Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the History of Materialism


“Helvetius, that elegant farmer-general and man of probity, disinterestedness and charity, whom Voltaire, in his flattering historical reminiscences, nicknamed Atticus, took it into his head to write a book; to bring that about, he collected, at gatherings of philosophers, invited by him to his table, their theories, views, and paradoxes; skilled in provoking interesting discussions, he brought into play now the sparkling wit of Diderot, now the sagacity of Suard or the witty and pungent mind of the Abbe Galiani; then he set forth, in a corpus of learning, all the various opinions he had so faithfully recorded. The outcome of these conversations, as heard, analysed and summed up, was the book De l’Esprit, that is to say, materialism in metaphysics, personal interest in morals.” [1]

The reader now knows how Helvetius’s main work came into being. In this particular instance, we can give the greater credence to Demogeot for this tattler merely having repeated a piece of fiction which has, for over a century, been passed on from one old literary gossip to another. Demogeot was a well-disposed gossip: he did not say anything bad of Helvetius; he left the surmising to the reader. There have been other and less welldisposed and more outspoken gossips. From them the reader learns that, in his investigations, our philosopher was motivated by an excessive vanity. It is to that vanity that we owe Helvetius s “sophisms”; it prevented him from creating something firm and fundamental. The gossips are always marked by an extraordinary perspicacity. It befits them greatly and invariably to engage in writing the history of literature and politics; in their exposition everything is plain and clear: you read them with great enjoyment, with little effort, and with tremendous benefit. You prefer themto that brand of writers who, like the good old Hegel, would delve deeper into history than these gossips do. Such writers are fairly dull folk, but ... audiatur et altera pars.

When he spoke of the part played by great men in history, Hegel fulminated against “the petty study of man which, instead of taking as the object of research the general and essential features of human nature, occupies itself mainly with the particular and the fortuitous, with individual motivations, passions, and so on.” In his opinion, “great men wanted that which they did, and did that which they wanted”. The same, of course, “only in other words”, can be said of all those who have worked with greater or lesser success for the benefit of mankind, this in accordance with their understanding of some particular field. It might also be said that “the viewpoint of envy” that Hegel held in such contempt in no way helps us understand and appraise the various periods of history. It might be said ... but then, so much might be said, but will that be listened to? The gossips get a far better hearing. For instance, when they assert that Helvetius was a dangerous sophist, and a vain and shallow man, they remain highly pleased with themselves, their wit and their integrity, and pronounce judgement.

Helvetius comes in for especially scurvy treatment at the hands of the German historians. In France, his character still gets its due at times [2], but inappropriate lenity towards this “dangerous” man is eschewed in Germany. In that country, Helvetius has been reviled oven more than La Mettrie has. Though the latter was quite “dangerous”, His Majesty Frederick the Great of blessed memory was pleased to pronounce some gracious words about him after his death. Voluntas regis suprema lex, German scholars are aware of that more than anybody else, and that because they are scholars.

What a surprising fact! Though Helvetius’s theories alarmed even the “philosophers”, his opponents including men of Diderot’s calibre, he was attacked in France much more after the Revolution than before it. Laharpe acknowledged that his refutation of this man’s “sophisms” in 1788 produced a far weaker impression than it did nine years later, in 1797. Only then was it realised, Laharpe said, that materialist philosophy was an “armed doctrine”, a revolutionary doctrine. In 1797, the bourgeoisie no longer stood in need of such theories, which would be a constant threat to its gains; materialism had to be done with, and done with it was, the question never arising whether the proofs provided by sycophants like Laharpe were really as valid as they had been depicted. New times produce new aspirations, the latter producing new philosophies. [3]

As for the gossips, they had good reason to complain of Helvetius. Only on rare occasions could they understand him, and not merely because his thoughts were beyond the range of their comprehension. Helvetius had an original manner of expressing his theories, one capable of putting the gossips out of countenance. He respected less than any other writer of his time that which Nordau called a conventional lie. A man of the world and a keen observer, he had an excellent knowledge of eighteenthcentury French “Society”; a pungent and satirical writer, he never missed an opportunity of telling that society several home truths that were hard to swallow and had nothing in common with the innocent truths that always “fall so trippingly from the tongue”. Hence the countless misunderstandings that ensued. What he had to say about his contemporaries was taken for his ideal. Madame do Boufflers said of him that he had laid bare every man’s secret. [1*] She thought that therein lay all the value and significance of his De l’Esprit. This quid pro quo also resulted in the following: when the subject of respect for “virtue” arose, Helvetius said that, in “despotic empires’, it was held in contempt, its name alone being paid tribute to. “If it is invoked every day, and if it is demanded of citizens, it is a matter, in this case, of a truth that is asked for on condition that one will be sufficiently prudent to say nothing of it.” This proposition won approval from Madame de Boufflers, who called it correct, witty and delicious, and asserted that it revealed every man’s secret. Helvetius went on to explain why things could not be different from what he said they were. He showed how, in despotic states, people’s interests made them hate “virtue”. Again Madame de Boufflers agreed. Then there would come along some Lampe, usually a German but sometimes a Frenchman, who, in his turn, raised his voice, saying that Helvetius lauded a contempt for virtue. When it came to love, Helvetius said that wherever “the wealthy and the grand” took no part in government, they had to engage in amorous adventures as the best antidote to ennui. At this, Madame de Boufflers smiled archly: this gracious blue stocking was better aware of that than the philosopher was. The latter, however, did not stop at that; he asked himself how love could become an occupation. He found that “love should be surrounded with perils; that a vigilant jealousy should incessantly stand in the way of the lover’s desires, and that the lover should incessantly be finding ways of catching his lady love off her guard”. He arrived at the conclusion that, in such conditions, “a coquette ... is a delightful mistress”. Again Madame de Boufflers agreed. But then there appeared on the scene a Frau Buchholtz [2*], who, pale with indignation, accused our philosopher of glorifying coquetry and attacking womanly virtue, the tested virtue of Frau Buchholtz, and so on and so forth. This kept on being repeated without end, and spreading. Such misunderstanding of Helvetius has lasted down to our days, and is embedded in the minds of those who have never read him. Incidentally, reading Helvetius would hardly change anything, for he would be read only through the eyes of Frau Buchholtz, a very near-sighted lady, though highly virtuous and most reputable.

Was Helvetius, in the strict sense of the word, what might be called a materialist? This is often doubted, because of his reputation.

