Helvétius, Claude Adrien

Sophie Audidière

1Considering that their contemporaries could have been wrong, it has been thought for almost seventy years that the Lettres de M. Helvétius au président de Montesquieu et à M. Saurin, relatives à l’aristocratie de la noblesse (‘Letters by M. Helvétius to the président de Montesquieu and M. Saurin on the subject of the aristocracy and nobility’), published separately in 1789 before being integrated by La Roche (Helvétius’s literary executor) into the Œuvres complètes d’Helvétius publiées avec un essai philosophique sur la vie et les ouvrages de l’auteur (‘Complete works of Helvétius, with a philosophical essay on his life and works’, Paris: Didot, 1795), are forgeries. Richard Koebner, Werner Krauss, and David Smith after them, have shown, adducing philological and philosophical considerations, that the letters’ terminology, strongly marked by Revolutionary problematics, could not be that of any prerevolutionary author, in particular with respect to the concept of despotism. They equally identified the biographical and contextual reasons that incline one to see La Roche himself as the letters’ author. In them the pseudo-Helvétius in premonitory fashion reproaches Montesquieu for limiting himself to observations of fact when it is time to show what government should be, society being on the verge of unprecedented changes. Montesquieu was losing sight of the alternative between good and bad governments for the sake of a typology the effect of which would be to save the intermediate bodies. This error is caused by the prejudices one anticipates coming from a member of the judicial nobility, and disguised the fact that intermediary bodies and fiscal reforms are in the process of tilting France into “despotism”. It takes its inspiration moreover in part from an ill-founded admiration for the English model.

2On the contrary, we shall see here first of all that in his De l’esprit (‘On the mind’, 1758) and De l’homme (‘On man’, 1773, posthumous), Helvétius made ad hoc but clearly delineated use of the concept of despotism elaborated by Montesquieu. This concept is indeed operative in the analysis of the French government, in the explanation of the inequality of minds, and in the refutation of the idea of enlightened despot, three key moments in Helvétian philosophy. Moreover if, in De l’homme, Helvétius criticizes the typology of principles of governments, he thinks of his critique as prolongation and not as refutation. Helvétius, indeed, like three of his good readers who are Diderot, Le Roy and Chastellux, fundamentally considers his work to lie in the lineage of or more precisely as the “preface” of The Spirit of Law. This indication of reading is complemented by another, which has to do with his style and method.

3In terms of personal relations, the thesis of a break between the two men was propagated and refuted in the 1760s (see for example David Hume to Hugh Blair, 1 April 1767, dans Helvétius, Correspondance générale, no 622, t. III, p. 285-286). Helvétius’s correspondence as well as various witnesses show them to be friendly and attentive to one another (26 August [1748] and 11 February 1749, OC, t. XX), and Helvétius’s real admiration for Montesquieu is not in doubt (Saint-Lambert, Préface, ou Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages d’Helvétius, p. xviii).

4All of the third Discourse of De l’esprit is based on a reading of Montesquieu and in various arguments mobilises the concept of despotism. Designated indifferently as “despotism” or “Oriental despotism”, it presents the consistency of an authentic political regime, which allows Helvétius to analyze first the nature of the French government. Thus (De l’esprit, III, 16, p. 338-339) the government’s form (the “constitution”), a true private property (EL, V, 14, § 17; VI, 1, § 10 ; VI, 13, § 2) and the presence of fundamental laws (EL, II, 1, § 1 and II, 4) distinguish the French monarchy from despotism. Later, Helvétius clearly asserts, in line with Montesquieu (EL, III, 10, § 6), that the absolute subjection of religion is an incontestable sign of despotism. But, he writes, this is not the case of the Catholic Church in the France of his time, which is not governed by a despot; moreover for Helvétius to regret this autonomy simply implies that he is well aware that despotism is the result of the conjunction of factors that are not necessarily despotic in themselves. Finally, right after that Helvétius defends the idea that if France fell into despotism, she would not survive for long, precisely because her geography is not that of a plain bounded by deserts to defend it, of the “Oriental” sort, which would make of her a prey to the neighboring powers (De l’esprit, III, 16, p. 339), unlike the “vast deserts” and the “depopulation” of the despotic empires of Turkey and Persia. The argumentation is evidently taken in full from Montesquieu. The operative restitution of the concept of despotism proper to Montesquieu is thus partial but clearly delineated.

