Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

37

FROM LA METTRIE
TO DIDEROT

i. Materialism

The two authors who most effectively summed up the radical thought of the early Enlightenment era in the middle of the eighteenth century were both Frenchmen— La Mettrie and the famous chief editor of the Encyclopédie, Diderot. In their published writings a tradition of thought stretching back a century to the 1650s was powerfully restated and rendered into one of the central planks of the European Enlightenment as a whole. Both writers, and especially Diderot, also added some original touches of their own. But the essential ideas making up their radicalism were those of a late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century tradition which culminated in their work.

No one more forcefully proclaimed the uncoupling of individual salvation from religion, and the relocation of personal redemption in this world, than Julien Oflray de la Mettrie (1709–51). A physician from a middle-class background, born and raised in Brittany, his starting-point in the world of scholarship was the study of medicine. It was to further his studies in that discipline that he travelled to Holland as a young man, at the age of 24, and his experience of studying under Boerhaave, the most famous medical man of the age in Europe, which shaped the initial phase of his career as a writer and philosophe.1 After two years (1733–4) studying at Leiden, La Mettrie returned to France and began translating and editing Boerhaave's writings, starting with his treatise on venereal disease, which appeared under the title Système de M. H. Boerhaave sur les maladies vénériennes (Paris, 1735). Among the several other editions of Boerhaave's works he produced over the next fifteen years were an abridgement of the latter's handbook of chemistry and a full rendering of his Institutiones medicae (1708) under the title Institutions de médicine de M. Herman Boerhaave (Paris, 1743–50).

Whether La Mettrie acquired his taste for philosophy in Holland, as so many others had before him, remains uncertain. But there are clear indications that his philosophical enterprise began with his pondering the comments on the human soul of another of Boerhaave's disciples, Albrecht von Haller, a Calvinist—and later a pillar of the mainstream moderate Enlightenment in Switzerland—who edited an important collection of annotations on the master's Institutiones.2 Boerhaave had, since the first

1 Gay, The Enlightenment, 1, 15, 136.

2 Thomson, 'Introduction', p. xiv.

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