Claude Adrien Helvétius

The French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771) advocated political and social equality for all men and held that education and legislation were the means to attain this goal.

Claude Adrien Helvétius was born on Jan. 25, 1715, in Paris into a family of noted physicians. Taught by private tutor until 11, Claude attended France's leading school, the Jesuits' Louis-le-grand. To prepare Helvétius for the remunerative post of tax collector, his father apprenticed him to his uncle, already in such a position. At Caen, Helvétius studied more than finance: he wrote poetry; he read John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, and Sir Isaac Newton; and he indulged himself in the pleasures of the town.

Through influence of the Queen, his father procured for Helvétius a post as tax collector. This position required him to travel much in the provinces, and he became painfully aware of the state of the rural economy. From 1738 to 1751 his home was Paris. Handsome, a good dancer, with a great passion for women, he circulated vigorously in Parisian society. But by 1749 he longed for a life of repose so as to write. In 1751 he married and retired to a country estate at Voré.

By 1755 Helvétius had produced De l'esprit. On July 15, 1758, the book was offered for sale in Paris. By early August difficulties began for Helvétius and lasted until his death in 1771. He was exiled for 2 years from Paris, and the sale of his book was forbidden. Publicly burned, placed on the Index, condemned by Jansenist and Jesuit alike, the work was attacked even by other philosophes. Some of them found it narrow and empty; others thought its boldness frightening.

In 1764 Helvétius visited England and in 1765, Prussia. He was struck by the great disparity of wealth found among the "free" English. England's commercialism, he said, had "made corruption legal." Except for these tours and occasional trips to Paris, Helvétius' remaining years were spent at Voré and were for him rather melancholy ones. Harvests were poor, and attacks of gout prevented his participation in sports, which, in addition to women, were said to be his real passion.

By 1769 Helvétius had finished De l'homme and turned to reworking his early poem Du bonheur. On Dec. 4, 1771, he and his family left Voré for the winter's stay in Paris. On December 26, following severe gout attacks, Helvétius died surrounded by his family.

Helvétius taught that man depended for all his knowledge on sensation and that his motives were those of self-love. For Helvétius the truly virtuous man is he who finds his pleasure—not just his obligation—in working for the common good. Most religions, he held, were ineffectual and offered hypocritical bases for morality. Differences in men's behavior stem from differences in station and education rather than from inherent differences. So, legislation that pertains to the structure of society and education accorded to all by the state are the fit means to procure an increase in man's happiness. In economics too Helvétius' views were radical, and he traced the unhappiness of men and nations to unequal distribution of wealth.


Further Reading on Claude Adrien Helvétius

A good recent work on Helvétius is David Warner Smith, Helvétius: A Study in Persecution (1965). Mordecai Grossman, The Philosophy of Helvétius, with a Special Emphasis on the Educational Implications of Sensationalism (1926), is a still useful introduction. For Helvétius as an educational theorist see Ian Cumming, Helvétius: His Life and Place in the History of Educational Thought (1955). Irving Louis Horowitz, Claude Hevétius: Philosopher of Democracy and Enlightenment (1954), is a forthright appreciation of Helvétius' political and economic thought and influence.

Additional Biography Sources

Grossman, Mordecai, The philosophy of Helvetius, with special emphasis on the educational implications of sensationalism, New York, AMS Press, 1972.

Hazlitt, William, An essay on the principles of human action, and some remarks on the systems of Hartley and Helvetius, Gainesville, Fla., Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1969.

Smith, David Warner., Helvétius: a study in persecution, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982, 1965.