Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/April 1904/The Royal Prussian Academy of Science and the Fine Arts, Berlin II





History of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science and the Fine Arts from its reorganization under Frederich the Great till his death in 1786.

UNDER the patronage of the new king, which was continued with increasing sympathy during the forty-six years of his reign, the academy in Berlin acquired world-wide influence. The Literary Society of Berlin, Which had been a serious rival, was united with it, and the new organization was named The Royal Prussian Academy of Science and the Fine Arts. The king had intended, it is thought, that Voltaire should be its president, but for some reason, greatly to the mortification of the Frenchman, Francis Algaratti, of Paris, was given that honor. But he did not retain it long.

The king was anxious to have Wolff, the philosopher, in the academy as a representative of the thought of the new time, and Maupertuis, of Paris, as a representative of the attainments and the spirit of Sir Isaac Newton. Wolff did not care to leave his professorship in Halle, and though Maupertuis was made one of 'The Immortals' of the French Academy in 1743, he came to Berlin in 1741, and at the king's wish, assumed control of the academy and continued at its head till his death on July 17, 1759. In 1743 the last volume of the Berlin 'Miscellanies' was issued. The academy now entered thoroughly into an era of reorganization. Its publications became cosmopolitan in character. Even if expenses increased the income grew. Men of distinction began to think favorably of Berlin as a home, and of membership in the academy as desirable. New societies for the study of natural history and literature, for which the inefficiency of the academy had furnished an excuse, were united with it on the broad plan of Leibniz. In the reorganized institution there were to be classes for the study of physics, mathematics, philosophy and philology, with a director at the head of each class. There were to be 24 members, and these were to be selected by the king from lists of names placed in his hand. The members of the old academy were all retained, but new men of the highest standing only were granted membership in the new institution.
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Each class had the privilege of choosing its own secretary or director, but in addition there was to be a general secretary entrusted with the business and general interests of the academy. A treasurer was also appointed and provision made for two public meetings every year, one on the king's birthday. In later years one of these public meetings has been held on what is called 'Leibniz day,' July 11. Sessions were held weekly on Thursday afternoons. New members were nominated by the class they were expected to join, but the nomination had to be approved by the directory of the academy, which was made up of five secretaries and other officers, then by a general meeting of the academy and last of all by the king. It was decided that prizes should be offered every year and that papers of foreigners, if worthy, should be printed in the proceedings, as well as those by the active or honorary members of the academy. By the king's order the sessions of the reorganized academy were held in the castle. They began on January 24, 1743.

It is difficult to give a full history of the academy while Maupertuis was at its head. He preserved few papers. Although the roll of officers was full, he was really the academy. It was through his influence that men of distinction abroad became corresponding or honorary members, and some, at his solicitation, even came to Berlin that they might work in it and through it.

Deeply interested in the academy and writing papers to be read in its literary department, the king attended neither its private nor its public sessions. Nor till toward the end of his reign did he bid any of its members, save Maupertuis, to his palace. Even Formey, the famous secretary, was not called to Sans Souci till the king had been thirty-eight years on the throne. The social circles in Berlin and Potsdam were not quite the same. Maupertuis made the academy French in its thought and its aims. Under his guidance and that ofhis successors it was composed of a group of French scholars residing on German soil. Maupertuis was one of the most gifted men of his generation. He had great learning, was a diligent student of natural history and possessed rare powers of conversation. But his influence was. lessened by his egotism and his pessimism. Still he did his best for the academy. Its 'Memoires' were sought for in every learned circle in Europe. Membership in it was regarded by scholars as the highest honor they could receive. Its atmosphere was tolerant. There were no limits put upon research or upon free speech. Though German was not absolutely excluded, the discussions carried on in the academy were in French and the 'Memoires' were printed in French. There were more French-speaking Swiss in the academy prior to the death of Maupertuis than native-born Frenchmen or Germans. Switzerland was producing more learned men than she could sustain, and was willing they should go to Berlin or wherever else they might employ their talents to advantage.

