Cyrano de Bergerac, Savinien de (1619–1655)
CYRANO DE BERGERAC, SAVINIEN DE
Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a soldier, man of letters, and freethinker, was born in Paris, where he died thirty-six years later; he resembled only superficially the hero of Edmond Rostand's romanticized drama (1897). Hostile to the formal authoritarian education to which he had been subjected at the Collège de Beauvais, he was persuaded to serve in the army, where he gained a considerable reputation as a duelist and writer of verses. His military career came to an end when he was wounded at the siege of Arras in 1640. Between 1642 and 1651 he studied philosophy assiduously, with special stress on Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes, and was, according to some, a pupil of Gassendi himself. Descartes's principle of methodical doubt, Gassendi's rehabilitation of Epicurus, and the attendant influence of a newly translated Lucretius were all forces providing a common philosophical denominator which drew Cyrano closer to his fellow libertins —Gabriel Naudé, François La Mothe Le Vayer, and Molière, among others. At the same time he was emerging as a burlesque poet of consequence and a redoubtable political writer who first attacked and then defended the Machiavellian statecraft of Cardinal Mazarin. In 1652 he entered the service of the Duc d'Arpajon under whose protection he brought out in 1654 his Oeuvres diverses, which included the boldly rational Lettre contre les sorciers and a farcical comedy, Le pédant joué, from which Molière borrowed two passages for Les fourberies de Scapin. In 1654 Cyrano also published an intellectually challenging and ideologically daring tragedy, La mort d'agrippine. A falling beam, dislodged by accident—or perhaps intentionally—brought death a year later.
Cyrano's reputation as an intellectual libertine, propagator of subversive ideas, satirist of man and his foibles, and as a figure in the vanguard of scientific thought—already firmly established before 1655—received increased notoriety with the posthumous appearance of L'autre monde, ou les états et empires de la lune et du soleil, which described imaginary voyages to the moon and the sun, respectively. The first of the two parts of this work was made public in truncated form by the author's friend Le Bret in 1657. The second part, either unfinished or censored (the original manuscript has vanished), was published in 1762.
Despite borrowings and suggestions from a variety of sources, Cyrano's work, particularly when compared with that of many of his contemporaries, is strikingly original. Subscribing to the still little known and highly controversial Copernican theory, he adhered to the principle that all is relative in the universe and attacked religious and philosophical anthropocentrism. In fact he was the first to link closely together a criticism of the religion of Moses and the philosophy of Aristotle. In the man-machine–beast-machine debate, he stressed the idea of continuity among all living creatures. A forerunner of Denis Diderot's materialism, he outlined a calculation of probability according to which atoms, by means of chance and infinite time alone, could, in their innumerable combinations, create the organized world known to man. Furthermore he demonstrated an awareness of the forces of gravitation, the laws of which Isaac Newton was to discover and define several decades later. But he did not have Gassendi's gift for observation and experimentation or Descartes's aptitude for mathematics. He was more a popularizer of science than a true scientist. Indeed, he was the originator of science fiction.
The chief significance of Cyrano lies in the fact that he epitomized the general mental attitudes among the freethinkers of his period: enmity toward tradition, interest in ethical and scientific progress, and fondness for philosophical abstractions. As such he was eminently representative of those engaged in a protracted intellectual struggle which revealed the great trend of the French critical spirit—a spirit that was to gain increased momentum in the eighteenth century and to approach fulfillment with the publication of Diderot's encyclopedia.
works by cyrano
Modern editions of de Bergerac's works include F. Lachèvre, ed., Les oeuvres libertines de Cyrano de Bergerac (Paris: E. Champion, 1921); H. Weber, ed., Cyrano de Bergerac. L'autre monde (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1959); and Richard Aldington, ed. and tr., Voyages to the Moon and Sun (New York: Orion, 1962).
works on cyrano
See P.-A. Brun, Savinien de Cyrano Bergerac. Sa vie et ses oeuvres (Paris: A. Colin, 1893); René Pintard, Le libertinage érudit dans la premiere moitié de XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Boivin, 1943); J.-J. Bridenne, "A la recherche du vrai Cyrano de Bergerac," Information littéraire (November–December 1953).
Otis Fellows (1967)