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An English Academy Of Literature
by [?]

Such was the origin of L’ACADEMIE FRANCAISE; it was long a private meeting before it became a public institution. Yet, like the Royal Society, its origin has been attributed to political motives, with a view to divert the attention from popular discontents; but when we look into the real origin of the French Academy, and our Royal Society, it must be granted, that if the government either in France or England ever entertained this project, it came to them so accidentally, that at least we cannot allow them the merit of profound invention. Statesmen are often considered by speculative men in their closets to be mightier wonder-workers than they often prove to be.

Were the origin of the Royal Society inquired into, it might be justly dated a century before its existence; the real founder was Lord Bacon, who planned the ideal institution in his philosophical romance of the New Atlantis! This notion is not fanciful, and it was that of its first founders, as not only appears by the expression of old Aubrey, when, alluding to the commencement of the society, he adds secundum mentem Domini Baconi; but by a rare print designed by Evelyn, probably for a frontispiece to Bishop Sprat’s history, although we seldom find the print in the volume. The design is precious to a Grangerite, exhibiting three fine portraits. On one side is represented a library, and on the table lie the statutes, the journals, and the mace of the Royal Society; on its opposite side are suspended numerous philosophical instruments; in the centre of the print is a column on which is placed the bust of Charles the Second, the patron; on each side whole lengths of Lord Brouncker, the first president, and Lord Bacon, as the founder, inscribed Artium Instaurator. The graver of Hollar has preserved this happy intention of Evelyn’s, which exemplifies what may be called the continuity and genealogy of genius, as its spirit is perpetuated by its successors.[3]

When the fury of the civil wars had exhausted all parties, and a breathing time from the passions and madness of the age allowed ingenious men to return once more to their forsaken studies, Bacon’s vision of a philosophical society appears to have occupied their reveries. It charmed the fancy of Cowley and Milton; but the politics and religion of the times were still possessed by the same frenzy, and divinity and politics were unanimously agreed to be utterly proscribed from their inquiries. On the subject of religion they were more particularly alarmed, not only at the time of the foundation of the society, but at a much later period, when under the direction of Newton himself. Even Bishop Sprat, their first historian, observed, that “they have freely admitted men of different religions, countries, and professions of life, not to lay the foundation of an English, Scotch, Irish, popish, or protestant philosophy, but a philosophy of mankind.” A curious protest of the most illustrious of philosophers may be found: when “the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge were desirous of holding their meetings at the house of the Royal Society, Newton drew up a number of arguments against their admission. One of them is, that “It is a fundamental rule of the society not to meddle with religion; and the reason is, that we may give no occasion to religious bodies to meddle with us.” Newton would not even comply with their wishes, lest by this compliance the Royal Society might “dissatisfy those of other religions.” The wisdom of the protest by Newton is as admirable as it is remarkable,–the preservation of the Royal Society from the passions of the age.

It was in the lodgings of Dr. Wilkins in Wadham College that a small philosophical club met together, which proved to be, as Aubrey expresses it, the incunabula of the Royal Society. When the members were dispersed about London, they renewed their meetings first at a tavern, then at a private house; and when the society became too great to be called a club, they assembled in “the parlour” of Gresham College, which itself had been raised by the munificence of a citizen, who endowed it liberally, and presented a noble example to the individuals now assembled under its roof. The society afterwards derived its title from a sort of accident. The warm loyalty of Evelyn in the first hopeful days of the Restoration, in his dedicatory epistle of Naude’s treatise on libraries, called that philosophical meeting THE ROYAL SOCIETY. These learned men immediately voted their thanks to Evelyn for the happy designation, which was so grateful to Charles the Second, who was himself a virtuoso of the day, that the charter was soon granted: the king, declaring himself their founder, “sent them a mace of silver-gilt, of the same fashion and bigness as those carried before his majesty, to be borne before the president on meeting days.” To the zeal of Evelyn the Royal Society owes no inferior acquisition to its title and its mace:[4] the noble Arundelian library, the rare literary accumulation of the noble Howards; the last possessor of which had so little inclination for books, that the treasures which his ancestors had collected lay open at the mercy of any purloiner. This degenerate heir to the literature and the name of Howard seemed perfectly relieved when Evelyn sent his marbles, which were perishing in his gardens, to Oxford, and his books, which were diminishing daily, to the Royal Society!