Volney, Constantin François de Chassebɶuf, comte de

Volney, Constantin François de Chassebɶuf, comte de

Volney, Constantin François de Chassebɶuf, comte de, 1757-1820, French scholar. He traveled in Egypt and Syria in the 1780s and wrote an account of his journey, Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte (1787); notable for its exact descriptions, it was useful to Napoleon during his Egyptian campaign. Volney served as deputy (1789) to the States-General, as secretary (1790) of the National Assembly, and later, after spending some time in the United States, as senator under Napoleon, who made him a count in 1808; he was also a member of the chamber of peers under Louis XVIII. His principal work, Les Ruines; ou, Méditation sur les révolutions des empires (1791), which popularized religious skepticism, was influential not only in France but also in England and the United States; it went through many translations and editions and stimulated much controversy. His writings also include works on the United States, on ancient history, and on Arabic.

Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (February 3, 1757 - April 25, 1820) was a French philosopher, historian, orientalist, and politician. He was at first surnamed Boisgirais after his father's estate, but afterwards assumed the name of Volney (which he had created as a contraction of Voltaire and Ferney).



He was born at Craon (Mayenne) of a noble family. Initially interested in Law and Medicine, he went on to study Classical languages, and his Mémoire sur la Chronologie d’Hérodote (on Herodotus) rose to the attention of the Académie des Inscriptions and of the group around Claude Adrien Helvétius. Soon after, Volnay befriended Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the Marquis de Condorcet, the Baron d'Holbach, and Benjamin Franklin.

He embarked on his journey to the East in late 1782 and reached Ottoman Egypt were he spent nearly seven months. Thereafter, he lived for nearly two years in Greater Syria in what is today Lebanon and Israel/Palestine in order to learn Arabic. He returned to France in 1785 where he spent the following two years compiling his notes and writing his Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie, which was published in 1787, and Considérations sur la guerre des Turcs et de la Russie in 1788.

He was a member both of the Estates-General and of the National Constituent Assembly after the outbreak of the French Revolution. 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 tried to put his politico-economic theories into practice in Corsica, where in 1792 he bought an estate and made an attempt to cultivate colonial produce. Chassebœuf de 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.

Later life

In 1795 he undertook a journey to the United States, where he was accused (1797) by John Adams' administration of being a French spy sent to prepare for the reoccupation of Louisiana by France. Consequently, he was forced to return to France in 1798. The results of his travels took form in his Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis (1803).

He was not a partisan of Napoleon Bonaparte, but, being a moderate Liberal, was impressed into service by the First French Empire, and Napoleon made him a count and put him into the senate. After the Bourbon Restoration he was made a Peer of France, upon recognition of his hostility towards the Empire. Chassebœuf became a member of the Académie française in 1795.

He died in Paris and was buried at the Père Lachaise.


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