The academy suffered from the seven years' war (1756-1763), but its regular work continued, though few new members were added during this period. From 1760 to 1764 no 'Memoires' were published. While Maupertuis was absent on account of the wars and in search of health, Euler acted as president, and proved himself well qualified for the duties of that office. But the king had no intention of filling it with a German. The man he wanted was d'Alembert, of Paris, to whom he offered a large salary, rooms in the palace and a seat at the royal table if he would come to Berlin. But d'Alembert belonged to the French Academy and did not care to leave Paris. Yet, through his correspondence with the king, in which during these years the best history of the academy is found, he directed the work of the German academy and determined its membership. Virtually he was its president, though the king as its protector may be said to have assumed that office himself. In these conditions the academy became more French in its spirit than ever. In spite of the fact that the forty-six years of Frederick's academy were years of the first importance for the development of science and literature in Germany, neither the king nor his French presidents took any notice of the new spirit which had arisen among the German people, and had begun to show itself in the academy. Euler, disappointed at the turn matters had taken, after twenty-five years of hard work in Berlin, asked leave to return to St. Petersburg. For a time the king declined to grant the request, but its renewal finally secured his assent, though without any recognition of the fame Euler 's attainments and publications had brought the academy and Berlin. Ten years later, on accepting honorary membership in the St. Petersburg Academy, at that time a rival of the Berlin Academy, the king wrote Euler a letter accepting the honor secured for him, and in it made something like an atonement for former neglect. La Grange, of Turin, second only to Euler as a mathematician, was elected to the vacancy Euler 's departure had made, and about the same time J. Heinrich Lambert, another mathematician of note, came into the academy. Prior to d'Alembert's connection with it the Eulers, father and son. Pott, Marggraff, Gleditsch, Merian, Sulzer and Suessmilch had given it fame. Other men of rare ability had been persuaded to come to Berlin with the promise of membership in it, but with the understanding that they were to teach in the Ritterakademie, an institution in which the king took much pride and which he founded.

Not many changes in the academy took place during the last sixteen years of Frederick's reign. Between 1766 and 1770 two volumes of 'Memoires,' which the war had prevented from appearing, were published. With the next issue a new series of 'Memoires' was begun, greatly improved in binding and paper. Each of these new volumes contained a brief history of the work of the year.

D'Alembert died on October 29, 1783, sincerely mourned by the king. He had rendered the academy as good service as any one could, living in Paris. He and the king had not always agreed in their policy, D'Alembert not only desired the utmost freedom of research, he wanted the whole truth as it appeared to be at any particular time

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Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis.

given to the people. To this the king would not consent. He often quoted Fontenelle's saying, 'If I had my hands full of the truth I would not open them to give it to the people. It would not pay for the trouble.' Harnack says the chief aim of the king was the welfare of his subjects, and that, free thinker as he was, he was no atheist and would not accept the opinions either of Hume or Holbach. He loved PSM V64 D532 Guillaume Godefroy Leibnitz.png the truth, and did not mean to withhold it from the people forever. But he believed in preparing them to receive it before giving it to them. Hence in part his interest in education, and an explanation of the famous rescript of September 5, 1774, which, as carried out b}' Minister von Zeidlitz, became the foundation of the improved methods in Prussian teaching. PSM V64 D532 Jean Condorcet.png Logic, the king wrote, must be taught effectively after the manner of Locke and Quintilian, and Latin and Greek in such a way as to bring young men into their atmosphere. The sincerity with which the king held his opinion as to the proper treatment of the people is seen in the fact that he directed the academy to offer a prize for the best answer to the question, 'Is it lawful, i. e., right, PSM V64 D532 Immanuel Kant.pngImmanuel Kant. to deceive the people?' At the time of d'Alembert's death the philosophical class in the academy had shrunk to three members. Again turning to a Frenchman for help the king asked Condorcet, permanent secretary of the French Academy, to take d'Alembert's place in directing the work of the Berlin Academy. Condorcet consented, but the new relation lasted only sixteen months.

