Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Academies are to universities as maturity is to childhood, oratory to grammar, or politeness to the first lessons in civility. Academies, not being stipendiary, should be entirely free; such were the academies of Italy; such is the French Academy; and such, more particularly, is the Royal Society of London.

The French Academy, which formed itself, received, it is true, letters patent from Louis XIII., but without any salary, and consequently without any subjection; hence it was that the first men in the kingdom, and even princes, sought admission into this illustrious body. The Society of London has possessed the same advantage.

The celebrated Colbert, being a member of the French Academy, employed some of his brethren to compose inscriptions and devices for the public buildings. This assembly, to which Boileau and Racine afterwards belonged, soon became an academy of itself. The establishment of this Academy of Inscriptions, now called that of the Belles-Lettres, may, indeed, be dated from the year 1661, and that of the Academy of Sciences from 1666. We are indebted for both establishments to the same minister, who contributed in so many ways to the splendor of the age of Louis XIV.

After the deaths of Jean Baptiste Colbert and the Marquis de Louvois, when Count de Pontchartrain, secretary of state, had the department of Paris, he intrusted the government of the new academies to his nephew, the Abbé Bignon. Then were first devised honorary fellowships requiring no learning, and without remuneration; places with salaries disagreeably distinguished from the former; fellowships without salaries; and scholarships, a title still more disagreeable, which has since been suppressed. The Academy of the Belles-Lettres was put on the same footing; both submitted to the immediate control of the secretary of state, and to the revolting distinction of honoraries, pensionaries, and pupils.

The Abbé Bignon ventured to propose the same regulation to the French Academy, of which he was a member; but he was heard with unanimous indignation. The least opulent in the Academy were the first to reject his offers, and to prefer liberty to pensions and honors. The Abbé Bignon, who, in the laudable intention of doing good, had dealt too freely with the noble sentiments of his brethren, never again set his foot in the French Academy.

The word Academy became so celebrated that when Lulli, who was a sort of favorite, obtained the establishment of his Opera, in 1692, he had interest enough to get inserted in the patent, that it was a Royal Academy of Music, in which Ladies and Gentlemen might sing without demeaning themselves. He did not confer the same honor on the dancers; the public, however, has always continued to go to the Opera, but never to the Academy of Music.

It is known that the word Academy, borrowed from the Greeks, originally signified a society or school of philosophy at Athens, which met in a garden bequeathed to it by Academus. The Italians were the first who instituted such societies after the revival of letters; the Academy Della Crusca is of the sixteenth century. Academies were afterwards established in every town where the sciences were cultivated. The Society of London has never taken the title of Academy.

The provincial academies have been of signal advantage. They have given birth to emulation, forced youth to labor, introduced them to a course of good reading, dissipated the ignorance and prejudices of some of our towns, fostered a spirit of politeness, and, as far as it is possible, destroyed pedantry.

Scarcely anything has been written against the French Academy, except frivolous and insipid pleasantries. St. Evremond’s comedy of “The Academicians” had some reputation in its time; but a proof of the little merit it possessed is that it is now forgotten, whereas the good satires of Boileau are immortal.

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