La Mettrie, Julien Offray De
La Mettrie, Julien Offray De
(b. Saint-Malo, France, 19 December 1709; d. Berlin, Germany, 11 November 1751)
medicine, physiology, psychology, philosophy of science.
The son of a prosperous textile merchant, La Mettrei studied medicine at the University of Paris from 1728 until 1733, when he transferred to Rheims to obtain the doctor’s degree. He completed his training after another year at Leiden under the renowned Hermann Boerhaave, whose influence on him was decisive. From 1734 on, La Mettrie practiced medicine in the Saint-Malo district. Toward the end of 1742, however, he left abruptly for Paris and soon thereafter embarked on the adventurous and harried career that lasted until his death. Between 1743 and 1746 he served as an army doctor in the War of the Austrian Succession. Meanwhile, his first philosophical work, Histoire naturelle de l’āme (1745), which expounded a materialistic theory of the “soul,” provoked a scandal and was officially condemned by the Paris Parlement. Despite this offense against orthodoxy, La Mettrie’s professional ability was apparently esteemed enough for him to be promoted to the post of medical inspector of the armies in the filed. But he imprudently turned, in La politique du médecin de Machiavel (1746), to ridiculing the incompetence, greed, and charlatanry of a gallery of prominent French physicians. This justified and successful attempt at medical satire was followed by La faculté vengée (1747) and his magnum opus in that vein, L'ouvrage de Pénélope, ou Machiavel en médecine (1748–1750).
La Mattrie’s combined attacks against religion and the medical profession made him so many powerful enemies that, in order to escape arrest and imprisonment, he exiled himself to Holland in 1747. But unable to avoid trouble for long, he published there his most notorious book, L’homme machine (1748), the outspoken materialism and atheism of which raised a storm of protest even among the relatively tolerant Dutch. Its author, now regarded by the public as the most daring and dangerous of the Philosophes, was forced to flee again, this time to the court of Frederick II of Prussia, where he was appointed a member of the Royal Academy of Sceiences, as well as reader and physician to the king. In this protected situation he continued to write tracts on scientific and philosophical subjects that shocked the conventional-minded. In particular his Discours sur le bonheur (1748), which denied that vice and virtue had any meaning within a deterministic view of human nature and, consequently, saw in remorse simply a morbid symptom to be got rid of, caused him (somewhat illogically) to be denounced as a debauched and cynical corrupter of morals. La Mettrie’s querulous and mocking temper embroiled him in constant polemics, often of a mystifying sort, with his various adversaries, the most notable of these being the physiologist Albrecht von Haller. Even his death became an occasion for controversy, when his detractors, advertising that he had died by an act of gluttony, represented this as proof of the practical hazards of materialism and of the certainly of God’s retribution.
La Mettrie’s main service to medicine was his advocacy and propagation of Boerhaave’s teaching. This he did by translating into French many of the master’s works, in some cases appending to them commentaries of his own. The following translations form the Boerhaavian corpus deserve mention: Systé sur les maladies vénériennes (Paris, 1735); Aphorismes sur la connaissanece et la cure des maladies (Rennes, 1738); Traité de la matiére médicale (Paris, 1739); Abrégé de la théorie chimique de la terre (Paris, 1741); and the monumental Institutions de médecine (Paris, 1743–1750), which included Haller’s lengthy and valuable notes. La Mettrie’s efforst to spread the lessons of Boerhaave had the positive result not only of proddint the rather sluggish medical science and practice in eighteenth-century France but also of bringing medical subject matter into the arena of philosophical discussion and intellectual history,. In this respect there were two aspects of Boerhaavian doctrine that the zeaous disciple was especially eager to have accredited by doctors and nondoctors alike. One was the emphasis on the empirical method and on clinical observation. The other was the aim of establishing medicine on as sound a theoretical basis as possible by linking it directly to anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and mechanics. La Mettrie thus became a leading expositor of the iatromechanistic philosophy of Boerhaave, to which he soon gave a ridical application quite unintended by his teacher.
