Bonnet, Charles

, an eminent natural philosopher, was born at Geneva, on the 13th of March, 1720. His ancestors, who were compelled to emigrate from France, in 1572, after the dreadful slaughter of St. Bartholomew’s day, established themselves at Geneva, where his grandfather was advanced to the magistracy. His father, who preferred the station of a private citizen, paid unremitted attention to the education of his son, which the latter recompensed, at a very early period, by the amiableness of his disposition, and the rapid progress he made in general literature. When about sixteen years of age, he applied himself, with great eagerness, to the perusal of “Le Spectacle de la Nature,” and this work made such a deep impression on his mind, that it may be said to have directed the taste and the studies of his future life. What that publication had commenced, was confirmed by the work of La Pluche; but having accidentally seen the treatise of Reaumur upon insects, he was in a transport of joy. He was very impatient to procure the book, but, as the | only copy in Geneva belonged to a public library, and as the librarian was reluctant to entrust it in the hands of a youth, it was with the utmost difficulty that he could obtain his end. By the possession of this treasure, our assiduous youth was enabled to make several new and curious experiments, which he communicated to Reaumur himself; and the high applause he gained, from so great a naturalist, added fresh vigour to his assiduity.

In compliance with his father’s desires, he applied himself, though with much reluctance, to the study of the law. The works of Burlamaqui pleased him the most, on account of the perspicuous and philosophic manner in which the subject was treated; the institutes of Heineccius gave him some courage also, as he perceived order and connection; but the Roman law terrified him. Notwithstanding his application to these authors, he still continued attached to natural history, and was very active in making experiments. Some experiments respecting treelice happening to be communicated by Reaumur to the academy of sciences, occasioned an epistolary correspondence between M. Bonnet and that great naturalist, a circumstance, doubtless, very flattering to a youth of twenty years, and the letter of Reaumur was accompanied with a present of that very book which he had borrowed, with so much difficulty, two years before.

Animated by such distinguished marks of approbation, he diligently employed every moment he could steal from the study of jurisprudence to the completion of his natural history of the tree-louse; to experiments on the respiration of caterpillars and butterflies, which he discovered to be effected by stigmata, or lateral pores; to an examination of the construction of the tinea, or tapeworm; in frequent correspondence with Reaumur; and in assisting Trembley in his discoveries and publication concerning millepedes, &c. Having, in 1743, obtained the degree of doctor of laws, he relinquished a pursuit which he had commenced with so much reluctance. In the same year he was admitted a member of the royal society of London, to which he had communicated a treatise on insects. Bonnet being now liberated from his other pursuits, applied himself, without intermission, to collecting together his experiments and observations concerning the tree-louse and the worm, which he published in 1744, under the title of “Insectology.” This work acquired deserved | approbation from the public, and was honoured by the commendation of the celebrated B. de Jussieu. He was reproached, however, as some other naturalists have deserved, with having paid too little attention to the delicacy of his reader, though his patience and accuracy were acknowledged to be deserving of praise. Such unremitted application and labour could not fail of becoming injurious to his health. Inflammations, nervous fever, sore eyes, &c. compelled him to relinquish the use of the microscope and the study of insects. This prevention was so extremely mortifying to a man of his taste and activity of mind, that he was thrown into a deep melancholy, which could only be subdued by the resolution inspired by philosophy, and the consolations of religion; these gradually roused him from a dejected state of mind. About the end of 1746, he was chosen member of the literary institution at Bologna, which introduced him to a correspondence with the celebrated Zanotti, who may be deemed the Fontenelle of Italy.

In 1747, he undertook a very difficult work on the leaves of plants; which, of all his publications in natural history, bore the strongest marks of originality, both with respect to the manner in which his experiments were made, and the discoveries resulting from them. But from this extreme attachment to natural history, he was gradually led to a study of a very different nature; and speculative philosophy now engaged his whole attention. The first result of his meditations in this department was his “Essay on Psychology,” in which the principal facts observable in human nature, and the consequences resulting from them, are stated in a concise and perspicuous manner. He contemplated man, from the first moment of his existence, and pursued the developement of his senses and faculties, from simple growth up to intelligence. This work, which was published without his name, met with great opposition, and was criticised with severity; but the censures were directed more against his expressions than his principles, nor were they of sufficient importance to impede the general acceptance of the performance. His “Analysis of the mental faculties” was simply a developement of the ideas contained in the preceding work. It engaged his incessant attention for the space of five years; nor was it completed before 1759. It is somewhat singular, that both he and the abbe de Condilluc should have illustrated | their principles by the supposition of a statue, organized like the human body, which they conceived to be gradually inspired with a soul, and the progressive enlargement of whose powers they carefully traced. In 1760 this work was published at Copenhagen by order and at the expence of Frederic V.; and it was followed in 1762 by “Considerations on organized bodies,” in which the author had three principal objects before him; the first was to give a concise view of every thing which appears interesting in natural history, respecting the origin, growth, and reproduction of organized bodies; the second was to confute the two different systems founded upon the Epigenesis; and the third was to explain the system of Germs, indicate the ground upon which it was founded, its correspondence with facts, and the consequences resulting from it. This work was received with much satisfaction by natural philosophers. The academy of Berlin, which had proposed the same subject, as a prize-question for 1761, declared that they considered this treatise as the offspring of close observation and profound reasoning; and that the author would have had an undubitable right to the prize, if he had confined his labours to the precise statement of the question, and Malesherbes reversed the interdict which the public censor had laid upon this book, as containing dangerous principles.

