Helvetius, Letter I (1796)

"Reply to J. T. on Helvetius."  Monthly Magazine 1 (June 1796), 385-87.1


            In the First Number of your Magazine [February 1796, 26-29], a correspondent has favoured the public with some strictures, which I confess appear to me very inconclusive, on the philosophy of the celebrated Helvetius. The passage which he has quoted from a Spanish writer on education, reminds me of a sensible little story in Dr. Aikins’s Evenings at Home, of the boy without a genius. To talk of a human being, commonly well organized, with an absolute incapacity for learning, or, what is synonymous, for receiving knowledge, is surely equally absurd and unphilosophical. He, who can add simple numbers together, may be taught to multiply, to subtract, to divide them, may proceed in a regular gradation, from the first and plainest rules of arithmetic, up [386] to the highest and most complete mathematical deductions. He, who can affix to his ideas signs in one language, may acquire and remember, by a similar application, words or signs in any other. Every operation, whether mental or bodily, can only be performed with facility by exercise and habit. Our senses are rendered acute by use. It would be trite to insist on the accurate eye of the artist, or the exquisite touch of the polisher. Moral and physical causes act reciprocally upon each other; the resolute and vigorous mind hardens the body; even the power of disease has been suspended, and some cases wholly removed, by mental energy and exertion. The natural fitness or unfitness for the study of any particular science, is an occult phrase that conveys no distinct apprehension, except to those who contend for the obsolete notion of innate ideas. That one man should have been born with a peculiar aptitude to logic, (according to the Spanish author) another to grammar, and a third to astronomy, is a position that scarcely deserves a serious confutation. But it is easy to conceive, that some particular train of circumstances might have led these students, in the course of their education, to apply to the study of one science in preference to another. “What is necessary (says Helvetius) in order that two individuals should receive precisely the same education? That they should be precisely in the same situations and the same circumstances. Now this is what never can take place: it is evident, therefore, that no two persons can receive the same instruction.” The education commonly, though improperly, denominated that of chance or accident, has so great an influence in the formation of every individual character, as to afford a sufficient solution for the different propensities and degrees of acquirement in members of the same family, seminary, or nation. Yet, notwithstanding these particular differences, a general resemblance may uniformly be traced in those who have been placed in corresponding situation. Hence, national character, or the tincture which is communicated to the habits and opinions of large bodies of men, by the forms of government under which they reside. Helvetius has strikingly illustrated this truth by the examples which he has adduced of the Spartans and Jesuits, who were as a body actuated but by one soul. The institution of the Jesuits is more particularly in point, and proves on the surest of all foundations, that of experience, the force of discipline. A Jesuit, in every part of the world, amidst all the physical variations of temperament and climate, was the same character, having his views directed towards the same end.

             When we insist on the effects of organization, it would be worth while to analyse our meaning.  Man is born, simply, a perceptive being, or a creature capable of receiving sensation. The nature of these sensations must depend upon the external circumstances by which he is surrounded: the earnest of his thoughts is modified by force, for without external impression he would be nothing. All knowledge is conveyed through the medium of the senses; whether the senses shall be more or less acute, depends perhaps, as before observed of the artists and the polisher, on the degree of excitement they have received, or in which they have been called into action and sharpened by use. This is exemplified in the case of the blind; the loss of one sense is a cause of the greater perfection and acuteness of those which remain: not from any hidden and mysterious instinct, unless it be that of self-preservation, but from the obvious necessity of supplying the absence of sight by a greater attention to objects of touch and hearing. The understanding may be defined – the faculty of comparing and judging of the various sensations and impressions which we receive; and we are stimulated to do this in proportion to the degree of interest we take in the question. Adversity has been said to be the school of wisdom – Why is it so? Not because adversity is in itself a good, but because the faculties are, by difficulty, roused into exertion. Necessity may well be said to be the mother of invention: our natural love of ease and agreeable sensation makes us fertile in resources to rid ourselves of pain and uneasiness. If the mind stagnates and the spirits become languid when that ease is attained, or in what is called prosperity; it is for the want of a sufficiently interesting pursuit to excite us to action.

