Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney
Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney
|Born||3 February 1757|
|Died||25 April 1820 (aged 63)|
|Occupation||Philosopher, historian, orientalist and politician|
Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (3 February 1757 – 25 April 1820) was a French philosopher, abolitionist, writer, orientalist, and politician. He was at first surnamed Boisgirais after his father's estate, but afterwards assumed the name of Volney (which he had created as a contraction of Voltaire and Ferney).
Early life and the French Revolution
He was born at Craon, Anjou (today in Mayenne), of a noble family. Initially interested in Law and Medicine, he went on to study Classical languages, and his Mémoire sur la Chronologie d'Hérodote (on Herodotus) rose to the attention of the Académie des Inscriptions and of the group around Claude Adrien Helvétius. Soon after, Volney befriended Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the Marquis de Condorcet, the Baron d'Holbach, and Benjamin Franklin.
He embarked on a journey to the East in late 1782 and reached Egypt, where he spent nearly seven months. Thereafter, he lived for nearly two years in Greater Syria in what is today Lebanon and Israel/Palestine in order to learn Arabic. In 1785 he returned to France, where he spent the following two years compiling his notes and writing his Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie, which was published in 1787, and Considérations sur la guerre des Turcs et de la Russie in 1788.
He was a member both of the Estates-General and of the National Constituent Assembly after the outbreak of the French Revolution. In 1791 appeared Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires, an essay on the philosophy of history, containing a vision which predicts the final union of all religions by the recognition of the common truth underlying them all.
Volney tried to put his politico-economic theories into practice in Corsica, where in 1792 he bought an estate and made an attempt to cultivate colonial produce. Chassebœuf de Volney was thrown into prison during the Jacobin Club triumph, but escaped the guillotine; he was some time professor of history at the newly founded École Normale.
In 1795 he undertook a journey to the United States, where he was accused (1797) by John Adams' administration of being a French spy sent to prepare for the reoccupation of Louisiana by France and then to the West Indies. Consequently, he returned to France. The results of his travels took form in his Tableau du climat et du sol des États-Unis (1803).
He was not a partisan of Napoleon Bonaparte, but, being a moderate Liberal, was impressed into service by the First French Empire, and Napoleon made him a count and put him into the senate. After the Bourbon Restoration he was made a Peer of France, upon recognition of his hostility towards the Empire. Chassebœuf became a member of the Académie française in 1795. In his later years he helped to found oriental studies in France, learning Sanskrit from the British linguist Alexander Hamilton, whom he had helped to protect during the Napoleonic era.
He died in Paris and was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Thomas Jefferson's translation of Volney's Ruins of Empires
English translations of Volney's Ruins began appearing within a year or so of its first French edition but sometime during Volney's stay in the United States, he and Thomas Jefferson entered into a secret arrangement whereby Jefferson agreed to make a new English translation of the work. Volney visited Monticello for two weeks during June 1796. The two men also met on several occasions at the American Philosophical Society, of which Volney had been made a member in 1797. Jefferson was President of APS at the time and sponsored Volney's induction into the organization. These meetings provided the two men with ample opportunity to conceive and discuss the translation project.
Jefferson, then serving as Vice President under John Adams, appreciated the book's central theme – that empires rise if government allows enlightened self-interest to flourish. This theme, Jefferson believed, represented an excellent summary of the Enlightenment-based principles upon which the U.S. was founded. However, Jefferson insisted that his translation be published only for certain readers, due to the book's controversial religious content. Jefferson was preparing to make a bid for the Presidency of the United States in 1800; he was worried his Federalist opponents would attack him as an atheist, if it were known he translated Volney's supposedly heretical book.
According to the evidence discovered by the French researcher Gilbert Chinard (1881-1972), Jefferson translated the invocation plus the first 20 chapters of the 1802 Paris edition of Volney's Ruins. These first 20 chapters represent a review of human history from the point of view of a post-Enlightenment philosopher. Presumably, Jefferson then became too occupied with the 1800 Presidential campaign and didn't have time to finish the last four chapters of the book. In these chapters Volney describes "General Assembly of Nations," a fictionalized world convention wherein each religion defends its version of "the truth" according to its particular holy book. Since no religion is able to scientifically "prove" its most basic assertions, Volney concludes the book with a call for an absolute separation of church and state:
From this we conclude, that, to live in harmony and peace…we must trace a line of distinction between those (assertions) that are capable of verification, and those that are not; (we must) separate by an inviolable barrier the world of fantastical beings from the world of realities…
Since Jefferson did not have time to complete the translation project, the last four chapters were translated by Joel Barlow, an American land speculator and poet living in Paris. Barlow's name then became associated with the entire translation, further obscuring Jefferson's role in the project.