“The thoughtful and reserved Buffon, the reticent and diplomatic Grimm, and the vain and superficial Helvetius,” said the late Lange, “all stood close to materialism, without adhering to any firm viewpoint or any consistent accomplishment of a fundamental idea, which distinguished La Mettrie, despite all his frivolity of expression.” [4] Jules-Auguste Soury, a French re-echoer of this German neo-Kantian, repeated the same opinion word for word. [5]

We would like to look into the matter with our own eyes.

The question whether there exists in man a non-material substance to which he owes his mental life did not come within the orbit of Helvelius’s studies. He touched upon the matter only en passant, and dealt with it most cautiously. On the one hand, he did not want to irritate the censors, for which reason he spoke with obvious deference of the Church, which had “established our faith on this point”. On the other hand, he disliked flights of “philosophical fancy”. We must follow up an observation, he said, halt at the moment it leaves us. and have the courage not to know what, cannot yet be known. This smacks of “reserve” rather than of “vanity” or the “superficial”. Lange would have sensed and noted this had it concerned some less “dangerous” writer. But since he was dealing with Holvetius, he used a different yardstick: he thought it obvious that the “ram” and “ superficial” author of De l’Esprit could be nothing but “vain” and “superficial”. [6]

In all the fundamental questions of “metaphysics” (for instance: matter, space, the infinite, and the like) Helvetius in fact shared the views of the English materialist John Toland. That can be seen from a comparison of the latter’s Letters to Serena (London, 1704) with De l’Esprit, Discours I, ch.IV. To Lange, Toland was undoubtedly an outstanding materialist, whose ideas he considered as clear as was only possible; as for Helvetius, he had merely “drawn close” to materialism, because his “superficiality” prevented him from firmly adhering to any basic idea. “That is how history is written!” How pernicious is the influence of “ superficial” people: the “soundest of men” grow superficial when they read from the latter.

Is matter capable of sensation? “This subject was debated very long and very vaguely,” said Helvetius. “It was much later that people presumed to ask themselves what the argument was all about, and to attach a precise idea to the word “matter”. If its meaning had been determined in the first place, it would have been recognised that men were, if I might say so, the creators of matter, that matter was not some kind of creature; that there were, in Nature, only individuals that had been given the name of bodies, and that one could understand by the word “matter” only a collection of properties common to all bodies. The meaning of this word having been thus defined, it would remain only to learn ... whether the discovery of such a force as attraction, for instance, could not lead up to the surmise that bodies could also possess several unknown properties, such as the faculty of sensation which, while manifesting itself only in the organised bodies of animals, might nevertheless be common to all individuals. The question having been reduced to this point, one could see that, if it was impossible to demonstrate that all bodies were absolutely insensible, no man unenlightened on this subject by “revelation” (we know the significance of such deference, in the “philosophers”, for “revelation” and Church dogmata in general – G.P.) could solve the problem otherwise than by calculating and comparing the probability of this opinion with that of the contrary opinion.

“Consequently, to end this argument, there was no need at all to construct various systems of the world, lose one’s way in a combination of possibilities, and make prodigious mental efforts, which led, and could not but have actually led, to more or less ingenious errors.” [7]

This lengthy quotation shows equally well both the affinity between the materialism of Helvetius and that of Toland [8], and the nature of what one would like to call Helvetius’s scepticism or probabilism. In his opinion, however, it was not the materialists but the idealists of various schools who engaged in “flights of philosophical fancy”; he recommended to them such things as prudence, caution and due account of probabilities. Such prudence and caution would have shown them that their denial of the sensibility of matter was a figment of their imagination, and that it was not the properties of “bodies” but only the definition of matter, i.e., a single word that was preventing them from uniting the notion of body with the faculty of sensation. Here scepticism was merely a weapon directed against the enemies of materialism. It was the same when Helvetius spoke of the “existence of bodies”. The faculty of sensation in matter was only a probability! Quite true, but what did that prove against the materialists? After all, the very existence of bodies was, in its turn, merely a probability, yet it would be absurd to deny it. That was how Helvetius’s thinking proceeded, and if it did prove anything at all, it was primarily that his sceptical doubts had left him.

Helvetius knew just as well as his contemporaries did that we get a knowledge of bodies only through the sensations they produce in us. This again proves that Lange was in error in asserting that “materialism stubbornly takes the world of sensory appearance for the world of real things.” [9] This, however, did not prevent Helvetius from being a convinced materialist. He quoted a “famous English chemist” whose opinion concerning the sensibility of matter he obviously shared. Here is what that chemist said:

“We distinguish, in bodies, two kinds of properties; those whose existence is permanent and unalterable, such as inpenetrability, weight, mobility, etc. These qualities pertain to general physics. But these same bodies possess other qualities whose fleeting and short-lived existence is successively produced and destroyed by certain combinations, analyses or movements in the internal particles. These kinds of properties form different branches of natural history: chemistry, etc.; they pertain to the special branches of physics. Iron, for example, is composed of phlogiston (inflammable substance) and a special kind of earth. In this state of composition, it is subject to the attractive power of a loadstone. But when iron is decomposed, this property is destroyed. A loadstone has no action on ferruginous earth that has been deprived of phlogiston ...

“Now why is it that, in the animal kingdom, organisation does not produce in like manner the singular quality called the faculty of sensation? All phenomena in medicine aiid natural history clearly prove that this power is the result, in animals, only of the structure of their bodies, that this faculty begins with the formation of their organs, is preserved while they live, and is finally lost by the dissolution of these same organs.

“If the metaphysicians ask me what then happens with the an imal’s faculty of sensation, I will reply that the same thing takes place as with the power of decomposed iron to be attracted by a loadstone.” [10]

Helvetius was not merely a materialist; he was the most “consistent” of his contemporaries in his adherence to the fundamental idea in materialism. He was so “consistent” that he horrified the other materialists, none of whom had the boldness to follow him in his daring conclusions. In this sense, he did indeed only stand “close” to such men as Holbach, since they could merely approach him.

The soul within us is nothing more than the faculty of sensation, the intellect being the outcome of that faculty. Everything in man is sensation. “Physical sensibility is the prime source of his needs, his passions, his sociability, his ideas, judgements, desires and actions – Man is a machine which, put into movement by physical sensibility, must do everything that it performs.” [11] Thus, Helvetius’s point of departure is absolutely identical with that of Holbach. Such was the foundation that our “dangerous sophist” built on. Let us now take a closer look at what was original in his edifice’s architecture.

