He expects much from the new converts, on the ground that nations which have been taught have proved more capable than their teachers, appealing to the case of the Greeks who outdid their eastern masters, and to that of the peoples of modern Europe who received their light from the Romans but have “well nigh doubled the ancient stock of trades delivered to their keeping.”
The establishment of the Royal Society in 1660 and the Academy of Sciences in 1666 made physical science fashionable in London and Paris. Macaulay, in his characteristic way, describes how “dreams of perfect forms of government made way for dreams of wings with which men were to fly from the Tower to the Abbey, and of double-keeled ships which were never to founder in the fiercest storm. All classes were hurried along by the prevailing sentiment. Cavalier and Roundhead, Churchman and Puritan were for once allied. Divines, jurists, statesmen, nobles, princes, swelled the triumph of the Baconian philosophy.” The seeds sown by Bacon had at last begun to ripen, and full credit was given to him by those who founded and acclaimed the Royal Society. The ode which Cowley addressed to that institution might have been entitled an ode in honour of Bacon, or still better—for the poet seized the essential point of Bacon’s labours—a hymn on the liberation of the human mind from the yoke of Authority.
Bacon has broke that scar-crow Deity.
Dryden himself, in the Annus Mirabilis, had turned aside from his subject, the defeat of the Dutch and England’s mastery of the seas, to pay a compliment to the Society, and to prophesy man’s mastery of the universe.
Instructed ships shall sail to rich commerce,
By which remotest regions are allied;
Which makes one city of the universe,
Where some may gain and all may be supplied.
Then we upon our globe’s last verge
And view the ocean leaning on the sky,
From thence our rolling neighbours we shall know,
And on the lunar world securely pry.
[Footnote: It may be noted that John Wilkins (Bishop of Chester) published in 1638 a little book entitled Discovery of a New World, arguing that the moon is inhabited. A further edition appeared in 1684. He attempted to compose a universal language (Sprat, Hist. of Royal Society, p. 251). His Mercury or the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641) contains proposals for a universal script (chap. 13). There is also an ingenious suggestion for the communication of messages by sound, which might be described as an anticipation of the Morse code. Wilkins and another divine, Seth Ward, the Bishop of Salisbury, belonged to the group of men who founded the Royal Society.]
Men did not look far into the future; they did not dream of what the world might be a thousand or ten thousand years hence. They seem to have expected quick results. Even Sprat thinks that “the absolute perfection of the true philosophy” is not far off, seeing that “this first great and necessary preparation for its coming”—the institution of scientific co-operation—has been accomplished. Superficial and transient though the popular enthusiasm was, it was a sign that an age of intellectual optimism had begun, in which the science of nature would play a leading role.