The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

By Elizabeth Rawson | Go to book overview

16
FRANCE IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY (II)

So much, then, for the arch-priest of laconism. But variations in the doctrine were made by other believers. Helvétius published his notorious De l'esprit in 1758 (before, it may be noted, the Lettre à d'Alembert). He was a strong adherent of sensationalist philosophy, taking to extreme lengths the belief in intellectual equality, and in the power of education, based upon it; and he linked this with the pleasure/pain principle of motivation that was to be so abhorrent to Mably. He is a complete utilitarian. If private interest alone moves man to action, virtuous action can only be what benefits the largest number of people--what is, in short, in the public interest.

This lands Helvétius in an exaltation of the power of the state. The moralist's preaching is all but valueless; but the legislator, himself the most virtuous because the most useful of men, is the true encourager of virtue, since by means of rewards and punishments he can cause public and private interest to coincide (to do this he may even have to 'briser tous les liens de la parenté' and 'sacrifier . . . jusqu'au sentiment même de l'humanité'). A despotism can never unite these two; and much in the way of commerce and luxe is bound to increase the strength of private interests.

And thus Helvétius is inevitably attracted to poor and egalitarian Sparta, and in particular to Lycurgus, perhaps his favourite example of a virtuous man. But his Sparta has some peculiar features. Firstly, he believed that strong passions are the root of great virtues as well as great vices; it is not reason, but interest, that must direct them. So he accepts and exalts the irrational enthusiasm sometimes attributed to the Spartans as necessary above all to soldiers and conquerors, whom he seems to admire. Their lawgiver shared this enthusiasm:

Lorsque Lycurgue voulut faire de Lacédémone une république de héros, on ne le vit point, selon la marche lente et dès-lors incertaine de

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