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  • Buffon's Language of Heat and the Science of Natural History

'I will burn it in a golden crucible,' said Guyton de Morveau, in order to be certain that diamonds contain oxides. 'The best crucible is the mind,' replied Buffon.1

In a short, unpublished text, On the Art of Writing, the French Enlightenment natural historian Buffon described the process of translating observations into language and transmitting them to readers.2 In these notes for the famous Discourse on Style, he wrote that natural phenomena were best depicted through painting, which not only represented their order and structure but also made them flow together in such a way that they resembled and transmitted life itself:

Painting and description are two very different things. The latter considers only the eyes, the former demands genius. … Description coldly and sequentially shows all the parts of an object; the more detailed it is, the less effect it has. Painting, on the other hand, seizes first upon the most salient traits, retaining the imprint of the object and giving it life. In order to write a good description, cold observation suffices; but painting requires the use of all the senses. Seeing, hearing, touching, feeling: these are [End Page 187] all elements which the writer must sense and render in energetic strokes. He must link the finesse of color and the vigor of the paintbrush, nuancing, condensing, or melting these colors, and ultimately shaping a living ensemble of which description could only have presented dead and detached parts.3

In contrast to the activity and liveliness of painted language, a purely descriptive work was like a sketch that lacked shading, depth, and thus vitality—as indicated by the recurrence of the expressions cold and coldly. Description sapped the vivacity of nature, producing a lifeless text of "dead and detached parts."

Buffon's contrast between description and painting when characterizing his writing about nature was borrowed from the visual arts; moreover, it referred to a disciplinary convention wherein history only described and enumerated events without attempting to extrapolate more general meaning and relationships between them.4 In his rethinking of the discipline of natural history, Buffon sought to combine history with physics, or the search for causes, moving from specific, detailed observations of events and phenomena to a narrative of the large-scale activities of nature as it moved through time. The term painting allowed him to articulate what he wanted language to do: reproduce the temporal energy of nature on the page. In the Discourse on Style, he wrote of how the natural historian should mirror the continual process of natural creation, with a language like an uninterrupted brushstroke. To write well, Buffon stated that an author must "develop a succession [of thoughts], a continuous chain, of which each link represents an idea; and once one has taken up the pen, it will be necessary to guide it successively from this first line, without letting it stray."5 The goal was to develop a poetic power that operated in the same manner as the creative power of natural laws except through words and not the events themselves. Buffon believed that this language of natural history would gradually transform into a convincing reproduction of nature, rendering the works of the natural historian and nature seemingly inseparable.

In order to mimic nature's continuous movement through time, the language of painting had to be warm, rich, and animated. In fact, Buffon seemed to think that words could render ideas even more visible than could an actual painting: a talented writer's "sentences and words will have more effect than the paintbrush and the colors of the artist."6 The painter of words not only could see but also "hear, touch, feel," composing with both passion and intellect. His mind "seizes" upon nature; in On the Art of Writing, Buffon used verbs such as "to join," "to bring nuance to," "to condense," "to melt," "to form," and "to render"—"the use of all of the senses"—to illustrate the [End Page 188] activity of combining ideas and observations into a new whole, the text. With "energetic strokes" of the pen, Buffon strove to recreate "a living ensemble," ultimately relating all aspects of nature in the reader's mind.7

Buffon characterized the transmission of nature's energetic movement through the medium of painted language as having heat:

The great writer can … heat up, set alight, his reader through the representation of several activities that will all have heat, and that, by their union and their rays, will engrave themselves in the reader's memory and will live on independently of the [original] object.8

Written nature, more powerful than cold, lifeless description or even direct observation, was designed to set readers' minds ablaze, leaving them with a lasting "heat," which would perpetuate and "engrave" in their memories nature's phenomena, order, laws—its history in a new sense.

Why begin an article about Buffon with his notes on writing, which do not directly address the cosmology, geography, and natural histories of animals, birds, and minerals for which he was so famous in the thirty-six volumes of Natural History: General and Particular, published between 1749 and 1788? By introducing the idea of heat, On the Art of Writing provides a more complete understanding of the relationship between language and knowledge in this work and in Enlightenment natural science more generally. Buffon sought not only to detail the world around him but also to render its general and systematic laws visible and palpable to the mind through language, a discursive simulacrum of nature that had both poetic and material force. The epistemological value of the Natural History derived from the ability of its language to reproduce convincingly and powerfully the structure and activity of nature. For Buffon, language was itself scientia: it gave order and demonstrability to knowledge of the world and endowed its author and readers with the ability to investigate, understand, and, ultimately, intervene in the work of nature.

Near the end of his career, heat became part of this intervention, not only a property of language but also an actual physical activity that could raise the temperature of an environment. In The Epochs of Nature (1778), Buffon argued that the Earth began as a molten ball of fire (torn off of the Sun by the force of a passing comet) and depicted its slow cooling over historical time. He implied that the depletion of the planet's heat would lead to its inevitable end as a frozen globe of ice; yet, he attempted to convince readers of their ability to slow down the Earth's cooling by transforming the heat of his language into real heat in the world—an idea to which I will return later. The lyrical, dynamic quality of Buffon's language and the physical [End Page 189] phenomenon of heat, which directed the course of natural history, coalesced: discourse gave people the ability to change their surrounding environments.

While deeply indebted to foundational studies on Buffon's life, work, and philosophy by authors such as Benoît de Baere, Thierry Hoquet, and Jeff Loveland, I seek to reevaluate his contemporary scientific value through a close reading of his language.9 These scholars address the importance of language for Buffon; however, they understand it as a manner of expression, an added layer atop his ideas, missing its fundamental connection to knowledge. Using the concept of heat as a tool for examining and asserting the strength of this connection, I demonstrate how written language was not simply a vehicle for conveying knowledge in a lyrical and entertaining manner but also a form and a practice of natural knowledge itself. The idea of heat draws inspiration notably from Joanna Stalnaker's work on the language of natural history and Peter H. Reill's study on vitalism.10 Combining these, I argue that in Buffon's corpus, heat was both a quality of writing that transmitted natural knowledge and an activity that transformed the temperature and operation of nature itself. Heat enables an understanding of the materiality of language in eighteenth-century natural science: not simply a manner of knowing the world but also a part of this world, shaping its future, blurring literary and real.

