Jean-Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793)

by Dan Edelstein
Assistant professor of French
Stanford University

Jean-Sylvain Bailly was born in the Louvre and died less than a mile away, under the guillotine. In the space and time in between, he managed to embody both the Enlightenment scientific establishment and the French revolutionary process: along with Condorcet, his arch-rival at the Academy of Sciences, he was one of the few revolutionaries to have first gained notoriety as a philosophe. But Bailly's intellectual career, from astronomy to history to politics, also illustrates the strangely seamless connections that could exist in the eighteenth century between empirical inquiry and mythological speculation. Though Condorcet would dismissively refer to his colleague as a "frère illuminé," alluding to Bailly's supposed Masonic and metaphysical sympathies, the astronomer was equally at home at the Academy as among the mythical peoples he discovered in the past. He was neither an illuminist nor a materialist, but inhabited the grey zone that we have chosen to term "the Super-Enlightenment."

Bailly's father possessed the charge of Guard of the King's Paintings, which allowed his family to live at the Louvre. After trying his hand at drawing, Bailly was introduced at a young age to mathematics and astronomy by the abbé Lacaille. He showed great ability in these fields, first tackling a difficult problem with the period of Halley's comet, then applying his skills to the study of Jupiter's moons. For this project, he assembled a small observatory in the Louvre, where he painstakingly recorded the minutiae of heavenly movements. This nocturnal experience must have left a strong impression on Bailly; he would later make star-gazing the foundation for all civilization.

Thanks to some early successes, Bailly was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1763, at the young age of 26. It was in this academic context that he first tried his hand at belles-lettres, principally writing éloges, the requisite genre for advancement in the Academy; his éloge de Leibniz won the Berlin Academy prize in 1767. A close friend of the naturalist Buffon, he was encouraged by d'Alembert to succeed Grandjean de Fouchy as the perpetual secretary of the Academy of Sciences, but the encyclopédiste later switched allegiances and sponsored Condorcet inside, who secured the post in 1773. Stung by this institutional blow, Bailly subsequently absented himself from most Academy business, moving from Paris to nearby Chaillot in the mid-1770's. He did not, however, remove himself from the high circles of French Enlightenment, as in his new abode he befriended his neighbor Benjamin Franklin and participated in Mme Helvétius's famed salon.

But there was another side to Bailly's interests, one which may seem contradictory to his scientific studies. He was fascinated with the world before recorded history, which he peopled with a marvelous and ingenious race, the Atlanteans. His antiquarian pursuits were largely inspired by Court de Gébelin's nine-volume Monde primitif, which claimed to describe an ancient, prehistoric yet sophisticated world in encyclopedic detail. Court's project was also tied up in the semi-secretive world of French Freemasonry: many features of his ancient society seem designed to provide a more venerable genealogy to Masonic rituals. This Masonic influence is less evident in Bailly's case, though he is believed to have been a member of the prestigious Loge des Neuf Sœurs, to which Franklin, Court, the astronomer Lalande, and also (for a few brief weeks before his death) Voltaire himself belonged. As the list of its members suggest, the Lodge united representatives of eighteenth-century empiricism with antiquarians versed in mythological, even "illuminist," speculation. These pursuits could be deemed complementary, to the extent that scientific inquiry destroyed religious "superstition" through experimentation and social progress (Franklin's lightening rod standing as the paradigmatic example), while antiquarian studies provided an alternative history and genealogy of Western culture to the one offered by the Church. As the lasting success of Bailly's own work underscores, however, these mythical genealogies could prove to be just as dangerous, if not more, as the histories they sought to dispute.

It was under this double aegis of science and antiquarianism that Bailly abandoned astronomical observation in order to focus on its history — and its mythology. His first work of this type, loosely modeled on Voltaire's Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations, appeared in 1775, and was entitled Histoire de l'astronomie ancienne, depuis son origine jusqu'à l'établissement de l'école d'Alexandrie (a companion work, the Histoire de l'astronomie moderne, depuis la fondation de l'école d'Alexandrie jusqu'àl'époque de 1730, appeared in two volumes in 1779). Here Bailly first formulated the thesis for which he would become known. Pre-dating the documented instances of astronomy in past cultures, he argued, there must have been an earlier, "antediluvian" culture, which had excelled in astronomy. Only the existence of this earlier civilization could explain how the Indians, Chaldeans, Persians, and Chinese all developed astronomical knowledge and practices around the same period (3000 BC).

