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Chapter 3 Models for a Company of Scientists
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Chapter 3
Models for a Company of Scientists

The Académie royale des sciences was founded by partners from two spheres: the commonwealth of letters and the royal government of France. These partners had different expectations of the Academy, because of their allegiances to distinct worlds. All agreed on the principal goals of the new institution, but members of the Academy stressed scholarly and professional ideals, while the ministers underscored benefits to king and kingdom. Although their attitudes differed, each had experience in the other's sphere, and all held many presuppositions in common. Ministers of state respected literature, science, and the arts; savants served the royal government. The areas of agreement were sufficiently large to establish the new institution, but not large enough to prevent conflict. The inevitable struggles for control influenced the vigor and structure of the early Academy of Sciences.

Sociocultural Contexts

Natural philosophy fit awkwardly with many seventeenth-century values. Inconsistencies at the court, for example, highlight the ambiguous position of the sciences. The king preferred pious and hierarchical books but supported the new, experimental science practiced at the Jardin royal and the Academy. Some courtiers disliked science on the grounds that its practitioners were coarse and pedantic, its language technical and ignoble. Others maintained private laboratories or observatories and sponsored scientific meetings.[1]


Being natural philosophers made some academicians social and cultural misfits. Some pursued their careers against the wishes of their families. If their research was dirty, smelly, or dangerous, it opened them to scorn as "sooty empirics," while a fascination with geometry or Cartesianism might seem arcane or subversive. Scientific ideas could be at odds with the classicist intellectual values espoused within the social milieus of many academicians. When the new natural philosophy challenged tradition, savants had to weigh conservative or elitist social tendencies against innovative scholarly impulses. In contrast, the Academy's ministerial protectors were fairly typical of their circles, where amateur interest in science was prominent. In general academicians challenged, ministerial protectors enacted, the values of their different social orders.[2]

The Academy was therefore a creature of varied cultural spheres. Its members and protectors inhabited a world of conflicting ideals, at once pious and critical, unconventional and hierarchical. These partners brought very different expectations to the founding of the institution.

Language is a clue to attitudes about the Academy and to its antecedents. Two words described the institution: "l'Académie" and "la Compagnie." The official name was "l'Académie royale des sciences," and it was affirmed by the règlement , or regulations, of 1699. But academicians usually spoke of "la Compagnie." The Journal des sçavans referred to "the Company that meets in the King's Library," and the Academy recorded its decisions in the minutes as rulings of "the Company."[3]

In late seventeenth-century France, an academy might be a craft organization; a place where aristocratic youths learned how to ride; or, in an ironic or abusive sense, a public place where illegal games were played. But in learned circles, an academy was a group of scholars who met regularly, and it stemmed from a heritage that included Plato and Bacon.

The word "compagnie" had a broader usage. Thus, in seventeenth-century France, there were trading companies, companies for administering justice and for directing hospitals, military companies, and the Company of Jesus. Above all, the word "compagnie" suggests the corporate bodies characteristic of French towns. These companies — of notaries, lawyers, professors at the Collège royal, Parisian secular clergy with doctorates, or the king's legal officers, for example — had their "own statutes, accumulated privileges, leaders, rules of assembly, financial structure and corporate mentality" and were foci of urban professional prestige.[4]

The Academy of Sciences combined features of the professional corporations with those of such scholarly antecedents as the sixteenth-century French academies, the Baconian House of Solomon, contemporary private


Parisian academies, and the Florentine and London scientific societies.[5] By imitating the urban corporations, the Academy professionalized the scholarly institution.

Ideals of behavior and scholarship espoused by the scholarly world — universities, libraries, publishers, and circles of like-minded savants — also shaped the Academy. Some ideals came from the classics. Modesty, for example, was a recurrent theme in the eulogies of academicians, as a personal trait becoming to scholars.[6] Academicians were animated by other expectations — that they publish and serve the public, that they obtain patronage and conduct research collectively — articulated by Descartes, Bacon, and others.[7] Both precept and practice recommended collective research. Research teams, especially where a master-disciple relationship existed, could boast impressive accomplishments, such as the Maurist editions of religious texts.[8]

Seventeenth-century savants valued intellectual discourse. They also anticipated useful applications of scientific knowledge, encouraged scholars to educate the public, and hoped for state support. The Academy incorporated these values. Academicians described their earliest projects in Baconian language, and they planned and researched collectively. Their correspondence was far-flung and they sponsored worldwide expeditions. They emulated the experimentalism of the Accademia del Cimento and the Royal Society, and they enjoyed substantial financial support from the French crown. Finally, they emphasized the Baconian and Cartesian favorites, natural history and geometry, respectively. The Academy embodied prevailing scholarly and professional ideals.

