Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/May 1891/The French Institute


By W. C. CAHALL, M. D.

THE Institute, as it exists to-day, is a creation of Napoleon, and, like all other organizations which arose under the First Consul, reveals his disposition for centralizing and supervising everything, even the literary and scientific societies. It is due to Napoleon, however, to say that he had a professional interest in these societies as well as a ruler's, for it must be remembered he was an engineer, and had a seat in the Academy of Sciences. While the Institute dates from Bonaparte, who modified the newly organized Institute of the Directory, the several academies of which it is composed are very much older. The Consul simply revived the academies in almost their original form, but placed them in a more intimate relation with the Government and with each other.

The Institute may be likened to a university, while the academies are as the colleges of a university, independent yet correlative. Just the contrary prevailed in England, for here the Royal Society was the mother society, and all the organizations for special study have been offsprings from her.

A century of honorable and useful works could not save the academies from the insatiable maw of the revolutionary Government, and on the 8th of August, 1793, the following article was proposed and passed: "Article I. All academies and literary societies patented and paid by the nation are suppressed."

When, two years later, the Directory restored and reconstituted the academies into the Institute, after the original plans of Colbert, the empty chairs of the old members told with what deadly thoroughness the Revolutionary Committee suppressed the learned bodies through the guillotine and exile.

There had been the Académie Française, Acadéemie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Académie des Sciences, and Académie de Peinture et Sculpture, now styled Academie des Beaux-Arts. Under succeeding governments the Institute and its academies underwent various changes as to name and classification of sections, but as they exist to-day the several academies are fulfilling practically the same aims and functions with which they started. A fifth academy was added by Guizot in 1832, as L'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques.

I. The Académie Française is the oldest, and in many respects, the most illustrious of the five.

The great Cardinal Richelieu, betwixt his intrigues of state and his more laborious task of writing indifferent tragedies, found time to play the patron to a coterie of learned men, who met at regular intervals for social and intellectual intercourse. Whether through his political insight or literary ambition it is not possible to know, but he clearly foresaw what a powerful influence such a society might wield, and esteemed it good statecraft that the Government should hold a supervisory interest. All was grist that came to his mill. For several years, or as early as 1630, Godeau Gombauld, Giry Habert, Serisay de Malleville, Chapelaine, author of La Pucelle, and other literary men of note, had been accustomed to meeting weekly at the house of Conrart, secretary of Louis XIII, where literary subjects were the usual topics, and where new works of the members were read. Since even such harmless societies were contrary to the law of France, strict secrecy was enjoined. But Richelieu had ears all over France. In 1033 Malleville took with him to the meetings his friend Farey, who, in all innocence, introduced the Abbé Bois-Robert. This satellite of the prime minister proved to be the ears in this instance, and reported to his master the excellence of these gatherings. Richelieu lost no time in offering to act as patron to the society, extended to it his protection, and promised letters of incorporation. The members would have been quite content to have continued their meetings in their former quiet, informal way. At the same time the condescension of the august prelate was not to be gainsaid, for, while he could purr as gently as a cat, he could strike with equal swiftness when it suited his purpose. A prime minister, in those days, preserved his own head by cutting off the heads of others, and the gentle priest had become wonderfully expert at this business.

With commendable promptness the members meekly drew up a code of regulations. They were to have only forty members. The officers were to consist of a director, who should preside over their deliberations; a chancellor, who should act as keeper of seals; and a permanent secretary.

The title of "The French Academy" was adopted, and its object was avowed to be "to labor with all care and diligence to give certain rules to our language, and to render it pure, eloquent, and capable of treating the arts and the sciences. It shall be the object of the new academicians to purge out of it those impurities with which it has become polluted."

The cardinal passed the statutes, and the king signed the letters patent on the 2d of January, 1635. When the Chancellor of State, Peter Seguier, impressed the charter with his great seal, he expressed his wish to become a member.

So far all was smooth sailing; but the Parliament of Paris, whose assent was necessary before the Academy could become legally constituted, proved obdurate, and it was not until after two years and a half, with all the powerful influence of the king, and his more dreaded prime minister giving it urgency that the coveted act was passed, with the qualification, however, that the academicians should "bind themselves to take cognizance of no other matters than the embellishment and enriching the French language, and to sit in judgment upon no books save such as were written by their own members, or by authors who should willingly submit themselves to academic discipline."