What is meant by virtue? There was not a single eighteenthcentury philosopher who did not discuss this question after his own manner. To Helvetius, the question was a very simple one: virtue consisted in a knowledge of people’s obligations to one another. Consequently it presupposed the formation of a society.

“Had I been born on a desert island and left to my own devices, I would have lived there without vice and without virtue; I would have been able to manifest neither one nor the other. What, then, is to be understood by these words – virtuous and vicious? Actions that are useful or harmful to society. This simple and clear idea is, in my opinion, preferable to any obscure and highflown bombast about virtue.” [12]

The common weal – such is the measure and the foundation of virtue. Therefore our actions are the more vicious, the more injurious they are to society; they are the more virtuous, the more useful they are to it. Salus populi – suprema lex. Our philosopher’s “virtue” is, first and foremost, political virtue. The preachingof morality leads nowhere; preaching will never produce a hero. Society should be given an organisation that will teach its members to hold the common weal in respect. Corrupt morals mean only a split between the social interest and the private. The legislator who knows how that dichotomy should be done away with is the best preacher of morality.

It is often claimed that John Stuart Mill’s “utilitarianism” as a teaching of morality was far superior to the ethics of the eighteenth-century materialists, since the latter wanted to make personal advantage the foundation of morals, while the English philosopher brought into the foreground the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The reader can now see that, in this respect, John Stuart Mill’s merit is more than doubtful. The happiness of the greatest number is merely a poor copy, without the least revolutionary tinge, of what the French materialists called the “common weal”. If that is so, what is the source of the opinion that sees in John Stuart Mill’s “ utilitarianism” a felicitous modification of the eighteenth-century materialist doctrine?

What is the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people? It is a kind of sanction of human behaviour. In this sense, the materialists could draw upon nothing in Mill’s -celebrated book. However, the materialists were not content with the search for a sanction; facing them was the task of solving a scientific problem: how was man, if he was nothing more than sensation, to learn to appraise the common weal? Through what miracle could he forget his sensory impressions and achieve aims that would seem to have nothing in common with the latter? In the area and within the bounds of this problem, the materialists did actually take personal interest as the point of departure. But doing so meant, in this context, merely reiterating that man is a sentient being, and nothing more. Thus, to the materialists, personal interest was not a moral precept, but only a scientific fact. [13]

Holbach evaded the difficulty of this problem with the aid of obscure terminology. “Thus, when we say that interest is the sole motive of human actions, we want thereby to indicate that every man works in his own manner for his well-being, which he finds in some object, visible or hidden, real or imaginary, and that the entire system of his conduct is designed to obtain it ...” [14] In other words, this meant that personal interest cannot simply be reduced to the demands of his “sensory impressions”. At the same time, however, to Holbach, just as to all eighteenth-century materialists, man was merely sensation. There is a logical leap here, due to which Holbach’s “ethics” evoked less abhorrence in the historians of philosophy than did Helvetius’s ethics. In Lange’s opinion, “Holbach’s ethics is rigorous and pure.[15] For his part, Hettner saw in it something substantially different from Helvetius’s ethics. [16]

The author of De l’Esprit was the only eighteenth-century philosopher with the courage to touch upon the question of the origin of moral sentiments. He was alone in daring to infer them from man’s “sensory impressions”.

Man is susceptible to physical pleasure and physical suffering. He avoids the latter, and is drawn to the former. This constant and ineradicable avoidance and attraction bears the name of self-love, which is inseparable from man; it is his main sensation.

”Of all the senses, it is the only one of this kind: to it we owe all our desires, all our passions; these are merely the application of the sense of love of self to one object or another” ... “Look into history books arid you will see that, in all countries where certain virtues were encouraged by the hope for pleasures of the senses, such virtues were the most common and conferred the greatest lustre.” [17] Peoples that gave themselves up most to love were the most courageous, “because in their countries women accorded their favours only to the bravest”. With the Samnites, the greatest beauty was the reward for the highest military prowess. In Sparta, the wise Lycurgus, convinced that “pleasure is the sole and universal motive in men”, was able to turn love into an inspirer of bravery. During public holidays, young, fair, and semi-nude Lacedaemonian girls sang and danced at assemblies of the people, the words of their songs reviling the cowardly and lauding the brave. Only men of valour could expect favours from the fair sex. The Spartans therefore tried to be valiant: amorous passion inflamed in their hearts a passion for glory. However, the “wise” institutions set up by Lycurgus did not achieve the limits of the possible. Indeed, let us suppose that “after the example of the virgins consecrated to Isis or Vesta, the fairest Lacedaemonian maidens were dedicated to rewarding merit; that, presented nude at the assemblies, they were carried off by the warriors as the prize for courage, and that the young heroes experienced, at one and the same instant, the double intoxication of love and glory: however strange and far-removed from our morals such legislation may be, it is certain that it made the Spartans more virtuous and valiant, because the strength of virtue is always proportionate to the degree of pleasure assigned as the reward ...”

Here Helvetius speaks of a double intoxication – with love and glory. This should not be misunderstood. Everything in a thirst after glory can be reduced to sensory impressions. We love glory, just as we do wealth, for the sake of the power they confer. But what is power? It is a way to make others serve our happiness. But, in essence, happiness is reducible to sensual enjoyment. Man is nothing but sensation. All such passions as, for instance, a passion for glory, power, wealth and the like, are merely artificial passions which can be derived from physical needs.To better understand this truth, one should always remember that our sensations of enjoyment and suffering are of a double kind – actual enjoyment or suffering, and foreseeable enjoyment or suffering. I suffer the pangs of hunger, and I experience actual suffering; I foresee that I shall starve to death, and I experience foreseeable suffering. “... If a man who loves fair slave girls and beautiful pictures finds a treasure, he will be in transports. It will be said, however, that he does not as yet experience any physical pleasure. That is true, but at that moment he has acquired the means of obtaining the objects of his desires. Now this anticipation of pleasure at hand is already pleasure.”

It goes without saying that foresight does not at all contradict Helvetius’s point of departure. It is merely the result of memory. If I foresee that lack of food will cause me suffering, that is because I have already experienced such suffering. But the memory possesses the property of “exerting on our organs a certain degree, of the same influence” as suffering or enjoyment. “It is therefore evident that all pain and pleasures, which are considered internal, are so many physical sensations, and that by the words internal or external one should understand only impressions evoked either by the memory or by the actual presence of objects.”