The thesis of a great Flood still held common currency in the eighteenth century: Nicolas Boulanger, in his Antiquité dévoilée (1756), had "naturalized" this Biblical myth by pointing to geological evidence for the Flood; he had also posited the existence of a sophisticated, antedivulian civilization. Bailly combined this Biblical tradition with another oceanic fable, the myth of Atlantis. Relying largely on Plato, he argued that the story told by Critias (in the Platonic dialogue of the same name) should be taken literally. But Bailly introduced an important twist in this story. Rather than situate Atlantis in its eponymous ocean, or even in the far East, as Voltaire would have had it, he relocated Atlantis to the far North, above the Arctic circle. In earlier times, he argued, this area would have known a far gentler climate; only this northernmost site, furthermore could explain the constant mythological refrain of a disappearing sun. From this place, the Atlanteans migrated South, eventually settling in India, before moving West, through India, Egypt, and Greece, and finally arriving in Europe. Foreshadowing Hegel, Bailly asserted that "the scepter of sciences must have been passed from one people to another" (Histoire, 3). The movement of history, however, was not East to West, but rather North to South.

One of the first recipients of Bailly's work was Voltaire himself, who acknowledged receipt with an encouraging (if slightly sarcastic) letter, which Bailly published, along with their ensuing correspondence, at the beginning of his next work, the 1777 Lettres sur l'origine des sciences, et sur celle des peuples de l'Asie, adressées à M. de Voltaire. In this text, Bailly set himself the task to disprove Voltaire's belief that the "Brahmanes" were really the most ancient people of all, and that, as Voltaire argued, "there is still a large country near Benares where what is called the golden age exists." (Voltaire had developed this idea in his short story, La princesse de Babylone.) Bailly persisted to locate Atlantis in the far north, settling on the mythical land of Hyperborea, whose capital was Thule. This land had to be the historical golden age of which poets still sing: "the golden age, that seductive fable, is thus only the cherished memory of an abandoned, yet loved, homeland" (103).

Though Voltaire died before he could respond to (and vent his frustration with) this stubborn resistance, Bailly fired off a final salvo defending his thesis, the Lettres sur l'Atlantide de Platon et sur l'ancienne histoire de l'Asie (1779). By this time, he had acquired quite a reputation: although the leading philosophes of the day, in particular his old rivals d'Alembert and Condorcet, derided him as a mystical buffoon, in other academic, as well as more popular circles, he was hailed as a great historian and scientist. His literary success allowed him to present his candidacy to the French Academy, where he faced off again with Condorcet, who beat him by one vote. It thus fell on his nemesis to deliver the chilly response to Bailly's speech when he finally was elected in 1784. Having penned another antiquarian work on mythology, the Essai sur les fables (1782, published posthumously in 1799), championing the eclectic method of Nicolas Freret, he was also admitted into Freret's institutional home, the Académie des inscriptions et des belles-lettres, in 1785. Only Fontenelle had ever before been a member of all three academies.

In the final decade of the Old Regime, Bailly thus found himself in a position of great institutional power and prestige. This prestige was augmented by two events, which secured his standing as a leading philosophe and provided the springboard for his future revolutionary career. In 1784, at the request of the king, Bailly, Franklin, Lavoisier, and three other members of the Academy of Sciences were charged with investigating Jean-Sylvain Bailly's theory of animal magnetism. Fashionable Parisians (particularly women) had been flocking to Mesmer's "cures," which had acquired an immoral reputation. (One of Mesmer's great defenders was Court de Gébelin, who had the misfortune of dying during a magnetic séance, in May 1784). While Bailly composed the final report officially casting doubt on the existence of a fluide magnétique, he seems to have been somewhat less skeptical than Franklin, basing his judgment on the absence of proof. The case had a great public impact, however, and Mesmer left Paris the following year.

Bailly gained even greater celebrity in a second case, concerning the poor hospital (Hôtel-Dieu) in Paris. Appointed once again by the king in 1786 to a commission charged with examining the state of the hospital, he helped draft a report that aired its shameful conditions: the hospital had the highest mortality rate in all of Europe. The report was a prime example of Enlightenment humanitarian efforts, insisting as it did that the State had a responsibility to ameliorate the conditions of the poor. Although its recommendations would never be implemented, the report was widely acclaimed and helped consolidate Bailly's popularity among Parisians.

Given his public standing, it is no surprise that Bailly was immediately drawn into the political turmoil of the French Revolution. He had a hand in drafting the cahier de doléances for the Parisian Third Estate, and topped the list of electors chosen as deputies to the Estates General. Such was his fame and esteem that, when the Third Estate declared itself to be the National Assembly of France, on June 17, 1789, Bailly was chosen to serve as its first president. It is under this guise that Bailly achieved an iconic status: it is he who stands above the crowd of deputies, hand outstretched to the sky, at the center of David's 1791 depiction of the Tennis Court Oath, when the deputies swore (on June 20, 1789) not to disband until they had given France a constitution.