As a balm for their wounded feelings, the Government decided that each member of the Academy should receive an annual pension of two thousand francs. It was a source of no little scandal when it became known that they were paid out of a fund of forty times two thousand francs, which had been appropriated to pay the scavengers of the streets of Paris. The members themselves did not escape a just popular censure for the complacent manner with which they allowed themselves to be used by the wily cardinal.

The condemnation of The Cid of Corneille, which Richelieu instigated Chapelaine to write and the Academy to pass, will always be remembered against them. Much has been made of this incident, and the rejection of Molière, Boileau, La Bruyère, and Pascal; but these were almost the only exceptions to the rule that the greatest names in French literature were among the "Forty Immortals." And, as a matter of fact, Corneille was later on elected to membership, as were also Boileau and La Bruyère. If Molière was rejected because he was an actor, is it not currently reported that Henry Irving in our day is denied a knighthood for a like reason? But even of this action the Academy has thought better, for Molière's bust, which has been placed in the Salle des Séances, bears these words, "Bien ne manque à sa gloire; il manquait à la notre."

There are no two opinions as to the influence of the Academy upon the French language. It can be said, almost without exaggeration, that the French language has made greater conquests than the French army, for surely it has subdued courts where the French soldier had been impotent. As to its efficiency as a vehicle for literature classified as belles-lettres, it is the language par excellence, and its influence upon the world's literature is still tremendous. In clearness of expression, in perfection of form, in all that is meant by style, the French language is perhaps second only to the ancient Greek.

What the schools and philosophers of Athens did toward the perfection of the Ionic dialect, the French Academy has done for the French. Could there be any higher term of encomium than this? Yet this is the heritage of the Academy—not of one individual or of one generation, but of the accretions of generations of men laboring toward one end.

II. Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.
III. Académie des Sciences.
IV. Académie des Beaux-Arts.
V. Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques.

From the halcyon days of le Grande Monarque, three of the academies—II, III, and IV—date their beginning.

L'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, originally appointed to prepare inscriptions and mottoes for medals for King Louis XIV, became a chartered body under Colbert in 1663, when its scope was widened by assuming as its province the discussion of archæology in its various bearings.

L'Académie des Beaux-Arts arose from the Académie de Peinture, founded by Le Brun in 1648, and enlarged and incorporated by Colbert in 1664, as the Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture; it busies itself with painting, sculpture, architecture, and music.

L'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques is the youngest of the five, dating only from 1832, and has for its especial investigation mental philosophy, jurisprudence, and political economy.

L'Académie des Sciences, like the Royal Society of England, had a pre-official existence. A company of scientific men were accustomed to meet weekly at the house of some of the members in order to discuss, in an informal way, the current scientific topics of the day. Colbert, with wise discernment, saw that it would be advantageous to give them official recognition. He induced Louis XIV to bestow upon the newly organized body extensive grants for pensions, experiments, and instruments. Under this provisional charter the Academy met for the first time on December 22, 1666, in the rooms of the Royal Library. From this time forward a regular account of the proceedings has been kept, and for the first time it was called L'Académie des Sciences.

Within the very year of Colbert's incorporating the Academy there was returned to Paris for interment the body of one who, more than any one else, gave life and direction to the Academy during its earlier and more informal years. Although having spent the greater part of his life in Holland, Descartes was a Frenchman, and lived for a while in Paris, where, in fact, many of his greatest physical investigations were begun. Descartes was a ferment. Already in England Bacon had cut himself loose from the Aristotelian philosophy of the school-men. Descartes followed with a similar upheaval upon the Continent. Yet the two philosophies were in no way akin, save in the interest their works aroused for the study of nature. In Bacon's shameless race for state honors his philosophical studies were but diversions; consequently his philosophy was vague and undefined. To Descartes, in his almost ascetic life, his philosophical studies became an all-absorbing passion; consequently his system of philosophy, if not clear in all its details, was pointed and forceful, and swept as if by storm over both the scientific and metaphysical worlds.

