Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Comte de Buffon and the Sorbonne

Throughout the whole of the eighteenth century one man was at work on natural history who might have contributed much toward an answer to this question: this man was Buffon. He had caught the idea of an evolution in Nature by the variation of species, and was likely to make a great advance with it; but he, too, was made to feel the power of theology.

As long as he gave pleasing descriptions of animals the Church petted him, but when he began to deduce truths of philosophical import the batteries of the Sorbonne were opened upon him. For his simple statement of truths in natural science which are to-day truisms, he was, as we have seen, dragged forth by the theological faculty, forced to recant publicly, and to print his recantation.

Andrew Dickinson White

In the eighteenth century Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon published the first volumes of his ‘Histoire Naturelle’, a work which anticipated some of the ideas of Charles Darwin. Buffon was an eccentric, especially when he was at his most creative. In order to begin writing he had to dress up in his finest regalia, from braided wig to silk waistcoat, to a lacy high-collard shirt. He was also fond of saying that there were only five truly great men: Newton, Bacon, Leibniz, Montesquieu..and himself. The ‘Histoire’, which would eventually reach 36 volumes,was a work of stunning ambition, which aimed to include everything known about the natural world up until that date. In it Buffon considered the similarities between humans and apes, and the possibility of a common ancestry.

Upon publication of ‘Histoire Naturelle’ in 1750, which was paid for by the King of France, the work became an astonishing success, the first printing selling out in around six weeks to be followed speedily by German, Dutch and English editions. Eventually ‘Histoire Naturelle’ was to become the most widespread work of the eighteenth century, outselling even the Philosophes ‘Encylopedie’ and the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. This inspired jealousy amongst some in the salons of Paris, including the Abbe Raynal who remarked that the work ‘did not succeed particularly well with educated people’ but that ‘women, to the contrary, attach importance to it’. Amongst Buffon’s greatest admirers were the Jesuits, who dedicated four articles (a total of 100 pages) in their journal ‘Journal de Savants’ to praising him. During October 1749 the Journal published a glowing analysis of the first volume of ‘Histoire Naturelle’, but then fell silent as a controversy erupted. Buffon had caught the attention of the Jansenists.

French intellectual opinion of the time was bitterly divided. The outlawed Jansenists were in great favour with the general public because they were seen as defying royal authority and hostile to absolutism. They fought bitterly with the Jesuits who were more liberal and open to new ideas. These two religious groups were too often at each others throats to pay much attention to the Philosophes. Jesuits tended to admire and prefer the writings of Locke and Bacon to those of Descartes; yet because they asserted papal authority they were unpopular. In the Jansenists eyes, the Jesuits were responsible for the decline of religion in France because of the indulgence they showed to dangerous works. In turn the Jesuits tended to regard the Jansenists as reactionary.

The Jesuit endorsement of Buffon was enough for them to resolve to condemn him. The official journal of the Jansenists was the ‘Nouvelles Eccclesiastiques’, which was officially banned by the French government but regularly published and distributed. In February 1750, in response to the Jesuit's review, the Jansenists published a scathing attack on the ‘Histoire Naturelle’, criticising it for its overt scepticism, its contradiction of Genesis and its implicit insult towards both God and the king. ‘Should such a pernicious book go unstigmatised’, claimed the Jansenists who went on to denounce the entire Academy of Sciences, the Jesuit’s Journal des Savants and the Academy of Inscriptions, which had published works by Alexander Pope; and the Academie Francaise, which had just elected Voltaire. This condemnation immensely irritated Buffon who wrote:

‘I hope it is out of the question to blacklist it...and in truth I have done everything not to deserve it and to avoid theological harassment, which I fear much more than the criticism of natural philosophers of geometers’

The Jansenists had stirred up a row amongst the populace and this forced the Sorbonne (the faculty of theology in Paris) to react. The Jansenists were demanding some kind of censorship, but this put the Sorbonne in a very difficult position. The power to censor depended on the royal administration, but the theologians did have the power to make representations to the king if the situation demanded it. In this case the book had been published by the royal press and was the work of a very high ranking civil servant; to make matters worse it was now an outstanding commercial success. Yet not to act would be to hand a victory to the Jansenists and expose the Sorbonne to rebuke. D’Argenson was exaggerating but captured something of the public’s mood when he wrote:

‘The Seigneur de Buffon...has been greatly affected by the grief that his book’s success gives him. The devout are furious and want to have it burned by the executioner. Truly he contradicts Genesis in every way.’ (this may be the source of the for the idea Buffon's books were burned which I can't find reference to elsewhere)

The Sorbonne made the decision to come to a secret agreement. In ‘Buffon – A life in natural history’ Jacques Roger notes that:

We do not know the details of the secret dealings which permitted Buffon and the Faculty to find an honourable solution for both parties. We know only that these dealings took place, certainly with Riballlier, the Faculty’s syndic, probably during the fall of 1750.

