even grander perspective than just building Foundation or compiling his encyclopedia. This gives rise to the second aspect of the encyclopedic in Asimov’s narrative—namely Seldon’s grand vision for the future of the human race.

Seldon’s perspective is so grand that it mirrors his aspirations in cataloging human knowledge and rebuilding an entire galactic empire from it. Psychohistory is the key to this grand perspective because it permits him to see human events on the largest scale and on the longest timeline. Seldon’s perspective is encyclopedic in that it attempts to be all-encompassing and to bring together the fruits of his knowledge to enhance the position of the human race. Because he can see down the future of likely human events, he also knows that there are critical points where he will need to intervene. Seldon does this by reappearing in the form of a hologram at carefully pre-figured times. At the fifty-year mark, Seldon makes his first appearance to reveal that the encyclopedia was just a cover to gain an imperial charter to set up on Terminus. He further reveals that the encyclopedia was meant to set Foundation on a certain path and that he has predicted a series of crises that Foundation will face and he will re-emerge at each point to nudge history in the right direction. This leads to the second fatal flaw in his design because it requires that he do something that runs counter to the true nature of the encyclopedia. Seldon knows that for history to play out along the lines that he predicts, people will need to remain ignorant of the direction they are taking. They must progress on a “natural” trajectory.

While Seldon betrays the true purpose of the encyclopedia in order to fulfill a grander encyclopedic project, there is a final purpose the Encyclopedia Galactica plays in the novel by lending legitimacy to the narration itself. The novel is peppered with paratextual entries from the encyclopedia that provide information about people, places, and key concepts. Before Seldon is introduced in the text, the reader is given a passage from an encyclopedia entry on him. There are also abbreviated entries on “Terminus” (the planet where Foundation is located), “The Four Kingdoms” (the emerging powers near enough Terminus to cause problems), and “Traders” (the advance scouts of the Foundation). These entries show the reader that the encyclopedic project of the Foundation is at least partly successful. The entries stand outside of the narrative present, even as the novel spans hundreds of years, and are proof that knowledge is preserved at some future date even if the dark age has not yet been averted or even arrived yet. Asimov, thus, builds a grander symbology into the structure of the novel. The Encyclopedia Galactica is a symbol of humanity’s greatest reach in the Enlightenment understanding of the concept. These paratextual entries also allow Asimov an additional means of providing exposition about elements of the text.

As with many of Asimov’s other novels, Foundation shows his deep-seated understanding of the concepts from which he draws his inspiration. Even though the Encyclopedia Galactica is just a cover for Hari Seldon and even though the project seems to fall away through the course of the novel, Asimov injects elements of the encyclopedic epistemology throughout the text. Thus, Asimov gives us a jumping off point to think more about the topics at hand—from the stagnating inertia of authority, to the role of education and knowledge in society, to even questions of fate and destiny—thereby fulfilling one final encyclopedic aim, which is to inspire the reader to continue to explore, always thinking and learning more.

Matthew Raese teaches English part time for Kent State University at Stark, works full time in logistics, and writes—mainly about books and music but is trying fiction—in his spare time. He earned his doctorate in literature from the University of Tennessee where he specialized in contemporary American literature and literary criticism. Matthew lives in Ohio with his wife, their dog, and two cats.

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