Letter, Helvetius (2) (1797)

Letter to the Editor, Monthly Magazine 3 (January, 1797), 26-28.1  

"Defence of Helvetius."

Sir,  

    Discussion and controversy, when managed with temper, have ever appeared to me, not only a favorable method of exercising the ingenuity and sharpening the faculties of the disputants, but likewise, of promoting a spirit of liberal curiosity and enquiry.

    The sincere disciple of truth should take nothing for granted, nor hold anything as sacred; but should (if I may be allowed the strong expression) be licentious in his investigations. Error, the result of the independent research of the unfettered individual, in its nature variable, is short-lived, and, by the contradiction it involves, frequently affords the clue of truth: while prejudice, opinions taken upon trust from others, is usually fierce, obstinate, and intolerant.

     The subject in dispute between your correspondent J. T. and myself, has long been considered as interesting, by the speculative part of mankind, from the many important consequences it involves: in fact, there are few branches either of moral, religious, or legislative, science, that are not nearer or more remotely connected with it. It is justly observed by Mr. Hume, that one considerable advantage which results from the accurate and abstract philosophy is its relation and subserviency to the practical and humane. 

    Though not convinced by the arguments of J. T. the candor with which he has stated his opinions, and examined those of his opponent, entitles him to respect and consideration. In reply to what he has alleged respecting this citation from Huartes, I must be permitted to hint, that when a writer brings forward a quotation from any author in support of an hypothesis, without testifying any objections or limitations, it is usual to consider him as responsible for the sentiments thus adduced. The inferences drawn from the passage selected from the Spanish writer were fair and obvious: if. J. T. took his station upon untenable ground, ought he to complain of the consequences of his own indiscretion? After admitting the reasonings which have been urged for the effects of education, or moral causes, on the powers of the human mind, your correspondent still contends, "that they amount to no proof, and are inconclusive." An appeal to experience and an enumeration of facts is the only proof which this, or any other subject, will admit of. These facts are allowed by J. T.; it remains, then, to examine those which, on his side, are brought forward to counterbalance them. First, it is observed, "that many students, who discover a considerable thirst for knowledge, and who employ much application, make not the same progress with others, who neither discover equal ardor nor application." This is a very loose and general assertion: different degrees of apparent application, in different students, might possibly admit of calculation; but of the intenseness of that application, of the proportion of ardor and emulation, or thirst of glory, which takes possession of the mind, and fires the bosom, how are we to determine, unless from its effects? This invigorating  principle may be kindled, checked, extinguished, by a word, a glance, the slightest and most evanescent causes. "It is scarcely possible," says J. T., "for a schoolmaster, or the head of any seminary, to be a disciple of Helvetius." Were this the fact, which the experience of an individual is inadequate to establish, it proves nothing. Before the age at which children enter schools and colleges, they must necessarily have received a variety of impressions, which combining with those afterwards acquired in common, cannot fail of producing considerable differences and inequalities of mind and character. "The least and most imperceptible impressions received in our infancy, have (it is observed by Locke) consequences very important, and of long duration. It is with these first impressions, as with a river, whose waters [27] we can easily turn, by different canals, in quite opposite courses, so that from the insensible direction the stream receives at its source, it forms different channels, and at last arrives at places far distant from each other: with the same facility, I think, we may turn the minds of children to what direction we please." The frequent vacations from school, and intervals of business, might likewise be insisted upon, during which the mind is left to chance, or exposed to opposite impressions. But supposing an education more strict than has yet been found practicable, or even that chance should generally (invariably is impossible) present to two or more persons the same objects;  the slightest variation of circumstance or position, presenting the object in a somewhat different point of view, or in various lights and shadings (as with the travellers and the chamelion) would necessarily, by varying the imperession  affect the conclusion: the consequence of this slight difference in the sensation communicated, and the ideas produced, combining itself with previous impressions, is altogether incalculable. Rousseau, Voltaire, and Johnson, it is presumed by your correspondent, must have had something in them originally differing from other men, and this difference could not have been the result of education, situation, or accident. This is a bold and hazardous assertion  -- waving the question whether all physical differences might not ultimately be deduced from moral causes -- What was there peculiar, or in common, in the organization of these celebrated men? "Dogs and horses, they say, are esteemed more or less, according as they sprung from this or that race. Therefore, before employing a man, we should ask, if he sprang from an ingenious, or stupid, father? Now these questions are never asked. Why? because the most ingenious fathers frequently have foolish children; because men the best organized have often but little understanding; and, in short, because experience proves the inutility of such questions: all it teaches us is, that there are men of genius of every make and every temperament; that neither the sanguine, the bilious, nor phlegmatic; the great, the little, the fat, the lean, the robust, the tender, the melancholy, or the most strong and vigorous, are always the most ingenious." Helvetius

    Neither are there any truths contained in the writings of the greatest men, or the sublimest genius, which may not be received and comprehended by all men of common organization. "The understanding is merely the ability to discern the resemblances and differences which objects have to each other, the productive principle of which is the interest we have in comparing them: our judgment is the result of the comparison of our sensations. Every man perceives the same relations between the same objects, if all of them agree in the truths of geometry." 

