The Ruins: Or, Meditation on the Revolution of Empires and the Law of Nature – C.F. Volney (1890)
SUN RA Reading List
Every once in a while I come across a book that not only explores specific topics I am very interested in, but whose author has already processed the information available and reached conclusions that mirror my very own, even if it is an author writing almost a century before I was born. I love the magic of literature! Such is the case with Constantin-Francois Chassebeuf De Volney’s The Ruins, a dense and insightful work.
Count Volney was a lifelong learner, seeking to find the truth. He spent his youth learning classic languages, reading, and studying. Once he entered adulthood, he learned Arabic and proceeded to travel to the parts of the world which, at the time, were forgotten and ignored. He gazed upon the ancient marvels, mostly covered by desert sands, and thought hard about the cultures and people that created such wonders. It led him to insights that are as valuable today as ever.
Volney’s journey began in the Ottoman Empire, through areas that are now Syria and Egypt. Everywhere he went he saw desolation, ruin, and human suffering. He noted people living barely better than ancient tribal man did. Upon exploring the ancient sepulchers of Egypt, a revelation occurred, and he asked himself questions that led to the creation of this work.
“How has so much glory been eclipsed?”
“How have so many labors been annihilated?”
Volney asked himself how the works of man perish, empires vanish, and cultures and empires become lost into the mists of time. Every ancient kingdom and culture he had studied was gone, with many of them forgotten by the world at large. One large thought that occurred to him, living in the time of Christian nations, was that every one of these ancient and magnificent empires were peopled with what his contemporaries would describe as heretics, infidels, heathens of the worst type. None of them followed the tenets of Christianity, yet their splendor outshone modern Christian nations. It made little sense to him that, in the same lands that heathens created high culture and architecture, modern Muslims, Christians and Hebrews barely eked a subsistence.
Volney then spends time remembering his France, and Europe, which at the time considered themselves the heights of culture and sophistication. He remembered the beauty of Parisian streets, and then thought about the far future, where the wonders of his age would be but dust-filled ruins, and all the beauty would be lost forever. This is a sobering thought, and something that most people never consider. Most people live their lives as if the present world will remain unchanging for all time, and are then shocked when the changes come.
The bulk of The Ruins proceeds like a conversation between Volney himself, and an apparition that speaks to him, which Volney calls the Genius, as he gazes on the destroyed temples and buildings of ancient cultures. This Genius hears Volney’s anguish about humanity’s past and proceeds to explain exactly how man has fallen low and the reasons why. The Genius patiently explains the ancient history of humanity, the rise from base animal nature to consciousness. He talks about how humanity first understood the world, Nature, as a thing external to himself. He then proceeds to detail how this leads to every single theological idea we are all still fighting and killing each other over.
Each chapter title describes the contents therein, such as The Primitive State of Man, The Sources of Evil in Society, The Origin of Government and Laws, The General Causes of the Revolutions and Ruins of Ancient States, to The Lessons of Times Past Repeated on The Present. These topics are explored as the Genius describes the development of humanity.
The second half of The Ruins is even more mind-blowing, as the Genius lifts Volney up and away, to heights where he can see the whole Earth both past and future. He describes the various religious groups and sects gathering from all the world to listen to the Genius. The Genius proceeds to question each group as to their beliefs. It points out the many ways that the core beliefs of each religion get quickly buried under dogma, priesthoods, and the endless bickering of mortal man. Each religion ends up in actuality directly opposite of the tenets they claim to preach. One example, which applies to most religions, is this – God is unknowable, and all encompassing. Instead of acting upon this Truth, every single Religion constantly seeks to tell their followers exactly what “god” is thinking, what “god” likes, what “god” does not like, etc., all in an effort to control the people. They seek to diminish their “all-knowing” god with every proclamation and decree of dogma their followers must subscribe to, or else the “god” will send them to hell for eternal punishment.
After doing so, the Genius then starts to get to basics, asking how the humans determine truth, and how, most of their religious beliefs are not based on truth but on human extrapolation and assumptions, all leading down a path away from the actual truth. The way that religions warp their initial truths is near universal, especially once a governing power sees how easily religion can be used to control the actions of the populace. The initial, ancient human “religions” were nothing more than the then-current descriptions of the natural world around them, especially the heavens which were cyclical, and whose close study allowed early humans to understand the coming of the seasons, the path of our Sun through the sky, and the cycles that are created. These ancient humans did not have telescopes or scientific instruments as we possess today, but their observations alone were invaluable. These observations, written in the poetic language of their time, were then misinterpreted by later generations who read their symbolism and, like simple-mined folk everywhere, took them literally. This section of The Ruins is perfect for a student of comparative religion like myself.
One of the coolest anecdotes about The Ruins is that, as the original is in French, the English translation came from the hand of Thomas Jefferson, that eminent Freethinker and U.S.A. “Founding Father.” He managed to translate around 4/5 of it, and it must have been truly a dangerous proposition to do so. In the late 1700’s the Roman Catholic Church still controlled much of the western world’s religious ideas, and to have this book available in English must have been a threat. Parts of it were left untranslated for this very reason. For every truth any religion claims, they force upon their followers a thousand lies. These lies take over, and force the various Christian factions to war against each other, or the various Muslim factions to war against each other. They especially force one Religion to fight against the others, as all of them claim they are the One True Faith, instead of recognizing that the core tenets and foundations of all religious belief are simple, common to all, and universal in every sense. I highly recommend this book.
(This book can be read or downloaded for free here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1397/1397-h/1397-h.htm )