Colbert, pursuant of the policy of Louis XIV to make Paris the intellectual as well as the political center of Europe, invited Huygens to leave the Hague and take up his residence in Paris. This he did in 1666, France receiving from Holland this celebrated mathematician and astronomer in exchange for her loss of Descartes, who gave the best part of his life to that country. Huygens was not the only foreigner whom the honors and pensions of Louis XIV induced to leave their native land; Romer, a Danish astronomer, and the great Italian astronomer, Dominic Cassini, being among the most eminent. Since the astronomical labors of these three men were so interwoven and interdependent, they can be considered together.

The Observatory of Paris was established in 1667, eight years before the Observatory of Greenwich was built. The French monarch appointed Cassini as the first director of the National Observatory, and it is a remarkable fact that for four successive generations, covering a period of one hundred and twenty-two years, a Cassini was the director of the Paris Observatory. Dominic Cassini gave so much promise that at the age of twenty-five he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at the University of Bologna, and his reputation had already become so great that when Louis XIV, through his ambassador, requested Pope Clement IX and the Senate of Bologna to permit him to go to Paris, they yielded only for the limited term of six years. But, once in Paris, Louis XIV knew how to keep him.

The young Academy of Sciences received a great impetus through the labors of such men as Römer, Huygens, Cassini, Picard, and Mariotte. Cassini completed the unfinished work of Huygens's observations, and Huygens could not have elaborated his doctrines of the undulatory theory of light had not Romer just previously proved the velocity of light.

It was universally believed and taught that light was instantaneous. Römer observed that the eclipses of the satellites of Jupiter were earlier or later than the calculated time according to the time of year. He discovered that the premature eclipses always occurred when the earth was in its orbit nearest to Jupiter, and the delayed eclipses when farthest away; that the difference in time was about eleven minutes, which he correctly assumed as the time it took light to traverse the orbit of the earth. The velocity of light was thus mathematically established and measured. This discovery of Römer was made use of by Huygens in his development of the undulatory theory of light.

Hooke had, indeed, in his Micrographia, suggested some such an explanation of light; but to Huygens justly belongs the great honor of giving his theory a scientific basis. He taught that light was propagated in waves spherically, after the manner of sound. The adherents of the emission theory of light argued that light only moved in straight lines, but not around a corner as sound does, and as light should do if it moved in like manner.

The point was well taken, and for a long while was the stumbling-block in the way of the undulatory theory. Huygens met this objection, and time has proved its correctness. He says light will not be diffused beyond the rectilinear space when it passes through an aperture, "for, although the partial waves produced by the particles compressed in the aperture do diffuse themselves beyond the rectilinear space, these waves do not concur anywhere except in front of the aperture."

The adaptation of the pendulum to clocks by Huygens was of inestimable value to astronomy by furnishing a standard measure of time. His method of grinding lenses so improved the defining power of telescopes that he was enabled to discover the true nature of the ring of Saturn, which Galileo, with his more imperfect instrument, failed to make out. He also discovered one of the satellites of Saturn, but refused to look for more, since there were now as many satellites discovered as there were planets, and, from a false conception of the harmony of the universe, he considered it useless to search after others. He had the mortification of witnessing the success of Cassini in discovering four others.

In January, 1699, a new charter was granted to the Academy of Sciences. Until this time its charter was only preparatory, no provision having been made for the government of the society, its purpose, or the election of new members. The new charter provided for twenty pensionnaires, three geometricians, three astronomers, three chemists, three anatomists, three botanists, three to study mechanics, one secretary, and one treasurer; twenty associates, of whom eight may be foreigners; twenty élèves, or pupils, who acted as assistants to the associates; and ten honorary members. At the beginning of the year each member must declare the object of his study for the coming year, and all experiments must be repeated and tested by the Academy as a body. The Academy could not fill the vacancies in its own membership, but must recommend two or three candidates for each vacancy, and the Government had the right to make the selections from those recommended. The king had rooms fitted up for the Academy in the Louvre, where the organized body met for the first time April 29, 1699.

