Helvetius, Claude Adrien

Helvetius, Claude Adrien a French infidel, was born in Paris in January, 1715, and was educated by the Jesuits at the College of Louis-le-Grand. He afterwards studied law and finance, and, through the influence of queen Maria Leczinska, became a farmer-general. His life was disorderly up to the time of his marriage in 1751. In 1758 he published his De l'Esprit, which was a summary of the doctrines of the Encyclopedia. The book was bitterly denounced; and, "to regain the favor of the court, Helvetius successively published three letters of apology which gradually advanced in humility and submission. Notwithstanding the confession which they contained of a Christian faith, and his disclaimer of all opinions inconsistent with its spirit, the doctors of the Sorbonne drew up a formal condemnation of the work, which they declared to be a compendium of all the evil contained in all the bad books that had yet appeared. It was publicly burned, according to a decree of the Parliament of Paris." The style of the book is vicious and declamatory. Helvetius died at Paris Dee. 26, 1771, leaving a work behind him entitled De l'Homme, de ses Facults, et de son Education, which was published the same year at London and Amsterdam by prince Gallitzin, 2 vols. 8vo. "By esprit Helvetius understood as well the mental faculties as the ideas acquired by them. Both faculties and ideas he reduced to simple sensation, and he accounts for man's superiority over the brutes by the finer organism of his senses and the structure of his hands. Man, he considers, is the work of nature, but his intelligence and virtue are the fruit of education. The end of virtue is happiness, and utility determines the value of all actions, of which those are virtuous which are generally useful. Utility and inutility are, however, merely relative, and there is consequently nothing which is either absolutely good, or absolutely evil. The happiness and enlightenment of the people he makes to be the true end of all human government; and, denying a divine Providence in the government of the world, he declares all religion to be a cheat and a prejudice" (Engl. Cyclopedia, s.v.). His system is simply the lowest materialism. There have been several editions of his complete works (Lond. 1777, 2 vols. 4to; 1794, 5 vols. 8vo; Paris, 1795,14 vols. 18mo, ed. by Lefebvre; Paris, 1818, 3 vols. 8vo). See St. Lambert, Essai sur la Vie et les Ouvrages d'Helvetius; English Cyclopedia, s.v.; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Géneralé, 23, 885; Morell, History of Modern Philosophy, p. 110, 337; Remusat, in Revue d. deux Mondes, Aug. 15, 1858; Farrar, Critical History of Free Thought, lect. 5.

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