In On The Art of Writing, the heat that Buffon asserted to be produced by painting sounds like a metaphor for the reproduction of natural knowledge on the page. However, language and physical processes were linked; both were material activities affecting the mind and the world. Early in his career, Buffon had taken an interest in the physical heat of nature, studying the mechanisms of life and vitality and asking what made some things alive while others were not. Such a question was deeply rooted in chemical, mechanical, and medical philosophies of the time. An examination of some of these theories expands heat beyond the discursive, revealing the physicality and materiality of thought. As something that circulated in and between bodies, heat could be understood as a tangible mode of communication, part of the language of nature that Buffon sought to read and impart.

Buffon's La statique des végétaux et l'analyse de l'air (1735), a translation of the English physiologist Stephen Hales's Vegetable Staticks (1727), allowed him to speculate upon the movement and circulation of nutrients and other organic compounds in living bodies. Hales's work was a foundational essay in the area of plant physiology and an example of the implementation of Newtonian law in the study of living nature. It drew from the work of physiologists of the seventeenth century such as William Harvey, who studied the circulation of blood in animals. Similarly, Hales examined the movement of sap within plants and their material exchange with the [End Page 190] surrounding environment.11 Hales's experiments reflected the application of Newton's physics of the attraction and repulsion of particles to the activity and movement of living things:

We find by the chymical analysis of vegetables, that their substance is composed of sulpher, volatile salt, water and earth; which principles are all endued with mutually attracting powers, and also of a large portion of air, which has a wonderful property of strongly attracting in a fixt state, or of repelling in an elastick state, with a power which is superior to vast compressing forces; and it is by the infinite combinations, action and re-action of these principles, that all the operations in animal and vegetable bodies are effected.12

The fundamental operation of life was an attractive force that held bodies together, giving them form and identifiable, external qualities. Yet this force could not alone explain life's essence: an opposing force, air, resisted the pull of attraction, generating the necessary space and pressure for sap, blood, and water to move through the body, and allowing for a vital economy that nourished and promoted growth. As Violeta Aréchiga has shown, for Hales the idea of air was associated with life; once air entered into a solid body, it lost its elasticity, or expansive power, and "found itself fixed in animal, vegetal, and mineral substances. Indeed, in this fixed state, air made up the ductile and nutritive matter from which the organs of the plant grew."13 Hales, quoting Newton, described the principle of air as "'this soft and moist nourishment easily changing its texture by gentle heat and motion, which congregates homogeneal bodies, and separates heterogeneal ones.'"14 Life was characterized by the interaction of homogeneal particles, gravitating to the center of the organism, with heterogeneal ones, tending towards the outside, the ether. (Interestingly, Buffon translated these latter particles as étherogènes and not héterogènes, as Hales originally wrote.) These particles of captured air were also called fixed fire and provided the heat necessary for movement and change in living beings.

Hales's dynamic equilibrium between attraction and repulsion returned in Buffon's 1749 second discourse in Natural History, about the formation of the solar system. A comet, attracted to the Sun, fell into this star; blazing fragments were pushed outwards, and as they cooled they consolidated to form planets held in orbit.15 The Earth, its natural phenomena, and the entire universe, could be depicted in terms of the interplay of these perpetually contrasting forces—a model to which Buffon would return later in his experiments on heat and in The Epochs of Nature.

This example of heat as a force of life and movement may be contextualized by examining Enlightenment debates about the meaning and mechanics of [End Page 191] fire and heat. In his Encyclopédie article on fire, D'Alembert began with a definition that raised more questions than it answered:

The most essential characteristic of fire, the one that everyone recognizes, is to give heat. Thus, fire may be defined generally as the matter, which by its action, immediately produces heat in us. But is fire a specific kind of matter? Or is it but the matter of bodies put into motion? On this subject, philosophers are divided.16

Fire produced the physical sensation of heat. Yet this definition did not explain what fire was or how it operated. Was it part of bodies, or was it a substance that moved through bodies, creating flames, heat, or light?17

On the one hand, heat could be understood as the product of the element fire, inherent to the substance of matter and present to differing degrees in all bodies. On the other hand, fire was what gave form to, or altered, matter by traversing it. It was thus, according to Bernard Joly, a tool of analysis used to understand the composition of bodies.18 In this second sense, fire either could be construed as a mechanical process that made the particles of a body move faster, thus changing the state of the matter or it could be explained as a "quintessence," "a celestial fire that embeds itself in the heart of matter" creating life, light, and energy in bodies.19

Interpreted mechanically, fire was what Joly calls "an agitation of matter" that caused the vortex-like particles that composed the Cartesian world to move faster and to hit against one another, creating sparks perceived as light and heat.20 Newtonian theories of fire, particularly interested in the emission of light from bodies, added universal attraction to this mechanical explanation, in order to describe how particles of light entered into bodies and changed their state, rendering them hot and luminous.21 The terms "subtle fluid" or "spirit" of heat, often employed in chemistry, could also be applied to physical theories of heat to show how living bodies continued to move and grow, using attraction and repulsion to give, in Philip Sloan's terms, "a creative and dynamic agency" to nature.22

The theorization of heat as a subtle fluid, part of an "active ether," enabled Buffon to order all natural phenomena, inorganic and organic. Buffon defined life not as distinct from death but as the degree of heat in a body. In 1749, he wrote in the essay, "Comparison of Animals and Plants" that "there is no absolutely essential and general difference between animals and plants, but [rather] that Nature descends by degrees and imperceptible nuances from the animal that to us seems the most perfect [humans] to that which is the least perfect, and from there to the vegetal."23 Degrees of life and heat continued into the mineral realm which contained, in the form of soil, fossils, and stones, [End Page 192] the heated traces of previously organized beings and thus the potential to build new life forms.24 Heat defined the organization of matter and its degree of life, and flowed in between bodies—physical, celestial, and indeed, as the next section will show, textual—changing them.25 In Reill's words, as a fluid, heat came to be imagined as liquid and thus "entailed the penetration of the solid by an active, subtle fluid that energized the solid, releasing it from its cold imprisonment."26 In this sense, heat became a mode of communication, a cause of interaction. It engendered a perception of bodies not by how they differed from one another but as related, receptive, continuous.

