Helvétius and Voltaire

Claude-Adrien Helvétius

Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771)
after Louis-Michel van Loo
(Toulon 1707 – Paris 1771), 1759.
Oil painting on canvas. Unsigned.
Ickworth, Suffolk. © National Trust Images

Helvétius is remembered today, three hundred years after his birth, mainly for two controversial treatises: De l’esprit (1758) and De l’homme (1773). The furore surrounding the publication of De l’esprit was particularly intense, and the ensuing affaire soon reached the status of being one of the great literary scandals of the age. De l’homme added more fuel to the flames.

Voltaire’s connection with Helvétius predates this notorious affaire and can be traced back to 1738. The fourth of the Discours en vers sur l’homme is dedicated to ‘M. H***’, [1] and it is clear from their first exchange of letters between July 1738 and August 1740 that Voltaire was immediately impressed with the young Helvétius. On Helvétius’s appointment as fermier-général in 1738 he composed a poem in his honour, the Epître à Monsieur Helvétius. [2] He sent his ‘cher élève des muses, d’Archimede et de Plutus’ a copy of the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, and invited him to Cirey (D1560, D1581): ‘Nous avons ici un fermier général qui me paraît avoir la passion des belles-lettres’ (D1570).

The aspiring poet sent Voltaire two poems, the Epître sur l’amour de l’étude and Sur l’orgueil et la paresse de l’esprit, on which Voltaire offered advice in the Remarques sur deux épîtres d’Helvétius and in the Conseils à Helvétius sur la composition et sur le choix du sujet d’une épître morale. [3] Voltaire’s letter of 14 August 1741 (D2529) marks the end of a remarkable three-year sequence of letters in which he had acted as Helvétius’s ‘directeur pour ce royaume des belles-lettres’ (D1673). Their correspondence would then lapse for seventeen years, not resuming until 1758, the year of De l’esprit.

Voltaire’s disapproval of De l’esprit can be seen in ‘Du mot quisquis de Ramus, ou de La Ramée’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, [4] and he resented the fact that Helvétius had never discussed the treatise with him. However, the warmth of his affection, never fully reciprocated, would survive their differences. In 1760 and 1761 he pressed the case for Helvétius’s election to the Academy (D9047, D9600), telling Helvétius that he was ‘mon confrère dans le petit nombre des élus qui marchent sur le serpent et sur le basilic’ (D9777).

Their friendship had already started to cool in 1741, and in the 1760s the ideological distance widened as Helvétius gravitated towards d’Holbach and the materialists. By 1767 Voltaire had ceased to see Helvétius as his disciple, but the soft spot he had for the man he once called ‘l’espérance et le modèle des philosophes et des poètes’ (D2096) would endure: ‘Je n’aimais point du tout son livre, mais j’aimais sa personne’ (D17572). The masonic lodge to which Voltaire was admitted on 7 April 1778 was Helvétius’s lodge, and it was Helvétius’s masonic apron that he wore for the ceremony of induction before the bust of his ‘ami charmant’ (D2147).

– David Williams

While writing this it was with great sorrow that I learned of the death of Alan Dainard on 19 December 2014. An eminent member of the French Department at the University of Toronto, Alan was one of the founder members of the editorial team lead by David Smith of the Correspondance générale d’Helvétius, the first volume of which appeared in 1981 under the joint imprint of the University of Toronto Press and the Voltaire Foundation. He was also the General Editor of the Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny to which he dedicated most of his scholarly life. The fifteenth and last volume of this edition is due for publication by the Voltaire Foundation in 2015. Alan will leave a gap in our ranks not easily filled.

[1] OCV, vol.17, p.491.

[2] OCV, vol.18A, p.297.

[3] OCV, vol.18C, p.41-68, 79-82.

[4] OCV, vol.43, p.85-90.

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