Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Pierre Jean George Cabanis

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CABANIS, Pierre Jean George (1757–1808), a distinguished French physiologist, was born at Cosnac in 1757. His father was a lawyer of eminence, and chief magistrate of a district in the Lower Limousin. His education was at first entrusted to the priests, but at the age of ten he was transferred to the College of Brives. He showed great aptitude for study, but his independence of spirit was so excessive that he was almost constantly in a state of rebellion against his teachers, and was finally dismissed from the school. After a year's residence at home he was taken to Paris by his father and left to carry on his studies at his own discretion. He attended classes at the university, and read with particular delight Locke's essay On the Human Understanding. Two years had been spent in close and assiduous study, when in 1773 he received the offer of the post of secretary to the prince-bishop of Wilna. He accepted it and passed two years at Warsaw, viewing with disgust and contempt the petty intrigues and jealousies that accompanied the first partition of Poland.

On his return to Paris he devoted himself mainly to poetry, for which he had always a strong inclination. He was intimate with the poet Roucher, and was introduced by Turgot to the society of Mme. Helvetius, where he met such men as Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Condillac, Franklin, and Jefferson. About this time he ventured to send in to the Academy a translation of the passage from Homer proposed for their prize, and though his attempt passed without notice, he received so much encouragement from his friends that he contemplated translating the whole of the Iliad.

At the earnest desire of his father he relinquished these pleasant literary employments, and resolved to engage in some settled profession. After deliberation he fixed upon that of medicine, and began his studies under Dubreuil. In 1789 his Observations sur les Hôpitaux procured him an appointment as administrator of hospitals in Paris. From inclination and from weak health he never engaged much in practice as a physician. His interest lay entirely in the deeper problems of medical and physiological science, and these he investigated with unusual closeness and minuteness. Nor had he quite given up his fondness for literary society; his residence at Auteuil on the outskirts of the capital enabled him still to continue his intercourse with Diderot, Condillac, and others. He had even the pleasure of reading to Voltaire part of his translation of the Iliad, and of receiving warm commendation from the veteran critic. But he had long ceased to occupy himself with that work; and in his Serment d'un Médecin, which appeared in 1789, he bade a formal adieu to poetry.

In the great political struggle of the time Cabanis espoused with enthusiasm the cause of the Revolution, to which he was attached from principle, and of which the opening prospects were congenial to his active and ardent mind. During the two last years of Mirabeau's life he was intimately connected with that extraordinary man, who had the singular art of pressing into his service the pens of all his literary friends. Cabanis united himself with this disinterested association of labourers, and contributed the Travail sur l'Education Publique, a tract which was found among the papers of Mirabeau at his death, and was edited by the real author soon afterwards in 1791. During the illness which terminated his life, Mirabeau confided himself entirely to the professional skill of Cabanis. Of the progress of the malady, and the circumstances attending the death of Mirabeau, Cabanis drew up a very detailed narrative, which is not calculated, however, to impress us with any high idea of his skill in the treatment of an acute inflammatory disease. Condorcet was another distinguished character with whom Cabanis was intimate, and whom he endeavoured, though without success, to save from the destiny in which he afterwards became involved by the calamitous events of the Revolution. Shortly after this he married Charlotte Grouchy, sister to Madame Condorcet and to General Grouchy, a union which was a great source of happiness to him during the remainder of his life.

After the subversion of the Government of the terrorists, Cabanis, on the establishment of central schools, was named professor of Hygiene in the medical schools of the metropolis. Next year he was chosen member of the National Institute, and was subsequently appoint 3d clinical professor. He was afterwards member of the Council of Five Hundred, and then of the Conservative Senate. The dissolution of the Directory was the result of a motion which he made to that effect. But his political career was not of long continuance. A foe to tyranny in every shape, he was decidedly hostile to the policy of Bonaparte, and constantly rejected every solicitation to accept a place under his Government.

For some years before his death his health became gradually more impaired, and he retired from the laborious duties of his profession, spending the greatest part of his time at the chateau of his father-in-law at Meulan. Here he solaced himself with reading his favourite poets, and even had it in contemplation to resume that translation of the Iliad which had been the first effort of his youthful muse. The rest of his time was devoted to acts of kind ness and beneficence, especially towards the poor, who flocked from all parts to consult him on their complaints. Cabanis died May 5 1808, leaving a widow and a daughter.

A complete edition of Cabanis s works was begun in 1825, and five volumes were published. One of his minor works, Coup d &il stir les revolutions et les reforines de la medccin, has been translated into English. His principal work, Rapports du physique ct du moral de I hommi, consists in part of memoirs, read in 1796 and 1797 to the Institute, and printed among their Transactions. It is an admirable sketch of physiological psychology, and is replete with information. Psychology is with Cabanis directly linked on to biology, for sensibility, the fundamental fact, is the highest grade of life and the lowest of intelligence. All the intellectual processes are evolved from sensibility, and sensibility itself is a property of the nervous system. The soul is not an entity, but a faculty; thought is the function of the brain. Jiut as the stomach and intestines receive food and digest it, so the brain receives impressions, digests them, and has as its organic secretion, thought. Alongside of this harsh miterialism Cabanis held another principle, the application of which altogether changes his theory. He belonged in biology to the school of Stahl, the vitalist or animist, and in the posthumous work, Lettre sur les causes premieres, the consequences ot this opinion became clear. Life is something added to the organism ; over and above the universally diffused sensibility there is some living and productive power to which we give the name of Nature. But it is impossible to avoid ascribing to this power both intelli gence and will. In us this living power constitutes the ego, which is truly immaterial and immortal. These results Cabanis did not think out of harmony with his earlier theory, and it is possible that a point of view may be attained whence both appear justified. The Lottra was not published till 1824, when it appeared with notes by F. BJrard.