Buffon took this inter-relatedness of bodies to its most general limit. As he developed his discipline of natural history, he worked to subsume chemistry and mechanics under the generality of natural law, which he considered universal in both extent and expression. From the perfection of the heavens to the sublunary realm of historical change, the universe could be understood and represented through the same principles and structure (attraction, repulsion, and their associated degrees of heat) and hence the same language of mechanics and heat.27 Heat, flowing through individual bodies, put them into relationship with one another, endowing them with the potential to be expressed through a continuous narrative. It became one of the underlying organizational and grammatical matrixes of life.

The idea of a simultaneously material and ethereal spirit traversing, ordering, and rendering legible the world to human perception had already been theorized by Montesquieu, an important influence upon Buffon.28 His arguments, culminating in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), are helpful to understanding the multidimensional manner in which Buffon used the term heat. Montesquieu maintained that just as the human body could adapt itself to fit a new climate through the reception of physical spirits (e.g., air, food), so the human mind could modify thought through interaction with the outside world in the form of physical sensations and intellectual spirits such as ideas. The surrounding environment, real or textual, influenced and altered the perceiving mind in a material, tangible process of osmosis: spirits passed through the semi-permeable boundaries of the body, changing the economy, disposition, and quantity of thoughts in the brain and causing the observer to see the world differently.29

A description in The Spirit of the Laws of an experiment in which Montesquieu examined a bit of tissue from a sheep's tongue under a microscope demonstrates how he thought the movement of spirits worked. When he exposed the tissue to cold air, its cells contracted and shrunk. As the cells defrosted, they became larger, taller, and more spread out.30 This movement, he reasoned, did not only happen on the microscopic level: like a domino effect, the same activity occurred on increasingly larger scales. [End Page 193] When, for example, cold air touched the fibers of the skin, they contracted and became more spring-like and charged. They then imparted these qualities to the surrounding blood, through the vessels and all the way to the heart: cold air "contracts the extremities of the body's surface fibers; this increases their spring and favors the return of blood from the extremities of the heart. It shortens these same fibers; therefore, it increases their strength in this way too."31 This chain of cause and effect was provoked by a change in temperature that subsequently affected the way fluids moved and interacted in the individual body. From these physiological observations, Montesquieu explained how temperature influenced not only physical fluids such as blood but also less tangible spirits such as passions, desires, and intellect. The French word esprit could thus refer simultaneously to thought, mind, and spirit.

In the Encyclopédie article "Chaleur," D'Alembert described heat as the experience of a perceiving, feeling body, echoing both its physical and poetic spirit. He defined it as "a unique perception or modification of the soul."32 Usually, heat was evenly dispersed everywhere and thus undetectable. It was only perceivable when it escalated, causing an exchange of movement that triggered the experience of heat, light, or color, depending not only upon how fast the particles moved but also upon what state of matter the receiving body was inclined to sense. Heat was "a relative sensation;" it was about the dialogue of movement from one body to another such that the receiving body experienced a change in sensation (23). Experience was as important to the definition of heat as mechanics. Equal parts reality and perception, heat was an event. Both something that happened in the world and part of the human experience of the world, heat was amenable to language.

Like cells in a body, language, too, carried its message from author to reader through an outward movement: energeia in Classical rhetoric was the realization and materialization of thought's potential in words. This activity was described in the Encyclopédie article "Énergie:"

ENERGY, FORCE, synonyms. (Grammar) Here we only consider these words in terms of the application to discourse. … It seems that energy says even more than force; & that energy is applied primarily to discourses which paint, & to the character of style. One might say of an orator that he joins the force of reasoning with the energy of expressions. One also speaks of an energetic painting, & forceful images.33

An energetic and forceful spirit could be emitted by language, transmitting the power and order of the author's original ideas. Similarly, in his article [End Page 194] "Force," Voltaire described how the meaning of this term "has been transported from simple to figurative." From its mechanical definition as "all the parts of a body that are in motion," Voltaire enumerated its metaphorical meanings, related to the expression of ideas through language—not demonstrative, mathematical language, which carried its own fixed degree of evidence, but eloquent, persuasive discourse that addressed "questions of debate."34 In a language similar to Buffon's in On The Art of Writing, Voltaire argued that "the force of eloquence is not only in the succession of just & vigorous reasoning, which could subsist in coldness [or insensitivity]; this force demands embonpoint, striking images, energetic terms."35

Buffon's writings about nature combined physical matter and rhetorical force; understood as material, his language acted upon and modified the perception of its interlocutors.36 The heat of his discourse was designed not only to make readers admire his eloquent style but also to provide the requisite epistemological and conceptual tools to experience the world through the experience of reading the text. The "energetic strokes" described in On the Art of Writing combined knowledge and inspiration, merging two terms of Aristotelian rhetoric: enargeia, or clear and ordered knowledge, and energeia, or action and movement, the realization of potential.37 The vibrant, evocative discourse of Natural History thus communicated a systematic view of nature and nature's movement through time.38