Under the labors of the Cassini, Malebranche, Fontenelle, Tournefort, Maraldi, and Méry, the reputation of the Academy of Sciences continued to increase until the growing luster of Newton's investigations and those of other members of the Royal Society threw it somewhat into shadow. Unfortunately, a spirit of national jealousy caused the scientists at Paris and London to misunderstand or willfully underestimate the services of their rivals, which delayed the settlement of many scientific questions longer than was otherwise necessary.

It was said of Fontenelle, who was Secretary of the Academy of Sciences for forty-two consecutive years, that when his Géometrie de l'lnfini was submitted to the Academy, he declared, "There, now, is a book which only eight men in Europe can understand, and the author is not one of the eight."

While the Cassinis were for so long time making their name famous at the Paris Observatory, there lived in Paris a family of Jussieus, five in number, and through a period of nearly a century and a half, whose labors in the Jardin du Roi and Academy of Sciences made them equally famous as botanists. With the Jussieus arose the "natural method" of botanical classification, as it is known, in contradistinction to the artificial of Linnæus. Linnæus found botany a chaos and left it a rigid science; yet Linnæus acknowledged his system to be artificial. "Artificial classes," says he, "are a substitute for natural till natural are detected," thus anticipating the better method in a riper time; and by a curious coincidence in the very year of his death, 1778, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu began writing his Genera Plantarum, which contained the proposed classification.

The honor of the invention of the natural method belongs to Bernard de Jussieu, who made use of it in the arrangement of the garden of the Trianon in 1759, rather than to his nephew, Antoine, who elaborated, perfected, and published it. The classification of the Jussieus was more philosophical than that of Linnæus, and eventually superseded, but did not destroy it; it arose rather as a superstructure upon Linnæan foundations, and built along the lines which Linnaeus had already marked out. The Genera Plantarum has been characterized by Cuvier as a work "which perhaps forms as important an epoch in the sciences of observation as the Chimie of Lavoisier does in the science of experiment."

Antoine Laurent de Jussieu's Genera was scarcely finished before Paris ran mad. It was the time of the Revolution. Happily for him that his profession as physician kept him busy in the hospitals and out of public life during these terrible days! The comparative obscurity of his life at this time allowed him to safely pass through the bloody ordeal which destroyed equally innocent and noble-minded men. There was no head which the guillotine cut off that could not have been better lost than that of Lavoisier.

Black, Cavendish, and Priestley, in England, and Scheele, in Sweden, had been making invaluable discoveries in chemistry, but chemistry was still in disorder. Lavoisier's mental equipment placed him at the fore-front of the scientific experimenters of his day, and there was no one so well qualified to perform his chosen work in chemistry as himself.

In 1778, in a memoir to the Academy of Sciences, Lavoisier questioned the existence of "phlogiston," and attributed to oxygen the acidifying principle. A second memoir, in 1784, on the analysis of water, confirmed his position. In conjunction with other French chemists, he substituted for the cumbersome chemical terms a nomenclature of such scientific accuracy that, with slight modifications, it continues to the present day. Its way thus prepared, his Traité élémentaire de Chimie, which contained his innovations and came out in 1789, proved a death-blow to the phlogiston doctrines, and prepared the way for modern chemistry. A chemist of such qualifications was very naturally called into requisition by the state. He increased the explosive quality of gunpowder, devised a system of weights and measures, and served for twenty-one years as one of the fermiers-généraux. "When the Academy of Sciences was suppressed in 1793, Lavoisier wrote to Lakanal, President of the Committee on Public Instruction, that the members of the Academy had formed a private society to continue their labors, and asked permission to use the Academy rooms. But even this privilege was denied them.

On the 2d of May, 1794, a general indictment was made in the National Assembly against the fermiers-généraux for conspiring against the Government, on the ground that they caused an adulteration of tobacco by the addition of water. Absurd as this charge appears to us of saner days, these men, including as they did some of the noblest of France, were actually tried, May 6th, and condemned to death, the entire body of twenty-eight being guillotined on the 8th of May, 1794.

