Claude Adrien Helvétius

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Helvétius, Claude Adrien

 

Born Jan. 31, 1715, in Paris; died there Dec. 26, 1771. French materialist philosopher, ideologist of the revolutionary 18th-century French bourgeoisie.

Helvétius was born into the family of a court physician and was a graduate of a Jesuit college. Until 1751 he was a farmer-general, and later he became friendly with Montesquieu and Voltaire and devoted himself to scholarly pursuits. One of his principal works, De l’sprit (1758; Russian translations, 1917, 1938), was proscribed and burned.

Helvétius maintained that the world was material, infinite in time and space, and in constant motion and that thought and sensation were properties of matter that have evolved as its most complex forms. Helvétius was one of the first of the 18th-century French materialists to overcome the inconsistency in the English philosopher J. Locke’s theory of knowledge by imparting to its sensualism an openly materialist character; he was an opponent of agnosticism. He was sharply critical of the ideas of the existence of god, creation of the world, and immortality of the soul, but he did not go beyond metaphysical thinking and left unresolved the problem of spontaneous motion. He absolutized the all-around importance of the laws of mechanics and reduced thought to its sensory basis.

As a critic of the theological view of societal life, Helvétius explained it without recourse to supernatural forces, but he did not transcend an idealistic understanding of history. He began the study of social phenomena with the isolated individual, declaring the consciousness and passions of the human being to be the prime motive force of societal development. Helvétius criticized the doctrine of the innate inequality of people’s intellectual capacities, explaining the differences in their psychological and moral makeup primarily in terms of peculiarities of the environment in which they were reared. Criticizing religious and spiritualist ethics based on acceptance of the innateness of moral feelings and conceptions, Helvétius argued for the experiential origin of moral conceptions and their derivation from the individual’s interests. He sought to unite his individualism with the interest of society, which actually was the idealized class interest of the bourgeoisie.

Helvétius called for the complete abolition of feudal relations and feudal ownership. Considering the republican form of government to be unsuitable for large states, he was a proponent of enlightened absolutism, a concept he invested with bourgeois-democratic content.

The work of Helvétius played an important role in the ideological preparation for the French bourgeois revolution of the late 18th century and the Utopian socialism of the early 19th and in the development of philosophical thought.

WORKS

Oeuvres complètes, vols. 1-14. Paris, 1795.
In Russian translation:
Schast’e: Poema. Moscow, 1936.
O cheloveke, ego umstvennykh sposobnostiakh i ego vospitanii. Moscow, 1938.

REFERENCES

Plekhanov, G. V. Ocherki po istorii materializma: Izbr. filosofskie soch., vol. 2. Moscow, 1956.
Voronitsyn, I. P. K. A. Gel’vetsii. Moscow, 1934.
Momdzhian, Kh. N. Filosofiia Gel’vetsiia. Moscow, 1955.
Silin, M. A. K. A. Gel’vetsii—vydaiushchiisia frantsuzskii filosof-materialist 18 v. Moscow, 1958.
Shishkin, A. F. Iz istorii eticheskikh uchenii. Moscow, 1959. Chapter 4.
Keim, A. Helvétius, sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1907.
Grossman, M. The Philosophy of Helvetius. New York, 1926.
Horowitz, I. L. Claude Helvetius. New York, 1954.

KH. N. MOMDZHIAN