Letters on England
24. On The Royal Society And Other Academies
The English had an Academy of Sciences many years before us, but then it is
not under such prudent regulations as ours, the only reason of which very
possibly is, because it was founded before the Academy of Paris; for had it been
founded after, it would very probably have adopted some of the sage laws of the
former and improved upon others.
Two things, and those the most essential to man, are wanting in the Royal
Society of London, I mean rewards and laws. A seat in the Academy at Paris is a
small but secure fortune to a geometrician or a chemist; but this is so far from
being the case at London, that the several members of the Royal Society are at a
continual, though indeed small expense. Any man in England who declares
himself a lover of the mathematics and natural philosophy, and expresses an
inclination to be a member of the Royal Society, is immediately elected into it.
But in France it is not enough that a man who aspires to the honour of being a
member of the Academy, and of receiving the royal stipend, has a love for the
sciences; he must at the same time be deeply skilled in them; and is obliged to
dispute the seat with competitors who are so much the more formidable as they
are fired by a principle of glory, by interest, by the difficulty itself; and by that
inflexibility of mind which is generally found in those who devote themselves to
that pertinacious study, the mathematics.
The Academy of Sciences is prudently confined to the study of Nature, and,
indeed, this is a field spacious enough for fifty or threescore persons to range in.
That of London mixes indiscriminately literature with physics; but methinks the
founding an academy merely for the polite arts is more judicious, as it prevents
confusion, and the joining, in some measure, of heterogeneals, such as a
dissertation on the head-dresses of the Roman ladies with a hundred or more
As there is very little order and regularity in the Royal Society, and not the least
encouragement; and that the Academy of Paris is on a quite different foot, it is no
wonder that our transactions are drawn up in a more just and beautiful manner
than those of the English. Soldiers who are under a regular discipline, and
besides well paid, must necessarily at last perform more glorious achievements
than others who are mere volunteers. It must indeed be confessed that the Royal
Society boast their Newton, but then he did not owe his knowledge and
discoveries to that body; so far from it, that the latter were intelligible to very few
of his fellow members. A genius like that of Sir Isaac belonged to all the
academies in the world, because all had a thousand things to learn of him.
The celebrated Dean Swift formed a design, in the latter end of the late Queen's
reign, to found an academy for the English tongue upon the model of that of the