Christ myth theory
Volney and Charles-François Dupuis were the first modern writers to advocate the Christ myth theory, the view that Jesus had no historical existence. Volney and Dupuis argued that Christianity was an amalgamation of various ancient mythologies and that Jesus was a mythical character. However, in his version of the Christ Myth theory Volney allowed for an obscure historical figure whose life was integrated into a solar mythology.
- Travels in Syria and Egypt, During the Years 1783, 1784, & 1785 (Volume 1, Volume 2, 1788)
- The Ruins: Or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (1796)
- New Researches on Ancient History (1819)
- The Ruins; Or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: And The Law of Nature (1890)
- Volney, New York was named after him.
- Prix Volney was founded by Constantin Volney in 1803 and was originally a gold medal worth 1,200 francs.
- Hotel Volney Opera was named after Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney in France.
- The Volney Hotel in New York was named after him.
- Rue Volney was named after him.
- public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Volney, Constantin François Chassebœuf, Comte de". Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 196. One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the
- Morais, Herbert Montfort. (1960). Deism in Eighteenth Century America. Russell & Russell. p. 120
- Staum, Martin S. (1996). Minerva's Message: Stabilizing the French Revolution. McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 122. ISBN 0-7735-1442-2
- The British Library English Short Title Catalogue cites several English translations published in London up to the mid-1790s, the earliest being a 1792 edition published by J. Johnson (ESTC T212858). The earliest American edition cited is that printed by William A. Davis in New York in 1796 (ESTC W22036).
- "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2021-03-31.
- Jean Gaulmier’s L’Ideologue Volney, Slatkine Reprints, 1980; Gilbert Chinard’s Volney et L’Amerique, Johns Hopkins Press, 1923; and minutes of meetings of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA (1795-98).
- Gilbert Chinard, "Volney et L’Amerique," Johns Hopkins Press, 1923.
- "From Thomas Jefferson to Volney, 17 March 1801,"". Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 33, 17 February–30 April 1801, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 341–342. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
- See Chapter 24 of the Jefferson-Barlow translation of Ruins of Empires.
- Levrault of Paris published two editions of the so-called Jefferson-Barlow translation: 1802 and 1817. Bossange Freres of Paris also published an edition in 1820, the year of Volney’s death. In the United States, Dixon and Sickles of New York published the first American edition of the Jefferson-Barlow translation in 1828. The Jefferson-Barlow translation then went through several reprints during the 19th and 20th centuries, including: Gaylord of Boston (1830s), Calvin Blanchard of New York (no date), Josiah Mendum of Boston (1880s), Peter Eckler of New York (1890s & 1910s-20s), and The Truth Seeker Press of New York (1950). See: Jean Gaulmier, cited above, and Nicole Hafid-Martin, Volney: Bibliographie Des Ecrivains Francais, 1999. The Jefferson-Barlow edition is easily identifiable by this simple test: turn to the Invocation at the front of the book. The first sentence should read: "Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchres and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer!" A copy of the Jefferson-Barlow edition is also available on-line at Gutenberg.org (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1397)
- Weaver, Walter P. (1999). The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, 1900–1950. Trinity. pp. 45-50. ISBN 1-56338-280-6
- Jongeneel, Jan A. B. (2009). Jesus Christ in World History: His Presence and Representation in Cyclical and Linear Settings. Peter Lang. p. 172. ISBN 978-3-631-59688-3 "Charles F. Dupuis and Constantin-Francois Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney, were the first to openly deny the historicity of Jesus; they regarded him as a mythological figure and the Gospels as presentations of a myth of predominantly astral nature."
- Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 7-11. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9.
- App, Urs. (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 458. ISBN 978-0-8122-4261-4
- Wells, G. A. "Stages of New Testament Criticism," Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 30, issue 2, 1969
- Roberts, Geoff (2011) Jesus 888 Troubador Publishing pg 144
- "Hotel Volney Opera - 2nd arrondissement - Official Website".
- Caron, Nathalie. "Friendship, Secrecy, Transatlantic Networks and the Enlightenment: The Jefferson-Barlow Version of Volney’s Ruines (Paris, 1802)." Mémoires du livre/Studies in Book Culture 11.1 (2019). online
- Furstenberg, François. When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation. New York: Penguin (2014).
- Katschnig, Gerhard. "The supportive voice in the midst of solitude and melancholy: Volney’s génie des tombeaux et des ruines." History of European Ideas 47.6 (2021): 958–973.
- Kim, Minchul. "Volney and the French Revolution." Journal of the History of Ideas 79.2 (2018): 221–242.
- Works by Constantin-François Volney at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney at Internet Archive
- Volney's Travels through Syria and Egypt, using the 'short s'. This version of the text does not use the 'long s', and may be easier for contemporary readers to understand.