It is regrettable that the Boerhaavian methodology did not play a more noticeable role in the four treatises, long since forgotten, that La Mettrie wrote on venereal disease, vertigo, dysentery, and asthma. His personal contribution to medicine remained on the theoretical rather than the practical plane. Nevertheless, in his Observations de médecine pratique (1743) he gave some indication of the clinical ideal acquired from his days at Leiden. In particular he insisted on the importance of performing autopsies in order to verify diagnoses.
L’homme machine, which marked a culminating phase in the rise of modern materialism, was not merely the work of a doctor turned philosopher; it outlined a medical philosophy in the absolute sense of the term, springing as it did from the assumption that reliable knowledge about man’s nature was forthcoming only from the facts and theories that the medical sciences—anatomy, physiology, biology, pathology—could furnish. The human being was for La Mettrie a highly complex “living machine” of unique design that only those skilled in the investigation of the body’s innermost secrets could hope eventually to explain (insofar, that is, as an explanation was possible, for the man-machine, rather than being a doctrinaire thesis, displayed heuristic and even skeptical features). Seen in historical perspective, such a position may be described as the final outcome both of the iatromechanistic tradition that had reached La Mettrie through Boerhaave and of the Cartesian automatist biology that had filtered down to him through numerious intermediaries who had already sought, in varying degrees, to extend its beastmachine concept to the study of human behavior.
The basic argument of L’homme machine was supported by different but complementary types of scientific evidence. La Mettrie cited many examples showing how particular psychological states derived from physical factors: illness, fatigue, hunger, diet, pregnancy, sexual stimulation, age, climate, and the use of drugs. Referring to data provided by comparative anatomy, he held that the great contrasts in the capabilities of the various animal species, including man himself, must be owing to the specific brain structure exhibited by each. He was astute enough to grasp, in relation to the man-machine idea, the theoretical value of the discoveries that Heller had just made concerning the irritable properties of muscle tissue. By generalizing the phenomenon of irritability, and combining it with related instances of reflex action, La Mettrie was able to picture the organism as a genuinely self-moving, inherently purposive mechanism. There were two distinguishable meanings present in this overall conception, even though its author would no doubt have regarded them as inseparable. On the primary level, the man-machine offered a strictly mechanistic interpretation of how living things are constituted and function; as such it served, in the eighteenth-century milieu, to express the counterpart of animistic or vitalistic theorizing in biology. On another and more original level, it claimed that all the mental faculties and processes in the human subject were products of the underlying bodily machine—more precisely, of its cerebral and neural components. In advancing this notion, La Mettrie was perhaps the earliest exponent of a school of psychology whose method of analysis would be consistently and rigorously physiological.
The technical documentation with which La Mettrie tried to prove his case was, to be sure, seriously limited by the knowledge then available concerning the life sciences. Even the term “machine,” as the used it, suggested no definite mechanical model that might permit one to differentiate animate from inanimate systems. In describing man as a machine, what La Mettrie really meant was, first, that man was essentially a material being structured to behave automatically; and second, that this self-sufficing organic structure, together with the psychic activities it determined—consciousness, emotion, will, memory, intelligence, moral sense—ought to be explored and clarified with the aid of the same quantitative, mechanical principles that everyone had already recognized as operative in the realm of physics. He left it to his successors to till in, as the progress of physiological psychology would allow, the concrete details of the mind-body correlation.
