Soulavie, Jean-Louis Giraud

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(b Largentière, Ardèche, France, 8 July 1752; d. Paris. France. 11 March 1813)


Ordained in 1776, Soulavie was one of the many philosophical abbés and pamphleteers active before the Revolution. He became an early member of the Jacobin Club, supported the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), and served as the diplomatic resident of the First Republic in Geneva (1793–1794). He married in 1792 and was later permitted to return to secular life by Pope Pius VII . After Thermidor (27 July 1794) he devoted himself to the writing and editing of memoirs concerned with the history of France; perhaps best known is his Mémoires historiques et politiques du règne de Louis XVI (1801), which, like his other works, remains difficult to evaluate for its accuracy and historical significance.

Soulavie’s scientific activities occupied a relatively short period of his life. A self-taught amateur, he was widely read and spent some time during the 1770’s exploring the volcanic regions of Vivarais and Velay. On his arrival at Paris in 1778, his geological views had already been formulated; after additional field trips, he returned to Paris in 1780, established permanent residence there, and became a familiar figure at several salons.

Soulavie’s major geological publication was the eight-volume Histoire naturelle de la France méridionale (1780–1784). Beginning with the then common idea that most sedimentary formations had been deposited by a universal, gradually diminishing ocean, he went on to stress and develop the principle of superposition. Soulavie, however, used superposition not only to determine the relative ages of strata, but he also attempted to correlate age with fossil remains. He argued that the oldest Strata also contain the largest proportion of extinct species, while the youngest show a predominance of forms with living analogues.1 He then attempted to work out a local geochronology for Vivarais by taking note of those sedimentary formations in which volcanic debris could be found.2 These observations and ideas were expressed on geological maps of his own design, using a combination symbols, hachures, and color.3

Soulavie’s geological ideas were actually less clear and consistent than is suggested by any one of his publications. Although he always insisted dial volcanic activity was more important and widespread than some contemporaries believed, he was vague and contradictory about the source of volcanic heat. On occasion, he seems to have held Neptunist views of the nature of the earth’s core and oldest formations; elsewhere, however, he discussed the probable existence of a central heat within the earth.4 In different portions of the Histoire naturelle, he emphasized both the extinction of species and the likelihood that seemingly extinct species had merely migrated to warmer climates 5.

Although extravagant claims have been made forSoulavie’s originality, his place in the history geology cannot yet be assessed. Certain of his contemporaries admired his boldness and imagination, while others condemned the very same traits. He himself condemned system-building and was complimented on his “method of philosophizing” Benjamin Franklin 6 However, Buffon (to whom Soulavie was indebted for many of his ideas) roundly condemned Soulavie as an observer and thinker. Such negative views were not shared some members of the Académie Royale des Sciences, which awarded its privilège to the first volumes of Soulavie’s Histoire naturelle. The conflicting evaluations can be attributed in part to factionalism within the French scientific community, but also, in part, to the fact that naturalists were not wholly in agreement about two of Soulavi’s major ideas: the extinction of species and the importance of volcanic activity.7


1.Historier naturelle. esp. I. 161–163,317–332 Reference to this work are to the copy at the Bibliothèque Nationale cotes S. 21194–21200 and Rés. S. 1158.See Bibliography.

2.Ibid., esp. II. 362–377: IV . 16.42–44.

3.Ibid., I , 143–149, for his method of constructing maps; A good example of the result is in vol. ll . and the same name in Géographie (in color in the copy at the Bibliothèque Nationale).

4. For Neptunism and the recent origins of volcanoes.see Classes,101,140–141, 149 (table), 157. The role of central heat is treated in Oeuvres, 290–297, and Histoire naturelle I. 167.

5.Ibid., V. 217–221. and above, n. 1.

6. Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (1938: reissue New York: Viking Press, 1964), 659–660. For Soulavie on system-building, Oeuvres. 280–281, 288.

7.Correspondance inédite de Buffon, H. Nadault de Buffon,ed., II (Paris, 1860), 109. Also, letter of Faujas de St.-Fond in Bibliothèque Municipale de Nîmes,MS 94, fols.59–60. Specific scientific issues separating Buffon and Soulavie are mentioned hy Aufrère. p. 38. The copy of Casses at Bibliothèque Nationale includes a prefatory statement Imperial Academy that it admires some of Soulavie’s and information, but “ne prétend pas autoriser par suffrage [ses] hypothèses... hazardés.” The work received a second accessit (third prize).


I. Original Works. Géographie de la nature(Paris,1780) is a brochure presenting the principal ideas of Soulavie’s Historie nalurelle de la France Méridionale,8 vols. (Paris, 1780– 1784). Some sections of the latter work bear different titles and have their own publication history; the order in which parts are bound may vary in different copies. The first 7 vols. deal with “minerals.” and another vol. on this subject was apparently planned (see Bibliotheàque Nationale, Catalogue des livers im primés, s.v. Soulavie, entry S. 21206). Vol. VIII deals with the plant kingdom. Prospectus de l’ “Histoire naturelle de la France méridionale” (Nîmes, 1780) was reprinted in the Histoire naturelle. I, 3–51,Oeuvres complettes de M. le Chevalier Hamilton (Paris, 1781) has extensive notes and commentary by Soulavie; part of the volume consists of Sir William Hamilton’s Campiphlegraei (Naples, 1776). Les Classes naturelles des minéraux et les époques de la nature correspondantes à chaque classe(St. Petersburg, 1786) was written in response to a prize question posed in 1785 by the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. He published articles in Observations sur la physique, sur l’histoire naturelle et sur les arts, as well as many works on nonscientific subjects. Soulavie’s library and other possessions were sold in several lots after his death; of the extant sales catalogs, the one listing his science library is Notice des principaux articles composant le cabinet de livres, tableaux, gravures, et collection d’estampes...(paris, 1813), B.N.,Δ13478.

II. Secondary Literature. See Albin Mazon, Histoire de Soulavie (naturaliste, diplomate, historien),, 2 vols. (Paris, 1893). and Appendice à l’ “Histoire de Soulavie” (Privas, 1901): E.-J.-A. d’Archiac de St.-Simon. Introduction à l’étude de la paléontologie stratigraphique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1864). I, 348–354, and Géologie et paléontologie (Paris, 1866), 142–145. Mazon relies heavily on Archiac in discussing Soulavie’s geology.Léon Aufrère. De Thalès à Davis. Le relief et la sculpture de la terre. Tome IV. La fin du XVIIIesiècle. I. Soulavie et son secret (Paris, 1952), 71–83, discusses the “unexpurgated” and “expurgated” versions of vol. I of the Histoire naturelle; the final version omitted Soulavie’s evidence for the great age of the earth.

Rhoda Rappaport