Monday 13 December 2004
Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-51), author of Man a Machine (1747), was the most uncompromising of the materialists of the eighteenth century, and the provocative title of his work ensured it a succès de scandale in his own time.
La Mettrie was born in Brittany, in the town of Saint-Malo.
After studying theology in the Jansenist schools for some years, he suddenly decided to adopt the profession of medicine. After studying medicine at Paris and Rheims, he worked under Hermann Boerhaave at Leiden in 1733.
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 psychical 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, until his death in 1751, he continued to publish on a variety of topics, usually in a manner calculated to infuriate his enemies.
La Mettrie’s death.
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.
In 1745, he published his first work, Histoire naturelle de l’ame. Public outcry over his materialism, exacerbated by outrage over his publication of an incautious medical satire, led to La Mettrie’s self-exile to Holland.
There, in 1748, he published L’homme machine, an extension of Descartes’ automata concept from animals to man. With L’homme machine, La Mettrie succeeded in testing the patience of even the liberal Dutch clergy. The book was publicly burned and La Mettrie was forced to seek protection from Frederick the Great at Berlin.
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.
In many ways, L’homme machine was a ground-breaking work. While arguing the case for a uniform material dependence of states of the soul upon states of the body, it maintained a distinctly antimetaphysical tone.
As Vartanian (1967) pointed out, La Mettrie’s "naturalistic view of man ... is offered mainly as a general heuristic hypothesis necessary in the positive study of behavior, without the need being felt ... to make mental processes reductively identical with their physiological causes" (p. 380).
In addition, L’homme machine introduced the critical notion that conscious and voluntary processes are only distinguished from involuntary and instinctual activities by the relative complexity of their mechanical substrate. In articulating this point, La Mettrie went far beyond the static mechanism of Descartes to conceive of the living machine as a purposive, autonomous, and dynamic system.
Although vilified in his own time, La Mettrie’s often unacknowledged influence continued to be felt for many years within French intellectual circles.
Books by La Mettrie
La Mettrie: Machine Man and Other Writings. by Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Ann Thomson (Editor), Karl Ameriks (Series Editor), Desmond M. Clarke (Series Editor). 209 pages. Publisher: Cambridge University Press (April 18, 1996). ISBN: 0521478499
Man a Machine. by Julien Offray de La Mettrie. Paperback: 228 pages. Publisher: Open Court Publishing Company (November 1, 1999). ISBN: 0875480411
Sur le bonheur. de La Mettrie. L’Arche (30 juillet 2000)
Collection : Tete a Tete. ISBN : 2851814613
Books on La Mettrie
La Mettrie: Medicine, Philosophy, and Enlightenment. by Kathleen Wellman. Hardcover: 344 pages. Publisher: Duke Univ Pr (Tx) (March 1, 1992). ISBN: 0822312042
Materialism and society in the mid-eighteenth century: La Mettrie’s Discours préliminaire (Histoire des idées et critique littéraire). by Ann Thomson. 278 pages. Publisher: Droz (1981). ASIN: B0006E9ZB0
From beast-machine to man-machine;: Animal soul in French letters from Descartes to La Mettrie. by Leonora Cohen Rosenfield. 385 pages. Publisher: Octagon Books; New and enl ed edition (1968). ASIN: B0006BVWHI
Oeuvres philosophiques. by Julien Offray de La Mettrie. Fayard (June 4, 1987). ISBN: 2213018391
La Mettrie : Un matérialisme radical. by Morhilat C. Presses Universitaires de France - PUF (July 1, 1997). ISBN: 2130485820
Ouvrage de Pénélope ou Machiavel en médecine. de La Mettrie. Fayard (3 décembre 2002). ISBN : 2213614482
La Vénus anatomique. de Xavier Mauméjean. Les éditions Mnémos (5 octobre 2004). Collection : Icares. ISBN : 2915159289