Thomas Christian Williams. Skeptic. Volume 21, Issue 1. 2016.
Metempsychosis. Few people are familiar with the word. But everyone knows what it means. It’s the theory of the transmigration of the soul. When you die, your spirit, your soul continues to live. You pass on to another body, another world, another life. That’s the theory, anyway.
In 1791, however, a French philosopher and politician, Constantin-François Volney, made a daring claim: Metempsychosis is a myth born in the infancy of our species, a form of mind control used by governments and religions to make people believe there’s an invisible being watching their every move, judging them when they die.
Volney published his heretical theory in a book titled The Ruins, or Mediations on the Revolutions of Empires, a kind of post-Enlightenment review of human history. In the first part of the book, Volney lays out a single general principle that predicts whether a nation will rise or fall. In the second part, Volney investigates the origin of world religions and concludes that humanity will achieve lasting peace only by adopting a complete separation of church and state.
Volney’s Ruins was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic, making its author either a hero or a villain, depending on the reader’s point of view. Among admirers of the book was Thomas Jefferson, who met Volney in Paris in the early days of the French Revolution. The two were introduced by Benjamin Franklin, the outbound U.S. ambassador to France whom Jefferson was there to replace. Jefferson saw the book’s genera] principle- empires rise if government allows enlightened selfinterest to flourish-as a description of the Whig-inspired model of limited government he favored.
Four years after the book’s publication, Volney sailed to the United States to start a new life. A deputy in the first National Assembly in France, Volney had taken the Tennis Court Oath (that signified for the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to to the King) and sat on the committee that wrote the first French constitution. Jailed on trumped-up charges during The Terror, Volney was disillusioned by the violence and chaos churned up by the very revolution he helped create. Like many of his compatriots, he went to the United States seeking a refuge. Instead he walked into a buzzsaw.
At first things went well. Alighting in Philadelphia in 1795, Volney was welcomed into a group of elite French expats that included Talleyrand, the avaricious future foreign minister. Volney also reestablished ties with Thomas Jefferson, soon to be elected Vice President under President John Adams. In late Spring 1796, Volney visited Monticello, Jefferson’s celebrated hilltop abode. It was there the two revolutionaries conceived a daring plan: the author of the Declaration of Independence would translate Volney’s heretical book into modern American English.
While appreciating the book’s general principle—empires rise if government allows enlightened self-interest to flourish—Jefferson was rightly concerned about the book’s religious skepticism, exemplified by the passages regarding metempsychosis. He reasoned that if it were known he had translated Volney’s Ruins his political enemies would accuse him of atheism, a charge that had dogged him in the past. Thus, Jefferson insisted on complete anonymity. Volney agreed. It was a secret both men would take to their graves.
About this time, things got worse. President Adams got into a spat with The Directory over the French government’s seizure of American ships destined for England. Suddenly every Frenchman in America was suspected of spying, or being an atheistic Jacobin, or both. According to Jefferson, the infamous Alien Act sponsored by President Adams was “directly aimed at Volney.”
A British sympathizer then living in Philadelphia also launched a public tirade against Volney in the Federalist press. Joseph Priestley was a respected scientist who had discovered oxygen. But he also fancied himself a biblical scholar and, wearing this hat, scolded Volney and his Ruins for contributing to “an increase in infidelity” among the people. Volney’s elegant “Response to Dr. Priestly” (sic), found in the appendix of several subsequent editions of The Ruins, is a masterful combination of satire and reason.
This didn’t help Volney. He continued to be attacked by northern businessmen who resented the French government’s seizure of American ships and suspected by politicians who feared France might try to reacquire Louisiana-two policies Volney ironically opposed. Finally, when pulpits across America erupted against him following Priestley’s diatribe, Volney bowed to public pressure and sailed back to France just before the Alien Act went into effect. But hidden away among his luggage was an ace in the hole: The opening chapters of a new English language translation of his Ruins.
