was born at Saint-Malo. After studying theology in the Jansenist
schools for some years, he suddenly decided to adopt the profession
of medicine. In 1733 he went to Leiden to study under Boerhaave,
and in 1742 returned to Paris, where he obtained the appointment
of surgeon to the guards.
an attack of fever he made observations on himself with reference
to the action of quickened circulation upon thought, which led
him to the conclusion that psychical phenomena were to be accounted
for as the effects of organic changes in the brain and nervous
system. This conclusion he worked out in his earliest philosophical
work, the Histoire naturelle de l'âme (1745). So great was
the outcry caused by its publication that La Mettrie was forced
to take refuge in Leiden, where he developed his doctrines still
more boldly and completely, and with great originality, in L'Homme
machine (Eng. trans., London, 1750; ed. with introd. and notes,
J. Asszat, 1865), and L'Homme plante, treatises based upon principles
of the most consistently materialistic character.
ethics of these principles were worked out in Discours sur le
bonheur, La Volupté, and L'Art de jouir, in which the end
of life is found in the pleasures of the senses, and virtue is
reduced to self-love. Atheism is the only means of ensuring the
happiness of the world, which has been rendered impossible by
the wars brought about by theologians, under the excuse of an
inexistent "soul". When death comes, the farce is over
(la farce est jouée), therefore let us take our pleasure
while we can.
Mettrie has been called the Aristippus of modern materialism.
So strong was the feeling against him that in 1748 he was compelled
to quit the Netherlands for Berlin, where Frederick the Great
not only allowed him to practise as a physician, but appointed
him court reader. There La Mettrie wrote his major book "Discours
sur le bonheur" (1748), which caused the "ban"
by leading enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, D'Holbach.
His collected Oeuvres philosophiques appeared after his death
in several editions, published in London, Berlin and Amsterdam
Mettrie's celebration of sensual pleasure was said to have resulted
in his early death. Those who disagreed with La Mettrie's philosophy
used his death to claim that atheistic sensuality justifiably
results in an untimely demise.
French ambassador Tirconnel was very grateful to La Mettrie for
curing him of an illness. A feast was given to celebrate the recovery.
It is claimed that La Mettrie wanted to show either his power
of gluttony or his strong constitution by devouring a large quantity
of pâte aux truffes. As a result, he developed a fever,
became delirious, and died.
the Great gave the funeral oration. He declared, "La Mettrie
died in the house of Milord Tirconnel, the French plenipotentiary,
whom he had restored to life. It seems that the disease, knowing
with whom it had to deal, was cunning enough to attack him first
by the brain, in order to destroy him the more surely. A violent
fever with fierce delirium came on. The invalid was obliged to
have recourse to the science of his colleagues, but he failed
to find the succor that his own skill had so often afforded as
well to himself as to the public."
in a confidential letter to the Markgräfin von Bayreuth,
Frederick wrote," He was merry, a good devil, a good doctor,
and a very bad author. By not reading his books, one can be very
content." He then mentioned that La Mettrie had indigestion
from the pheasant paste. The actual cause of his death, however,
was the bloodletting that La Mettrie had prescribed for himself.
Frederick asserted that the German doctors did not condone bleeding
a patient, and La Mettrie was trying to prove them wrong.