5In the same chapter, the explanation of the observed empirical inequality of minds and the variable intensity of that inequality in various eras and countries by a series of moral causes also rests on a conceptual borrowing from Montesquieu. Some, writes Helvétius, explain this inequality by differences of organization which others justify by “climate”, “temperature”, “the air” (De l’esprit, III, 30, p. 414), as opposed to the “difference of latitudes” (De l’homme, II, 12, p. 141). This is the physical thesis, which designates, as the cause of inequality, and as justification for the pretention of the superiority of Northern peoples, a group of various, interdependent factors from climate in its meteorological dimension to peoples’ nutrition, via the quality of the terrain and the type of natural or cultivated productions it allows (De l’homme, II, 12, note a p. 141, 143, note b p. 144): numerous commentators see in this an opposition to Montesquieu (see John Lough and J.-J. Gislain over a span of nearly sixty years). Helvétius assimilates these theses to ancient prejudices of physicians, taken up again, according to him, by Rousseau (De l’esprit, III, 30, p. 412) and by writers like Dubos. In a letter purported to date from 1765, Helvétius also discusses this thesis in an author who might be Jean Simon Lévesque de Pouilly (Correspondance générale, no 546, t. III, p. 151-155). This is not the place to argue the weight of these mentions in the context of Helvétius’s writings; instead we might note that Helvétius’s argumentation on the presumed inferiority of Orientals rests precisely on the concept of despotism elaborated by Montesquieu, and which he takes from him more than he critiques the role of climate. Indeed Helvétius reminds us that it is false to say, as did Montesquieu, that southern Asia, “bristling with mountains”, is “a vast plain the expanse of which provided tyranny with the means of retaining the peoples in slavery” (De l’esprit, III, 29, p. 402). But he borrows from him the idea of a southern plain to characterize France as a monarchy and not a despotic regime. Helvétius’s argument is in fact that the physical causes (here the fact that the territory is or is not a plain) exist and play a role inversely proportional to the sway of moral causes. Before these dominate in the form of laws that societies adopt for themselves, determination by physical causes accounts for the state of advancement of men’s minds. Now that is exactly the type of chronological priority that Montesquieu grants to the influence of climate (EL, XIV, 5). There again, Helvétius borrows from Montesquieu, in a perspective which is not critical, before further developing his own thesis.

6Finally, Montesquieu is again of conceptual assistance in Helvetius’s demonstration of the impossibility of an enlightened despot. For Helvétius, in line with Montesquieu, the despot by definition satisfies all his desires, and is thus necessarily without strong passions. But in this same logic, the intense and constant pursuit of truth presupposes a strong passion to sustain the effort of attention (“the mind is the child of desire and need”, (De l’homme, I, note 21, p. 97). Consequently, « to require enlightenment of him (the despot) is to wish for rivers to return to their source, and expect an effect without a cause” (De l’esprit, IV, 14, p. 529; see also De l’homme, II, note 20, p. 187).

7Thus, Helvétius encounters Montesquieu at certain points, and borrows one conceptual articulation or another to support his own particular logic of the engendering of passions and virtues. But our examination does bring out in him a real acclimatization of the concept of despotism and the argumentative links within which it can be made to function. If the doctrinal points developed above can seem to concern nothing more than the understanding of Helvétius’s text, we can still resituate them in the wider framework of the articulation which Helvétius proposes between his work and that of Montesquieu, such as their contemporaries grasp it, which thus offers a double point of view on the reception of Montesquieu.

8The object of Helvétius’s philosophy consists in a moral philosophy which can be called materialist insofar as the moral domain is governed by the single principle of physical sensation, its utility being political: it is a theory of the passions which can serve to show the legislator the perimeter of humanly possible action to assure the happiness of individuals and thereby that of nations. Now the sharpest criticism that Helvétius formulates with respect to Montesquieu has precisely to do with the matter of the passions. According to Helvétius, the tripartite division of principles effectuated by Montesquieu, more dazzling than solid, obscures perception of the fact that they are three secondary forms of a single first principle, which is the love of power (De l’homme, IV, 11, p. 228-229). This criticism, Hobbesian in character, ultimately consists in a theoretical “scruple” granting access to “deeper, clearer and more general” ideas on the matter of the “activating principle” of nations (ibid.). Helvétius indeed considers that he is offering the general anthropology that subtends The Spirit of Law. Helvétius may not be mistaken about Montesquieu’s project of constituting a science of mores, just as Diderot and Rousseau were able, at least at first, to reduce The Spirit of Law to matters of positive law. But in any event it seems to none of these readers that the project of a science of mores, were it to be found, could replace the classical project, taken up again by Helvétius, of a science of man.

