Helvetius Essays on the Mind and A Treatise on Man [Excerpts]
In 1758 Helvetius published Essays on the Mind, which treated ethics in a purely naturalistic way. Shocked by his separation of morality from God's commands and from fear of divine punishment, and his attacks on the clergy, the authorities suppressed the book. His second major work, A Treatise on Man, was published posthumously in 1777. Apparently Helvetius wanted to avoid another controversy. The following passages from both works illustrate Helvetius' belief that "education makes us what we are."
ESSAYS ON THE MIND The general conclusion of this discourse is, that genius is common, and the circumstances, proper to unfold it, very extraordinary. If we may compare what is profane to what is sacred, we may say in this respect. Many are called, but few are chosen.
The inequality observable among men, there- fore, depends on the government under which they lie; on the greater or less happiness of the age in which they are born; on the education; on their desire of improvement, and on the importance of the ideas that are the subject of their contemplations.
The man of genius is then only produced by the circumstances in which he is placed.* Thus all the art of education consists in placing young men in such a concurrence of circumstances as are proper to unfold the buds of genius and virtue. [I am led to this conclusion by] the desire of promoting the happiness of mankind. I am convinced that a good education would diffuse light, virtue, and consequently, happiness in society; and that the opinion I advance must appear very pleasing to the vanity of the greatest part of mankind, and therefore, ought to meet with a favourable reception. According to my principles, they ought not to attribute the inferiority of their abilities to the humbling cause of a less perfect organization, but to the education they have received, as well as to the circumstances in which they have been placed. Every man of moderate abilities, in conformity with my principles, has a right to think, that if he had been more favoured by fortune, if he had been born in a certain age or country, he had himself been like the great men whose genius he is forced to admire. opinion, that geniuses and virtue are merely gifts of nature, is a great obstacle to the making any farther progress in the science of education, and in this respect is the great favourel of idleness and negligence. With this view, examining the effects which nature and education may have upon us, I have perceived that education makes us what we are; in consequence of which I have thought that it was the duty of a citizen to make known a truth propel to awaken the attention, with respect to the means of carrying this education to perfection.
A TREATISE ON MAN Some maintain that, The understanding is the effect of a certain sort of interior temperament and organization,
Locke and I say: The inequality in minds or understandings, is the effect of a known cause, and this cause is the difference of education. . . . Among the great number of questions treated of in this work, one of the most important was to determine whether genius, virtue, and talents, to which nations owe their grandeur and felicity, were the effect of the difference of. . . . the organs of the five senses [that is, differences due to birth] ... or if the same genius, the same virtues, and the same talents were the effect o\ education, over which the laws and the form oi government are all powerful.
If I have proved the truth of the latter assertion, it must be allowed that the happiness ol nations is in their own hands, and that it entirely depends on the greater or less interest they take in improving the science of education.