Helvétius Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A major work in the field of materialist ethics and bestseller of the clandestine book trade in prerevolutionary France, De l’esprit immediately came under attack by those in church and government who opposed Enlightenment philosophies. The book’s author, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, declared self-interest to be the motivating force behind all human actions.

Summary of Event

In France during the Enlightenment, Enlightenment;France freedom of the press Freedom of the press;France was vigorously curtailed. Authors and publishers of controversial literature worked under the constant menace of imprisonment and execution. Many of the contributing writers of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia (Diderot) 1965), including its editor in chief, had at some point been imprisoned, seen their books burned, or been forced into exile. In order to avoid censorship, Censorship;France Book censorship;France authors published their most defiant works anonymously abroad, while publishers of condemned literature used deceptive imprints and false addresses to confound prosecutors. It therefore came as a surprise to many that Claude-Adrien Helvétius chose to publish one of the century’s most controversial works of materialist philosophy Materialist philosophy in France rather than abroad. [kw]Helvétius Publishes De l’esprit (July 27, 1758) [kw]De l’esprit, Helvétius Publishes (July 27, 1758) [kw]Publishes De l’esprit, Helvétius (July 27, 1758) De l’esprit (Helvétius)[De lesprit] Ethics [g]France;July 27, 1758: Helvétius Publishes De l’esprit[1520] [c]Philosophy;July 27, 1758: Helvétius Publishes De l’esprit[1520] Helvétius, Claude-Adrien Diderot, Denis Malesherbes, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Tercier, Jean-Pierre Durand, Laurent

Helvétius reportedly began work on De l’esprit (1758; De l’Esprit: Or, Essays on the Mind and Its Several Faculties, 1759) as early as 1737, but it was not until some twenty years later, probably during the spring of 1757, that a first complete draft was ready for outside appraisal. Despite the inherent difficulties and dangers of the project, friends close to Helvétius convinced him that his work should be published in France, and arrangements were made for him to discuss having it approved for publication by Jean-Pierre Tercier, an accommodating royal censor employed at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tercier, who seems to have read only portions of the text, relied mainly on the author’s verbal declaration of conformity when he issued final approval on March 27, 1758.

Based on Tercier’s report, a royal privilege was granted to Helvétius on March 12, 1758. By late June, the book’s publisher, Laurent Durand, was about to offer it to the public when the French minister in charge of censorship, Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, was alerted by a concerned inspector of the book trade and imposed a delay upon publication pending an inquest. After a second, anonymous appraisal of the work, substantive changes were required, but publication was allowed to resume.

A revised first edition of De l’esprit went on sale July 27, 1758, and immediately came under attack from prominent members of the Church and the government. About two weeks later, the book’s royal privilege was revoked. Critics were all the more alarmed by implications that the book had received its imprimatur from duly appointed censors. They took this imprimatur as a sign that government officials had become lax or perhaps even secretly supported Enlightenment philosophers in their defiance of Church doctrine.

The author’s recantations, two of which were published in September, did little to assuage his most vocal critics and in fact contributed to the public’s already intense curiosity. Awash in scandal, De l’esprit became a bestseller. Even as religious and civil authorities hastened to proscribe its content, publishers in France, Holland, Belgium, England, and Germany brought out new editions to satisfy intense public demand. By 1760, thirteen separate editions of the work had been released in French, as well as complete translations in English and German. An Italian translation appeared only after the French Revolution, between 1797 and 1799.

De l’esprit is a work of political Political philosophy and moral philosophy Moral philosophy divided into four essays and founded in radical sensationalism Sensationalism and utilitarian ethics. Utilitarian ethics In the first essay, Helvétius summarily rejects the notion of innate ideas, defining mind as both the faculty of thought and the ability to perceive and retain physical sensations. Since knowledge is acquired through experience Experience and knowledge alone, metaphysical constructs such as matter, space, or the infinite are impossible to know. Self-love is assigned as the driving force behind all human actions, and liberty Liberty;personal is defined as the ability to pursue one’s self-interest.

In the second essay, Helvétius introduces additional philosophical concepts while exposing the inadequacies of conservative Christian asceticism and the injustices of present and past political regimes. In particular, he identifies the good of the greater number as a fundamental principle of any just society. If, as he maintains, all human actions are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, the legislator’s principal objective must then lie in reconciling personal interests with the general interest. Helvétius asserts that, rather than combating human passion as conservative Christian moralists constantly recommend, the enlightened legislator should enact laws capable of channeling humanity’s positive energies toward the good of all.

