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Claude Adrien Helvétius

Claude Adrien Helvétius (January 1715 - December 26, 1771) was a French philosopher and litterateur.

He was born in Paris, France, and was descended from a family of physicians, originally surnamed Schweitzer (latinized as Helvétius). His grandfather introduced the use of ipecacuanha; his father was first physician to Queen Marie, wife of King Louis XV of France. Claude Adrien was trained for a financial career, but he occupied his spare time with poetry. Aged twenty-three, at the queen's request, he was appointed farmer-general, a post of great responsibility and dignity worth 100,000 crowns a year. Thus provided for, he proceeded to enjoy life to the utmost, with the help of his wealth and liberality, his literary and artistic tastes. As he grew older, he began to seek more lasting distinctions, stimulated by the success of Pierre Louis Maupertuis as a mathematician, of Voltaire as a poet, and of Montesquieu as a philosopher.

His poetic ambitions resulted in the poem called Le Bonheur (published posthumously, with an account of Helvétius's life and works, by JF de Saint-Lambert, 1773), in which he develops the idea that true happiness is only to be found in making the interest of one that of all; his philosophical studies ended in the production of his famous book De l'esprit. It was characteristic of him that, as soon as he thought his fortune sufficient, he gave up the post of farmer-general, and retired to a country estate, where he employed his fortune in the relief of the poor, the encouragement of agriculture and the development of industries. De l'esprit (Eng. trans. by W Mudford, 1807), intended to be the rival of Montesquieu's L'Esprit des lois, appeared in 1758. It attracted immediate attention and aroused the most formidable opposition, especially from the dauphin, son of Louis XV. The Sorbonne condemned the book, the priests persuaded the court that it was full of the most dangerous doctrines, and the author, terrified at the storm he had raised, wrote three separate retractions; yet, in spite of his protestations of orthodoxy, the book was publicly burned by the hangman.

The publicity resulted in the book being translated into almost all the languages of Europe. Voltaire said that it lacked originality; Rousseau declared that the very benevolence of the author gave the lie to his principles; Grimm thought that all the ideas in the book were borrowed from Diderot; Madame du Deffand felt that Helvétius had raised such a storm by saying openly what every one thought in secret; Madame de Graffigny claimed that all the good things in the book had been picked up in her own salon. In 1764 Helvétius visited England, and the next year, at the invitation of Frederick II, went to Berlin, where the king paid him much attention. He then returned to his country estate and passed the remainder of his life peacefully.

His philosophy belongs to the utilitarian school. The four discussions of which his book consists have been thus summed up:

  1. All man's faculties may be reduced to physical sensation, even memory, comparison, judgment; our only difference from the lower animals lies in our external organization.
  2. Self-interest, founded on the love of pleasure and the fear of pain, is the sole spring of judgment, action, affection; self-sacrifice is prompted by the fact that the sensation of pleasure outweighs the accompanying pain; it is thus the result of deliberate calculation; we have no liberty of choice between good and evil; there is no such thing as absolute right--ideas of justice and injustice change according to customs.
  3. All intellects are equal; their apparent inequalities do not depend on a more or less perfect organization, but have their cause in the unequal desire for instruction, and this desire springs from passions, of which all men commonly well organized are susceptible to the same degree; and we can, therefore, all love glory with the same enthusiasm and we owe all to education.
  4. In this discourse the author treats of the ideas which are attached to such words as genius, imagination, talent, taste, good sense, etc.

The original ideas in his system are those of the natural equality of intelligences and the omnipotence of education, neither of which gained generally acceptance, though both were prominent in the system of John Stuart Mill. Although his thinking was unsystematic, many of his critics misrepresented him. He had great influence on Jeremy Bentham, and C Beccaria states that he was largely inspired by Helvétius in his attempt to modify penal laws. The keynote of his thought was that public ethics has a utilitarian basis, and he insisted strongly on the importance of culture in national development.

A sort of supplement to the De l'esprit, called De l'homme, de ses facultis intellectuelles et de son education (Eng. trans. by W Hooper, 1777), found among his manuscripts, was published after his death, but created little interest. There is a complete edition of the works of Helvétius, published at Paris, 1818. For an estimate of his work and his place among the philosophers of the 18th century see Victor Cousin's Philosophie sensualiste (1863); PL Lezaud, Résumés philosophiques (1853); FD Maurice, in his Modern Philosophy (1862), pp. 537 seq.; J Morley, Diderot and the Encyclopaedists (London, 1878); DG Mostratos, Die Pädagogik des Helvétius (Berlin, 1891); A Guillois, Le Salon de Madanie Helvétius (1894); A Piazzi, Le idee filosofiche specialmente pedagogiche de C. A. Helvétius (Milan, 1889); G Plekhanov, Beiträge zur Geschichte des Materialismus (Stuttgart, 1896); L Limentani, Le teorie psicologiche de C. A. Helvétius (Verona, 1902); A Keim, Helvétius, sa vie et son œuvre (1907).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.