Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Les Ruines by Constantin Volney

The Romantics absolutely loved to spend afternoons wandering through old ruins and being moved by them to reflect on the fate of all human things to perish. The tradition likely originated with Diderot; but Volney was one of the most popular, and long-winded, writers of the genre with Les Ruines, ou Méditation sur les Révolutions des Empires, a 1791 account of his 1783-85 trip to the Levant, where the Ottoman Empire was in its long decline, and his reveries in the ruins of Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. Volney’s text is a vehement criticism of tyranny and celebration of liberty, typical for the era, and partly inspired by the battles between Russia and Turkey that broke out in 1788.

But Volney’s book is also one of the strangest in the genre, and a good example of just how bizarre Revolution-era books could be. After some pages on the perfidy of the Turks and the suffering of the oppressed Greeks and Arabs, Volney wanders through the ruins talking to a holy spirit for about two hundred pages. The spirit shows him a future in which all nations have come together in an international democratic government (under the tricolors!) and decide to interrogate the religions of the world to decide what is true in each. Basically, they conclude that all of them are largely-false, degraded versions of ancient Egyptian astrology, and they decide therefore to put aside their differences! The end!

Volney’s book was highly influential on later authors such as Lamartine and Chateaubriand, and it’s surprising, given how Catholic these authors were, just how close Volney’s ideas are to espousing theosophy- the belief that all religions are one at their root, usually deriving from the Egyptians. Volney is also the intellectual forebear of Madame Blavatsky, after all. It’s also a shame that Volney isn’t much discussed today as he certainly had a unique take on the “eastern question”.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

In the first twenty chapters of Ruins of Empires, Volney defines a General Principle that applies to all countries, all continents, all cultures, all centuries--Empires Rise IF Government Allows Enlightened Self-Interest to Flourish. In the last four chapters of The Ruins, Volney provides a solution to the world's enduring religious conflicts during a fictional General Assembly of Nations. Thomas Jefferson liked this book so much he translated the first twenty chapters. Joel Barlow finsihed the rest. (see Gaulmier, 1959 and 1980; and Chinard, 1923).

Rufus said...

Awesome note! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Note also that Abraham Lincoln read and was significantly influenced by Ruins of Empires as a young man (see Hearndon's Life of Lincoln). Quite probably, Lincoln read Jefferson's translation. That means the lessons of this book were (unwittingly) handed down from one famous president to another famous president. Why no one reads (or understands) Volney's Ruins of Empires today is beyond me...

Anonymous said...

I have an edition of this book, about 1791 year, I bought in a old book store at the price equivalent of 14 dollars.