Fabre d'Olivet

by Joscelyn Godwin
Professor of Music
Colgate University

Antoine Fabre was born on December 8, 1767, in Ganges, a small town near Montpellier in the Languedoc. Until he was ten, he spoke Provençal with his mother, and retained a great love for the language and for his native soil. His father, a member of a prominent Protestant clan, was a manufacturer of silk stockings and a marketer on an international scale. He saw his bright son as a useful adjunct to the family firm, and sent him to Paris at the age of eleven or twelve to be educated by tutors. After five years Antoine returned, having learned Latin, Greek, and English, and bringing his piano with him. Soon after, in 1786, he was sent on his first business trip, back to Paris and then on to various cities of Germany. Although hopeless as a salesman, he added German to his stock of languages. He also had a strange romantic encounter with a girl called Chrisna, the resonances of which he would feel for years afterwards and commemorate in his first published song.

Returning to Paris in the fateful year of 1789, supposedly to continue in the family business, Antoine threw himself into the intellectual and political life of the capital. His sympathies marked him at first as a Jacobin, getting his name on a list of undesirables that later brought him to Napoleon's unfavorable attention. (In his autobiography, Mes souvenirs, he would claim to have played a crucial role, as speech-writer, in mobilizing the more moderate forces.) Untouched by the Terror, he divided his energies between music and various types of literature, producing journalism, poetry, fiction, drama, and the libretto of an opera, Toulon soumis, that was performed at the Paris Opéra in 1794. During this period, to avoid confusion with the better known writer Fabre d'Eglantine, he took his mother's name, d'Olivet, and discarded the "Antoine."

The post-revolutionary years saw the ruin of his father's business and of Fabre d'Olivet's hopes for a life of financial independence. In 1799 he took an office job at the War Ministry, where he also placed his father in the menial role of custodian. Earning up to 2500 francs per year, he admits that he spent many of his office hours working on his own projects. He was one of the editors of the Nouvelle Bibliothèque universelle des romans (1800-1803); he condensed the works on universal history of Court de Gébelin and Delisle de Sales for the general reader (Lettres à Sophie sur l'histoire, 2 vols., 1801), and edited a collection of Provençal poetry, Le Troubadour: poésies occitaniques du XIIIe siècle (2 vols., 1803, 1804). The latter was a pioneer work of research and revival, though, like his contemporaries (e.g. Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, with Des Knaben Wunderhorn), he mixed in with the authentic Troubadour poems a number of pastiches of his own, without distinguishing them as such.

In the meantime, a decisive event had occurred in his personal life. In 1800 he had fallen in love with a brilliant young woman, Julie Marcel, a love which she returned. For one reason or another, he was set against marriage, and they parted. In 1802 Julie died, leaving him with the agonizing feeling that he might have saved her life if he had not put his principles first. Several times thereafter she appeared to him, both in dreams and in a vivid waking vision, convincing him of the immortality of the soul and of the presence of a guiding principle - he calls it Providence - watching over his life. He would celebrate Julie's apparitions under the name of "Egérie Théophanie" as the chief festival of the order founded at the end of his life.

In 1804 Fabre d'Olivet started a short-lived campaign to win himself a musical reputation. The publisher Pleyel issued his set of three quartets for two flutes, viola, and cello (the score is now lost). He himself published a song, Souvenirs mélancholiques, composed in what he called the "Hellenic mode." Six letters on Greek music followed in the Correspondance des amateurs et professeurs de musique, in which he maintained that the Greeks had known and used harmony, but that the power of their music lay in their use of many more modes than our own major and minor. On December 24 there was a performance in the Consistorial Church of Saint-Louis du Louvre, the chief Protestant church of Paris, of his Oratorio (also lost) celebrating Napoleon's coronation as Emperor. He kept the event in the public mind by writing controversial letters about it to the same music journal, discussing the Hellenic mode which the Oratorio, too, had employed.

