Helvetius, Claude Adrian

, the most remarkable of this family, was born at Paris in 1715, and was son of the preceding Helvetius. He studied under the famous father Pon’e in the college of Louis the Great, and his tutor, discovering in his compositions remarkable proofs of genius, was particularly attentive to his education. An early association with the wits of his time gave him the desire to become an author, but his principles unfortunately became tainted with false philosophy. He did not publish any thing till 1758, when he produced his celebrated book “DeTEsprit,” which appeared first in one volume 4to, and afterwards in three volumes, 12mo. This work was very justly condemned by the parliament of Paris, as confining the faculties of man to animal sensibility, and removing at once the restraints of vice and the encouragements to virtue. Attacked in various ways at home, on account of these principles, he visited England in 1764, and the next year went into Prussia, where he was received with honourable attention by the king. When he returned into France, he led a retired and domestic life on his estate at Vore. Attached to his wife and family, and strongly inclined to benevolence, he lived there more | happily than at Paris, where, as he said, he “was obliged to encounter the mortifying spectacle of misery that he could not relieve.” To Marivaux, and M. Saurin, of the French academy, he allowed pensions, that, for a private benefactor, were considerable, merely on the score of merit; which he was anxious to search out and to assist. Yet, with all this benevolence of disposition, he was strict in the care of his game, and in the exaction of his feudal rights. He was maltre-d’hotel to the queen, and, for a time, a farmer-general, but quitted that lucrative post to enjoy his studies. When he found that he had bestowed his bounty upon unworthy persons, or was reproached with it, he said, “If I was king, I would correct them; but I am only rich, and they are poor, my business therefore is to aid them.” Nature had been kind to Helvetius; she had given him a fine person, genius, and a constitution which promised long life. This last, however, he did not attain, for he was attacked by the gout in his head and stomach, under which complaint he languished some little time, and died in December 1771. His works were, 1. the treatise “De l’Esprit,” “on the Mind,” already mentioned: of* which various opinions have been entertained, It certainly is one of those which endeavour to degrade the nature of man too nearly to that of mere animals; and even Voltaire, who called the author at one time a true philosopher, has said that it is filled with common-place truths, delivered with great parade, but without method, and disgraced by stories very unworthy of a philosophical production. The ideas of virtue and vice, according to this book, depend chiefly upon climate. 2. “Le Bonheur,” or “Happiness,” a poem in six cantos; published after his death, in 1772, with some fragments of epistles. His poetical style is still more affected than his prose, and though he produces some fine verses, he is more frequently stiff and forced. His poem on happiness is a declamation, in which he makes that great object depend, not on virtue, but on the cultivation of letters and the arts. 3. “De l’Homme,” 2 vols. 8vo, another philosophical work, not less bold than the first. A favourite paradox, produced in this book, under a variety of different forms, is, “that all men are born with equal talents, and owe their genius solely to education.” This book is even more dangerous than that on the mind, because the style is clearer, and the author writes with less reserve. He* speaks sometimes of | the enemies of what he called philosophy, with an asperity that ill accords with the general mildness of his character.

The origin of the philosophical career of Helvetius is, by La Harpe, traced to a cause of a very singular nature, and not perhaps very credible. While yet young, and coveting every species of enjoyment within the reach of his age, his accomplishments, and his wealth, he beheld in a public garden a man who had none of these advantages, and to whom a circle of women were doing honour. This wasMaupertuis, just returned from his voyage towards the pole, and who had acquired a temporary reputation in the sciences. Helvetius was struck with the consideration which the reputation of a man of letters was able to ensure. He had hitherto succeeded easily in all that he had attempted. He had danced to admiration at the opera, under the mask of Juvilliers, one of the first dancers of the time. He had already made attempts in poetry; he had submitted his verses to Voltaire, and the lettered veteran had politely intimated that this was his proper line. He then directed his attention to philosophy, and connected himself with its chiefs, particularly with Diderot.

Diderot is supposed to have furnished some leading ideas to Helv<-t.ius for his work on the Mind. As his hypothesis, says l.a Harpe, every where terminates in materialism, it is probable that the basis of it was furnished to a man of the world, of course little conversant with these matters, by a man of letters by profession, an apostle of atheism, who loved nothing better than to make disciples.

La Harpe has justly said that the paradoxes of Helvetius were the more readily adopted by numbers, because they were discovered to flatter the passions, to lower the standard of virtue, and to furnish excuses for vice. An examination of the lucubrations of the French philosophers, down from the date of the works of Helvetius, proves that the principal and most successful cause of their gaining readers and followers arose from their enlisting the passions on their side. Such is the basis of their systems, the general spirit of their sect, and the principle of their success. The method is not very honourable but with a little address it is almost sure to succeed, at least for a time, for nothing is more easy than to pass off as a theory a corruption which already exists as a fashion. 1

1 Dict. Hist. La Harpe’s Lyceum.