The French physician and philosopher Julien Offrayde La Mettrie (1709-1751) is best known for his "Man a Machine," an incisive and witty exposition of his theory of the dependence of mind on body.
The son of a tradesman, Julien de La Mettrie was born in Saint-Malo in Brittany on Dec. 25, 1709. Intended for the priesthood, he studied humanities at Coutances, rhetoric at Caen, and logic at the College of Plessis in Paris. At 15 he wrote an apologetic work on Jansenism. But this theological interest was short-lived, and in 1725 La Mettrie began 2 years of natural philosophy at the College of Harcourt. He received his degree in medicine at Rheims in 1728 and for the next 5 years practiced medicine in his native city.
In 1733 La Mettrie went to Leiden to study with the reknowned philosopher and physician Hermann Boerhaave. Soon La Mettrie was translating Boerhaave's works and adding his own observations—including treatises on venereal disease, vertigo, smallpox, and practical medicine and a six-volume commentary on Boerhaave's writings. La Mettrie's absorption with medicine persisted after his return to Saint-Malo.
La Mettrie's Parisian sojourn in 1742 secured for him a commission as physician to the troops of the Duc de Gramont. On the battlefield at Freiberg, La Mettrie himself became sick with fever. During his illness he was struck with how much a disturbance in the body affects the thought of man. This thesis was elaborated in his Histoire naturelle de l'âme (1745), a work that was violently denounced because of its atheistic materialism. La Mettrie was required by the regiment chaplain to relinquish his post with the army and then made to leave France.
In 1746 La Mettrie fled to Leiden. There in 1747 he published anonymously his infamous work, L'Homme machine (Man a Machine), audaciously and impishly dedicating that radical work to the pious scholar Albrecht von Haller. By 1748 his works were burned even in Holland, and he was forced to flee.
La Mettrie accepted Frederick the Great's offer of sanctuary in Prussia and lived there from February 1748, an intimate and witty companion of Frederick, a practicing physician for his friends, and a productive writer. L'Homme plante appeared in 1748. Placing man in the scale of beings, that work suggested the evolution and interrelation of beings. There too La Mettrie proposed—as did étienne Bonnot de Condillac—that the the degree of a creature's intelligence depends on the variety and number of needs experienced by that being. Three works detailing the social and ethical consequences of La Mettrie's view of man followed: L'Anti-Sénèque, ou Discours sur le bonheur (1748), Le Système d'épicure (1750), and L'Art de jouir (1751). La Mettrie held that "Nature has destined all of us solely to be happy. Yes, all, from the worm that crawls to the eagle that disappears into the night."
With an irony La Mettrie would have enjoyed, his death was early and unexpected. He was at the home of a friend in Berlin, asked there as a physician. Having eaten abundantly from an elaborate but spoiled pâté, he died of food poisoning on Nov. 11, 1751.
In English, the best approach to La Mettrie is the reading of LaMettrie himself in translation. The Open Court edition of Man a Machine, translated by Gertrude Bussey and M. W. Calkins, has a translation of Frederick the Great's eulogy of La Mettrie. The other source in English is a more general work by G. V. Plekhanov, Essays in the History of Materialism (1934). See also Aram Vartanian's critical edition of L'Homme machine: A Study of the Origins of an Idea (1960), especially the introductory monograph.
Wellman, Kathleen Anne, La Mettrie: medicine, philosophy, and enlightenment, Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. □