Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney

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Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney
Born3 February 1757
Died25 April 1820(1820-04-25) (aged 63)
Occupation(s)Philosopher, historian, orientalist and politician

Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (3 February 1757 – 25 April 1820) was a French philosopher, abolitionist, writer, orientalist, and politician who was made Commander of the Legion of honour in 1804, Count of the empire in 1808, and a Peer of France by Louis XVIII. 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).[1]


Early life and the French Revolution[edit]

Volney was born at Craon, Anjou (today in Mayenne), of a noble family. His great-grandfather, son of a royal bailiff, was himself a notary and had a surgeon brother. His grandfather, François Chasseboeuf, lawyer, public prosecutor of the inhabitants acted as mayor; he took the title in 1741 . He lost his mother, Jeanne Gigault, daughter of the Sieur de la Giraudaie ( Candé ) at the age of two and was brought up far from his father, Jacques-René Chasseboeuf, seneschal of the priory of Saint-Clément de Craon – who died as a judge - district president, on April 25th, 1796 at 68 years old, with whom he never got along. His father remarried to Marie-Renée Humfray, who took care of the orphan. Initially interested in law and medicine, he went on to study classical languages at the University of Paris, 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, he befriended Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the Marquis de Condorcet, the Baron d'Holbach, and Benjamin Franklin.

He embarked on a journey to the East in late 1782 and reached Egypt, where he spent nearly seven months. He then lived for nearly two years in Greater Syria, in what today is Lebanon and Israel/Palestine, in order to learn Arabic. In 1785 he returned to France, where he spent the next two years compiling his notes and writing his Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie (1787) and Considérations sur la guerre des Turcs et de la Russie (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 his essay on the philosophy of history appeared, Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires. It conveys a vision predicting the union of all religions through the recognition of the common truths underlying them all.[2]

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. He was imprisoned during the Jacobin Club triumph, but escaped the guillotine. He spent some time as a professor of history at the newly founded École Normale.[2]

Volney was a deist.[3][4]

Later life[edit]

Bust of Volney by David d'Angers (1825).
Tomb of Volney, Père Lachaise Cemetery (division 41), Paris

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 and then to the West Indies. Consequently, he returned to France. The results of his travels took form in his Tableau du climat et du sol des États-Unis (1803).[2]

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 by Louis XVIII in 1814, upon recognition of his hostility towards the Empire. Chassebœuf became a member of the Académie française in 1795.[2] In his later years he helped to found oriental studies in France, learning Sanskrit from the British linguist Alexander Hamilton, whom he had helped to protect during the Napoleonic era.

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

Thomas Jefferson's translation of Volney's Ruins of Empires[edit]

English translations of Volney's Ruins began appearing within a year or so of its first French edition[5] but sometime during Volney's stay in the United States, he and Thomas Jefferson entered into a secret arrangement whereby Jefferson agreed to make a new English translation of the work. Volney visited Monticello for two weeks during June 1796. The two men also met on several occasions at the American Philosophical Society, of which Volney had been made a member in 1797.[6] Jefferson was President of APS at the time and sponsored Volney's induction into the organization. These meetings provided the two men with ample opportunity to conceive and discuss the translation project.[7]

Jefferson, then serving as Vice President under John Adams, appreciated the book's central theme – that empires rise if government allows enlightened self-interest to flourish. This theme, Jefferson believed, represented an excellent summary of the Enlightenment-based principles upon which the U.S. was founded. However, Jefferson insisted that his translation be published only for certain readers, due to the book's controversial religious content. Jefferson was preparing to make a bid for the Presidency of the United States in 1800; he was worried his Federalist opponents would attack him as an atheist, if it were known he translated Volney's supposedly heretical book.[citation needed]

According to the evidence discovered by the French researcher Gilbert Chinard (1881-1972), Jefferson translated the invocation plus the first 20 chapters of the 1802 Paris edition of Volney's Ruins.[8][9] These first 20 chapters represent a review of human history from the point of view of a post-Enlightenment philosopher. Presumably, Jefferson then became too occupied with the 1800 Presidential campaign and did not have time to finish the last four chapters of the book. In these chapters Volney describes "General Assembly of Nations," a fictionalized world convention wherein each religion defends its version of "the truth" according to its particular holy book. Since no religion is able to scientifically "prove" its most basic assertions, Volney concludes the book with a call for an absolute separation of church and state:

From this we conclude, that, to live in harmony and peace...we must trace a line of distinction between those (assertions) that are capable of verification, and those that are not; (we must) separate by an inviolable barrier the world of fantastical beings from the world of realities...[10]

Since Jefferson did not have time to complete the translation project, the last four chapters were translated by Joel Barlow, an American land speculator and poet living in Paris. Barlow's name then became associated with the entire translation, further obscuring Jefferson's role in the project.[11]

Christ myth theory[edit]

Volney and Charles-François Dupuis were the first modern writers to advocate the Christ myth theory, the view that Jesus had no historical existence.[12][13] Volney and Dupuis argued that Christianity was an amalgamation of various ancient mythologies and that Jesus was a mythical character.[14][15] However, in his version of the Christ Myth theory, Volney allowed for an obscure historical figure whose life was integrated into a solar mythology.[16][17] Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were supporters of this theory.[18]

In Egypt and Syria[edit]

In describing the Sphinx, he attributed its features and head to be characterized as being Negro. He further commented that " think that this race of black men, today our slave and the object of our contempt, is the very one to whom we owe our arts, our sciences and even the use of speech. Finally, to imagine that it is in the midst of peoples who call themselves the most friends of freedom and humanity that the most barbaric of slaveries has been sanctioned and questioned whether black men have an intelligence of species of white men."[19]

His story, the Voyage to Egypt and Syria had earned its author the suffrage of Empress Catherine II of Russia, who sent him a gold medal as a token of her satisfaction; it was in 1787.

