Happy Birthday, Helvétius!

Claude-Adrien Helvétius, born on January 26th, 1715, is often credited with being a father of utilitarianism, or at least, for planting its philosophical seeds. Also an uncommonly egalitarian thinker for his time and place, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, perhaps filled with a tincture of some sort from time to time: Helvétius was the son and grandson of very wealthy physicians who ministered to royalty. Through these connections, Helvétius was appointed to a lucrative post as a tax collector and grew very wealthy when he was relatively young. By the time he was thirty-six and newly married, Helvétius had tired of courtly life, and retired to a country estate to take up a life of letters and scholarship.

The first published fruit of his study and writing was his famous philosophical work De l’esprit (Of the Mind). After it came out in 1758, it created an uproar at the University of Paris, among the clergy, among other philosophers, and at the court; on more than one occasion, it was publicly burned. To keep himself out of trouble, Helvétius was forced to publicly renounce the book. But as it is with so many things, all the controversy sparked intense public interest, and De l’esprit became one of the most widely read books of his time. And what exactly was it about the book that caused so much consternation? Salonnière, intellectual, and consummate letter-writer Madam du Deffand quipped that this was due to Helvétius putting into writing what everyone was already secretly thinking but not allowed to say.

More specifically, Helvétius’ controversial ideas include the notion that all animals, human beings included, form their mentalities from sensation and experience (thereby implicitly challenging religious concepts of the soul); that all actions we call right or just, wrong or unjust are ultimately the result of self-interest (though self-interest is so often bound up with our conception of ourselves as part of larger groups, such as nations, religious communities, tribes, and so on, so that self-interest and the interests of others can become virtually indistinguishable); that the passions are both the ultimate disguisers of truth while simultaneously providing the necessary drive to seek it at all; and that all human motivation consists of seeking the most pleasure and avoiding the most pain. The latter is a central tenet, in some form or another, of utilitarianism, and was developed into more comprehensive philosophical and ethical systems by those fathers of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Helvétius also had a theory of education and human aptitude that’s refreshingly egalitarian to modern sensibilities. He believed that everyone is just as capable of great learning and achievements, but that the only reasons people don’t equally achieve are either because they don’t care to, or because they were not taught well. While Helvétius did not have the benefit of later studies in psychology and the social sciences which reveal the picture to be more complicated than that, he did make the case that everyone could and should be able to develop themselves according to their interests and potential, and that the positive transformative power of education for individuals and societies is nearly boundless.

After Helvétius’ death on December 26, 1771, his widow, Anne-Catherine, never remarried. She spent much of her time hosting a famous salon; some years ago, I visited the place where she welcomed the erudition, wit, and flirtation of Benjamin Franklin (who was a special friend and admirer), Thomas Jefferson, Condorcet, Napoléon, and other luminaries, and shocked John and Abigail Adams.

Learn more about the sophisticated, free-thinking, and well-read Helvétius at

Claude-Adrien Helvétius ~ NNDB

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715—1771) ~ the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715 – 71) ~ by David Pearce for Utilitarianism.com

Claude-Adrien Helvétius: French PhilosopherEncyclopaedia Britannica

Enlightenment ~ by William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Helvétius appears in sect 2.2, ‘Ethical Theory‘)

Grand Illusions ~ Claude-Adrien Helvétius on passion blinders, republished in Lapham’s Quarterly

Madame Helvétius and Ben Franklin ~ at Rodama: A Blog of 18th Century & Revolutionary French Trivia

Salonnière Madame Helvétius ~ by Kristen O’Brien for The Salonnière blog

See also the works by Helvétius available online at the Internet Archive

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