Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

31

The 'Unvirtuous Atheist'

1. THE 'AFFAIRE LA METTRIE' (1745–1752)

A most remarkable and prolonged controversy affecting the course of the Radical Enlightenment erupted in the mid 1740s around the figure of physician-philosopher, Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709–51), a native of Saint-Malo. This philosophical but also rather public affair not only greatly scandalized respectable opinion but called into question the fundamental values and meaning of radical thought, and the relationship of the radical fringe to existing society, in a way which had far-reaching implications for the future as well as highlighting the peculiarities of established methods of intellectual censorship and intensifying the long-standing controversy over toleration and freedom of the press. Most importantly, it caused a permanent and complete rupture between La Mettrie and the main body of radical philosophes. The episode began with the furore in Paris provoked by the clandestine publication in 1745—with 'The Hague' declared on the title page—of La Mettrie's L'Histoire naturelle de l'âme. Despite lip-service to physico-theology, curiously combined with a brisk dismissal of Newton's philosophy,1 immortality of the soul, and condemning Spinoza for denying God and making Man a 'vèritable automate', a machine 'assujettie à la plus constante necessité', no one failed to discern the book's essentially irreligious core.2 Its sweeping claim that nothing is either 'good' or 'bad' in nature, 'just' or 'unjust' absolutely,3 as Xenophanes, Melissus, and Parmenides had stated long ago, and the materialist implications of its physiological account of the mind with its claim that our capacity to think stems from a particular organization of the brain and machinery of our bodies—predictably provoked both ecclesiastical condemnation and a public outcry.4 La Mettrie, who knew Meslier, de Maillet's Telliamed, d'Argens's works, and, like Diderot, Du Marsais's Examen, while professing to admire Locke, totally subverts his epistemology by eradicating his non-material mental 'faculties' and turning mental states and procedures into purely anatomical and physiological processes while, like Du Marsais but unlike Condillac, simultaneously discarding his theological grounding.5

1 Masseau, Ennemis des philosophes, 205, 225; Panizza, 'L'Étrange matérialisme', 100.

2 La Mettrie, Histoire naturelle, 248.

3 Ibid. 250–1.

4 Frederick the Great, Éloge, 108; Vartanian, La Mettrie's L' Homme machine, 5.

5 Panizza, 'L'Étrange materialisme', 101; Wellman, La Mettrie, 149–55; Thomson, 'L'Examen', 367–8.

-794-

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