Claude-Adrien Helvétius, 1715-1771

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Portrait of Helvetius

Swiss-French tax collector, philanthropist and Enlightenment philosopher, Claude-Adrien Helv・/font>tius is widely regarded as the father of utilitarianism.

Helv・/font>tius's widely-read 1758 treatise, De l'ésprit, was condemned by the Sorbonne, the Pope and the Parlement of Paris and burnt by the public executioner. Although Helv・/font>tius did not contribute to the Encyclopédie and Diderot even directed a polemical tract against him, the authorities believed his dangerous ideas were fostered by it and thus the Encyclopédie was suppressed. With scandal surrounding him, Helv・/font>tius published no more works in his lifetime.

Like Condillac, Helv・/font>tius took a radical empiricist position, that man was born a tabula rasa and formed his knowledge from the senses and association of ideas. A radical hedonist, Helv・/font>tius argued that actions and judgments are generated by the natural desire to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Consequently, human behavior is completely determined by education and social environment. He was condemned precisely because this deterministic theory of man seemed to exonerate immoral behavior.

However, Helv・/font>tius believed that human behavior could be made virtuous and socially beneficial just by setting up the appropriate pleasure/pain incentives and thereby channeling it in the right direction. His emphasis on education (particularly the importance of providing motivation to students) was particularly well-regarded. "Men are born ignorant, not stupid", Helv・/font>tius argued, but "they are made stupid by education". Rousseau, however, dedicated several passages of his Emile (which enjoyed its own succès de scandale) against him.

Helv・/font>tius was perhaps the first to articulate the utilitarian formula of defining social welfare as the "greatest happiness of the greatest number". His ideas were highly influential on Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria and, through them, the British utilitarians.

Some final notes of family curiosa: Helvétius was the grandson of the famous Swiss alchemist. His wife, Anne Catherine "Minette" de Ligniville, was a renowned beauty in her day and very well-connected -- she was related not only to Voltaire's mistress, the Marquise du Chatelet, but also Queen Marie Antoinette herself (thus ensuring Helvétius's appointment as the queen's tutor). After his death, she famously became the object of old Benjamin Franklin's amorous attentions.

Major Works of Helvétius

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