9Quite to the contrary, Diderot writes in 1758, about De l’esprit, to the readers of Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire, “it is properly speaking the preface to The Spirit of Law” (p. 311). At the same time Le Roy was articulating the work of the jurisconsult, a specialist of the “system of laws and the physical and moral constitution of a country” with that of the speculative philosopher, attached to “discovering the outside causes which determine the physical man to act, to indicate the moral effects which the legislator must correctly aspire to achieve” (p. 264 and 266). Their combined works make up for one single opus for the use of magistrates. At Helvétius’s death, this reading is again prescribed by Chastellux: “De l’esprit, […] coming after The Spirit of Law in time, is immediately prior to it in the order of ideas” (p. 12).

10It is however far from the case that all his contemporaries thought this “bold project” (ibid., p. 23) was successfully carried off. Cideville wrote to Voltaire the De l’esprit was “a rehash of everything that has been said by Montesquieu, friend of mankind, etc.” (D7933). At the death of Helvétius, Grimm, who rarely let escape the opportunity for a personal attack, describes an Helvétius in the Correspondance littéraire who is obsessed by the idea of the literary glory incarnated by Maupertuis, Voltaire and Montesquieu, and attempting ultimately to equal the latter with his De l’esprit: “He hoped to raise to himself a column beside Montesquieu’s. He missed.” (January 1772, t. IX, p. 421).

11Besides the question of the articulation of a science of mores and a science of man, the other interesting indication left by contemporaries concerns style and method. First they associate Montaigne and Montesquieu as practicians of the art of indirect evidence, use of example, demonstrative erudition. The systematic association of the two authors under the pen of Voltaire is well known, for critical purposes: “I regret that this book should be a labyrinth without a thread, and that it has no method […] it is even stranger that his book should be is a collection of witticisms. It is Michel Montaigne as (L’A, B, C, p. 209). In an exchange with Voltaire, Charles de Brosses returns to, but in laudatory manner, the association between Montaigne and Montesquieu, and the better to mark Helvétius’s failure to imitate them, for want of as noble an aim as his predecessors: “Sometimes it seems I am running into Montaigne or Montesquieu, then it turns out that I have only read the Apologie pour Hérodote” (which is a collection of superstitions: de Brosses to Voltaire, Correspondance générale d’Helvétius, no. 348, t. II, p. 123-124). The criticism formulated in those precise terms must have been residual, for Saint-Lambert, at Helvétius’s death, repeats the parallel for apologetic ends: “M. Helvétius was accused of wanting for method. The same reproach was made to M. de Montesquieu […]. The chain of ideas escapes in M. de Montesquieu because he is often obliged to leave out the intermediary ideas. But this chain nevertheless exists. It escapes in M. Helvétius because the intermediate ideas being either very new or very important, he develops them, extends and embellishes them. Then the mind, struck by several details, loses sight of the principal ideas; but this succession is nevertheless in the work” (Préface, ou Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages d’Helvétius, p. lxxxiii-lxxxiv). Diderot contrariwise calls attention to the fact that Helvétius’s text suffers from too explicit a demonstrative will, when the genre of invention present in Helvétius’s text would paradoxically require a method like Montaigne’s, “which never tries to prove, but goes about proving” (Diderot, Réflexions sur le livreDe l’esprit”, p. 310-311). Helvétius’s book seems to him to come out “ten years” too late… The allusion is transparent: despite an apparent philosophical proximity, not just anyone can be Montesquieu.

12Diderot conversely underscores the fact that the text of Helvétius suffers from too explicit a demonstrative will, when the sort of invention present in the Helvetian text would paradoxically call for a method more like that of Montaigne, “who never tries to prove, and is constantly proving” (Diderot, Réflexions sur le livre “De l’esprit”, p. 310-311). Helvétius’s book seems to him to come out “ten years” too late… The allusion is transparent: despite an apparent philosophical proximity, not just anyone can be Montesquieu.


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John Lough, “Helvétius and d’Holbach”, Modern Language Review, 33/1 (1938), p. 360-384.

Richard Koebner, “The Authenticity of the Letters on the Esprit des Lois attributed to Helvétius”, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, May 1951, vol. XXIV, no 69, p. 19-43.

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David Smith, “Helvétius: problèmes de recherche”, Revue de l’université libre de Bruxelles, 1972, no. 2-3, “L’idéologie des Lumières”, p. 144-156.

Jean-Jacques Gislain, “Garantisme et utilitarisme des Lumières: l’éthique laïque et civique d’Helvétius”, in Œconomia: économies et sociétés, Cahiers de l’ISMEA, 18 (1993), “L’utilitarisme des origines”, p. 67-116.

Bibliographical reference

Audidière Sophie , « Helvétius, Claude Adrien », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL : https://dictionnaire-montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/fr/article/dem-1377721132-en/en