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Claude Adrien Helvétius Claude Adrien Helvétius (February 26, 1715 - December 26, 1771) was a French Enlightenment philosopher, writer and philanthropist. He is widely regarded as one of the first to promote utilitarianism, and was perhaps the first to define social welfare based upon the utilitarian maxim: “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” He believed that public ethics has a utilitarian basis, and he insisted strongly on the importance of culture in national development.

His book, De l'esprit, aroused immediate opposition when it was published in 1758, because it argued that actions and judgments are generated by a natural desire to maximize pleasure and declared that, as a consequence, human behavior is determined by education and social environment. The book was condemned by Louis, dauphin de France, the Collège de Sorbonne, and the pope as being full of dangerous doctrines and antireligious ideas. Though Helvetius made three retractions, the book was publicly burned. The outcry caused the book to become the most widely read book in Europe at the time, and it was translated into several languages.

Helvetius took the empiricist position that man was born a ''tabula rasa'' ("blank tablet") and acquired knowledge through sense impressions and the association of ideas. His most original concepts were the natural equality of intelligences and the omnipotence of education, neither of which gained general acceptance, though both were prominent in the system of John Stuart Mill. His ideas influenced Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria, and the British utilitarians, including Jeremy Bentham.


Claude Adrien Schweitzer (latinized as Helvétius) was born in Paris, France on February 26, 1715, into a family of prominent physicians. His grandfather, a famous alchemist, introduced the use of ipecacuanha; his father was first physician to Marie Leszczyńska, Queen of France. Claude Adrien studied at the College Louis-le Grand where he trained for a career in finance, while occupying his spare time with poetry and literature. In 1738, at the age of twenty-three, he was appointed farmer-general (tax collector) by the Queen, and soon afterward became the Queen’s chamberlain. In 1751, he married Anne Catherine "Minette" de Ligniville, a relation of the Queen, and retired to a small estate at Vore, in Perche, where he devoted himself to philosophical studies and employed his fortune in the relief of the poor, the encouragement of agriculture, and the development of industries.

His major work, De l'esprit, intended to rival Montesquieu's L'Esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), appeared in 1758 and attracted immediate attention. The book argued that actions and judgments are generated by a natural desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and declared that, as a consequence, human behavior is completely determined by education and social environment. This aroused formidable opposition from the Collège de Sorbonne, Louis, dauphin de France (son of Louis XV), and the pope. Priests persuaded the court that the book was full of dangerous doctrines and antireligious ideas, conducive to immorality. Helvetius wrote three separate retractions, but his book was condemned and burned by the public executioner.

As a result of this publicity, the book was translated into almost all the languages of Europe and became the most widely-read book of the time. Voltaire said that it lacked originality; Rousseau declared that the very benevolence of the author gave the lie to his principles; Grimm thought that all the ideas in the book were borrowed from Diderot; Madame du Deffand felt that Helvétius had raised such a storm by saying openly what every one thought in secret; Madame de Graffigny claimed that all the good things in the book had been picked up in her own salon.

Helvetius visited England in 1764, and the following year he went to Germany, where he was received with distinction by Frederick II. He spent the remainder of his life at his country estate in France. A second work, De l'homme, de ses facultes intellectuelles et de son Mucation (2 vols., London, 1772; Eng. transl., A Treatise on Man; his Intellectual Faculties and his Education, 2 vols.) was published the year after his death in December, 1771. A poem, Le Bonheur, (published posthumously, with an account of Helvétius's life and works, by Jean François de Saint-Lambert, 1773), develops the idea that true happiness is only to be found in making the interest of one person that of all.


Helvetius can be considered a founder or an early pioneer of modern utilitarianism. The French Enlightenment was characterized by philosophers who were preoccupied with using reason to improve the social and political welfare of mankind. Helvetius was one of the first to articulate the concept of social welfare as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

Helvetius took the empiricist position that man was born a tabula rasa ("blank tablet") and acquired knowledge through sense impressions and the association of ideas. He also argued that human actions and judgments arise from a natural desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and that consequently, human behavior is completely determined by social environment and education. This theory appeared to excuse man from taking responsibility for his moral choices, and resulted in the condemnation of his book, De l'esprit, by the Catholic church. Helvetius, however, did not intend to provide an excuse for immorality; he wanted to demonstrate that human behavior could be made virtuous and moral by offering incentives (pleasure) and punishments (pain) and by providing the proper education. He believed that a public system of ethics has a utilitarian basis, to bring about the best possible organization of society for the benefit of all. He also emphasized the importance of cultural values in the development of a nation.

De l’esprit consists of four discourses:

  • All man's faculties may be reduced to physical sensation, even memory, comparison, judgment. Our only difference from the lower animals is in our external organization.
  • Self-interest, founded in the love of pleasure and the fear of pain, is the sole spring of judgment, action, and affection. Self-sacrifice is prompted by the fact that the sensation of pleasure outweighs the accompanying pain; it is thus the result of deliberate calculation. We have no freedom of choice between good and evil—our decisions are shaped by our education and circumstances. There is no such thing as absolute right—ideas of justice and injustice change according to the customs of a society.
  • All intellects are equal. Their apparent inequalities do not depend on a more or less perfect organization, but have their cause in the unequal desire for instruction. This desire springs from passions, to which all men commonly well organized are susceptible to the same degree. We can, therefore, all love glory with the same enthusiasm. We owe everything we are to education. "Men are born ignorant, not stupid," argues Helvetius, but, "they are made stupid by education."
  • The fourth discourse is a discussion of the ideas which are attached to such words as genius, imagination, talent, taste, and good sense.

The concepts of the natural equality of intelligences and the omnipotence of education, never gained general acceptance, though both were prominent in the system of John Stuart Mill. C. Beccaria states that he was largely inspired by Helvétius in his attempt to modify penal laws. The ideas of Helvetius influenced Pietro Verri, and the British utilitarians, particularly Jeremy Bentham.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Duchet, Michele. Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des lumières: Buffon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Helvétius, Diderot. Flammarion, 1978.
  • Helvetius, Claude-Adrien. Philosophical Works. Thoemmes, 2000.
  • Helvetius, Claude-Adrien. De L'espirit or Essays on the Mind And Its Several Faculties. Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
  • Helvetius, Claude-Adrien. Correspondance Generale D'Helvetius 2: 1757-1760. Voltaire Foundation, 1984.
  • Smith, David W. Helvetius: A Study in Persecution. Greenwood, 1982.

External Links

All links retrieved December 14, 2017.

General Philosophy Sources


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