maanantai 2. toukokuuta 2016

Comte de Volney: Ruines or meditations on revolutions of empires (1791) and Natural law or catechism of French citizen (1793)

Comte de Volney (1757-1820)

It has been said that at the end of 18th century two culturally important transitions occurred. One was the appearance of Kant's first Critique, the second was French Revolution. Although these events occurred in very different fields, both did shatter some truths that were long held to be incontrovertible.

While the first of these events is clearly philosophical, it might seem difficult to find any philosophy in the latter. True, there were philosophical inspirations for the revolution, especially in the earlier French Enlightenment, but if one believes elementary introductions to philosophy, it all disappeared when political tumult began.

Yet, there were philosophical writings appearing during the French Revolution and written by French persons. Writings of de Volney could be said to embody many of the themes of the revolution. Indeed, Les Ruines Ou Méditations Sur Les Révolutions Des Empires is a clear homage to French revolution. Volney's book commences with the author meeting a spirit, which allows him to view Earth, as it were a distant planet watched through an enormously powerful telescope. The spirit shows the author how states were born – it is the old theory of social contract, with people joining together, because life in natural state was too filled with dangers (especially those posed by fellow human beings).

In original societies all people were equal, Volney says, but then some people begun to gather power and form an aristocracy, or if they based their power on supposed divine ordinance, a theocracy. At the end of this development are monarchies, which are often founded by people raising one person above others in order to protect themselves from the aristocrats. It is just this division of classes that makes societies weak, Volney suggests. When majority have no say in the affairs of state, they have no motivation to defend it against external aggressors. Of course, conquest means just change of one oppressor to another.

Volney also suggests a solution to this seemingly never-ending cycle of empires rising and falling. When people are enlightened, they finally grow weary of their rulers and throw them away. Clearly referring to French Revolution, Volney tells a tale of a great Western nation removing the shackles of upper classes and giving the power to the whole people.

But revolution in one country is not enough for Volney, who desires freedom for the whole globe. What Volney finds most hindering such a universal revolution are the cultural and especially religious differences – people are lured to obey the rulers by priests, who say they hold the only access to truth. Volney lets the different religions fight with themselves and shows how all of them contain details that are held to be absurd by proponents of other religions. He also launches a common anthropological attack against all religions. Religion, Volney says, begun when people thought natural phenomena like thunder or rain were living beings that could be persuaded by gifts and prayers. Especially astronomical knowledge and moral notions developed religion into forms we know nowadays, and indeed, all religions hail from the same source. Thus, Christian story of Easter still shows influence of ancient idea of bad god of winter being banished by good god of summer.

Yet, Volney does not ascribe to atheism, but seems to uphold some form of deism, in which inexplicable force has created the world around us. Indeed, in his La loi naturelle ou Catéchisme du Citoyen français Volney suggests that this God created also the natural morality. It seems no wonder that Volney sees no difference between a law of gravity and a law of morality – both are just the way how God created the world to be like. Thus, moral law is inscribed in human heart, particularly in the pleasures and pains, which are in Volney's opinion a sure guide for good behaviour. True, Volney knows that one might lose one's health, if one is too interested of some sort of pleasure, but this excess is shown just by pains caused by such overindulgence – and it is surely no reason to go to other extremity and avoid all pleasures altogether. The true end of moral law, Volney says, is always conserving oneself. This does not mean egoism, Volney says, because human beings are naturally social and want to live in good and just societies.

I should probably note the naivete of Volney's thought and cynically remind everyone that e.g. removal of religions would most likely not remove the borders between states. Still, I find the energy and passion of his works quite refreshing. These were still times, when the idea of a progression of culture was still somewhat new and when it appeared quite believable that a sudden removal of few kings would bring the paradise on Earth. Dream of a better humanity is something we would still need today.

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