As indicated in On the Art of Writing and in the Discourse on Style, Buffon believed the best way to convey the activity of nature was through the force of a written language that literally moved at the same rate as the world it described. His prose, the consecutive, flowing succession of energetic language on the page, would mirror the temporal, vital transpiring of events in nature.39 Prose was a language, in Stalnaker's words, "more permeable to the natural world" than a painting or a poem, for it echoed nature's structure as a narrative unfolding over time. What was being rendered in the mind of the reader, through the non-simultaneity of writing, was not a single picture but a chain of words, a carefully linked set of relationships that encapsulated and reproduced the dynamic flow of nature through time.40

Buffon's prose allowed him to write not only about the visible, surrounding world but also about nature on a broad scale, depicting the hidden operation of its laws. In the 1764 essay, "On nature, first view," Buffon described the world as it could never be physically observed with the naked eye. Climbing to a nearly divine perspective, he illustrated the work and movement of nature as a whole. Nature, controlled by divine power, was God's pen. It rendered the divine plan real, visible, and legible, expressing the physical manifestations of law in time and space as observable phenomena. Nature was both God's creation and immortal worker: [End Page 195]

a perpetually living work, a ceaselessly active worker who knows how to use everything and who, working according to itself and always on the same foundation, instead of exhausting it [this foundation] renders it inexhaustible: time, space, and matter are its means, the Universe its object, movement and life its goal.41

Through the laws of gravitation, nature shaped the vast spatial and temporal distances of the universe. Nature wrote, and writes "perpetually," its book—a narrative composed through time—upon "the edifice of the world," beginning with the formation of "millions of opaque globes, [which] circulating around the original ones, compose the order and moving architecture [of the universe]."42 Buffon made it seem as if he were looking over nature's shoulder, watching the process of writing the book unfold, and recording it in prose. He used this practice of observation to envision nature's invisible workings, rendering its story legible and palpable to readers.

By the mid-1760s, Buffon was interested not only in the written representation of nature's vitality but also in what he believed to be the fiery, volcanic origins of this vitality, and how this heat shaped the Earth's history.43 He inquired into the sources of the Earth's heat, influenced by the work of his colleague in the Parisian Royal Academy of Sciences, Dortous de Mairan, whose New Studies on the General Cause of Heat in Summer and Cold in Winter (1765) argued that the Earth did not receive nearly enough warmth from the Sun to sustain its current temperature, and that therefore it must have its own, inner fire.44 Soon after reading this work, Buffon began experiments on globes of the minerals of which the Earth was composed and which could be found at different depths and in different strata relative to the Earth's surface.45 He observed how long it took for each type of mineral to heat up and then to cool and to become tolerable to human touch—in other words, to achieve the relatively warm, temperate state of the present-day Earth. These models showed the way that internal heat moved and behaved within each type of mineral, giving it a specific character, and they allowed Buffon to provide a narrative of the exact sequence of the substances that cooled first in the history of the world. In general, these substances could be found deeper within the layers of the Earth's crust. From here he deduced and calculated the order and duration of the solidification of each mineral with respect to the others. The amount of time it took each mineral to cool and its position in what he called the Earth's "archives" created natural brackets for each chapter of his deep-time history, the The Epochs of Nature. Through the lively heat of his prose, Buffon reenacted the succession of events that would have been possible at each moment in time and temperature.

Buffon published the results of his experiments in 1774 and 1775. In an essay entitled "On Light, Heat, and Fire," he explained the operation [End Page 196] of nature through the movement of matter. Recalling Hales's Vegetable Staticks, Buffon wrote of two "primitive forces, that which causes gravity, and that which produces heat." The first of these forces he named attraction, or gravitation, and, the second, impulsion. While attraction pulled particles of matter towards one another, impulsion worked "like a spring," pushing particles away from one another, an action which produced heat.46 Buffon described impulsion as "an expansive force" because it drove particles "from the center to the circumference" of a body. The particles of "brute" matter, subject to gravitation alone, moved "from the circumference to the center."47 These two forces were understood as two sides of the same coin: "they are for Nature two instruments of the same type, or rather they are but the same instrument that she [Nature] manipulates in two different directions."48

Heat was here a change in the state of matter in a body provoked through the communication of movement of molecules endowed with impulsive force (HNS, 1: 31). The state of matter was modified when the activity of impulsion compelled molecules, pulled together by gravitation, to push off of one another in a spring-like manner, and to enter new bodies, in turn making the particles of these bodies move faster and creating heat within them. Buffon concluded, moreover, that the entire universe might be understood as different forms and degrees of heat, controlled by the law of attraction and impulsion: "light, … heat, and fire are nothing but states of communal matter; that there exists, in a word, only one single force and one single matter that is always ready to attract or to repulse."49

The apparently simple idea of "one single force and one single matter" did not mean that the world was moving towards an equilibrium of attraction and resistance, hot and cold, life and death. Buffon argued in the The Epochs of Nature that the heat so necessary to the mechanics, structure, and history of nature was slowly but surely dissipating and that the world was in danger of ending in ice. However, its heat death could be postponed, as people imitated and appropriated the power of nature and its laws by becoming literate in Buffon's language. In an obscuring of the separation between real events and the narrative of them, this language captured the form of impulsion and its ensuing heat, which wrote the events of nature's history, and transferred this heat to readers. Understanding the physical processes through which the Earth's history had been generated and learning to read and interpret its events, were the first steps to taking over the creation of history from a world that was slowly losing its impulsive force.

