Saint-Hyacinthe, Thémiseul de (1684–1746)

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The real name of Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe, the French freethinker, was Hyacinthe Cordonnier. Born at Orléans, he was unjustly reported to be the son of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet. His ambitious mother induced him to change his name and to become a cavalry officer. Later he devoted himself to the study of ancient and modern languages in Holland, from which he had to flee because of a jealous husband and to which he later returned because he had seduced one of his pupils. He became an editor of the new Journal littéraire (1713) and wrote in favor of the moderns. In 1714 his anonymous Le chef-d'oeuvre d'un inconnu, a satire of pedantry, won him notoriety. He eloped to London in 1722 with the daughter of a nobleman. He stayed there for twelve years, became a member of the Royal Society, and began a long and gratuitous quarrel with Voltaire, whom he offended in a satirical play (Déification d'Aristarchus Masso, 1732). He returned to Paris in 1734 and later moved to Holland, where he died in 1746.

Three of Saint-Hyacinthe's writings are worthy of mention. The first book, Le chef-d'oeuvre d'un inconnu, is a bizarre work that could easily be a satire on the explication de texte method, as it is practiced in some milieus. His last book, Recherches philosophiques sur la nécessité de s'assurer par soi-même de la vérité (1743), is a defense of the power of reason to find truth and of its right to do so. He also argues for the moral-sense theory, with which he probably became familiar during his stay in England. His discussion of words as signs of ideas points toward linguistic analysis. Other chapters deal with demonstration and evidence, matter and the soul.

In between these two works, Saint-Hyacinthe wrote his interesting Lettres écrites de la campagne (1721). This potpourri is a long conversation treating of many subjects, moral and epistemological. He discusses truth in the light of John Locke's definition; evidence for certitude, following the Cartesian cogito and the principle of contradiction. He proposes a methodology for discovering the truth that is also Cartesian. Most interesting is his recognition of the nihilistic challenge to moral values that was becoming more vigorous at the time. The longest section of the book expounds the argument that moral nihilism is justified and that all moral values disappear if God does not exist. Saint-Hyacinthe's real purpose was to urge men to believe in God, but the effect of his argument was more likely to lead them to immoralism, for he expounds that doctrine forcefully and endeavors to make it an impregnable position except in the face of God's existence. These little-known pages are notable as the most systematic exposition of moral nihilism before the Marquis de Sade. The Lettres had some success, and were translated under the title Letters Giving an Account of Several Conversations Upon Important and Entertaining Subjects (2 vols., London, 1731).

Among Saint-Hyacinthe's other publications are the Lettres à Mme. Dacier (1715, concerning the querelle d'Homère ); "Lettre à un ami, touchant le progrès du déisme en Angleterre" (in his edition of Mémoires concernant la théologie et la morale, 1732); and the novel Histoire du prince Titi (1735).

L. G. Crocker (1967)

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Saint-Hyacinthe, Thémiseul de (1684–1746)

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Saint-Hyacinthe, Thémiseul de (1684–1746)