Several themes of interest to the history of science grew logically out of the man-machine thesis. One was the continuity it asserted between the mentality of man and that of those animals most resembling him. Supposing the observable differences in intelligent behavior among the various species to be a question merely of degree, La Mettrie ascribed these to the ascending order of complexity of be found in the central nervous apparatus of mammals from the lowliest up to man. It was his sharp awareness of the analogies between animal and human nature that led him, at one point, to entertain the experimental hope of instructing the anthropoid ape to speak. More generally, it prompted him to give a preponderant place to the instincts and other biologically conditioned needs in his evaluations of thought, felling, and conduct. In accord with such and approach to psychology, La Mettrie envisioned a broad expansion of the ordinary limits set to the usefulness of medicine. He expected that medical science—in particular what is now called psychiatry—would someday be able, by modifying for the better the all-controlling state of the organism, to effect the ethical improvement of those who required it, thereby contributing to the well-being of society. A special instance of this concern was La Mettrie’s proposal that many criminals be regarded as “sick” instead of “evil,” and that they be turned over to competent doctors for diagnosis and treatment. But it must bot be forgotten that the bond which he wished to forge between the practice of medicine and eudaemonistic or humanitarian ethics took for granted, on his part, a doctrine of physiological determinism that left no freedom to the individual, whose actions were held to be intrinsically amoral.
Among La Mettrie's other writings, the most important by far is the Histoire naturelle de l’āme, which anticipated closely, and corroborated with a richer accumulation of biological data and a greater reliance on sensationist psychology, the conclusions of L'homme machine. In that earlier treatise, however, he saw fit to set his demonstration of the materiality of the soul within the framework of a Scholastic type of metaphysics, somewhat blurring its import and leaving out of account the specifically mechanistic character of man that he was later to affirm so forcefully. The Histoire naturelle de l’āme was also, like L’homme machine, inspired in large part by an extrascientific motive. This was La Mettrie’s obvious desire, born of the free thinking an dan ticlerical tendencies of the period, to undermine religion by refuting, on the authority of biology and medicine, the dogma of the spiritual and immortal soul.
The Systéme d’Epicure (1750), an unsystematic group of reflections, gave to the naturalistic science of man sketched by La Mettrie and appropriate evolutionary dimension; more exactly, it represented the human race, no less than other animal races, as the final result of a long series of organic permutations in less perfect precursor species that had failed to survive. Although this work was among the earliest statements in the modern earl of the idea of evolution, its exposition of that idea did not go much beyond the Lucretian background on which it freely drew. In L’homme plante (1748), a minor but curious work, La Mettrie sought to confirm his belief in a sort of universal organic analogy by pointing out, at times rather speciously, what he considered to be parallel organs and corresponding vital functions in plants and in the human body.
The influence of La Mettrie on the history of science, while difficult to fix with precision, may be said generally to have promoted the objectives of the mechanistic, as against the vitalistic, school of biology and, more significantly, to have militated in favor of a science of psychology based on the physiological method of investigating the mind and personality. Moreover, his deterministic interpretation of human behavior, and his likening of it to that of animals, foreshadowed two familiar tenets of presentday behaviorist psychology. Finally, one may rank among La Mettrie’s more recent heirs those who have discovered in cybernetic technology not only the mechanical means of creating artificial thought but also a program for explaining how the brain itself thinks by assimilating its operations to the model of a computerized machine.
I. Orginal Works. La Mettrie’s philosophical, scientific, and literary writings have never been published together in a single ed. His philosophical texts alone were published numerous times in collected form, but not since the eighteenth century. A recent photo repr. (Hildesheim, 1968) reproduces the Oeuvres philosophiques, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1774). An anthology of selected materials can be found in Marcelle Tisserand, ed., La Mettrie: Textes choisis (Paris, 1954). There are critical presentations of two individual works: Francis Rougier, L’homme plante, repub. with intro. and notes (New York, 1936); and Aram Vartanian, L’homme machchine; a Study in the Origins of an Idea, with an introductory monograph and notes (Princeton, 1960).
The only modern English trans. of La Mettrie is available in the now inadequate ed. by Gertrude C. Bussey: Man a Machine; Including Frederick the Great’s “Eulogy”, and Extracts From “The Natural History of the Soul” (Chicago—London, 1927).
