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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLetters On England - LETTER XXIV - ON THE ROYAL SOCIETY AND OTHER ACADEMIES
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Letters On England - LETTER XXIV - ON THE ROYAL SOCIETY AND OTHER ACADEMIES Post by :ow24160 Category :Nonfictions Author :Voltaire Date :January 2011 Read :2498

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Letters On England - LETTER XXIV - ON THE ROYAL SOCIETY AND OTHER ACADEMIES

The English had an Academy of Sciences many years before us, but
then it is not under such prudent regulations as ours, the only
reason of which very possibly is, because it was founded before the
Academy of Paris; for had it been founded after, it would very
probably have adopted some of the sage laws of the former and
improved upon others.

Two things, and those the most essential to man, are wanting in the
Royal Society of London, I mean rewards and laws. A seat in the
Academy at Paris is a small but secure fortune to a geometrician or
a chemist; but this is so far from being the case at London, that
the several members of the Royal Society are at a continual, though
indeed small expense. Any man in England who declares himself a
lover of the mathematics and natural philosophy, and expresses an
inclination to be a member of the Royal Society, is immediately
elected into it. But in France it is not enough that a man who
aspires to the honour of being a member of the Academy, and of
receiving the royal stipend, has a love for the sciences; he must at
the same time be deeply skilled in them; and is obliged to dispute
the seat with competitors who are so much the more formidable as
they are fired by a principle of glory, by interest, by the
difficulty itself; and by that inflexibility of mind which is
generally found in those who devote themselves to that pertinacious
study, the mathematics.

The Academy of Sciences is prudently confined to the study of
Nature, and, indeed, this is a field spacious enough for fifty or
threescore persons to range in. That of London mixes
indiscriminately literature with physics; but methinks the founding
an academy merely for the polite arts is more judicious, as it
prevents confusion, and the joining, in some measure, of
heterogeneals, such as a dissertation on the head-dresses of the
Roman ladies with a hundred or more new curves.

As there is very little order and regularity in the Royal Society,
and not the least encouragement; and that the Academy of Paris is on
a quite different foot, it is no wonder that our transactions are
drawn up in a more just and beautiful manner than those of the
English. Soldiers who are under a regular discipline, and besides
well paid, must necessarily at last perform more glorious
achievements than others who are mere volunteers. It must indeed be
confessed that the Royal Society boast their Newton, but then he did
not owe his knowledge and discoveries to that body; so far from it,
that the latter were intelligible to very few of his fellow members.
A genius like that of Sir Isaac belonged to all the academies in the
world, because all had a thousand things to learn of him.

The celebrated Dean Swift formed a design, in the latter end of the
late Queen's reign, to found an academy for the English tongue upon
the model of that of the French. This project was promoted by the
late Earl of Oxford, Lord High Treasurer, and much more by the Lord
Bolingbroke, Secretary of State, who had the happy talent of
speaking without premeditation in the Parliament House with as much
purity as Dean Swift wrote in his closet, and who would have been
the ornament and protector of that academy. Those only would have
been chosen members of it whose works will last as long as the
English tongue, such as Dean Swift, Mr. Prior, whom we saw here
invested with a public character, and whose fame in England is equal
to that of La Fontaine in France; Mr. Pope, the English Boileau, Mr.
Congreve, who may be called their Moliere, and several other eminent
persons whose names I have forgot; all these would have raised the
glory of that body to a great height even in its infancy. But Queen
Anne being snatched suddenly from the world, the Whigs were resolved
to ruin the protectors of the intended academy, a circumstance that
was of the most fatal consequence to polite literature. The members
of this academy would have had a very great advantage over those who
first formed that of the French, for Swift, Prior, Congreve, Dryden,
Pope, Addison, &c. had fixed the English tongue by their writings;
whereas Chapelain, Colletet, Cassaigne, Faret, Perrin, Cotin, our
first academicians, were a disgrace to their country; and so much
ridicule is now attached to their very names, that if an author of
some genius in this age had the misfortune to be called Chapelain or
Cotin, he would be under a necessity of changing his name.

One circumstance, to which the English Academy should especially
have attended, is to have prescribed to themselves occupations of a
quite different kind from those with which our academicians amuse
themselves. A wit of this country asked me for the memoirs of the
French Academy. I answered, they have no memoirs, but have printed
threescore or fourscore volumes in quarto of compliments. The
gentleman perused one or two of them, but without being able to
understand the style in which they were written, though he
understood all our good authors perfectly. "All," says he, "I see
in these elegant discourses is, that the member elect having assured
the audience that his predecessor was a great man, that Cardinal
Richelieu was a very great man, that the Chancellor Seguier was a
pretty great man, that Louis XIV. was a more than great man, the
director answers in the very same strain, and adds, that the member
elect may also be a sort of great man, and that himself, in quality
of director, must also have some share in this greatness."

