SCIENCE too was offering a new revelation. The growth of science—of its pursuit, its methods, its findings, its successful predictions and productions, its power, and its prestige—is the positive side of that basic modern development whose negative side is the decline of supernatural belief. Two priesthoods came into conflict: the one devoted to the molding of character through religion, the other to the education of the intellect through science. The first priesthood predominates in ages of poverty or disaster, when men are grateful for spiritual comfort and moral order; the second in ages of progressive wealth, when men incline to limit their hopes to the earth.
It is customary to rank the eighteenth century below the seventeenth in scientific achievements; and certainly there are no figures here that tower like Galileo or Newton, no accomplishments commensurate with the enlargement of the known universe or the cosmic extension of gravitation, or the formulation of calculus, or the discovery of the circulation of the blood. And yet, what a galaxy of stars brightens the scientific scene in the eighteenth century!—Euler and Lagrange in mathematics, Herschel and Laplace in astronomy, d’Alembert, Franklin, Galvani, and Volta in physics, Priestley and Lavoisier in chemistry, Linnaeus in botany, Buffon and Lamarck in biology, Haller in physiology, John Hunter in anatomy, Condillac in psychology, Jenner and Boerhaave in medicine. The multiplying academies gave more and more of their time and funds to scientific research. The universities increasingly admitted science to their curriculums; between 1702 and 1750 Cambridge established chairs in anatomy, astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, and “experimental philosophy”—i.e., physics. Scientific method became more rigorously experimental. The nationalistic animosity that had tarnished the International of the Mind in the controversy between Newton and Leibniz subsided, and the new priesthood joined hands across frontiers, theologies, and wars to explore the expanding unknown. Recruits came from every class, from the impoverished Priestley and the foundling d’Alembert to the titled Buffon and the millionaire Lavoisier. Kings and princes entered the quest: George III took up botany, John V astronomy, Louis XVI physics. Amateurs like Montesquieu and Voltaire, women like Mme. du Châtelet and the actress Mlle. Clairon labored or played in laboratories, and Jesuit scientists like Boscovich strove to unite the old faith and the new.
Not till our own explosive times did science enjoy such popularity and honor. The éclat of Newton’s discoveries in mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy had raised the heads of scientists everywhere in Europe. They could not rise to be master of the mint, but on the Continent, after 1750, they were welcomed in scented society and rubbed wigs with lords and dukes. In Paris the lecture halls of science were crowded by eager listeners of all sexes and ranks. Goldsmith, visiting Paris in 1755, reported, “I have seen as bright a circle of beauty at the chemical lectures of Rouelle as gracing the court of Versailles.”1 Fashionable women kept books of science on their dressing tables, and, like Mme. de Pompadour, had their portraits painted with squares and telescopes at their feet. People lost interest in theology, they sloughed off the other world while cherishing their superstitions. Science became the mode and mood of an age that moved in a complex stream of hectic change to its catastrophic end.