Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the History of Materialism



Interest and needs – these are the great and only instructors of the human race. Why is hunger the usual cause of human actions?’ Because, of all of man’s needs, it is the most frequent, the most imperative, and the most keenly felt. Hunger sharpens the intelligence of animals; it forces us to exercise our abilities – us humans, who imagine ourselves far superior to the animals. It teaches the savage to bend the bow, weave nets and set traps. “Again it is hunger that, with civilised peoples, makes all citizens work, till the soil, learn crafts, and perform any duty.” Mankind owes to it the art of making the land fertile and fashioning ploughshares, in just the same way as the art of building and making clothes arose from the need to seek protection from the elements. Without his needs, man would have no incentive to action. “One of the principal causes of the ignorance and the sluggishness of Africans is the fertility of this part of the world; it meets all needs with almost no cultivation of the land. Therefore the Africans have no incentive to thinking, and they do little of it. The same can be said of the Caribs. If they are less industrious than the North American savages, it is because the latter have to work harder to feed themselves.” Needs provide an exact yardstick of the human spirit’s resoluteness. “The inhabitants of Kamchatka, who in certain respects are of an unparalleled stupidity, are marvellously skilful in other ways. If it is a matter of making clothes, they excel Europeans in adroitness. Why? Because they inhabit a region of the world that is most intemperate in climate and where, by consequence, the need for clothing makes itself constantly felt. An habitual need is a constant spur.” [38]

But if we owe the “art of tilling the soil” to the existence of needs, that art, once discovered and practised, begins to exert an important and even decisive influence on our institutions, ideas and sentiments. “The forest-dweller, a naked man, who has no speech, may of course have a distinct idea of strength or weakness, but none of justice and law”. Such ideas presuppose the existence of society; they change together with society’s interests. Why was theft permitted in Sparta? Why were thieves caught there red-handed punished only for their lack of adroitness? What could be stranger than that custom? “However, if one recalls the laws of Lycurgus and the contempt in which silver and gold were held in a republic, where the laws permitted the circulation only of coins of heavy and brittle iron, one will realise that thefts of poultry and vegetables were the only ones that could be committed. Such thievery, always carried out with adroitness and often denied with firmness, confirmed the Lacedaemonians in the practice of courage and vigilance: the law permitting theft could be very useful to such a people ...” Let us see, on the other hand, how matters stood with the Scythians. They considered theft the most heinous of crimes, a view made inevitable by their mode of life. “Their herds grazed unguarded in the steppes; how easily they could have been stolen and what disorder would have ensued if such thefts had been tolerated? Therefore,” says Aristotle, “their laws were designed to protect their herds.” Peoples whose wealth consisted exclusively of cattle stood in no need of private ownership of the land, which first appeared among tillers of the soil, to whom it was wholly essential. Savage peoples that roam the forests knew only fleeting and chance relations between man and woman. Indissoluble marriage was introduced by settled and agricultural peoples. “Whilst the husband breaks the virgin soil or works his fields, the wife feeds the fowl, waters the beasts, shears the sheep, works in the house or the poultry yard, or cooks the meals for her husband, children and servants.” In this case, therefore, the indissolubility of marriage, far from being burdensome, is of the greatest benefit. Marriage laws in the Catholic countries are designed for this kind of relationship, and are therefore adapted to the interests and calling of those engaged in agriculture. On the other hand, they are a burden on people in other callings, particularly the “high-born”, the “wealthy”, and the “idle”, who see in love, not a means of satisfying actual and urgent needs but amusement, a means against ennui. The scenes of family morals among the parasitical classes of society which Count Leo Tolstoy has depicted in his Kreutzer Sonata, as did Fourier before him, are in the main reminiscent of what Helvetius wrote of marriage and love among the “idle”.

An agricultural people necessarily differ from a nomadic in character. “There are, in every country, a certain number of objects with which all people have to deal while they are being brought up, the identical impression from these objects engendering in citizens that similarity of ideas and sentiments that is called the national spirit or character.” It will be readily understood that such “objects”, whose influence is so decisive in education, are dissimilar with peoples living in conditions so different as, for instance, those engaged in agriculture and hunting. It is just as obvious that a people’s character may change. The French are considered of a gay disposition, but they have not always been like that. Thus the Emperor Julian said of the Parisii: “I love them because, their character, like mine, is austere and grave.” [39] But let us consider the Romans. How much strength, virtue, love of liberty and hatred of slavery marked them during the Republic! What weakness, cowardice and baseness when the emperors took the reins! Such baseness was intolerable even to Tiberius. Besides, it is not only together with the historical events that a people’s character undergoes change: in every period it is not the same even with people in different callings. The tastes and habits of warriors differ from those of priests, while the tastes and habits of the “idle” are not the same as those of ploughmen and artisans. All this depends on the upbringing. It is the latter that has subordinated woman to man. That kind of subordination does nol operate in the same way in all social estates. Women who are sovereign rulers (“Women like Elizabeth, Catherine II”, etc. [40]) are in no way inferior to men in intellectual gifts. The same is true of “court ladies” who are “distinguished by the same intellect as their husbands”. The reason is that, with them, despite all the difference in social status, the two sexes “get an equally poor upbringing”.

The different notions of beauty depend on the impressions of childhood. “If I especially admire any particular woman, she impresses herself in my recollection as a model of beauty, so that I shall judge of other women according to their greater or lesser resemblance to thai image. Hence the variety in tastes.” Thus, this is all a matter of habit. But since the habits of any particular people do not always remain the same, their tastes, and their judgements of beauty in objects of art and Nature undergo change too. [41] Why is it that we do not like medieval novels? “Why is it that during Corneille’s lifetime the genre of this illustrious poet was appreciated more highly than it is today?” (Of course, the reference is to Helvetius’s times. – G.P.) “It is because the troubled time of the League and the Fronde [3*] came to an end and minds that were still heated by the fires of the sedition were more audacious, more appreciative of the spirit of daring and more given to ambition; that is why the characters Corneille gave his heroes and the projects he made those ambitions conceive were more in keeping with the spirit of that age than of today, when few heroes are to be met, few citizens and few men of ambition, when a happy calm has succeeded the thunderstorms, and the volcanoes of sedition have everywhere died down.”

