Prévost, Pierre (* 1751.03.03 † 1839.04.08)
Basic Overview Data
Academy (University) of Geneva
Biographical and Intellectual Profile
Born on 3 March 1751, Pierre Prevost studied theology and law at the Academy of Geneva. He passed the official law exam in Geneva in 1773 and was accredited as lawyer. From 1774-1780, he was private tutor in Holland and France. He then was professor of philosophy at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin (Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften) , professor of belles-lettres and later of philosophie rationelle at the Academy of Geneva. He is mainly known for his contributions to natural philosophy (for example to the wave theory of heat) and for his French translations of works of Adam Smith, Dugald Steward and Thomas Robert Malthus. He also held political offices: elected to the Council of Two Hundred (1786), then to the Assemblée Nationale (1793), he signed the treaty of union between Geneva and France in 1798. He died on 8 April 1839.
Comment on main natural law works:
In light of Prevost's career as homme de lettres and as philosopher, it is rather surprising that he also lectured on natural law. As one can gather from two manuscripts kept in the archives, he must have studied Burlamaqui's natural law course in 1771, when he was still a student. The lecture notes of one of his own students, Georges Du Pan, suggest that Prevost taught a private course on natural and politic law in Geneva in 1773-74, just before he took up the position as private tutor in Holland. The course exhibits the usual structure of a natural law course in the French tradition of Pufendorf's De officio. In the preface, Prevost mentions Grotius, Pufendorf and Barbeyrac as main authors in the field and praises Burlamaqui for having liberated the science of natural law from any uncalled-for erudition. He also observes that for dealing with natural law good knowledge in all branches of metaphysics and above all in psychology is requested, and that these sciences were not yet sufficiently developed at the time Burlamaqui lectured on natural law. For this reason, he would refer to one of Burlamaqui's disciples, the lawyer Beaumont, who further developed the latter's doctrine on a more philosophical path. Although Prevost observes that Beaumont's work of 1754 would not have been published, he must have had in mind Etienne de Beaumont's Principes de philosophie morale, published in Geneva in 1754. This book only deals with the very first part of the science of natural law, that is, with the nature of man and the corresponding laws. It ends with the sanction of natural law and confirms, in this context, the immortality of the soul. The original element in de Beaumont's treatise is the consideration of the "rapports" men have among each other. One can surmise that the author took this idea over from Montesquieu's De l'esprit de lois. Prevost developed the first part of his lecture on the basis of de Beaumont's treatise and referred to Burlamaqui and others in the remaining parts of the lecture.
Comment on profile’s conception of natural law:
Prevost's lecture attests the lasting impact of Burlamaqui's natural law in his native city Geneva, at least in the circle of patrician families. At the same time, it shows the interest in a more up-to-date and practically oriented science of natural law.
Titles, Memberships and Other Relevant Roles
[Pierre Prevost], Adnotationes ad Jus Naturale Burlamaqui, notes de lecture autographe, October 1771, [in Latin and French], Bibliothèque de Genève (BGE), Ms. Suppl. 1064, env. 1, f. 1-4
Du Pan, Georges, Cours de Droit Naturel extrait des leçons de monsieur l'avocat Prevost [... suivi de] Principes du Droit Politique extraits des leçons de monsieur l'Avocat Prevost, Bibliothèque de Genève (BGE), Ms. Cours univ. 389: Digital Version