From the eighteenth century until as recently as World War II, the natural scientist was depicted as a kind of moral superhero: objective, modest, ascetic, and selflessly dedicated to the betterment of humanity. What accounts for the widespread diffusion of this myth?
In Science and Immortality, Charles B. Paul provides a partial explanation. The modern ideology of the scientist as disinterested seeker after truth arose partly through the transformation of an ancient literary form—the commemoration of heroes. In 1699 Bernard de Fontenelle, as Secretary of the Paris Academy of Sciences, inaugurated the tradition of the éloge, or eulogy, in honor of members of the Academy. The moral qualities that had once been attributed to the idealized Stoic philosopher were transferred in the eulogies to the "natural philosopher," or scientist. The over two hundred éloges composed between 1699 and 1791 by Fontenelle and his successors—Mairan, Fouchy, and Condorcet—served as a powerful device for the popularization of science.
It was the intention of the secretaries, though, not only to exhibit the natural scientist as a modern-day hero but also to present a truthful record of scientific activity in France. Paul examines the éloges both as a literary form that used rhetorical and stylistic devises to reconcile these two conflicting goals and as a collective biography of a new breed of savants—one that already contained the seed of the conflict between self-image and reality embedded in the modern scientific enterprise. A unique history of science in eighteenth-century France, Science and Immortality illuminates the record in the éloges of the professionalization of some sciences and the maturation of others, the recognition of their utility to society and the state, and the widening trust in science as the remedy to economic restriction and political absolutism. Paul's thorough catalog of the éloges, extensive bibliography, and translations of representative éloges make this book an essential source for scholars in the field.
This title is part of UC Press's Voices Revived program, which commemorates University of California Press’s mission to seek out and cultivate the brightest minds and give them voice, reach, and impact. Drawing on a backlist dating to 1893, Voices Revived makes high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarship accessible once again using print-on-demand technology. This title was originally published in 1980.