For a better understanding of Helvetius’s views on the role of “interest” in the history of mankind, we shall dwell a little longer on the Robinsonade that he thought up. His Robinson is represented by “several families who have retreated to an island”, Their first concern is the erection of cabins and the cultivation of the soil necessary for their subsistence. If the island has more arable land than the first colonists need, they will all be almost equally wealthy; those with the stronger hands and the greater diligence will be the wealthier. Consequently their interests are not very complex and “therefore” it will suffice for them to have “few laws”. If they are obliged to choose a leader, the latter will remain a farmer like all the rest. “The only privilege he may be granted is the choice of a plot of land. Apart from that, he will have no other power.

But, with the increase in the size and the density of the population, no more free land remains for occupation. What is there to he done by one who lias no landed property at all? Excluding such things as thievery, robbery, or emigration, the only thing he can do is to find refuge in new inventions. A man who is able to invent a new article of consumption or luxury that will find widespread use will make a living by bartering his handiwork for what is produced by the farmers and the artisans. He may possibly found a manufacture, “establishing it in some agreeable site, convenient, and usually on the banks of a river, whose arms stretch far into the interior of the country, thereby facilitating the carriage of his merchandise”. Of course, he will not remain the only manufacturer on the island. The continuing proliferation of the inhabitants will lead to the invention of other articles of luxury or consumption, and new manufactures will arise. Several of these will form, first a settlement and then a considerable town. “This town will soon contain the most wealthy citizens, because the profits from trade are always immense when traders are as yet few in number and there is still little competition.” Wealth gives rise to all kinds of entertainment. The rich landowners leave their estates so as to spend at least several months a year in town, where they are followed by the poorer folk in the hope of finding subsistence there. In short, our town has become a capital.

Thus we now have rich and poor people, employers of labour and ordinary working people. The initial equality has gone. We now have a people made up, under one and the same name, of an “infinity of different peoples whose interests are more or less contradictory”. There are as many nations as there are classes. This process of the formation of classes with differing and even contradictory interests is inevitable in the history of peoples. It takes place more or less rapidly, yet it constantly proceeds and will always do so. “A man who is more hard-working will earn more; the more thrifty saves more and, with the wealth he has already acquired, will acquire yet more wealth. All this is inevitable. Then, there are the heirs, who succeed to large inheritances. There are such merchants that invest large sums in ships, which bring them big gains: that is because, in any kind of commerce, money attracts money. Thus the unequal distribution of money is the inevitable result of its introduction in a State.”

But this necessary consequence brings in its train other and no less necessary effects. Those who possess nothing – and their number will increase constantly as a result of the reproduction of citizens – will compete among themselves more and more in search of some occupation. They will curtail their needs ever more and more. In consequence, the inequality keeps growing, and indigence becomes ever more widespread: “... the poor man sells, the rich man buys”, and the number of proprietors diminishes steadily. The laws then become more and more severe. Mild laws are suited to control a people of proprietors. “With the Germans, the Gauls and the Scandinavians, more or less heavy fines were the only punishments inflicted for various offences.” It is different when non-proprietors form the bulk of the nation. A man who is poor cannot be punished in his possessions; he must be punished in his person; hence corporal punishment. The larger the number of the poor, the more thefts, robberies and crimes are committed. Force has to be used to counter them. A man who has no property can easily change his place of sojourn, so that a guilty person can easily evade punishment. It therefore becomes necessary to arrest citizens with the observance of fewer formalities, often on the first suspicion. “... Arrest is already an arbitrary punishment, which, soon meted out on the proprietors themselves, replaces liberty by slavery.” In its turn, corporal punishment, first practised only against the poor, is then extended to the proprietors. “All citizens come equally under the laws of blood; everything unites to establish them.”

The greater number of citizens leads to the appearance of representative government, since it is no longer possible for all to gather at some one place to discuss public affairs. While citizens are still almost equal among themselves, their representatives adopt laws in accordance with the public interest. But in the measure of the erosion of the initial equality and with the growing complexity of citizens’ interests, the representatives begin to separate their own interests from those of the people they represent; they become more independent of those who have delegated them, and gradually acquire power equal to that of the entire nation. “Is it not clear that in a vast and populated country the division of the interests of the governed will always furnish governments with the means to encroach upon the authority that man’s natural love of power will always make him desire?” Indeed, on the one hand, the proprietors, engrossed in their property, “cease to be citizens”; on the other hand, the non-proprietors become secret enemies of the former, and can be armed by a tyrant or tyrants, whenever he or they so wish, for action against the proprietors. “It is then that the mental indolence of those who delegate authority and the active desire for power in those to whom it is delegated presage vast changes in the State. In such times, everything favours ambition in the latter.” Liberty dies out, and the prospect of despotism grows apace. It is thus that the multiplication in the number of citizens leads to the appearance of representative government. The opposedness of their interests leads to the rule of arbitrariness.

In a certain passage in his book De l’Homme, from which we have, in the main, drawn upon in the aforegoing exposition, Helvetius says that, in the conclusions he has drawn, he has based himself on experience and Xenophon. These are highly characteristic words. Like Holbach and other “philosophers” of his time, he quite clearly saw the role of the class struggle in history, but in his appraisal of that struggle he did not go much further than “Xenophon”, i.e., the writers of antiquity. In his opinion, the class struggle engendered tyranny, mostly tyranny, and nothing but tyranny. To him, the “non-proprietors” were merely a dangerous weapon in the hands of the ambitious rich; they arc capable only of selling themselves to anybody “willing to buy them”, and only of striving to do that. He was referring, not to the proletariat of today, but to that of antiquity, especially of Rome. Consequently, he saw social development only as a closed circle. “A man grows rich through commerce: he adds an infinity of small properties to his own. Then the number of proprietors, and consequently of those whose interests are most closely linked with the national interest, decreases; on the contrary, the number of people with no possessions and without any interest in public affairs increases. If such men are always ready to serve anyone who will pay them, how can one imagine that those in power will never make use of them to subordinate their fellow-citizens to themselves?

“Such is the necessary outcome of the excessive multiplication of people in an empire. This is a vicious circle from which no hitherto known governments have been able to escape.”

