History of Literature

French literature


Claude-Adrien Helvétius

born Jan. 26, 1715, Paris, Fr.
died Dec. 26, 1771, Voré, Collines des Perches

philosopher, controversialist, and wealthy host to the Enlightenment group of French thinkers known as Philosophes. He is remembered for his hedonistic emphasis on physical sensation, his attack on the religious foundations of ethics, and his extravagant educational theory.

Helvétius, the son of the Queen’s chief physician, was made farmer general (a revenue office) at the Queen’s request in 1738. In 1751 he married, resigned his post, and retired to his lands at Voré. There he wrote the poem Le Bonheur (“Happiness”), published posthumously with an account of his life and works by the Marquis de Saint-Lambert (1772), and his celebrated philosophical work De l’esprit (1758; “On the Mind”), which immediately became notorious. For its attack on all forms of morality based on religion it aroused formidable opposition, particularly from the son of Louis XV, the dauphin Louis, though it was published openly with the benefit of royal privilege. The Sorbonne condemned it, and it was ordered burned in public. This, the gravest crisis the Philosophes had known, led Voltaire to claim that the book was commonplace, obscure, and in error. Also, Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that the very benevolence of the author gave the lie to his principles. Helvétius was called to recant, and he thrice made retractions of the book. Publication of the famous Philosophes’ Encyclopédie was suspended, and works by others, including Voltaire, also were burned.

Conveniently, Helvétius visited England in 1764 and, on invitation of Frederick II the Great, went to Berlin in 1765. On his return to France the same year the Philosophes were once again in favour, and Helvétius spent the rest of his life at Voré.

Helvétius held that all men are equally capable of learning, a belief that led him to argue against Rousseau’s work on education, Émile, and to claim in De L’homme (1772) that education’s possibilities for solving human problems were unlimited.



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