Huet, Peter Daniel

, bishop of Avranches in France, a very eminent scholar, was born of a good family at Caen in Normandy, Feb. 8, 1630. His parents dying when he was scarcely out of his infancy, Huet fell into the hands of guardians, who neglected him: his own invincible love of letters, however, made him amends for all disadvantages; and he finished his studies in the belles lettres before he was thirteen years of age. In the prosecution of his philosophical studies, he met with an excellent professor, father Mambrun, a Jesuit; who, alter Plato’s example, directed him to begin by learning a little geometry, and Huet contracted such a relish for it, that he went through every branch of mathematics, and maintained public theses at Caen, a thing never before done in that city. Having passed through his classes, it was his business to study the law, and to take his degrees in it; but two books then published, seduced him from this pursuit. These were, “The Principles of Des Cartes,” and “Bochart’s Sacred | Geography.” He was a great admirer of Des Cartes, and adhered to his philosophy for many years; but afterwards saw reason to abandon it as a visionary fabrick, and wrote against it. Bochart’s geography made a more lasting impression upon him, as well on account of the immense erudition with which it abounds, as by his acquaintance with its author, who was minister of the Protestant church at Caen. This book, being full of Greek and Hebrew learning, inspired Huet with an ardent desire of being versed in those languages, and, to assist his progress in these studies, he contracted a friendship with Bochart, and put himself under his directions.

At the age of twenty years and one day, he was delivered by the custom of Normandy from the tuition of his guardians: and soon after took a journey to Paris, not so much from curiosity to see the place, as for the sake of purchasing books, and making himself acquainted with the learned men of the times. He soon became known to Sirmond, Petavius, Vavassor, Cossart, Rapin, Naude, and, in short, to almost all the scholars in France. With Petavius in particular he passed much of his time: he was a great admirer of the splendour of his diction, and the variety of his erudition; but he confesses, that in weighing the arguments which he offered in support of his dogmas, he perceived in them a degree of weakness and ambiguity, which obliged him to suspend his assent, and inclined him towards scepticism. Naturally excelling rather in genius than judgment, and the vigour of his understanding having been rather repressed than improved by an immense variety of reading, Huet found his mind too feeble to master the difficulties of metaphysical and theological studies, and concluded that his want of success in the search after truth was owing, not to any peculiar infelicity in his own case, but to the general imbecility of the human mind.

With this bias towards scepticism Huet entered upon his travels, and Christina of Sweden having invited Bochart to her court, Huet accompanied him, in April 1652. He saw Salmasius at Leyden, and Isaac Vossius at Amsterdam. He often visited the queen, who would have engaged him. in her service; but Bochart not having been very graciously received, through the intrigues of Bourdel, another physician, who was jealous of him, and the queen’s fickle temper being well known, Huet declined^ all offers, and | after a stay of three months returned to France. The chief fruit of his journey was a copy of a manuscript of Origen’s “Commentaries upon St. Matthew,” which he transcribed at Stockholm; and the acquaintance he contracted with the learned men in Sweden and Holland, through which he passed. Upon his return to his own country, Caen, he resumed his studies with more vigour than ever, in order to publish his manuscript of Origen *. While he was employed in translating this work, he was led to consider the rules to be observed in translations, as well as the different manners of the most celebrated translators. This gave occasion to his first performance, which came out at Paris in 1661, under this title, “De interpretatione libri duo:” and it is written in the form of a dialogue between Casaubon, Fronto Ducaeus, and Thuanus. M. de Segrais tells us, that tf nothing can be added to this treatise, either with respect to strength of critical judgment, variety of learning, or elegance of style;“” which last,“says abbe Olivet,” is so very extraordinary, that it might have done honour to the age of Augustus.“This book was first printed in a thin 4to, but afterwards in 12mo and 8vo^ In 1688, were published at Rouen, in 2 vo!s. folio, his” Origenis Commentaria, &e. cum Latina interpretatione, notis & observationibus;“to which is prefixed, a large preliminary discourse, in which is collected all that antiquity relates of Origen. The interval of sixteen years, between his return from Sweden and the publication of this work, was spent entirely in study, excepting a month or two every year, when he went to Paris; during which time he gave the public a specimen of his skill in polite literature, in an elegant collection of poems, entitled” Carmina Latina & Grajca;“which were published at Utrecht in 1664, and afterwards enlarged in several successive editions. While he was employed upon his” Commentaries of Origen,“he had the misfortune to quarrel with his friend and master Bochart; who desiring one day a sight qf his manuscript


Here he also instituted a society for the improvement of natural philosophy and anatomy, which, through the interest of Colbert, was liberally endowed by the king, for the purpose of defraying the expenct-s of philosophical experiments and anatomical dissections. Aoout this time Huet formed a friendship with Corinis, president of the senate of Aix, who came to reside at Caen. This new intimacy very much contributed to confirm Huet in his propensity towards scepticism, For Cormissus, who was well read in antient philosophy, was a great admirer of the Pyrrhonic seot, and earnestly recommended to his friend the study of Pyrrhonism in the Institutes of Sexlus Empiricus.

| for the sake of consulting some passages about the Encbarist, which had been greatly controverted between Papists and Protestants, discovered an hiatus or defect, which seemed to determine the sense in favour of the Papists, and reproached Huet with being the contriver of it. Huet at first thought that it was a defect in the original ms. but upon consulting another very antient ms. in the king’s libra‘ Paris, he found that he had omitted some words in the harry of transcribing, as he says, and that the mistake was his own. Bochart, still supposing that this was a kind of pious fraud in Huet, to support the doctrine of the church of Rome in regard to the Eucharist, warned the Protestants against Hoet’s edition of Origen’s” Commentaries," and dissolved the friendship which had so long subsisted between Huet and himself.

