Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Great men have all been formed either before academies or independent of them. Homer and Phidias, Sophocles and Apelles, Virgil and Vitruvius, Ariosto and Michelangelo, were none of them academicians. Tasso encountered only unjust criticism from the Academy della Crusca, and Newton was not indebted to the Royal Society of London for his discoveries in optics, upon gravitation, upon the integral calculus, and upon chronology. Of what use then are academies? To cherish the fire which great genius has kindled.

The Royal Society of London was formed in 1660, six years before the French Academy of Science. It has no rewards like ours, but neither has it any of the disagreeable distinctions invented by the abbé Bignon, who divided the Academy of Sciences between those who paid, and honorary members who were not learned. The society of London being independent, and only self-encouraged, has been composed of members who have discovered the laws of light, of gravitation, of the aberration of the stars, the reflecting telescope, the fire engine, solar microscope, and many other inventions, as useful as admirable. Could they have had greater men, had they admitted pensionaries or honorary members?

The famous Doctor Swift, in the last years of the reign of Queen Anne, formed the idea of establishing an academy for the English language, after the model of the Académie Française. This project was countenanced by the earl of Oxford, first lord of the treasury, and still more by Lord Bolingbroke, secretary of state, who possessed the gift of speaking extempore in parliament with as much purity as Doctor Swift composed in his closet, and who would have been the patron and ornament of this academy. The members likely to compose it were men whose works will last as long as the English language. Doctor Swift would have been one, and Mr. Prior, whom we had among us as public minister, and who enjoyed a similar reputation in England to that of La Fontaine among ourselves. There were also Mr. Pope, the English Boileau, and Mr. Congreve, whom they call their Molière, and many more whose names escape my recollection. The queen, however, dying suddenly, the Whigs took it into their heads to occupy themselves in hanging the protectors of academies, a process which is very injurious to the belles-lettres. The members of this body would have enjoyed much greater advantages than were possessed by the first who composed the French Academy. Swift, Prior, Congreve, Dryden, Pope, Addison, and others, had fixed the English language by their writings, whereas Chapelain, Colletet, Cassaigne, Faret, and Cotin, our first academicians, were a scandal to the nation; and their names have become so ridiculous that if any author had the misfortune to be called Chapelain or Cotin at present, he would be obliged to change his name.

Above all, the labors of an English academy would have materially differed from our own. One day, a wit of that country asked me for the memoirs of the French Academy. It composes no memoirs, I replied; but it has caused sixty or eighty volumes of compliments to be printed. He ran through one or two, but was not able to comprehend the style, although perfectly able to understand our best authors. “All that I can learn by these fine compositions,” said he to me, “is, that the new member, having assured the body that his predecessor was a great man, Cardinal Richelieu a very great man, and Chancellor Séguier a tolerably great man, the president replies by a similar string of assurances, to which he adds a new one, implying that the new member is also a sort of great man; and as for himself, the president, he may also perchance possess a spice of pretension.” It is easy to perceive by what fatality all the academic speeches are so little honorable to the body. “Vitium est temporis, potius quam hominis.” It insensibly became a custom for every academician to repeat those eulogies at his reception; and thus the body imposed upon themselves a kind of obligation to fatigue the public. If we wish to discover the reason why the most brilliant among the men of genius, who have been chosen by this body, have so frequently made the worst speeches, the cause may be easily explained. It is, that they have been anxious to shine, and to treat worn-out matter in a new way. The necessity of saying something; the embarrassment produced by the consciousness of having nothing to say; and the desire to exhibit ability, are three things sufficient to render even a great man ridiculous. Unable to discover new thoughts, the new members fatigue themselves for novel terms of expression, and often speak without thinking; like men who, affecting to chew with nothing in their mouths, seem to eat while perishing with hunger. Instead of a law in the French Academy to have these speeches printed, a law should be passed in prevention of that absurdity.

The Academy of Belles-Lettres imposed upon itself a task more judicious and useful — that of presenting to the public a collection of memoirs comprising the most critical and curious disquisitions and researches. These memoirs are already held in great esteem by foreigners. It is only desirable, that some subjects were treated more profoundly, and others not treated of at all. They might, for example, very well dispense with dissertations upon the prerogative of the right hand over the left; and of other inquiries which, under a less ridiculous title, are not less frivolous. The Academy of Sciences, in its more difficult and useful investigation, embraces a study of nature, and the improvement of the arts; and it is to be expected that studies so profound and perseveringly pursued, calculations so exact, and discoveries so refined, will in the end produce a corresponding benefit to the world at large.

As to the French Academy, what services might it not render to letters, to the language, and the nation, if, instead of printing volumes of compliments every year, it would reprint the best works of the age of Louis XIV., purified from all the faults of language which have crept into them! Corneille and Molière are full of them, and they swarm in La Fontaine. Those which could not be corrected might at least be marked, and Europe at large, which reads these authors, would then learn our language with certainty, and its purity would be forever fixed. Good French books, printed with care at the expense of the king, would be one of the most glorious monuments of the nation. I have heard say, that M. Despréaux once made this proposal, which has since been renewed by a man whose wit, wisdom, and sound criticism are generally acknowledged; but this idea has met with the fate of several other useful projects — that of being approved and neglected.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25