NICOLAS FRERET (1688-1749), French scholar, was born at Paris on the 15th of February 1688. His father was procureur to the parlement of Paris, and destined him to the profession of the law. His first tutors were the historian Charles Rollin and Father Desmolets (1677-1760). Amongst his early studies history, chronology and mythology held a prominent place. To please his father he studied law and began to practise at the bar; but the force of his genius soon carried him into his own path. At nineteen he was admitted to a society of learned men before whom he read memoirs on the religion of the Greeks, on the worship of Bacchus, of Ceres, of Cybele and of Apollo. He was hardly twenty-six years of age when he was admitted as pupil to the Academy of Inscriptions. One of the first memoirs which he read was a learned and critical discourse, Sur l'origine des Francs (1714). He maintained that the Franks were a league of South German tribes and not, according to the legend then almost universally received, a nation of free men deriving from Greece or Troy, who had kept their civilization intact in the heart of a barbarous country. These sensible views excited great indignation in the Abbe Vertot, who denounced Freret to the government as a libeller of the monarchy. A lettre de cachet was issued, and Freret was sent to the Bastille. During his three months of confinement he devoted himself to the study of the works of Xenophon, the fruit of which appeared later in his memoir on the Cyropaedia. From the time of his liberation in March 1715 his life was uneventful. In January 1716 he was received associate of the Academy of Inscriptions, and in December 1742 he was made perpetual secretary. He worked without intermission for the interests of the Academy, not even claiming any property in his own writings, which were printed in the Recueil de l'academie des inscriptions. The list of his memoirs, many of them posthumous, occupies four columns of the Nouvelle Biographie generale. They treat of history, chronology, geography, mythology and religion. Throughout he appears as the keen, learned and original critic; examining into the comparative value of documents, distinguishing between the mythical and the historical, and separating traditions with an historical element from pure fables and legends. He rejected the extreme pretensions of the chronology of Egypt and China, and at the same time controverted the scheme of Sir Isaac Newton as too limited. He investigated the mythology not only of the Greeks, but of the Celts, the Germans, the Chinese and the Indians. He was a vigorous opponent of the theory that the stories of mythology may be referred to historic originals. He also suggested that Greek mythology owed much to the Phoenicians and Egyptians. He was one of the first scholars of Europe to undertake the study of the Chinese language; and in this he was engaged at the time of his committal to the Bastille. He died in Paris on the 8th of March 1749.
Long after his death several works of an atheistic character were falsely attributed to him, and were long believed to be his. The most famous of these spurious works are the Examen critique des apologistes de la religion chretienne (1766), and the LettredeThrasybule a Leucippe, printed in London about 1768. A very defective and inaccurate edition of Freret's works was published in 1796-1799. A new and complete edition was projected by Champollion-Figeac, but of this only the first volume appeared (1825). It contains a life of Freret. His manuscripts, after passing through many hands, were deposited in the library of the Institute. The best account of his works is "Examen critique des ouvrages composes par Freret" in C. A. Walckenaer's Recueil des notices, &c. (1841-1850). See also Querard's France litteraire.
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