Claude Adrien Helvétius

gigatos | October 22, 2021


Claude-Adrien Helvétius (kloʊd adriˈɑ̃ ɛlveɪˈsyüs), actually in the non-Latinized form Claude-Adrien Schweitzer († December 26, 1771 in Paris or at his country estate Château de Voré) was a French philosopher of Enlightenment sensualism and materialism. 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 studied medicine in Harderwijk in Holland around 1649 and later became personal physician to William III. (Orange). His son Jean Adrien Helvétius (1662-1727) was also a physician. He went to Paris. His son Jean Claude Adrien Helvétius (1685-1755), Claude-Adrien”s father, advanced to become 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 Enlightenment thinkers – Fontenelle and Voltaire – vied for the mentorship of this precocious, brilliantly gifted, promising youth. A radiant figure and dancer without equal, he swarmed through his youth in a frenzy of the senses, yet at the same time striving to catch up with intellectual life. During the time when Helvétius was still attending school as a Jesuit pupil, he is said to have appeared one evening at the grand opera under the mask of a famous solo dancer. This audacious escapade betrays the assurance and unshakable sense of self of a youth spoiled by nature and fate alike.

Claude-Adrien Helvétius was a regular attendee of the Saturday discussion group at the Club de l”Entresol, which had been founded by Pierre-Joseph Alary (1689-1770) and Charles Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre and was held from 1720 (resp. 1724) to 1731 in the mezzanine apartment at Place Vendôme in Paris of Charles-Jean-François Hénault (1685-1770).

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

The diaries, which were not published until 1907, provide deep insight into this youthful epoch. “From them speaks the cult of an ardent sensuality reflected in mythological comparisons and images.” (Werner Krauss)

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle remained of great influence on Helvétius” further development. Through him, Helvétius became aware early on of John Locke”s Attempt on the Human Mind and the aesthetic writings of Abbé Dubos. Extreme tolerance in erotic matters characterizes Helvétius” main work De l”esprit (On the Spirit).

General tax leaseholder and chamberlain of the queen

Helvétius was destined for the financial profession by his father, who bought him the office of principal tax tenant, ferme générale, which he took up in 1738 at the age of twenty-three. “The office involved such tremendous income that Helvétius could afford to abdicate at the age of thirty-six and retire to his Voré estates as lord of the castle.” (Werner Krauss). Even after his resignation, Helvétius maintained contact with the highest circles by becoming chamberlain to the queen.

Protagonist of the Enlightenment, marriage

However, he devoted most of his time to his studies. He was in close contact with other thinkers of the Enlightenment 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 of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.

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, ran her aunt”s former salon as Madame Helvétius for almost 50 years after her death, later under the name Kreis von Auteuil (cercle d”Auteuil), where the greats of the time frequented.

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 Council of State revoked the printing privilege. The entire edition was confiscated. Helvétius was pressured to revoke and, after initial reluctance, gave in. He did not feel called to be a martyr and believed intelligent readers would realize the nullity of this revocation anyway. Due to the attacks of the Jesuits, the Sorbonne and the Pope, Helvétius was also threatened with personal persecution, which he was able to ward off, however, due to his good connections. Thus it was the Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont of Paris who issued a mandement on January 23, 1758, followed by an arret of the Parlement in Paris, and on January 30, 1759, the indexation by Pope Clement XIII.

Later life

Helvétius managed to maintain his good relations with the court. In 1764, he made a trip to England and – on an official mission – to Prussia, where he found an honorable reception 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 to improve relations.

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

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

Together with Jérôme Lalande, Helvétius made 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 lodge attached to it. These Masons celebrated their first two “St. John”s Feasts” in 1776 and 1777 in the park of the house in Auteuil. Voltaire wrote of Helvétius in his Dictionnaire philosophique, “I loved the author of Esprit.” When Voltaire was accepted into this lodge on April 7, 1778, he was presented with Helvétius” masonic garments as a sign of special honor.


Helvétius is a decided sensualist and materialist strongly influenced by John Locke. He traces all ideas back to the impression of external objects on the senses of the individual human being. Helvétius starts from the sensibility of matter. He had great difficulties in explaining the transition from inanimate to animate matter.


All activity springs from innate self-love, the pursuit of sensual pleasure and the abhorrence of sensual displeasure. Utility determines the value of actions; but since utility and harm are relative concepts, there are no necessarily good or bad actions. The enlightened egoist recognizes that the happiness of all is the condition of his personal happiness.

Political theory

The Enlightenment philosopher Helvétius starts from the fundamental equality of all people and thus not only rejected all pretensions of the nobility, but also advocated equal rights for women. While recognizing the right to property, he went beyond the intellectual preparation of bourgeois society. He sought to limit inequality through a strict law of inheritance.


Helvétius advocates a rigorous atheism. The belief in God and soul is the result of the human inability to understand the laws of nature. Religion, especially Catholic religion, deliberately keeps people in this state of ignorance for the sake of domination. Helvétius, unlike many of his contemporaries, does not see religion as a factor of stability, but as a threat to the political order. The heading to the 2nd chapter of the seventh section of his work Of Man… reads, “Of the religious spirit destroying the spirit of legislation.” Helvétius sees the reason for this destructive effect in the “interest of the priest”: “An idle state is ambitious: it wants to be rich and powerful and can only become so by depriving the officialdom of its authority and the peoples of their property. In order to acquire both, the priests based religion on a revelation and declared themselves its interpreters. If one is the interpreter of a law, then one changes it according to one”s own will. Thus, in the long run, one becomes its author.” Despite these and many similar statements, Helvétius does not answer the question of the origin of all religion precisely with a theory of priestly fraud; he explains religion to himself from man”s pursuit of 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.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau”s marginal notes to his copy of De l”esprit have survived. Because of the persecutions to which Helvétius was subjected, Rousseau refrained from public criticism. Without mentioning Helvétius” name, he dealt with him in Émile. In particular, Rousseau denied that judgment could be attributed to perception.

Denis Diderot rejected the reduction of all differences in giftedness to education and environment.

During the French Revolution, the revolutionaries were divided 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 studied Helvétius in prison in 1795. The importance of Helvétius for utopian socialism was already recognized by Karl Grün (Die soziale Bewegung in Frankreich und Belgien. Darmstadt 1845).

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

In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels sought to justify why the “theory of utility and exploitation” in Helvétius and Holbach did not assume a directly economic character, but the status of a philosophical theory. Among Marxists, Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov in particular was intensively engaged with Helvétius. In 1896, his study Holbach, Helvétius, and Marx appeared. The preference of Russian Marxists for the French materialists of the 18th century is, as Anton Pannekoek has pointed out in Lenin as a Philosopher, due to comparable social conditions. In Russia, too, the confrontation with feudalism was still an urgent task.

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


  1. Claude Adrien Helvétius
  2. Claude Adrien Helvétius
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