Henri de Boulainvilliers

Henri de Boulainvilliers

Henri de Boulainvilliers (October 21, 1658, Saint-Saire, Normandy – January 23, 1722, Paris) was a French writer and historian. Educated at the college of Juilly, he served in the army until 1697. He translated into French Spinoza's Ethics and wrote an analysis of his Theologico-Political Treatise, identifying Spinoza's conatus with the right of conquest and the "right of the strongest" of which he made large use in what has been considered as one of the first "theory of races," although it was very distinct from 19th century "scientific racism". The name is often rendered as de Boulainvilliers though he himself insisted on the autograph de Boulainviller. (R.Simon, s.d.)

The comte de Boulainviller traced his nobel lineage back to its offshoot from a branch of the House of Croÿ: Jean de Croÿ, sire de Clery et de Boulainviller, who died in the Battle of Poitiers (1356). At the time of his birth however, the family was impoverished. His wife, Marie-Anne Hurault des Marais, died at childbirth leaving him to care for four children. The eldest son was killed in the 1709 Battle of Malplaquet, and his other son died the same year.



In 1669 Henry de Boulainvilliers went to study at the Collège de Juilly, one of the most famous schools of the Congregation of the Oratory of Philip Neri. Exact sciences, history and geography were taught there. The philosopher Malebranche being one of the great educators at the Oratory, cartesianism was allowed reference in the classroom from 1662 till 1675 when it was banned by Royal arrest. In 1673 Henry studied rhetoric with his teacher Richard Simon, who was excluded from the Oratory (1678) because of his critical Bible studies.

The education at Juilly had great impact on de Boulainviller: a special accent on critical history had been introduced into the Oratory by Caesar Baronius and Richard Simon, and through the science classes he became familiar with the works of Jean Baptist van Helmont, Robert Boyle and Edme Mariotte.

Since he had also received private lessons in the German language, it is not inconceivable that he was able to read van Helmont in Middle Dutch that author used as a critical means to an accessible reading of medicine in the Low Countries, and which so fluently worded his rich independence of mind.


In 1683 de Boulainviller wrote " l'Idée d'un Système Géneral de la Nature" based on his understanding of van Helmont and Boyle, followed by "Archidoxes de Paracelsus, avec une préface sur les principes de l'art chimique".

By 1715-1720, when he prepared his "Traité d'astronomie physique" using the cartesian method , he was well equipped to write on the nature of gravity and the movement of planets from sources such as Jean-Baptiste du Hamel and Huygens.

He described his method as experimental philosophy and closely preceded the Dutch experimentalists led by Anthony Leeuwenhoek ( Nieuwentijt, Boerhave, Volder )

Still he retained his curiosity for astrology for which he was famous in Court gossip.

Critical history

In a "Lettre à Mlle Cousinot sur l'histoire de France et le choix des historiens" he explained why the writing of history was to be more than the "amateur" collection of dates and anecdotes related to old coins (numismatics) and stones: The knowledge of history pertained to a distinct moral character of society. Related causes of past events, such as the 1346 Battle of Crécy during the Hundred Years' War, could be instructive on related measures in the present — how to do things better or worse. Sometimes we want to know not only what a historical figure has done, but by what right he might have done so differently.

He stressed in his writings the corruption absolutism played in the fall of France when he contrasts the role English and French historians were able to investigate history. For instance, when stressing the importance of sources in developing fact, he contrasted Thomas Rymer's way of access to the London archives to that of his own where he had to bribe the keepers of the French archives. For his neutral reasoning, his works were cited by subsequent writers whose works would prove influential in the development of Western political thought and historical research.

For example, the Mémoires au Régent, the Préface critique pour servir d'avant propos au journal de Saint-Louis (Louis IX of France), the Essay sur la noblesse de France, l'Etat de la France and the Mémoires Historiques were to be important works of reference in the 18th century, and well used if not always acknowledged, as a close study of Voltaire and Montesquieu could reveal. Other historical studies such as those collected in "Abrégé d'histoire universelle" on Ancient History, History of Exodus, History of Greece, Ancient Italy and Oriental People, prepared for his introduction of comparative religious studies; a famous example of which is his "Vie de Mohamet" -recently brought to the attention by a new facsimile edition of the 1731 English translation. ("The Life of Muhammad" Gorgias Press 2002)

Whilst de Boulainvilliers played a central role in the Enlightenment and Modern eras, his works along with most other influential non-marxist writers have been attacked in post-Bolshevik Revolution times by Marxists as inherently false for incorporating features of race, nationalism, and ethnicity. Marxist writers have also faulted Boulinvilliers because aside from promoting the importance of race, nationality, and ethnicity in the hierarchy of power, he did so as a means of proving the correctness of aristocratic class control. For instance, the facts of this background were explained by Michel Foucault in his 1975-1976 lectures at the Collège de France: "Society must be defended." Foucault credits Boulainvilliers with being one of the inventors of the "discourse of race struggle," a "historical and political discourse" which Foucault opposed to the "juridical and philosophical discourse of sovereignty."

Indeed, Boulainvilliers' writings are characterized by an extravagant admiration of the feudal system and bitter opposition to absolute monarchy, which he deemed a decadence that had started with the Crusades and the Direct Capetians, whom had allowed the original aristocracy to be diluted through miscegenation with the Third Estate. Boulainvilliers was thus an aristocrat of the most pronounced type, attacking absolute monarchy on the one hand and popular government on the other. He was at great pains to prove the pretensions of his own family to ancient nobility, and maintained that the government should be entrusted solely to men of his class.

