1902 Encyclopedia > Claude Adrien Helvétius

Claude Adrien Helvétius
French philosopher
(1715-71)




CLAUDE ADRIEN HELVETIUS (1715-1771), was descended from a family of physicians, the first of whom, John Frederick Schweitzer (Latinized into Helvetius), migrated from Germany to Holland about the year 1649, and became physician to the prince of Orange. His later years were spent in the study of alchemy. His son, John Adrien, also a physician, went to Paris in the hope of establishing a sale for his father's drugs. He failed in this attempt, but was so fortunate as to introduce with the greatest success the use of ipecacuanha, then an unknown drug. The duchess of Chaulnes, whom he had treated successfully, introduced him to Colbert, who recommended the young physician to the dauphin, after which his reputation was firmly established. His son, John Claude Adrien, who embraced the same career with even greater success, was appointed inspector-general of the military hospitals of Flanders and first physician to the Queen Marie Leczinska. He was remarkable for the generosity with which he received and visited poor patients who could pay him nothing. His son, Claude Adrien, the future author of De l'Esprit, showed as a boy little aptitude for study, but was fond of desultory reading. His father, who destined him for finance, placed him for a few years with his maternal uncle, M. D'Armancourt, "directeur des fermes" at Caen. There he learned all that was necessary for a profession so simple, and having plenty of spare time amused himself with writing verses and cultivating social graces. He was elected a member of the academy of Caen, and when he was only twenty-three years of age he had the singular good fortune to be appointed, at the queen's request, to a place as farmer-general; in other words, while still a very young man he was put into a post of great responsibility and dignity which was worth a hundred thousand crowns a year. Thus provided, young Helvetius proceeded to enjoy life to the utmost. He had every advantage except one, that of noble birth; he was the handsomest man of his time; he was possessed of a manner singularly charming; he was able to hold his own among the scholars and philosophers and poets; he was skilled in all those arts cultivated by gentlemen; he was generous like his father, and his great fortune enabled him to gratify his love of giving; he had an inclination to letters, and was a friend of Fontenelle, Voltaire, and Montesquieu, besides being a patron of such writers as Marivaux, Saurin, and Sabatier. Probably there was no young man in Paris in the years 1740 and 1750 who occupied a more enviable position or was more entirely contented with his lot than this spoiled child of fortune, on whose name there rested but one blot, an almost morbid desire to excel. So far indeed did he carry this passion for distinction that he once danced on the stage of the opera under the mask and name of the public favourite Javillier.





As he grew older, his social successes and bonnes fortunes naturally ceased; the splendour of his youth had vanished ; he began to dream of other and more lasting distinctions. Maupertuis, he observed, had put mathematics in fashion; he himself would be a mathematician. Voltaire was illustrious for poetry; he too would be a poet. Montesquieu had made so brilliant a success with his Esprit des Lois that he himself would become a philosopher. The mathematical dream seems to have produced nothing ; his poetical ambitions resulted in his poem called. Le Bonheur, 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 I'Esprit, the composition of which occupied him for more than seven years. In the year 1751 he married, his wife being a niece of Madame de Graffigny, the author of Lettres d'une Péruvienne; and he spent eight months in the year at his newly purchased estate of Voré in Le Perche; the remaining four months were given up to Paris and his duties of maitre d'hdtel to the queen. It was characteristic of the man that as soon as he thought his fortune sufficient for his wants he gave up his post of farmer-general. The history of his life in the country is full of anecdotes which illustrate his generous and kindly disposition : he relieved the poor, sent physicians to the sick, mediated between those who quarrelled, encouraged agriculture, developed industries, and found happiness in the patriarchal life of a French seigneur, being as great a stickler as any for his seigueurial rights. It was in 1758 that his book De l'Esprit, which was to be the rival of L'Esprit des Lois, appeared. It was so far successful at the very outset as to attract immediate attention and to arouse the most formidable opposition, at the head of which was 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 retractations ; yet, in spite of his protestations of orthodoxy, he had to give up his office at the court, and the book was publicly burned by the hangman. The virulence of the attacks upon the work, as much as its intrinsic merit, caused the whole world to read it; it was translated into almost all the languages of Europe; it was discussed in every literary circle. Yet the Esprit des Lois lives and is still studied with profit, while De l'Esprit has long since been forgotten. It is indeed difficult to understand that the work could ever have had any serious influence upon the thought of the time. Voltaire said it was full of commonplaces ; Buffon maliciously said that " Helvetius aurait dü faire un livre de moins et un bail de plus dans les fermes du roi;" 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 said that Helvetius had raised such a storm by simply revealing the "great secret"; Madame de Graffigny averred that all the good things in the book had been picked up in her own salon.

As for the philosophy of the book, it belongs to the selfish school; the four discussions of which it consists have been thus summed up:—(1) all man's faculties may be reduced to physical sensation ; memory, comparison, judgment, are only feeling; our only difference from the lower animals lies in our external organization ; (2) our interest, founded on the love of pleasure and the fear of pain, is the only spring of our judgments, our actions, our affections : 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) the inequalities of intellect 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 ; 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, &c. It is sufficient to add that, although the book was reprinted after the author's death, it ceased to have any influence even during his own life.

In 1704 Helvetius visited England, and the next year, on the invitation of Frederick, he went to Berlin, where the king paid him marked attention. He then returned to his country estate and passed the remainder of his life in perfect tranquillity. He died in 1771 at the age of fifty-six, leaving behind him a widow, who died in 1800, and two daughters.

A sort of supplement to the De l'Esprit, called De l'Homme, de ses facultés intellectuelles et de son éducation, was found among his manuscripts after his death, and was published, but created little interest. Editions of the work, however, appeared in 1772, 1773, and 1786. The complete works of Helvetius were published in 1774, 1777, 1781, 1794, 1795, and 1818. The best estimate of his work and place among the philosophers of the 18th century is that by Cousin (Oeuvres, ii.). (W. BE.)






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