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III

Buffon, whose power of wing was great, and who did not love the heat and dust of combat, soared smoothly above the philosophic strife. Born in 1707, at Montbard, in Burgundy, GEORGE-LOUIS LECLERC, created Comte de BUFFON by Louis XV., fortunate in the possession of riches, health, and serenity of heart and brain, lived in his domestic circle, apart from the coteries of Paris, pursuing with dignity and infinite patience his proper ends. The legend describes him as a pompous Olympian even in his home; in truth, if he was majestic—like a marshal of France, as Hume describes him—he was also natural, genial, and at times gay. His appointment, in 1739, as intendant of the Royal Garden, now the Jardin des Plantes, turned his studies from mathematical science to natural history.

The first volumes of his vast Histoire Naturelle appeared in 1749; aided by Daubenton and others, he was occupied with the succeeding volumes during forty years, until death terminated his labours in 1788. The defects of his work are obvious—its want of method, its disdain of classification, its abuse of hypotheses, its humanising of the animal world, its pomp of style. But the progress of science, which lowered the reputation of Buffon, has again re-established his fame. Not a few of his disdained hypotheses are seen to have been the divinations of genius; and if he wrote often in the ornate, classical manner, he could also write with a grave simplicity.

In his Discours de Réception, pronounced before the French Academy in 1753, he formulated his doctrine of literary style, insisting that it is, before all else, the manifestation of order in the evolution of ideas; ideas alone form the basis and inward substance of style. Rejecting merely abstract conceptions as an explanation of natural phenomena, viewing classifications as no more than a convenience of the human intellect, refusing to regard final causes as a subject of science, he envisaged nature with a tranquil and comprehensive gaze, and with something of a poet's imagination. He perceived that the globe, in its actual condition, is the result of a long series of changes, and thereby he gave an impulse to sound geological study; he expounded the geography of species, and almost divined the theory of their transformation or variability; he recognised in some degree the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest; he regarded man as a part of nature, but as its noblest part, capable of an intellectual and moral progress which is not the mere result of physical laws.

Whatever may have been Buffon's errors as a thinker, he enlarged the bounds of literature by annexing the province of natural history as Montesquieu had annexed that of political science. His vision of the universe was unclouded by passion, and part of its grandeur is derived from this serenity. He studied and speculated with absolute freedom, prepared to advance from his own ideas to others more in accordance with observed phenomena. "He desired to be," writes a critic, "and almost became, a pure intelligence in presence of eternal things." How could he concern himself with the strifes and passions of a day to whom the centuries were moments in the vast process of evolving change? In André Chénier he found a disciple who would fain have been the Lucretius of the new system of nature.