Helvétius, Claude Adrien

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Helvétius, Claude Adrien (Paris 1715 – 1771): French philosopher.

Helvétius was the grandson of a German-Dutch doctor and the son of a Royal Physician. Even though his grandfather was ennobled his family remained in the upper middle class. In 1738, thanks to the family’s influence at court, Helvétius obtained the functions of Farmer General of Taxes. During that period, he started to frequent salons, where he entered into personal contact with the great philosophers of his time, such as Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de, Diderot, Denis and Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovier de as well as with great painters such as Lancret, Nicolas and La Tour, Maurice-Quentin de.

In 1751, he retired to his estate and through his father’s influence got the position of maître d’hôtel to the queen. He spent eight months on his estate and the rest in Paris, where he opened his house to the encyclopedists. In 1758, his major work, De l’Esprit [On the Mind], was published. It was judged subversive and condemned both by pope Clement XIII and the Parlement of Paris. As a result, De l’Esprit was widely read all over Europe but the author lost his post at the court and was forced to recant. Helvétius realized that nothing he wrote should be published till after his death. In 1771, he died of gout and two years later, De l’Homme [Of Man] was published posthumously.

The objective of Helvétius’s philosophy is the happiness of humankind in the light of truth, living in a society sheltered from persecutions, where one does not have to keep silent or to lie for fear of imprisonment. To create such a society, one needs first to discover the human mind. A human only lives through his sensations and his memory. Therefore, to assume the principle of physical sensibility allows for the explanation of human interests and passions, but it is essential to distinguish between general and individual interest. To harmonize the two is the work of the moralist and the legislator, who should make available to all people an equal education. In return, education will shape an individual who knows that it is in his interest to work for the good of the public and who consequently behaves virtuously. Moreover, all should be given equal opportunities of getting rich and laws should prevent great capital to be in too few hands. The obstacles to that egalitarian system are the nobles and the clergy. Helvétius’s error lies in his analysis of society, which he traces from his analysis of the self without taking social factors into account.

The reactions of his contemporaries such as Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de and Rousseau, Jean-Jacques were unfavorable mainly because they remained midway between an arbitrary and a sensationalistic system. De l’Esprit and De l’Homme are considered two of the great books in the history of the development of the human mind, and they greatly influenced Bentham, Jeremy and the British utilitarians.

Further Reading:

Irving-Louis Horowitz, Claude Helvetius: philosopher of democracy and enlightenment, 1954.

Guy David Toubiana

The Citadel