Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIX.: PROGRESS OF THE SCIENCES. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV)
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CHAPTER XXIX.: PROGRESS OF THE SCIENCES. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XII.
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PROGRESS OF THE SCIENCES.
This happy age, which has seen a revolution produced in the human mind, did not seem destined to it. To begin with philosophy, there was no appearance in the time of Louis XIV. that it would have emerged out of the chaos into which it was plunged. The Inquisition of Italy, Spain, and Portugal had linked the errors of philosophy to the tenets of religion; the civil wars in France, and the disputes of Calvinism were not more adapted to cultivate human reason than was the fanaticism of Cromwell’s time in England. Though a Canon Thorn renewed the ancient planetary system of the Chaldæans, which had been exploded for so long a time, this truth was condemned at Rome; and the congregation of the holy office, composed of seven cardinals, having declared not only heretical but absurd the motion of the earth, without which there is no true astronomy—the great Galileo having asked pardon at the age of seventy for being in the right—there was no appearance that the truth would be received in the world.
Chancellor Bacon had shown, but at a distance, the track which might be followed. Galileo had made some discoveries on the descent of bodies; Torricelli began to ascertain the gravity of the air which surrounds us; and some experiments had been made at Magdeburg. Notwithstanding these essays, all the schools continued in absurdity, and the world in ignorance. Then appeared Descartes; he did the contrary of what should have been done; instead of studying nature, he wanted to guess at her. He was the greatest geometrician of his age; but geometry leaves the mind as she finds it. That of Descartes was too much addicted to invention. The prince of mathematicians made scarcely any more than romances of philosophy. A man who scorned experiments, never cited Galileo, and was for building without materials, could erect no more than an imaginary edifice.
That which was romantic in it succeeded; and the few truths, mixed with these new chimeras, were at first contested; but at last these few truths broke out by the help of the method which he himself introduced. For before his time there was no thread for this labyrinth; and at least he gave one, of which a use was made after he had bewildered himself. It was a great deal to destroy the chimeras of Peripateticism, though by means of other chimeras. These two phantoms combated each other. They fell successively; and reason raised itself at length upon their ruins. There was at Florence an academy for experiments, under the name of del Cimento, established by Cardinal Leopold de Medici, about 1655. They were already aware in this country of the arts, that it was not possible to comprehend anything about the grand fabric of nature, but by examining her minutely. This academy, after the days of Galileo, and from the time of Torricelli, performed signal services.
Some philosophers in England, under the gloomy administration of Cromwell, met together for the discovery of truth, at a time when it was oppressed by the severity of enthusiasm. Charles II., being called home to the throne of his ancestors, by the repentance and inconstancy of his own nation, gave letters patent to this infant and rising academy; but this was all that the government gave. The royal society, or rather the free society of London, labored to promote useful knowledge. It was from this illustrious body that in our days proceeded the discoveries on light, the principle of gravitation, the motion of the fixed stars, and a hundred other discoveries, which in that respect might give occasion to the calling of this age the age of the English as well as that of Louis XIV.
In 1666, Colbert, jealous of this new kind of glory, was desirous that the French should partake of it; and, at the entreaty of some learned men, prevailed on Louis XIV. to condescend to the establishment of the Academy of Sciences. It was free till 1699, like that of England and the French Academy. Colbert drew from Italy, Dominico de Cassini,1 and Huygens from Holland, by means of large pensions. They discovered the satellites and the ring of Saturn. The world is indebted to Huygens for pendulum clocks. By degrees, knowledge was acquired in all parts of true physics, by rejecting systems. The public was surprised to see a chemistry, in which researches were made neither for the grand secret nor for the art of prolonging life beyond the bounds of nature; an astronomy which did not predict the events of the world; and a medicine independent of the phases of the moon. Putrefaction was no longer the parent of animals and plants. There were no more prodigies, from the time that nature came to be better known; for she was studied in all her works.
Geography received astonishing improvements. No sooner had Louis XIV. built the observatory, than he caused a degree of the meridian to be measured in 1669, by Dominico de Cassini and Picard; which was continued toward the north in 1683, by de Lahire, and at last Cassini prolonged it in 1700, as far as the extremity of Roussillon. This is the finest monument of astronomy, and is sufficient to eternize this age.
In 1672, natural philosophers were sent to Cayenne, in order to make useful observations. This voyage gave rise to the discovery of a new law of nature, which the great Newton has demonstrated, and has paved the way for those more famous voyages which have since given a lustre to the reign of Louis XV.
In 1700, de Tournefort was sent to the Levant, to collect there the plants necessary to enrich the royal garden, which was formerly neglected, but was at that time restored, and is now worthy of the curiosity of Europe. The royal library, already well stocked, was enriched under Louis XIV. with upward of thirty thousand volumes; and this example is so well followed in our days, that it contains at this time more than a hundred and eighty thousand. He caused the law school, which had been shut for a hundred years past, to be opened. He established in all the universities of France professors of the French law. One would imagine that there should be no other here, and that the good Roman laws incorporated with those of the country, should form but one body of the laws of the nation.
Under him literary journals were established. It is well known that the “Journal des Savans,” which began in 1665, is the first of all the works of this kind with which Europe is at this day filled, and into which too many abuses have crept, as commonly happens in things of the greatest utility.
