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  • Error in Buffon
  • Wilda Anderson (bio)

Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, probably the greatest of the natural historians of the French eighteenth century, was admired and venerated for decades by the philosophes for his many works on what we would now call zoology, botany, geology and even cosmology. For most literary historians, however, the interest of those many volumes has died away, and Buffon is known primarily as the author of the “Discours sur le style,” the ironic “discours de réception” he gave when elected in extremis to the Académie française in 1753 to replace Alexis Piron, whom Louis XV had rejected. This text is pure Buffon: an arrogant and biting criticism of the writings of his revered predecessors, especially Montesquieu. It is also a call for a writing style appropriate not to the words, but to the ideas being expressed. For Buffon,

Les ouvrages bien écrits seront les seuls qui passeront à la postérité: la quantité des connaissances, la singularité des faits, la nouveauté même des découvertes ne sont pas de sûrs garants de l’immortalité; si les ouvrages qui les contiennent ne roulent que sur de petits objets, s’ils sont écrits sans goût, sans noblesse et sans génie, ils périront, parce que les connaissances, les faits et les découvertes s’enlèvent aisément, se transportent, et gagnent même à être mis en oeuvre par des mains plus habiles. Ces choses sont hors de l’homme, le style est l’homme même: le style ne peut donc ni s’enlever, ni se transporter, ni s’altérer: s’il est élevé, noble, sublime, l’auteur sera également admiré dans tous les temps; car il n’y a que la vérité qui soit durable, et même éternelle. Or, un beau style n’est tel en effet que par le nombre infini des vérités qu’il présente. Toutes les beautés intellectuelles qui s’y trouvent, tous les rapports dont il est composé, sont [End Page 691] autant de vérités aussi utiles et peut-être plus précieuses pour l’esprit humain, que celles qui peuvent faire le fond du sujet. 1

We can use Buffon’s most famous text to help understand the originality of the one that gained him the most fame in the nineteenth century, his last great speculative work, written beginning in 1774, but not published until early 1779: Les Epoques de la nature. Buffon intended Les Epoques de la nature to be his crowning intellectual masterpiece. It was a work long awaited by his many Enlightenment admirers, but it turned out to be his only critical failure, albeit a partial one. Many of the difficulties this text had in its reception are routinely attributed, for example by Jacques Roger, the canonical scholar of Buffon, to the fact that by the time Buffon finally finished the Epoques, the theories he elaborated in it, while constituting a radical conceptual leap beyond his earlier cosmology, were nonetheless already outdated in terms of his contemporary science. 2 I would like to argue that while it may be true that Buffon’s geology and dependent theories of biological evolution were flawed, neither the dismissal of the work nor its eventual rehabilitation by writers such as Cuvier, Flaubert, or especially Balzac, whose Comédie humaine is written under the aegis of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, are really due to his scientific errors. They are better understood as a manifestation of the divergence of natural science from natural history, and the recuperation of natural historical forms of writing by the Romantics. The most glaring example of his idiosyncrasy is to be found in his discussions of the relationship between truth and error.

The Epoques de la nature is, as its title suggests, a history of the material universe. Indeed, it is structured as a materialist rewriting of the story of Creation in Genesis. Buffon may not have read the second edition of Vico’s New Science, but surely his structure is an allusion to, and a critical reversal of, Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle, in which the notion of epoch...

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