Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/November 1907/The Institute of France, and Some Learned Societies of Paris




THE Institute of France has been called the greatest educational work any government has ever organized and supported. Be that as it may, there is no denying that the service it has rendered learning and literature, scientific research and the fine arts, has been extensive and stimulating, that, beginning with the organization of the French Academy in the time of Richelieu, its history covers in a good degree the history of the intellectual and social development of the French people.

The institute embraces in its present organization five academies which in the order of their establishment, if not in importance, are as follows: The French Academy, to which the forty immortals belong, the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-lettres, the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Fine Arts, the Academy of Moral and Political Science. The academies existing at the time of the revolution were abolished by the Convention as aristocratic in their tendency, and some of their members, known or supposed to be in favor of the monarchy, were guillotined, but as it was soon discovered that the knowledge of the members of the Academy of Sciences could be made of use to the new government, they were appointed on the commission of weights and measures. Thus some of the members of the old organization, meeting occasionally for the discussion of scientific subjects, managed to preserve at least the semblance of an academy of science. The so-called National Institute of Science and the Arts was recognized by the Directory August 22, 1795, and divided into three classes: (1) physical science and mathematics, (2) moral and political science, (3) literature and fine arts. From about 1667 to 1806 the sessions of the academies were held in the Louvre, in the great hall of Henry II. Since that time they have been held in a building which belongs to the institute, the Mazarin Palace, which was built by Cardinal Mazarin for the College of the Four Nations during the years 1661-5. It contains his library of more than 100,000 volumes, which is cared for by a member of the institute. The institute has its own library also, equally large and embracing nearly all the books which are of interest to its members. The five academies are thus housed under one roof and on different days occupy for their gatherings the same rooms. To the public only the halls are open in which the annual meetings or receptions are held, though far more important for the members of the institute are the laboratories, or the rooms in which they do their work. While each academy is independent, there is yet a government common to the five academies in addition to the supervision exercised over them by the minister of public instruction. The institute has had no political power, and care has been taken to reduce its possible political influence to the lowest terms. So great was the fear of this influence that parliament in the time of Richelieu hesitated for more than two years before granting the original academy a charter. It was this same fear which led the convention to abolish the academies altogether. The history of the last hundred years shows how groundless these fears were, and how wise it is to favor organizations of learned men for the cultivation of whatever fields of literature or science they choose to enter.

The institute was reorganized by Napoleon in 1803 as the Imperial Institute of France, and divided into four classes: (1) Mathematics and natural science, (2) French language and literature, (3) classical languages and literature, (4) fine arts. After the restoration in 1816 the institute was again reorganized as the Institute of France and to it in 1832 a fifth academy was added, that of moral and political science. Each of these academies, or classes, elects its own members, subject to the approval of the government, but are all controlled by a committee representing each one of them.

The French Academy

The oldest of these academies (l'Académie française), the French Academy, was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1634. It received at Richelieu's request letters of recognition from Louis XIII. in January, 1635, but was not recognized by parliament till July 10, 1637. As early as 1630 a number of literary men had met at each others houses to discuss subjects of a literary nature and to encourage each other in efforts to improve the language and literature of the nation. Richelieu, then prime minister, determined to give the association his favor and to bring it into connection with the government. As a government institution he believed it would reflect credit upon the reign of the sovereign. For a few years the meetings were held in the Royal Library. Its purpose was declared to be, to improve the French language, criticize literary works and make a dictionary. Richelieu was anxious that it should publish a grammar also, a rhetoric, and an authoritative treatise on poetry, but for some reason his wish has not yet been realized.

Membership in the academy was made difficult from the first. A few men, Boisrobert, Conrart, Chapelaine, Rotrau and Corneille were enrolled as a matter of course, as charter members. But only the most eminent literary men were to wear its honors. Two years after its recognition by parliament the number of its members was fixed at forty, and this number has remained unchanged till now. The privilege of being one of the forty must be sought for, and the person desiring election must personally visit each one of the members and solicit his vote. In the case of Buffon, Thiers and Béranger the rule was set aside, but as Béranger declined the offered honor, the rule of personal solicitation has become more rigid than ever.