Since I am capable of foreseeing, i.e., of sensory impressions, I mourn tho death of a friend, whose conversation helped to dispel my boredom, “that malaise of the spirit which is actually physical pain”; he would have risked his life and fortune to save me from death or suffering; lie always tried, with the aid of pleasures of every kind, to increase my enjoyment. The consciousness that my friend’s death has deprived me of my sources of pleasure .brings the tears to my eyes.

“If one delves into the depths of one’s soul and searches therein, one will see in all these sentiments only the development of physical pleasure or pain.”

However, the objection might be raised, in reply to Helvetius, that your friend was prepared to risk life and fortune to rid you of suffering. You yourself have said so. Consequently, you have admitted that there exist people that are able to turn a deaf ear to your “sensory impressions” in order to achieve an ideal aim.

Our philosopher did not give a direct reply to this objection; it will, however, be readily understood that this would not have embarrassed him. What, he might have asked, is the motive of heroic actions? The expectation of reward. In such actions great dangers are courted, but the greater the danger, the greater the reward. Interest (the sensory impression) suggests that the game is worth the candle. If that is how matters stand with great and glorious exploits, a friend’s self-denial has nothing extraordinary about it.

There are people who are devoted to science, ruin their health in poring over books and suffer all kinds of deprivation in order to amass knowledge. It might be said that love of science has nothing in common with physical enjoyment. That is not true. Why does the miser deny himself the necessities of life? Because he wants to increase his means of enjoyment tomorrow and the day after – in short, in the future. Excellent! Let us accept that the same kind of thing takes place with the scholar or scientist, and we shall have the answer to the riddle.

“The miser wants to have a magnificent castle, and the man of talent a fair woman; riches and a grand reputation are needed to achieve these aims. The two men work, each in his own way to build up – one his treasures, and the other his renown. But if, during the time employed to acquire that wealth or that reputation, they have grown old and have formed habits they cannot break without an effort precluded by their age, the miser and the man of talent will die, the former without his castle, and the latter without his mistress.” [18]

All this was sufficient to evoke indignation in all “decent men” throughout the world and to explain how and why Helvetius acquired his ill fame. It was also sufficient to reveal the weakness in his “analysis”. We shall add another quotation to those already given: “Moreover, in admitting that our passions originally take their source in physical sensibility, one might also think that, in the present conditions in the civilised nations, such passions exist independently of the cause that has produced them. I shall therefore try, in tracing the transformation of physical suffering and pleasure into their artificial counterparts, to show that, in such passions as avarice, ambition, pride and friendship, whose object would seem to least pertain to the pleasures of the senses, it is nevertheless always physical pain and pleasure that we shun or seek after.” [19]

And so, no heredity. According to Darwin, the “intellectual and moral faculties of man are variable; and we have every reason to believe that the variations tend to be inherited.” [20] According to Helvetius, man’s faculties are highly variable, but changes are not passed down from one generation to another, while their basis – the faculty of sensory impressions – remains unchanged. Helvetius was keen-sighted enough to discern the phenomena of evolution. He saw that “one and the same race of cattle grows stronger or weaker, advances or declines, according to the nature or abundance of grazing grounds”. He also noted that the same was true of oaks. “If one sees little oaks and tall ones, oaks growing straight or crooked, no one absolutely resembling the other, why is it so? It is, perhaps, because none of them gets exactly the same cultivation, or is put in the same kind of place, struck by the same kind of wind or sown in the same kind of soil.” This is a very reasonable explanation. But Helvetius did not stop at that, but asked himself: “Do the differences between beings lie in their embryos or in their development?” Such a question could not have arisen in a bigoted mind. Note, however, the content of the dilemma: either in the embryo or in development. Our philosopher did not even suspect that the history of a species can leave an imprint on the structure of the embryo. The history of a species? It did not exist for him or his contemporaries: he was interested only in individual; he was concerned only with individual “nature”, and observed only individual “ development”. We are far from satisfied with Darwin’s theory of the heredity of inborn moral and intellectual faculties; it was just the first page in evolutionary natural science. But we know very well that, whatever results the latter may lead up to, it will meet with success only if the dialectical method is used in the study of phenomena whose nature is essentially dialectical. Helvetius remained a metaphysician even when he instinctively felt drawn to another and quite contrary point of view – the dialectical.

He confessed to “knowing nothing” of whether the difference between beings “lay” exclusively in their (individual) development. Such a hypothesis seemed too bold to him. Indeed, it would have led up to what Lucretius, who was well-known to the materialist “philosophers”, considered an egregious absurdity:

      ... Ex omnibus rebus
Omne genus nasci posset
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nec fructus idem arboribus constare solerent
Sed mutarentur: ferre omnes omnia possent.

However, when the problem was a limited one and the question was about a single species, i.e., man, Helvetius no longer entertained such doubts. He stated positively and with the utmost confidence that all “distinctions” between people lay in their development, not in their embryos or heredity: we all possess the same abilities at birth. It is only our upbringing that makes us different from one another. Below we shall see that this idea, though lacking the necessary substantial evidence, proved most revealing. However, he reached it along the wrong avenue, the origin of his thinking being obvious each time he drew upon it, and each time he tries to prove it. This thought shows that Diderot was absolutely right in saying that Helvetius’s statements were far more forceful than his proofs. The metaphysical method in eighteenth-century materialism was constantly wreaking vengeance on the boldest and most logical of its followers.

We always feel an urge towards physical enjoyment and always try to avoid physical suffering. This is an important pronouncement. But how is it proved? Helvetius takes as his point of departure the mature grown-up man, with “passions” whose motivations are extremely numerous and complex and indubitably owe their origin to the social environment, i.e., to the history of the species, and attempts to deduce these “passions” from sensory impressions. Something that arises independently of the mind is presented to us as the immediate instant result of the selfsame mind. Habit and instinct assume the form of reflection evoked in man by one feeling or another. In our essay on Holbach, we established that this error was peculiar to all “philosophers” who came out in defence of utilitarian morality. In Helvetius, however, this error assumed regrettable proportions: in the picture he depicted, reflection, in the proper sense of the word, vanished, yielding place to a number of mental images, all of which, without exception, refer to “sensory impressions”. Indubitably an operative but most distant cause of our moral habits, these become the ultimate cause of our actions. Thus, a fiction is presented as the solution of the problem. It is, however, self-evident that the problem cannot be dissolved in the acid of fiction. Moreover, by his “analysis”, Helvetius would deprive our moral sentiments of their specific features and thus delete that x, that unknown quantity, whose significance he would determine; he wanted to prove that all our sentiments are derived from sensory impressions: to prove his point, he depicted man as being in constant pursuit of pleasures of the flesh, “beautiful slave girls” and the like. In actual fact, his assertion is more telling than the proofs he adduces.

