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Dubos was born in Beauvais. After studying theology, he gave it up in favour of public law and politics. He was employed by M. de Torcy, minister of foreign affairs, and by the regent and Cardinal Dubois in several secret missions, in which he acquitted himself with great success. He was rewarded with a pension and other advantages. Having obtained these, he retired from political life and devoted himself to history and literature. He gained such distinction as an author that in 1720 he was elected a member of the Académie française, of which, in 1723, he was appointed perpetual secretary in succession to André Dacier. He died in Paris, repeating the remark, "Death is a law, not a punishment."
Dubos' first work was L'Histoire des quatre Gordiens prouvée et illustrée par des médailles (Paris, 1695), which, in spite of its ingenuity, did not succeed in convincing most people. At the beginning of the war of 1701 he was charged with different negotiations (both in the Netherlands and England). In an attempt to persuade those countries to adopt a policy of peace, he published a work entitled Les Intéréts de l'Angleterre mal entendus dans la guerre présente (Amsterdam, 1703). This work contained indiscreet disclosures and predictions that were not fulfilled. The enemy took advantage of the work, and a wag took occasion to remark that the title ought to be read thus: Les Intérêts de l'Angleterre mal entendus par l'abbé Dubos. It is remarkable as containing a distinct prophecy of the revolt of the American colonies from Great Britain.
Dubos' next work was L'Histoire de la Ligue de Cambray (Paris, 1709, 1728 and 1785, 2 vols.), a full, clear and interesting history, commended by Voltaire. In 1734 he published his Histoire critique de l'établissement de la monarchie française dans les Gaules (3 vols. 4to)--a work the object of which was to prove that the Franks had entered Gaul, not as conquerors, but at the request of the nation, which, according to him, had called them in to govern it. But this system, though unfolded with a degree of skill and ability that, at first, procured many zealous partisans, was victoriously refuted by Montesquieu at the end of the thirtieth book of the Esprit des lois.
Dubos' Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, published for the first time in 1719 (2 vols, but often reprinted in three volumes), constitute one of the works in which the theory of the arts is explained with the utmost sagacity and discrimination. Like his history of the League of Cambray, it was highly praised by Voltaire. The work was rendered more remarkable by the fact that its author had no practical acquaintance with any one of the arts whose principles he discussed. Besides the works above enumerated, a manifesto of Maximilian II Emanuel, elector of Bavaria, against the emperor Leopold (relative to the succession in Spain) has been attributed to Dubos from the excellence of the style.
"[O]ne of the greatest wants of man is to have his mind incessantly occupied. The heaviness which quickly attends the inactivity of the mind, is a situation so very disagreeable to man, that he frequently chooses to expose himself to the most painful excesses, rather than be troubled with it." Critical Reflections, I. I
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Dubos, Jean-Baptiste". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Critical Reflections – 1748 English translation by Thomas Nugent of Dubos's Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture.
- An incomplete bibliography with some notes on the works.