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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Buffon gave to the world the Epoques de la Nature


In

1753 Buffon had been nominated a member of the French Academy. He had begged his friends to vote for his compatriot, Piron, author of the celebrated comedy _Metromanie,_ at that time an old man and still poor. "I can wait," said Buffon. "Two days before that fixed for the election," writes Grimm, "the king sent for President Montesquieu, to whose lot it had fallen to be director of the Academy on that occasion, and told him that, understanding that the Academy had cast their eyes upon M. Piron, and knowing that he was the author of several licentious works, he desired the Academy to choose some one else to fill the vacant place. His Majesty at the same time told him that he would not have any member belonging to the order of advocates."

Buffon was elected, and on the 25th of August, 1754, St. Louis' day, he was formally received by the Academy; Grimm describes the session. "M. de Buffon did not confine himself to reminding us that Chancellor Seguier was a great man, that Cardinal Richelieu was a very great man, that Kings Louis XIV. and Louis XV. were very great men too, that the Archbishop of Sens (whom he succeeds) was also a great man, and finally that all the forty were great men; this celebrated man, disdaining the stale and heavy eulogies which are generally the substance of this sort of speech, thought proper to treat of a subject worthy of his pen and worthy of the Academy. He gave us his ideas on style, and it was said, in consequence,

that the Academy had engaged a writing-master."

"Well-written works are the only ones which will go down to posterity," said Buffon in his speech; "quantity of knowledge, singularity of facts, even novelty in discoveries, are not certain guaranties of immortality; knowledge, facts, discoveries, are easily abstracted and transferred. Those things are outside the man; the style is the man himself; the style, then, cannot be abstracted, or transferred, or tampered with; if it be elevated, noble, sublime, the author will be equally admired at all times, for it is only truth that is durable and even eternal."

Never did the great scholar who has been called "the painter of nature" relax his zeal for painstaking as a writer. "I am every day learning to write," he would still say at seventy years of age.

To the _Theorie de la Terre,_ the _Idees generales sur les Animaux,_ and the _Histoire de l'Homme,_ already published when Buffon was elected by the French Academy, succeeded the twelve volumes of the _Histoire des Quadrupedes,_ a masterpiece of luminous classifications and incomparable descriptions; eight volumes on _Oiseaux_ appeared subsequently, a short time before the _Histoire des Mineraux;_ lastly, a few years before his death, Buffon gave to the world the _Epoques de la Nature_. "As in civil history one consults titles, hunts up medals, deciphers antique inscriptions to determine the epochs of revolutions amongst mankind, and to fix the date of events in the moral world, so, in natural history, we must ransack the archives of the universe, drag from the entrails of the earth the olden monuments, gather together their ruins and collect into a body of proofs all the indications of physical changes that can guide us back to the different ages of nature. It is the only way of fixing certain points in the immensity of space, and of placing a certain number of memorial-stones on the endless road of time."

"This is what I perceive with my mind's eye," Buffon would say, "thus forming a chain which, from the summit of Time's ladder, descends right down to us." "This man," exclaimed Hume, with an admiration which surprised him out of his scepticism, "this man gives to things which no human eye has seen a probability almost equal to evidence."


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