After all these explications, there is no need for us to emphasise, as was done by Laharpe and by many others, that it was not for possession of a beautiful mistress that Newton engaged in his colossal mathematical calculations. Of course, not! This truth, however, does not take us a single step forward either in the science of “man” or in the history of philosophy. There exist matters of far greater moment than the assertion of such “truths”.

Can it be seriously thought that Helvetius could have imagined man only as a sensual and intelligent being? It will suffice to turn the leaves of his writings to see that this was not the case. He was well aware, for example, that there existed people who “transported in spirit into the future and anticipating the eulogies and the esteem of posterity” ... renounced the glory and the esteem of the moment for the sometimes distant hope of winning greater glory and esteem; these were people who, on the whole, “desire only the esteem of estimable citizens”. [22] They realised very clearly that they will not enjoy much sensual pleasure. Helvetius went on to say that there were people who held nothing higher than justice, and explained that, in such people’s memories, the idea of justice was closely linked with that of happiness, the two ideas forming a single and indivisible whole. The habit appeared of recollecting them simultaneously, and “once this habit has become established, it is a matter of pride to be always just and virtuous, and then there is nothing one will not sacrifice to that noble pride.” [23] To be guided by justice, such people, of course, no longer needed to bring up voluptuous pictures in their minds. Moreover, our philosopher voiced the opinion that man is made just or unjust by his upbringing, that the power of the latter is boundless, and that “a man of morality is entirely the product of upbringing and imitation”. [24] He spoke of the mechanism our sentiments and the force of the association of ideas in the following terms: “If, because of the form of government, I have everything to fear from high personages, I shall automatically respect any grandeur, even in a foreign lord who can do nothing against me. If, in my memory, I have associated the idea of virtue with that of happiness, I shall cultivate virtue even when it becomes an object of persecution. I am well aware that these two ideas will ultimately become disunited, but that will be the work of time, even of a long time”. In conclusion he added: “It is only after deep thought on this fact that one will find the solution to an infinity of moral problems that cannot be solved without a knowledge of this association of our ideas”. [25] But what does all this mean? A mass of contradictions, one more howling than another? Indubitably so! The metaphysicians often fall victim to such contradictions. Contradicting themselves at every step is a kind of occupational disease with them, their only way of reconciling their built-in dilemma. Helvetius was far from an exception to this general rule. On the contrary, a lively and searching mind, he paid in this coin more frequently than others for the errors of his method. The fact of this error has to be established, thus showing the advantages of the dialectical method, but it should not be thought that such errors can be eradicated by inappropriate moral indignation, or by several infinitely petty truths, which, into the bargain, are as old as the world.

“One notices, as one reads him,” Laharpe wrote of our philosopher, “that his imagination is inspired only by brilliant and voluptuous ideas: nothing is less befitting to the mind of the philosopher.” [26] This means that Helvetius spoke of “sensory impressions” and made them the point of departure for his research, only because he was excessively inclined to sensual motivations. There are many stories about his love of “beautiful mistresses”; this love was depicted as supplementing his vanity. We shall refrain from any appraisal of such “critical” devices. However, we consider it of interest to draw a comparison, in this respect, between Helvetius and Chernyshevsky. The great Russian Enlightener was anything but an “elegant” man, or a “farmer-general”, or “vain” (nobody ever accused him of this weakness), or a lover of “beautiful slave girls”. Yet, of all the eighteenth-century French philosophers, Helvetius resembles him the most closely. In substantiating some assertion he had made, Chernyshevsky was marked by the same logical fearlessness, the same contempt for sentimentality, the same method, the same kind of tastes, the same rationalist mode of adducing proof, and often by the same conclusions and examples, down to the most minute. [27] Bow is such a coincidence to be accounted for? Is this plagiarism on the part of the Russian writer? Till now nobody has made so bold as to hurl such an accusation against Chernyshevsky. Let us imagine that grounds exist for that. Then we should have to say that Chernyshevsky stole Helvetius’s ideas, which, in their turn, derived from the latter’s voluptuous temperament and boundless vanity. What astounding clarity! What a profound philosophy of the history of human thought!

In taking note of Helvetius’s errors, we should not forget that he was mistaken on the very same point as all idealist (or rather dualist) philosophy had been, which had waged a struggle against French materialism. Spinoza and Leibnitz sometimes made very skilful use of the dialectical weapon (especially the latter in Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain), yet their commonstand remained metaphysical. Besides, Leibnitz and Spinoza played a far from leading role in French official eighteenthcentury philosophy, which was dominated by a more or less modified and vulgarised Cartesianism. The latter, however, contained not the faintest notion of development. [28] Helplessness of method was, in certain measure, something that materialism inherited from its dualist precursors: one should not deceive oneself on that score. If the materialists are wrong, that in no way means that their opponents are right. Nothing of the kind! Their opponents are doubly and trebly mistaken – in short, infinitely more.

What do we learn of the origin of our moral sentiments from Laharpe, who undoubtedly missed no opportunity of aiming all the heavy guns of the good old philosophy against Helvetius? Alas, very little! He assures us that “all our passions are given directly by Nature” that they “are of our nature” (italicised by Laharpe), “though they may become excessive only as a result of the corruption of grand societies”. He goes on to tell us that “society is of a natural order”, so that Helvetius was “utterly mistaken in calling artificial that which results from a natural and necessary order”; that man has “another measure for his judgements than his own interest”, and that “that measure is a sense of justice”; that “pleasure and affliction can be sole driving force in the lower animals alone”; but “God, conscience, and the laws that derive from these two – that is what man should be guided by”. [29] Very profound this, is it not? At last matters have been made quite clear!

