Claude Adrien Helvétius

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Claude-Adrien Helvétius, engraving by Augustin de Saint-Aubin after a painting by Louis-Michel van Loos (1772; Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York)

Claude-Adrien Helvétius ( kloʊd adriˈɑ̃ ɛlveɪˈsyüs ), actually in the non- Latinized form Claude-Adrien Schweitzer (born  February 26 or January 26, 1715 in Paris , † December 26, 1771 in Paris or on his country estate Château de Voré) was a French philosopher of sensualism and materialism of the Enlightenment . He was the husband of the Salonnière Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius .


Origin and youth

The great-grandfather Johann Friedrich Helvétius (1630–1709) originally came from Köthen (Anhalt) . He had 1,649 medicine in the year Harderwijk in Holland studied and later became the personal physician of William III. (Orange) . His son Jean Adrien Helvétius (1662–1727) was also a doctor. He went to Paris. His son Jean-Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1685–1755), the father of Claude-Adrien, became the Queen's personal physician . This ensured the family's rise to the ruling circles of absolutist feudal society. Claude-Adrien's mother was Geneviève Noëlle de Carvoisin (1690–1767).

As the only son of his parents, Claude, born in 1715, was cared for and pampered. The enlighteners - Fontenelle and Voltaire - vied for the mentoring position of this precocious, brilliantly gifted, promising youth. As a radiant figure and an unparalleled dancer, he swarmed through his youth in the frenzy of the senses, but at the same time tried to get in touch with the spiritual life. During the time when Helvétius was still attending school as a pupil of the Jesuits , he is said to have performed in the great opera one evening under the mask of a famous solo dancer. This bold escapade betrays the security and unshakable self-esteem of a young man who is equally spoiled by nature and fate.

Claude-Adrien Helvétius was a regular visitor to the Saturday discussion group in the Club de l'Entresol , which had been founded by Pierre-Joseph Alary (1689-1770) and Charles Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre and from 1720 (1724) to 1731 took place in the mezzanine floor apartment on Place Vendôme in Paris by Charles-Jean-François Hénault (1685–1770).

Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius (1722–1800), the wife of Claude-Adrien Helvétius

Since August 1751 he was married to Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius , whose parents Jean Jacques de Ligniville d´Autricourt (1694–1769) and Charlotte de Soreau (about 1700–1762) were. Claude-Adrien Helvétius and Anne-Catherine de Ligniville had two children: Elisabeth-Charlotte and Geneviève-Adelaide (1754-1817).

Portrait of the daughter of Claude-Adrien and Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius, Geneviève-Adélaïde Helvetius, comtesse d ' Andlau (1754–1847)

The diaries, which were only published in 1907, provide a deep insight into this youth era. "From them speaks the cult of a glowing sensuality, which is reflected in mythological comparisons and images." (Werner Krauss)

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle remained of great influence on Helvétius' further development . It was through him that Helvétius became aware of John Locke's experiment on the human understanding and the aesthetic writings of the Abbé Dubos early on . Extreme tolerance in erotic matters characterizes Helvétius' main work De l'esprit (On the Spirit).

General tax farmer and chamberlain to the queen

Helvétius was destined for the financial sector by his father, who bought him the office of main tax leaseholder , Ferme générale , which he took up in 1738 at the age of 23. “The office was associated with such enormous income that Helvétius could afford to abdicate at the age of thirty-six and retire as lord of the castle to his possessions in Voré.” (Werner Krauss). Even after his resignation, Helvétius kept in contact with the highest circles by becoming the Queen's Chamberlain.

Enlightenment protagonist, marriage

However, most of the time he devoted to his studies. He was in close contact with other Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert , Denis Diderot , Paul Heinrich Dietrich von Holbach and was a frequent guest at the Château de la Brède by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu .

Portrait of Claude-Adrien Helvétius, painted by Louis-Michel van Loo (around 1755; location unknown)

In the salon of the Marquise du Deffand he met her niece Anne-Catherine de Ligniville. The two married in 1751 and Minette, as Anne-Catherine was called, led, as Madame Helvétius, after the death of her aunt, her former salon for almost 50 years , later under the name of Auteuil (cercle d'Auteuil), in which the greats of the Time was wrong.

The De l'esprit scandal

In 1758 De l'esprit appeared with a royal printing privilege, avec approbation et privilege du roi , but anonymously in Paris. Helvétius personally presented a copy to the royal family. Nevertheless, the State Council revoked the permission to print. The entire edition was confiscated. Helvétius was urged to withdraw and, after initial reluctance, gave in. He did not feel called to be a martyr and believed that intelligent readers would recognize the nullity of this revocation anyway. The attacks by the Jesuits, the Sorbonne and the Pope also threatened Helvétius with personal persecution, which he was able to fend off thanks to his good relationships. It was the Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont of Paris who announced a mandement on January 23, 1758 , followed by an arret des Parlement in Paris and on January 30, 1759, the indexing by Pope Clement XIII followed.