On January 15 1751 Buffon recieved the following corteous letter from the Sorbonne:


We have been informed, by someone amongst us on your behalf, that when you learned that the Natural History, of which you are the author was one of the works chosen by order of the faculty of Theology to be examined and censured because it contained principles and maxims that are not in accordance with those of religion, you declared to him that you did not have the intention of dissociating yourself from it and that you were prepared to satisfy the faculty in regard to each of the articles it found reprehensible in your work; we cannot, Sir, praise you enough for such a Christian resolution, and in order to put you in a position to carry it out, we are sending you the statements taken from you book that seemed to us to be contrary to the beliefs of the Church.
We have the honour of being respectfully, Sir, Your very humble and obedient servants'

Attached to the letter were the 14 ‘reprehensible statements’ including the idea the earth was eternal, Buffon’s theory of planets formation and the discussion of truth and immaterialism. In reply Buffon made the necessary concessions and stated in a letter that he believed ‘very firmly in all that is told in the scriptures about creation, both as to the order of time and the circumstances of the facts’.

According to Roger

‘The proposal was clever...for we have every reason to believe that Buffon’s answer had been composed by the theologians themselves and Buffon had only to sign it. He should therefore have been sure of the success of his approach’.

Regarding the Sorbonne, Buffon was to note:

‘Of the one hundred twenty doctors assembled, I had on hundred fifteen on my side, and their decision even contained praise which I was not expecting’

Honour had been saved and the Sorbonne must have been relieved at the outcome. The Jesuits praised the retraction while the Jansenists cried foul:

‘What shame for the applaud such a amounts to hoping everyone will be taken in as the Sorbonne carcass has been..this academician has made fun of them and they deserve it’.

Buffon’s dealings with the Sorbonne were to protect him against all official accusations of irreligion for the next 30 years without him having to change a single word. With the publication of ‘Les époques de la nature’ in 1778 he further developed his ideas, discussing the origins of the solar system and speculating that the planets had been created by comets colliding with the sun (this idea was described by Voltaire as ridiculous, reminding him of an old fable in which Minerva had emerged from the brain of Jupiter). He also suggested that the age of the earth was 75,000 years, denied that Noah's flood ever occurred and observed that some animals retain parts that are vestigial and no longer useful, suggesting that they have evolved rather than having been spontaneously generated.

Buffon’s work was again attacked, both on scientific and religious grounds by figures such as the Abbe Royau and the Abbe Grosier. The Sorbonne became involved in 1779 to issue a criticism of Buffon's ‘general principles of the manner of understanding scripture’. Buffon contacted the Sorbonne directly and engineered a new retraction, very similar to the one he had signed in 1750. He promised to print this in the next edition, but in the event, refused to do so. In retaliation, and without bothering to issue any formal censure, the Sorbonne printed the correspondence in a Latin brochure in order to embarrass Buffon. Unfortunately for the faculty, no-one paid any attention to it. Theological debates has ceased to interest anyone in the 1780s; a fact acknowledged by Buffon’s religious critics who chose to attack him on purely scientific grounds in the hope people would listen. Abbe Royau in particular castigated Buffon for his hypothetical writings, remarking that 'at first leave is asked for a hypothesis, and once granted it becomes transformed into a demonstrated truth'.

As for Buffon, in 1785 he said to Herault de Sechelles:

‘The people need a religion....When the Sorbonne picked petty quarrels with me, I had no difficulty giving it all the satisfaction that it could desire: it was only a mockery, but men were foolish enough to be contented with it.’

Later on, in the late 19th century, the story of Buffon and the Sorbonne was used by Dickinson White in his ‘History of the Conflict between Religion and Science’ ( and as a favourite anecdote in the introductions of biology textbooks) ; although as we have seen, the Buffon retraction of 1751 was prompted by the rabble rousing Jansensists. The Sorbonne was far from hostile and actually worked to protect Buffon from criticism. Eventually in 1779 the Sorbonne and Buffon became involved in a petty squabble but there was no formal condemnation and the faculty's low-key protest fell on deaf ears. Rather than some sinister suppression of science by religion, the activities of Buffon and the religious groups in 18th century France merely displayed the factionalism, squabbling and double dealing we are all familiar with. When history is co-opted for other agendas, these subtleties tend to be lost.

Further Reading : Buffon : A Life in Natural History - Jacques Roger

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