Helvétius, Claude-Adrien (1715–1771)

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HELVÉTIUS, CLAUDE-ADRIEN (17151771), French philosopher. Claude-Adrien Helvétius was one of the most audacious writers of the French Enlightenment. The uproar surrounding the publication of his first book, De l'esprit (1758), was so sensational that he was forced to recant three times. Only the conflict between the parlements and the court over control of censorship, along with his ties at court to Madame de Pompadour and the duc de Choiseul, saved him, and he decided that his second book, De l'homme (1773), would not be released until after his death.

Helvétius had an uncanny knack for taking thoughts common to all the philosophes and presenting them in a scandalous form that provoked all-out counterattacks from the Catholic Church. Philosophical empiricism and hedonism, denials of original sin, repudiations of the repressive ethics of Christianitythese were doctrines not of Helvétius alone but of almost all members of "the party of humanity." But whereas other philosophes asserted the aforesaid views without calling down upon their movement the full-blown wrath of the church, Helvétius sparked a controversy that almost led to the suppression of the Encyclopédie the great collective enterprise in research and propaganda undertaken by Denis Diderot (17131784), Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783), and the "society of men of letters."

Both in his empiricism and in his hedonism, Helvétius vigorously argued for a position that the exasperated philosophes regarded as impolitic, needlessly inflammatory, and a reductio ad absurdum of their own philosophy. Virtually all the philosophes agreed with Helvétius that, under cover of the Cartesian notion of innate ideas, the church had conspired to place its dogmatic assertions above criticism. The philosophes in general borrowed John Locke's notion that our ideas are acquired rather than given, that they are the result of the interaction of the human senses with the external world, and that a supposedly innate idea is simply one whose origins in early childhood have been lost to human memory.

Helvétius went further than his comrades, however, in his dogmatic assertions that the human mind is completely passive and absolutely determined by the environment. He maintained that we are what our surroundings have made us, nothing more. The upshot of his thought was that the only difference between a genius and a fool was one of environment, which led Diderot to remark that Helvétius apparently believed his kennelman could have written De l'esprit. Equally disturbing, the doctrine of natural rights, so central to the Enlightenment, obviously could not survive Helvétius's claim that there is no such thing as human nature. The final embarrassment was that Helvétius seemed to have vindicated the church's claim that the philosophes were the champions of an uncompromising philosophical materialism.

Another charge that the church regularly lodged against the philosophes was that they were proponents of free love and enemies of the family; and here again Helvétiusto the consternation of his comradesseemed to prove the clergy correct. It was one thing for the philosophes to contend that the search for pleasure is an inevitable and legitimate human quest; it was quite another for Helvétius to suggest that all pleasures are bodily joys, sexual in nature. An admirer of ancient Sparta, Helvétius held that Lycurgus had utilized the sexual favors of women to transform ordinary men into heroic beings. Young Spartan females danced naked in front of the soldiers, praising the brave men, and shaming the cowards. If Helvétius had not existed, the church would have had to invent him.

Diderot, too, had dreamed of a sexual paradise, but he placed it in Tahiti rather than Europe, and refrained from publishing his tantalizing thoughts. The official Diderot was the author of Le fils naturel (1757; The natural son) and Le père de famille (1758; The father of the family), two plays that praised conventional familial ideals in exclamatory language. Helvétius, by contrast, failed to understand that discretion is sometimes the better part of enlightened valor.

Although the philosophes distanced themselves from Helvétius, some among their numbers learned to take seriously his thoughts on the arts. What Helvétius added to their discussions was the recognition that the study of culture must be linked to the study of politics. Under monarchies comedy is the most flourishing genre because the public, excluded from public affairs, is frivolous and desperate for laughter. Under republics there is a genuine public, attentive to public affairs and hungry for the ennobling passions of tragedy. England, despite its monarch, is a modern republic, the one country where an author can write for an enlightened audience.

Diderot and Paul Thiry, baron d'Holbach (17231789) were two of the most prominent of the philosophes who learned from Helvétius that "the dignity of the republic of letters" would remain an empty expression unless France, like England, evolved in a more republican direction. Helvétius played a crucial role in politicizing the Enlightenment.

See also Atheisim ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; Diderot, Denis ; Locke, John ; Mechanism ; Philosophes .


Primary Sources

Helvétius, Claude-Adrien. De l'esprit. Paris, 1988.

. De l'Homme. 2 vols. Paris, 1989. The English translations dating from the eighteenth century are unreliable.

Secondary Sources

Andlau, Beatrix. Helvétius, Seigneur de Voré. Paris, 1939. For information about his life and family.

Smith, D. W. Bibliography of the Writings of Helvétius. Ferney, 2001.

. Helvétius, a Study in Persecution. Oxford, 1965. For the politics of censorship.

Mark Hulliung