In the spring of 1805, Fabre d'Olivet married the nineteen-year-old Marie Warin, who probably converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. The couple soon had two children: Julie, who would become a painter, and Diocles, a historian and novelist. Marie, in turn, became the proprietor of a private girls' school, which provided the family's main support after her husband's retirement in 1810 on a small government pension. From the time of his marriage until 1811, he led a reclusive life, devoting himself entirely to study. He emerged with a claim to have rediscovered the true meaning of the Hebrew language, and applied to the government for a grant to publish his findings. Challenged to prove their validity, he embarked on the curing of a congenital deaf-mute, through some secret method associated with his researches. The story of his success is told in his Notions sur le sens de l'ouïe (1811). However, although we only have Fabre's word for it, the news of his achievement reached Napoleon, who nurtured a personal antipathy to him. He was accused of practicing medicine without a licence, and lost all hope of publishing his masterwork while the Emperor remained in power.

Fabre d'Olivet now returned to poetic concerns, translating the Golden Verses of Pythagoras into unrhymed French hexameters (published as Les vers dorés de Pythagore expliqués, 1813), and prefacing it with a discourse on poetics. Here he gave the first outline of his metaphysical system, based on the three powers of Providence, Will, and Destiny, as well as his vision of human perfectibility and his understanding of the unity behind all religions. Among these he included the Sefer of Moses, the writings of Plato and the Pythagoreans, the doctrine of Krishna as found in the Bhagavad-Gita, that of Zoroaster in the Zend-Avesta and the Bundahesh, that of Confucius in China, Thoth or Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt, the Greek mysteries, and the religion of Odin as found in the Edda. He was thus a pioneer of the nascent science of comparative religion.

Immediately after the fall of Napoleon, Fabre d'Olivet received royal permission, and presumably the funds, to publish La Langue hébraïque restituée (2 vols., 1815, 1816). Its thesis was that the Hebrew of the Torah is pure Egyptian, and that Moses concealed therein the cosmogony taught in the most ancient sanctuaries. The book includes a glossary of Hebrew words, interpreted along the lines of this cosmogony, and a word for word translation into French and English of the first ten chapters of the Book of Genesis.

During the following years, Fabre d'Olivet returned to the Midi, visited his family, and reluctantly performed another cure of a deaf-mute. His third child, Eudoxie, was born in 1817, and in 1821 his children were baptized as Protestants. At the same time, he complained to a friend that his enemies had made even his wife into a rival and a persecutor. Marie and the children left him, and in 1823 a separation was legalized. Yet after his death, she seems to have respected his memory and literary legacy. She herself authored a work on education (Conseils à une amie sur l'éducation physique et morale des enfants, 1820).

Fabre d'Olivet now applied his metaphysics to a survey of universal history, in which he explained the interplay of the three principles Providence, Will, and Destiny, in human affairs. This was De l'état social de l'homme (2 vols, 1822, reissued 1824 as Histoire philosophique du genre humain). Briefly, the idea is that universal Nature is basically benevolent, being characterized by Providence, which comes directly from the Divinity. (Fabre d'Olivet conceived of God in largely deistic terms, as the impersonal source of all.) What distinguishes the human race from the other kingdoms of Nature is its endowment with Will, which can either align itself with Providence, or go against it. If it unwisely chooses the latter, it suffers the inevitable consequences of Destiny, which is experienced in wars and other misfortunes. This applies on both the personal and the collective level. (Although he does not use the term, Fabre d'Olivet's Destiny resembles the Hindu concept of karma.)

Fabre d'Olivet's next work returned to the musical preoccupations of his youth. It was completed in two volumes but never published except in fragments, most of them posthumous. (The most complete collection is in this author's English edition; see Bibliography.) Like many "illuminated" thinkers, he integrated music with his metaphysical system, distinguishing its practical and speculative sides, showing the connections of the latter with cosmology, and ending with advice to young composers.

In his final years, Fabre d'Olivet wrote five plays, all lost except the anti-slavery Idamore, ou le prince africain. He published a translation of Lord Byron's poem Cain (Caïn de Byron traduit en français, 1823), in which he argued against Byron's concept of evil. To him, Cain and Abel are allegories of Will and Providence, and their story that of the fall of humanity from its primordial perfection. He also founded an initiatic order called Théodoxie universelle, which remained unknown until the discovery in 1945 of its manuscript documents. Whereas Freemasonry uses the symbolism of architecture, Fabre's order used that of agriculture, with the significant consequence that Nature, rather than divinely inspired human activity (in Freemasonry, Solomon's Temple), was the ideal. The documents (called La vraie maçonnerie et la céleste culture) include descriptions of an elaborately decorated lodge, and of some of the rituals, but how far these designs were carried out is open to question.

