The Fall of Great Empires and Civilizations
The Ruins of Empires (in French, Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires - The Ruins, or meditations on the Revolution of Empires) is a book written in 1791 by Constantin-François Chasseboeuf de La Giraudais, more commonly known as Count Volney or simply Volney.
Volney was an interesting man of many parts. Born in France in 1757 to a noble family, he became interested in the orient and, as a young man, undertook extensive travels through the Ottoman Empire including Lebanon and Egypt, where he learned Arabic. His travels are all the more remarkable considering how rare it was to travel on long journeys to foreign lands and the rudimentary means of transportation available at the time.
Upon his return to France, Volney wrote political tracts on what he had observed and what he believed to be the destiny of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. He became acquainted with many famous thinkers of the time, including Benjamin Franklin, whom he met when Franklin was ambassador to France.
When the French Revolution broke out, despite his noble birth, Volney sided with the republican forces and was elected to local councils. However he later criticized the excesses of the Revolution and as a result was imprisoned for a year and barely escaped the guillotine.
In 1791, when Volney was 34 years old, he published his monumental Ruins, a philosophical work based on his revolutionary ideals and also on his experiences traveling in the East. Ruins is not about the fall of the Roman Empire itself, but rather looks at the impermanence of world governments and how all empires are subject to decay and eventual collapse. In his work, Volney proposes that there should be a separation between church and state and that no religion is better or truer than any other.His meditations on these subjects were influential in shaping political and philosophical discourse.
Thomas Jefferson, then the American Vice President, met Volney when the Count journeyed to America on one of his many travels. He was impressed by Volney and his ideas, and undertook to translate Volney's Ruins of Empires from French into English. Jefferson completed the translation of the first twenty chapters but did not finish the translation due to the demands of campaigning for President. Jefferson's role in translating the work was initially kept secret for fear that he would be branded an atheist and that his approval of Volney's ideas would be used against him in Jefferson's campaign to become president. The rest of the book was translated by someone else.
In later life, Volney continued to write and to study Oriental history and philosophy. He learned sanskrit in order to study the Indian vedas and other texts.
Despite being a staunch Republican, Volney sided with Napoleon when he came to power. He regarded Napoleon as a ruler who embodied many of the correct political theories including the separation of church and state. In return, Napoleon made Volney a Count of the French Empire.
His other works are largely forgotten but his meditations on the impermanence of human empires is still readable and influential. In addition to this philosophical work Volney is remembered for developing the theory that Jesus Christ never existed and that He is instead an amalgam of solar myths.
Volney died in 1820. Fittingly, Volney had seen the ruin of three empires, the end of the French Ancien Regime, the end of Republican France and the end of the French Empire of Napoleon.
Volney's Ruins of Empire can be read online here.