Helvetius was very far from regarding the British with the same distrust as Holbach. Incidentally, he found that Great Britain’s social and political conditions left much to be desired in many respects, but he esteemed her as the freest and most enlightened country in the world. Yet he did not consider the British freedom, so much to his liking, very reliable. He thought that the difference of interests which had developed so far in Britain would sooner or later lead to its inevitable consequence – the appearance of despotism. It must be admitted that Irish history, at least has not excessively refuted him.

Our philosopher’s views on the proliferation of humans again go to show how little originality the Malthusian theory contained. We shall not criticise those views here, or Helvetius’s views regarding the origin of property and the family. It will be sufficient for us simply to take note of his overall historico-philosophical point of view. [42] However, to have done with its characteristic, we must also consider some other consequences of the “proliferation of citizens”, or, to put it more correctly, of the constant and inevitable growth of property inequality.

There is nothing more dangerous to society than people without property! Nothing is more to the advantage of the employers than such people, and nothing else will better serve their interests. “The more poor people there are, the less the employers pay them for their labour.” But the employers are now the real power in a “trading country”. The public interest is sacrificed to their “private” interest, which motivates all their actions and is the criterion for their judgements. That is something we see in any society with complex and contrasting interests. It breaks up into small societies, which judge of the virtues, minds and merits of citizens from the angle of their own interests. In the long run, it is the interests of the mighty which dominate the nation and come in for the greatest consideration.

We already know that corruption of morals sets in universally wherever private interest is divorced from the public interest. The ever growing inequality in property must therefore engender and intensify the corruption of morals. Indeed, that is what takes place. Money, which makes for greater inequality, at the same time debases virtue. In a country “where there is no circulation of money”, the nation is the only fair distributor of rewards. “General esteem, that gift of public recognition, can be accorded only to ideas and actions that are useful to the nation; consequently, any citizen sees virtue as a necessity.” “In countries where money circulates, its possessor can give it to any person or persons who provide him with the greatest enjoyment, and he usually does so. However, such a person or persons do not always command the greatest respect, so that rewards are often given for actions that are “useful only to the wealthy but injurious to society”. The rewards given to vice create depraved people, while love of money, which stifles the spirit and all patriotic virtue, produces only base natures, tricksters and intriguers. “Love of riches does not extend to all classes of citizens, without inspiring in the ruling party a desire to steal and annoy. From that time on, the construction of a port, the production of armaments, a business venture, or a war asserted to have started for the nation’s honour – in short, any pretext to fleece the people is seized upon. Then all the vices born of cupidity at once obtrude themselves upon the empire, infect all its members in succession, and finally bring about its ruin.”

As we have already shown in the essay devoted to him, Holbach, too, considered cupidity the mother of all vices and the ruin of a nation. But in Holbach we meet only with declamations on the subject, while Helvetius tried to penetrate into the laws of social development. Holbach fulminated against “luxury”; Helvetius noted that luxury was merely the outcome of the unequal distribution of wealth. Holbach called upon legislators to combat any proneness to luxury; Helvetius found any such struggle, not only useless but highly damaging to society. In the first place, anti-luxury laws, which could easily be evaded, were too grave an incursion into the right of property, that “most sacred of rights”; in the second place, to stamp out luxury, “it is necessary to abolish money”, and “no prince could harbour such a design, and if he did, no nation, in the present condition of Europe, would lend itself to his desires”. Execution of such a plan would mean the complete ruin of the nation.

Luxury exists only where property inequality is very great. In a country with approximately equal property among citizens, luxury cannot exist whatever the degree of prosperity they may achieve, or rather luxury will be, not a misfortune but a great social blessing in such a country. But since wealth is distributed most unevenly, the abolition of luxury would mean an end to the production of a multitude of articles, and would consequently throw a large number of the poor out of work. The final outcome, therefore would be the direct opposite of the original intention. “The moralists’ incensement against luxury springs from their ignorance,” Helvetius infers. [43]

Thus we have here a constant law of social development. From poverty a people rise to wealth, and from wealth arrive at the unequal distribution of wealth, the corruption of morals, luxury and depravity; thence they come to despotism, and from despotism to ruination. “The principle of life which, developing in the majestic oak, raises the sapling, spreads its branches, thickens its trunk and makes it reign over the forest, is at the same time the principle of its withering.” “Under the existing form of government”, the peoples cannot depart from this most dangerous road of development. To slow down their steps along that road is even dangerous to them. Stagnation will lead to incalculable calamities, perhaps to the cessation of life itself.

The number and especially the nature of the textile mills in any country depend on its wealth and the mode of its distribution. If all citizens are well-to-do, they will all wish to be well dressed, which will lead to the appearance of many textile mills producing neither excessively fine nor excessively coarse fabrics. If, on the contrary, most of the citizens are poor, then only such enterprises will exist that cater for the needs of the rich class and will produce only opulent, glossy and not very sturdy fabrics. Thus, “under any form of government, all phenomena depend on one another”.

The production of cotton fabrics is one of the most important branches of present-day industry. Such fabrics are not designed for wealthy consumers. Thus, Helvetius’s view is not in accord with reality. [44] Nevertheless, it remains true that under any “government” all phenomena depend on one another. We have already seen many instances of this, and we shall cite another one.

Their requirements teach people how to cultivate the soil, and it is those requirements that engender the arts and the sciences. Again, it is requirements that lead to the latter’s stagnation or advance in one direction or another. As soon as considerable inequality of property is created, there arise a multitude of arts for enjoyment, designed to entertain the wealthy and dispel their boredom. Interest never ceases from being mankind’s great and sole instructor. How could it be otherwise? It should not be forgotten that: “Any comparison of objects among themselves presupposes attention; any attention presupposes effort, and any effort the incentive that spurs it”. It is indisputable that the promotion of education is in the interests of any society. But since the rewards for services do not always go to those who serve the common interests but very often to those who serve the interests of the mighty, it will be readily understood why sciences, arts and literature adopt a trend that falls in with the latter’s interests. “Why should the sciences and arts not have been bathed in refulgence in a country such as Greece, where they were held in universal and constant veneration?” Why was Italy so rich in orators? Was that due to the influence of her climate, as is asserted by the sapient imbecility of certain academic pedants? An irrefutable reply is to be found in the fact that Rome lost its eloquence and its liberty simultaneously. “Try to discover tbe reasons for tbe accusations of barbarism and stupidity constantly made against the peoples of the East by the Greeks, the Romans, and all Europeans, and you will find that the Eastern nations have been considered barbarians and fools by all the educated peoples of Europe, and an object of contempt on the part of free nations and posterity, for the reason that by the word ’intellect’ these Oriental peoples have understood only separate and disconnected ideas that have been useful lo them, and also because despotism, in almost all of Asia, has banned the study of morality, metaphysics, jurisprudence and politics, in brief, almost all the sciences of interest to mankind.” If, as has been said above, all nations in one and the same conditions have the same laws, the same spirit and the same predilections, then that, should be ascribed to the influence of one and the same interests. It is the combination of interests that determines the development of the human spirit.