Bureaucratic Models

Colbert took advice from scholars and professionals when he founded the Academy, but he also heeded goals and prototypes more familiar from those spheres — the economy, the navy, and the royal buildings — for which he was responsible as Louis's minister. For him the Academy was more than a shelter for learning. It was also an instrument of reform and propaganda, susceptible to his usual bureaucratic practices.[9]

Even if Colbert had read Bacon's New Atlantis or was familiar with Descartes's proposal for greater public support of the sciences, what interested him was not Baconianism or Cartesianism per se but rather his own "generous plan for a universal reform" with respect to "those matters pertaining to the maintenance and tranquility of the State."[10] Colbert's every official act was intended to promote the glory of the king and increase


the wealth of his realm.[11] The tradition of royal patronage, the crown's increased control over publishing, Colbert's respect for learning, and his multiple responsibilities as royal minister empowered him to influence French intellectual and cultural life. Here as in other spheres, his economic goals and expertise colored Colbert's official acts.

Colbert's economic policies have been labeled mercantilist by later writers. As an economic philosophy, mercantilism aimed to increase the wealth of one's own country; because resources were limited, this was necessarily at the expense of foreign lands. Thus mercantilism was based on and inflamed proto-nationalistic feelings. As practiced by Colbert, it included the establishment of companies for overseas trade, regulation and improvement of manufacturing, and importation of foreign workers, "taking care that the government got its money's worth for any aid granted."[12] French policies consolidated the powers of the state at the expense of local initiative.[13] Unlike savants who valued Baconian or Cartesian precepts and solved scientific problems, Colbert was motivated principally by patriotic and propagandistic goals in an economic context. The Academy owed a debt, therefore, not only to a scholarly tradition but also to Colbert's official program.

Colbert linked the economy of France to a broader plan to reform justice and develop the arts and sciences. He sought to overcome "ignorance" in "the sciences," where he believed the "abuses" were more significant even "than those of justice and finance."[14] Seeking a tool for reform, Colbert was enthusiastic about the academy as a type of institution. This is clear from his letters patent of 1676, which proclaimed the purposes of his academies in the following terms:

Because the splendor and happiness of a State consist not only in maintaining the glory of arms abroad, but also in displaying at home an abundance of wealth and in causing the arts and sciences to flourish, we have been persuaded for many years to establish several academies for both letters and sciences.[15]

During the 1660s and 1670s, Colbert founded or took under his protection many academies. When he contemplated one for the sciences, an adviser suggested that he "ask other persons from the various academies to give a model of their own" and to assist in planning.[16] The idea was part of a pattern for reforming and organizing cultural life in the kingdom to benefit the king.

Before establishing the Academy of Sciences, Colbert had experimented with traditional patronage in the form of pensions et gratifications sent to scholars all over Europe. Such grants seemed at first to be "the best way of


putting men of letters and artists in the service of the grandeur of the king."[17] Chapelain advised Colbert to reward Italians as well as the Dutch, so that having increased "the glory of the King in these northern countries" he might achieve "the same result for the southern provinces, that is, Florence and Pisa."[18] The gifts were repaid in the coin of scholars, for Hevelius dedicated his first book on comets to Colbert and both his Cométographie and Machine Céleste to Louis XIV, as expressions of gratitude.[19]

Colbert's advisers, however, soon argued that more formal, public, and systematic support for the arts and sciences would enhance the reputation of everyone involved. Anticipating that an academy of sciences would increase French "renown in the world," one gloated: "what glory to the King and what honor for Mgr. Colbert." Colbert would "enhance it above all the others and give it advantages that will make clear the hand by which it is sustained." He wanted the French Academy to surpass its rivals. It was to be "the most learned and most celebrated in the world," and the king would be applauded for its accomplishments. As the Observatory was built, it too found a place in a list of projects that would increase "grandeur and magnificence" in the kingdom. An account of the Academy's activities was solicited for inclusion in the official history of the reign, and the first histories of the Academy announced that the institution hoped to honor its king. Savants were sensitive to these competitive motives: an Avignonese wishing to flatter Huygens wrote tactlessly that by acquiring the Dutch mathematician for France, the king had outdone his conquest of Holland. The patriotism which "infused … and colored" mercantilism was at work in the establishment of the Academy. Even academicians and their associates were aware of their role in the competition among states for intellectual primacy.[20]

Manipulating an Academy for propagandistic ends was less cumbersome than corresponding with a dozen or more individual recipients of awards, as Chapelain did, to ensure that they repaid largesse with homage. After the Academy began to flourish, Colbert diminished the program of pensions for independent scholars, finally neglecting traditional patronage in favor of the more controlled venture. By the mid-1670s, when the crown stopped pensioning foreign scientists, patronage had adopted new habits.