In 1659 Huet was invited to Rome by Christina, who bad abdicated her crown, and retired thither; but, remembering the cool reception which Bochart had experienced from her majesty after as warm an invitation, he refused to go. His literary reputation, however, Bossuet was appointed by the king preceptor to the Dauphin, procured him to be chosen for his colleague, with the title of sub-preceptor, which honour had some time been designed him by the duke de Montausier, governor to the Dauphin. He went to court in 1670, and staved there till 1680, when the Dauphin was married. Though his employment must of necessity occupy a considerable part of his time, he found enough to complete his “Demonstratio Evangelica,” which, though a great and laborious work, was begun and ended amidst the embarrassments of a court *. It was published at Paris in 1679, in


This work, says Bracket, in which he undertakes to exhibit the evidences of Christianity in a geometrical form, indeed discovers great erudition, but the judicious reader will perceive that the writer was more desirous to display his learning, than to establish the Christian faith upon rational grounds. In his preface to this work, he maintains it large the uncertainty of all human knowledge, whether derived from the senses or from reason; and declares it as his opinion, that those methods of philosophising which lead to a suspension of judgment are by no means hostile to Christianity, but serve to prepare the mind for an implicit submislioa to divine revelation, which it is in vain to attempt to establish by argamentation, without the grace of God. Accordingly, he professes to write his “Demonstration,” merely as an extraaeous and adventitious support to faith, by means of which the mind may be more easily inclined to submit itself to the authority of Christ. Bishop Watson thinks that a very valuable part of it in which he traces the heathen mythology to the Scriptures, for though, he may carry his hypothesis too far, of Moses representing under different names most of the gods of the heathens, yet the deduction of the heathen mythology from sacred history, is a strong proof of the truth of the latter. Watson’s Cat. at the end of his Tracts.

| folio; and has been reprinted since in folio, 4to, and 8vo. Huet owns that this work was better received by foreigners than by his own countrymen; many of whom considered it as a work full of learning indeed, but utterly devoid of that demonstration to which it so formally and pompously pretends. Others, less equitable, borrowed from it, and attacked it at the same time, to cover their plagiarism; which Huet complains of. Father Simon had a design of Baking an abridgment“of this work; bat Haet being informed that his purpose was likewise to alter it as he thought proper, desired him to excuse himself that trouble. Huet was employed on the editions of the classics” in usum Delphini:" for though the first idea of these was started by the duke de Montausier, yet Huet formed the plan, and directed the execution, as far as the capacity of the persons employed in that work would permit. He undertook, he tells us, only to promote and conduct the work, but at last came in for a share of it, in completing Faye’s edition of Manilius. He was also chosen a member of the French academy and his speech pronounced on the occasion before that illustrious body was published at Paris in 1674.

While he was employed in composing his “Demonstratio Evangel. ca,” the sentiments of piety, which he had cherished from his earliest youth, moved him to enter into orders, which he did at the late age of forty-six; and be tells us, that previous to this he gradually laid aside the lay habit and outward appearances. In 1678, he was presented by the king to the abbey of Aunay in Normandy, which was so agreeable to him, tiiat be retired there every summer, after he had left the court. In 1685, he was nominated to the bUho;>ric of Soissons but before the bulls for his institution were expedited, the abbe de Sillery having been nominated to the see of Avranches, they exchanged bishoprics with the consent of the king; though, owing to the differences between the court of France and that of Rome, they could not be consecrated till 1692. In 1689, he published his “Censura Philosophise Cartesians,” and addressed it to the duke de Montausier: it appears that he was greatly piqued at the Cartesians, when he wrote this book; but it may be questioned whether he thoroughly understood the system. In 1690, be published in Caen, in 4to, his “Qusestiones Ainetanse de Concordia Rationis & Fidei” which is written in the form of a | dialogue, after the manner of Cicero’s Tusculan Questions. In this he endeavours to fix the respective limits of reason and faith, and maintains, that the dogmas and precepts of each have no alliance, and that there is nothing, however, contradictory to common sense, or to good morals, which has not been received, and which we may not be bound to receive, as a dictate of faith. He honestly confesses that he wrote this work to establish the authority of tradition against the empire of reason.

