Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coste, Pierre

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COSTE, PIERRE (1668–1747), translator, was born in October 1668 in France, at the town of Uzès, where his father was a substantial cloth and wool merchant. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes seems to have driven him from France at an early age, and he was accepted for the protestant ministry at a synod held at Amsterdam in 1690. He preached, however, but seldom, and soon devoted himself exclusively to literature, translating works from Latin, Italian, and English, and writing what remains his most important original contribution to literature, a life of Condé.

Coste had translated Locke's ‘Thoughts concerning Education’ and ‘Reasonableness of Christianity,’ and was in 1697 translating the ‘Essay concerning Human Understanding,’ when he was made tutor to Frank Masham, the son of Lady Masham, Cudworth's daughter. Locke then resided with Sir Francis and Lady Masham at Oates in Essex, and Coste became intimate with the philosopher, who superintended the translation of the ‘Essay’ most minutely, even ‘correcting the original in several passages,’ according to Le Clerc, ‘in order to make them plainer and more easy of translation.’ When Locke died in 1704, Coste wrote a kind of character or ‘éloge’ of him, which was published in Bayle's paper, the ‘République des Lettres,’ for February 1705. It was republished in a ‘Collection of several pieces of Mr. John Locke’ (1720), and in the second edition of Coste's translation of the ‘Essay’ (Amsterdam, 1729). Des Maizeaux. the editor of the ‘Collection of Several Pieces,’ had inserted Coste's ‘character’ in that work ‘at the request of some of the friends’ of ‘Mr. Locke,’ who ‘judge its publication necessary,’ inasmuch as Coste, ‘in several writings, and in his common conversation, has aspersed and blackened the memory of ‘Mr. Locke.’ No public ‘aspersion’ is traceable, and it seems more than probable that the republication of the ‘character’ in the second edition of the translation of the ‘Essay’ was Coste's reply to Des Maizeaux's challenge. At the same time there seems scarcely room for doubt that Coste thought he had some grievance against Locke; for Coste's biographer observes: ‘that learned man did not deal very generously by Coste, which, however, did not prevent the latter from publishing a fine and just eulogium of him after his death.’

When Locke died, Coste was successively tutor to several young noblemen and gentlemen, and, among others, to the son of Lord Shaftesbury, the philosopher, with whom he was on terms of considerable intimacy. Meanwhile, and afterwards, his pen was busy, not with much original work, but with translations from Lady Masham, Lord Shaftesbury, Newton (the ‘Optics’), and with annotated editions of La Fontaine, Montaigne, &c. His original work is indeed in no sense remarkable; but his translations were of durable service, and helped to introduce English thought to the French of the eighteenth century. It was through them that Bayle, who did not know English, became acquainted with Locke's ‘Human Understanding.’ The translations of Locke's works have been republished many times, that of the ‘Essay on Education’ as lately as 1882.

Coste, who appears to have had some knowledge of science, was made a foreign member of the Royal Society. His name appears for the first time in the list of members for 1743. He died in Paris on 24 Jan. 1747. It is stated that there was a monument to his memory in old Paddington Church, but no trace can be found of that monument in the existing edifice.

[A short biographical notice prefixed to the third edition of the Life of Condé (the Hague, 1748). This book contains what seems to be a complete list of Coste's works, and a portrait. References to Coste will also be found in Mr. Fox Bourne's Life of John Locke (1876); in the Lettres choisies de M. Bayle (Rotterdam, 1714), and in the notes to the article on Locke in the first edition of the Biog. Brit.]

F. T. M.