Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovier de

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Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovier de (1657-1757): French, Philosopher.

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle was born into a literary family in Rouen. Through his familial connections, as nephew to Pierre and Thomas Corneille, he entered the Parisian salons at the age of twenty, and became an important ally of the Moderns during the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. While he never left his literary roots, his interests in religion and Cartesian scientific method led him to become one of the first prominent deists, as well as the first Frenchman to popularize science and philosophy.

Fontenelle published his first poetry in the Mercure galant in 1677. Although his early poetry and theater reflected the sophisticated style of the era, he did not engage in more traditional forms like the ode or epic poetry. His desire to experiment within the restrictions of versification and his belief in the unique character of every era—not just of Antiquity—gave him a prominent position among the Moderns. His L’Éloge de Monsieur Corneille, published upon Pierre Corneille’s death in 1685, laid out these literary precepts, but also delayed Fontenelle’s admission to the French Academy until his fourth candidacy in 1691, due to opposition from the Ancients. In 1742, his La Vie de Corneille traced the history of theater up to the time of his uncle. In this work, he demonstrates how theatrical productions lie on a continuum between pure tragedy and pure comedy, and he shows how revolutionary Corneille’s tragi-comedies had been.

During his affiliation with the Parisian salons, Fontenelle became aware that a number of people in the noble and bourgeois classes, especially women, were literate but not instructed in more technical aspects of science and philosophy. To close this gap, and thus ensure the spread of rationalism, Fontenelle wrote a series of popular discussions on science and philosophy in which the application of the Cartesian scientific method of inquiry was the centerpiece. One such discussion was on astronomy and the possibility of life outside this world (inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac) entitled Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes. He also helped to popularize philosophical discussion with his Dialogues des morts and Nouveaux dialogues des morts, in which such figures from Antiquity as Socrates and Aristotle discuss literary or philosophical developments with more recent figures like Erasmus and Montaigne.

Fontenelle also took a more dangerously polemic approach in De L’Origine des Fables, where he discusses the sources of primitive superstition, and attacks the role of all religions, including Christianity, in impeding progress and rational discourse. He continued the attacks on the metaphysical in his L’Histoire des Oracles, in part a popularized response to the Dutchman Van Dale’s Latin treatise on supernatural miracles and oracles.

As a leading proponent of the Cartesian method, Fontenelle was elected Permanent Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences in 1697, a post he would hold for forty-seven years. Although he would eventually find himself among the anti-Newtonian philosophers, his earlier work in literature, science, and philosophy made Fontenelle one of the first lights of the French Enlightenment.

Further reading:

Roger Marchal, Fontenelle à l’aube des Lumières, 1997.

Steven Daniell

Auburn University