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Jean-Sylvain Bailly, an eighteenth-century French astronomer and polymath, elaborated an original interpretation of the prehistoric origins of civilization which anticipated many of the details of the “Aryan myth.” Bailly argued that Atlantis was the root civilization of mankind, which had invented the arts and sciences and civilized the Chinese, Indians, and Egyptians. He situated this primordial people in the far north of Eurasia, and argued that as the cooling of the Earth buried their ancestral home beneath sheets of ice, the Atlanteans were lost to history. Bailly drew eclectically upon science, classical mythology, linguistics, and orientalism to substantiate his case, and argued that the Brahmans who shaped Indian civilization were Sanskrit-speaking Atlanteans. His theories reflected many of the prevailing ideas of the age, such as the climate determinism of Montesquieu and Buffon and the superiority of the dynamic West over the decadent Orient. Though Bailly did not racialize the Atlanteans, his works laid the foundations for the subsequent emergence of the Aryan myth.



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1 Kidd, Colin, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World (Cambridge and New York, 2006), 27.

2 For the emergence and development of this theory see Poliakov, Leon, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe (New York, 1971).

3 For the work of William Jones and the subsequent elaboration and racialization of the “Aryan myth” among British and German scholars see Trautmann, Thomas R., Aryans and British India (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997).

4 The classic statement of this thesis is Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York, 1979). For more nuanced portrayals of eighteenth-century views of the shifting balance between Europe and Asia see Clarke, J. J., Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought (London, 1997); Laurens, Henry, Les origines intellectuelles de l’expédition d’Egypte: L’orientalisme islamisant en France (Paris, 1987); and Harvey, David Allen, The French Enlightenment and Its Others: The Mandarin, the Savage, and the Invention of the Human Sciences (New York, 2012).

5 On “conjectural history” see O’Brien, Karen, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997); and Meek, Ronald, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage (Cambridge, 1976).

6 Biographical information taken from Edwin Smith, Burrows, “Jean-Sylvain Bailly: Astronomer, Mystic, Revolutionary,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 44/4 (1954), 427538; and Hahn, Roger, “Quelques nouveaux documents sur Jean-Sylvain BaillyRevue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications, 8 (1955), 338–53. For more information on aspects of Bailly's career unrelated to the topic of this essay see Brucker, Gene, Jean-Sylvain Bailly: Revolutionary Mayor of Paris (Urbana, 1950); Kelly, George Armstrong, Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d’Orléans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes (Chapel Hill, 1982); Greenbaum, Louis, “Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the Baron de Breteuil, and the ‘Four New Hospitals of Paris’,” Clio Medica, 8/4 (1973), 261–84; and Kelly, George Armstrong, “Bailly and the Champ de Mars Massacre,” Journal of Modern History, 52/1 (1980), D1021D1046.

7 Grafton, Anthony, “Kircher's Chronology,” in Findlen, Paula, ed., Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (New York, 2004), 171–87, 172.

8 For the Jesuit encounter with China and its impact on European intellectual history, see Brockey, Liam Matthew, Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579–1724 (Cambridge, MA, 2007); Mackerras, Colin, Western Images of China (Oxford, 1999); and Pinot, Virgile, La Chine et la formation de l’esprit philosophique en France, 1640–1740 (Geneva, 1971; first published 1932).

9 Marchand, Suzanne, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge and New York, 2009), 12.

10 Rossi, Paolo, The Dark Abyss of Time: The History of the Earth and the History of Nations from Hooke to Vico, trans. Lydia Cochrane (Chicago, 1984), 132–3.

11 Grafton, Anthony, Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, 1450–1800 (Cambridge, MA, 1991), 129.

12 On the “Dendera Zodiac” discovered by the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt see Buchwald, Jed and Josefowicz, Diane Greco, The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science (Princeton, 2010).

13 Bailly, Jean-Sylvain, Histoire de l’astronomie ancienne, depuis son origine jusqu’à l’établissement de l’école d’Alexandrie (Paris, 1775), 18, 100.

14 Cited in Urs App, The Birth of Orientalism (Philadelphia, 2010), 65.

15 While Voltaire's interest and enthusiasm for ancient Asia is well documented, scholars disagree as to the sincerity and motives for this interest. Raymond Schwab and Dorothy Figueira present an implausibly gullible Voltaire, who was taken in by crude modern forgeries. On the contrary, Urs App has recently argued that Voltaire, a sophisticated and skeptical reader, recognized the Ezour-vedam as a Jesuit forgery, but endorsed its supposed authenticity in bad faith, recognizing its potential utility in his campaign against l’infâme. See Schwab, Raymond, La Renaissance orientale (Paris, 1950); Figueira, Dorothy, Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity (Albany, 2002); and App, The Birth of Orientalism.

16 App, The Birth of Orientalism, 53, 64.

17 Letter of Voltaire to Bailly, 15 Dec. 1775, reproduced in Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Lettres sur l’origine des sciences et sur celle des peuples de l’Asie (Paris, 1777), 4.