The “Contemplations of Nature” appeared in 1764. In this work, the author first enlarged upon the common conceptions entertained concerning the existence and perfections of God; and of the order and uniformity observable in the universe. He next descends to man, examines the parts of his composition, and the various capacities with which he is endowed. He next proceeds to the plants: assembles and describes the laws of their Œconomy; and finally, he examines the insects, indicates the principal circumstances in which they differ from large animals, and points out the philosophical inferences that may legitimately be deduced from these differences; and he concludes with observations respecting the industry of insects. This work being of a popular nature, the author spared no pains in bestowing upon it those ornaments of which it was susceptible. The principles which he thus discovered and explained, induced him to plan a system of moral philosophy; which, according to his ideas, consisted solely in the observance of that relation in which | man is placed, respecting all the beings that surround him. The first branch would have comprehended various means, which philosophy and the medical science have discovered, for the prevention of disease, the preservation and augmentation of the corporeal powers, and the better exertion of their force: in the second, he proposed to show, that natural philosophy has a powerful tendency to embellish and improve our mind, and augment the number of our rational amusements, while it is replete with beneficial effects respecting the society at large. To manifest the invalidity of opinions, merely hypothetical, he undertook, in the third place, to examine, whether there were not truths within the compass of human knowledge, to which the most sceptical philosopher must be compelled to yield his consent, and which might serve as the basis of all our reasonings concerning man and his various relations. He then would have directed his attention to a first cause, and have manifested how greatly the idea of a deity, and supreme law-giver, favoured the conclusions which reason had drawn from the nature and properties of things; but his ill health, impaired by incessant labour, would not permit him to complete the design. His last publication was the “Palingenesis,” which treats of the prior existence and future state of living beings.

Of his publications in natural history, those deemed the most excellent, are, his Treatise on the best means of preserving Insects and Fish in cabinets of Natural History; a dissertation on the Loves of the Plants; sundry pieces on the experiments of Spallanzani, concerning the reproduction of the head of the Snail; a dissertation on the Pipa, or Surinam Toad; and different treatises on Bees.

In 1783, he was elected honorary member of the academy of sciences at Paris, and of the academy of sciences and the belles lettres at Berlin. Much of his time was employed in a very extensive correspondence with some of the most celebrated natural philosophers and others. Of this number were Reaumur; De Geer, the Reaumur of Sweden; Du Hamel; the learned Haller; the experimental philosopher Spallanzani; Van Swieten; Merian; and that ornament of Switzerland, the great Lambert. He entertained, however, the utmost aversion to controversy. He thought that no advantage to be obtained by it could compensate for the lo ss of that repose which he valued, with Newton, as the rem prarsus substantiakm. He never | answered remarks that were made to the prejudice of his writings, but left the decision with the public: yet, ever ready to acknowledge his errors, he was sincerely thankful to every one who contributed to the perfection of his works. He was used to say, that one confession, “I was in the wrong,” is of more value than a thousand ingenious confutations. His literary occupations, and the care he was obliged to take of his health, prevented him from travelling. He delighted in retirement, and every hour was occupied in the improvement of his mind. The last twenty-five years of his life were spent in the same rural situation where he had passed the greater part of his early days; yet, notwithstanding the pursuit of literature was his supreme delight, he never refused to suspend his studies, when the good of his country seemed to demand his services.

He was chosen, in 1752, member of the grand council, in the republic of Geneva; and he assisted regularly at their deliberations, till 1768, where he distinguished himself by his eloquence, his moderation, united with firmness; by his good sense and penetration, in cases of difficulty; and by the zeal with which he endeavoured to reclaim his fellow citizens to that ancient simplicity of manners which had been so conducive to the welfare of the state, and to the love of virtue, so essential to the existence of genuine liberty. His conduct, in every case, was consistent with his principles. He took no pains to accumulate wealth, but remained satisfied with a fortune equal to his moderate wants, and to the exercise of his benevolence. The perfect correspondence between his extensive knowledge and virtuous deeds, procured him universal esteem.

In the year 1788, evident symptoms of a dropsy of the chest manifested themselves; and from this time he gradually declined. He sustained his indisposition with unremitted cheerfulness and composure. After various fluctuations, usual in that complaint, he died, on the 20th of May, 1793, in the seventy-third year of his age; retaining his presence of mind to the last moment; administering comfort to surrounding friends and relatives; and attempting to alleviate the distress of his disconsolate wife, in whose arms he expired.

As a demonstration of the high value placed upon his labours and talents, by the literati, we have only to add, | that he was member of most of the learned societies of Europe. The latter part of his life was employed in revising his works, of which a complete edition was published at Neuchatel in 9 vols. 4to, or 18 vols. 8vo, containing, besides these already noticed, several smaller pieces in natural history and metaphysics. Notwithstanding the high praises bestowed on Bonnet by his countrymen, there are many parts of his works which must be read with caution, nor, where there is not much danger in his speculations, is he always a very conclusive reasoner. 1


Memoires pour servir a l’histoire, &c. de M. Charles Bonnet, Bern, 8vo, 1794.