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Caroline Warman

54. Helvétius (1715-1771), Essays on the Mind, 17581

Texte intégral

  • 1 Claude Adrien Helvétius, De l’esprit, Durand, 1758.

1When it came out in 1758, Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s book De l’esprit was immediately prosecuted by the censors for its bold ideas and for its materialism. The book was burnt by the public executioner along with Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Helvétius was forced to recant, and he withdrew to his estate where he attempted to put his advanced social ideas into practice.

Portrait of Helvétius by Louis-Michel van Loo

Portrait of Helvétius by Louis-Michel van Loo


3Whether you cast your eyes to the north, to the south, to the east or west, everywhere you will see the sacred blade of religion held to the throats of women, children and the aged. You will see the earth smoking with the blood of the innocent sacrificed in the name of false gods or the Supreme Being, with on all sides the spectacle of the huge, horrible, and sickening mass grave of intolerance. But what man of virtue, what Christian, if his gentle heart is filled with the divine unction which emanates from the maxims of the Gospels, if he is sensitive to the cries of the wretched, and if ever he has wiped their tears, would not be moved to compassion for humanity, and would not try to found moral integrity, not so much on the honourable principles of religion, but on those which are less easy to abuse, such as those of self-interest?

4Without contradicting the principles of our religion, these reasons would be enough to force men into the path of virtue. The pagan religion, by populating Olympus with scoundrels, was without doubt less suitable than ours for forming good and fair men. Yet, who could doubt that the early Romans were more virtuous than we? Who could deny that the police are responsible for disarming more thieves than religion ever has? Or that Italians, more devout than any Frenchman, and with rosary in hand, are nevertheless quicker to reach for the dagger or the poison bottle? Or that, in times when piety is more fervent and the rule of law less strong, infinitely more crimes are committed than in those centuries when piety grows weaker and the rule of law more robust?

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1 Claude Adrien Helvétius, De l’esprit, Durand, 1758.

Table des illustrations

Titre Portrait of Helvétius by Louis-Michel van Loo
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