Inheriting nature's heat, people could conceive of an open-ended historical narrative whose future was not determined but amenable to change and innovation.50 In The Epochs of Nature, Buffon envisioned the fusion of physical heat, the force by which natural phenomena were imprinted in and [End Page 197] upon the Earth, with the heat of language discussed in On the Art of Writing, the animated narrative of the formation of these phenomena. With the ability to perceive the heat radiating off of the pages of his work, Buffon thought that people could collect it and return it to the environment. They would have to supersede and surpass the productive power of nature in order to keep the planet at a warm temperature suitable to both physical cultivation and intellectual culture in the centuries to come. (Buffon used the same word culture to speak of both phenomena.) In the final epoch of the book, "When the Power of Man Assisted that of Nature," he gave examples from history to convince readers of their potential. Following a simple, deterministic logic, "the whole Earth should be colder today than it was 2,000 years ago; however, tradition seems to prove the contrary:"

The Gauls and the Germans fed moose, lynx, bears, and other animals who then retreated to northern countries; the movement is quite different than the one you would expect them to make, from north to south. Furthermore, history tells us that every year the Seine was typically frozen during part of the winter; do not these facts appear in direct opposition to the claimed gradual cooling of the globe? They would be, if modern France and Germany resembled Gaul and Germania; if people had not felled the forests, dried up the swamps, contained streams, redirected rivers, and cleared the lands that were covered and overwhelmed with the debris of their own productions.51

Humans and animals were "so many little heated hearths" that "radiate heat." (Plants, however, "produce nothing but cold humidity.") A person was not only capable of making heat but also of making it to the degree "that suits him," becoming the "master of the element of fire, that he can augment and propagate at his will."52 Cold was not just the absence of heat but the absence of the impulsive activity that made history. Cold was nothing; one "can neither grasp nor communicate" coldness.53 Heat, however, could be communicated through the outward movement of ideas as through that of molecules, preparing people to do what nature could no longer.

In the final chapter of The Epochs of Nature, Buffon evoked how, with a more complete understanding of the way that nature operated on a large scale across time, people learned to change the scope of their perception and activity, making their knowledge into a creative power approaching the immensity of nature's laws:

[Man] followed the lessons of Nature, profited from its examples, used its means, and selected from within its immensity all the objects that could help or please him. Through his intelligence, [End Page 198] animals were tamed, subjugated, controlled, made to forever obey him; through his works, swamps were dried, rivers contained, their cataracts eliminated, forests cleared, heaths cultivated; ultimately the entire face of the Earth carries today the traces of the power of man.54

When people learned to modify the temperature of their world, Buffon imagined that they entered into a state of happiness. The inhabitants of a temperate climate could overcome the vanity and egotism which historically caused war and destruction, and they could reflect in an increasingly altruistic sense upon how to make their region, their continent, and finally the whole globe more peaceful and productive. "Happy are the countries," Buffon wrote, "where all elements of temperature are balanced and well enough combined to bring about nothing but good effects!"55

To achieve this state, Buffon suggested that history be read as a process of ever-increasing human control over both their own nature and material nature. Enlightened people were not only capable of reheating the world but also of understanding—in this early form of global warming!—how to make the two extremes of hot and cold work together. By creating what Buffon called "a new Nature," they could postpone the cold death of the world through the learned process of temperance, a process at once poetic, natural, historical, and political.56 The last sentence of the The Epochs of Nature reflected on how, after centuries of violence, ignorance, and wasted heat, "finally [man] has recognized that his true glory is science, and peace his true happiness."57 Through the dynamism of scientific language, came the ability to moderate and regulate natural and human activity.

The happiness that ensued from living in a nature modified by humans resulted from the creation of a temperate zone; the temperate resulted from balancing the expansive force of impulsion with the attractive force of gravity. Buffon's science of natural history was the result of the equilibrium of the structure of his language with the structure of the world. This was not a fixed equilibrium but an opening of new possibilities that might delay the frozen end of the world and hinder the deterministic march of history. Agile minds, he hoped, might write new chapters in history, imagining and perhaps realizing future epochs in which human creation would overpower the natural. Language would no longer imitate the world; rather, nature would become the product of language. [End Page 199]

Hanna Roman

Hanna Roman is assistant professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at Dickinson College. Her first book, from which this article is drawn, is entitled The Language of Nature in Buffon's Histoire naturelle (2018). The book examines the fundamental relationship between language and knowledge in Buffon's work and in French Enlightenment natural science more broadly. She has recently received archival research fellowships from The Huntington Library and The Smithsonian Institution to pursue work on her new project that examines the continuities between natural theology and natural history in the long eighteenth century.


. This article is a shortened and modified version of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon's Histoire naturelle Oxford University Studies in the Enlightment (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool Univ. Press, 2018), chapter 2.

1. "'Je le ferai brûler dans un creuset d'or,' disait Guyton de Morveau, pour s'assurer que le diamant contenait de la terre fixe. 'Le meilleur creuset, c'est l'esprit,' répondit Buffon." Qtd. in Daniel Mornet, Les sciences de la nature en France au XVIIIe siècle (Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 2001), 114. All translations from the French are my own, unless otherwise noted.

2. De l'Art d'écrire was probably part of the generation of the Discours sur le style (1753). Although not mentioned in Jacques Roger and E. Genet Varcins's "Bibliographie de Buffon," this piece was published in Buffon's correspondence. It was copied from Buffon's notes and kept by his notary. Henri Nadault de Buffon, Correspondance inédite de Buffon, 2 vols. (Paris: Hachette, 1860), 1: 292–94. The modern edition of this text that I use here is: Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, De l'Art d'écrire, (Castelnau-le-Lez: Éditions Climats, 1992), 37–41, henceforth cited as DAE.

3. DAE, 38–39. "Peindre ou décrire sont deux choses différentes: l'une ne suppose que des yeux, l'autre exige du génie. … La description présente successivement et froidement toutes les parties de l'objet; plus elle est détaillée, moins elle fait d'effet. La peinture au contraire, ne saissisant d'abord que les traits les plus saillants, garde l'empreinte de l'objet et lui donne de la vie. Pour bien décrire, il suffit de voir froidement; mais pour peindre, il faut l'emploi de tous les sens. Voir, entendre, palper, sentir, ce sont autant de caractères que l'écrivain doit sentir et rendre par des traits énergiques. Il doit joindre la finesse des couleurs à la vigueur du pinceau, les nuancer, les condenser ou les fondre; former enfin un ensemble vivant, dont la description ne peut présenter que des parties mortes et détachées."