The reception of a new member is public and is a great occasion. The new member is expected to eulogize the man whose place he has been chosen to fill, and to give in writing an estimate of the value of his works. To his thanks for the honor he has received through his reception into the academy the president responds in a few fitting words. The public, sometimes dissatisfied with the action of the academy, has created a forty-first chair, into which it puts the man who has been overlooked or neglected. In this chair it has seated Descartes, Pascal, Molière, Rousseau, Diderot, Dumas père, Balzac, Alphonse Daudet, Emile Zola. In 1778 the bust of Molière was set up in the hall with the inscription:

Rien ne manque à sa gloire, il manquait a la notre.

Though by no means a bureau of lexicography, its chief work, outside of criticism, has been the making of a dictionary of which the first edition, after fifty-nine years of labor, appeared in 1694, the eighth in 1896. Colbert when prime minister is reported to have been very impatient over the progress the dictionary was making, and one day, quite unexpectedly, came upon the academicians when at their work. Listening for a time to the definitions proposed for a very simple word, to the discussions which followed, and perceiving the difficulties in securing a definition at once comprehensive and accurate, he concluded that the task in hand would require far more time than he had thought, and was indeed a far more difficult task than he had supposed. From this time on he ceased his criticisms. The academy is now planning and at work on a historical dictionary of the language, on a scale so large that a wag has said it will take at least a thousand years to complete it, but he adds, as it is made up of immortals, the element of time need not be considered.

The academy expends more than 100,000 francs a year ($20,000) in prizes. These are granted for the best work in poetry, history or moral philosophy which has appeared during the year, and also for the best oration or essay. The Montyon prizes, worth 22,463 francs, are for the best work of any sort by a Frenchman produced during the preceding twelve months. A prize, worth 21,940 francs, is for the best work on the application of knowledge to the arts. The Gobert prizes are for the best history of France, or on some point connected with its history. A special prize is offered every year for the best poem or essay upon a subject which the academy itself suggests.

The government pays each of the members of the academy the sum of 1,200 francs a year as a pension. The same sum is given to the members of the other academies which belong to the institute. The secretaries of the different academies receive 6,000 francs annually. Special grants are made from time to time for special objects. Thus in 1902, 10,300 francs were voted for the dictionary and other publications, 4,000 francs for a special prize, and 13,900 francs for miscellaneous uses. Sessions are private, save at the reception of a new member, the annual meeting in November, and the gathering of all the academies on October 25, when the large hall is crowded to suffocation.

It is impossible to estimate the influence which this academy has exerted on the literary life and taste of the French people. Nor can one determine the value of its contributions to the development and purification of the French language. There can be no doubt of its usefulness, or that in its work it has more than realized the hopes of its founders. Its influence at present is hardly less powerful than in the earlier years of its life. In fact, it may be truthfully said that in its unique character and position it has long been, and still is, the wonder and despair of other nations.

The Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-lettres

This academy, the 'little academy,' as it was nicknamed, the second in the order of formation, was established under the ministry of Colbert in 1665. At first it was simply a committee of four persons chosen from the French academy to work on inscriptions, form devices or emblems, suggest medals representing important and striking facts in the national history and furnish designs for the royal tapestry. It did not receive its name or enter upon its definite field of labor till 1701. Prior to this time its members, whose number had been gradually increased, discussed antiquarian and archeological subjects, and in this direction did good work. It was in the year 1701 that the Abbe Bignon asked the king to recognize it as an academy, give it a name and determine its duties.

Although the request of the abbé was received favorably, the new academy did not receive its charter till the time of Ponchartrain, July 16, 1706. Its name or title was not given till 1716. Then, as now, it had forty working members resident in Paris. There were ten associate or free members, in training for vacancies in the active membership. There were eight foreign associate members and fifty corresponding members. This academy was suppressed by the Convention in 1793 and did not reopen under the Directory in 1795.

It was reconstructed by Napoleon in 1803 under the title of 1716, and its old field, the study of language, assigned to it. It now gives, through carefully selected committees, special attention to the study of Greek and Roman antiquities, as well as to those connected with French history, to Assyriology, Egyptology, epigraphy and the literary history of France. It looks after the French schools in Rome and Athens, which under its guidance have made important antiquarian researches and discoveries in Greece, the Grecian islands, Italy, Asia Minor, North Africa and Syria. Its Mémoires are full of extremely valuable information. Its activity along its various lines of study and research is unabated, and the means for the enlargement of its work, in addition to government support, are constantly increasing.