    The powers of memory, are said, by J. T. to differ in different men, and that memory cannot be explained by the faculty of sensation. We know little of causes; but the office of the faculty which we term memory, consists in recalling past impressions, by means of relative objects, which excite in us actual sensations; it appears to follow from the frequent repetition of sensible impressions, the combining of every idea with those which precede it, and which at length introduce themselves in connection and trains, forming what has been denominated the laws of association and habit. But though memory is requisite to the comparison of our sensations and opinions, it by no means follows, nor has it appeared, that men of the most retentive or extensive memories, have been those of the greatest talents.

    The influence of education and circumstances upon the virtue, as well as the understanding, of man, is also disputed by J. T. The most enlightened moralists and legislators are, I believe, agreed, that the wisest, the most humane, and the most effectual preventive of vice, would be the removal of temptation: human laws have hitherto, in a great measure, made the crimes they have punished. The man who pursues happiness by mistaken means, is, emphatically, the sinner. Virtue may be defined, the conduct most conducive to utility, or calculated to produce the greatest share of happiness; the end, of which morality or religion are valuable only as the means. The most virtuous man, then, is he, who, capable of taking the widest and most comprehensive views of the duties which he owes to himself and others, acts habitually upon his convictions. Virtue, if this definition be admitted, cannot be the disposition born with us, but must depend not he opportunities we have had of acquiring just principles, and the inducements, from a strong persuasion of their beneficial tendency, to put them in practice. In censuring [28] any body, or professions of men, it is meant only, that the principles upon which their institution is founded, are calculated to produce certain general dispositions, or motives to action: yet, it is by no means implied, that there may not be found among them individuals in whom the force of these motives may have been weakened, or counteracted, by opposite impressions: rules are not invalidated by particular exceptions. These observations are applicable to the instances produced by your correspondent, of respectable lawyers; also, to the variations of character discovered by those intimately connected with them, in individual Jesuits. It is sufficient for the present purpose, that the more distinguishing or general features in the characters of bodies and corporations of men, assimilate: upon the Helvetian principles, no two persons can, in all respects, receive exactly the same education.

    The conclusion which J. T. has drawn from the distinction made by Helvetius, between ordinary and extraordinary minds, does not necessarily result from the premises. Chance, it is asserted, acts in a similar manner on all mankind, if its effects on ordinary minds are less observed (that is, minds formed by common and ordinary circumstances, in opposition to those impressed by extraordinary circumstances, or by accidents, however trivial in themselves, occurring in an extraordinary train or connection), it is merely because minds of this sort are themselves less remarkable. J. T. "does not know that there is any method of generating talents;" and yet immediately observes, "That powerful motives, and interesting situations, will lead men to a vigorous exertion of their faculties, and occasion actions to be performed and works to be produced, that would never otherwise have had an existence. Great events and extraordinary revolutions, have uniformly produced minds equal to the spur of the occasion." Great men, it has been said, have always lived in clusters. "In every government, where talents are rewarded, those rewards, like the teeth of the serpent, planted by Cadmus, will produce men. If Descartes, Corneille, &c. rendered the reign of Louis XIII illustrious; Racine, Bayle, &c. that of Louis XIV; Voltaire, Montesquieu, Fontenelle, &c. that of Louis XV; it is because the arts and sciences were, under these different reigns, successively protected by Richelieu, Colbert, and the late duke of Orleans, the regent. Great men belong to the reign that protects them," Helvetius. Still, objects my opponent, this amounts to no proof of an original equality of powers. Is it consistent with a sound philosophy to appeal from known and obvious causes, facts, and experiments, to an occult faculty, which we are equally unable to conceive or to explain? Has any one, by a series of observations, yet determined the sort of organs, or temperament, that are favorable to intellectual attainments? If by the aid of analogies we sometimes make discoveries, ought we to be content with such proofs, unless it be impossible to obtain any other? "Let it not (says Helvetius) be supposed, that there is an extreme difference in the common organization of men. All have not the same ear; yet in a concert, at certain tunes, all the musicians, all the cancers in an opera, and all the soldiers of battalion move equally in measure." It might not, perhaps, be impossible to prove, as before hinted, that even physical differences are an effect rather than a cause. If the system of Helvetius be a fanciful and paradoxical hypothesis, unsupported by proper or sufficient argument, I confess, the objections which have hitherto been alleged against it, appear to me still more vague, unfounded, and hypothetical. 

London, Oct. 8, 1796.                                            M. H. 


1 Hays had previously responded to "J. T." about Helvetius in the June 1796 issue of the Monthly Magazine (see above). J. T. responded to Hays in the August issue (521-23), and refers to Hays as "he," which says something about the gender-neutral aspect of using only initials as a signature but, more importantly, the quality of Hays's writing, which was, at least to J. T., indistinguishable from that of an educated male. In the September issue (629), another response to Hays appeared, this one by "S. R."  The letter essay is her response to both of these letters. J. T. will respond one final time to Hays in the April 1797 issue (265), though Hays's letter in the next issue (358-60) seems to begin a new discussion thread.