Let us now cast an admiring glance at another opponent of our “sophist”, this time a man of the nineteenth century. After reading in De l’Esprit that the common interest is the measure of virtue, that any society considers those actions virtuous that are beneficial to it, and that men’s judgements of the actions of those about them undergo change in keeping with their interests, this man gave vent, with triumphant mien, to a veritable spate of words: “If it is asserted that the public’s judgements regarding individual actions are entitled to infallibility inasmuch as they are hacked by the majority of individuals, then a number of conclusions drawn from this principle have to be recognised, each more absurd than the next one, as, for instance: only the opinions of the majority are in agreement with the truth.... Truth becomes delusion when it ceases from being the opinion of the majority and turns into the opinion of the minority, and, conversely, delusion becomes truth when it becomes the opinion of the majority after having been for long the opinion of the minority.” [30] What a naive man! His refutation of Helvetius, whose theories he was never able to grasp, is indeed marked by “novelty”.

Even people of far greater calibre, such as, for instance, Lange, see in this doctrine nothing but an apologia for “personal interest”. It is considered axiomatic that Adarn Smith’s doctrine of morals has nothing in common with the French materialists’ ethics. These two doctrines are antipodes. Lange, who expressed only disdain for Helvetius, had the highest esteem for Adam Smith as a moralist. “Adam Smith’s inference of morality from sympathy,” he wrote, “although insufficiently grounded even for the time, still remains, down to our days, one of the most productive attempts at a natural and rational substantiation of morality.” Baudrillart, the French author of a commentary on The Theory of Moral Sentiments considered it a healthy reaction against “the systems of materialism and selfishness”. Smith himself felt hardly any “sympathy” for the materialists’ systems of ethics. He must have found Helvetius’s theory, like Mandeville’s, “exuberant”. Indeed, at first glance, Smith’s theory seems the opposite of what wo find in the works of Helvetius. The reader, we hope, has not yet forgotten how the latter accounts for the regret we feel over the loss of a friend. Let us now read what the celebrated Englishman wrote on the matter: “We sympathise even with the dead ... It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations ... That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity” [31] ..., etc. This is, of course, something quite different! But let us take a closer look at this argument. What is meant by Adam Smith’s “sympathy”? “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it ... That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it.” The source of this sensitivity to the sorrow of others is seen in the following: “... As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in tlie like situation ...” [32] Do you think there is nothing resembling this theory of sympathy in the works of Helvetius? In his book De l’Homme (sect.II, ch.VII) he asks himself what is meant by a humane man. and replies: “One to whom the spectacle of the misery of others is a mournful spectacle.” But what does this ability to feel another’s sorrow derive from? We owe it to memories that teach us to identify ourselves with others. “If the child has acquired the habit of identifying itself with the unfortunate, it is the more moved by their misery that, in deploring their plight, it shows compassion for mankind as a whole, and consequently for itself in particular. An infinity of various sentiments then blend with the initial feeling, the sum of these comprising an overall feeling of pleasure which rejoices a noble soul, while giving relief to the unfortunate, a feeling he is not always able to analyse.”

The reader will agree that Smith regarded the point of departure in his conclusion – sympathy – in exactly the same way. Helvetius, however, associated sympathy with other and less attractive sentiments. In his opinion, “One consoles the unfortunate: 1) to get rid of the physical pangs caused by the view of their sufferings; 2) to enjoy the spectacle of gratitude, which evokes in us at least a vague hope of some distant advantage; 3) to perform an act of power, the exercise of which is always pleasant, because it creates in our minds an image of the pleasures associated with that power; 4) because the idea of happiness is always associated, given good education, with the idea of charity; since that charity, by winning us the esteem and affection of people, can be regarded, like wealth, as a power or means to escape from affliction and derive pleasure.” Of course, this is not quite what Smith said, but it changes nothing in what pertains to sympathy; it shows that Helvetius arrived at results quite the reverse of the conclusions drawn by the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. To the latter, the sense of sympathy is inherent in our “nature”; to Helvetius, our nature contains merely a “sensory impression”. He saw himself constrained to break down into components that which Smith did not even think of touching upon. Smith advanced in one direction; Helvetius chose the opposite direction. What grounds arc there for surprise if they diverged more and more, and ultimately never met again?

No doubt Helvetius was in no way inclined to pass all our feelings through the filter of sympathy as one of the stages of their development. In this respect, he was not “one-sided”. Smith’s “sympathy” made him eschew the utilitarian point of view. To him, just as to Helvetius, social interest provided the foundation and sanction for morality. [33] Only it never occurred to him to deduce that foundation and sanction from the primary elements of human nature. He did not ask himself what formed the foundation of the “supreme wisdom” that controlled the system of human proclivities. He saw a naked fact where Helvetius could already see a process of development. “That whole account of human nature, however,” Smith remarked, “which deduces all sentiments and affections from self-love ... seems to me to have arisen from some confused misapprehension of the system of sympathy.” [34] He should have said that that system was an attempt to reveal the origin of our affections and sentiments, whilst he himself was content with a more or less competent description of them. [35]

The contradictions Helvetius was entangled in were, as we have pointed out several times, a consequence of his metaphysical method. There were also many contradictions caused by his often narrowing his theoretical point of view in order to bring out the possibility and ease of achieving certain practical aims. This, incidentally, is to be seen in the instance of our author’s “slander” of Regulus.

Helvetius was out to prove that, as a military leader and in keeping with ancient Roman customs, Regulus could not have acted otherwise than he did, even were he pursuing his private ends. This was the “slander” that aroused Jean-Jacques’s indignation. However, Helvetius did not at all mean that Regulus had really pursued his own ends. “Regulus’s deed was, no doubt, the effect of an impetuous enthusiasm that induced him to virtue.” What, then, was the purpose of his “slander”? It was intended to show that “such enthusiasm could have been kindled in Rome alone”. The Republic’s most “perfect” legislation could intimately bind its citizens’ private interests to those of the State. [36] Hence the heroism of the ancient Romans. The practical conclusion to be drawn was that if people learnt to act in the same way, then heroic men such as Regulus would certainly appear. For this conclusion to strike the reader, Helvetius showed him only one side of the question, but that is no proof of his having lost sight of the influence of habit, the association of ideas, “sympathies”, ’“enthusiasm”, noble pride, and so on. Nothing of the kind: he only was unable always to find the links between that influence and personal interest, or “sensory impressions”, though he did try to do so, since he never forgot that man is nothing but sensation. If he did not cope with the task, it was only because of the metaphysical nature of the materialism of his times, but it will always stand to his credit that he drew all the conclusions from his fundamental principle.

