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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Spencer Trotter (1860–1931)
 
A SCIENCE becomes part of the general stock of knowledge only after it has entered into the literature of a people. The bare skeleton of facts must be clothed with the flesh and blood of imagination, through the humanizing influence of literary expression, before it can be assimilated by the average intellectual being. The scientific investigator is rarely endowed with the gift of weaving the facts into a story that will charm, and the man of letters is too often devoid of that patience which is the chief virtue of the scientist. These gifts of the gods are bestowed upon mankind under the guiding genius of the division of labor. The name of Buffon will always be associated with natural history, though in the man himself the spirit of science was conspicuously absent. In this respect he was in marked contrast with his contemporary Linnaeus, whose intellect and labor laid the foundations of much of the scientific knowledge of to-day.  1
  George Louis le Clerc Buffon was born on the 7th of September, 1707, at Montbar, in Burgundy. His father, Benjamin le Clerc, who was possessed of a fortune, appears to have bestowed great care and liberality on the education of his son. While a youth Buffon made the acquaintance of a young English nobleman, the Duke of Kingston, whose tutor, a man well versed in the knowledge of physical science, exerted a profound influence on the future career of the young Frenchman. At twenty-one Buffon came into his mother’s estate, a fortune yielding an annual income of £12,000. But this wealth did not change his purpose to gain knowledge. He traveled through Italy, and after living for a short period in England returned to France and devoted his time to literary work. His first efforts were translations of two English works of science—Hale’s ‘Vegetable Statics’ and Newton’s ‘Fluxions’; and he followed these with various studies in the different branches of physical science.  2
  The determining event in his life, which led him to devote the rest of his years to the study of natural history, was the death of his friend Du Fay, the Intendant of the Jardin du Roi (now the Jardin des Plantes), who on his death-bed recommended Buffon as his successor. A man of letters, Buffon saw before him the opportunity to write a natural history of the earth and its inhabitants; and he set to work with a zeal that lasted until his death in 1788, at the age of eighty-one. His great work, ‘L’Histoire Naturelle,’ was the outcome of these years of labor, the first edition being complete in thirty-six quarto volumes.  3
  The first fifteen volumes of this great work, published between the years 1749 and 1767, treated of the theory of the earth, the nature of animals, and the history of man and viviparous quadrupeds; and was the joint work of Buffon and Daubenton, a physician of Buffon’s native village. The scientific portion of the work was done by Daubenton, who possessed considerable anatomical knowledge, and who wrote accurate descriptions of the various animals mentioned. Buffon, however, affected to ignore the work of his co-laborer and reaped the entire glory, so that Daubenton withdrew his services. Later appeared the nine volumes on birds, in which Buffon was aided by the Abbé Sexon. Then followed the ‘History of Minerals’ in five volumes, and seven volumes of ‘Supplements,’ the last one of which was published the year after Buffon’s death.  4
  One can hardly admire the personal character of Buffon. He was vain and superficial, and given to extravagant speculations. He is reported to have said, “I know but five great geniuses—Newton, Bacon, Leibnitz, Montesquieu, and myself.” His natural vanity was undoubtedly fostered by the adulation which he received from those in authority. He saw his own statue placed in the cabinet of Louis XVI., with the inscription “Majestati Naturæ par ingenium.” Louis XV. bestowed upon him a title of nobility, and crowned heads “addressed him in language of the most exaggerated compliment.” Buffon’s conduct and conversation were marked throughout by a certain coarseness and vulgarity that constantly appear in his writings. He was foppish and trifling, and affected religion though at heart a disbeliever.  5
  The chief value of Buffon’s work lies in the fact that it first brought the subject of natural history into popular literature. Probably no writer of the time, with the exception of Voltaire and Rousseau, was so widely read and quoted as Buffon. But the gross inaccuracy which pervaded his writings, and the visionary theories in which he constantly indulged, gave the work a less permanent value than it might otherwise have attained. Buffon detested the scientific method, preferring literary finish to accuracy of statement. Although the work was widely translated, and was the only popular natural history of the time, there is little of it that is worthy of a place in the world’s best literature. It is chiefly as a relic of a past literary epoch, and as the pioneer work in a new literary field, that Buffon’s writings appeal to us. They awakened for the first time a wide interest in natural history, though their author was distinctly not a naturalist.  6
  Arabella Buckley has said of Buffon and his writings that though “he often made great mistakes and arrived at false conclusions, still he had so much genius and knowledge that a great part of his work will always remain true.” Cuvier has left us a good memoir of Buffon in the ‘Biographie Universelle.’  7
 
 
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