The interests of states like both of their private citizens and of human affairs therein, are subject to a thousand transformationsOne and the same laws, and even customs and actions become now useful, now detrimental to one and the same people; from this it follows that one and the same laws are now adopted, now rejected, and that one and the same actions are called now virtuous, now vicious – “a proposition which cannot be rejected otherwise than by allowing that there are actions which at one and the same time are virtuous and detrimental to the state, and that would mean undermining the foundations of all legislation and all society”.

Many primitive peoples have a custom of killing their old people. At hrst glance, nothing could seem more execrable tharr such a custom, but a little thought will lead one to acknowledge that, in the given conditions, such peoples are forced to consider the killing of old people a virtuous act and that their love for their aged and enfeebled parents must make the young people behave in this way. Savages do not have enough to subsist on, and the old are unable to keep themselves alive by hunting, since that calls for considerable physical endurance. They would therefore either be doomed to a slow and cruel death from starvation or else become a burden on their children or all society which, because of its poverty, cannot carry that burden. That is why it is better to cut these sufferings short by the rapid and inescapable killing of parents. “That is the origin of a custom so detestable; that is how a nomadic people, obliged by the need to hunt and the shortage of the necessities of life to spend six months of the year in immense forests, find themselves, so to say, necessitated to perform such barbarous acts; that is why in such countries patricide is inspired and committed after the same principle of humanity which makes us regard it with horror.”

Holbach asked himself why peoples’ positive laws so often fall into contradiction with the laws of “Natureandjustice”. He came out with a simple answer. “These depraved laws,” he said, “are a consequence of perverted morals, errors committed by societies, or tyranny, which forces Nature to bow to its authority.” [45] Such an answer did not satisfy Helvetius, who considered “real or at least apparent utility” that basis of laws and customs which is so naturally sought in “depravity” or “errors”. “However stupid one may suppose peoples to be,” he said, “it is certain that, guided by their own interests, they could not, have adopted, without sufficient motives, the ridiculous customs one finds established among some of them; the strangeness of such customs springs from the diversity of the interests of peoples. Only those morals and laws are really worthy of hatred which continue to exist after the causes of their introduction hare disappeared and which have thus become injurious to society. “All customs that bring only transient advantages are like scaffolding, which must be pulled down after the palaces have been erected.”

Such is the theory which leaves very little room for natural law and absolute justice, if it leaves them any room at all. At first, that theory seemed dangerous even to such men as Diderot, who considered it a paradox. “It is, indeed, the general and particular interest which metamorphoses the idea of the just and the unjust; but its essence is independent of it.” But what is that idea’s essence? What does it depend on? Diderot said nothing on the matter, merely citing several examples designed to show that justice is absolute. However, these instances are most unconvincing! Will it not always and everywhere be praiseworthy to give water to one who is dying of thirst”? Of course it will, but the most this can prove is that there exist interests common to men everywhere in all times and at all phases of their development. “Giving water to drink!” will take us no further than the following argument by Voltaire: “Let me ask a Turk, a Parsee or a Malabariaii for the money I lent him ... he will acknowledge that it is just that he should pay me ...” Beyond any doubt! But how meagre this absolute morality is, however honoured a goddess it may be. As Locke said, “those who maintain innate practical principles tell us not what they are ...” Helvetius could have said the same of those who stand for “universal morality”.

It is quite obvious that Helvetius’s views on the question of morality fully coincided only with the principles of materialist sensualism. Incidentally, he was merely repeating and developing the ideas of his teacher Locke, who was also the teacher of Holbach, Diderot and Voltaire. “To the English philosopher, good and evil meant only pleasure or suffering. Therefore, in the moral sense, good and evil are only that which coincides with or deviates from the law, through which good and evil are brought to us by the will and the authority of the legislator. “Virtue generally approved, ... because profitable ...,” Locke said long before Helvetius. “He that will carefully peruse the history of mankind, and look abroad into the several tribes of men, and with indifferency survey their actions, will be able to satisfy himself that there is scarce that principle of morality to be named, or rule of virtue to be thought on (those only excepted that are absolutely necessary to hold society together, which commonly, too, are neglected betwixt distinct societies), which is not, somewhere or other, slighted and condemned by the general fashion of whole societies of men, governed by practical opinions and rules of living quite opposite to others.” This is exactly what Helvetius tells us, with the only difference that Helvetius knows how tobe explicit in the right place. On the basis of “pleasure” and “suffering”, he set himself the task of ascribing to interests the historical changes in the legislator’s will. This was perfectly and even too logical for eighteenth-century French “philosophers”, whose party was indeed a militant one. In their struggle against the then existent system, they felt the need to be guided by an authority less debatable than men’s constantly changing interests. That kind of authority they saw in “Nature”. The morality and politics that rested on that foundation were in no wise less utilitarian. The salus populi was no less the suprema lex for them. [46] But that boon, it was thought at the time, was intimately linked with particular immutable laws that applied equally to all “creatures endowed with minds and feelings”. So passionately desired, appealed to, and seen as the ideal expression of the bourgeoisie’s social and political aspirations, such laws were called natural laws. And since the psychological source of the ideas that made such laws desirable was unknown, and their logical source had been forgotten, it was asserted, as Diderot did in the article mentioned above, that their essence was independent of any interest. This took the philosophers back almost to the selfsame innate ideas which had been in such disrepute since the times of Locke.

