Jean-Baptiste-René Robinet, the French littérateur and speculative philosopher, was born in Rennes. He started to become a Jesuit, but withdrew from the order and went to Holland to devote himself to letters.
There he published his principal work, De la nature (4 vols., Amsterdam, 1761–1768), and in 1768, Considérations philosophiques de la gradation naturelle des formes de l'être, ou les Essais de la nature qui apprend à faire l'homme (2 vols., Amsterdam and Paris).
He eked out an existence by hackwork, translating English novels and giving English lessons. He became embroiled with Voltaire by selling the manuscript of Lettres secrétes for publication without Voltaire's permission. He went to Paris in 1778 when he was made royal censor and secretary to one of the king's ministers.
During the Revolution he returned to Rennes, where he lived quietly. In addition to many minor pieces, he published a translation of David Hume (Essais de morale, ou Recherches sur les principes de la morale, 1760) and edited a vast compilation, Dictionnaire universel des sciences morale, économique, politique et diplomatique (London, 1777–1783, 30 vols. in quarto).
De la nature caused some stir because of its strange ideas. When it was attributed to François-Vincent Toussaint, Denis Diderot, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Robinet admitted his authorship in a letter to the Journal des savants.
The many quotations in De la nature testify to its author's vast readings; his thinking, however, is original. It is characterized by a curious mélange of mysticism and scientific spirit. De la nature touches on many subjects, but its announced theme is a modern version of Manichaeanism: There is an equilibrium of good and evil in all substances and their modes.
Robinet's purpose is to exculpate God and establish the necessity of evil. Embracing Benedict de Spinoza's principle that all possibles exist, he attacks Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by asserting that, therefore, there can be only one world and that God had no choice in the matter. "God no more had the power to modify the nature of the world than his own nature."
Robinet argued that behind the apparently random distribution of pleasure and suffering in the world there lies a fluid but fixed order. "The physical economy is such that good and evil are engendered with equal fecundity. They flow naturally from the depth of essences."
God can in no way remove evil, for omnipotence does not extend to impossibles or contradictions. The suppression of evil implies contradiction, for good without evil would be infinite. The total quantity of good and evil is at every moment equal.
Thus the harmony of the world is always the same, and progress is a myth or an illusion. Despite this equilibrium, God is good and his justice is seen in his not having favored one species at the expense of the others; for man is not king of the universe, as Buffon had claimed, and nothing has been created especially for his use.
For human beings, life is a balance of happiness and unhappiness, and they should therefore console themselves by the enjoyment of pleasures. Moderation is the best path in all areas of life. The lower classes must be kept in ignorance, for their own benefit and that of the state; slavery is justifiable. Human nature being what it is, equality and fraternity are impossible.
The universe, for Robinet, is animate. All forms of being, including planets and stars, have the power of reproduction. The individual is unimportant, an instrument nature uses for its procreative purposes; only the species endures.
Robinet speculates that nature has developed variations on a single prototype; from stones to men, there is a natural gradation of beings. The "prototype" is "a germ which tends naturally to develop itself.... Its energy cannot be repressed.... The germ develops, then, and each degree of development gives a variation of the prototype, a new combination of the original plan."
The only difference between stone, plant, and animal is "the measure in which they participate in that essence.... A stone, an oak, a horse are not men; but they can be regarded as more or less rough types in their relation to a single primitive design." We must consider the succession of individuals "as so many steps of being [advancing] toward humanity."
Robinet draws close to an evolutionary hypothesis in his concept of nature as experimenting and as developing toward greater complexity; he also considers all species as related. It is not a true evolutionism, however, inasmuch as each trial in the ascending scale of complexity is made de novo from the relatively unorganized stage of the original prototype.
Species do not themselves have a history but are fixed once they are spewed forth. Robinet also pictures a biological struggle for existence and a natural balance, but does not relate these to transformism. Robinet's work influenced both Johann Gottfried Herder and G. W. F. Hegel and was considered of interest in the former Soviet Union.