Pierre Simon Ballanche (1776-1847), French philosopher of the theocratic school, was born at Lyons. Naturally delicate and highly-strung, he was profoundly stirred by the horrors of the siege of Lyons. His sensitiveness received a second blow in an unsuccessful love affair, which, however, he bore with fortitude. He devoted himself to an examination of the nature of society and his work brought him into connexion with the literary circle of Châteaubriand and Madame Récamier. His great work is the Palingénésie, which is divided into three parts, L'orphée, La formule, La ville des expiations. The first deals with the prehistoric period of the world, before the rise of religion; the second was to be an endeavour to deduce a universal law from known historical facts; the third to sketch the ultimate state of perfection to which humanity is moving. Of these the first alone was completed, but fragments of the other parts exist. Perhaps the most valuable part, of the work is the general introduction.
His last work, Vision d'Hébal, intended as part of the Ville des expiations, describes the chief of a Scottish clan, who, gifted with second sight, gives semi-prophetic utterances as to the course of world-history. In 1841 Ballanche was elected a member of the French Academy. He died in 1847. A collected edition of his works in nine volumes was begun in 1830. Four only appeared. In 1833 a second edition in six volumes was published. As a man, Ballanche was warm-hearted and enthusiastic, but he was endowed with a too-vivid imagination and his strange thoughts are expressed in equally bizarre language. To give a connected account of his views is difficult; their full development should be studied in relation with his life-history, the stages of which are curiously parallel to his theory of the progress of man, the fall, the trial, the perfection.
As has been said, he belonged to the theocratic school, who, in opposition to the rationalism of the preceding age, emphasized the principle of authority, placing revelation above individual reason, order above freedom and progress. But Ballanche made a sincere endeavour to unite in one system what was valuable in the opposed modes of thinking. He held with the theocratists that individualism was an impracticable view; man, according to him, exists only in and through society. He agreed further with them that the origin of society was to be explained, not by human desire and efforts, but by a direct revelation from God. Lastly, with De Bonald, he reduced the problem of the origin of society to that of the origin of language, and held that language was a divine gift. But at this point he parts company with the theocratists, and in this very revelation of language finds a germ of progress. Originally, in the primitive state of man, speech and thought are identical; but gradually the two separate; language is no longer only spoken, it is also written and finally is printed. Thus the primitive unity is broken up; the original social order which co-existed with, and was dependent on it, breaks up also.
New institutions spring up, upon which thought acts, and in and through which it even draws nearer to a final unity, a palingenesis. The volition of primitive man was one with that of God but it becomes broken up into separate volitions which oppose themselves to the divine will, and through the oppositions and trials of this world work onward to a second and completer harmony. Humanity, therefore, passes through three stages, the fall from perfection, the period of trial and the final re-birth or return to perfection. In the dim records of mythical times may be traced the obscure outlines of primitive society and of its fall. Actual history exhibits the conflict of two great principles, which may be said to be realized in the patricians and plebeians of Rome. Such a distinction of caste is regarded by Ballanche as the original state of historical society; and history, as a whole, he considers to have followed the same course as that taken by the Roman plebs in its attempts to attain equality with the patriciate. On the events through which the human race is to achieve its destiny Ballanche gives few intelligible hints. The sudden flash which disclosed to the eyes of Hébal the whole epic of humanity cannot be reproduced in language trammelled by time and space.
Scattered throughout the works of Ballanche are many valuable ideas on the connexion of events which makes possible a philosophy of history; but his own theory does not seem likely to find more favour than it has already received. Besides the Palingénésie, Ballanche wrote a poem on the siege at Lyons (unpublished); Du sentiment considéré dans la littérature et dans les arts (1801); Antigone, a prose poem (1814); Essai sur les institutions sociales (1818), intended as a prelude to his great work; Le Vieillard et le jeune homme, a philosophical dialogue (1819); L'Homme sans nom, a novel (1820).
See Ampère, Ballanche (Paris, 1848); Ste Beuve, Portraits contemporains, vol. ii.; Damiron, Philosophie de XIXe siècle; Eugène Blum, "Essai sur Ballanche" (in Critique Philos., 30th June 1887); Gaston Frainnet, Essai sur la philos de P. S. Ballanche (Paris, 1903, containing unpublished letters, portraits and full bibliography); C. Huit, La Vie et les oeuvres de Ballanche (1904). An admirable analysis of the works composing the Palingénésie is given by Barchou, Revue des deux mondes (1831), t. 2. pp. 410-456.