Comte de Volney
(1757 – 1820)
French philosopher, historian,
orientalist and politician.
Born of a noble family, he was initially interested in Law and Medicine, but then he decided to study Classical languages.
In 1782 he left for a long journey to the East. At first he spent nearly seven months in the Ottoman Egypt where he retreated into a Coptic convent to learn Arabic. Then he went to live for nearly two years in Greater Syria (what is today
and Israel/Palestine). Lebanon
He returned to
in 1785 where he spent the following two years compiling his notes about his travelling experiences. His « Traité sur la simplification des langues orientales » published in 1795, is the earliest treatise dedicated by Volney to his great works about this theme which will make him famous. Soon after he wrote his ‘Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie’ which was published 1787, and his ‘Considérations sur la guerre des Turcs et de France la Russie followed only a year later.
After the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789-1799), Chassebœuf became a member both of the Estates-General and of the National Constituent Assembly.
In 1791 appeared Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires, an essay on the philosophy of history, containing a vision which predicts the final union of all religions by the recognition of the common truth underlying them all.
Volney’s text is a strong criticism of tyranny and celebration of liberty, quite typical in his time, and partly inspired by the battles between Russia and Turkey that broke out in 1788.
But his book is also one of the strangest in the genre. After some pages on the perfidy of the Turks and the sufferings of the oppressed Greeks and Arabs, the author wanders through the ruins talking to a holy spirit for about two hundred pages. This spirit shows him a future in which all nations have come together in an international democratic government. Together they decide then to interrogate all the religions of the world to understand what it is true in each. Basically, they conclude that all of them are largely false and are simply degraded versions of the ancient Egyptian astrology. It is important to point out that even the historicity of Jesus is questioned here, and that Chassebœuf was one of the earliest writers to deal with such a a matter.
In the end the text contains a vision which predicts the final union of all religions by the recognition of the common truth which is at the base of them all (= as, in origin, all religions were one at their root).
Volney was thrown into prison during the Jacobin Club triumph, but escaped the guillotine; he was some time professor of history at the newly founded École Normale. In 1795 became a member of the Académie française.
In that same year, he travelled to the United States, where he intended to spend some time. In 1797 he was accused by John Adams' administration of being a French spy sent there to prepare for a French reoccupation of Louisiana. As a result he was forced to return to
in 1798. Thanks to his travels in the France New World, he wrote his ‘Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis’ which was published in 1803.
He was not a partisan of Napoleon Bonaparte, but, being a moderate Liberal, he served in the First French Empire, and Napoleon made him a count and put him into the senate.
Constantin François de Chassebœuf assumed the name of Volney (= contraction of Voltaire, a writer he greatly loved, and Ferney, the town on the Swiss border where Voltaire spent the years between 1759 and 1778 and that it was than renamed Ferney-Voltaire).
After the Bourbon Restoration and upon recognition of his hostility towards the Empire, the Comte of Volney was later made a Peer of France.
Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney, died in Paris and was buried at the Père Lachaisen Cemetery.