It had at length become evident to all German scholars that their academy needed new blood. Its men of fame were growing old. They had done their work and had lost in a measure their ambition. The king was growing old also. The changes so necessary and so greatly desired came, but not till after a new king was on the throne. When Frederick died, only five Germans belonged to the academy—Gleditsch, Gerhardt, Roloff, Walter and Schulze—and they had little influence in its councils. It is not surprising that many felt that it was a discredit to Germany that Germans should have so small a part in determining the character and directing the work of one of their representative institutions. It was time, men said, that Germans should be at the head of a German academy of science. It had been ruled long enough by absentees. Even Leibniz had resided in Hannover during his presidency, though he had visited Berlin as occasion demanded and, being a German, had sought to develop the German spirit. This had not been the case with Maupertuis, or d'Alembert, or Condorcet. Hence the demand for such a reorganization of the academy as would make it thoroughly German and representative of German intellectual life. The change, so uniformly desired, was brought about by one of its members, Minister von Hertzberg, who was made its curator by Frederick William II. at the very beginning of his reign.

Before passing to consider the history of the academy under the successors of Frederick the Great, who died on August 17, 1786, and in its distinctively German period, something should be said concerning the contributions to learning and the new thought which its members had made. There can be no question that the papers written by the king, for the department of fine arts, and read by some one whom he designated, are among the most valuable possessions of the academy. This is one of the reasons which has led the academy within recent years to prepare and publish a complete and worthy edition of his writings.

From the beginning the academy sought to advance science and encourage sound learning in Germany. That this was so long done under the direction of Frenchmen did not really affect the result. But much as members of the academy were enabled to do for science and literature through the publications and reports of the academy, they did far more as individuals, and by private publications. Early in his reign Frederick the Great expressed a wish that the members of the academy would give the results of their studies and experiments to the public in the shape of lectures, and, though this was not generally done, lectures were given by Gleditsch, the botanist and the founder of the botanic garden of Berlin, to the medical students, and, at the same time, other members of the academy made their discoveries known to the people. Thus Gerhard lectured on mineralogy, metallurgy and the theory of mining, and Achard on chemistry, experimental physics and electricity, so that by 1780 there was a university in Berlin in everything save name and organization.

After 1744, through the subjects proposed for prizes, the academy became a sort of guide in study and research for some of the best minds in Europe. Small as the prizes were, fifty ducats at first and after 1747 a gold medal, they were contended for by the most eminent scholars and thinkers of the day. Such men as Euler, La Grange, d'Alembert, Kant, Rousseau, Herder, Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn entered the lists for them. In general, the themes proposed required a thorough knowledge of an entire discipline and a discussion of its fundamental principles. For the prize of 1780 forty-two papers were sent in. During the forty-six years of Frederick's reign 26 German works were crowned, and 10 French. One written in Italian received the prize. Of 45 themes treated, 20 were medical or physical in their character, and 25 philosophical, philological or literary. It is a fact worthy of note as indicating the intellectual attainments of the ministry of the period, that ten of thirty-eight works winning the prize were written by ministers of the Reformed or Lutheran church. In the twenty years following this period the average was even higher.

The eighteenth century was not favorable to exact historical study. It was fortunate, therefore, that the academy continued to offer prizes for the discussion of historical themes. The spirit of the time was philosophical rather than scientific or historical. The successful didactic poet was in most circles thought to have realized the highest ideal of life. The writings of Rousseau, Kant and the German idealists were the means of extending the range of thought, giving it a new direction, and of introducing a series of questions which demanded immediate and thorough answer. Advocates of the Leibniz-Wolff philosophy were opposed by the followers of Newton and the French school. For a number of years themes were presented by the academy which seemed to have for their object the overthrow of the philosophy of Leibniz, and the substitution of that of Newton in its place. But these were not the only subjects discussed. J. D. Michaelis, the orientalist, won the prize for 1759 by pointing out, in the best way possible at the time, the reciprocal influence of the people on their language, and of language upon opinion. In 1763 Moses Mendelssohn answered, in a manner which satisfied the academy, the question, 'Is metaphysical knowledge susceptible of the same evidence as mathematical?' and received the prize, though he had no less a rival than Immanuel Kant. Yet the rejected essay of Kant gave the death blow to the philosophy of Wolff. Cochins, court preacher at Potsdam, received the prize in 1768 for an essay on the topic, 'Is it possible to destroy natural inclination, and how may one strengthen the good and weaken the bad?', but even here it was Kant who stated the problem so effectively as to overthrow the philosophy of the Aufklärung and to establish ethics upon a new and firmer basis. The origin of language was discussed in 31 treatises in 1769, and the prize awarded to Herder, who took the ground that it is neither divine in its origin nor an invention of men, but a gradual growth springing out of the necessities of human nature and therefore imperfect and incomplete.