After two years and a half of suppression the academies were revived by an act of the Convention of October, 1795, under the title of the "Institute," principally through the influence of Carnot, grandfather of the present President of France, who was at that time President of the Directory, and of Lakanal and Daunou. Instead of academies the Institute was divided into three classes, the first class for sciences physiques et mathématiques, the second class for sciences morales et politiques, and the third class for littérature et beaux-arts. The whirlwind of the Revolution swept away Directories and set up others. Carnot was obliged to fly for safety into Germany.

The seat in the class of mechanics of the Institute made vacant by the flight of Carnot was filled in 1797 by the election of a young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, just returned from his Italian campaign covered with glory. The First Consul paid much favorable attention to the Institute, and it continues to this day very much as it left his hands in the new constitution which he gave it in 1806. He exhibited his admiration for the pure sciences, and his dislike to the speculative sciences, philosophy and ethics, by the expansion of the Convention's first class and the entire suppression of the second class, thus creating four classes: Sciences physiques et mathématiques, la langue et la littérature françaises, histoire et littérature anciennes, and beaux-arts. It was Louis XVIII who, in 1816, restored the old names of the academies to the four classes of Napoleon.

Napoleon was fond of the society of scientists, and rewarded with prizes and honors the most noteworthy of scientific discoveries. Although at war with "perfide Albion," as he was wont to call England, he drew the line at scientists, and pardoned English prisoners at the simple request of Joseph Priestley, after all other means had been exhausted, and acceded to the award of three thousand francs by the first class of the Institute to Davy for his celebrated memoir of 1806. It was Bonaparte who proposed to award a gold medal to Volta, after reading his memoir on galvanism; and later induced Volta, by emoluments and titles, to surrender his Italian professorship for a residence in Paris. When the memorable expedition to Egypt set sail, Bonaparte took with him many savants and Academicians. After the wager of battle had turned against the great soldier, and he was transported to the lonely St. Helena, he must have felt that the last tie to France had been severed when, in 1817, he felt forced to resign his chair in the Academy of Sciences.

Napoleon's battle of the Pyramids and conquest of Egypt added little to his fame; but his soldiers, in throwing up intrenchments near Rosetta, dug up a long-buried stone, in time to be esteemed more valuable than a dozen victorious battles. This stone, which took its name from the place of its discovery, became known as the Rosetta Stone. It was found to be of black basalt; about three feet seven inches in length and two feet six inches in width, and covered with strange-looking inscriptions. The stone finally found its way to the British Museum, where it still can be seen, and where for many years scholars studied it in vain before its incalculable archæological value was discovered. The inscription was found to be trilingual, the upper lines being in the hieroglyphic, the second in the demotic, and the third in the Greek language. The Greek was soon translated and found to contain a decree in honor of Ptolemy Epiphanes by the Egyptian priesthood, and erected nearly two hundred years b. c. The inscription being identical in the three languages, the Greek thus became the key by which the hieroglyphics of tombs and obelisks, which had so long baffled the ingenuity of acutest scholarship, were easily deciphered. "The learned walls with hieroglyphics graced" became an open book, whereon the world with wondering eyes beheld ancient Egypt speak and live.

In the interpretation of the Rosetta Stone, and through this the interpretation of the hieroglyphic inscriptions of Egypt, more than to any one else the credit is due to Champollion. This eminent Egyptologist was nine years old when the Rosetta Stone was unearthed by his countrymen, but at an early age entered upon his famous career. At seventeen he wrote a valuable paper upon the Coptic language, at nineteen he was elected Professor of History in the Lyceum of Grenoble, and when but twenty-one published his L'Egypte sous les Pharaons. In his studies upon the Rosetta Stone Champollion followed the false belief, then prevalent, in the ideographic nature of the hieroglyphs. Dr. Thomas Young, of London, who was employed in parallel studies of the same subject, made the very important discovery of the phonetic or alphabetic character of the hieroglyphs. The eager perception of Champollion caught the suggestion, and at once putting it to the test and amplifying it until he had completed an alphabet, found true what Young had only surmised. Since, according to the old adage, which rules the scientific world, that "he only discovers who first proves," Champollion shares with Young the honor of making one of the most important discoveries of this century.

