Bernard de Fontenelle was an influential French author who contributed to various areas such as philosophy, literature, education, epistemology or theory of knowledge, and education. He was born in Rouen in 1657. His father was a lawyer, while his mother was related to a famous playwright Pierre Corneille.
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Fontenelle received education in the Jesuit College where he was trained as a lawyer. According to the standards of that period, this was arguably the best education that a person could get in France. However, he did not pursue a career in this area; instead he dedicated his entire life to philosophy and science. Fontenelle was particularly attracted to the ideas, expressed by Rene Descartes, who had profound impact on the development of Western philosophical thought (Marsak, 51).
At the very beginning, he tries his hand at drama but his early play but his early plays were not very successful, he decided to pay more attention to natural philosophy and popularization of scientific findings. It should be noted that Fontenelle lived for almost one hundred years, and he witnessed dramatic changes in the French society. Overall, he can be viewed as polymath or a person who is equally skillful in different areas of human activity.
In part, it can be explained by the fact that he was significantly impacted by Renaissance philosophy which postulated that a person should excel or at least be educated in different fields (Black, 16). Yet, one should also take into account that he was an important representative of the Enlightenment. At the beginning of the eighteenth century his popularity could be compared to that one of Voltaire, or Diderot. To some degree, their ideas of liberal freedom were reflected in his writings.
At this point, it is necessary for us to show the important of Fontenelle’s works and ideas to his contemporaries and modern intellectuals. First, in his lifetime he was largely renowned as a populirizers of science.
His book Conversations on the Plurality of World, he tried to explain heliocentric model of the Universe that was put forward by Nicolaus Copernicus. This book was published in 1686 at that time the very idea that the Earth revolve around the Sun was revolutionary if not blasphemous. Certainly, nowadays this book will not produce such an effect on community.
However, some aspects of this work still remains relevant for modern community. In particular, this work is presented as a conversation between a philosopher or scientist and a woman. In this way he emphasized women’s ability to make scientific achievement. In seventeenth century France, the idea of gender equality was unaccepted for the community and one cannot say that this problem has been entirely resolved at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Hence, it is quite possible for us to argue that Fontenelle occupies rightful place among the leading figures of the Enlightenment. In a very subtle way, this book attracts the readers’ attention to the problem of gender inequality. Hence, Fontenelle can be regarded as a precursor of modern feminism. Of course, we do not know for sure whether Fontenelle wanted to be perceived in this way, but this book provides room for such an interpretation.
One should bear in mind that Conversations on the Plurality of World was later translated into many other languages, and this book enjoyed considerable popularity among English, German, Russian, and Italian readers. This book revived interest to natural science among elites and middle classes, and many young people in France and other parts of Europe became more inclined to pursue career in this area. Thus, popularization of science is probably the major legacy of Fontenelle.
In this book, Fontelle says that his intention was to “compose a book that shall neither be too abstruse for the light hearted, nor too recreational for the learned” (Fontelle, 12). He attempted to avoid pedantic writing style and make more similar to that one of a novel (Marsakb, 10). Judging from the enormous success of this book, we can say that he managed to attain this task. This approach is now adopted by many populirizers of science and Montenelle provided an example of how it should be done.
Furthermore, Fontelle was working in the French Academy of Science; his task was to make scientific findings of leading French scholars more accessible to the general audience (Sample, p 15). For example, he raised public awareness about the works of Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes (McKie, 193). It has to be admitted that his writing were primarily intended for French aristocracy (Rendall, 498). Still, one can say that he made society appreciate the importance of scientific discoveries.
Apart from that Fontenelle wrote several rather controversial treatises on religion and spirituality. One of them is The History of Oracles (Histoire des oracles). In this work he tried to show that Ancient oracles were in no way inspired by gods and that their alleged mystical powers were in not connected to the supernatural world.
The key argument which Fontelle attempted to make is that clergy cannot and should not act a mediator between a person and God. This book infuriated many influential Jesuits of that time. This work posed several important questions which attracted attention of many thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot, or Tolstoy. In particular, in this work, he cast doubt on the very necessity of clergy for people. This issue remains a subject of heated debate among philosophers and theologians.
The discussion of the History of Oracles will be incomplete, if we do not mention Fontelle’s other treatise On the Origins of Myths (De l’origine des fables). He compared the myths of American Indians and Ancient Greek. He identified striking similarities in the myths of the two distinct nations, and claimed that myth-making was an inherent need of human beings (Marvick, 70). The thing is that this argument can be applied to religion as well.
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This is why this treatise was heavily by criticized by the then French theologians. This book can be of great interest to present day thinkers since it shows how our perceptions of the world are formed. Probably, these two books should not be discussed only in connection with religion, since they also explain humans’ urge for creativity. The History of Oracles and On the Origins of Myths were written in the later period of Fontenelle’s life. Leading philosophers of that period subjected religion to heavy criticism.
In the book Dialogues of the Dead (Dialogues des Mortes) Fontenelle stages a series of conversations between the famous philosophers of the past, namely Seneca, Socrates, Scarron and Montagne. This work shows how human means of knowing and learning have evolved with time passing (Corcos, 363). This book presents a slight skeptical view about humanity, and one of the points that Fontenelle emphasizes is that people should always be aware about incompleteness of their knowledge.
Initially, this book was intended to natural philosophers of that time; yet, it seems that modern people will also find it very interesting. We are living in the age of outstanding scientific discoveries and many people believe that sooner or later all mysteries of the world will be discovered. Fontenelle would have disagreed with such a view point, and his treatise demonstrates that our ways of knowing are very far from being perfect.
From the point of view of epistemology, this book is aimed at distinguishing such notions as objective truths and belief. Fontenelle tries to draw a distinct line between the two concepts. At this point, this task still remains unresolved by contemporary researchers, philosophers, and scientists. The example of Bernard de Fontenelle shows that ability to pose thought-provoking questions is also a gift which is not possessed by many people.
At this point, we can say that the question which reemerges in different works of Bernard Fontenelle is the relation between religion and science. It is very difficult to determine whether Fontenelle tried to reconcile these two different world views. Most probably, he was willing to compare them.
This issue is of great importance for contemporary scientists and theologians, who often debate whether these ways of knowing can co-exist. Fontenelle’s legacy should not be assessed in terms of it scientific contribution. More likely, one should focus on the depth of the questions, which this philosopher raised, and on the brilliance of his writing. Probably, this is the main reason why he retain prominent position among French philosophers and writers.
Black Robert. Humanism and education in medieval and Renaissance Italy: tradition and innovation in Latin schools from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Corcos, Fontenelle and the Problem of Generation in the Eighteenth Century, Journal of the History of Biology 4 (2) (1971), pp 363-372.
Fontenelle Bernard and Gunning Elizabeth (trans). Conversations on the Plurality of worlds. J Cundee, London, 1803.
Rendall Steven, Fontenelle and his Public, Modern Language Notes 86 (4) (1971), pp 496-508.
Marsak Leonard. Cartesianism in Fontenelle and French Science, 1686-1752, Isis 50 (1) (1959), pp 51-60.
Marsak, Leonard. Bernard de Fontenelle: The idea of Science in the French Enlightenment, Trans. Amer. Philos. Soc. 49 (1959), 1-64.
Marvick. Lous. Fontenelle and the Truth of Masks, Modern Language Studies 23 (4) (1993), 70-78.
McKie, Douglas. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, F.R.S. 1657-1757, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 12 (2) (1957), pp 193- 200.
Sample, Bernard de Fontenelle and the éloge Académique: Columbia University,1981. He died in 1757