Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle

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Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle
Portrait by Louis Galloche

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (February 11, 1657 – January 9, 1757) also called Bernard Le Bouyer de Fontenelle, was a French author noted especially for his accessible treatment of scientific topics during the unfolding of the Age of Enlightenment.


  • Behold a universe so immense that I am lost in it. I no longer know where I am. I am just nothing at all. Our world is terrifying in its insignificance.
    • Conversations with a Lady on the Plurality of Worlds or Etretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (1686) as quoted by Mark Brake, Alien Life Imagined: Communicating the Science and Culture of Astrobiology (2012)
  • The calculus is to mathematics no more than what experiment is to physics, and all the truths produced solely by the calculus can be treated as truths of experiment. The sciences must proceed to first causes, above all mathematics where one cannot assume, as in physics, principles that are unknown to us. For there is in mathematics, so to speak, only what we have placed there... If, however, mathematics always has some essential obscurity that one cannot dissipate, it will lie, uniquely, I think, in the direction of the infinite; it is in that direction that mathematics touches on physics, on the innermost nature of bodies about which we know little.
    • Elements de la géométrie de l'infini (1727) as quoted by Amir R. Alexander, Geometrical Landscapes: The Voyages of Discovery and the Transformation of Mathematical Practice (2002) citing Michael S. Mahoney, "Infinitesimals and Transcendent Relations: The Mathematics of Motion in the Late Seventeenth Century" in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg, Robert S. Westman (1990)
  • The geometrical spirit is not so tied to geometry that it cannot be detached from it and transported to other branches of knowledge. A work of morals or politics or criticism, perhaps even of eloquence, would be better (other things being equal) if it were done in the style of a geometer. The order, clarity, precision and exactitude which have been apparent in good books for some time might well have their source in this geometric spirit. ...Sometimes one great man gives the tone to a whole century; [Descartes], to whom one might legitimately be accorded the glory of having established a new art of reasoning, was an excellent geometer.
    • "The Utility of Mathematics," i.e. "Préface sur l'utitlité des mathématiques et de la physique et sur les travaux de le Académie des Sciences," Œuvres de Monsieur de Fontenelle (1753) Vol. 6, pp.37-50, as quoted by Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800 (1949).
  • At the time the book of Marquis de l'Hôpital had appeared, and almost all mathematicians began to turn to the new geometry of the infinite [that is, the new infinitesimal calculus], until then little known. The surprising universality of the methods, the elegant brevity of the proofs, the neatness and speed of the most difficult solutions, a singular and unexpected novelty, all attracted the mind and there was in the mathematical world a well marked revolution [une révolution bien marquée.

The History of Oracles, and the Cheats of the Pagan Priests (1688)[edit]

