Grimm and the Correspondance Littéraire 1758

On Helvétius

Source: Correspondance littéraire, philosophique, et critique, Volume II. Paris, Furne, 1829;
Translated: from the original for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

August 15, 1758

M. Helvétius, son of the queen’s physician, and who was a man of some reputation, has just given us a considerable in-quarto volume “On the Spirit.” This work caused a general uprising among the public; religious believers and members of society attacked him in equal measure; the book was suppressed by a decree of the King’s Council of State as scandalous, licentious, and dangerous. They forced the author, who at the court has the title of the queen’s maitre-d'hôtel, to publicly retract. He did so in a letter addressed to a Jesuit, and this retraction not having appeared sufficient he was made to sign a second one that was so humiliating that we would not be surprised to see a man flee to live among the Hottentots rather than to subscribe to such avowals. There has thus been much noise. I don’t know if his literary glory will be great enough to compensate the author for all the disagreeableness he has suffered. It seems to me that those who judge it the most favorably, whatever merit they grant the work, refuse it the most precious of qualities, that of genius. While waiting for me to have the time to given an account of my own sentiments regarding “On the Spirit,” I will place here the judgment of a man worth much more than I [Diderot]. If by chance it is too much in favor of the author you will be able to rectify it as you read the work; I will not fail to return to it later.

February 15, 1759

I don’t know if the book “On the Spirit” will bring M. Helvétius enough consideration to compensate him for all the sorrows it caused him. But I think we can truthfully say that it wasn’t useful enough to men or the progress of letters and philosophy to compensate us for the blow it delivered in France to the freedom to think and to write. Philosophy will for a long time feel the upsetting of spirits this author almost universally caused by his work. And for having too freely written a morality evil and false in itself M. Helvétius will be forced to reproach himself for all the hindrances that will be imposed on the few elevated and sublime geniuses still left to us and whose destiny was to enlighten their like and to spread enlightenment throughout the world. ‘On the Spirit’ has been attacked in a mass of pamphlets. Journalists have torn it apart. There was a Catechism drawn up for “On the Spirit,” someone wrote a “Catechism of the Cacouacs.” An extremely wicked man brought out a “Thanks from a Private Person to the Philosophers of the Day.” There has appeared a furious decree by the Archbishop of Paris. Finally, the parlement has seized the affair and the enemies of philosophy persuaded themselves that they had carried off a great victory when they saw at the same time the Encyclopedia referred to that court by the king’s advocate general. This immense work, which throughout enlightened and scholarly Europe is regarded as the noblest enterprise and monument of the human spirit, thought it was going to succumb to the blows of superstition and envy. But the counsels of the wisest prevailed in parlement. They settled for burning the book “On the Spirit.” As companions in its fate it was given several short obscure works that have been available for years and which no one ever honored with a glance. Also included in the decree was the poem “On Natural Religion,” whose maxims should be engraved in golden letters over the doors to our temples and palaces of justice.

We are even more barbaric. The same decree named a certain number of commissioners, theologians, and lawyers to examine the denounced articles in the Encyclopedia. It is said that when these commissioners will have made their reports (which will perhaps not be very soon) the parlement will publish a censure of different articles and enjoin the authors to place it at the head of the first volume to appear. What is certain is that the eighth volume is being printed now and this tribunal makes no claim to prevent its continuation. And so the enemies of the Encyclopedia, however numerous and powerful they might be, have failed in their great project, which was to take that enterprise from M. Diderot’s hands and, profiting from his immense labors, have it continued by the Jesuits. The secret goal of all those pamphlets was to beat down the philosopher under the blows delivered against the author of “On the Spirit,” and this goal was pursued with an unequalled animosity and atrocity. In order to harm M. Diderot it was published that he was the author of all the sections that revolted readers of M. Helvétius’ work, though this philosopher has no connection with the latter and they only meet twice a year. It is true that one must be totally lacking in taste and sense to find M. Diderot’s morality and shadings in the book “On the Spirit.” But what can we not persuade fools and the wicked of when we give them the occasion to do harm? That the obscure and shadowy author of the “Catechism of the Cacouacs” and his like empoison and falsify passages and accuse of conspiracy and sedition a small number of scattered philosophers who seek truth without cabals, ambition, intrigue, credit and, for the most part, knowing each other; that they tear apart the only names that could honor the France of so sterile a century in the eyes of posterity. There is no great harm in Montesquieu Voltaire, Diderot, and Buffon being called public poisoners by wretched pamphleteers; but what should we think when we see a magistrate of the first order share all these slanders and expose them with assurance before the first tribunal of the kingdom? The indictment of the advocate general inserted in the decree of the court of parlement seemed to all honest men to be an empty sermon unworthy of an enlightened and fair magistrate. This piece of a pitiful eloquence mainly dishonors the parlement in the face of all of Europe by proscribing the principles contained in the article “Authority,” principles avowed and taught among all civilized peoples and that no one has more interest in supporting than this very parlement where they were judged pernicious. But we can remind the advocate general that it does not suffice to be Capuchin, one must be just and true. This magistrate puts forth with a daring that does him no honor that there exists a conspiracy formed by several of today’s writers to overthrow the state religion. He excuses M. Helvétius by saying that he would not have written so detestable a work if he had listened only to his own sentiments, but he surrendered himself to foreign impressions, he poured out the poison of others, etc. By what right does a public individual advance such assertions without having proof in hand and publishing them at the same time? And how could he have the proof of something completely false?