             It would be impossible, as proposed by your correspondent, on the Helvetian system, to place any being exactly in the circumstances which formed a Newton, or a Milton, or a Shakspeare. Many of those circumstances must necessarily have been of a local and evanescent nature to many more too subtle, delicate, and complicated, to be analyzed. But were [387] every great man to become his own biographer, and to examine and state impartially, to the best of his recollection, the incidents of his life, the course of his studies, the causes by which he was led into them, the reflections and habits to which they gave birth, the rise, the change, the progress of his opinions, with the consequences produced by them on his affections and conduct, great light might be thrown on the most interesting of all studies, that of moral causes and the human mind. That man is the creature of sensation affords a simple and a solid basis for enquiries, which it has been a fashion to ridicule under the abstruse and undefinable term metaphysics. The jargon of the schools, and the dreams of fanaticism, are very distinct from this simple method of analysis, by which every operation of the mind may be resolved into its original principles, and in given circumstances might perhaps be traced with certain and mathematical precision. 

             “Those (says this opponent of Helvetius) who have paid much attention to human characters, can hardly, I think, have avoided observing, that in some you discover a greater quickness of conception than others, greater powers of discrimination, a more correct judgment, a more fertile imagination, and greater strength of memory: Nor can the striking difference which you see in different men, in these respects, ever be accounted for by the difference of their education, or the different situations in which they are placed.” This is an assertion without proof; an assertion perhaps incapable of proof. Surely nothing can be more monstrous and hypothetical than the notion of a child, (whose mind having received no impression is a total blank, without a single idea,) being born with a power of discrimination, a correct judgment, &c. The wildest dreams of superstition are not more absurd and incredible. To what system of organs would this essayist attribute these mysterious powers? – If to the exquisitely delicate and susceptible, why do not women uniformly excel men in the perceptive and intellectual faculties If a muscular strength, it is among our porters and chairmen we should search for men of genius. In fact, bodily as well as mental powers are principally attributed to education and habits, and are equally the result of the circumstances in which the being may have been placed; Some of these circumstances may have been previous to birth, and possibly may produce an effect which we term here hereditary temperament; but while the organs are in a state so tender and ductile, they are susceptible of, almost infinite mortification. “It is at the very instant (says Helvetius) when a child receives motion and life, that it receives its first instruction.” 

             That virtue as well as talents are the product of education, the education of design and accident, is a proposition for the truth of which we may appeal to universal experience. Who will look for integrity in the cabinets of modern statesmen, for disinterestedness on the stock exchange, for honesty among lawyers, for the social virtues in a monastery, for humanity in despots, for truth and candour in the sworn supporters of a system in the sworn supporters of a system, for refinement of manners in the purlieus of St Giles, or purity if morals and manners among the receivers of stolen goods?

             The notion of natural powers, aptitude and dispositions, has been productive of infinite mischief: it has a tendency to produce habits of indolence, despondency, and vicious indulgence. – We shall never attempt to combat an obstacle which we have previously persuaded ourselves is insurmountable. – “The brave and active conquer difficulties by daring to oppose them.” The true method of generating talents is to rouse attention by a lively interest, by a forcible address to the passions, the springs of human actions. Our attainments will be in an exact proportion to our excitements.

             Before your correspondents can overturn this system, and prove that “the opinions of Helvetius are neither grounded upon nature, truth, nor reason” – he must bring forward much stronger arguments than any which has yet adduced.


June 6.                                                          M. H.     

1 Hays is responding to an essay by "J. T." that appeared in the February 1796 issue of the Monthly Magazine (26-29); she may also have been piqued by another essay by an unnamed writer that appeared in the April issue of the Monthly Magazine (181-84), titled, “Are Literary and Scientific Pursuits suited to the Female Character?” The works by Helvétius (1715-71) that were published in London and read and discussed by Hays include De l’Esprit: or, Essays on the Mind, and Its Several Faculties (1759) and, more particularly for the above essay, A Treatise on Man, His Intellectual Faculties and his Education (1777).   She also commented on Helvétius in her letters to Godwin between January and March 1796.