Safely back in his home country, Volney participated in the 1799 coup that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power. Not long afterward, Volney received the final chapters of Jefferson’s translation by way of a private courier. But there was a surprise. Jefferson, the courier informed him, had not completed the entire job due to time constraints. His presidential bid in 1800 took precedence so he’d only had time to translate the Invocation plus the first 20 chapters of the 24-chapter book.
Recovering from this disappointment, Volney found another American, Joel Barlow, to finish the job. Barlow was a businessman and poet who’d made a small fortune by trading in the abandoned mansions of beheaded aristocrats in Paris. Barlow took up the project with gusto and ultimately lent his name to the entire translation, thereby providing a serendipitous means to hide Jefferson’s involvement in the project.
The first Jefferson-Barlow translation of Ruins was published by Levrault of Paris in 1802. Importantly, the 1802 edition is divided into two volumes: Volume One comprises the Invocation plus the first 20 chapters; Volume Two, the remaining four chapters. This otherwise unnecessary division of the book into two volumes gave Volney a subtle means to recognize the work of two translators while not revealing the underlying truth. Two more Paris editions followed, in 1817 and 1820, the latter being the year of Volney’s death.
The first U.S. edition of the Jefferson-Barlow translation was published by Dixon and Sickels of New York in 1828. This was followed by numerous other Jefferson-Barlow editions throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and Robert Ingersoll-perhaps the greatest freethinker in American history-are on the short list of influential personages said to have read the book.
And yet, during all this time and despite the book’s widespread influence, no one ever knew about Thomas Jefferson’s involvement. It was only in 1923 that a French researcher, Gilbert Chinard, found letters between Volney and Jefferson that strongly implied but did not prove that Jefferson translated the poetical Invocation plus the first 20 chapters of the book.
Chinard published his findings with the Johns Hopkins Press but no one paid attention. It was the Roaring Twenties and people didn’t have time for contemplation of universal truths. Then the Depression and World War II hit and interest in Volney’s Ruins disappeared altogether. To make matters worse, no one followed up on Chinard’s discovery. It was as if Volney and his Ruins had fallen into an Orwellian memory hole, never to be heard from again.
If someone had followed up, they would have found a treasure trove at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. Hidden away in the Society’s Coolidge Collection is a 12-chapter manuscript of Volney’s book. This physical evidence appears to settle the question once and for all: Thomas Jefferson translated at least 12 chapters of Volney’s heretical book.
So why is all this important? First, it is clear that Jefferson risked his chance of winning the presidency in 1800 by translating Volney’s Ruins. That alone speaks volumes about the value he saw in the book. Second, Jefferson’s involvement gives us new insights into his political, economic and religious views. Third, Jefferson’s translation represents a kind of endorsement-an endorsement we, the American people today, as well as other peoples around the world, would do well to pay attention to.
Why? Because Volney’s Ruins provides a roadmap for all nations looking for that magic formula: How to build peaceful, prosperous, diverse democracies in a world beset by structural unemployment, big deficits, resurgent populism, and fanatical religious conflict.
The book opens with a lone philosopher traveling through the desert of Syria to the ruins of Palmyra, the very same ruins recently destroyed by the Islamic terrorist group ISIL. There, the philosopher stands on a cliff overlooking the remains of the once great city and derives his general principle: empires rise if government allows enlightened self-interest to flourish. Ironically, this prescription seems to offend those on both the Left and the Right.
The Left doesn’t care for this formula because it sounds dangerously like a rejection of the big government social programs they cherish. In fact, Volney wrote his Ruins, as well as several other works including Law of Nature (1793) and Lessons on History (1795), as a refutation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. If you refute the Social Contract, you refute the moral underpinnings of the social programs favored by Leftists around the world today.
The Right doesn’t care much for Volney either. In chapter 4 of Ruins, Volney noted that a race of Blacks in Ethiopia that were rejected by society in his time had founded the study of the laws of nature. Thus, the first learned nation was a nation of blacks. In the era of slavery that was heresy. But 19th century abolitionists read the passage avidly and used the book’s humanist principles to promote their cause.