When David's painting was first exhibited, however, Bailly's fortune was about to begin its precipitous descent. Elected the first mayor of Paris by acclamation, following the fall of the Bastille, Bailly's popularity gradually diminished until vanishing completely after the infamous "massacre" of July 17, 1791. In reaction to the King's flight from Paris, and subsequent arrest at Varennes, a crowd had gathered at the Champs-de-Mars to sign a petition in favor of republican government. When some confusion ensued, Bailly and Lafayette declared martial law and had the national guard open fire on the demonstration; a dozen protesters were killed. Realizing that he had planted the final nail in his coffin, Bailly resigned as mayor three months later, but did not escape revolutionary vengeance so easily: in July 1793, he was arrested at Melun, where he had been offered refuge by his once-colleague at the Academy of sciences, Simon de Laplace. He was sentenced to death in November and guillotined on the Champ-de-Mars, rather than at the usual Place de la Révolution (currently Place de la Concorde), in a macabre nod to his role in the July 1791 repression.

Though his life was cut short at age 57, his legacy lived on in a surprising and chilling fashion. His thesis about a Hyperborean Atlantis was at first roundly rejected; Jules Verne even mocks Bailly in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869), when his characters discover the "real" Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean. But one person, an odd character named Helena Petrovna (a.k.a. "Madame") Blavatsky, took his ideas very seriously. Blavatsky was a founder of Theosophy, a mystical society whose credo was spelled out in her book The Secret Doctrine (1888). In this hermetic work, Blavatsky revived Bailly's theory (citing him twenty-two times), and incorporated his Hyperborean Atlantis into an epic story of continents and "root-races." The fate of her Atlantis was tied to that of a particularly controversial race: the Aryans. As the Aryans migrated south to India, a "sub-race" sprung off from them, the Semites. The myth of a Hyperborean Atlantis thus made its entrance into the anti-Semitic, Aryanist ideologies of the late nineteenth century.

This period also experienced something of an "Atlantis" craze, with scholars and quacks penning books to prove that the lost continent had once existed in Morocco, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, or other locations. But the Bailly-Blavatsky theory found support among some of the more fantastical Aryan ideologues in Vienna (as Nicolas Goodrick-Clarke has detailed). It was from such circles that post-WWI German nationalist groups, such as the "Thule" society (named after the mythical capital of Hyperborea), derived many of their anti-Semitic and Aryan theories. Members of the Thule society, in particular, were instrumental in assisting Adolf Hitler (who had probably read some of the Viennese Aryan theosophists when living in Austria) found the N.S.D.A.P., or Nazi party. One of them, Alfred Rosenberg, a close companion of Hitler's during his Munich years, placed the myth of a Hyperborean Atlantis at the heart of his massive doctrinal tome, The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930). Rosenberg begins this work by assuming the past existence of an Atlantis in the far North:

All in all, the old legends of Atlantis may appear in new light. It seems far from impossible that in areas over which the Atlantic waves roll and giant icebergs float, a flourishing continent once rose above the waters and upon it a creative race produced a far-reaching culture and sent its children out into the world as seafarers and warriors. But even if this Atlantis hypothesis should prove untenable, a prehistoric Nordic cultural center must still be assumed.

The myth of a "Nordic cultural center" allowed Rosenberg to credit the Aryan race with all the great cultural achievements in human history: at different moments in time (coinciding with the greatest flourishes of civilization), the Aryans descended from their Northern perch to work their wonders in the Southern climes. The "evidence" of Aryan superiority thus rested on this key geographical situation: only if located in the Arctic Circle could the Aryans conceivably claim responsibility for both Eastern and Western accomplishments.

There are considerable differences between Bailly's and Rosenberg's interpretations of the Hyperborean Atlantis myth, and clearly Bailly should not be considered as Nazi precursor. But he does not deserve to be let off the hook completely, either. While he did not explicitly racialize his theory, he did seek to appropriate Eastern cultural advances for Europe. By making a Northern people responsible for the glories of India, he ultimately honored Western accomplishments, all the while praising the Brahmins. Enlightened Europe, in his story, was the true successor of Atlantis. Bailly thus provided later nationalist and racist movements with a powerful narrative that could authorize any number of ideologies. Playing with myths is always a dangerous business.


Further Reading

Edelstein, Dan. "Hyperborean Atlantis: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Madame Blavatsky, and the Nazi Myth." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 35 (2006): 267-91.

Godwin, Joscelyn. Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicolas. The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Smith, Edwin B. "Jean-Sylvain Bailly: Astronomer, Mystic, Revolutionary, 1736-1793." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 44 (1954): 427-538.