The Travels Of Constantin De Volney

Every traveler has a different tale, but the travel itself has the same purpose:  to push through boundaries, overcome obstacles, and to seek out what is not known.  This impulse in man will never change.  And it is right that this is so, for without it the progress of the human race might come to a shuddering halt.  In reviewing the lives and careers of great travelers, we feel almost as if they were animated by some unconscious impulse, some unfathomable compulsion, to thrust out the boundaries of their knowledge.  Every man must determine for himself his own outer limit.  The demarcation is intense, and personal; and it cannot be any other way.

Constantin François Chasseboeuf de Volney may be counted as one of France’s great travelers of the eighteenth century.  He was born at Craon, in Anjou, on February 3, 1757, the son of a country lawyer.  His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but the young Constantin was more interested in languages and history, the kindling that has ignited the minds of many explorers.  An inheritance from his mother when he reached twenty years of age excited his imagination with its possibilities.  Below he explains his dilemma, and how he resolved it.  It stands as an admirable justification for the value of travel and discovery:

The difficulty was how to employ [the inherited money]. Some of my friends advised me to enjoy the capital, others to purchase an annuity; but, on reflection, I thought the sum too inconsiderable to make any sensible addition to my income, and too great to be dissipated in frivolous expenses. Some fortunate circumstances had habituated me to study; I had acquired a taste, and even a passion, for knowledge; and this accession of fortune appeared to me a fresh means of gratifying my inclination, and opening a new way to improvement. I had read, and frequently heard repeated, that of all the methods of adorning the mind and forming the judgment, travelling is the most efficacious.

I determined, therefore, on a plan of travelling; but to what part of the world I should direct my course remained still to be chosen. I wished the scene of my observations to be new, or at least brilliant. My own country and the neighboring nations seemed to me either too well-known or too easy of access; the rising States of America and the savages were not without their temptations; but other considerations determined me in favor of Asia. Syria especially, and Egypt, both with a view of what they once have been, and what they now are, appeared to me a field equally adapted to those political and moral observations with which I wished to occupy my mind.

With this he resolved to target the Middle East.  After a brief period of physical preparation, he set out from Marseille in 1783 with little more than a knapsack, a musket on his shoulder, and several hundred francs in gold concealed in a money belt around his waist.  The rashness of this decision he explains as follows:

When I set out from Marseilles in 1783, it was with all my heart; with that alacrity, that confidence in others and in myself which youth inspires. I…quitted a country of peace and abundance to live in a country of barbarism and misery, from no other motive than to employ the active and restless moments of youth, to acquire a new kind of knowledge, which might procure for the remainder of my days a certain portion of reputation and honor.

This is the true spirit of the adventurer; and it reminds us that no man should ever say he lacks the money or opportunity for travel.  He sailed from Marseille to Cairo, and promptly immersed himself in the culture of the Nile Delta.  After about seven months, however, he realized  that it would not be possible to penetrate further south into Egypt without permission from the Ottoman authorities.  Lacking connections in high places, he was stranded.  Undaunted, he resolved to travel to Syria.  This he did, depositing himself among the Druses of Syria for further study of the Arabic language, of which he by now had a good grasp.  His method was to seek lodging among Christian or Druze communities and pay local clerics for language instruction.

He was by now able to communicate capably with the local Arabs, who did not quite know what to make of this unusual Frenchman.  Some of his conversations with them are both amusing and profound.  He tells us the following tolerant anecdotes:

Nothing can better describe, or be a more satisfactory proof of [their spirit of tolerance] than a dialogue which one day passed between my self and one of their sheikhs, named Ahmed, son of Bahir, chief of the tribe of Wahidia.

‘Why,’ said this sheikh to me, ‘ do you wish to return among the Franks? Since you have no aversion to our manners, since you know how to use the lance and manage a horse like a Bedouin, stay among us. We will give you pelisses, a tent, a virtuous and young Bedouin girl, and a good blood mare. You shall live in our house.’

‘But do you not know,’ said I, that, born among the Franks, I have been educated in their religion? In what light will the Arabs view an infidel, or what will they think of an apostate?’

‘And do you not yourself perceive,’ said he, ‘that the Arabs live without troubling themselves either about the prophet, or the Book [the Koran]? Every man with us follows the dictates of his conscience. Men have a right to judge of actions, but religion must be left to God alone.’

Another sheikh, conversing with me one day, addressed me, by mistake, in the customary formulary, ‘Listen, and pray for the prophet.’ Instead of the usual answer, ‘I have prayed, I replied with a smile, ‘I listen.’

He recollected his error, and smiled in his turn. A Turk of Jerusalem who was present took the matter up more seriously : ‘O sheikh,’ said he, ‘ how canst thou address the words of the true believers to an infidel?’

‘ The tongue is light,’ replied the sheikh, ‘let but the heart be white [i.e., pure]; but you who know the customs of the Arabs, how can you offend a stranger, with whom we have eaten bread and salt?  

Volney amassed a knowledge of the Druzes as few Europeans before or since have acquired; his was perhaps an age more civilized than our own.  He returned to France after an absence of three years, and set about putting his experiences to paper.  His book was a great success, and even attracted the attention of Catherine II of Russia, who sent him a gold medal in 1787 in token of her admiration.  He sought a position in the French government, and was appointed Director of Agriculture and Commerce of the island of Corsica.  After writing some tomes of history and flirting with the idea of entering politics, he focused himself again on Corsica, and met Napoleon there around 1792.

In 1793 Volney was imprisoned for nine months on suspicion of being a royalist, which was untrue.  After a short stint as a school instructor, he left France for America in 1795, where he met George Washington, and studied the geography of the New World.  Volney became friends with Thomas Jefferson, with whom he discussed the translation into English of his historical treatise Ruins of Empires.  This work was a conglomeration of Volney’s ideas about the rise and fall of empires; for him, the preservation of individual liberties and the absolute separation of church and state were prerequisites for the greatness of nations.

Volney befriended Thomas Jefferson and arranged for him to translate his work “Ruins of Empires” into English

Jefferson, as a produce of the Enlightenment, agreed with these ideas, but was concerned that the atheistic tone of Volney’s book would alienate the average American reader (Jefferson was planning a run for the presidency).  But he did translate a good portion of the book before finally abandoning the project, which was eventually completed by someone else.

More bad luck followed Volney in America.  He was accused of being a French spy by the administration of John Adams, and found it prudent to relocate to France.  There he would witness at first hand the ascent and, eventually, the meteoric fall of Napoleon.  By this time he had had enough of travel and adventure, and was content to spend his days reading and philosophizing.  He died in 1820 at the age of 63.  He had followed his star, and it had never failed him.


To see the details on my new annotated translation of Cicero’s On Duties, click here.