Next life

Helvétius managed to maintain good relations with the court. In 1764 he made a trip to England and - on an official mission - to Prussia , where he was honored at the court of Frederick II . France and Prussia had been enemies since the Seven Years' War , but the French government wanted to explore ways in which relations could be improved.

After his return, Helvétius lived in Paris, where he died on December 26, 1771. Shortly before his death in December 1770, the leading minister, Étienne-François de Choiseul , who was his friend, was dismissed.

Château de Voré (Collines des Perches, Loir-et-Cher )

Until Helvétius' death in 1771, Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach was not only a frequent guest at his residence at the Château de Voré (Collines des Perches, Loir-et-Cher ) or in his Paris city apartment on rue Sainte-Anne , but both were lifelong friends.

Together with Jérôme Lalande , Helvétius came up with the plan to found a philosophers' lodge, but did not live to see the “ Neuf Sœurs ”. After his death, Madame Helvétius became Grand Master of the women's box attached to it. These Freemasons celebrated their first two "St. John's Feasts" in 1776 and 1777 in the park of the house in Auteuil. Voltaire wrote in his Dictionnaire philosophique about Helvétius: “I loved the author of Esprit .” When Voltaire was accepted into this lodge on April 7, 1778, he was given Helvétius' masonry clothing as a sign of special honor.



Helvétius is a determined sensualist and materialist who was heavily influenced by John Locke . He traces all ideas back to the impression of external objects on the senses of the individual. Helvétius starts from the sensitivity of matter. It gave him great difficulty in explaining the transition from inanimate to animate matter.


All activity arises from innate self-love , the striving for sensual pleasure and the disgust for sensual displeasure . The benefit determines the value of the actions; but since benefit and harm are relative terms, there are no necessarily good or bad actions. The enlightened egoist realizes that everyone's happiness is the prerequisite for their personal happiness.

Political theory

The enlightener Helvétius starts from the fundamental equality of all people and thus not only rejected all pretensions of the nobility, but also campaigned for equal rights for women. Although it recognizes the right to property, it goes beyond the intellectual preparation of civil society. He tried to limit inequality through strict inheritance law.


Helvétius advocates rigorous atheism . Belief in God and soul is the result of the human inability to understand the laws of nature. Religion, especially Catholic, deliberately keep people in this state of ignorance out of the interests of power. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Helvétius does not see religion as a factor of stability, but as a threat to the political order. The title of the second chapter of the seventh section of his work On Man ... reads: "On the religious spirit that destroys the spirit of legislation". Helvétius sees the reason for this destructive effect in the “interest of the priest”: “An inactive class is ambitious: it wants to be rich and powerful and can only become this by depriving the civil servants of their authority and the peoples of their property. In order to acquire both, the priests based the religion on a revelation and declared themselves to be its interpreter. If you are the interpreter of a law, you can change it at will. So in the long run you become its author. ”Despite these and many similar statements, Helvétius does not answer the question of the origin of all religion with a theory of priestly deception; he explains religion from people's striving for happiness. In many chapters of his work, Helvétius proves to be an opponent of all religious intolerance and a champion of tolerance in the legislation of the bourgeois state.

Criticism and posterity

Posthumous portrait after the engraving by Saint-Aubin

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's marginal notes on his copy of De l'esprit have survived. Because of the persecution to which Helvétius was exposed, Rousseau refrained from public criticism. Without naming Helvétius, he dealt with him at the Émile . In particular, Rousseau denied that the judgment could be traced back to perception.

Denis Diderot refused to reduce all differences in talent to education and the environment.

During the French Revolution , revolutionaries were split into atheists and deists . The devout Maximilien de Robespierre arranged for Helvétius' bust, which stood in Versailles, to be destroyed.

The early communist François Noël Babeuf dealt with Helvétius in prison in 1795 . The importance of Helvétius for utopian socialism was already recognized by Karl Grün ( The social movement in France and Belgium . Darmstadt 1845).

Among the writers of the 19th century, Stendhal was most deeply influenced by Helvétius.

Marx and Engels sought to justify in the German ideology why the "utility and exploitation theory" in Helvétius and Holbach did not take on a direct economic character but the status of a philosophical theory. Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov was particularly concerned with Helvétius among the Marxists . In 1896 his study Holbach, Helvétius and Marx appeared . The preference of the Russian Marxists for the French materialists of the 18th century can be traced back to comparable social conditions, as Anton Pannekoek pointed out in Lenin as a philosopher . In Russia too, dealing with feudalism was still an urgent task.


In January 1764 he was accepted as a foreign member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences .


  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: De l'esprit . Durand, Paris 1758. (New edition 1843; modern edition in: Corpus des œuvres de philosophie en langue française. Fayard, Paris 1988, ISBN 2-213-02023-X .)
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: De l'homme, de ses facultés intellectuelles et de son education. Two volumes, London 1772. (Modern edition in: Corpus des œuvres de philosophie en langue française. Fayard, Paris 1989, ISBN 2-213-02389-1 .)
    • Johann Claudius Hadrian Helvetius bequeathed the work of man, of his spiritual powers, and of the education of the same. Translated by Christian August Wichmann. Meyer, Breslau 1774 (see GBV ).
    • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: About people, their intellectual abilities and their upbringing. Edited by Günther Mensching. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1972 ( newer German selection edition; missing chapters are replaced by brief contents by the editor ).
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Œuvres complettes. Four volumes. Bassompierre, Liège 1774 (contains only De l'esprit and De l'homme ).
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Œuvres complettes. Four volumes. Clément Plomteux, "London" (= Liège) 1776 (only De l'esprit and De l'homme , with an engraving by Henri-Joseph Godin after the painting by Louis Michel Van Loos, 1755).
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Œuvres complètes. Four volumes. London 1777 ( digitized version of the Bibliothèque nationale de France ).
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Œuvres complètes. Five volumes. Edited by Louis Lefebvre de La Roche. Briand, Paris 1794.
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Œuvres complètes. 14 volumes. Edited by Louis Lefebvre de La Roche. Didot, Paris 1795 ( digitized version of the first volume from Gallica ).
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Correspondance générale. Edited in five volumes by DW Smith. University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1981-2004. ISBN 0-8020-5517-6 , ISBN 0-8020-5641-5 , ISBN 0-8020-2778-4 , ISBN 0-8020-4285-6 , ISBN 0-8020-8991-7 .
  • Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Philosophical writings. Edited by Werner Krauss. Structure, Berlin and Weimar 1973 ( work edition ).


  • Michèle Duchet: Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des lumières. Buffon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Helvétius, Diderot. Maspéro, Paris 1971 (1978, 1995), ISBN 2-08-210651-9 , ISBN 2-226-07872-X .
  • Jacques Ducol: Diderot critique d'Helvétius ou le matérialisme en chantier. Diss. Tours 1986.
  • Wolfgang Förster: The social theory Helvétius'. In: ders. (Ed.): Bürgerliche Revolution und Sozialtheorie. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin (GDR) 1982, pp. 71–95.
  • Mordecai Grossman: The philosophy of Helvetius, with special emphasis on the educational implications of sensationalism. AMS Press, New York 1972.
  • Albert Keim: Helvétius. Sa vie et son œuvre d'après ses ouvrages, des écrits divers et des documents inédits. F. Alcan, Paris 1907 (dissertation, first scientific biography; again Slatkine, Geneva 1970).
  • Werner Krauss : Introduction . In: Claude-Adrien Helvétius: Philosophical writings. In: Werner Krauss: The scientific work. Vol. 5: Enlightenment I . Structure, Berlin (GDR) and Weimar 1991, ISBN 3-351-00627-6 , pp. 388–456
  • Avezac-Lavigne: Diderot et la société du baron d'Holbach. E. Leroux, Paris 1875.
  • Chatschik N. Momdshian: Helvétius. A contentious atheist of the 18th century . German Science Publishing House, Berlin (GDR) 1959.
  • Georgi Plechanow : Holbach - Helvétius - Marx. Berlin (GDR) 1946.
  • Gero von Randow : Thinker of Lust: The philosopher Helvétius was too radical even for the Enlightenment. In: The time . No. 6, February 5, 2015 ISSN  0044-2070 , p. 19.
  • David Smith: Bibliography of the writings of Helvétius . Ferney-Voltaire - Center international d'étude du XVIIIe siècle, Paris 2001, ISBN 2-84559-006-7 .
  • Vyacheslav P. Wolgin : The social theories of the French Enlightenment . Akademie-Verlag, Berlin (GDR) 1965.

Web links

Wikisource: Claude-Adrien Helvétius  - Sources and full texts (French)
Commons : Claude Adrien Helvétius  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Michaud, Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne , 1843, Vol. 19, p. 90 [1]
  2. ^ Gerhard Rudolph: Helvétius, Claude-Adrien. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 567 f.
  3. Genealogy of the parents
  4. ^ Portrait of Anne-Catherine de Ligniville (1722–1800)
  5. Genealogy of his wife ( Memento of the original dated February 5, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  6. Helmut Holzhey, Vilem Mudroch, Friedrich Ueberweg, Johannes Rohbeck: Outline of the history of philosophy: The philosophy of the 18th century. 2 half floors. Schwabe-Verlag, Basel 2008, ISBN 978-3-7965-2445-5 , p. 549.
  7. Front view of the Château de Voré
  8. ^ Max Pearson Cushing: Baron D'holbach A Study Of Eighteenth Century Radicalism. (Original 1886). Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish MT 2004, ISBN 1-4191-0895-6 , p. 13.
  9. Cf. Jacques René Hébert: The Pope to the lantern, the priests to the slap! Writings on Church and Religion 1790-97. Freiburg im Breisgau 2003, p. 494.
  10. ^ Members of the previous academies. Claude-Adrien Helvétius. Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities , accessed on April 3, 2015 .