The same predominance of the practical trend accounted for bis perfunctory attitude to the question of whether all men are born with the same abilities. He could not even pose this question correctly. But what did he wish to say in touching upon it? This was very well understood by Grimm, who was no great theorist. In his Correspondance littéraire (November 1773), be wrote of De l’Homme in the following terms: “Its main purpose is to show that the genius, virtues and talents to which nations owe their •grandeur and felicity are the effects, not of differences in food, temperament or the live senses, on which laws and administration exert no influence, but of education, over which laws and government have full control.” [37] The practical value of this kind of view in times of revolutionary ferment can be readily understood.

If man is nothing but a machine driven by “sensory impressions”, a machine that is obliged to do everything done by the latter, then the role of “free will” in the life of any people or individual is equal to nil. If “sensory impressions” make up the principle of people’s volitions, needs, passions, sociality, ideas, judgements and actions, then it is clear that the key to mankind’s destinies should not be sought in man or his “nature”; if all men are equally endowed spiritually, then the imaginary features of race or national character cannot, of course, explain anything in a nation’s present-day or past condition. These three logically inescapable conclusions are already highly important prolegomena to the philosophy of history as a whole.

According to Helvetius, all nations living in the same conditions have the same kind of laws, are marked by the same spirit, and are impelled by the same passions. “For this reason, we find among the American Indians the customs of the ancient Germans”; for this reason, “Asia, inhabited for the most part by the Malayans, is governed by our ancient feudal laws”; for this reason, “fetishism was not only the first of religions, but its cult, still preserved today in almost all of Africa, ... was once the universal cult”; for the same reason, Greek mythology has many features similar to those in Celtic mythology; for the same reason, finally, the most various peoples often have the same sayings. In general, there exists an amazing similarity in the institutions, spirit and faiths of primitive peoples. Like individuals, peoples resemble one another far more than it seems.


1. J. Demogeot, Histoire de la littérature française depuis ses origines jusqu’à nos jours, 22° edition, Paris 1886, pp.493-94. The book forms part of Histoire universelle which was published by a group of professors under the editorship of V. Duruy.

2. “How illusions horn of the spirit of system should he mistrusted! Helvetius had virtues, but his book is the destruction of all virtue” (La Harpe, Refutation du livre De l’Esprit, prononcée au Lycée républicain, dans les séances des 26 et 29 mars et des 3 et 5 avril, Paris l’an V [1797], p.87).

3. Marat also disliked Helvetius. He considered this philosopher merely “a false and superficial mind”, his “system” absurd, and his book “a continuous tissue of sophisms carefully embellished with a conceited show of a vast erudition”. (Cf. De l’homme ou des principes et des lois de l’influence de l’âme sur le corps et du corps sur l’âme par Jean-Paul Marat, docteur en medicine, Amsterdam 1775, pp.XV, XVI, des Discours preliminaire). This book by Marat does not belong to the revolutionary period of his life. Besides, the opinions of revolutionaries are not always revolutionary opinions. According to Marat, “Man, like any animal, is composed of two distinct substances – Soul and Body” ... “Eternal Wisdom” has placed the Soul in the envelope of the brain (!). “It is the fluid of the nerves that is the link of communications between these two disparate substances”. “The nervous fluid is the prime agent in mechanical acts. In free acts, it is subordinate to the soul and becomes the instrument it uses to perform them” (I, pp.24, 40, 107). All this is amazingly trite. In his interpretation of his predecessors and his irritable self-esteem, Marat is highly reminiscent of Dühring.

4. Geschichte des Materialismus, 2. Aufl., Iserlohn 1873, I, S.360.

5. Bréviaire de l’histoire du materialisme, Paris 1883, pp.645-46.

6. In Helvetius’s opinion, we consider as evident only our own existence, on the contrary, the existence of other bodies is only a probability, “a probability which is no doubt very great and, in practical life, tantamount to manifestnoss, yet is only probability”. Anyone else voicing something of the kind would have been ranked by Lange among the “critical” minds. However, no “criticism” was able to rehabilitate Helvetius and remove the blot of “superficiality”, which was the first to strike the eye of this thorough historian of materialism.

7. De l’Esprit, Discours I, chap.IV.

8. This affinity seems due to Helvetius having had ascribed to him a book entitled Les progrès de la Raison dans la recherche du vrai, which was republished in the Paris edition of his works in 1818. The book does not contain a single page of original writing. It consists partly of a translation of some of Toland’s Letters to Serena to which were appended several passages from Système de la Nature and other more or less known books of the time. All these were carelessly put together and poorly understood by the unknown “author”. Helvetius could not have had anything to do with such a work.

Another book exists, which was ascribed to him: Le vrai sens du Système de la Nature. It may have been written by him but we have no firm evidence on this score, and shall refrain from quoting from it, the more so because it adds nothing to what can be found in his books De l’Esprit and De l’Homme.

9. Geschichte des Materialismus, I, S.378. It is surprising how Lange finds “an elementof the Kantian doctrine in Robinet, who said of a thing-in-itself only what was said by Holbach and Helvetius. It is no less surprising that the author of De la Nature is numbered among the materialists by Lange, while Helvetius is considered merely to have approached them. What a strange criterion Lange was guided by!

10. Quoted from the book De l’Homme, section II, chap.II. In the 1773 edition of this book, it is indicated that the quotation was from A Treatise on the Principles of Chemistry, which we have been unable to locate. However, we can quote what Priestley said in his discussion with Price: “To make my meaning, if possible, better understood, I will use the following comparison. The power of cutting, in a razor, depends upon a certain cohesion, and arrangement of the parts of which it consists. If we suppose this razor to be wholly dissolved in any acid liquor, its power of cuttinsr will certainly be lost, or cease to be, though no particle of the metal that constituted the razor be annihilated by the process; and its former shape, and power of cutting, etc., may be restored to it after the metal has been precipitated. Thus when the body is dissolved by putrefaction, its power of thinking entirely ceases ...” (A Free Discussion of the Doctrine of Materialism, etc., London 1778, pp.82, 83). This was indeed the viewpoint of the chemist quoted by Helvetius. In this case, we are in no way interested in the religious views that Priest leywas able to reconcile with his materialism. Neither is there any need to emphasise that the views on chemistry hold by the materialists of the last century are not the views of our days.

11. De l’Homme, section II, chap.X. Helvctius was well aware that man is endowed with memory. However, the organ of memory, he said, is purely physical, its function consisting in reviving our past impressions. It should therefore evoke actual sensations in us. Thus, it is all a matter of the faculty of sensation. Everything in man is sensation.

12. ibid., chap.XVI, the last note to this chapter.