One hundred years later this essay received the approval of Jacob Grimm. In 1775 Herder won a second prize by an essay on 'The degeneration of taste in various peoples,' and in 1780 on the theme, 'What has been the influence of government on letters among the nations where they have flourished, and what influence have they had on government?' These essays were epoch-making for historical study. In 1784 the theme was, 'What has made the French language the universal language of Europe, or by what means did it win this prominence? Can we believe that this prominence will be permanent?'

Lambert, a man whom Kant regarded as the greatest genius of his time and in whose judgment as a critic he had complete confidence, died in 1773, after a membership in the academy of thirteen years. While he lived he read all that Kant wrote before it was given to the world. He composed essays for three of the four classes into which the members of the academy were divided, published in addition to these papers, fifty-two treatises, perhaps one hundred pamphlets, and ten very large works. Not a little was accomplished by the academy during these years for geology and mineralogy, as well as for astronomy and mathematics. Pott made the academy famous in chemistry, but Marggraff and Achard were large contributors to the science. Walter succeeded Meckel, the anatomist, in 1773, and laid the foundation by his splendid achievements of the anatomical museum of the University of Berlin. Neutral as the academy was in its philosophy, it yet prepared the way for Kant and the general acceptance of his opinions in Germany. It was equally neutral in religion, and in morals it sympathized with the king, who admired, and probably made his own, the opinions of Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics. The academy, through Maupertuis, Euler and La Grange, made the works of Newton known to Germany, and in this way, as well as in many other ways, stimulated and directed the scientific movement among all the German-speaking peoples.

Some idea of the industry of the members of the academy may be formed if we observe the number of works credited to them in its catalogue. The secretary, Formey, leads with 140 titles. John Gottfried Gleditsch has 36 titles. To Gerhard, the geologist, there are given 21 titles, while the younger Kirch, the astronomer, has 27 titles. Euler, in the quarter of a century he lived in Berlin and worked in the academy, published in its transactions 121 complete treatises, through other channels at least 700 more, and, in addition, was the author of 32 quarto and 13 octavo volumes. La Grange, his successor, the discoverer of the calculus of variations, during the thirteen years of his life in Berlin published 52 important treatises, about 100 pamphlets and 10 large works. From 1746, when the era of publication really began, to 1771, 25 volumes of 'Transactions' appeared and 65 volumes of what are called historical writings. The publications were even more important between 1771 and 1786. The income of the academy at the death of the king was nearly $18,000, devoted, it was supposed, entirely to the discovery and extension of knowledge, and yet, as a matter of fact, expended to such an extent for buildings and the payment of salaries at the order of the king as to leave comparatively little for the support of original investigators, or for costly experiment and research. In fact the management of the academy, even under Frederick the Great, was so unsatisfactory as to furnish excuse for the formation of many learned societies in Berlin, in some of which members of the academy took a leading part. Thus in the philosophical society, which flourished from 1773 to 1798, men like Mendelssohn, whom the king would not have in the academy, Nicolai, Teller and Engel were prominent, and a society of naturalists was formed during this period by the aid of Gleditsch, the botanist, one of the famous men in the academy. Yet with all its failures, and the fact that it was so completely under French influence, there can be no doubt that the Prussian Academy of Science and Fine Arts at the death of Frederick the Great had become the center of the scientific and critical movement in Germany, and was regarded all over Europe as a worthy rival of the Royal Society of Great Britain and of the French Academy in Paris.