Today we have the Internet. We use it for exchanging messages and information, not only privately but also, for instance, in science and in philosophy. However, how kept scientists and scholars in touch during the age of the rise of modern science and philosophy, so in the time of Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Boerhaave, Newton, Huygens, and others, when the Internet did not yet exist? For it’s clear that science and philosophy were not lonely activities then, but that workers in these fields knew about each other and built relationships. They had extended networks and they had also a name for it: The Republic of Letters.
The term “Republic of Letters” dates from the 15th century, but its main period was from about 1500 till 1775, the time of the rise of modern science and philosophy. What has been meant with “Republic of Letters” has always been a bit vague, but here I refer to a system of human relationships. As Hans Bots describes it in his book that I have used for writing this blog: The lettered persons were part of an ideal state or republic that was above the existing political units in Europe. It had its own rules and laws. The lettered people felt themselves “citizens” of this community and behaved publicly like that and they saw themselves as equals. Ideally reason and truth were their highest authorities. These characteristics were important in view of the fact that the political states were continuously at war with each other. Therefore the scholars needed a way of cooperation that kept aloof of these conflicts and that allowed them to go along with each other without being divided by politics. The Republic of Letters was for them a kind of state above the political state. Its citizens were the intellectual and scientific elite of those days. Not social rank or position was important for its citizenship but nobility of the mind.
How did the participants exchange ideas and information? Basically there were four ways for this. Most important was personal contact with other members of the intellectual elite. This was easy when you lived in or near a town that was a centre of intellectual culture or even had a university. But also in those days already people travelled a lot; especially the elite did, including the intellectual elite. Erasmus travelled through many parts of Western Europe; the Dutchman Huygens went regularly to Paris and has also lived there for some time; Descartes moved from France to the Netherlands and later to Sweden, and he has also visited other countries. Many others did so. However, if you hadn’t the opportunity, time or money to travel, there was an alternative: writing letters. Letter writing tends to become a forgotten activity, but in those days this means of communication was very important. The postal services had gradually improved and it lasted only a few days to send a letter from, say, Amsterdam to Paris. But sending letters was expensive and risky. They could easily be lost because of wars, raids or other circumstances, so the best way to send a letter was to give it to a traveller you knew.
And there were books. Since the invention of the art of printing, it had become easy to duplicate books. However, books were censored everywhere. Usually the author or publisher needed consent from the authorities before they were published. The Netherlands were an exception and here censorship was less strict than in other countries. Moreover, if books were censored there, it was always after the publication. As a consequence the Netherlands became a centre for printing “dangerous ideas” and spreading them all over Europe.
All these methods of exchange existed already before the rise of the Republic of Letters, but the Republic invented also a new method: journals. Because of the growing number of books and scientific discoveries and inventions, people lost an overview of what was happening in the intellectual world. It became impossible to read every interesting publication, so there came a need to summarize what was happening in the learned world. Already about 1620 the first periodicals with political and commercial news had been published in Amsterdam. It had yet to wait until 1665 before the first scientific journal came out. It was in Paris. This Journal des Savants contained summaries of books and reports of new research. It was soon followed by other such journals, especially in the Netherlands, but also, in London and elsewhere. In Rotterdam the Frenchman Pierre Bayle made himself useful by developing this new medium. Also in 1665 the Philosophical Transactions was published in London. It contained only reports of scientific experiments and in this sense it is the first modern scientific journal.
Journals were especially useful for those who didn’t live near a library or intellectual centre. Actually any town or court of a noble man or woman with an intellectual interest could be such a centre, but two centres stood out. Most important was Paris, but the Netherlands was almost as important. It was a new state where, as we have seen, censorship was almost absent and printing houses flourished, especially in Amsterdam and Leyden. Moreover the new University of Leyden, established in 1575, attracted by its modern structure the best professors and students of the time.
Life today is unthinkable without the Internet, but the Internet as a modern way of communication in the scientific world is not much older than about 25 years. Therefore, in the period of the rise of modern science and philosophy they needed a communication system of their own. They called it the Republic of Letters.