The Academy of the Belles-Lettres, composed at first, in 1663, of some members of the French Academy, for transmitting to posterity, by medals, the actions of Louis XIV., became useful to the public, from the time that it was no longer solely employed about the monarch, and that they applied themselves to researches into antiquity, and a judicious criticism upon opinions and facts. It produced nearly the same effect in history as the Academy of Sciences did in natural philosophy: it dispelled errors.
The spirit of discernment and criticism, which increased by degrees, insensibly destroyed superstition. It is to this dawn of reason that we owe the declaration of the king in 1672, which forbids the tribunals to admit simple accusations of sorcery. This was a matter which dared not be attempted under Henry IV. and Louis XIII. And if, since 1672, there have been accusations of enchantment, the judges have not condemned the persons accused, excepting where profanation of religion, or the use of poison was proved against them.1
It was formerly very common to try sorcerers by plunging them in water, being first bound with cords; and if they floated on the surface, they were convicted. Several judges in the provinces had ordered such trials to be made; and these methods still continued for a long time among the people. Every shepherd was a sorcerer; and amulets and studded rings were used in the towns. The effects of the hazel wand, with which it was believed that springs, treasures, and thieves could be found out, were looked upon as certain; and have still a great deal of credit given them in more than one province in Germany. There was hardly anybody but who had his nativity cast; and nothing was talked of but magical secrets. All ranks were infected with the delusion. Learned men and magistrates had written seriously on these matters. A set of authors was distinguished by the name of “Dæmonographi.” There were rules for discerning true magicians, and true demoniacs from the false. In fine, even to our time, there was hardly anything adopted from antiquity but errors of every kind. Superstitious notions were so rooted among men, that people were frightened by a comet in 1680; and scarcely anyone dared to combat this popular fear. James Bernoulli, one of the greatest mathematicians in Europe, in his answer to those who maintained the ominous nature of comets, says, that its head cannot be a sign of the divine wrath, because that head is eternal; but that the tail may very well be so. However, neither the head nor tail are eternal. It was then necessary that Bayle should write against vulgar prejudices, a book, famous at that time, which the progress since made by reason has now rendered useless.
One would not believe that sovereigns had obligations to philosophers. It is, however, true, that this philosophic spirit, which has gained ground among all ranks except the lower class of people, has very much contributed to give a due weight to the rights of princes. Disputes which would have formerly produced excommunications, interdicts, and schisms have caused none of these things. It has been said that the people would be happy had they philosophers for their kings; it is equally true, that kings are the more happy, when many of their subjects are philosophers.
It must be allowed that the reasonable spirit, which begins to preside over education in the large towns, has not been able to cure the frenzy of the fanatics in the Cévennes, nor prevent the inferior people of Paris showing their folly at the tomb of St. Médard,1 nor quiet the disputes, as violent as they are frivolous, which arise between men who ought to be wiser. But before this age, such disputes had caused troubles in Europe: the miracles of St. Médard were believed by the most considerable citizens; and fanaticism, which had been confined within the mountains of the Cévennes, diffused itself into the towns.
Science and literature seemed carried to perfection in this age; and so many writers have extended the powers of the human understanding that those who at other times would have been thought prodigies passed undistinguished in the crowd. Their glory is lessened on account of their number; but the glory of the age is greatly exalted.
[1 ] John Dominico Cassini was one of the most able astronomers that Italy ever produced. He flourished in the seventeenth century, and in his youth was appointed professor of astronomy at Bologna, but he was invited to France by Colbert to be a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, and there he spent the remaining part of his life, which was happily extended to extreme old age. He explained the nature and revolutions of comets; he discovered that the planet Mars revolved upon its own axis in twenty-four hours and forty minutes; he discerned the spots on the body of Venus; he demonstrated that Saturn had five satellites, instead of one, which was all that Huygens had discerned; and he measured a degree of the meridian in the south of France.
[1 ] In 1609 six hundred sorcerers were condemned in the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Bordeaux, and most of them burned. Nicholas Remi, in his “Demonolatri,” gives an account of nine hundred arrets, passed in fifteen years against sorcerers in Lorraine only. The famous curate, Louis Guaffredi, burned at Aix in 1611, had publicly owned that he was a sorcerer, and the judges believed him.
It is shameful that Father Lebrun, in his treatise of “Superstitious Practices,” still admits of the decision of doubtful matters by casting lots. He even goes so far as to say, page 524, that the Parliament of Paris acknowledged it; but he is mistaken; the parliament indeed owned that there were profanations and enchantments, but no supernatural effects produced by the devil. The book of Don Calmet, “Sur les Vampires et sur les Apparitions,” has been looked upon as the work of a disordered brain, but it plainly shows how much the mind of man is addicted to superstition.
[1 ] Miracles were said to be performed at the tomb of Abbé Paris, in 1730. As this abbé was a professed Jansenist, the Jesuits would not allow him to be a saint, and found means to interest both the clergy and the government against his pretensions to this title. The archbishop of Paris published a mandamus, condemning the new miracles of this beatified Jansenist. The life of the abbé, which had been published at Brussels, was pronounced heretical by the holy congregation of the office, and burned by the hands of the hangman; but the reputation of the defunct flourished under this persecution. His tomb was surrounded by crowds of devotees, the lame were cured, the blind were restored to sight; so that the catalogue of miracles daily increased, until the burying-ground of St. Médard was shut up by the king’s express arret, and then the saint being deprived of his retinue, sank into oblivion.