According to him, the nation was divided on one hand into the aristocracy, whom he called the Français, who were the descendants of the Franks, a Nordic race, and dominated France by right of conquest; and on the other hand into the Third Estate, who were considered to be an almagation of the indigenous Gaul people and their previous Roman overlords. Opposing himself to the alliance of the throne with the people, he considered that the earlier Gallo-Roman population had been subordinated by the Franks through conquest and inheritance on one side and replacement of the Roman elite through treaty and agreement on the other.

As such the Third Estate had no legitimate role in government, and that the aristocracy constituted not only a separate class, and not only the sole legitimate class by virtue of history, but a distinct and superior "race". True Frankish policy demanded unconditional acceptance of the rights of aristocracy to rule over their feudal domains and to participate in the councils of the nation. The Absolutist rule of Louis XIV had undermined these traditions by concentrating power in the state and encouraging the rise of meritocrats from the lower classes to serve the monarchical state. Such people had been granted the status of nobles (the noblesse de robe) but could not lay proper claim to it because they were not of true Frankish ancestry. Although, Boulainvilliers thus opposed the Nordic race to the Latin race, his concept of "race" predated and did not specify anything to do with the biologized concept used by 19th century's "scientific racism".


Parallel to his historical studies ran an untiring interest in philosophy which he wrote down in Considérations abrégées des operations de l'entendement sur les idées on the model borrowed from the famous Port-Royal Logic by Antoine Arnauld: psychology of the mind, logic, and method; to which he added ontology. His influences, apart from the Schola of his early education, were Gassendi, Descartes, Malebranche, Locke and Spinoza.


De Boulainviller's translation of Spinoza's " Ethics" was not published until 1907 by Colonna d'Istria from an unsigned manuscript at Lyon.

De Boulainviller's study of Spinoza, as captured in the collected treatises published by Renée Simon (1973), shows an exceptional development from a basic criticism to an enlightened understanding marked by the incredibly generous way in which he let his opponent use his own voice.

In the Essay de Métaphysique dans les principes de B...de Sp... he translated Spinoza's "geometrical method" into an accessible French, closely following its original meaning without incisive criticism.

In the Exposition du système de Benoit Spinosa et sa defense contre les objections de M. Régis he voiced the defense of Spinoza against his cartesian critic Pierre-Sylvain Régis. The comte de Boulainviller was no blind follower of Descartes; he knew how to make use of his method, but he could equally well criticise him on metaphysical points.

This unusual way of writing philosophy led to the gossip that he was a Spinozist and therefore an atheist. Yet in his persistent criticism of Spinoza's monism (through the concept of the "unity of substance"), in writings inaccessible to the multitude, his independent judgement remained unspoilt. After his death his name was frequently used to circulate anti-religious treatises, leading to still more confusion about his intellectual identity.

With Matthieu Marais he shared a friendship with another great student of Spinoza, Pierre Bayle.

Post Scriptum

Less well known but as important in his time was the similar treatment he gave to the mysticism of Molinos in : Extrait du livre du ministre Pierre Jurieu touchant les dogmes des mystiques et particulièrement contre Messieurs de Cambray et de Méaux. By the time the reader finished his lecture he had a complete survey of the works of Molinos, thus recapitulating the famous disagreements over Quietism.

Such are the traits that can make one regret the criticism — amply justified in retrospect — that de Boulainviller, elsewhere, brought over himself by his brutal stance on feudalism; traits for which he equally deserves to be known to a larger circle of students.

Matthieu Marais, Nicolas Fréret and the acid gossip Duc de Saint-Simon alike testified to his easy gift of friendship.


Boulainvilliers wrote a number of historical works (published after his death), of which the most important were the following:

  • Histoire de l'ancien gouvernement de la France (La Haye, 1727)
  • Etat de la France, avec des memoires sur l'ancien gouvernement (London, 1727)
  • Histoire de la pairie de France (London, 1753)
  • Histoire des Arabes avec la Vie de Mahomet (1731). Translation (s.d. 18th century) reprinted (2001) as The Life of Mohammad: Or The Life of Mahomet, Henri de Boulainvilliers. Kessinger Publishing's Rare Reprints ISBN 0-7661-9102-8
  • Essais sur la noblesse de France, contenans une dissertation sur son origine & abaissement. Avec des notes historiques, Critiques et Politiques ; Un projet de Dissertation sur les premiers Français & leurs Colonies ; et un Supplément aux notes par forme de Dictionnaire pour la Noblesse. Amsterdam, Rouen, 1732.
  • Analyse du Traité Théologi-politique de Spinosa, par le comte de Boulainvilliers. Londres, 1767.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Renée Simon: "Henry de Boulainviller, Historien, Politique, Philosophe, Astrologue (1658-1722)" Paris: Boivin & Cie, Editeurs, Rue Palatine, s.d.
  • Renée Simon: "Henry de Boulainviller: Œuvres Philosophiques" International Archives of the History of Ideas 58. La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973

External links

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  • Henri de boulainvilliers — Anne Gabriel Henri Bernard, marquis de Boulainvilliers (ou Boullainvilliers), né à Saint Saire le 11 octobre 1658 et mort le Paris le 23 janvier 1722, est un historien français. Un théoricien de l aristocratie française sous l Ancien Régime… …   Wikipédia en Français

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