The cause why all these academical discourses have unhappily done so
little honour to this body is evident enough. Vitium est temporis
potius quam hominis (the fault is owing to the age rather than to
particular persons). It grew up insensibly into a custom for every
academician to repeat these elogiums at his reception; it was laid
down as a kind of law that the public should be indulged from time
to time the sullen satisfaction of yawning over these productions.
If the reason should afterwards be sought, why the greatest geniuses
who have been incorporated into that body have sometimes made the
worst speeches, I answer, that it is wholly owing to a strong
propension, the gentlemen in question had to shine, and to display a
thread-bare, worn-out subject in a new and uncommon light. The
necessity of saying something, the perplexity of having nothing to
say, and a desire of being witty, are three circumstances which
alone are capable of making even the greatest writer ridiculous.
These gentlemen, not being able to strike out any new thoughts,
hunted after a new play of words, and delivered themselves without
thinking at all: in like manner as people who should seem to chew
with great eagerness, and make as though they were eating, at the
same time that they were just starved.

It is a law in the French Academy, to publish all those discourses
by which only they are known, but they should rather make a law
never to print any of them.

But the Academy of the Belles Lettres have a more prudent and more
useful object, which is, to present the public with a collection of
transactions that abound with curious researches and critiques.
These transactions are already esteemed by foreigners; and it were
only to be wished that some subjects in them had been more
thoroughly examined, and that others had not been treated at all.
As, for instance, we should have been very well satisfied, had they
omitted I know not what dissertation on the prerogative of the right
hand over the left; and some others, which, though not published
under so ridiculous a title, are yet written on subjects that are
almost as frivolous and silly.

The Academy of Sciences, in such of their researches as are of a
more difficult kind and a more sensible use, embrace the knowledge
of nature and the improvements of the arts. We may presume that
such profound, such uninterrupted pursuits as these, such exact
calculations, such refined discoveries, such extensive and exalted
views, will, at last, produce something that may prove of advantage
to the universe. Hitherto, as we have observed together, the most
useful discoveries have been made in the most barbarous times. One
would conclude that the business of the most enlightened ages and
the most learned bodies, is, to argue and debate on things which
were invented by ignorant people. We know exactly the angle which
the sail of a ship is to make with the keel in order to its sailing
better; and yet Columbus discovered America without having the least
idea of the property of this angle: however, I am far from
inferring from hence that we are to confine ourselves merely to a
blind practice, but happy it were, would naturalists and
geometricians unite, as much as possible, the practice with the
theory.

Strange, but so it is, that those things which reflect the greatest
honour on the human mind are frequently of the least benefit to it!
A man who understands the four fundamental rules of arithmetic,
aided by a little good sense, shall amass prodigious wealth in
trade, shall become a Sir Peter Delme, a Sir Richard Hopkins, a Sir
Gilbert Heathcote, whilst a poor algebraist spends his whole life in
searching for astonishing properties and relations in numbers, which
at the same time are of no manner of use, and will not acquaint him
with the nature of exchanges. This is very nearly the case with
most of the arts: there is a certain point beyond which all
researches serve to no other purpose than merely to delight an
inquisitive mind. Those ingenious and useless truths may be
compared to stars which, by being placed at too great a distance,
cannot afford us the least light.

With regard to the French Academy, how great a service would they do
to literature, to the language, and the nation, if, instead of
publishing a set of compliments annually, they would give us new
editions of the valuable works written in the age of Louis XIV.,
purged from the several errors of diction which are crept into them.
There are many of these errors in Corneille and Moliere, but those
in La Fontaine are very numerous. Such as could not be corrected
might at least be pointed out. By this means, as all the Europeans
read those works, they would teach them our language in its utmost
purity--which, by that means, would be fixed to a lasting standard;
and valuable French books being then printed at the King's expense,
would prove one of the most glorious monuments the nation could
boast. I have been told that Boileau formerly made this proposal,
and that it has since been revived by a gentleman eminent for his
genius, his fine sense, and just taste for criticism; but this
thought has met with the fate of many other useful projects, of
being applauded and neglected.

 

THE END.
'Letters on England', by Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet)

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