Nicolas Boulanger

The name Nicolas Boulanger is not found in most encyclopedias and is known only to a few scholars. He was a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot, illustrious names in the history of French letters. He lived only thirty-seven years, from 1722 to 1759. I came across the name very late in my research,1 actually in 1963 and read in his works a few years later. I found that in some aspects he was not only my predecessor, but also a predecessor of Jung and Freud, actually solving the problem Freud and Jung left unsolved. Namely, he understood that the irrational behavior of the human species together with all the heritage of religious rites and much of the political structure of his own and other ages, were engendered in cataclysmic experiences of the past, in the Deluge, or deluges, of which there could have been more than one.

In Boulanger’s time geology as a science was in a prenatal stage. But as a road engineer he made observations in the valley of the Marne that made him draw conclusions which he substantiated in reading the then existing books of folklore and sacred writings; also classical writers were available to Boulanger, either in originals or in translation. He was convinced that the Deluge was a global occurrence, but this was no innovation on his part, because it was an accepted notion in his time: actually, he was the author of the entry “Deluge” in the great French Encyclopédie, edited by Diderot. In his books he referred sometimes to the Deluge as to a singular occurrence, but then he spoke of multiple cataclysms. He seems not to have had an idea from where the water of the universal flood could come, and did not show awareness of any extraterrestrial agent as causing the world-wide calamity. Thus Saturn does not figure as connected with the upheaval. Human beings witnessed the catastrophes and the human race suffered one or several traumatic experiences; the scars the human psyche sustained are buried deep in the souls of all of us.

“We still tremble today as a consequence of the deluge and our institutions still pass on to us fears and the apocalyptic ideas of our first fathers. Terror survives from race to race... The child will dread in perpetuity what frightens his ancestors.”2

Boulanger’s works were published after his premature death by Diderot, but his geological observations were not included in the printed volumes; extracts from these observations and selections appear in a recent work on Boulanger,3 and do not impress as compelling. But one has to keep in mind that the age of geology as a science did not start but after Boulanger’s death. In the broad realization that our society as well as the savage society still lived in the shadow of the traumatic experience of the past, Boulanger not only preceded Jung and Freud but also spelled out the nature of the traumatic experience or experiences that caused the memory of them to submerge in the racial mind.. Thus he not only could claim priority in the understanding of the phenomenon of racial memory and collective amnesia, but also could claim the fact, unrecognized by Freud, that catastrophic events served as the trauma. Neither Jung nor Freud knew anything of Boulanger, and his name is not found in the psychological literature. Not so much his claim that catastrophic events took place in the past deserves attention—such view was already found in the writings of William Whiston; again, Buffon, Boulanger’s contemporary thought that a massive comet hit the sun and caused the origin of the planetary family; and after Boulanger the scientific thought of the eighteenth century and of the first half of the nineteenth again and again sought for the cause of the global upheavals. However Boulanger’s distinction lay in his contemplating the consequences of such upheavals for the human psyche.


  1. First in the paper by Livio Stecchini, “The Inconstant Heavens,” included in the September 1963 issue of the American Behavioral Scientist (Vol. VII, no. 1, p. 30).

  2. L’antiquité devoilée par ses usages, ou examen critique des principales opinions cérémonies et institutions religieuses et politiques Des différens peuples de la terre (Amsterdam, 1766).

  3. John Hampton; Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger et la science de son temps (Geneva-Lille, 1955).