4. On the role of description in history, see Donald R. Kelley, "Between History and System," Historia. Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe, eds. Gianna Pomata and Nancy Siraisi (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 211–37. In the specific case of Buffon's Histoire naturelle, see Thierry Hoquet, "History without Time. Buffon's Natural History as a Nonmathematical Physique," Isis 101 (2010): 30–61; and Joanna Stalnaker, The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopédie, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2010).

5. "Pour bien écrire," an author must "former une suite [de pensées], une chaîne continue, dont chaque point représente une idée; et lorsqu'on aura pris la plume, il faudra la conduire successivement sur ce premier trait, sans lui permettre de s'en écarter." Buffon, "Discours sur le style," Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: Supplément, 7 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1777), 4: 8.

6. DAE, 39. "phrases et ses mots feront plus d'effet que le pinceau et les couleurs du peintre."

7. DAE, 39–40. "saisit;" Buffon used verbs such as "joindre," "nuancer," "condenser," "fondre," "former," and "rendre"—"l'emploi de tous les sens;" "des traits énergiques;" "un ensemble vivant."

8. DAE, 40–41. "Le grand écrivain peut échauffer, embraser son lecteur par la représentation de plusieurs actions qui toutes auront de la chaleur, et qui par leur union et leurs rayons se graveront dans sa mémoire et subsisteront indépendamment de l'objet."

9. On the language of the Histoire naturelle, see Benoît De Baere, "Représentation et visualisation dans l'Histoire naturelle de Buffon," Dix-huitième siècle 39.1 (2007): 613–38; De Baere, La pensée cosmogonique de Buffon. Percer la nuit des temps (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2004); Thierry Hoquet, Buffon: Histoire naturelle et philosophie (Paris: Champion, 2005); Jeff Loveland, Rhetoric and Natural History. Buffon in Polemical and Literary Context (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2001); Joanna Stalnaker, "Painting Life, Describing Death: Problems of Representation and Style in the Histoire naturelle," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 32 (2003): 193–227.

10. Peter H. Reill, Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2005); Stalnaker, The Unfinished Enlightenment.

11. Richard S. Westfall, "Hales, Stephen," Catalogue of the Scientific Community of the 16th and 17th Centuries,, accessed 06 March 2017, n.p. On Hales, also see Thomas Hankins, Science and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), 50–53; and Lesley Hanks, Buffon avant l'Histoire naturelle (Paris: Presses Univ. de France, 1966), Part 2: chapters 2–3.

12. Stephen Hales, Vegetable Staticks (London: Printed for W. and J. Innys, 1727), 318–19. "Nous trouvons par l'analyse chymique des Végétaux, qu'ils sont composés de soulfre, de sels volatils, d'eau, de terre & de l'air ; ces quatre premiers principes agissent les uns sur les autres par une forte puissance d'attraction mutuelle, & l'air que je regarde comme le cinquième principe, est doué de cette même puissance d'attraction, lorsqu'il est dans un état fixe ; mais il exerce la puissance contraire aussi-tôt qu'il change d'état ; car dèslors il repousse avec une force supérieure à toutes les forces connues. Tout se fait donc dans la nature par la combinaison de ces cinq principes, par leur action & réaction réciproque." Stephen Hales, La statique des végétaux et l'analyse de l'air, trans. M. de Buffon (Paris: Chez Debure l'aîné, 1735), 270. On the application of mechanical philosophy to the study of life, see Theodore M. Brown, "From Mechanism to Vitalism in Eighteenth-Century English Physiology," Journal of the History of Biology 7.2 (Autumn 1974): 185–89; Thomas S. Hall, "On Biological Analogs of Newtonian Paradigms," Philosophy of Science 35 (1968): 6–27; Jacques Roger, "Chimie et biologie: Des 'molécules organiques' de Buffon à la 'physico-chimie' de Lamarck," History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 1 (1979): 43–64; and Stéphane Schmitt, "Introduction," Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, Tome 2 (1749), eds. Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2008), 23–25.

13. Violeta Aréchiga, "Le feu et la vie: la pensée chimique de Buffon," L'héritage de Buffon, ed. Marie-Odile Bernez (Dijon: Éditions Univ. de Dijon, 2009), 237. "se retrouvait fixé dans les substances animales, végétales et minérales. En fait, à l'état fixe, l'air formait la matière, ductile et nutritive, à partir de laquelle les organes végétaux croissaient." On early modern theories of vital heat, see Everett Mendelsohn, Heat and Life. The Development of the Theory of Animal Heat (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964).

14. Hales, Vegetable Staticks, 319. "une nourriture tendre & humide [qui] est aisément disposée par une chaleur douce, & un mouvement tempéré, à changer de forme & de contexture; les mouvemens intestins rassemblent les particules homogènes, & séparent les particules étherogènes. Newton Optique, qu. 31." Hales, La statique des végétaux, 271.

15. Buffon, "Second discours," Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 15 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1749), 1: 128. This work is henceforth cited as HN. On Hales's influence on Buffon, see Hanks, Buffon avant l'Histoire naturelle, 91–97.

16. Jean le Rond D'Alembert, "Feu," Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D'Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, ed. Robert Morrissey, 17 vols. (Chicago, n.d.), 6: 599. "Le caractère le plus essentiel du feu, celui que tout le monde lui reconnoît, est de donner de la chaleur. Ainsi on peut définir en général le feu, la matière qui par son action produit immédiatement la chaleur en nous. Mais le feu est-il une matière particulière? ou n'est-ce que la matière des corps mise en mouvement? c'est sur quoi les Philosophes sont partagés." The Encyclopédie is henceforth cited as ENC.