July 19, 1830, is the date of the sitting of the Academy of Sciences when the rupture between Cuvier and Geoffroy de SaintHilaire took place. It was a battle of giants. Although Paris was in commotion—for it was in the midst of the Revolution of July—the Academy was filled with French scientists. These lifelong friends had for some years a growing difference, which from its very nature was irreconcilable, upon the comparative merits of the synthetic and the analytical methods of studying nature, and which finally resulted in the tempestuous debate in the Academy. Geoffroy, as a synthesist, maintained that organic forms are built on one plan of construction, of the same elements, of the same number, and of the same relation between organs; while, on the other hand, changed conditions varied the size and use of organs, but not the plan, and that species have undergone modifications in the change of time. Cuvier, as an analyst, could see no evidence of variability in species, and held that every organ was specially created for the purpose for which it was used. The echoes of this combat are still resounding throughout the scientific world, but with more and more unequaled result.

Geoffroy was one of Napoleon's scientific staff in Egypt, and for his firm stand, at the surrender of Alexandria, in resisting the claims of the English general to the rich collection, was honored upon his return with decorations by the emperor, and an election to the Academy of Sciences. In 1795 Geoffroy was put in correspondence with a youth in Normandy, who was devoting himself to natural history, and was so impressed with the originality of the young man's manuscripts that he invited him to Paris with the rather enthusiastic, but, as it proved, prophetic words, "Venez jouer parmi nous le rôle de Linné, d'un autre législature de l'histoire naturelle."

Georges Cuvier, to whom these words were addressed, came to Paris, entered Geoffroy's household, and wrote with Geoffroy many joint papers. It is to the credit of both men that the lifelong friendship, which was for a time broken by the debate of 1830, was renewed and continued to death.

The undoubted genius of Cuvier was early recognized; for when, in 1795, the Institute was reorganized, he was elected a member of the Section on Zoölogy. This confidence was well founded, for his work was truly epochal, and to this day the name of Cuvier stands pre-eminent in the zoölogical world. His method of classification in zoölogy was revolutionary, and is still the recognized authority; his researches in comparative anatomy may be said to be creative, for not until then was it a science, and his influence upon paleontology was not less notable. Both Geoffroy and Cuvier, like most Frenchmen, took great interest in public affairs, and both filled posts of high honor and responsibility in the state.

Goethe, whose allegiance to the synthetic doctrines of Geoffroy may have biased his judgment against its great antagonist, says: "Cuvier, the great naturalist, is admirable for his power of representation and his style. No one expounds a fact better than he, but he has scarcely any philosophy. He will bring up very well informed but few profound scholars." It must be confessed that events have proved the criticism of Goethe to be true, unless we make the single exception of Milne-Edwards.

It was in the year 1852 that Léon Foucault, the distinguished physicist, conducted some experiments in Paris to prove the rotation of the earth, which for their simplicity and beauty aroused the admiration and wonder of his confrères. He constructed an enormous pendulum by suspending a ball by a fine wire from the dome of the Pantheon, and set it in vibration in a northerly and southerly direction. A pendulum thus started will continue to swing in the same plane for hours. By carefully marking upon the pavement the plane of swing and comparing it with that made after the lapse of several hours, it was seen that the earth had turned under it at a definite rate. This beautiful demonstration, making visible to human eyes the actual revolution of the earth upon its axis, was many times repeated, once in our own Capitol at Washington.

In 1801, the accommodations of the Louvre being no longer esteemed sufficient, the Institute was given rooms in the Palais des Quatre Nations, where the several academies meet successively in different rooms. Each academy governs itself and awards its own prizes, but the library and museum are held in common, and the Institute has two prizes separate from those of the academies. Each academy meets weekly, and once yearly in public, and the grand séance of the whole five bodies meets annually on the 15th of August.

A writer—it is but fair to say that he is an Englishman—thus compares the French Institute and the Royal Society of England: "The members of the French Institute receive a yearly stipend; the Fellows of the Royal Society pay an annual sum for the support of their institution and the advancement of science. It would be repugnant to the feelings of Englishmen to submit to the regulations of the Institute, which require official addresses, and the names of candidates for admission into their body to be approved by the Government before the first are delivered or the second elected. The French savants are, it is true, ennobled and decorated by orders, which the wiser among them, in common with true philosophers of any country, regard with indifference."