twenty-three, at the queen's request, he was appointed 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. 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.
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, 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.
l'esprit, intended to be the rival of Montesquieu's L'Esprit des
lois (The Spirit of the Laws), appeared in 1758. It attracted
immediate attention and aroused the most formidable opposition,
especially from Louis, dauphin de France, 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.
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.
philosophy belongs to the utilitarian school. The four discussions
of which his book consists have been thus summed up:
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.
5. 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. Also, C Beccaria states that he
was largely inspired by Helvétius in his attempt to modify
keynote of his thought was that public ethics has a utilitarian
basis, and he insisted strongly on the importance of culture in
national development. Although his thinking was unsystematic,
many of his critics misrepresented him. He had great influence
on Jeremy Bentham, however, in the US, books and college courses
on utilitarianism often neglect his contributions, and flatly
start with Bentham; most references to him are limited to history
buffs or Francophiles.
sort of supplement to the De l'esprit, called De l'homme, de ses
facultés intellectuelles et de son éducation (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 Madame 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).