In the third essay, Helvétius proceeds to examine the faculties of the mind, Reason;and passion[passion] Passion and reason the importance of human passions as a driving force behind genius, various forms of human passion and their effects on a nation’s prosperity. He concludes that all individuals, given the proper circumstances and a proper education, are capable of genius. In the fourth and final essay, he discusses various attributes or qualities of the mind—imagination, wit, the ability to write with elegance, common sense, opinion, the art of good conduct—before concluding with a chapter on the importance of education as a tool of enlightenment.

In isolated comments dispersed throughout essays two, three, and four, Helvétius challenged the existence of miracles, Catholic Church;criticism of denounced the vanity of theological disputes, and condemned an assortment of social inequities, ranging from the poverty and ignorance of the French peasantry to the evils of the slave trade. He defended his fellow Enlightenment philosophers against their enemies, inveighing against the reactionary elements in the Church and the French government who sought to silence them. He associated these reactionary elements with the superstitions of the past and of apparently exotic locales, labeling them fakirs, Brahmins, priests, magicians, and despotic viziers.

Helvétius opposed the autocratic power of monarchs; praised the stability of governments that divided power between the people, the aristocracy, and kings; and defended the freedom of speech. Like his friend Montesquieu, Helvétius recognized in civic virtue a fundamental principle of any stable democracy, Democracy;Claude-Adrien Helvétius[Helvetius] yet he defined the term in a revolutionary manner. Rather than educate citizens on the “virtues” of self-sacrifice, he argued, legislators must recognize that the seeds and the strength of virtue lie in the pursuit of self-interest.


De l’esprit was a profoundly revolutionary work of materialist philosophy. Those in the Church and the government who condemned the work charged that it violated divine and human laws, denied the existence of human liberty, and sought the destruction of traditional moral doctrine—in sum, that it was a dangerous and immoral book. The scandal occasioned by its officially approved publication in 1758 not only led to the book’s prohibition but also provided its enemies with a convenient pretext for a vigorous public campaign against the proliferation of Enlightenment ideas in French society.

Diderot’s Encyclopedia, temporarily banned from publication in March, 1759, was one of several works condemned by the same reactionary forces Helvétius had inadvertently unleashed. However, these partial victories obtained by the opponents of the Enlightenment were largely temporary. Work on the Encyclopedia was allowed to continue, and the ban placed on De l’esprit, although it remained in effect, failed to stem the author’s popularity in a flourishing clandestine book trade. Surviving records suggest that Helvétius was one of the top ten bestselling authors of condemned literature in prerevolutionary France. His sober analysis of human conduct greatly influenced Cesare Beccaria’s Beccaria, Cesare thoughts on the reform of criminal justice and provided a theoretical foundation for the elaboration of utilitarian ethics in the works of Jeremy Bentham Bentham, Jeremy and John Stuart Mill. Mill, John Stuart In modern educational theory, namely in the debate over nature versus nurture, his assumption that individuals are born with equal mental abilities continues to promote lively discussion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cumming, Ian. Helvetius: His Life and Place in the History of Educational Thought. New York: Routledge, 1955. A survey of Helvétius’s life and works, including discussion of major philosophical precedents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horowitz, Iriving Louis. Claude Helvetius: Philosopher of Democracy and Enlightenment. New York: Pain-Whitman, 1954. A detailed examination of Helvétius in historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richards, Earl Jeffrey. “The Axiomatization of National Differences and National Character in the European Enlightenment: Montesquieu, Hume, d’Alembert, Helvetius, and Kant.” In Komparatistik und Europaforschung: Perspektiven vergleichender Literatur und Kulturwissenschaft, edited by Hugo Dyserinck and Karl Ulrich Syndram. Bonn, Germany: Bouvier Verlag, 1992. Discusses Helvétius’s views on the mutability of national character and climate, opposing them to those of other major Enlightenment philosophers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, David. Bibliography of the Writings of Helvetius. Ferney-Voltaire, France: Centre International d’Étude du XVIIIe Siècle, 2001. Includes general discussion of De l’esprit and descriptions of all known editions and translations from 1758 to 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Helvetius: A Study in Persecution. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1965. Essential reading focused on the controversy generated by De l’esprit.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wootton, David. “Helvetius: From Radical Enlightenment to Revolution.” Political Theory 28 (2000): 307-336. Rejects the notion that Helvétius was a “disciple of Montesquieu.” Sees him as a radical theorist and precursor to the French Revolution.

Early Enlightenment in France

Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe

Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws

Diderot Publishes the Encyclopedia

Condillac Defends Sensationalist Theory

Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide

Rousseau Publishes The Social Contract

Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket

Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature

Publication of Rousseau’s Confessions

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Categories: History