In chapter 12, Volney solidifies his freethinker bonafides by revealing the religious origins of a never-ending war between the Russian Czar and an itenerant band of Islamic pirates in the Caucasus region. Today we call that same conflict “Chechnya.” Volney traces the cause of the conflict to priests and clerics on each side and concludes “Man created God in his own image, not the reverse”-a claim sure to enrage conservative Christians.
Now we come to the passage on metempsychosis. It’s in chapter 21 and takes place at a General Assembly of Nations, a kind of fictional first meeting of the United Nations. At this assembly, representatives from each of the world’s major religions stand up and give their version of The Truth. After everyone has presented their version, all hell breaks loose. An even greater controversy erupts, everyone blames everyone else, and nothing is resolved. Sound familiar?
Amid this chaotic situation, a Buddhist priest steps forward and reveals “The Interior Doctrine of Fot.” Fot is another name for the Buddha. “It is time that we terminate all these frivolous arguments [Volney wrote] by revealing the doctrine of the interior, as spoken by Fot himself, upon his deathbed in a conversation with his disciples.” The passage continues:
[Fot said] All these theological opinions are chimeras. All these descriptions of gods, their actions, their lives, are nothing but allegories and mythological emblems, beneath which are hidden ingenious ideals of morality, and of the operation of natural elements and the course of the stars in the sky.
But here is the truth. All is reduced to nothing. All is mere illusion, appearance and dream. Spiritual metempsychosis is but the figurative sense of physical metempsychosis, the successive movement by which elements that compose our bodies never perish but, upon dissolution, pass on to other places, forming other combinations.
The soul is nothing but the vital principle that results from the properties of matter, of the interplay of elements within the body that creates spontaneous movement. But to suppose that this product of the interplay of organs, which is born with them, develops with them, sleeps with them, continues to exist even though the organs themselves have perished. This perhaps makes good fiction, but is in reality a dangerous idea born of an abusive imagination.
In effect Volney is saying to the religions of the world: “You are all wrong.” There is no physical evidence supporting metempsychosis. The truth is: When the body dies, the soul dies. There are no ghosts, no angels, no devils. No spirits of any kind. Heaven and hell do not exist. No one has ever risen from the dead.
What would Volney say about the upsurge in violent religious-based extremism today? The answer is clear: Across the planet, an entire generation of young men and women are being convinced to give up the one thing that exists for sure-their own lives-for something that has never been proven to exist-the Afterlife.
But Volney’s Ruins also provides us with a means to transcend the illusions born in the infancy of our species. A lost classic in Western literature, it speaks to the problems our species faces today and proposes a universal scale of morality based on the physical laws of nature-the sanctity of the individual. In effect, Volney says, let’s make law. Let’s build societies. Let’s construct the future based upon what we can prove. The individual is born with the desire to survive. From this natural desire comes the general principle-empires rise if government allows enlightened self interest to flourish. And from this comes Volney’s appeal, in the book’s last chapter, for a complete separation of church and state.
Unfortunately, almost no one knows the book exists and fewer still know about Jefferson’s involvement, despite the fact that the Jefferson-Barlow translation remains the most popular edition of Volney’s Ruins in the English-speaking world today.
So here we are, in the opening decades of the 21st century, surrounded by all the problems Volney wrote about, and no one is reading The Ruins, or Mediations on the Revolutions of Empires. Hopefully that will now change (the book is available on Amazon). In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the opening lines of the Invocation to Volney’s Ruins as translated by Thomas Jefferson and slightly abridged for the benefit of the modern ear by me:
Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchers, silent walls. You I invoke. To you I address my prayer. While your aspect averts, with secret terror, the vulgar regard, it excites in my heart the charm of delicious sentiments -sublime contemplations. What useful lessons, what affecting and profound reflections you suggest to him who knows how to consult you! When the whole earth, in chains and silence, bowed the neck before its tyrants, you had already proclaimed the truths which they abhor; and confounding the dust of the king with that of the meanest slave, had announced to man the sacred dogma of Equality.