  • Men are not willing to suffer the decision of things to be too easie, and therefore they mingle their own prejudices with truths, and so create greater perplexities than are Naturally found therein; and those scruples, which our selves frame, give us the most pain to untangle.
  • It is more reasonable to remove error from truth, than to venerate error because it is mix'd with truth.
  • We can never add more truth to what is true already, nor make that true which is false.
  • But why then did the Ancient Priestesses always answer in Verse? ...To this Plutarch replies... That even the Ancient Priestesses did now and then speak in Prose. And besides this, in Old times all People were born Poets. ...[T]hey had no sooner drank a little freely, but they made Verses; they had no sooner cast their eyes on a Handsom Woman, but they were all Poesy, and their very common discourse fell naturally into Feet and Rhime: So that their Feasts and their Courtships were the most delectable things in the World. But now this Poetick Genius has deserted Mankind: and tho' our passions be as ardent... yet Love at present creeps in humble prose. ...Plutarch gives us another reason ...that the Ancients wrote always in Verse, whether they treated of Religion, Morality, Natural Philosophy or Astrology. Orpheus and Hesiod, whom every body acknowledges for Poets, were Philosophers also: and Parmenides, Xenophanes, Empedocles, Eudoxus, and Thales... [the] Philosophers, were Poets too. It is very strange indeed that Poetry should be elder Brother to Prose... but it is very probable... precepts... were shap'd into measured lines, that they might be the more easily remembred: and therefore all their Laws and their rules of Morality were in Verse. By this we may see that Poetry had a much more serious beginning than is usually imagin'd, and that the Muses have of late days mightily deviated from their original Gravity.
  • Now, the Priests who belonged to the Temples, scorn'd to use the same Customs in common with these Gypsies; for they thought themselves to be a nobler and graver sort of Fortune-tellers; which makes a mighty difference, I'll assure you, in this great affair.
  • [A]bout the time of Alexander the Great, a little before Pyrrhus's days, there appear'd in Greece certain great Sects of Philosophers, such as the Peripateticks and Epicureans, who made a mock of Oracles. The Epicureans especially made sport with the paltry Poetry that came from Delphos. For the Priests hammered out their Verses as well as they could, and they often times committed faults against the common Rules of Prosodia. Now those Fleering Philosophers were mightily concerned that Apollo, the very God of Poetry, should come so far behind Homer, who was but a meer mortal, and was beholding to the same Apollo for his inspirations.
  • It was to little purpose to excuse the matter, by saying, that the badness of the Verses was a kind of Testimony that they were made by a God, who nobly scorn'd to be tyed up to rules and to be confined to the Beauty of a Style. For this made no impression upon the Philosophers; who, to turn this answer into ridicule, compared it to the Story of a Painter, who being hired to draw the Picture of a Horse tumbling on his Back upon the ground, drew one running full speed: and when he was told, that this was not such a Picture as was bespoke, he turned it upside down, and then ask'd if the Horse did not tumble upon his back now. Thus these Philosophers jeered such Persons, who by a way of arguing that would serve both ways, could equally prove that the Verses were made by a God, whether they were good or bad.
  • So that at length the Priests of Delphos being quite baffled with the railleries of those learned Wits, renounced all Verses, at least as to the speaking them from the Tripos; for there were still some Poets maintain'd in the Temple, who at leisure turned into Verse, what the Divine fury had inspired the Pythian Priestess withal in Prose. It was very pretty, that Men could not be contented to take the Oracle just as it came piping hot from the Mouth of their God. But perhaps, when they had come a great way for it, they thought it would look silly to carry home an Oracle in Prose.

Quotes about de Fontenelle[edit]

  • [T]he intellectual changes of Louis XIV's reign touch the history of science—especially as they represent the extension of the scientific method into other realms of thought. ...we meet the beginnings of the criticism of the French monarchy... acute criticism from... the French intelligentsia who could claim to understand the... state better than the king himself. ...The funeral orations of Fontenelle call attention to an aspect of this movement... [i.e.,] the initial effect of the new scientific movement on political thought. ...The first result Fontenelle makes clear, was the insistence that politics requires the inductive method, the collection of information, the accumulation of concrete data and statistics. ...He describes Vauban... travelled over France, accumulating data, seeing the condition[s]... for himself, studying commerce and the possibilities of commerce... gaining a knowledge of local conditions. Vauban, says Fontenelle, did more than anybody else to call mathematics out of the skies... [he] put statistics to the service of modern political economy and first applied the rational and experimental method in matters of finance. ...Fontenelle tells us that ...Sir William Petty, the author of Political Arithmetic, showed how much of the knowledge requisite for government reduces itself to mathematical calculation.
  • Fontenelle provides an example of the transfer of the scientific spirit, and the application of methodical doubt, in... the History of Oracles. In a sense he is one of the predursors of the comparative method in the history of religion—the collection of myths of all lands to throw light on the development of human reason. ...he recommends the study of primitive tribes in our own day ...He treats myths as... a natural product, subject to scientific analysis—not the fruits of conscious imposture but the characteristic of a certain stage in human development. The human mind he regards as... the same in all times and ages, but subject to local influences... Here is a self-conscious attempt to show how the scientific method could receive extended application and could be transferred from the examination of purely material phenomena even into... human studies.
  • His wit, his Learning, his Knowledge of Mankind, his exquisite Taste in all that is Polite, the Fire of his Imagination, the uncommon Felicity of his Eloquence, and the ready Turn of his Expression, are Reasons which the Publick will think very natural to direct me in this Address to Your Lordship.
    • John Hughes, Dedication in Fontenelle's Dialogues of the Dead (1730)
  • A mere nothing, a tiny fibre, something that could never be found by the most delicate anatomy, would have made of Erasmus and Fontenelle two idiots, and Fontenelle himself speaks of this very fact in one of his best dialogues.

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