Picture of author.

C. F. Volney (1757–1820)

Author of Las ruinas de Palmira

31 Works 269 Members 42 Reviews 2 Favorited

About the Author

Disambiguation Notice:

Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney.

Works by C. F. Volney

Las ruinas de Palmira (1900) 88 copies
Oeuvres (1990) 6 copies


Common Knowledge

Legal name
de Chassebœuf, Constantin François
Other names
de Chasseboeuf, Constantin François
de Volney, Comte
Volney, Count
Date of death
Country (for map)
Craon, France
Place of death
Paris, France
1st French National Assembly, Senator, Academie Francaise, American Philosophical Society
Awards and honors
Legion of Honor, Founder of the Volney Prize in Linguistics
Short biography
Constantin-Francois Volney is one of those historical personalities once famous in their own day but now largely forgotten. You’ve heard of people he knew, as well as the events he participated in, but you’ve never heard of the man himself.

Ever hear of Benjamin Franklin? Franklin, then Ambassador to Paris, mentored a young Volney in the years prior to the French Revolution and later introduced him to his successor, Thomas Jefferson.

Ever hear of the Estates General and the Tennis Court Oath? Volney took part in both events and later sat on the committee that wrote the first French constitution.

Ever hear of Napoleon Bonaparte? Volney discovered a young Bonaparte on the island of Corsica and helped his career on numerous occasions, including the 18 Brumaire coup that brought Bonaparte to power. Ever hear of the proclamation of the Empire when Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor? Volney was one of only three senators to vote against that counter-revolutionary bill.

Ever hear of the Alien Act in the United States? Volney, the most famous alien in the U.S. at that time, was forced to leave the country just before the new law went into effect.

Ever hear of an ideologue? Volney was one of the original Ideologues. The Ideologues supported constitutional government, separation of church and state, Adam Smith’s economic principles, abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. They were also correspondents with—again that famous name—Thomas Jefferson.

But those are all good things. So why is there a pejorative attached to the word ideologue today?

It’s because the Ideologues opposed Bonaparte’s dynastic designs. As a result Bonaparte started using the word almost as a curse and, a generation later, Karl Marx—recognizing the theories the Ideologues espoused refuted his own theories—picked up Bonaparte’s pejorative and spread it around the world.

Ever hear of Volney’s Ruins of Empires? Uh, well, no, you probably haven’t. But the book (“Les Ruines” in French) was once world famous—or infamous depending on your point of view.

You’ve heard of Thomas Jefferson of course. But I’ll bet you didn’t know Jefferson liked the book so much he secretly translated it into English. Ever hear of Abraham Lincoln? Lincoln read Volney’s Ruins as a young man and was deeply affected by it. Ever hear of Walt Whitman? Whitman’s most famous poem, Leaves of Grass, was directly inspired by Volney’s Ruins. Ever hear of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River Valley School? His famous paintings—The Voyage of Life and Course of Empire series—were also directly inspired by Volney’s Ruins.

So why are both Volney and his book largely forgotten today? There are many reasons. But first and foremost it’s because he challenges the fundamental principles of both the Left and the Right.

The Left doesn’t like Volney because Ruins of Empires was written as a direct refutation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. If you refute the Social Contract, then you refute Socialism and all the various “social models” in Europe (and elsewhere) built upon it. Volney, therefore, has few if any friends among the left-leaning professorial class—the ones who are supposed to teach “enlightenment” to students.

The Right doesn’t like Volney because Ruins of Empires presents a solution to the world’s enduring religious conflicts. While that’s certainly a good thing—and particularly so in a post-September 11 world—the Right still considers Volney to be a heretic and an atheist. Why? Because Ruins of Empires argues for a universal code of morality based on the physical laws of nature. While that sounds innocuous, it implicitly calls into question all other codes of morality based on the existence of some invisible being no one has ever seen—i.e. “God.”

In sum, Volney has been forgotten because neither the academic left nor the religious right has an interest in seeing his memory or his works brought to light—Volney has fallen into an Orwellian “memory hole.” But Thomas Jefferson obviously saw some kind of value in his book. So much value, indeed, that he took the time to translate it into English.

That’s quite a recommendation. And given the state the world’s in today, perhaps it’s time to give Volney and his Ruins of Empires a second chance—and a second reading.

References: Gilbert Chinard, “Volney et l’Amerique,” Baltimore (1923); Jean Gaulmier, “L’Ideologue Volney,” Beirut (1959) and Geneva (1980).
Disambiguation notice
Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney.



I could write a book as long about how awesome this book is. Only pissed that no one shoved it in my paws at 15 instead of finding it by chance up in King Library at 35. A book that I sincerely wish all residents of purportedly democratic western societies were MADE to read, as young as intellectually possible. It gives me the same thrill now that Morning of the Magicians gave me at 20 and Cosmic Trigger at 30: the thrill of having found a voice that both has the scholarship (and in Volney's case the damned language chops, having learned Arabic as his contemporaries firmly refused to) and the ETHICS to pull off that kind of work of history, intending for the audience to better itself in reading. I'm happy that I otherwise learned so much of the stuff he found in the 780s by myself, and that made the book a fun treasure hunt, but if only I'd known sooner. May we all be as sharp as Volney in everything we consider. NOTICE I read the Black Classics reprint, which is clean and elegant, not the 2018 facsimile.… (more)
EugenioNegro | 11 other reviews | Mar 17, 2021 |
"Through this work I obtained a cursory knowledge of history, and a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave me an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth. I heard of the slothful Asiatics; of the stupendous genius and mental acuity of the Grecians; of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans--of their subsequent degeneration--of the decline of that mighty empire; of chivalry, christianity, and kings. I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.

These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing."

- Frankenstein, Volume II, Chapter VI
… (more)
1 vote
FrankensteinsMonster | 16 other reviews | Oct 27, 2012 |
A rare paperback edition of the Jefferson-Barlow translation published by Peter Eckler in 1915. Front cover has a unique image of pyramids and Sphinx. Only copy I have ever seen--I suppose because few paperback editions survive. Includes Law of Nature and Volney's Answer to Dr. Priestly. Long list of other Eckler books at the back. Purchased on eBay for a song!
ThomasCWilliams | 16 other reviews | Aug 3, 2012 |
Belonged to John H. Guy, Captain of the Goochland Light Infantry Battery, which surrendered at Fort Donelson in 1862. Guy was taken prisoner. His signature on front pastedown and title page. Plus several sheets of Latin notes. "West & Johnson, 145 Main Street, Richmond Virginia" seal on first blank page. All of the above yet another example of the far-reaching influence of Thomas Jefferson's translation on American history...
ThomasCWilliams | 16 other reviews | Sep 22, 2011 |

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