II. Secondary Literature. The following are useful studies of La Mettrie’s scientific and philosophical thought: Raymond Boissier, La Mettrie, médecin, pamphlétaire et philosophe, 1709–1751 (Paris, 1931); Emile Callot, “La Mettrie,” in his La philosophie de la vie au XVIIIe sièle (Paris, 1965), ch. V, pp. 195–244; Keith Gunderson, “Descartes, La Mettrie, Language, and Machines,” in his Mentality and Machines (New York, 1971), pp. 1–38; Günther Pflug, “J. O. de Lemettrie und die biologischen Theorien des 18. Jahrhunderts,” in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 27 (1953), 509–527;;J. E. Poritzky, Julien Offray de Lamettrie, sein Leben und seine Werke (Berlin, 1900); and GuyFrancis Tuloup, Un précurseur méconnu; Offray de La Mettrie, médecin-philosophe (Dinard, 1938).
"La Mettrie, Julien Offray De." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/la-mettrie-julien-offray-de
"La Mettrie, Julien Offray De." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/la-mettrie-julien-offray-de
La Mettrie, Julien Offray De
LA METTRIE, JULIEN OFFRAY DE
(b. Saint-Malo, France, 19 December 1709; d. Berlin, Germany, 11 November 1751),
medicine, physiology, psychology, philosophy of science.
For the original article on La Mettrie see DSB, vol. 7.
Since the publication of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, the scholarly understanding of La Mettrie has undergone slight shifts of emphasis rather than dramatic reconsiderations or revisions. La Mettrie’s philosophy is no longer appreciated simply or even primarily as a thoroughgoing application of Cartesian mechanics to human beings, despite the title of his best-known work, L’homme machine (1747). Appraisals of his philosophy have been amplified through critical studies of a number of his works, which have not only deepened appreciation of the content and impact of his philosophical writings but also placed these works in a richer scientific and philosophical context. The importance of medicine to La Mettrie’s entire corpus and to his contribution to the Enlightenment is also widely acknowledged, although his relationship to the broader movement is usually considered problematic or peripheral.
Historians of science have increasingly explored the social context of the development of science and the careers of scientists. La Mettrie, who left no correspondence or memoirs and whose career took place too early and on the periphery of Parisian culture and the emerging Enlightenment movement, has largely proved difficult to place culturally or to integrate into the social history of science. However, several additional features of his biography warrant mention. His initial education took place at the provincial colleges of Coutances and Caen, where he was influenced by Jansenism and is reputed to have written a Jansenist text, although it has never been found. In 1725, La Mettrie went to Paris to study philosophy and natural science at the Collège d’Harcourt, which was the first to make Cartesianism central to its curriculum. These early exposures to Jansenism and Cartesianism offer tantalizing insights into La Mettrie’s intellectual development.
It is also worth noting that La Mettrie, like most young men from the French provinces seeking to make their way in professional society, benefited from hometown contacts. His fellow citizen of Saint-Malo, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, was president of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and crucial in gaining a position for La Mettrie as a court physician to Frederick II of Prussia when his radical ideas led to his expulsion from Holland after the publication of L’homme machine. In La Mettrie’s case, his provincial roots may have heightened his outsider status, although his radical ideas were the most significant cause of his alienation from most of his contemporaries.
Recent scholarship not only has emphasized the medical roots of La Mettrie’s science and philosophy but also continues to refine that appreciation. After completing his studies at the Collège d’Harcourt, La Mettrie studied medicine at the University of Paris for the next five years but (to avoid high graduation fees) took his degree from the University of Reims. It is important to note, in light of his subsequent vociferous critique of the medical profession, that it was his dissatisfaction with his medical education, specifically as a foundation for medical practice, that took him to the University of Leiden to study with Hermann Boerhaave, a renowned teacher of physiology and chemistry and an innovative clinical practitioner.
