(b. Reims, France, 13 November 1688; d. La Varenne-Saint-Maur, near Paris, France, 19 November 1761)
Pluche, whose father died when he was twelve years old, came from a modest family. His mother intended that he should become a priest, and he began theological studies at an early age. He became a subdeacon at the age of fifteen and was ordained in 1712. In 1710 Pluche began teaching humanities at the seminary in Reims, where, upon his ordination, he obtained the chair of rhetoric. He was interested in ancient languages, science, and the fine arts, and he also played music, tried his hand at poetry, and wrote plays in which his pupils acted. About 1713 he wrote Abrégé de l’histoire de Reims, which was published under a pseudonym in 1721.
Meanwhile, Pluche had become identified with the Jansenists and was suspected of opposing the positions pronounced in the papal bull Unigenitus (1713). As a result, he had to give up his post and leave Reims in 1717. He was appointed principal at the collège of Laon but had to relinquish the post the following year when he refused to sign any retraction. Fearing that the king would grant his superiors the lettre de cachet that they were seeking against him, Pluche, under the assumed name of the Abbé Noël, took refuge with the intendant of Normandy, Monsieur de Gasville, who placed him in charge of his son’s education. Having become acquainted at Rouen with a rich Englishman, Lord Stafford, Pluche learned English and gave what were then called physics lessons—actually natural history—to the latter’s son.
Henceforth, Pluche gained his livelihood from teaching and from land rentals. He continued to support himself in the same manner when, soon after, he left Normandy for Paris, where he gave lessons in history and geography.
Pluche gave up teaching entirely for several years in order to write Le spectacle de la nature, which appeared in eight volumes between 1732 and 1750. His efforts were well rewarded, for the work enjoyed an immediate and immense success. According to the estimate of C. V. Doan, the work, along with its abridgments and adaptations, went through at least fifty-seven editions in France, seventeen in England, and several more in other European countries. In the inventory Daniel Mornet made of the books in five hundred private libraries of the period, he found Le spectacle in 206 of them. Well known by the educated public, the work played an important role in the education of children of wealthy families and was sometimes even used as a textbook of natural science. Le spectacle is explicitly didactic, and for a time Pluche had even thought of calling it “La physique des enfants.” Composed mainly in the form of dialogues between a young nobleman, his parents, and a prior, it is an idealization of Pluche’s activities as tutor to the Stafford family.
From the publication of the first volume of Le spectacle, contemporaries pointed out that Pluche had borrowed extensively from Derham. Pluche’s familiarity with the English literature of the period is obvious, and he often cited Hales, Burnet, and Woodward, as well as Derham. Indeed, Pluche’s work lay outside the mainstream of eighteenth-century French natural science, since he rejected most aspects of Enlightenment thought. He found his vein in the current of natural theology that had been developing in England since John Ray, and it was this way of thinking that he introduced with astonishing success to the French public.
Like Linnaeus. Pluche thought that nature was created for man to admire, a spectacle that cannot be conceived without the spectator. Man is necessary to the creation in a more fundamental way; in him, all beings find, directly or indirectly, their reason for existence, which is nothing other than to be useful and edifying to man.
The relationship of spectacle to spectator guarantees man’s importance but at the same time sets a limit to knowledge. A spectacle is something that presents itself to the eye; it consists of the exterior of things and the relationships that can be perceived between them. Pluche’s epistemology was completely utilitarian and pragmatic. “To claim to penetrate the very heart of nature; to wish to relate effects to their particular causes; to wish to understand the artifice and the play of the springs (ressorts) and the smallest elements of which these springs are composed: this is a risky enterprise, in which success is too uncertain” (Spectacle, I, ix). “It is not always the most brilliant speculations nor the choice of the most exotic materials that is most profitable. I prefer Monsieur de Réaumur busy exterminating moths by means of an oily fleece; or increasing fowl production by making them hatch without the help of their mothers, than Monsieur Bernoulli absorbed in algebra, or Monsieur Leibniz calculating the various advantages and disadvantages of the possible worlds” (Spectacle, I, 475). Always reluctant to adopt any theoretical stance, even one of limited generality, Pluche was never really a Newtonian; he inclined to accept the Abbé de Molières’s compromise between Newtonian physics and Cartesian vortices.
