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Académie Française

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment

John Renwick

Académie Française. 

When the Académie was founded in 1635, its essential role was to purify and standardize the French language and to fix its usage. Although it never lost sight of those objectives, the institution came—inevitably, because of the increasing primacy of France in Europe—to be seen by royal authority as the symbolic representative of the cultural, intellectual, and linguistic values that characterized the French spirit. In practical terms, this meant that the Académie was called on to be not only the jealous guardian of neoclassical good taste, but also a firm rampart against both unwelcome innovations at home and inappropriate imports from abroad (which Voltaire in the 1760s would deplore as joint tokens of decadence).

For many decades, and certainly well into the eighteenth century, the state and the Académie agreed for the most part that due respect was to be nurtured for the general intellectual status quo. This situation changed (quite radically, according to some) with the slow but inexorable advance of the Enlightenment. From the Revolutionary period on, the dominant historiographical current, taking its cue from contemporary observers like Bachaumont, Collé, Métra, and La Harpe, would propose, with more partisan passion than calm objectivity, that the proponents of Enlightenment, starting chronologically with d'Alembert in 1754, had taken over the Académie to the ultimate ruin of all that was decent, and with the express purpose of using it as a vehicle for the dissemination of philosophical—that is, “progressive”—socio-political ideas. Two historians of the Académie, Paul Mesnard (1857) and particularly Lucien Brunel (1884), whose work is still treated by many as totally authoritative, were responsible for this Manichaean view. Mesnard, the more simplistic of the two, sees the académiciens philosophes as ultimately quite harmful to the well-being of the ancien régime. Brunel is also highly critical of their “subversive” role in the general history of the eighteenth century during the time when the French Revolution was being “prepared.” He seems much more concerned, however, that the philosophes, as iconoclasts impervious to the deference due to tradition and authority, had betrayed his own extremely elevated (even semisacred) conception of academic dignity. In Brunel's view, the philosophes had irreparably sullied the grandeur and majesty of their institution; it should have remained aloof from the vulgar fray of sectarianism, concentrating on being the quasi-mystical embodiment of the essence of French civilization. Both Mesnard and Brunel, however, agreed that the philosophical party set out and managed to conquer and then to dominate the Académie to promote Enlightenment values.

Modern scholarship—though not denying that the philosophes, who were essentially men of letters with a political agenda, did seek to elect men of like mind—has seriously questioned the notion that they exercised a sort of tyranny over the Académie that helped to subvert genuine, immutable French values and to prepare the disastrous hiatus of 1789–1815. The intramural squalls and squabbles between traditionalists (almost all senior prelates or reactionary aristocrats of Sword and Robe) and progressives during the period 1754–1789 must not be elevated into a battle of Titans. Despite the increasing presence of philosophes within its ranks (e.g., La Condamine, Watelet, Saurin, Jean-François Marmontel, Thomas, Saint-Lambert, the abbé Arnaud, Étienne de Condillac, Delille, and Suard), the Académie remained a staunchly conservative, elitist, and arguably loyalist institution. At times, there were uneasy tensions between the forward-looking académiciens and the tutelary authorities, but their respective positions were far from antithetical. In some cases, deep-laid government objectives seem to have run parallel to the more stridently expressed opinions of the philosophical fraternity both within and outside the Académie (e.g., with regard to the problem of Protestant toleration). Scholarship has yet to determine at which junctures, and to what extent, those tensions were exacerbated and brought to the fore not merely by differing opinions regarding academic dignity and subservience, but above all by the gap that will always separate the visionary from the pragmatist.

The Académie Française appeared to be an outspoken institution because of its philosophical members; it was in fact firmly wedded to conservative values in both literature and politics. There is, for example, a great deal of truth in Chamfort's criticism as a disabused insider (cf. Des Académies) that the institution, through one party of its men of letters, had put a strait-jacket on literature and had exerted a deleterious, stultifying influence over its evolution, which was quite disproportionate to the number of actual members. In its political actions, the Académie was essentially typical, as Daniel Mornet and Georges Gusdorf have suggested, of a general prerevolutionary desire to reconcile the past with the present. In its work and its discourse (hâter l'avènement des Lumières, “to hasten the arrival of Enlightenment”), the philosophical party clearly was suggesting that a partnership between the intellectual élite of the nation and the political authorities in charge of the state was imperative if national affairs were to be prosecuted with general success for the greater good. However, neither its outspoken statements in favor of Enlightenment nor the distance that separated it from a state in terminal decline were sufficient to save it. Viewed by the revolutionaries as a haven of the intellectual aristocracy, the Académie was, like other aristocracies or privileged corporations, suppressed (1793) as antithetical to the spirit of regeneration.

[See also Academies, subentry on France; and Learned Societies.]


Brunel, Lucien. Les philosophes et l'Académie française au dix-huitième siècle. Paris, 1884. This study and that of Mesnard (1857) are solidly situated within a current of hostility to the mood of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century; however, Brunel's work can still be used with due caution.Find this resource:

    Lough, John. Did the Philosophes Take Over the Académie Française? Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 336 (1996), 153–194. This and the studies by Racevskis approach the problem with due scholarly rigor and are required reading.Find this resource:

      Mesnard, Paul. Histoire de l'Académie française depuis sa fondation jusqu'en 1830. Paris, 1857.Find this resource:

        Racevskis, Karlis. Le règne des philosophes à l'Académie française, vue par les historiens du dix-neuvième siècle. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 56 (1976), 1801–1812.Find this resource:

          Racevskis, Karlis. Le discours philosophique à l'Académie française: Une sémiotique de la démagogie et de l'arrivisme. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 190 (1980), 343–350.Find this resource:

            John Renwick