Volney, Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Comte De
VOLNEY, CONSTANTIN-FRANçOIS CHASSEBOEUF, COMTE DE
(b. Craon, France, 3 February 1757; d. Paris, France, 20 April 1820), geography, linguistics, sociology.
As a student in Paris, Volney learned from Holbach, Mme Helvétius, and other French Idéologues the principles and outlook that were to dominate his thought and action. He then embarked on a voyage to the Levant (1783-1785) to gather data for a systematic account relating the political and social state of the Near East to the physical environment. His Voyage en Égypte et en Syrie …(1787) was a pioneer work in physical and human geography, distinguished from earlier travel accounts by its systematic method and high standards of accuracy. Volney later used similar methods in producing his Tableau du climat et du sol des États-Unis d’Amérique (1803), based on his travels in America (1795-1798). This work contained the first colored geological map of the United States and the first general account of the geology of the trans-Allegheny region.
During the French Revolution, Volney won literary fame for his deistic work Les ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791) and served as a delegate to the Constituent Assembly, Imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, he was later appointed professor of history at the École Normale Supérieure, where he urged the study of history as a social science. Elected to the Institutde France in 1797 and made senator and court by Napoleon, Volney became increasingly disaffected with the Napoleonic regime. Gradually he withdrew from public life to devote himself to linguistic and historical studies.
In linguistics Volney pursued the idea of developing a universal alphabet, an idea embodied in his Simplification des langues orientales … (1795), L’alphabet européen appliqué aux laugues asiatiques (1819), and L’hébreu simplifié …(1820), and in his bequest of 24,000 frans to establish a prize for work in this field. His studies of Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian chronology, collected in Recherches nouvelles sur l’histoire ancienne (1813-1814), were erudite but overambitious.
The scholar, the sociologist, the scientific traveler, and the Idéologue were united in Volney. A pioneer in several fields of inquiry, he was master of none. In all he endeavored to liberate the human mind and to rationalize human institutions by means of an enquête des faits.
Incomplete collections of Volney’s works are Oeuvres complètes de Vloney…mise en ordre et précédées de la vie de l’auteur [by A. Bossange], 8 vols, (Paris, 1820-1822); and Oeuvres complètes, avec notice de Bossange et buste de Volney par David d’Angers, 4 pts. (Paris, 1837), both of which underwent subsequent eds.
The most comprehensive study of Volney, containing an extensive account of the primary sources, a chronological list of some of the eds, of his various works, and a selection of the most useful secondary literature, is Jean Gaulmier, L’Idéologue Volney (1757-1820). Contribution à l’histoire de l’orientalisme en France (Beirut, 1951). Gaulmier has also published Volney’s Voyage en Égypte et en Syrie in a modern ed. with intro. and notes (Paris—The Hague, 1959). See also Gilbert Chinard, Volney et l’ Amérique d’après des documents inédits et sa correspondance avec Jefferson, Johns Hopkins Studies in Romance Literatures and Languages, I (Baltimore, 1923), George W. White’s intro. to the Hafner ed. of Charles Brockden Brown’s trans. of Volney’s Tableau du climat et du sol des États-U nis d’Amérique- A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States of America by C. F. Volney Translated With Occasional Remarks by C. B. Brown …(New York-London, 1968)—gives a critical evalution of Volney’s contributions to early American geology.
John C. Greene