Claude Adrien Helvétius

Claude Adrien Helvétius

Ask a question about 'Claude Adrien Helvétius'
Start a new discussion about 'Claude Adrien Helvétius'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
For the 4th century author see: Helvidius
Helvidius was the author of a work written before 383 against the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary.Helvidius maintained that the mention in the Gospels of the "sisters" and "brethren" of our Lord was proof that the Blessed Virgin had subsequent issue, and he supported his opinion by the...

Claude Adrien Helvétius (26 January or 26 February 1715 (sources differ) – 26 December 1771) was a French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 philosopher and littérateur.


Claude Adrien Helvétius was born in Paris, France, and was descended from a family of physicians, originally surnamed Schweitzer (literally "Swiss
Switzerland name of one of the Swiss cantons. ; ; ; or ), in its full name the Swiss Confederation , is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities. The country is situated in Western Europe,Or Central Europe depending on the definition....

man"; Latinized as Helvétius
Helvetia is the female national personification of Switzerland, officially Confœderatio Helvetica, the "Helvetic Confederation".The allegory is typically pictured in a flowing gown, with a spear and a shield emblazoned with the Swiss flag, and commonly with braided hair, commonly with a wreath as...

). His grandfather introduced the use of ipecacuanha; his father was first physician to Marie Leszczyńska, queen of France. Claude Adrien was trained for a financial career, apprenticed to his maternal uncle in Caen, but he occupied his spare time with poetry. Aged twenty-three, at the queen's request, he was appointed as a farmer-general, a tax-collecting post 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 - he attended, for example, the progressive Club de l'Entresol
Club de l'Entresol
The Club de l'Entresol |Mezzanine]] Club) was a think-tank, club and discussion group founded in 1724 by Pierre-Joseph Alary and Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre on the English model for free discussion of political and economic questions...

. As he grew older, he began to seek more lasting distinctions, stimulated by the success of Pierre Louis Maupertuis
Pierre Louis Maupertuis
Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis was a French mathematician, philosopher and man of letters. He became the Director of the Académie des Sciences, and the first President of the Berlin Academy of Science, at the invitation of Frederick the Great....

 as a mathematician
A mathematician is a person whose primary area of study is the field of mathematics. Mathematicians are concerned with quantity, structure, space, and change....

, of Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...

 as a poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

, and of Montesquieu
Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu , generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment...

 as a philosopher. His wife, Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius
Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius
Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius , also Anne-Catherine de Ligniville d'Autricourt, nicknamed "Minette", maintained a renowned salon in France in the eighteenth century....

, maintained a salon attended by the leading figures of the Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 for over five decades.

In 1758, Helvétius published his philosophical magnum opus, a work called De l'esprit (On Mind). Its atheistic, utilitarian and egalitarian doctrines raised a public outcry and Helvétius was forced to issue several retractions.
After ten years, when 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. For this he won the admiration of many of the philosophers.

In 1764, Helvétius visited England, and the next year, at the invitation of Frederick II
Frederick II of Prussia
Frederick II was a King in Prussia and a King of Prussia from the Hohenzollern dynasty. In his role as a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, he was also Elector of Brandenburg. He was in personal union the sovereign prince of the Principality of Neuchâtel...

, went to Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

, where the king paid him much attention. He then returned to his country estate and passed the remainder of his life peacefully.

De l'esprit and its reception

Helvétius' philosophical studies ended in the production of his famous book De l'esprit (On Mind). It was first published in 1758 and was intended to be the rival of Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws, with Helvétius arguing strongly against Montesquieu's theory that climate influenced the character of nations.

The work attracted immediate attention and aroused the most formidable opposition, especially from the Dauphin Louis, son of King Louis XV
Louis XV of France
Louis XV was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and of Navarre from 1 September 1715 until his death. He succeeded his great-grandfather at the age of five, his first cousin Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, served as Regent of the kingdom until Louis's majority in 1723...

. The Sorbonne
Collège de Sorbonne
The Collège de Sorbonne was a theological college of the University of Paris, founded in 1257 by Robert de Sorbon, after whom it is named. With the rest of the Paris colleges, it was suppressed during the French Revolution. It was restored in 1808 but finally closed in 1882. The name Sorbonne...

 condemned the book, while the priests persuaded the court that it was full of the most dangerous doctrines. The book was declared to be heretical so atheistic that it was condemned by Church and State and was burned. Helvétius, terrified at the storm he had raised, wrote three separate and humiliating retractions. In spite of his protestations of orthodoxy, the book was publicly burned by the Paris hangman.
It had incredibly negative effects on the rest of the philosophes, in particular, Denis Diderot, and the great work he was doing on the Encyclopedie. The religious authorities, particularly the Jesuits and the new Pope began to fear the spread of atheism and wanted to clamp down on the 'modern thought' hard and quickly. 'De l'Espirit' became almost a scapegoat for this.

This great publicity resulted in the book being translated into almost all the languages of Europe. Voltaire said that it lacked originality. Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

 declared that the very benevolence of the author gave the lie to his principles. Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, baron von Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm was a German-born French author.-Early years:Grimm was born at Regensburg, the son of a pastor...

 thought that all the ideas in the book were borrowed from Diderot
Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent person during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie....

