The Berlin Academy and forgery

The mathematician and the forger History Topics Index
Version for printing

Three of the principal characters in this story are Maupertuis, Samuel König, and Voltaire. They had known each other over a long period and all had been close friends at one stage in their lives. It was Emilie du Châtelet who had brought these three together. In 1739 Maupertuis became friendly with both du Châtelet and Voltaire, spending some time living at their home at Cirey. All three shared a strong belief in Newton's theories at a time when few others in France shared these views. It was at Maupertuis' suggestion that Samuel König taught du Châtelet algebra and he spent about two years at Cirey with her and Voltaire around 1740. Many years later Voltaire wrote in his autobiography (see for example [2]):-

Voltaire ... had passed two whole years at Cirey with König, during which he had contracted an intimacy with him ...

It was from Samuel König that du Châtelet learnt of Leibniz's philosophy and this led to a dispute between the two after du Châtelet included a chapter in a book which König felt was his work. Voltaire remained on good terms with König and with Maupertuis at this time although later Voltaire and Maupertuis fell out.

The other major character in the story was Frederick II of Prussia. He had become king of Prussia on the death of his father in 1740. He was a man interested and knowledgeable about philosophy and aimed to create an Academy in Berlin to rival that in Paris. He began to invite top people to participate in his Academy and he approached both Voltaire and Maupertuis in 1740. It might be seen as rather strange that Frederick approached French scholars in setting up his Academy, but culture to Frederick consisted only of French culture. Frederick wrote and spoke French whenever possible and spoke in German only when it was unavoidable. To create a French speaking Academy in Berlin was then for him natural.

It was Voltaire who recommended Maupertuis to Frederick for the position of President of the Berlin Academy in 1740. On 12 May 1746 Maupertuis was officially appointed as president of the Berlin Academy and four years later Frederick persuaded Voltaire to come to Berlin too. However, by this time relations between Maupertuis and Voltaire had broken down. Buffon wrote in a letter dated 28 October 1750 (see for example [4]):-

Between ourselves, Voltaire and Maupertuis are not made to live in the same room.

In September 1750 König had made a visit to Maupertuis in Berlin. They quarrelled during this visit but König apologised to Maupertuis before leaving for Holland where he was Court Librarian to the Princess of Orange at The Hague. This was not a serious quarrel, so when König visited Berlin again in 1751 and passed a manuscript of an article to Maupertuis for publication, the head of the Academy simply accepted it without reading it. This proved a serious mistake. Beeson writes [1]:-

König relates that he had been tempted to write against Maupertuis's exposition of least-action theory from the moment he first read it, in 1749. He refrained from publishing out of deference to Maupertuis.

The paper which König gave to Maupertuis both attacked the validity of the principle of least action and also claimed that the principle was due to Leibniz and not Maupertuis. That König is wrong on both points is really irrelevant to the whole episode. The claim in the paper that credit for the principle should go to Leibniz was based on a letter supposedly written in French by Leibniz to Hermann and quoted in König's paper.

In March 1751 König's paper, approved for publication by Maupertuis, appeared in print. Only at that stage did Maupertuis read it and he was furious. He believed, quite correctly as a matter of fact, that the principle of least action was his greatest achievement. He set about discrediting König's paper. In fact he should have challenged the claim that Leibniz's letter showed that the principle of least action was his invention but he set out instead to prove that König had forged the Leibniz letter. He challenged König to produce Leibniz's letters from which he quoted and wrote eleven times to Johann(II) Bernoulli in Basle asking him to make Hermann's heirs hunt through his papers. König produces copies of the letters but the originals could not be found.

On 13 April 1752 the Berlin Academy met to essentially try König on a charge of forgery. Maupertuis was not present but Euler put the case against König. The main arguments put in favour of the quotation being a forgery was that König claimed the quotation was from a letter sent by Leibniz to Hermann yet no original could be found. Leibniz and Hermann did correspond, but in Latin, so the quotation was in the wrong language and, moreover, given the date suggested by König it did not fit into the rest of their correspondence over that period. König claimed that his copy of Leibniz's letter had been made from an original owned by Henzi, a Bern collector of manuscripts. However Henzi had been put to death by his political opponents who had burned all his papers so the original had been destroyed. The Academy was bullied into declaring that König had forged the quotation. Many members chose not to attend the meeting out of embarrassment and one of those who did said [1]:-

As Maupertuis has a monopoly of authority, and we are not permitted to speak out against him very loudly, secret bitterness is all the greater, and this causes great harm to the Academy.

As yet Voltaire had not entered the argument, and seemed to know little about it at this point for on 22 May 1752 he wrote [4]:-

I am not yet well informed as to the beginning of the quarrel. Maupertuis is at Berlin, ill from having drunk a little too much brandy.

König appealed to the Berlin Academy, asking them to reverse the unfair and incorrect judgement made against him, but the Academy confirmed its judgement of forgery on 8 June. Having little option, König resigned from the Academy. Maupertuis was certainly aware that everyone around him, including his best friends, disapproved of his actions. The effect on his health was to hasten its decline, but this caused him to fight still more vigorously against König. He wrote to the Princess of Orange asking her to threaten König with dismissal from his post of librarian if he continued to make his views public. Maupertuis did have one strong ally, however, for King Frederick chose to put all his authority behind the head of his Academy.

