left biblioblography: Profiles In Atheism - The French Physician

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Profiles In Atheism - The French Physician

I stumbled across this fellow inadvertently - I am reading the Story of Philosophy by Will Durant - it turns out the physician in question was a contemporary of Voltaire.

"Julien Offray de La Mettrie, (December 25, 1709 - November 11,1751) was a French physician and philosopher, the earliest of the materialist writers of the Enlightenment. He has been claimed as a founder of cognitive science.

Life and work

"He was born at Saint-Malo. After studying theology in the Jansenist schools for some years, he suddenly decided to adopt the profession of medicine. In 1733 he went to Leiden to study under Boerhaave, and in 1742 returned to Paris, where he obtained the appointment of surgeon to the guards. During an attack of fever he made observations on himself with reference to the action of quickened circulation upon thought, which led him to the conclusion that physical phenomena were to be accounted for as the effects of organic changes in the brain and nervous system. This conclusion he worked out in his earliest philosophical work, the Histoire naturelle de l'âme (1745). So great was the outcry caused by its publication that La Mettrie was forced to take refuge in Leiden, where he developed his doctrines still more boldly and completely, and with great originality, in L'Homme machine (Eng. trans., London, 1750; ed. with introd. and notes, J. Asszat, 1865), and L'Homme plante, treatises based upon principles of the most consistently materialistic character. The ethics of these principles were worked out in Discours sur le bonheur, La Volupté, and L'Art de jouir, in which the end of life is found in the pleasures of the senses, and virtue is reduced to self-love. Atheism is the only means of ensuring the happiness of the world, which has been rendered impossible by the wars brought about by theologians, under the excuse of an inexistent "soul". When death comes, the farce is over (la farce est jouée), therefore let us take our pleasure while we can. La Mettrie has been called the Aristippus of modern materialism. So strong was the feeling against him that in 1748 he was compelled to quit the Netherlands for Berlin, where Frederick the Great not only allowed him to practise as a physician, but appointed him court reader. There La Mettrie wrote his major book "Discours sur le bonheur" (1748), which caused the "ban" by leading enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, D'Holbach. His collected Oeuvres philosophiques appeared after his death in several editions, published in London, Berlin and Amsterdam respectively.


"La Mettrie's celebration of sensual pleasure was said to have resulted in his early death. Those who disagreed with La Mettrie's philosophy used his death to claim that atheistic sensuality justifiably results in an untimely demise.

"The French ambassador Tirconnel was very grateful to La Mettrie for curing him of an illness. A feast was given to celebrate the recovery. It is claimed that La Mettrie wanted to show either his power of gluttony or his strong constitution by devouring a large quantity of pâte aux truffes. As a result, he developed a fever, became delirious, and died.

"Frederick the Great gave the funeral oration. He declared, "La Mettrie died in the house of Milord Tirconnel, the French plenipotentiary, whom he had restored to life. It seems that the disease, knowing with whom it had to deal, was cunning enough to attack him first by the brain, in order to destroy him the more surely. A violent fever with fierce delirium came on. The invalid was obliged to have recourse to the science of his colleagues, but he failed to find the succor that his own skill had so often afforded as well to himself as to the public." However, in a confidential letter to the Markgräfin von Bayreuth, Frederick wrote," He was merry, a good devil, a good doctor, and a very bad author. By not reading his books, one can be very content." He then mentioned that La Mettrie had indigestion from the pheasant paste. The actual cause of his death, however, was the bloodletting that La Mettrie had prescribed for himself. Frederick asserted that the German doctors did not condone bleeding a patient, and La Mettrie was trying to prove them wrong. At the time of his death, he was survived by a 5 year old daughter and his wife."

For more reading: 'Man A Machine'. He tends to use the word 'soul' overmuch, but a fuller reading of the material shows that he believed in no such thing. Frederick was right, however: his writing style is a tad stilted.

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Mesoforte said...

Frederick was right, however: his writing style is a tad stilted.

We can't all be perfect. ^_~ He sounds like an interesting guy though. Its nice to know that some realize that "physical phenomena were to be accounted for as the effects of organic changes in the brain and nervous system."

Zac Hunter said...

While I find the overuse of the word 'soul' grating as well, it is easily divorced from theology. Remember, the Greek term for soul is 'psyche', which is the root of our term 'psychology' It is a good reminder of what the original psychologists were trying to unravel.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am definitely a materialist, and certainly no Cartesian dualist, but there is something that the notion of identity or personality that the term 'soul' picks out.

After studying the classics long enough, one starts to see that the notion of soul can be easily rendered as personality or identity. 'Soul' then just lends a poeticism. It is unfortunate that this term, especially since the work of Descartes, has taken on such a distinct judeo-christian meaning.

Krystalline Apostate said...

MF - true enough, though perfect is a word I shy away from (what the hell does it mean, anyways? Even Superman is 'imperfect').

Zac - yes, La Mettrie's definitely juxtaposing the 2 words. It's that 'qualification' crap that causes the religious to point 'n say, "Look! He used the word 'soul'! He capitalized 'Nature'!" as if that's some sort of tacit nod to the divine.
Allegorical lackwits. I hate it when people control the language I use - it really dents the dialogue.

beepbeepitsme said...

"Soul, psyche, mind."

The word "soul" has been extended for religious purposes to suggest that the mind survives brain death.

A comforting theory by all accounts, but one which is extremely difficult to evidence. The notion survives because people want to believe that this is the case.

Mesoforte said...

even Superman is 'imperfect'

That makes me think of the old Superman, where he could get shot (superimposed on the film) yet had to duck when the gun was thrown at him.