La Mettrie was the French translator of a number of specific texts written by Boerhaave and translator of and commentator on his fundamental eight-volume Institutions de médecine. Historians of science, who have reappraised Boerhaave’s role in the history of medicine, have acknowledged that his understanding of human physiology was less clearly iatromechanical and more nuanced than previously thought.
Like Boerhaave’s, La Mettrie’s view of human physiology was much less strictly mechanistic than previous scholars have assumed. As La Mettrie worked through Boerhaave’s medical and physiological works, he hardened what might be seen as materialist tendencies in Boerhaave’s work into a more consistent materialist physiology. Where Boerhaave suggested that Lockean accounts of mental states might parallel brain activity, La Mettrie was willing to assert a causal connection. His exposure to Boerhaave was crucial to La Mettrie’s development both as a philosophical and medical writer; it gave him a philosophical position and a critical perspective from which to evaluate contemporary medicine. He returned from Leiden a staunch proponent of a cautious, empiricist, and utilitarian approach to knowledge and an opponent of rationalist metaphysics.
Recent scholarship has been more appreciative of the positive contributions of La Mettrie’s satires to his overall medical agenda. The awareness of professional issues that La Mettrie gained as a medical student led him to lampoon the ignorance and venality of Parisian medical practitioners. In his satires, he not only supported the surgeons in their dispute with the Faculty of Medicine but also honed his attack on the metaphysical foundations of medicine and argued instead for a medical practice rooted in empirical observation and clinical teaching and dedicated to public health.
La Mettrie also wrote five medical treatises on specific diseases, such as smallpox and venereal disease, which were (as the DSB article noted) not especially original treatments. These texts were nonetheless important for their reliance on case studies as the most legitimate to approach the study of diseases and for their intent to raise public awareness of heath issues by conveying information to the public.
The original DSB article emphasized the significance of La Mettrie’s appreciation of Boerhaave in bringing medicine into the philosophical and intellectual context of the eighteenth century. However, as scholars of eighteenth-century culture have moved beyond the great luminaries of the Enlightenment to less prominent figures and to scientific and literary institutions, they have recognized that medical writings and ideas had a greater impact on the Enlightenment than earlier scholarship acknowledged. Thus La Mettrie was important but not unique in appreciating the empirical foundation and method medicine could offer to philosophical investigations. However, as scholars increasingly appreciate, medicine was the decisive foundation for La Mettrie’s philosophy. For him, medicine demonstrated the dependence of mind on body, the variety of human constitutions, and the different responses of individual constitutions to external stimuli. Medicine also gave La Mettrie his distinctive philosophical style. He wrote with polemical zest, his points corroborated by physiological evidence and medical case studies, and addressed to issues of public health.
The most significant reappraisal of La Mettrie has been the emergence of a scholarly consensus about his best-known work, L’homme machine. Previous scholars often considered the text an attempt to apply Cartesian mechanism to human beings. Scholars now recognize that the text asserts that the smallest particles of organic matter are characterized by life and mobility; thus, in essence, La Mettrie’s materialism is vitalistic. The text vehemently rejects René Descartes’s bête machine as an absurd characterization of animals and also refutes human dualism, documenting (as extensively as possible) the effects of physical states on human behavior and the comparability between human and animal anatomy and behavior. He presents physiological and clinical examples as privileged evidence and defers to the authority of the physician over the metaphysician and the theologians.
Scholars have also recognized the significance of La Mettrie’s Discours préliminaire. Written in 1751 to introduce a collection of his philosophical works, La Mettrie explicitly identified his work in medicine and philosophy with the reformist agenda of the nascent intellectual movement we now call the Enlightenment. He defined the médecin-philosophe as the ideal intellectual, embodying the astute empirical observation of surgeons, the thorough training in physiology of an idealistic physician, and the zeal of the reform-minded philosophe. The médecinphilosophe was thus the most effective practitioner of critical analysis and reform.