A Late Marriage[edit]

Remaining single until 1810, he later married a cousin, Mademoiselle Gigault, with whom he would live "in polite agreement" with. Since his marriage, he gave up his house on Rue de la Catherine de La Rochefoucauld. He then acquired a hotel located on the Rue de Vaugirard , remarkable above all for the pleasantness of a very extensive garden. He remained gruff and sullen to the rest of the world .

Selected publications[edit]


Those are some of the places and things in the United States of America and France, which were named after him.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Monument à Volney – Craon | E-monumen". 4 March 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Volney, Constantin François Chassebœuf, Comte de". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 196.
  3. ^ Morais, Herbert Montfort. (1960). Deism in Eighteenth Century America. Russell & Russell. p. 120
  4. ^ Staum, Martin S. (1996). Minerva's Message: Stabilizing the French Revolution. McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 122. ISBN 0-7735-1442-2
  5. ^ The British Library English Short Title Catalogue cites several English translations published in London up to the mid-1790s, the earliest being a 1792 edition published by J. Johnson (ESTC T212858). The earliest American edition cited is that printed by William A. Davis in New York in 1796 (ESTC W22036).
  6. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 2021-03-31.
  7. ^ Jean Gaulmier's L’Ideologue Volney, Slatkine Reprints, 1980; Gilbert Chinard's Volney et L’Amerique, Johns Hopkins Press, 1923; and minutes of meetings of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA (1795-98).
  8. ^ Gilbert Chinard, "Volney et L’Amerique," Johns Hopkins Press, 1923.
  9. ^ "From Thomas Jefferson to Volney, 17 March 1801,"". Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 33, 17 February–30 April 1801, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 341–342. Retrieved January 28, 2019.
  10. ^ See Chapter 24 of the Jefferson-Barlow translation of Ruins of Empires.
  11. ^ Levrault of Paris published two editions of the so-called Jefferson-Barlow translation: 1802 and 1817. Bossange Freres of Paris also published an edition in 1820, the year of Volney's death. In the United States, Dixon and Sickles of New York published the first American edition of the Jefferson-Barlow translation in 1828. The Jefferson-Barlow translation then went through several reprints during the 19th and 20th centuries, including: Gaylord of Boston (1830s), Calvin Blanchard of New York (no date), Josiah Mendum of Boston (1880s), Peter Eckler of New York (1890s & 1910s-20s), and The Truth Seeker Press of New York (1950). See: Jean Gaulmier, cited above, and Nicole Hafid-Martin, Volney: Bibliographie Des Ecrivains Francais, 1999. The Jefferson-Barlow edition is easily identifiable by this simple test: turn to the Invocation at the front of the book. The first sentence should read: "Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchres and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer!" A copy of the Jefferson-Barlow edition is also available on-line at (
  12. ^ Weaver, Walter P. (1999). The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, 1900–1950. Trinity. pp. 45-50. ISBN 1-56338-280-6
  13. ^ Jongeneel, Jan A. B. (2009). Jesus Christ in World History: His Presence and Representation in Cyclical and Linear Settings. Peter Lang. p. 172. ISBN 978-3-631-59688-3 "Charles F. Dupuis and Constantin-Francois Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney, were the first to openly deny the historicity of Jesus; they regarded him as a mythological figure and the Gospels as presentations of a myth of predominantly astral nature."
  14. ^ Van Voorst, Robert E. (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 7-11. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9.
  15. ^ App, Urs. (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 458. ISBN 978-0-8122-4261-4
  16. ^ Wells, G. A. "Stages of New Testament Criticism," Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 30, issue 2, 1969
  17. ^ Roberts, Geoff (2011) Jesus 888 Troubador Publishing pg 144
  18. ^ "Were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson Jesus Mythicists?". 21 November 2019.
  19. ^ Volney, Comte Constantin François de Chasseboeuf de (1787). Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte, pendant les années 1783, 1784 et 1785: avec deux cartes géographiques et deux planches gravées représentant les Ruines du Temple du Soleil à Balbek, et celles de la ville de Palmyre, dans le désert de Syrie (in French). Desenne.
  20. ^ "The Volney at 23 East 74th St. In Lenox Hill".

Further reading[edit]

  • Borowski, Audrey. "The universal history to bring all universal histories to an end: the curious case of Volney" Intellectual History Review (2023) /17496977.2023.2179907 [1]
  • Caron, Nathalie. "Friendship, Secrecy, Transatlantic Networks and the Enlightenment: The Jefferson-Barlow Version of Volney's Ruines (Paris, 1802)." Mémoires du livre/Studies in Book Culture 11.1 (2019). online
  • Furstenberg, François. When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation. New York: Penguin (2014).
  • Katschnig, Gerhard. "The supportive voice in the midst of solitude and melancholy: Volney's génie des tombeaux et des ruines." History of European Ideas 47.6 (2021): 958–973.
  • Kim, Minchul. "Volney and the French Revolution." Journal of the History of Ideas 79.2 (2018): 221–242.

External links[edit]

Cultural offices
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