"HIGHLY INFLUENTIAL IN THE ROMANTIC PERIOD, BOTH PHILOSOPHICALLY AND POLITICALLY": VOLNEY'S THE RUINS, 1792 FIRST EDITION IN ENGLISH
VOLNEY, [Comte de]. [Constantin François de Chasseboeuf]. The Ruins: or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. London: J. Johnson, 1792. Octavo, period-style full speckled calf gilt, raised bands, red morocco spine label, marbled endpapers. $2500.
First edition in English of Volney’s treatise on the origin, growth and decay of the social, political and religious institutions of ancient civilizations, with three engraved illustrations: frontispiece, folding map, and folding chart of the astrological heavens.
Volney's Ruins traces how ancient civilizations deteriorated into tyranny, and argues for equality before the law and the elimination of both political and religious tyranny. "The Ruins was a major source of inspiration for free-thinkers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The work describes the world's most important religions; condemns the corruption and despotism of the Christian Church; discusses wealth, rank and property; and analyses the fall of ancient civilizations. Volney proposes that eventually all religions will merge under the consensus of underlying truths. The thrust of societies, as proposed by 'the Genius' that converses with Volney, is towards greater sharing of ideas, and the understanding that individual fulfilment can be achieved within the improvement of society. The book was highly influential in the Romantic period, both philosophically and politically—the first part was translated into English by the American President Thomas Jefferson" (British Library). (This 1792 anonymous translation into English precedes the one begun and worked on by Thomas Jefferson, with Volney's approval and collaboration.)
Indeed, Thomas Jefferson translated the invocation and "not less than the first 12 chapters" and possibly the first 20 chapters, according to BAL. Jefferson first met Volney while in France at the salon of Madame Helvétius where they discussed the need to instill republican attitudes through education. Volney, having narrowly avoided the guillotine, traveled to America in 1795 and stayed with Jefferson at Monticello in 1796. By 1798, Volney had returned to France and Jefferson no longer had the time to complete the work—nor was it wise, as he had since been elected President, to have his name associated with the project, which might open him to accusations of being an atheist. Jefferson's translation, finished by Joel Barlow and published anonymously, first appeared in Paris in 1802; a second edition of Jefferson's translation was issued, also in Paris, in 1817.
Indicative of the prevalence of this book in late 18th- and early 19th-century culture, Volney's Ruins is one of the books the Monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein finds while hiding in the hovel of the De Lacey family (Frankenstein first appeared in 1818). From reading The Ruins, the Monster gains "an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth." "He learns of man's highest achievements and most destructive tendencies: 'These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?… I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood'… From reading Volney he has learned to 'know' both the world and himself, and the result is disillusion; he wishes he did not 'know,' but was able only to experience hunger, thirst and heat" (British Library). First published in Paris, in French as Les Ruines, in 1791. See BAL 904.
Plates and text generally quite clean and fine, beautifully bound.