In 1699, he resigned his bishopric of Avranches, and was presented to the abbey of Fontenay, near the gates of Caen. His love to his native place determined him to fix there, for which purpose he improved the house and gardens belonging to the abbot. But several grievances and law-suits obliged him to remove to Paris, where he lodged among the Jesuits in the Maison Professe“, whom he had made heirs to his library, reserving to himself the use of it while he lived. Here he spent the last twenty years of his life, dividing his time between devotion and study. He did not consider the Bible as the only book to be read, but thought that all other books must be read, before it could be rightly understood. He employed himself chiefly in writing notes on the vulgate translation: for which purpose he read over the Hebrew text twenty-four times; comparing it, as he went along, with the other Oriental texts, and spent every day two or three hours in this work from 1681 to 1712. He was then seized with a very severe distemper, which confined him to his bed for near six months, and brought him so very low, that he was given up by his physicians, and received extreme unction. Recovering, however, by degrees, he applied himself to the writing of his life, which was published at Amsterdam in 1718, in 12mo, underline title of” Pet. Dan. Huetii, Episcopi Abrincensts, Commentarius de rebus ad eum pertinentibus:“where the critics have wondered, that so great a master of Latin as Huetius was, and who has written it, perhaps, as well as any of the moderns, should be guilty of a solecism in the very title of his book; in writing” eum,“when he should have manifestly written” se.“This performance, though drawn up in a very amusing and entertaining manner, and with great elegance of style, is not executed with that order and exactness which appear in his other works: his memory being then decayed, and afterwards declining more and more, so that he was no longer capable | of a continued work, but only committed detached thoughts to paper. Olivet in the mean time relates a most remarkable singularity of him, namely, that,” for two or three hours before his death, he recovered all the vigour of his genius and memory." He died January 26, 1721, in his 91st year.

Besides the works -which we have mentioned in the course of this memoir, he published others of a similar nature, viz. “De l’Origine des Romans,1670; published in English 1672, 12mo. “De la situation du Paradis Terrestre,1691. “Nouveaux Memoires pour servir a l’Histoire du Cartesianisrne,1692. “Statuts Synodaux pour le diocese d’Avranches, &c.1693 to which were added three supplements in the years 1695, 1696, 1698. “De Navigationibus Salomonis,” Amst. 1698. “Notse in Anthologiam Epigrammatum Grsecorum,” Ultraj. 1700. “Origines de Caen,” Roan, 1702. “Lettres a Mons. Perrault, sur le Parallele des Anciens & des Modernes, du 10 Oct. 1692,” printed without the author’s knowledge in the third part of the “Pieces Fugitives,Paris, 1704. “Examen du sentiment de Longin sur ce passage de la Genese, Et Dieu dit, que la lumiere soit faite, & la lumiere fut faite,” inserted in tome X of Le Clerc’s “Bibliotheque Choisee,” Amst. 1706. Huet, in his “Demonstratio Evangelica,” had asserted, that there was nothing sublime in this passage, as Longinus had observed, but that it was perfectly simple. Messrs, de Port Royal and Boileau, who gave translations of Longinus, asserted its sublimity on that very account; and this occasioned the “Examen” just mentioned. “Lettre a M. Foucault, conseiller d‘etat, sur l’origine de la Poesie Franchise, du 16 Mar. 1706,” inserted in the “Memoires de Trevoux,” in 1711. “Lettre de M. Morin (that is, of M. Huet,) de Tacademie des inscriptions a M. Huet, tonchant le livre de M. Tolandus Anglois, intitule, Adeisidtemon, & Origines Judaicce,” inserted in the “Memoires de Trevoux” for Sept. 1709, and in the collection which the abbe* Tilladet published of Huet’s works, under the title of “Dissertations sur diverses rnatieres de la Religion & de Philologie,1712. “Histoire de Commerce & de la Navigation des Anciens,1716. After his death were published, “Traite Philosophique de laFoiblesse de I’esprit huniain,” Amst. 1723; in which the sceptical spirit which followed Huet through every change of situation appears in its full vigour. Of this work, which | was originally written in French, the author left behind him a Latin translation. It has also been translated into English. “Huetiana, ou pensees diverses de M. Huet,1722. These contain those loose thoughts he committed to paper after his last illness, when, as we have already observed, he was incapable of producing a connected work. “Diana de Castro, ou le faux Yncas,1728, a romance, written when he was very young. There are yet in being other Mss. of his, which, as far we know, have not been published; viz. “A Latin translation of Longus’s Loves of Daphnis and Chloe;” “An Answer to Regis, with regard to Des Cartes’s Metaphysics;” “Notes upon the Vulgate translation of the Bible;” and a collection of between 5 and 600 letters in Latin and French written to learned men.

On the whole, though it cannot be questioned that Huet, on account of his great learning and fertile genius, may justly claim to have his name preserved with honour in the republic of letters, several circumstances must prevent us from ranking him among the first philosophers of the seventeenth century. Better qualified to accumulate testimonies than to investigate truth, and more disposed to raise difficulties than to solve them, he was an injudicious advocate for a good cause. If we are not very much mistaken, Huet did not strictly adhere to the scholastic art of reasoning which he had learned in the schools of the Jesuits; otherwise he must have seen that there can be no room for faith, or for, what he artfully conceals under that name, the authority of the church, if every criterion of truth be rejected, and human reason be pronounced a blind and fallacious guide. 1


Gen. Dict. —Moreri. —Brucker. Saxii Onoinast.