Pluche combined this pragmatism and lack of concern for theoretical coherence with a devout utilitarianism. In his words: “We are here only to be virtuous” (Spectacle, I, 523). He contended that reason is escorted by arms and feet, with which man is endowed not in order to contemplate but to work; too much knowledge derived from the pleasure of contemplation would lead us to distraction. Man must be restored to nature and “reason [must be] brought back to earth.” Then unity will reign everywhere and man, in his true place, will see that everything can be of service to him. The spectacle of nature provides him with a guide for action.
Through what might appear to be a paradoxical decision on the part of an author writing a work entitled Le spectacle de la nature, Pluche devoted as much attention to the arts and trades as he did to natural science; because, for him, the arts formed part of nature. Man is made not so much to understand the earth as to cultivate it, to exchange its products, and to transform them for his benefit. Reason, while admiring nature, does not have to penetrate her deepest mysteries but at most should imitate nature through the arts. The arts are already present in nature, as can be seen from the web of the spider and from the art of government displayed by bees, ants, and other animals. In Pluche’s view, therefore, theoretical knowledge is relatively useless. There is no reason to know except in order to act. This notion accorded with his fundamentally conservative view of society, according to which the psychological constitution of each person defines his intellectual capacities in such a way that one is exactly suited to the position one occupies in the social order and is to be satisfied with one’s place and function.
In a certain sense Pluche’s work constituted a reassertion of the rights of feeling and of a global view of nature against the rational and analytical outlook of the philosophers. Pluche, moreover, deplored the whole development of rationalist science that had occurred in Europe since the end of the Middle Ages, an aberration that he attributed to the pernicious influence of the Arabs. To a sterile, theoretical science, he opposed an account based as much on emotion as on reason. The spectacle of nature, like a mirror, reflects something other than itself and speaks to us in the language by which Providence teaches us virtue as well as its own glory and perfection. Le spectacle de la nature thus provided its readers with a popular and pragmatic theology. Because of its distrust of theoretical ambitions, the analytic method, and abstract demonstration, the science it contained scarcely reflects the concerns of the scientific research of its time. As a popularizer, Pluche was no Fontenelle. His approach, rather than making science truly intelligible to the public through the medium of everyday language, actually tended to dissolve the scientific content into this language to such an extent that its specific nature is destroyed.
The first edition of Pluche’s Histoire du ciel appeared in 1739; it enjoyed a certain success, but not on the scale of the success of the Spectacle. In the Histoire Pluche restated his opposition to the cosmologies proposed by the physicists—which he termed “romans philosophiques”—and sought to display the excellence of the physics of Moses, which supposedly conforms to the teachings of both “history and experimental physics.” He also attempted to demonstrate that monotheism preceded polytheism.
Assured of a comfortable income from the contracts that he skillfully negotiated with his publisher, Pluche, who had gone deaf, left Paris in 1749 and retired to La Varenne-Saint-Maur, where he devoted himself to scholarship and contemplation. Until his death from apoplexy in 1761, he published books on linguistics, geography, and the Bible.
The most important of Pluche’s works are Le spectacle de la nature, 8 vols. (Paris, 1732–1750); Histoire du ciel 2 vols. (Paris, 1739}; Revision de l’histoire du ciel (Paris, 1749), which was recast in the new ed. of Histoire du ciel (Paris, 1759); La mécanique des langues et l’art de les enseigner (Paris, 1751); and Concorde de la géographic des differents âges (Paris, 1765).
An exhaustive bibliography of the various eds. can be found in Caroline V. Doan, “Un succes littraire du XVIIIe siecle: le spectacle de la nature de l’abbé Pluche” (thesis, Sorbonne, 1957). Most accounts of eighteenth-century thought mention Pluche, but the only detailed study is Doan, who also cites secondary literature.
On Pluche’s influence, see D. Mornet, “Les enseignements des bibliothèques privées, 1750–1780,” in Revue d’histoire littèraire de la France, 17 (1910), 449–496.