13. Charles Darwin was well aware of what the moralising philosophers understand but rarely: “It was assumed formerly by philosophers ... that the foundation of morality lay in a form of Selfishness; but more recently the ‘Greatest happiness principle’ has been brought prominently forward. It is, however, more correct to speak of the latter principle as the standard, and not as the motive of conduct”, [Plekhanov is quoting from the German translation of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man] (Die Abstammung des Menschen und die geschlechtliche Zuchtwahl, Stuttgart 1875, S.154).

14. Système de la Nature, London 1781, I, p.268.

15. Geschichte des Materialismus, I, S.363.

16. Literaturgeschichte des 18. Jahrhunderts, Braunschweig 1881, 2. T., S.398.

17. De l’Homme, section IV, chap.IV; De l’Esprit, Discours III, chap.XV.

18. De l’Homme, section II, chap.X.

19. De l’Esprit, Discours III, chap.IX.

20. [Plekhanov is quoting from the German translation of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man] Die Abstammung des Menschen, Stuttgart 1875, S.166.

21. [... From any time
Any genus can be born
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And trees would always yield
Constant but changing fruit: anything could produce anything.]

22. De l’Homme, section IV, chap.VI.

23. ibid., chap.X, the last note to this chapter.

24. ibid., chap.XXII.

25. ibid., section VIII, chap.IV.

26. Réfutation du livre De l’Esprit, p.8.

27. Helvetius recommended following the example of the geometricians. “If some complex problem in mechanics is proposed to them, what do they do? They simplify it; they calculate the speed of bodies in movement, disregarding their density, the resistance of the surrounding fluids, the friction of other bodies, etc.” (De l’Homme, section IX, chap.I). In almost the same terms, Chernyshevsky recommended simplification of problems of political economy. Helvetius was accused of having slandered Socrates and Regulus. But what Chernyshevsky said of the celebrated suicide of the chaste Lucretia, who did not wish to go on living after her violation, is remarkably reminiscent of Helvetius’s thoughts about the heroic captive of the Carthaginians. Chernyshevsky thought that political economy should deal mainly, not with that which exists but with that which should be. Compare this with what Helvetius wrote in a letter to Montesquieu: “Remember that during a discussion at La Brede” (about Montesquieu’s Principes), “I acknowledged that they apply to the actual conditions; but that a writer who would be useful to people should occupy himself with true maxims in a future and better order of things, rather than with canonising principles that become dangerous from the moment they are taken over by prejudice, with the purpose of utilising and perpetuating them” (Cf. Œuvres complètes d’Helvétius, Paris 1818, III, p.261). Many other examples might be added to this surprising one, but we prefer to show the coincidence in the views of these twowriters, who were separated by almost a century, only inasmuch as the opportunity has presented itself in our account of Helvetius’s theory.

28. “Descartes,” says Flint, “shows incidentally in many passages of his writings that he had looked on social facts with a clear and keen gaze. And so does Malebranche.” But the selfsame Flint acknowledges that “of a science of history Descartes had no notion whatever”, and that “it was only with the decay of Cartesianism that historical science began to flourish in France ...” (cf. The Philosophy of History in France and Germany, Edinburgh and London 1874, pp.76-78).

29. Réfutation du livre De l’Esprit, pp.57, 61 63, 68 et 69.

30. Nouvelle réfutation du livre De l’Esprit, à Clermont-Ferrand 1817, p.46. The anonymous author’s method of adducing proofs reminds one of the arguments used by the highly learned – “learned!” – Damiron. At the beginning of De l’Esprit, Helvetius wrote that man owes his superiority over the animals, among other reasons, to the structure of his extremities. “You think,” Damiron thunders, “that giving the horse man’s hands would endow it with man’s mind. It would give it nothing except making it impossible for it to live as a horse” (Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la philosophie au dix-huitième siècle Paris, 1858, I, p.406). In just the same manner, a certain naive professor of divinity in St. Petersburg disputed Darwin’s theory: “Throw a hen into the water,” he said, “and, according to Darwin, it will grow webs between its digits. I, however, affirm that the poor animal will perish most miserably.”

31. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, London 1873, pp.12, 13. This work published in 1757.

32. op. cit., pp.9, 10.

33. “We do not love our country merely as a part of the great society of mankind: we love it for its own sake, and independently of any such consideration. That wisdom which contrived the system of human affections, as well as that of every other part of nature, seems to have judged that the interest of the great society of mankind would be best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it, which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding...” (op. cit., pp.203, 204).

34. ibid., p.281.

35. All this is quite plain, yet seems hard to understand. “Virtue,” said Huxley, “is undoubtedly beneficient; but the man is to be envied to whom her ways seem in anywise playful ... The calculation of the greatest happiness is not performed quite so easily as a rule of three sum ... The moral law ... rests in the long run upon instinctive intuitions...” [Plekhanov is quoting from the French translation of Huxley’s Hume (English Men of Letters).] (Hume, sa vie, sa philosophie, trad, par G. Compayre, Paris 1880, pp.281, 284). If the great English natural scientist wished to disprove, by such considerations, eighteenth-century materialist morality, he was greatly in error and had forgotten his Darwin. Incidentally, he must have been thinking only of lesser men, such as Bentham and John Stuart Mill. In that case, he was right.

36. De l’Esprit, Discours III, chap.XXII.

37. Holbach did not share this opinion of Helvetius’s, though he called him a “celebrated moralist”. It was, in his opinion, “mistaken to think that upbringing can do everything with man; it can only make vise of the material given by Nature; it can sow successfully only in soil provided by Nature” (cf. La morale universelle, section V, chap.III; cf. also op. cit., section I, chap.IV). llolbach does not ask, besides, what part society provided in what he called the individual’s nature. Incidentally, Holvetius was himself well aware that his view could not be precisely proved. He only thought that it could at least be assorted that “this influence” (i.e., that of organisation on the minds of fairly well-developed people) “was so small that it might be considered a negligible quantity in algebraic calculations, so that what had previously been ascribed to the effect of physical properties and had not been accounted for by this cause, was fully explicable by moral causes” (i.e., the influence of the social environment – G.P.). It was almost in the same terms that Chernyshevsky spoke of the influence of race on the destinies of peoples.


1*. Actually it was Marquise Dudefin who said so; she also, like de Bouffler, held a celebrated literary salon.

2*. Frau Buchholtz – a character from a series of novels by the mid-nineteenth century German humourist Stinde; an embodiment of Prussian philistinism.

Last updated on 9.10.2007