No innate practical principles”: no idea is impressed by Nature in the mind. That is what was stated by Locke, who added that any sect regards as innate those principles which are in accord with its faith. The philosophers were not out to achieve anything more. For them to have acknowledged the existence of innate ideas would have been tantamount to bowing to the “sect’s” “principles” held by the supporters of the past, which they, the philosophers, looked down on. Since Nature does not impress anything in our minds, obsolete institutions and obsolete morality do not owe their existence to Nature. Yet there exists a natural law – a universal and absolute law – which can be discovered by man’s reason, with the aid of experience. Reason was on the side of the philosophers. Consequently, Nature had to express herself in favour of their aspirations. “Innate principles” therefore belonged to the “past”, which should be destroyed, while natural law was the future which the innovators were summoning. They did not reject dogmatism, but merely extended its boundaries so asto clear the way for the bourgeoisie. Helvetius’s views presented a threat to this new kind of dogmatism, which was why they were not accepted by most “philosophers”. This, however, did not prevent him from being the most consistent of John Locke’s followers.

In no less degree did his views threaten the view, so widely held in the eighteenth century, that the world is governed by public opinion. We have already seen that, according to Helvetius, men’s opinions are dictated by their interests; we have also seen that the latter do not depend on the human will (let us recall the instance of savages killing their aged because of economic necessity). “The advance of education”, with the aid of which the philosophers would account for the entire course of history, far from explaining anything, itself stood in need of explanation. To find that explanation would mean an actual revolution in the realm of “philosophy”. Helvetius evidently suspected what the consequences of such a revolution would be like. He admitted that, in his study of the human spirit’s road of development, he often felt a suspicion that “everything in Nature occurs and acts of itself”, and that theperfection of the arts and sciences is less the work of genius than of time and necessity”. The “uniform” progress of the sciences in all countries, he thought, bore out that opinion. “Indeed, if, with all nations, as Hume has observed, people begin to write well in prose only after they have learnt to do that in verse, then I see in the constant advance of human reason the effect of a general and obscure cause.” [47] From everything the reader has learnt of our philosopher’s historical views, this kind of language will no doubt seem highly cautious and indecisive. But it is this very indeterminate language that reveals how vague were the notions that Helvetius’s mind associated with the words interest, needs of people, whose meaning would seem so clear and so unambiguous.

However strange we may find them, laws and customs are always grounded in “real or at least imagined utility”. But what is imagined utility? What does it depend on, and what does it originate from? Obviously, from public opinion. This again brings us back into thai vicious circle from which we wanted to escape: opinion depends on interest, and interest on opinion. What is most noteworthy is that Helvetius could not but return into that circle. True, he linked the origins of the most varied and bizarre laws, customs and opinions witli society’s actual needs, but, in his analysis, he was always confronted with a remainder that none of his metaphysical reagents could break down. That remainder was, first and foremost, religion.

All religions spring from man’s fear of some invisible force, from his ignorance of the forces of Nature. All false religions resemble one another. Whence such uniformity? It is the result of peoples that live in the same conditions always having a similar spirit, similar laws and a similar character. “It is because men who are animated by almost the same interest and having among them almost the same objects for comparison and the same tool, i.e., the same mind for their combination, have of necessity had to arrive at one and the same results ... because, in general, all are pride-ridden ... all look upon man as Heaven’s sole favourite, and the main object of its care.” This pride leads men to believe all the nonsense the tricksters would have them accept. Open the Koran (for the sake of appearance, Helvetius spoke only of “false religions”). It can be interpreted in a thousand different ways: it is vague and incomprehensible. But so great is human blindness that, to this day, this book, so full of falsehood and nonsense, this work, in which (jod is depicted as a tyrant who should be cursed, is still considered sacred. Therefore, the interest that gives rise to religious credulity is one of vanity – an interest of prejudice. Instead of explaining to us where human feelings spring from, that interest is itself an expression of those feelings. The “utility” of religion is merely “imagined utility”. An eighteenth-century philosopher could not possibly have regarded that “vile” enemy of reason in any other way.

Given vanity and ignorance, those precursors of fear, it can readily be understood with what means the ministers of religion build up and preserve their prestige. “In any religion, the prime aim the priests set themselves is to blunt man’s curiosity and to turnaway from his eye the examination of any dogma whose absurdity is too obvious to escape his attention.

“To attain that, it was necessary to flatter human passions; to perpetuate people’s blindness, it was necessary for them to desire to be blind and be interested in being so. Nothing is easier for the bonze”, etc. We see, in the first place, that religious dogmata and rites were deliberately invented by a few cunning, avaricious and bold swindlers; we see, in the second place, that the peoples’ interest, which should have explained to us at least the amazing success of such swindlers, is often merely the “imagined” interest of blind people who wish to remain blind. This is obviously no actual interest, no “need” that engenders all arts and sciences.

Wherever Helvetius set forth his views on history, he was constantly vacillating, without realising it, between these two diametrically opposite interpretations of interest. That was why he was unable to cope with the theory that the world is governed by public opinion. Now he tells us that people owe their intellect to the condition they find themselves in; then he finds it crystal clear that people owe their condition exclusively to their intellect. Now he tells us that hunger is the source of many arts, and that habitual needs are always inventive, i.e., that any more or less important invention is merely the integral of infinitely small inventions; then he assures us, in his polemic with Rousseau, that the art of agriculture “supposes the invention of the ploughshare, the plough, smithery, and consequently an infinite multitude of skills in mining, the art of furnace-building, mechanics and hydraulics”. Thus, this time it is the spirit, science, that is the source of inventions, while in the ultimate analysis, mankind’s progress is determined by “public opinion”. Now Helvetius shows us how a people’s laws, customs and tastes derive from its “condition”, i.e., from the “arts”, from the productive forces at its disposal, and from the economic relations that arise on their basis; then he declares that “it is on the perfection of laws that civic virtues depend, and on human reason that the perfection of those laws depends”. Now he depicts arbitrary authority as the inevitable consequence of constantly growing inequality in the distribution of wealth; then he arrives at the following conclusion: “Despotism, that horrible bane of mankind, is most frequently the result of a nation’s stupidity. Any people begins by being free. What cause can its loss of liberty be attributed to? Its ignorance, its foolish trust in the ambitious. The latter and the people are like the little girl and the lion in the well-known fable. As soon as she has persuaded the animal to let its claws be clipped and its teeth filed, she turns it over to the mastiffs.” Although Helvetius set himself the task of ascribing interest to history, consideringit “people’s sole motivation”, he returned to “ public opinion” which, by endowing objects with greater or lesser interest, ultimately becomes the absolute ruler of the world. “Imagined interest” was the submerged rock that wrecked his truly tremendous attempt to advance a materialist explanation of human development. This problem, both in history and morality, proved unsolvable from the metaphysical point of view.