It grants several prizes, but no one of them is so highly esteemed and so eagerly sought for as the one which secures its holder two years' residence and study in Rome and Athens. The prize is won in a severe examination and against many competitors. It was through the influence of members of the school at Athens, and under their personal direction, that the temple at Delphi was uncovered, and that many other interesting remains of Grecian antiquity have been brought to light. To no one of the academies connected with the institute are students of history, the classics, antiquities of every sort and oriental languages, more deeply indebted than to the academy of inscriptions. Some of its members have been among the leading scholars of the nineteenth century. Its standard of work is very high, as one who will read the jubilee history of the school in Athens will discover. Nor is its work of less interest or importance to-day than it has been in the past. While granting prizes every year there is one prize, the Louis Fould, worth 20,000 francs, which prior to 1896 had never been awarded. It is offered once in three years for a satisfactory history of the arts of design, their origin and progress, and their transmission through different peoples to the time of Pericles. The subject is so difficult and the scholarship required so extensive and accurate that few can hope to win it.

The Academy of Sciences

The Academy of Sciences, regarded by scientific men as the most important part of the institute, and whose history will be related more fully in other articles, was founded by Minister Colbert in 1666. It grew out of informal gatherings of scientific men who met from time to time to discuss reported, discoveries in the scientific world and to suggest and criticize theories of their own. It is the largest of all the academies connected with the institute, having sixty-eight members, two secretaries, ten free members in training for vacancies in the active membership, ten honorary members residing in France, eight foreign associates and one hundred corresponding members. It receives an annual grant of 64,000 francs for publications and has a large amount of money at its disposal for prizes. The work of the academy, which is very extensive and which aims to cover the whole scientific field, is done through committees. In the mathematical section of the academy there are committees for geometry, mechanics, astronomy, geography and ship building. In the section devoted to physics there are committees for chemistry, mineralogy, botany, rural economy, anatomy, zoology, medicine and surgery. The sessions are on Mondays at 3 p.m., although the members of the academy are in their laboratories every day in the week with the exception of Sunday. Its work in science has perhaps been more brilliant and extensive than that of any other scientific academy in the world. It offers an annual prize of 3,000 francs for the best discussion which has appeared during the year on a mathematical topic or on one in physics. It has six Montyon prizes at its disposal, worth in all 44,845 francs. The valuable Laland prize for astronomical work is under its control. Its annual meeting is in December. Its Memoires are of the greatest value, and are highly prized by scientific students the world over. From property made over to it by the Due d'Aumale in 1886, at Chantilly, it is thought an income of at least 550,000 francs each year will be received. This income is not yet fully available.

The Academy of Fine Arts

The Academy of Fine Arts, though existing under this name only since 1795, was really founded by Mazarin in 1648 as an academy of painting. Sculpture was made one of its departments in 1664, music another in 1668, architecture another in 1671. In 1815 this academy was fourth in order of importance in the institute and in order of organization. At that time some of the first men in France were members of it. Its chief interest is, and has been, in and for the fine arts. In this department of study it has been preeminent. Although its publication fund has been only 6,000 francs a year, it has brought out many valuable works, among them a dictionary of the fine arts. It has forty members, ten associate members in training for the vacancies which may occur, ten foreign associate and sixty-one corresponding members. Its annual meeting is one of the great social events of the year. It takes place in October. Women are always present in large numbers. While the addresses are interesting, the chief attractions are in the distributing of the prizes, which consist of a medal and a diploma which entitle the possessor to a two years' residence in Rome. These prizes are granted for excellence in painting, sculpture, architecture and musical composition. Its meetings, like those of the Academy of the Immortals, are in private, while those of the other academies, though attended by but few, are open to the public.

