1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dupuis, Charles François
DUPUIS, CHARLES FRANÇOIS (1742-1809), French scientific writer and politician, was born of poor parents at Trye-Château, between Gisors and Chaumont, on the 26th of October 1742. His father, who was a teacher, instructed him in mathematics and land-surveying. While he was engaged in measuring a tower by a geometrical method, the duc de la Rochefoucauld met him and was so taken by the lad’s intelligence that he gave him a bursary in the college of Harcourt. Dupuis made such rapid progress that, at the age of twenty-four, he was appointed professor of rhetoric at the college of Lisieux, where he had previously passed as a licentiate of theology. In his hours of leisure he studied law, and in 1770 he abandoned the clerical career and became an advocate. Two university discourses which he delivered in Latin were printed, and laid the foundation of his literary fame. His chief attention, however, was devoted to mathematics, the object of his early studies; and for some years he attended the astronomical lectures of Lalande, with whom he formed an intimate friendship. In 1778 he constructed a telegraph on the principle suggested by Guillaume Amontons (q.v.), and employed it in keeping up a correspondence with his friend Jean Fortin in the neighbouring village of Bagneux, until the Revolution made it necessary to destroy his machine to avoid suspicion. About the same time Dupuis formed his theory as to the origin of the Greek months. He endeavoured to account for the want of any resemblance between the groups of stars and the names by which they are known, by supposing that the zodiac was, for the people who invented it, a sort of calendar at once astronomical and rural, and that the figures chosen for the constellations were such as would naturally suggest the agricultural operations of the season. It seemed only necessary, therefore, to discover the clime and the period in which the constellation of Capricorn must have arisen with the sun on the day of the summer solstice, and the vernal equinox must have occurred under Libra. It appeared to Dupuis that this clime was Upper Egypt, and that the perfect correspondence between the signs and their significations had existed in that country at a period of between fifteen and sixteen thousand years before the present time; that it had existed only there; and that this harmony had been disturbed by the effect of the precession of the equinoxes. He therefore ascribed the invention of the signs of the zodiac to the people who then inhabited Upper Egypt or Ethiopia. This was the basis on which Dupuis established his mythological system, and endeavoured to explain fabulous history and the whole system of the theogony and theology of the ancients. Dupuis published several detached parts of his system in the Journal des savants for 1777 and 1781. These he afterwards collected and published, first in Lalande’s Astronomy, and then in a separate volume in 4to, 1781, under the title of Mémoire sur l’origine des constellations et sur l’explication de la fable par l’astronomie. The theory propounded in this memoir was refuted by J. S. Bailly in his Histoire de l’astronomie, but, at the same time, with a just acknowledgment of the erudition and ingenuity exhibited by the author.
Condorcet proposed Dupuis to Frederick the Great of Prussia as a fit person to succeed Thiébault in the professorship of literature at Berlin; and Dupuis had accepted the invitation, when the death of the king cancelled the engagement. The chair of humanity in the College of France having at the same time become vacant, it was conferred on Dupuis; and in 1788 he became a member of the Academy of Inscriptions. He now resigned his professorship at Lisieux, and was appointed by the administrators of the department of Paris one of the four commissioners of public instruction. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary troubles Dupuis sought safety at Évreux; and, having been chosen a member of the National Convention by the department of Seine-et-Oise, he distinguished himself by his moderation. In the third year of the republic he was elected secretary to the Assembly, and in the fourth he was chosen a member of the Council of Five Hundred. After Bonaparte’s coup d’état of the 18th Brumaire he was elected by the department of Seine-et-Oise a member of the Legislative Body, of which he became the president. He was proposed as a candidate for the senate, but resolved to abandon politics, devoting himself during the rest of his life to his favourite studies.
In 1795 he published the work by which he is best known, entitled Origine de tous les cultes, ou la religion universelle (3 vols. 4to, with an atlas, or 12 vols. 12mo). This work, of which an edition revised by P. R. Auguis was published in 1822 (10th ed., 1835-1836), became the subject of much bitter controversy, and the theory it propounded as to the origin of mythology in Upper Egypt led to the expedition organized by Napoleon for the exploration of that country. In 1798 Dupuis published an abridgment of his work in one volume 8vo, which met with no better success than the original. Another abridgment of the same work, executed upon a much more methodical plan, was published by M. de Tracy. The other works of Dupuis consist of two memoirs on the Pelasgi, inserted in the Memoirs of the Institute; a memoir “On the Zodiac of Tentyra,” published in the Revue philosophique for May 1806; and a Mémoire explicatif du zodiaque chronologique et mythologique, published the same year, in one volume 4to. He died on the 29th of September 1809.