In just the same way as imagined interest so often took the place of the actual interest Helvetius really wished to deal with, the same fate, as we can see, befell public interest, which yielded place to the interest of “the mighty of this world”. There can be no doubt that, in any society that is divided into classes, the interest of the mighty of this world has always been dominant. But how did Helvetius explain this indisputable fact? Sometimes he spoke of force, but most frequently sought refuge in “public opinion”, realising that force did not explain anything, since in many, if not all, cases it resided in the oppressed. It is the stupidity of nations that makes them obey tyrants, the “idle rich”, those who think only of themselves. Though he was one of the most brilliant representatives of French bourgeoisie at the time of its efflorescence, he did not suspect that, in the historical life of each class of the “mighty of this world”, there comes a time when its “private” interest coincides with that of a progressive movement, and thereby of all society. Helvetius was too much of a metaphysician to discern this dialectic of interests. Though he repeated that any law, no matter how strange it might seem, was or had been based on some actual interest of society, he saw in the Middle Ages nothing but a time when people had turned into beasts, just like Nebuchadnezzar; feudal laws seemed to him “the height of absurdity”. [48]

The discovery of useful arts is brought about by actual needs. Once created and used, any art engenders – with greater or lesser success – new “arts”, that depending on the production relations in the society in which it has appeared. It was only momentarily that Helvetius’s attention was attracted by this phenomenon of “arts” which arise from “actual” needs and engender new needs which are no less actual and which engender no less useful arts. He was too hasty in going over to the “pleasurable arts” designed to entertain the wealthy and dispel their boredom. “How many arts would have been unknown to us were it not for Love!” he exclaimed. That may have been so! But how many arts would have remained unknown without the capitalist production of essential articles!

What is meant by an actual need? To our philosopher, this meant primarily a physiological need. But to satisfy their physiological needs people must produce certain articles; the process of that production must give rise to new needs, just as actual as the preceding but whose nature is no longer physiological, but economic, since such needs spring from the development of production and mutual relations entered into by people in the process of production. Helvetius mentioned some of these economic needs, but only several: most of them escaped his notice. That was why, to him, a most powerful factor of society’s historical development was the multiplication of citizens, i.e., the increase in the number of stomachs that had to be filled and the number of bodies that had to be clothed, etc. The multiplication of citizens meant the growth of the aggregate total of physiological needs. Helvetius did not want to take into consideration that, in its turn, the “multiplication” of citizens depends on society’s economic condition, although he did make several fairly clear pronouncements on the matter. However, he was far from sharing the clear and precise views on this matter held by his contemporary Sir James Steuart, who, in his Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (London, 1767), ascribed the “multiplication of citizenstomoral”, i.e., social, causes, and already understood that the population law characteristic of any particular society changes together with the mode of production predominant in that society in a given period. Incidentally, Helvetius’s views did not contain such platitudes as Malthus’s.

Everything in Nature occurs and acts of itself: that is the dialectical point of view. Helvetius merely sensed that this point of view was the most productive and correct in science. The reason for the “uniform” progress of the human spirit remained “unclear” to him. He very often stopped giving it thought, appealing to it only when the need arose. “In morality as in the realm of the physical,” he said, “it is only the great that strikes us. One always supposes that great effects spring from great causes. One expects heavenly signs to announce the downfall of empires or revolutions in them. Yet how many crusades have been launched or stopped, how many revolutions carried out or prevented, how many wars begun or ended by the intrigues of some priest, some woman, or some minister! It is only the absence of memoirs or underground anecdotes that prevents the Duchess of Marlborough’s glove from being found everywhere.” [4*] This point of view is the direct contrary of that according to which “everything occurs and acts of itself.

“The principle of life which, developing in the majestic oak, raises the sapling, spreads its branches, thickens its trunk and makes it reign over the forest, is at the same time the principle of its withering.” Here Helvetius is again speaking as a dialectician who understands the absurdity of an abstract and absolute contraposition of the useful and the harmful. Here he again recalls that any process of evolution has its immanent and immutable laws. Proceeding from this standpoint, he arrives at the conclusion that no “specific means” exists against inequality of “ property”, an inequality which, after a long existence, must inevitably destroy any society. But this is not his final conclusion. It is only under the ”actually existing form of government” that a specific means against this evil has no existence. Under a more rational form, very much could be undertaken against it. What, then, is that beneficent form of government? It is one that will be discovered by reason based on experience. Philosophy can very well solve “the problem of perfect and durable legislation” which, once adopted by any nation, can become a source of its happiness. A perfect legislation will not do away with inequality of property, but it will prevent the appearance of its harmful consequences. In the capacity of a “philosopher”, Helvetius sets forth for us, in the form of a “moral catechesis”, the “precepts and principles of justice”, the “utility and truth” [49] of which are proved to us by day-by-day experience and which should serve as the basis of a “perfect” legislation. Moreover, he supplements his catechesis with several other features of such a legislation.

The book De l’Esprit frightened the adherents of natural law, who saw in the author an opponent to that law. Their fears were only half justified, for Helvetius was only a stray sheep that would sooner or later return to the fold. He who, it might have seemed, had left no room for natural law, he who regarded as reasonable laws and customs that appeared most absurd, wound up by stating that the closer the peoples approached in their institutions to natural law, the greater the progress of reason in them. Thus, he reformed and returned to the fold of the philosophical church. Faith, a sacred and redeeming faith in “Reason”, had emerged victorious over any other point of view. “The time has come,” he exclaimed, “for those deaf to all theological contradictions to give ear only to the teachings of wisdom! We have awakened ... from our slumbers; the night of ignorance has passed; the day of science has arrived.”