The Academy of Moral and Political Science

The Academy of Moral and Political Science was the creation of the revolution. By its originators it was made the fourth in the institute. Suppressed by Napoleon in 1803, it was reestablished in 1832 at the suggestion of Guizot, then prime minister. It began with thirty members, but in 1855 the number was increased to forty, with ten free members in training for the vacancies, forty-five corresponding members and six foreign associate members. The academy does its work through five groups of men who form committees on philosophy, morals, legislation, public law and jurisprudence, political science and statistics, general and philosophical history. Its sessions are on Saturday's at 1 p.m. The academy has always been an object of dread to revolutionists, and to men like the first Napoleon, but of special interest to lovers of freedom and progress. Some of the most distinguished names in French history are on its books, names of men like Bartholomew St. Hilaire, who was an active member more than fifty years, Guizot, Louis Reybard, Jules Simon, Cousin, Geraud, Hippolyte Passy, Michelet and scores of others almost as eminent.

Other Learned Societies

But the institute, far-reaching as have been its aims, has by no means met all the needs of the learned men of Paris or prevented them from forming self-supporting societies in large numbers for special work in various fields of research. It has, in fact, stimulated the formation of these societies. The names of some of the more important of these societies follow:

The Academy of Medicine, formed by royal command December 10, 1830, has a constitution like that of the Academy of Sciences and a large membership. Its meetings are on Wednesdays during the working portion of the year.

The French Association for the Advancement of Science, now united with the Scientific Association of France, was founded by Le Verrier in 1864 and has at least 3,400 members, each one of whom pays as dues 20 francs a year.

The National Acclimatizing Society of France, zoology and botany applied, founded in 1854, has a membership of 1,000. The dues are 25 francs a year.

The Astronomical Society, founded 1803, has 500 members. Its dues for Frenchmen are 9 francs, for foreigners 12 francs.

The Anthropological Society: founded 1859; 500 members; dues 30 francs.

The National Society of French Antiquarians: founded 1805. Till 1813 The Celtic Academy.

The Asiatic Society: founded 1822; 250 members; dues 50 francs.

The Biological Society: formed 1848; 40 members, 22 associate and 15 corresponding members; dues for active members 20 francs, for associate 15 francs.

The Botanical Society of France: formed 1854; 360 members; dues 30 francs.

The Society of the National School of Maps: formed 1839; 346 members; dues 10 francs.

The Chemical Society: formed 1857; 1,500 members; dues for Frenchmen 36 francs; foreigners 25 francs.

The National Society of Surgery: formed 1843; 35 members; dues 60 francs. This society is formed of the most eminent surgeons, and is therefore limited in its membership.

The International Society of Electricians: formed 1883; 1,270 members; dues 20 francs.

The Entomological Society of France: formed 1832; 490 members; dues 25 francs.

The Geographical Society: formed 1821; 2,078 members; dues 36 francs.

The Geological Society of France: formed 1830; 30 members.

The Association for the Encouragement of Grecian Studies in France: formed 1867.

The Society of French History: formed 1833; 600 members; dues 30 francs.

The Society of Diplomatic History: formed 1886; 600 members; dues 20 francs.

The Paris Society of Linguistics: formed 1864; 228 members; dues 20 francs.

The Mathematical Society of France: formed 1872: 280 members; dues 20 francs.

The Paris Society of Medicine: formed 1796; 70 regular members; 15 honorary; associates unlimited; dues for regular members 30 francs.

The Meteorological Society of France: formed 1852; 145 members; dues 10 francs.

The French Society of Mineralogy: formed 1878: 200 members; dues 20 francs.

The French Society for Numismatics: formed 1865; 200 member?; dues 30 francs; receives associate members whose dues are only 20 francs.

The French Society for Physics: formed 1873; entrance fee 10 francs; dues 20 francs, half as much for non-resident members.

The Society of Ancient French Texts: formed 1875; 350 members; entrance fee 10 francs; dues 25 francs.

The Zoological Society of France: formed 1876; 350 members; dues 20 francs.

Societies for the study of electricity, architecture, political and social science are filling an important place in the higher life of the city.

Observing the dates of the formation of these societies, one will perceive that nearly all of them came into existence during the nineteenth century, most of them in the first half of the century. By these dates one can trace with a good degree of accuracy the progress of science, and especially of that branch of science which each society represents. Other societies will of course be formed as the call for them arises. In many respects better work is done in these independent bodies than in the academies connected with the institute, which in part at least are under the control of the government, and in which membership is limited to those who have already won fame.

  1. Authorities: Maury, 'History of the Old Academy of Science'; reports of the academy from year to year; statements in Minerva from its foundation; 'History of Paris Educational Institutions' by Alexandre De Maistre.