De l’esprit 1758
In this work Helvétius set out to prove that sensation is the source of all intellectual activity. It arroused considerable opposition, especially from the dauphine Louis, son of Louis XV. Although meeting with the approval of the royal censor (who was then fired), the work was denounced by the Sorbonne, the parlement, the Attorney General and the Pope himself. Along with other philosophical works, including Voltaire’s innocuous Poème sur la loi naturelle (1756), it was burnt, in spite of Helvétius’s three retractions, by the public hangman in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice. It was, however, translated into several European languages.
Voltaire claimed De l’esprit was full of commonplaces and that anything in it that was original was false and Rousseau declared that the benevolence of the author gave the lie to his principles.
“From Locke’s sensationalism and La Mettrie’s materialism Helvétius constructed a picture of man that is stark in its simplicity; even tough-minded contemporaries found his almost gloating insistence on universal, unrelieved egotism a little repulsive. Men, Helvétius argues, are the recipients of sensations and the centres of passion. Thus equipped, each man acts to realize his desires in the world by following his self-interest with a kind of iron consistency. This is a profoundly pessimistic view of man’s nature, but it is relieved by Helvétius’s optimistic view of man’s possibilities. What man thinks, believes, even what he feels, is open to the most extensive modifications through the social environment - man, in other words, can be educated to be almost anything, even a good citizen.” (Gay, The Enlightenment, vol. II, 513)
Men’s education, taking the word “in its true and more extensive signification”, differed far more than their schooling did, hence the vast differences among them. “I say, no one receives the same education . . . Everyone, if I may put this way, has for his preceptors the form of government under which he lives, his friends, his mistresses, the men by whom his is surrounded, his reading, and, finally, chance, that is to say, an infinite number of events whose causes and connections our ignorance does not permit us to perceive.” Only the responsible legislator can recognize that the sciences of legislation and of education are one and the same. “It is solely through good laws that one can form virtuous men. Thus the whole art of the legislator consists of forcing men, by the sentiment of self-love, to be always just to one another.” Obviously, “to make such laws one must know the human heart, and to know first of all that men, responsive to themselves, indifferent to others, are born neither good nor bad, but ready to be the one or the other.”
De l’homme 1773
This posthumous work, in which Helvétius attacks Rousseau’s Émile by upholding the value of education, is supposed to have influenced Jeremy Bentham. Diderot mocked one of its claims, namely, that in a rationally organised society every member has the potential to become a genius.
Helvétius maintained that all man’s faulties can be reduced to sensation, men are only motivated by self-interest, which is founded on the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and that all men’s intellects are equal, their inequalities due to man’s unequal desire for education (“one becomes stupid as soon as one ceases to be passionate”).
The work was translated into English in 1777.