Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Charles Victor de Bonstetten

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BONSTETTEN, Charles Victor de, was born at Bern in 1745, of a noble and ancient family. He received the elements of his education in his native town, and at fourteen was sent to Yverdun, and soon after to Geneva. There he imbibed many revolutionary doctrines both in religion and politics, which ill fitted him for a career as a Bernese senator of the traditional type; and his father, alarmed at the tone of his son's letters, peremptorily ordered him to return home—a command which the young man, albeit he would acknowledge no authority but reason, was obliged to obey. The change, however, was worse than useless; for the dulness of Bern so preyed upon his mind that he made an attempt on his life, which was frustrated by the somewhat curious accident of a ray of the moon attracting his attention when about to discharge the pistol. His father seeing his condition, sent him to Leyden to finish his studies; but as the climate of the place disagreed with him, he was allowed to exchange it for England, which he reached in 1769. The facility with which he gathered friends around him, which distinguished him, perhaps, as much as anything else, made his stay in England not the least happy period of his life. He went home by way of Paris, where he was introduced to much of the best literary society in France, but on his return he found that the mournful duty awaited him of nursing his father in his last illness. Immediately after his father's death he again left home and spent a considerable time in Italy, travelling as far south as Naples. Time and experience had done much to alter the character of Bonstetten since the days of his wild theorizings at Geneva. No longer a Republican, but still a Liberal, he was daily recognizing with greater clearness that the watchwords of revolution meant anything but law and order. On returning to Bern he became a member of the avoyer's council, and soon after was appointed magistrate at Gessenay. Thence he was removed in 1787 to Nyon in the Pays de Vaud, a place attractive to him from its proximity to the intellectual life and society of Geneva and Lausanne, but in other respects unsuitable; for the Pays de Vaud, as well from its nearness to France and to Geneva, as from the weight of the Bernese yoke, was nearly ripe for revolt, and Bonstetten was, as a magistrate, trusted neither by his revolutionary friends and former allies, nor by his fellow-rulers in the government of Bern. He firmly declared that he should stand by his order, a declaration that was not without good effects; but in 1792, when Geneva was threatened by the army of the Convention, he took certain steps to avert the danger, which, as he had not received a military training, were not very judicious. This increased the suspicion which the Bernese Government felt towards him; and, in consequence, he was permitted to exchange his office for one on the Ticino, where he remained until 1797, when political troubles and the French armies compelled him to leave his native country. At the solicitation of Madame Brün he at first repaired to Copenhagen, but he finally determined to settle at Geneva, which proved to be his home for the rest of his life. There, as of old, he enjoyed the society of many distinguished persons; but if this last half of his life is the most brilliant, it is also the least eventful. He died in February 1832.

As a writer Bonstetten cannot be said to occupy a very high place. His works, indeed, show a great power of observation, and an extensive insight into human character; but as a psychologist he is deficient in method, exactness, and depth; and his style, like his thought, wants point and clearness. In psychology he occupies an eclectic position, and urges the necessity of making use of internal observation in the study of mind. It is, however, in his social character, as a conversationalist, and as the friend, often the intimate companion, of many of the leaders of thought and action during his long life, that Bonstetten will be best remembered. The following are the titles of his chief works:—Recherches sur la nature et les lois de l'imagination, 1807; Etudes d'homme, ou Recherches sur les facultés de sentir et de penser, 1821; Sur l'éducation nationale, 1802; Pensées sur divers objets de bien public, 1815; L'Homme du Midi et l'Homme du Nord, 1814.