18 Letter of Voltaire to Bailly, 19 Jan. 1776, reproduced in Bailly, Origine des sciences, 6.

19 Minuti, Rolando, Oriente barbarico e storiografia settescentesca: Rappresentazione della storia dei Tartari nella cultura francese del XVIII secolo (Venice, 1994), 102, 41.

20 Letter of Voltaire to Bailly, 19 Jan. 1776, reproduced in Bailly, Origine des sciences, 7–8.

21 Letter of Voltaire to Bailly, 9 Feb. 1776, reproduced in Bailly, Origine des sciences, 12–14.

22 Smith, “Jean-Sylvain Bailly,” 461.

23 de Montesquieu, Charles Sécondat, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Anne Kohler (Cambridge, 1989; first published 1749), 54. For the classical origins of climate determinism see Isaac, Benjamin, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, 2004).

24 Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, “Des variétés de l’homme,” in Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, vol. 3 (Paris, 1750–1804), 371–530, 528.

25 For the humanist scholarly tradition, see Grafton, Defenders of the Text.

26 Histoire de l’Académie des sciences (1759), 45.

27 Cited in Vyverberg, Henry, Human Nature, Cultural Diversity, and the French Enlightenment (New York, 1989), 130.

28 Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, 235.

29 Bailly, Histoire de l’astronomie, 105.

30 Bailly, Origine des sciences, 20, 22.

31 Ibid., 190, 25.

32 Ibid., 30.

33 Ibid., 56.

34 Raina, Dhruv, “Betwixt Jesuit and Enlightenment Historiography: Jean-Sylvain Bailly's History of Indian Astronomy,” Revue d’histoire des mathématiques, 9 (2003), 253306, 265. For a broader discussion of the early modern concept of “natural religion” see Walker, D. P., The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca, 1972).

35 Bailly, Origine des sciences, 81.

36 Ibid., 18–19. Bailly had already made a very similar declaration in the Histoire de l’astronomie, 18.

37 Bailly, Origine des sciences, 19.

38 Ibid., 225, 229.

39 Bailly, , Lettres sur l’Atlantide de Platon, et sur l’ancienne histoire de l’Asie (Paris, 1779), 43–4.

40 King, David, Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World (New York, 2005), 109.

41 Vidal-Naquet, Pierre, The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato's Myth, trans. Janet Lloyd (Exeter, 2007), 1523.

42 de Camp, Lyon Sprague, Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature (New York, 1970), 1619.

43 Manuel, Frank, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (New York, 1967), 105.

44 Grafton, Defenders of the Text, 87.

45 Ibid., 37.

46 Cited in Vidal-Naquet, The Atlantis Story, 87.

47 Bailly, Atlantide, 60–62.

48 Ibid., 188–9.

49 Ibid., 83–4, and Bailly, Histoire de l’astronomie, 285–6.

50 Bailly, Atlantide, 199.

51 Ibid., 211, 132.

52 Baum, Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity (New York, 2006), 82.

53 Blumenbach cited in ibid., 5–6. For the cultural and racial theory of Christoph Meiners see Carhart, Michael C., The Science of Culture in Enlightenment Germany (Cambridge, MA, 2007), especially chaps. 6 and 8.

54 Eriksson, Gunnar, The Atlantic Vision: Olaus Rudbeck and Baroque Science (Canton, MA, 1994), viiviii.

55 King, Finding Atlantis, 252.

56 The climate-based theory of human difference is most extensively and explicitly developed by Buffon in his essay “Des variétés de l’homme.” For the implications of this theory for Enlightenment representations of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia see Minuti, Oriente barbarico e storiografia settescentesca.

57 Letter of Voltaire to Bailly, 9 Feb. 1776, reproduced in Bailly, Origine des sciences, 12–14.

58 Bailly, Origine des sciences, 266.

59 Ibid., 270, 308.

60 Bailly, Atlantide, 251, 435.

61 Ibid., 273.

62 Ibid., 440.

63 For the origins of modern philology and their relation to speculative prehistory see Olender, Maurice, The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA, 2009). On early modern sacred geography and its contributions to ethnography and the history of religions see Stroumsa, Guy, A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, MA, 2010).

64 On this point, see Smith, “Jean-Sylvain Bailly,” 497.

65 Bailly, Jean-Sylvain, “Eloge de Leibnitz,” in Bailly, Discours et mémoires (Paris, 1790; first published 1768), 181235, 197.

66 Bailly, Atlantide, 293.

67 Ibid., 17, 19.

68 Bailly, Origine des sciences, 85.

69 Bailly, Atlantide, 302.

70 Poliakov, The Aryan Myth, 193.

71 Herder, Johann Gottfried, “General Reflections on the History of the Asian States,” trans. Ernest Menze, in Herder, On World History (London, 1996), 245.