Despite La Mettrie’s self-identification with the Enlightenment, scholars have difficulty defining his relationship to that movement. In many ways, La Mettrie defies easy classification. He wrote from a medical perspective, very early in the movement, and without some of the stylistic verve and innovation of the later Enlightenment. He deliberately positioned his more radical ideas in the context of the established philosophical tradition. In Histoire naturelle de l’âme (1747), La Mettrie placed his arguments against a distinctly human, immortal soul in the context of Aristotle’s three souls. He set his ideas about humanity’s possible evolution from an elemental mud in a discussion of Epicurus, and presented his dangerous moral ideas as a response to Stoicism.
However, more recent studies acknowledge the originality and prescience of some of La Mettrie’s ideas. For example, he offered a systematic materialism twenty years before Paul-Henri d’Holbach’s Système de la nature and asserted the unity of organic life before Georges-Louis de Buffon. La Mettrie was one of the earliest to speculate about human evolution, although he postulated no explanatory mechanism.
The misapprehension of La Mettrie as a mechanist made him a figure often cited as a forerunner to modern interests in artificial intelligence and computer simulations of mental functions, and, to some degree, he is still invoked as a progenitor in these fields. In more recent years, La Mettrie has been more accurately acknowledged as a proponent of comparative anatomy and organic models of human life. As a significant advocate for the physiological bases of human behavior, La Mettrie’s work resonates in modern discussions of neurobiology and the genetic sources of human behavior. Although the moral implications of his philosophy were considered extremely dangerous in the eighteenth century, moderns have come to appreciate his endorsement of human pleasure, his concern with public health, and his humanitarianism, especially as reflected in his calls for tolerance.
Several modern editions of some of La Mettrie’s works have become available.
WORKS BY LA METTRIE
Œuvres philosophiques. Hildesheim, Germany: G. Olms Verlag, 1974.
Œuvres philosophiques. Paris: Fayard, 1987.
Man the Machine and Other Writings. Edited by Ann Thomson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Several English translations of La Mettrie’s work have appeared.
De la volupté: Anti-sénèque ou le souverain bien; L’École de la volupté; Système d’Epicure. Edited by Ann Thomson. Paris: Desjonquières, 2000.
Ouvrage de Pénélope, ou, Machiavel en médecine. Paris: Fayard, 2002.
Corpus: Revue de philosophie. Paris, 1987. Vol. 5/6 is dedicated to La Mettrie.
Jauch, Ursula. Jenseits de Maschine: Philosophie, Ironie und Ästhetik bei Julien Offray de La Mettrie. Munich, Germany: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1998.
Roggerone, Giuseppe Agostino. Controilluminismo: Saggio su La Mettrie ed Helvétius. 2 vols. Lecce, Italy: Milella, 1975.
Stoddard, Roger. Julien Offray de La Mettrie: A Bibliographical Inventory. Cologne, Germany: Verlag Jurgen Dinter, 2000.
Thomson, Ann. Materialism and Society in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: La Mettrie’s “Discours préliminaire.” Geneva: Droz, 1981. Excellent critical edition. The text is in French and the monograph-length introduction in English.
Verbeek, Theodorus. Traité de l’âme de La Mettrie. 2 vols. Utrecht, Netherlands: OMI-Grafisch Bedrijf, 1988. Excellent critical edition, with monograph-length introduction.
Wellman, Kathleen. La Mettrie: Medicine, Philosophy, and Enlightenment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.
"La Mettrie, Julien Offray De." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/la-mettrie-julien-offray-de-0
"La Mettrie, Julien Offray De." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/la-mettrie-julien-offray-de-0
Julien Offray de La Mettrie
Julien Offray de La Mettrie
The French physician and philosopher Julien Offrayde La Mettrie (1709-1751) is best known for his "Man a Machine," an incisive and witty exposition of his theory of the dependence of mind on body.
