By Sonjay Singh ’15
and Duncan Grimm ’15
Last Tuesday, Feb.7, Kathleen Kete, Associate Professor of European History, gave an insightful presentation about Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Genevan alpinist and author famous both for his groundbreaking climbs in the alps as well as for his breakthroughs in physics.
In the 18th century, the British were undertaking extensive mapping expeditions and climbers such as Sir Edmund Hillary had begun exploring transcendence through climbing. These climbers believed that by reaching a high point in the terrain, one could also reach a high point in spirit. He adopted ideas from the Reformation and believed that since God is everywhere, he can be reached anywhere. This inspired Saussure to look at his expeditions not only in a scientific light, but also in a spiritual one. In his book The Voyage he used his viewpoint from the mountain as a metaphor for being able to see all the cultural and geological connections of the world laid out in front of him. Saussure believed that the political conflicts that created different nations were essentially immaterial; he referred to them as the “speck” they appear to be from a mountaintop.
In conjunction with, or perhaps as a result of his transcendent views, Saussure was also a major player in the Swiss revolution. Although originally supporting oligarchy, Saussure eventually switched his support to democracy, as a result of his understanding of how little differences in class truly were on a grand scale. He believed that all people had a right to education and championed defense of the masses and equal rights, eventually becoming what Kete calls a “lightning rod for the revolutionary spirit” and a close friend of Ben Franklin. Unfortunately, he died of a stroke in his 50’s and was never able to complete his theories, but he was an important starting point for many later political philosophers.
As well as for his political theory, Saussure was also known for his scientific discovery. He was the first person to map the topography of Chamonix and Zermatt, now popular tourist destinations,and took barometric observations of those and many other alpine locations. He also worked in geology and his early work in fossil theory helped form the basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution and his studies led to both a mineral (Saussurite) and a genus of plants, called Saussurea. His image was also featured on the 20 Swiss franc piece because of his accomplishments.