Having shifted patronage from individuals to institutions, Colbert drew on his bureaucratic experience for ideas about how to run the Academy. To stimulate the stagnant French economy, he offered monetary incentives to the directors of companies; he also imported skilled workers and subsidized manufacture of luxury products.[21] To stimulate French science,


therefore, he raided faltering private societies for their best members, to whom he paid pensions; he imported highly regarded savants from Holland, Bologna, and Denmark; and he subsidized research and publication.

Like the manufacturing and trading companies, the Academy was intended to be useful. Although this is sometimes said to have been a blemish imposed by Louvois,[22] Colbert and his advisers had designed the Academy with its utility to the kingdom in mind. They chose as academicians men whose aggregate skills would "make the royal academy as noble as it is useful." It was Colbert who ordered the Academy to examine the drinking water at Versailles and who encouraged La Hire to dissect the fish along the coasts of Brittany and Normandy "because this work will be very useful." Colbert wanted results, in the form of a map of the tax district around Paris, a method of determining longitude, or a natural history of plants. His expectations were nourished by mercantilist presuppositions and by the propaganda of early modern scientists, technologues, and amateurs, for whom utility was an article of faith.[23]

The Academy enjoyed privileges similar to those of the manufacturing and trading companies. The honor of a royal visit to the Academy was arranged in 1681, just as had been done for the Gobelins in 1667. Colbert exempted academicians from taxes in regions where they were making observations for the great map of the kingdom, and he used the power of his office and his extensive contacts to obtain what the Company needed. Like certain master craftsmen, many academicians were housed in royal buildings.[24]

As he did with economic ventures, Colbert supervised the Academy's activities. Cassini spoke to Francis Vernon of this control. In 1670, hoping that his ephemerides would soon be published, Cassini admitted that "It depends upon the orders and determinations of Monsr Colbert upon whom all the motions of the Royal Academie are to bee calculated; For the measure of their times are sett by him." Moreover, he attributed the generosity of pensions and paucity of members to the king's wish "not only to have a Titular butt an effectuall influence upon his royall Academie."[25] This Louis accomplished through the ministerial protector, who reviewed annual reports and proposals, appointed academicians, and regulated finances and publication. These methods Colbert and his successors adapted from the bureaucratic world that was their principal concern.

The Academy of Sciences was of course very different from trading or manufacturing companies. Membership in the Academy depended on connections and scientific talent, not wealth. The Academy was not intended to monopolize, but to reform. It had no religious, legal, or


political powers, although it controlled members' rights to publish. It was not intended to sell a commodity or to make a profit, and its publications circulated as gifts rather than through purchase.

Nevertheless, the Academy shared some traits with the manufacturing and trading companies. Like the overseas trading companies, it exploited the natural resources of the colonies and sponsored expeditions that retrieved materials from foreign lands in order to enrich knowledge in the mother country. Like manufacturing companies, the Academy produced luxury and practical goods: hypotheses, data, scholarly publications, and useful inventions. Both Academy and companies aggrandized France and the king at the expense of foreign rivals. Both protected participants' claims or rights, enjoyed royal financial support, were closely supervised by royal ministers, owed their existence to ministerial initiative, and were meant to benefit the kingdom. As with the economy so in the learned world, the crown championed those activities of the third estate which seemed advantageous to king and kingdom.[26]

The Academy was indebted to the economic policies of Colbert, whose companies influenced his academies. The French statist economic tradition supplied both the justification and the procedures for sponsoring the Academy of Sciences.


The Academy was a company of scientists who shared with its ministerial founder certain practical and theoretical goals. But different prototypes inspired members and protectors. The professional model emphasized exclusivity, power, and prestige for its members. The scholarly model called for experimentation, observation of nature, cooperation among savants, communication of scientific knowledge, and patronage. The bureaucratic model stressed government control, benefits to king and kingdom, and reform of knowledge and practice. These exemplars encouraged the activities that characterized the seventeenth-century Academy: self-aggrandizement, research and debate, dissemination of information, and assistance to the crown.[27] Yet the Academy was not constricted by its antecedents. Rather, as will be seen, fluctuations in the research budget, changing ministerial policies, the actual progress of research, and personal relationships also contributed to the institution's character.


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Chapter 3 Models for a Company of Scientists
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