Let us give ear to the voice of “reason” and turn the pages of the “moral catechesis” of its interpreter:

Question: What makes this right of property so sacred, and for what reason, under the name of “Term”, has it been turned into a God almost everywhere? [5*]

Answer: It is because the preservation of property is the moral God of Empires; it is that which maintains domestic peace and makes equity reign; it is because people have united only to ensure their property; it is because juslico, which in itself comprises almost all the virtues, consists in rendering to each man that which belongs to him, thereby being reduced to the upholding of that right of property; finally, because the diverse laws have never boen anything but various means of ensuring citizens that right”.

* * *

Question: Are there not, among the diverse laws, such which can be given the name of natural laws?

Answer: As I have already said, these are such that concern property and have become established in almost all civilised nations and societies because societies can be formed only on the basis of such laws.”

* * *

Question: What should a prince do, supposing he wished to perfect the science of laws?

Answer: He should encourage people gifted in the study of that science, and charge them with the solution of various problems therein.

Question: What would happen then?

Answer: Laws that are changeable and still imperfect would cease from being so, and would become stable and sacred.”

* * *

But enough! With Helvetius, as with Holbach and all eighteenth-century “philosophers”, the utopia of “perfect legislation” is merely a bourgeois utopia. Several features peculiar to our author do not change its essence. We shall cite only several of thesfi, so as to complete our picture of a man whose moral physiognomy has so often been distorted by the ideologists of an ungrateful bourgeoisie.

In his perfect society, Helvetius does not make the workers have such a long working day as is the practice with us. “Wise laws,” he said, “could no doubt create a marvel of universal happiness. If all citizens possess some property, it’ they all enjoy a certain competence, and, by working seven or eight hours, abundantly provide for their needs and those of their families, they will be as happy as can bE ...” “If work is generally regarded as an evil, it is because, in most States, one can acquire necessities only by excessive labour, and because the idea of work is always associated with the idea of drudgery.” [50] Fourier’s idea of attractive work was merely a development of this idea of Helvetius, just as the eight-hour working day is merely the proletariat’s solution of a problem raised by this bourgeois philosopher, the only difference being that the proletariat will not stop at that in its advance towards “happiness”.

Helvetius stood for upbringing by society. In his opinion, there were many reasons for it always to be given preference over private instruction. He quoted only one of these, which will be quite sufficient: it is only upbringing by society that rears patriots because it alone is able to bind together, in the minds of citizens, the idea of personal happiness with that of the nation. This is another idea of this bourgeois philosopher’s to be tackled by the proletariat, which will develop it in keeping with the needs of the time.

But Helvetius himself, as we know, did not expect anything of the proletariat. To whom, then, did he entrust the implementation of his plan? Of course, to some wise prince. But as man is only a product of his environment, and as, further, the environment of princes isjvery depraved, what reasonable grounds have we to expect the appearance of a sage on the throne? Our philosopher was well aware of the difficulty of replying to this question. Finding it hard to find an answer, he resorted to the aid of the probability theory.

“If, as the sages say, all possibilities are given effect within a more or less extended period of time, why should we despair of mankind’s future happiness? Who can prove that the truths established above will always be useless to it? It is rare but necessary that a given time will produce a Penn (!) or a Manco-Capac” (!) “to give laws to emerging societies. But supposing ... that, jealous for new glory, such a man would wish to perpetuate his name in posterity, under the title of a friend of mankind, and that, in consequence, is more occupied with drawing up his laws and with the happiness of the peoples than with enlarging his power, this man would wish to make men happy, and not slaves. Then, no doubt ... he would perceive, in the principles I have just set forth, the embryo of a new legislation, one more in conformity with the happiness of mankind.” [51]

Inasmuch as the “philosophers” engaged in the question of the influence of the environment on the individual, they reduced its operation to the actions of “government”. Helvetius did not act as hastily as the others. There was a time when he saw and clearly stated that a government is, in its turn, merely a product ofjthe social environment; he was able, with greater or lesser success, to deduce the civil, criminal and public laws of his hypothetical island from its economic condition. But as soon as he went over to the study of the development of “education”, i.e., science and literature, he began, as the reader will remember from the preceding exposition, to notice only the influence of government. However, the idea of the irresistible influence of government is a kind of blind alley from which escape is possible only through a miracle, i.e., a government which suddenly decides to heal all the ills created by itself or by preceding governments. Helvetius also appealed to that miracle and, to revitalise his own faith and that of his readers, he sought salvation in a seemingly boundless field – that of “possibilities”.

But theory does not as yet create faith, least of all a theory providing grounds for as little confidence as does the theory of possibilities that take effect over a longer or shorter period. Thus, Helvetius, at least in respect of France, remained a complete nonbeliever. “My country,” he wrote in the Preface to his book De l’Homme, “has ultimately come under the yoke of despotism. From now on, she will produce no more celebrated writers ... no more will the name of Frenchman be made famous by this people. Today, this degraded nation its the scorn of Europe. No salutary crisis will return it its liberty. ...It is said that happiness, like the sciences, wanders about the world. It is now heading northwards: greaT princes are calling genius thither, and genius invites happiness ... It is to such sovereigns that I dedicate this work.” [6*] It seems to us that this mistrust, which found some small counterpoise in hopes placed in Northern sovereigns, enabled him to take his analysis of moral and social phenomena farther than other “philosophers” did. Like Voltaire, Holbach was an indefatigable propagandist; he published a large number of books in which he, in essence, always harped on the same theme. Helvetius wrote only one book De l’Esprit; the other, De l’Homme, is merely a lengthy commentary to it. The author never wanted to have it published in his lifetime. “He who wishes to learn the true principles of morality,” ho wrote, “must rise to the principle of physical sensitivity, and seek, in the needs of hunger, thirst and the like, for the cause that makes men, who have already multiplied, till the soil, join together in society, and enter into conventions whose observance or infraction makes men just or unjust.” Thus, he undertook his analysis with the purpose of discovering the true principles of morality and, at the same time, of politics. In advancing the principle of “sensory impressions”, he showed that he was the most consistent and logical of all eighteenth-century materialists. By seeking in “the needs of hunger, thirst and the like” the causes of mankind’s historical advance, he set himself the task of finding a materialist explanation of that advance. From afar, he saw many truths of far more value than his plan of a perfect legislation or his immutable and absolute “great truths”, which he dedicated to the sovereigns of the “North”. He understood that some “common cause” must exist in human development, but he did not and could not know that cause since he did not possess enough facts or the necessary method. That cause remained “hidden” and “unclear” to him but it did not make him inconsolable, for the utopian in him comforted the philosopher. The main purpose had been achieved: the principles of “excellent” legislation had been drawn up.

