Charles de Brosses
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Charles de Brosses (born Dijon, 1709-d. 1777) was one of the most noteworthy French writers of the 18th century. He was the president of the parliament of Dijon (from 1741) and a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres of Paris (from 1746), and of the Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres of Dijon (from 1761). He was a close friend of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788), the naturalist who wrote the Histoire naturelle, and a personal enemy of Voltaire (1694-1778), the famous philosopher, who barred his entry in the Académie française in 1770. Because he opposed the absolute power of the king, he was exiled twice, in 1744 and 1771. During his life, he wrote numerous academic papers on topics concerning ancient history, philology and linguistics, which were used by Diderot and D'Alembert in the Encyclopédie (1751-1765).
De Brosses published five books:
- Lettres sur l'état actuel de la ville souterraine d'Herculée et sur les causes de son ensevelissement sous les ruines du Vésuve (1750). This contains a list of archeological discoveries from the excavation of Herculaneum, including some ancient inscriptions in the Oscan language.
- Histoire des navigations aux terres australes, contenant ce que l'on sait des moeurs et des productions des contrées découvertes jusqu'à ce jour (1756). This offers a complete digest of all known voyages to the Southern seas, preceded by a long plea for an exploration campaign in these waters, in order to discover and exploit the vast Austral continent which could not fail to be there, for mechanical reasons. It proved extremely useful to James Cook with respect to the discovery of Australia in 1770, and contains what may be the first occurrence of the words "Polynésie" and "Australasie". It has been written that it is this book which convinced the French explorer Loui-Antoine de Bougainville, then a soldier in Canada, to become a sailor and, in his own terms, "do something great".
- Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Egypte avec la religion actuelle de Nigritie (1760). This provides a materialistic theory of the origin of religion, and represents one of the first theoretical works in the discipline of ethno-anthropology. Notably it contains the first historical occurrence of the word "fétichisme", later borrowed by Karl Marx in 1842 and used in his Capital (1867)., see Du culte des dieux fétiches
- Traité de la formation méchanique des langues et des principes physiques de l'étymologie (1765). This provides a materialistic theory of the origin and the evolution of language, where the meaning of words is considered as an image of the physiological articulation of sounds (see Sound Symbolism). It had an influence on Condillac's Grammaire (1775) and a very important role in the birth of a scientific conception of language.
- Histoire de la République romaine, dans le cours du VIIe siècle, par Salluste, en partie traduite du latin sur l'original, en partie rétablie et composée sur les fragmens qui sont restés de ses livres perdus (1777). This is a French translation of Sallust’s Historia, partially restored with the help of ancient fragments, and illustrated with topographical maps and archaeological founds.
De Brosses is also remembered for his posthumously published letters:
- L'Italie il y a cent ans, ou Lettres écrites d'Italie à quelques amis en 1739 et 1740 (1836). This book is a collection of cultured, witty, open-minded letters, sent by De Brosses to his friends in Dijon during his travels in Italy of 1739-1740. It was loved by Alexander Pushkin and Stendhal.