72 Review of Bailly, Lettres sur l’Atlantide de Platon, Correspondance littéraire, November 1778, 114–15.

73 Smith, “Jean-Sylvain Bailly,” 460.

74 Bailly, Atlantide, 326–7, 332.

75 For further discussion of the metahistorical narratives of Delisle de Sales and Fabre d’Olivet see David Harvey, Allen, Beyond Enlightenment: Occultism and Politics in Modern France (De Kalb, IL, 2005).

76 Leclerc, Georges-Louis, comte de Buffon, “Des époques de la nature” (1778), in Chefs-d’oeuvres de Buffon (Paris, 1864), 507–8.

77 Ibid., 477.

78 Cited in Kelly, Victims, Authority, and Terror, 163.

79 Condorcet, Discours prononcés dans l’Académie française le jeudi 26 février 1784, à la réception de M. Bailly (Paris, 1784), 18.

80 Vidal-Naquet, The Atlantis Story, 86.

81 Grell, Chantal, L’histoire entre érudition et philosophie (Paris, 1993), 109.

82 Cited in Vidal-Naquet, The Atlantis Story, 86.

83 Journal des sçavans, January 1779, 23.

84 Abbé Thomas-Marie Royou, review of Bailly, Lettres sur l’Atlantide de Platon, in Année littéraire, 1 (1779), 217–46, 217–20, 225.

85 Royou, review of Bailly, Lettres sur l’Atlantide de Platon (cont'd), in Année littéraire, 2 (1779), 39–72, 55–6, 59.

86 Cited in Smith, “Jean-Sylvain Bailly,” 477.

87 Kelly, Victims, Authority, and Terror, 153; Jean-Baptiste Delisle de Sales, “Vie littéraire et politique de Bailly,” in Sylvain Bailly, maire de Paris et membre de ses trois académies: Homage à sa mémoire (Paris, 1809), 13–104, 24.

88 On the dispute between Bailly and Royou and its resolution, see Smith, “Jean-Sylvain Bailly,” 477–8.

89 Delisle de Sales, “Vie littéraire et politique de Bailly,” 24.

90 Cited in App, The Birth of Orientalism, 239.

91 Jones, William, Dissertations and Miscellaneous Pieces Relating to the History and Antiquities, the Arts, Sciences, and Literature of Asia (Dublin, 1793), 108–9.

92 Bailly, Jean-Sylvain, Traité de l’astronomie indienne et orientale (Paris, 1787).

93 Figueira, Aryans, Jews, Brahmins, 25–6.

94 Ibid., 47, 49.

95 Jones, Dissertations and Miscellaneous Pieces, 77–8.

96 Lal, B. B., “Aryan Invasion of India: Perpetuation of a Myth,” in Bryant, Edwin and Patton, Laurie, eds., The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History (New York, 2005), 5074, 50.

97 Jim Schaffer and Diane Lichtenstein, “South Asian Archaeology and the Myth of Indo-Aryan Invasions,” in Bryant and Patton, The Indo-Aryan Controversy, 75–104, 75–6.

98 Jones, Dissertations and Miscellaneous Pieces, 116–17.

99 Trautmann, Aryans and British India, 42. Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races, also notes that many British anthropologists remained wedded to the “Mosaic ethnology” well into the nineteenth century.

100 Schlegel, Friedrich, “On the Language and Philosophy of the Indians,” trans. Millington, E. J., in The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works of Friedrich von Schlegel (London: George Bell, 1875), 425526, 427. For the impact of Eastern religion, literature, and philosophy on Western thought, see Schwab, La Renaissance orientale; and J. J. Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought (London, 1997).

101 Schlegel, “On the Language and Philosophy of the Indians,” 456, 506.

102 Arvidsson, Stefan, Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science, trans. Wichmann, Sonia (Chicago, 2006), 2021.

103 Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire, 62.

104 Ibid., 129.

105 Schlegel, “On the Language and Philosophy of the Indians,” 526.

106 Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire, 130, 293.

107 Cited by Shaffer and Lichtenstein, “South Asian Archaeology and the Myth of Indo-Aryan Invasions,” 78.

108 On these points see Figueira, Aryans, Jews, Brahmins; Bryant and Patton, The Indo-Aryan Controversy; and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, The Arctic Home in the Vedas (Poona, 1971; first published 1903).

109 For the racialization and radicalization of the “Aryan” concept in nineteenth century Europe see Arvidsson, Aryan Idols; and Poliakov, The Aryan Myth, as well as Mosse, George, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (New York, 1978). The allusion to a “sharper key” of anti-Semitic politics is taken from Schorske, Carl, Fin de Siècle Vienna (New York: Vintage, 1980).

110 Edelstein, Dan, “Hyperborean Atlantis: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Madame Blavatsky, and the Nazi Myth,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 35 (2006), 267–91, 273.

111 Harris, Marvin, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (Lanham, MD, 2001), 82.

112 Raina, “Betwixt Jesuit and Enlightenment Historiography,” 273.

113 Bailly, Histoire de l’astronomie ancienne, 71.

114 For a description of “enlightened narratives,” see O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment; as well as J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. 2, Narratives of Civil Government (Cambridge, 1999).

115 Said, Orientalism.




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