Two examples will suffice to show how, in drawing up his utopian plans, Helvetius sometimes used the principle of sensory impressions.

“I am not inimical to theatrical performances,” he said, “and, in this respect, I do not accept Rousseau’s advice. Such performances no doubt provide pleasure. But there is no pleasure which, in the hands of a wise government, could not become a principle conducive to virtue if the latter sees recompense in that pleasure.” [52]

And here is what he said in defence of divorce: “If it is true that a desire for change is, as they say, inherent in human nature, the possibility of such change could be established as a reward for merit. One could then try, by such means, to make warriors more brave, judges more just, workers more industrious and talented people more diligent.” Divorce as a reward for “virtue”! What could be more comical?

We know that if the principles of perfect legislation are ever given effect, then “unstable and as yet imperfect laws will cease from being such and will become immutable”. Thus, society will be in a state of rest. What will be the consequences of such a condition? “Let us imagine that, in each branch of science or art, men will be able to compare among themselves all known objects and facts, and will have finally discovered all the latter’s various relations. Since men will have no more new combinations to make, then what is known as the mind will no longer exist. Then everything will turn into science, and the human mind will be forced into repose until the discovery of unknown facts permits it again to compare and combine them in just the same way as an exhausted mine is allowed to rest until new veins are formed.” [53]

Thus, this repose and this exhaustion of the human spirit should – at least in the realm of social relations – inevitably bring in its train the fulfilment of Helvetius’s moral and political principles. Thus, stagnation was the ideal of this philosopher, who was so fanatical an adherent of progress! Metaphysical materialism was only half-revolutionary. To him, revolution was only a means (and then only in view of the absence of peaceful means) of reaching a safe and calm heaven once and for all ... Within his breast there lived – alas! – two spirits, just as in Faust and in the bourgeoisie, the eighteenth-century materialists being the latter’s most progressive representatives.


38. This leads us up to the question of the influence of climate. As the reader will see, the reference is not to the direct influence of climate on people’s morals, of which Montesquieu spoke. In Helvetius’s opinion, that influence is expressed through the medium of the arts, i.e., thanks to the more or less rapid development of the productive forces. These are two quite different points of view.

39. As for his French contemporaries, Helvetius remarked that the French nation could not he gay because “the misfortunes of the times have forced the princes to impose heavy taxes on the country, so that the peasant class, “who alone comprise two-thirds of the nation, live in poverty, and poverty is never gay ...” He ridiculed the manner of describing national character: “Nothing in general is more ridiculous and more false than the descriptions given of the character of diverse peoples. Some depict their nation after their own society, making it, in consequence, sad, or gay, or coarse or witty ... Others copy what a thousand writers have written before them; they never examine the change that must of necessity take place in the character of a nation, the modifications that take effect in government and in morals” (De l’Esprit, Discours III, chap.XXX).

40. Catherine II was able to gull Helvetius, just as she did many others. He always spoke of her in the warmest terms, and was convinced that this Messalina of the North had attacked Poland in the interests of tolerance.

41. What Helvetius says about our judgement of beauty contains, in some measure, the embryo of Chernyshevsky’s ethical theory, but only the embryo. In this particular sphere, the analysis given by the Russian writer goes much further and leads to far more important results.

42. We shall note, merely in passing, that Holbach considered the “proliferation of citizens” from the diametrically opposite stand. To him it meant only the growth of the stale’s might and wealth. In this ho was in agreement with most eighteenth-century writers.

43. That is how he put it in De l’Homme. In his book De l’Esprit, Helvetius expressed his opinion in vague terms, but there he also intimated that the question of luxury could not be solved as easily as the “moralists” supposed. According to Diderot, the passage dealing with luxury was among the finest in the book. Cf. his Œuvres, t.I, section 1, the article Sur le livre De l’Esprit.

44. Helvetius knows of societies in which “money is in circulation” and others in which it is not. However, to him products always assume the form of commodities in both cases. This seems to him just as natural as private property. In general, his economic views leave much to be desired. Even the best grounded and most mature of them do not rise above the economic views of David Hume.

45. Politique naturelle, London 1773, I, pp.37-38.

46. Incidentally, the populus whose salus was desired did not always mean those who worked and produced. According to Voltaire, the human race could not exist without “a vast number of useful people who possess nothing” ... “There is a need for men who have only their hands and good will ... They are free to sell their labour to anyone who will pay them best” (See Dictionnaire philosophique, art. Egalité et Propriété).

47. De l’Homme, section II, chap.XXIII.

48. Cf. his Pensées et réflections, in Vol.III of his Œuvres complètes, Paris 1818, p.314.

49. De l’Homme, section X, chap.VII.

50. De l’Homme, section VIII, chap.I.

51. ibid., chap.XXVI.

52. De l’Homme, section I, chap.X, note.

53. De l’Homme, section II, chap.XV. Here Helvetius means by spirita complex of new ideas”, and by science the acquisition of ideas already known to mankind.


3*. The League (the Catholic League) – a reactionary union of French Catholics founded in 1576 to combat the Protestants (Huguenots) during the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century.

The Fronde – a movement of nobles and bourgeois against absolutism in France (1648-53).

4*. The famous English soldier and statesman John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), was compelled to leave court following the intrigues and quarrels of his wife, who was in attendance on Queen Anne. Voltaire ascribed Marlborough’s downfall to an episode connected with a pair of gloves.

5*. Term (Terminus, Roman myth.) – god, protector of boundaries, worshipped in the form of a milestone or a milepost. Every milestone was considered sacred, and anyone who moved it was accursed.

6*. By “great princes” Helvetius meant Catherine II of Russia and the Prussian King Frederick II, who assumed the roles of the “enlightened” monarchs – patrons of science and philosophy. La Mettrie and Voltaire lived at the court of Frederick II; Catherine II corresponded with Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, and invited Diderot, d’Alembert, etc., to St. Petersburg.

Last updated on 9.10.2007