17. On the different types and uses of fire in Enlightenment chemistry, see Christine Lehman, Gabriel François Venel (1723–1775). Sa place dans la chimie française du XVIIIe siècle (PhD diss., Univ. de Paris-Nanterre, 2006), especially chapter 4, which analyzes the chemist Venel's treatise, "Du feu." See also Hélène Metzger, "La théorie du feu d'après Boerhaave," Revue philosophique de la France et de l'Étranger 109 (January-June 1930): 253–85.

18. Bernard Joly, "Les théories du feu de Voltaire et de Mme du Châtelet," Cirey dans la vie intellectuelle: la réception de Newton en France (Oxford, UK: Voltaire Foundation, 2001), 214.

19. Joly, "Les théories du feu," 214. "un feu céleste venu loger au cœur de la matière."

20. Bernard Joly, "La question de la nature du feu dans la chimie de la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle," Corpus 36 (1999): 43–44, 49. "une agitation de la matière."

21. Hélène Metzger, "Newton: La théorie de l'émission de la lumière dans la doctrine chimique au XVIIIe siècle," Archeion 11 (1929): 17. For an updated study of the theorization of light in eighteenth-century chemistry, see Lawrence M. Principe, "Wilhelm Homberg et la chimie de la lumière," Methodos: savoirs et textes 8 (2008), n.p.

22. Phillip R. Sloan, "Natural History, 1670–1802," Companion to the History of Modern Science, eds. R.C. Olby, G.N Cantor, J.R.R. Christie and M.J.S. Hodge (London: Routledge, 1990), 301–2. This interpretation of an almost divine spirit keeping matter from compacting under the force of attraction was held by the marquise du Châtelet, in her 1742 Dissertation sur la nature et la propogation du feu. Voltaire, on the other hand, decided to take a less extreme position, claiming that fire held an intermediate status between matter and spirit. Joly, "La question de la nature du feu," 43, 53–55.

23. HN, 2: 8–9. "il n'y a aucune différence absolument essentielle et générale entre les animaux et les végétaux, mais que la nature descende par degrés et par nuances imperceptibles d'un animal qui nous paroît le plus parfait à celui qui l'est le moins, et de celui-ci au végétal."

24. Buffon, Histoire naturelle des minéraux, 5 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1783), 1: 4–5.

25. Hankins, Science and the Enlightenment, 50–53, 72–75. This theory was applied to the mechanical as well as to the chemical sciences. See Metzger, "Newton: La théorie de l'émission de la lumière," 17.

26. Reill, Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment, 79–80.

27. Metzger discusses Buffon's applications of Newtonian chemistry and law in Newton, Stahl, Boerhaave et la doctrine chimique (Paris: Albert Blanchard, 1974), 58–66.

28. See Jacques Roger, Buffon: Un philosophe au Jardin du Roi (Paris: Fayard, 1989), 242–43.

29. On the interaction between texts and physiology, see Anne C. Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998).

30. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, De l'Esprit des lois, Œuvres complètes, ed. Roger Caillois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), 2: 476.

31. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. and eds. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 231. "augmente leur ressort, et favorise le retour du sang des extrémités vers le cœur. Il diminue la longueur de ces mêmes fibres; il augmente donc encore par là leur force." Montesquieu, De l'Esprit des lois, 474.

32. ENC, 3: 23. "une perception particulière ou une modification de notre âme."

33. ENC, 5: 651. "ENERGIE, FORCE, synon. (Gramm.) Nous ne considérerons ici ces mots qu'en tant qu'ils s'appliquent au discours. … Il semble qu'énergie dit encore plus que force; & qu'énergie s'applique principalement aux discours qui peignent, & au caractère du style. On peut dire d'un orateur qu'il joint la force du raisonnement à l'énergie des expressions. On dit aussi une peinture énergique, & des images fortes."

34. ENC, 7: 109–10. "a été transporté du simple au figuré;" "toutes les parties du corps qui sont en movement;" "les questions problématiques."

35. ENC, 7: 110. "[l]a force de l'éloquence n'est pas seulement une suite de raisonnemens justes & vigoureux, qui subsisteroient avec la sécheresse; cette force demande de l'embonpoint, des images frappantes, des termes énergiques."

36. Reill, Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment, 81–82.

37. Peter France, "Lumières, politesse, énergie," L'Histoire de la rhétorique dans l'Europe moderne, 1450–1950, ed. Marc Fumaroli (Paris: Presses Univ. de France, 1999), 980. On the rhetorical concept of enargeia in Antiquity, see Perrine Galand-Hallyn, Le reflet des fleurs: Description et métalangage poétique d'Homère à la Renaissance (Genève: Droz, 1994), 36–49; and Elena Russo, Styles of Enlightenment: Taste, Politics, and Authorship in Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007), 145–46.

38. Michel Delon, L'Idée d'énergie en France au tournant des Lumières (1770–1820) (Paris: Presses Univ. de France, 1988), 36–37.

39. Stalnaker writes that "Buffon changed the terms of the eighteenth-century debate on the relationship between poetry and painting. In particular, he championed prose over poetry as a superior vehicle for visual representation, claiming that verse curtailed the writer's ability to paint. … To the extent that it imposed no artificial constraints on the writer, prose was more permeable to the qualities of nature. It allowed the writer to develop a natural style, which reflected the actual progression of his thoughts and perceptions rather than arbitrary formal rules." Stalnaker, The Unfinished Enlightenment, 64. Michel Delon echoes this thought: "[l]'énergie devient une catégorie fondamentale du jugement littéraire et assure une prééminence de la prose." ("[e]nergy becomes a fundamental category of literary judgment and insures the preeminence of prose.") Delon, L'Idée d'énergie en France, 131.