Fabre d'Olivet died on March 25, 1825. There is no foundation to the rumors of suicide, even murder, put about by the fin-de-siècle occultists. However, given his sense of persecution, his secretive private life, and his fantasies about Napoleon, it is not surprising that such ideas arose.

Despite a peripheral involvement with Protestantism, Fabre d'Olivet stands out in the Western esoteric tradition as an almost unique example of a non-Christian esotericist. He respected all the world's spiritual traditions, but did not privilege Christianity above the others, nor give any assent to its dogmas. Moses was, for him, the inheritor and encoder of Egyptian wisdom; Jesus a "divine man" like Krishna, Pythagoras, and others. Fabre d'Olivet's version of universal history privileged the Orient, especially Hinduism as the oldest tradition. He is one of the sources of the notion of a "primordial tradition" of which the world's religions are more or less veiled offshoots, and of the concomitant view of history as one of decline, rather than progress. However, he was no pessimist, for he regarded the human race as having the potential for reintegration in its original state.

In social terms, he believed that this would require the reinstatement of a theocratic government, but one grounded in eternal principles. After his early enthusiasms for the French Revolution, then for Napoleon, he held no hopes for any current political system. Nor did he have any time for his philosophical contemporaries like Imanuel Kant, who maintained that knowledge of reality is unattainable. Fabre d'Olivet evidently considered himself as proof to the contrary. As to his own practices, he admits having tried to influence Napoleon in some occult way. His visions of the dead have already been mentioned. He also used some form of mesmerism, possibly with his wife as medium, and certainly in his cure of the deaf-mutes.

Almost unknown during his lifetime, his posthumous influence on the French esotericists such as Ballanche, Eliphas Levi, Papus, and Saint-Yves d'Alveydre was immense. Saint-Yves adopted his version of ancient history, especially the prehistoric schism between worshipers of the male and of the female principles; Edouard Schuré popularized his sequence of "divine men" in the best-selling Les grands initiés. But it was most of all the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875, that reunited in its program Fabre d'Olivet's preference for oriental and pagan wisdom, his low opinion of official Christianity, his faith in the perfectibility of mankind, and his acceptance of ancient mysteries and the occult.


Fabre d'Olivet's major works (first editions only):

Le Troubadour (Paris: Henrischs, An XI and XII)

Notions sur le sens de l'ouïe (Paris: Bretin, 1811)

Les vers dorés de Pythagore expliqués (Paris: Treuttel & Würtz, 1813)

La langue hébraïque restituée (Paris: Barrois & Eberhart, 1815, 1816)

De l'état social de l'homme (Paris: Brière, 1822)

Caïn de Byron traduit en vers français (Paris: Servier, 1823)

Works posthumously published:

La musique expliquée comme science et comme art, ed. R. Philipon (Paris: Chamuel, 1896)

Mes souvenirs, ed. G. Tappa and Cl. Boumendil (Nice: Bélisane, 1977)

La vraie maçonnerie et la céleste culture, ed. L. Cellier (Lausanne: La Proue, 1973)

Miscellanea Fabre d'Olivet, ed. G. Tappa (2 vols., Nice: Bélisane, 1982)

Works translated by Nayán Louise Redfield, published New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons:

Hermeneutic Interpretation of the Origin of the Social State of Man (1915)

The Golden Verses of Pythagoras (1917)

The Hebraic Tongue Restored (1918)

Cain, A Dramatic Mystery in Three Acts (1923)

The Healing of Rodolphe Grivel, Congenital Deaf-Mute (1927)

Music Explained as Science and Art, ed. and trans. J. Godwin (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1987)

Writings about Fabre d'Olivet:

Auguste Viatte, Les sources occultes du romantisme (2 vols., Paris: Honoré Champion, 1927)

Léon Cellier, Fabre d'Olivet, contribution à l'étude des aspects religieux du romantisme (Paris: Nizet, 1953)

Brian Juden, Traditions orphiques et tendances mystiques dans le romantisme français (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971)