. Madame du Deffand
Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du Deffand
Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du Deffand was a French hostess and patron of the arts.She was born at the Château de Chamrond, in Ligny-en-Brionnais, a village near Charolles of a noble family. Educated at a convent in Paris, she showed great intelligence and a sceptical, cynical turn of...

 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.


Helvétius' philosophy belongs to the utilitarian
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "happiness", by whatever means necessary. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can...

  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, and affection. Human beings are motivated solely by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. "These two," he says, "are, and always will be, the only principles of action in man." Self-sacrifice is prompted by the fact that the sensation of pleasure outweighs the accompanying pain and is thus the result of deliberate calculation.
  3. We have no freedom of choice between good and evil. There is no such thing as absolute right ideas of justice and injustice change according to customs.

This view of man was largely Hobbesian man is a system deterministically controllable by a suitable combination of reward and punishment, and the ends of government are to ensure the maximisation of pleasure.

Natural equality of intelligences

"All men," Helvétius maintained, "have an equal disposition for understanding.". As one of the French Enlightenment's many Lockean
John Locke
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

 disciples, he regarded the human mind as a blank slate, but free not only from innate ideas but also from innate natural dispositions and propensities. Physiological constitution was at most a peripheral factor in men's characters or capabilities. Any apparent inequalities were independent of natural organization, and had their cause in the unequal desire for instruction. This desire springs from passions, of which all men commonly well organized are susceptible to the same degree. We thus owe everything to education. Social engineering
Social engineering (political science)
Social engineering is a discipline in political science that refers to efforts to influence popular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments or private groups. In the political arena, the counterpart of social engineering is political engineering.For various reasons,...

 is therefore an enterprise unconstrained by the natural abilities of men.
This natural equality applied to all men in all nations, and thus the differences in national characteristics were not the result of innate differences between the people therein, but rather a byproduct of the system education and government. "No nation," wrote Helvétius, "has reason to regard itself superior to others by virtue of its innate endowment."

This radically egalitarian aspect of Helvétius' philosophy caused Diderot to remark that if it were true, De l'esprit might just as well have been written by Helvétius' dogkeeper.

Omnipotence of education

Since all men have the same natural potential, Helvétius argued, they all have the same ability to learn. Thus, education is the method by which to reform society, and there are few limits to the drastic social improvements that could be brought about by the appropriate distribution of education. Although people seem to possess certain qualities in greater abundance than their neighbours, the explanation for this comes 'from above' – it is caused by education, law and government. "If we commonly meet in London, with knowing men, who are with much more difficulty found in France," this is because it is a country where "every citizen has a share in the management of affairs in general." "The art of forming men," he concludes, "is in all countries [...] strictly connected to the form of the government", and thus education via governmental intervention is the method of reform.

The crux of his thought was that public ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

 has a utilitarian basis, and he insisted strongly on the importance of culture and education in national development. His thinking can be described as unsystematic.


The original ideas in his system are those of the natural equality of intelligences and the omnipotence of education, neither of which gained general acceptance, though both were prominent in the system of John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, economist and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of...

. Cesare Beccaria states that he was largely inspired by Helvétius in his attempt to modify penal laws. Helvétius also exerted some influence on the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism...


The materialistic aspects of Helvétius, along with Baron d'Holbach
Baron d'Holbach
Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach was a French-German author, philosopher, encyclopedist and a prominent figure in the French Enlightenment. He was born Paul Heinrich Dietrich in Edesheim, near Landau in the Rhenish Palatinate, but lived and worked mainly in Paris, where he kept a salon...

, had an influence on Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

, the theorist of historical materialism
Historical materialism
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans...

. Marx, the theorist behind communist ideologies of the 20th century, studied the ideas of Helvétius in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 and later called the materialism of Helvétius and d'Holbach "the social basis of communism".


His poetic ambitions resulted in the poem called Le Bonheur (published posthumously, with an account of Helvétius's life and works, by Jean François de Saint-Lambert
Jean François de Saint-Lambert
Jean François de Saint-Lambert was a French poet and military officer, but he is most remembered for his involvement in two love affairs....

, 1773), in which he develops the idea that true happiness is only to be found in making the interest of one person that of all.


British philosopher Isaiah Berlin
Isaiah Berlin
Sir Isaiah Berlin OM, FBA was a British social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas of Russian-Jewish origin, regarded as one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century and a dominant liberal scholar of his generation...

 listed Helvetius, along with Hegel, Fichte, Rousseau, Saint-Simon
Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon
Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, often referred to as Henri de Saint-Simon was a French early socialist theorist whose thought influenced the foundations of various 19th century philosophies; perhaps most notably Marxism, positivism and the discipline of sociology...

 and Maistre as one of the six "enemies of freedom" who constituted the ideological basis for modern authoritarianism
Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority. It is usually opposed to individualism and democracy...

, in his book Freedom and Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty.

East Prussian philosopher Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann was a noted German philosopher, a main proponent of the Sturm und Drang movement, and associated by historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin with the Counter-Enlightenment.-Biography:...

 vigorously opposed Helvetius's rationalistic doctrines.

External links