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Ruins of Empires

Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-Francois Volney, and the Separation of Church and State

METEMPSYCHOSIS. FEW PEOPLE ARE FAMILIAR WITH the word. But everyone knows what it means. It’s the theory of the transmigration of the soul. When you die, your spirit, your soul continues to live. You pass on to another body, another world, another life. That’s the theory, anyway.

In 1791, however, a French philosopher and politician, Constantin-Francois Volney, made a daring claim: Metempsychosis is a myth born in the infancy of our species, a form of mind control used by governments and religions to make people believe there’s an invisible being watching their every move, judging them when they die.

Volney published his heretical theory in a book titled The Ruins, or Mediations on the Revolutions of Empires, a kind of post-Enlightenment review of human history. In the first part of the book, Volney lays out a single general principle that predicts whether a nation will rise or fall. In the second part, Volney investigates the origin of world religions and concludes that humanity will achieve lasting peace only by adopting a complete separation of church and state.

Volney’s Ruins: Title page and Frontispiece Portrait.

Volney’s Ruins was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic, making its author either a hero or a villain, depending on the reader’s point of view. Among admirers of the book was Thomas Jefferson, who met Volney in Paris in the early days of the French Revolution. The two were introduced by Benjamin Franklin, the outbound U.S. ambassador to France whom Jefferson was there to replace. Jefferson saw the book’s general principle— empires rise if government allows enlightened self-interest to flourish—as a description of the Whig-inspired model of limited government he favored.

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CONFIDENCE SCAMS EXCERPT: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time; ARTICLES: America’s Stonehenge: Did Highly Developed Europeans Build a Sophisticated Astronomical and Religious Monument on the American East Coast More than 3000 Years Ago?; Is It ET?: Is Star KIC 8462852 a Sign of an Extraterrestrial Civilization?; Hurricane Strikes as Divine Retribution—An Empirical Test; Ruins of Empires: Thomas Jefferson, Constantin-Francois Volney, and the Separation of Church and State; Winning the Vaccination War in California; Prophet Without Honor: Francis Galton and the Birth of Behavioral Genetics; When Cops Kill: An Insider’s Perspective; Guns and Games: The Relationship Between Violent Video Games and Gun Crimes in America; More on Morals: On Science and Morality (1) Deontologists are Covert Consequentialists, (2) Expanding Science to Include Morals, (3) Clarifying Confusions; Alligators in the Sewers! COLUMNS: Who’s Crazy Now?: DSM-5 and the Classification of Mental Disorders; The Delicate Dilemma of Defining Rape; REVIEW: Red Team: How To Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko reviewed by David Priess; JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Haunted Houses; Earliest Ghost Stories; Ghostly Evolution