The son of a tradesman, Julien de La Mettrie was born in Saint-Malo in Brittany on Dec. 25, 1709. Intended for the priesthood, he studied humanities at Coutances, rhetoric at Caen, and logic at the College of Plessis in Paris. At 15 he wrote an apologetic work on Jansenism. But this theological interest was short-lived, and in 1725 La Mettrie began 2 years of natural philosophy at the College of Harcourt. He received his degree in medicine at Rheims in 1728 and for the next 5 years practiced medicine in his native city.
In 1733 La Mettrie went to Leiden to study with the reknowned philosopher and physician Hermann Boerhaave. Soon La Mettrie was translating Boerhaave's works and adding his own observations—including treatises on venereal disease, vertigo, smallpox, and practical medicine and a six-volume commentary on Boerhaave's writings. La Mettrie's absorption with medicine persisted after his return to Saint-Malo.
La Mettrie's Parisian sojourn in 1742 secured for him a commission as physician to the troops of the Duc de Gramont. On the battlefield at Freiberg, La Mettrie himself became sick with fever. During his illness he was struck with how much a disturbance in the body affects the thought of man. This thesis was elaborated in his Histoire naturelle de l'âme (1745), a work that was violently denounced because of its atheistic materialism. La Mettrie was required by the regiment chaplain to relinquish his post with the army and then made to leave France.
In 1746 La Mettrie fled to Leiden. There in 1747 he published anonymously his infamous work, L'Homme machine (Man a Machine), audaciously and impishly dedicating that radical work to the pious scholar Albrecht von Haller. By 1748 his works were burned even in Holland, and he was forced to flee.
La Mettrie accepted Frederick the Great's offer of sanctuary in Prussia and lived there from February 1748, an intimate and witty companion of Frederick, a practicing physician for his friends, and a productive writer. L'Homme plante appeared in 1748. Placing man in the scale of beings, that work suggested the evolution and interrelation of beings. There too La Mettrie proposed—as did étienne Bonnot de Condillac—that the the degree of a creature's intelligence depends on the variety and number of needs experienced by that being. Three works detailing the social and ethical consequences of La Mettrie's view of man followed: L'Anti-Sénèque, ou Discours sur le bonheur (1748), Le Système d'épicure (1750), and L'Art de jouir (1751). La Mettrie held that "Nature has destined all of us solely to be happy. Yes, all, from the worm that crawls to the eagle that disappears into the night."
With an irony La Mettrie would have enjoyed, his death was early and unexpected. He was at the home of a friend in Berlin, asked there as a physician. Having eaten abundantly from an elaborate but spoiled pâté, he died of food poisoning on Nov. 11, 1751.
In English, the best approach to La Mettrie is the reading of LaMettrie himself in translation. The Open Court edition of Man a Machine, translated by Gertrude Bussey and M. W. Calkins, has a translation of Frederick the Great's eulogy of La Mettrie. The other source in English is a more general work by G. V. Plekhanov, Essays in the History of Materialism (1934). See also Aram Vartanian's critical edition of L'Homme machine: A Study of the Origins of an Idea (1960), especially the introductory monograph.
Wellman, Kathleen Anne, La Mettrie: medicine, philosophy, and enlightenment, Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. □
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La Mettrie, Julien Offray de
Julien Offray de La Mettrie (zhülyăN´ ôfrā´ də lä mĕtrē´), 1709–51, French physician and philosopher. On the basis of personal observation he claimed that psychical activity is purely the result of the organic construction of the brain and nervous system and developed this theory in Histoire naturelle de l'âme (1745). The protest against his atheistic materialism was so strong that La Mettrie had to leave the country. He further alienated the public with L'Homme machine (1748), the final development of his mechanical explanation of humans and the world. He lived in Berlin under the protection of his patron Frederick the Great. His ethics, purely hedonistic, are set forth in L'Art de jouir (1751).
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"La Mettrie, Julien Offray de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/la-mettrie-julien-offray-de