Volney, Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, Comte de (1757–1820)

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Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, the French philosophe and historian, was born in Anjou. He early showed a scholarly disposition, and at fifteen he asked for Hebrew lessons in order to verify translations of the Bible. Inheriting independent wealth, he left for Paris at seventeen, turned down his father's plea to study law, and, interested in the relation between the moral and the physical aspects of man, chose medicine instead. He also pursued his study of history and languages, and he became involved in the polemics and ideological struggles of the time. In 1783 he gave himself the name Volney and left for Egypt and Syria "to acquire new knowledge and embellish the rest of my life by an aura of respect and esteem." After eight months in a Coptic monastery, devoted to mastering Arabic, he spent three and a half years traveling on foot throughout Egypt and Syria. The resulting Voyage en Égypte et Syrie (1787) is his most enduring production. A remarkable travel book, it differs from those of the romantic travelers (such as François René de Chateaubriand) by its impersonality and its careful, objective account of physical, political, and moral conditions. It was used as a guide by Napoleon Bonaparte's armies.

After his return to France, his prestige assured, he was placed in charge of commercial relations with Corsica and, on the outbreak of the Revolution, was elected a representative of the third estate. His revolutionary career was quite distinguished; he defended civil rights and freedoms, attacked the church strongly, and later opposed the excesses of the Jacobins. In 1792 he bought land in Corsica and showed how products of the New World could be successfully transplanted. There he met and became friendly with Napoleon, whose greatness he foresaw. Forced to leave because of unrest in Corsica, he subsequently spent ten months in prison, falsely accused of being a royalist, until he was released after the ninth of Thermidor. Appointed professor of history in the new École Normale, he developed a critical methodology for historical investigation. When that institution was suppressed in 1795, he went to the United States. Well received by George Washington, he was happy at first. John Adams, however, was unforgiving of Volney's severe criticisms of his political writings, and he felt an animosity toward the French as a result of the XYZ Affair. In addition, a theological quarrel with Joseph Priestley, who was then in America, did not dispose Adams favorably toward visiting philosophers. Accused of being a secret agent, Volney was forced to leave America in 1798, but by then he had traveled all over the country. In 1803 he published Tableau du climat et du sol des États-Unis d'Amérique, an objective description famous for its picture of Niagara Falls; in the preface he told of his persecutions.

Back in France, Volney cooperated in Napoleon's coup of the 18th Brumaire and was named senator. However, he frequently opposed Napoleon's dictatorial tendencies, and he also opposed the Concordat of 1801. Napoleon ridiculed him along with his whole group of idéologues (including Pierre Cabanis and Comte Antoine Destutt de Tracy), but he later made Volney a count. Volney, however, supported the Restoration and was rewarded with a peerage. Volney was known for his independence and for his ill-tempered, overbearing character.


Volney's most famous work is Les ruines, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791), a work conceived in Benjamin Franklin's study in Paris. Widely read and admired during his lifetime and later, it now seems a shallow piece of rhetoric. It was much read in English, under the title The Ruins of Empires (1792). The author contemplates the ruins of Palmyra and wonders how powerful empires, seemingly destined to last forever, succumbed to the universal law of change and destruction. A belated example of "philosophic" polemics, Les ruines promoted deism by a comparative study of religious doctrines and practices, preached tolerance and free inquiry, the unalienable rights of men and peoples, and the right of self-government. Some ethical ideas were sketched, which Volney developed in La loi naturelle. Thus, man in the state of nature "did not see at his side beings descended from the heavens to inform him of his needs which he owes only to his senses, to instruct him of duties which are born solely of his needs."

Even more interesting as a reflection of moderate views held by philosophes at the end of the century is Volney's La loi naturelle, ou Catéchisme du citoyen français (1792). In this work he affirmed a natural law given by God, but this natural law is essentially physical ("the regular and constant order by which God rules the universe"). The moral aspect of natural law is only an extension of the biological requirement for self-preservation and "perfection" on the part of the individual and the species. Consequently, morals could become an exact science. In this work, as in Les ruines, Volney praised the harmony and order of relationships in the universe, declaring that man is no exception to their rule; yet within this impersonal natural law he discerned purpose and final causes, namely, the happiness and perfection of the individual. Physical suffering has a useful natural function, and the advantage of greater sensitivity in man is compensated by the disadvantage of greater suffering. Law is a command (or prohibition) followed by reward or punishment. Moral law depends on general and constant rules of conduct that inhere in the order of things. Moral law is not obvious; rather, it forms "in its developments and consequences, a complex ensemble that requires the knowledge of many facts and all the sagacity of reasoning." The basic principle of natural law is self-preservation, not happiness, which is "an article of luxury." Pleasure and pain are the mechanisms by which natural law works. Men are aware of these laws only in society. Life in society is man's true natural state, since it is necessary for his self-preservation; in what is called the state of nature, man was only a miserable brute. Volney's formulations reveal the infiltration of naturalistic viewpoints into natural law theory. The whole moral dimension of human life is reduced to a basic biological law, and all of morality is based on narrow utilitarian values.

Volney was also the author of works on biblical chronology (hostile to orthodox interpretations) and on ancient history. He proposed a universal alphabet and the study of culture through language.

See also Cabanis, Pierre-Jean Georges; Chateaubriand, François René de; Deism; Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, Comte; Franklin, Benjamin; Laws of Nature; Priestley, Joseph.


Volney's complete works were published as Oeuvres complètes in 8 volumes (Paris, 1821) and in 11 volumes (Brussels, 1822).

For literature on Volney, see J. Barni, Les moralistes français au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1873); J. Gaulmier, Volney (Paris, 1959); and A. Picavet, Les idéologues (Paris, 1891).

See also Counihan, Roberat D., "The Political Philosophy of Volney: Case History of French Revolutionary Intellectualism" (MA thesis; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1969).

L. G. Crocker (1967)

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Volney, Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, Comte de (1757–1820)

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