On 18 September an anonymous pamphlet A reply from an Academician of Berlin to an Academician of Paris defending König appeared. We now know that it was written by Voltaire and its publication marks his entry into the battle. A few days later König published a pamphlet Appeal to the public. In it he quoted in full the copies of four letters in his possession which he himself had copied from original letters of Leibniz owned by Henzi. He made a convincing case, but neither Maupertuis nor King Frederick were prepared to listen.

Shortly after Voltaire wrote in a letter to a friend [3]:-

Can you believe it, instead of being indignant, the King has hotly taken the side of the tyrannical philosopher. He won't even read König's reply. Nobody can open the eyes that he wants to keep shut. Once a calumny has entered the mind of a King it is like gout in a prelate. It can never be driven out.

Frederick now entered the fray publishing on 15 October an anonymous pamphlet Letter to the public defending Maupertuis which, despite claims of anonymity, clearly indicated its author by having the Prussian eagle, the crown and the sceptre on its title page.

Voltaire wrote to a friend [3]:-

Unluckily for me, I also am an author, and in the opposite camp to the King. I have no sceptre but I have a pen.

Indeed Voltaire used his pen to great effect. A peace treaty which he drew up, but never expected Maupertuis to sign, read [2]:-

All Europe having been alarmed by the dangerous quarrel about an algebraic formula, the two parties concerned in this war, wishing to avoid a further effusion of ink that all readers would ultimately find unbearable, have at last agreed to the following philosophic peace.

President Maupertuis transports himself to the seat of his presidency and says before his peers:

  1. Having had leisure to recognise my mistake, I beg Professor König to forget all the past. I much regret that I made so much ado about nothing, and that I accused of forgery a serious professor who has never invented anything but monads and pre-established harmony.

  2. I have signed letters, patent sealed with my great seal, by which I restore its liberty to the republic of letters; and I declare that writers will henceforth be permitted to prove me in the wrong without being accused of dishonesty ....

Maupertuis had published Letter on the progress of science in 1752 and Voltaire used this as a way to attack him. The letter proposed a wide range of scientific research topics to be undertaken for the advancement of science, and advised on which areas should be most encouraged and which should be least encouraged. It covered exploration at sea, problems of navigation, exploration on land, scientific institutions, questions concerning astronomy, and medical problems. Beeson writes in [1]:-

The letter contains a wealth of suggestions, varying from the thoroughly practical to the downright fanciful, as must be the case in any proposed programme of research; many avenues have to be recommended for investigation, although it cannot be determined in advance whether some will be dead ends.

Voltaire, however, used this as a way to attack Maupertuis. He wrote [3]:-

In the midst of these quarrels, Maupertuis has gone quite mad. You may not know that he was shut up at Montpellier twenty years ago, during one of his fits. His malady has returned, violently. He has just published a book in which he contends that the existence of God can only be proved by an algebraic formula; that everyone can predict the future by exalting his soul; that, if one wishes to discover the nature of human understanding, one must go to the South Seas and dissect giants, ten feet high. The whole book is in this style.

Voltaire then published Diatribe of Dr Akakia which was a clever (and very unfair) attack on Maupertuis' views. Using his literary skills, Voltaire wrote the work as if it were intended to defend Maupertuis' reputation by claiming that some unknown young man must have written this rubbish and attempted to pass it off as the work of the great scientist Maupertuis. The Diatribe begins [3]:-

Nothing is more common today than for young authors who feel themselves overlooked to attribute well-known names to works that are unworthy of that claim. There are charlatans of all kinds. And there is one who has taken the name of a very illustrious academy to sell some very peculiar ideas. It is obvious that it is not the respected President who is the author of the books attributed to him; for this admirable philosopher who has discovered that Nature always operates according to the simplest laws, and added that she is always sparing in effort, would certainly have spared the small number of readers capable of reading the work the additional labour of reading the same thing twice over ...

The Diatribe ends:-

It can be seen from the account that we have given that if these imaginary letters were written by a president, it could only be a president of Bedlam, and that they are incontestably, as we have said, the work of some young man who wanted to make use of the name of a sage, who, as we know, is respected throughout Europe and has consented to be called a great man.

It was nearly 150 years before the Berlin Academy looked again at the disgraceful ruling it made against König by undertaking a serious piece of historical research to decide whether the quotation from Leibniz was a forgery. Gerhardt undertook the research in 1898 which provided a convincing argument that the quotation was genuine. Clearly the original letter was sent by Leibniz to a mathematician other than Hermann, and Gerhardt suggested Varignon. This suggestion is also impossible, as was shown by Kabitz in 1913, and although the evidence all suggests that the quotation is genuine, it has never been established who the likely recipient was.

It is now fairly well established that the Leibniz letters, owned the Bern collector Henzi, were themselves copies and that other copies of the Leibniz originals had also been made by the Bernoulli's in Basle. Versions of all four letters quoted by König in his pamphlet Appeal to the public were found by Kabitz in a collection of copies of Leibniz letters owned by the Bernoulli's and he published his findings in 1913.

Other MacTutor references

History of the Berlin Academy

References (4 books/articles)

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

History Topics Index
The mathematician and the forger
Main index Biographies Index
Famous curves index Birthplace Maps
Chronology  Time lines
Mathematicians of the day Anniversaries for the year
Search Form  Societies, honours, etc

JOC/EFR April 2003

The URL of this page is: