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La Mettrie

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La Mettrie

La Mettrie
Julien Offray de La Mettrie
Born 19 December 1709
Saint-Malo, France
Died 11 November 1751(1751-11-11) (aged 41)
Berlin, Prussia
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
Religion None (atheist)
School French materialism
Main interests Mind–body problem

Julien Offray de La Mettrie (November 23, 1709[1] – November 11, 1751) was a French physician and philosopher, and one of the earliest of the French materialists of the Enlightenment. He is best known for his work L'homme machine ("Machine man"[2]), wherein he rejected the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and proposed the metaphor of the human being as machine.

Life and work

Early years

La Mettrie was born at Saint-Malo in Brittany on December 25, 1709 and was the son of a prosperous textile merchant. His initial schooling took place in the colleges of Coutances and Caen. After attending the Collège du Plessis in Paris, he seems to have acquired a vocational interest in becoming a clergyman, but after studying theology in the Jansenist schools for some years, his interests turned away from the Church. In 1725, La Mettrie entered the College d'Harcourt to study philosophy and natural science, probably graduating around 1727. At this time, d'Harcourt was pioneering the teaching of Cartesianism in France.[3]

Medical career

After his studies at d'Harcourt, La Mettrie decided to take up the profession of medicine. A friend of the La Mettrie family, François-Joseph Hunauld, who was about to take the chair of anatomy at the Jardin du Roi, seems to have influenced him in this decision. For five years, La Mettrie studied at faculty of medicine in Paris, and enjoyed the mentorship of Hunauld.[4]

In 1733, however, he departed for Leiden to study under the famous Herman Boerhaave. His stay in Holland proved to be short but influential. In the following years, La Mettrie settled down to professional medical practice in his home region of Saint-Malo, disseminating the works and theories of Boerhaave through the publication and translation of several works. He married in 1739 but the marriage, which produced two children, proved an unhappy one. In 1742, La Mettrie left his family and travelled to Paris, where he obtained the appointment of surgeon to the Gardes Francaises regiment, taking part in several battles during the War of the Austrian Succession. This experience would instill in him a deep aversion to violence which is evident in his philosophical writings. Much of his time, however, was spent in Paris, and it is likely that during this time he made the acquaintance of Maupertuis and the Marquise de Chatelet.[5]

It was in these years, during an attack of fever, that he made observations on himself with reference to the action of quickened blood circulation upon thought, which led him to the conclusion that mental processes 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 quit his position with the French Guards, taking refuge in Leiden, where he developed his doctrines still more boldly and completely in L'Homme machine a hastily-written treatise based upon consistently materialistic and quasi-atheistic principles.[6] La Mettrie's materialism was in many ways the product of his medical concerns, drawing on the work of 17th-century predecessors such as the Epicurean physician Guillaume Lamy.[7]

The ethical implications of these principles would later be worked out in his Discours sur le bonheur, that book La Mettrie considered his Magnum opus.[8] Here he developed his theory of remorse, i.e. his view about the inauspicious effects of the feelings of guilt acquired at early age during the process of enculturation. This was the idea which brought him the enmity of virtually all thinkers of the French enlightenment, and a Damnatio memoriae[9] which was lifted only a century later by Friedrich Albert Lange in his Geschichte des Materialismus.

Flight to Prussia

La Mettrie's hedonistic and materialistic principles caused outrage even in the relatively tolerant Netherlands. So strong was the feeling against him that in 1748 he was compelled to leave for Berlin, where, thanks in part to the offices of Maupertuis, the Prussian king Frederick the Great not only allowed him to practise as a physician, but appointed him court reader. There La Mettrie wrote the Discours sur le bonheur (1748), which appalled leading Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and D'Holbach due to its explicitly hedonistic sensualist principles which prioritised the unbridled pursuit of pleasure above all other things.[10]


La Mettrie's celebration of sensual pleasure was said to have resulted in his early death. The French ambassador to Prussia, Tirconnel, grateful to La Mettrie for curing him of an illness, held a feast in his honour. It was claimed that La Mettrie wanted to show either his power of gluttony or his strong constitution by devouring a large quantity of pâte de faisan aux truffes. As a result, he developed a gastric illness of some sort, became delirious, and died.[11]

pheasant paste. The reason of his early death has never been disclosed. He was survived by a 5-year-old daughter and his wife.

La Mettrie's collected Oeuvres philosophiques appeared after his death in several editions, published in London, Berlin and Amsterdam.


Selected works

  • Histoire Naturelle de l'Âme. 1745 (anon.)
  • École de la Volupté. 1746, 1747 (anon.)
  • Politique du Médecin de Machiavel. 1746 (anon.)
  • L'Homme Machine. 1748 (anon.)
  • L'Homme Plante. 1748 (anon.)
  • Ouvrage de Pénélope ou Machiavel en Médecine. 1748 (pseudonym: Aletheius Demetrius)
  • Discours sur le bonheur ou Anti-Sénèque [Traité de la vie heureuse, par Sénèque, avec un Discours du traducteur sur le même sujet]. 1748 (anon.)
  • L'Homme plus que Machine. 1748 (anon.)
  • Système d'Épicure. 1750 (anon.)
  • L'Art de Jouir. 1751 (anon.)

Collected works

Critical editions of his major works

  • Aram Vartanian (ed.): La Mettrie's L'homme machine. A Study in the Origins of an Idea, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960)
  • John F. Falvey (ed.): La Mettrie. Discours sur le bonheur in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. cxxxiv (Banbury, Oxfordshire: The Voltaire Foundation, 1975)
  • Ann Thomson (ed.): La Mettrie's Discours préliminaire. in Materialism and Society in the Mid-Eighteenth Century (Genève: Librairie Droz, 1981)
  • Théo Verbeek (Ed.): Le Traité de l'Ame de La Mettrie, 2 vols. (Utrecht: OMI-Grafisch Bedrijf, 1988)

Selected bibliography

  • Friedrich Albert Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus, 1866 (Eng. trans. The History of Materialism by E. C. Thomas, ii. 1880)
  • Jakob Elias Poritzky, J. O. de Lamettrie. Sein Leben und seine Werke, (1900, reprint 1970)
  • Kathleen Wellman, La Mettrie. Medicine, Philosophy, and Enlightenment, Durham and London, Duke University Press 1992 ISBN 0-8223-1204-2
  • Birgit Christensen, Ironie und Skepsis. Das offene Wissenschafts- und Weltverständnis bei Julien Offray de La Mettrie. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 1996 ISBN 3-8260-1271-2
  • Hartmut Hecht, ed., La Mettrie. Ansichten und Einsichten. Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2004 (Proceedings of Potsdam/Berlin La Mettrie Conference, 2001) ISBN 3-8305-0558-2
  • Bernd A. Laska: La Mettrie - ein gewollt unbekannter Bekannter. In: Aufklärung und Kritik, Sonderheft 14/2008, pp. 64–84

External links

  • Mary Whiton Calkins)
  • Frederic the Great's Eulogy on Julien Offray de la Mettrie
  • - 2009 translation by Jonathan Bennett

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