40. Stalnaker, "Painting Life," 221.

41. HN, 12: iii. "un ouvrage perpétuellement vivant, un ouvrier sans cesse actif, qui sait tout employer, qui travaillant d'après soi-même, toujours sur le même fonds, bien loin de l'épuiser le rend inépuisable: le temps, l'espace et la matière sont ses moyens, l'Univers son objet, le mouvement et la vie son but."

42. HN, 12: v-vi. "l'édifice du monde;" "des millions de globes opaques, [qui] circulans autour des premiers, … composent l'ordre et l'architecture mouvante [de l'univers]."

43. While in the "Second discours" (1749) the heat of the sun had been important in the formation of the planets, Buffon did not attribute much importance to this heat in his discussion of the geographical history of the earth in the same essay. Rather, he ascribed the formation of the Earth's surface to the movement of water over time. In the 1760s, after reading Mairan's work, he began to connect the history of the Earth with that of fire, namely from volcanoes.

44. Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, "Nouvelles recherches sur la cause générale du chaud en été et du froid en hiver," Histoire de l'Académie royale des sciences, Année MDCCLXV, avec les Mémoires de Mathématique & de Physique pour la même Année (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1768), 143–266. Jacques Roger discusses this work in Buffon, 508–9. Buffon wrote of De Mairan's findings in "De la Lumière, de la Chaleur et du Feu," Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: Supplément, 1: 32–33. The supplementary volumes of the Histoire naturelle are henceforth cited as HNS.

45. On Buffon's experiments, see Roger, Buffon, 517–18; and Lucien Leclaire, "L'Histoire naturelle des minéraux ou Buffon géologue universaliste," Buffon 88: Actes du colloque international (Paris-Montbard-Dijon, 14–22 juin 1988), eds. Jean-Claude Beaune, Serge Benoit, Jean Gayon, Jacques Roger, Deris Woronoff (Paris: Vrin, 1992), 355–65. Buffon also wrote of these experiments in "Des verres primitifs," Histoire naturelle des minéraux, 1: 17–29.

46. HNS, 1: 1–2. "forces primitives, celle qui cause la pesanteur, et celle qui produit la chaleur;" "au moyen du ressort."

47. HNS, 1: 4–5. "une force expansive;" "du centre à la circonférence;" "de la circonférence au centre."

48. HNS, 1: 15. "ce sont pour la Nature deux instrumens de même espèce, ou plutôt ce n'est que le même instrument qu'elle manie dans deux sens opposés."

49. HNS, 1: 18. "la lumière, … la chaleur et le feu ne sont que des manières d'être de la matière commune; qu'il n'existe en un mot qu'une seule force et une seule matière toujours prête à s'attirer ou à se repousser." On Buffon's construction of the universe through the equilibration of opposing forces, see Roger, Buffon, 510–12, and Jean Svagelski, L'Idée de compensation en France, 1750–1850 (Paris: L'Hermès, 1981), 191–94.

50. On the structure and narration of historical time in the Enlightenment, see Jean-Marie Goulemot, Le Règne de l'histoire. Discours historiques et révolutions, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Albin Michel, 1996).

51. HNS, 5: 240–41. "toute la Terre doit être plus froide aujourd'hui qu'elle ne l'étoit il y a deux mille ans; or la tradition semble nous prouver le contraire;" "Les Gaules et la Germanie nourrissoient des élans, des loups-cerviers, des ours et d'autres animaux qui se sont retirés depuis dans les pays septentrionaux; cette progression est bien différente de celle que vous leur supposez du Nord au Midi. D'ailleurs l'histoire nous apprend que tous les ans la rivière de Seine étoit ordinairement glacée pendant une partie de l'hiver; ces faits ne paroissent-ils pas être directement opposés au prétendu refroidissement successif du globe? Ils le seroient, je l'avoue, si la France et l'Allemagne d'aujourd'hui étoient semblables à la Gaule et à la Germanie; si l'on n'eût pas abattu les forêts, desséché les marais, contenu les torrens, dirigé les fleuves et défriché toutes les terres trop couvertes et surchargées de débris même de leurs productions." An important critical edition of the Époques, with a comparative analysis of the manuscripts and published text, is Les Époques de la Nature, ed. Jacques Roger, Mémoires du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Série C, Tome X (Paris: Éditions du Muséum, 1962). A new English translation was published after this article was completed: Buffon, The Epochs of Nature, ed. and trans. Anne-Sophie Milon, Jan Zalasiewicz, and Mateusz Zalasiewicz (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018).

52. HNS, 5: 244–46. "autant de petits foyers de chaleur" that "répandent de la chaleur"; plants "ne produisent que de l'humidité froide"; "qui lui convient," becoming the "maître de l'élément du feu, qu'il peut augmenter et propager à son gré."

53. HNS, 5: 244. "ne peut ni saisir ni communiquer."

54. HNS: 5: 236–37. "[L'homme] a suivi les leçons de la Nature, profité de ses exemples, employé ses moyens, et choisi dans son immensité tous les objets qui pouvoient lui servir ou lui plaire. Par son intelligence, les animaux ont été apprivoisés, subjugués, domptés, réduits à lui obéir à jamais; par ses travaux, les marais ont été desséchés, les fleuves contenues, leurs cataractes effacées, les forêts éclaircies, les landes cultivées; … enfin la face entière de la Terre porte aujourd'hui l'empreinte de la puissance de l'homme."

55. HNS, 5: 246. "Heureuses les contrées où tous les élémens de la température se trouvent balancés, et assez avantageusement combinés pour n'opérer que de bons effets!"

56. The expression "une Nature nouvelle" is from Buffon, Histoire naturelle, 12: xii–xiii.

57. HNS, 5: 254. "enfin il a reconnu que sa vraie gloire est la science, et la paix son vrai bonheur."

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