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Julien Offray de la Mettrie








Preface v
Frederic the Great's Eulogy on Julien Offray De La Mettrie 1
L'Homme Machine 11
Man a Machine 83
The Natural History of the Soul: Extracts 151
Appendix 163
La Mettrie's Relation to His Predecessors and to His
Successors 165
Outline of La Mettrie's Metaphysical Doctrine 175
Notes 176
Works Consulted and Cited in the Notes 205
Index 209


The French text presented in this volume is taken from that of a Leyden
edition of 1748, in other words, from that of an edition published
in the year and in the place of issue of the first edition. The
title page of this edition is reproduced in the present volume. The
original was evidently the work of a Dutch compositor unschooled in
the French language, and is full of imperfections, inconsistencies,
and grammatical blunders. By the direction of the publishers these
obviously typographical blunders have been corrected by M. Lucien
Arréat of Paris.

The translation is the work of several hands. It is founded on a
version made by Miss Gertrude C. Bussey (from the French text in the
edition of J. Assezat) and has been revised by Professor M. W. Calkins
who is responsible for it in its present form. Mademoiselle M. Carret,
of the Wellesley College department of French, and Professor George
Santayana, of Harvard University, have given valued assistance; and
this opportunity is taken to acknowledge their kindness in solving
the problems of interpretation which have been submitted to them. It
should be added that the translation sometimes subordinates the claims
of English structure and style in the effort to render La Mettrie's
meaning exactly. The paragraphing of the French is usually followed,
but the italics and the capitals are not reproduced. The page-headings
of the translation refer back to the pages of the French text; and
a few words inserted by the translators are enclosed in brackets.

The philosophical and historical Notes are condensed and adapted
from a master's thesis on La Mettrie presented by Miss Bussey to the
faculty of Wellesley College.


Julien Offray de la Mettrie was born in Saint Malo, on the twenty-fifth
of December, 1709, to Julien Offray de la Mettrie and Marie Gaudron,
who were living by a trade large enough to provide a good education
for their son. They sent him to the college of Coutance to study the
humanities; he went from there to Paris, to the college of Plessis;
he studied his rhetoric at Caen, and since he had much genius and
imagination, he won all the prizes for eloquence. He was a born orator,
and was passionately fond of poetry and belles-lettres, but his father
thought that he would earn more as an ecclesiastic than as a poet,
and destined him for the church. He sent him, the following year,
to the college of Plessis where he studied logic under M. Cordier,
who was more a Jansenist than a logician.

It is characteristic of an ardent imagination to seize forcefully
the objects presented to it, as it is characteristic of youth to be
prejudiced in favor of the first opinions that are inculcated. Any
other scholar would have adopted the opinions of his teacher but
that was not enough for young La Mettrie; he became a Jansenist,
and wrote a work which had great vogue in that party.

In 1725, he studied natural philosophy at the college of Harcourt,
and made great progress there. On his return to Brittany, M. Hunault,
a doctor of Saint Malo, had advised him to adopt the medical
profession. They had persuaded his father, assuring him that a
mediocre physician would be better paid for his remedies than a
good priest for absolutions. At first young La Mettrie had applied
himself to the study of anatomy: for two years he had worked at the
dissecting-table. After this, in 1725, he took the degree of doctor
at Rheims, and was there received as a physician.

In 1733, he went to Leyden to study under the famous Boerhaave. The
master was worthy of the scholar and the scholar soon made himself
worthy of the master. M. La Mettrie devoted all the acuteness of
his mind to the knowledge and to the healing of human infirmities;
and he soon became a great physician.

In the year 1734, during his leisure moments, he translated a
treatise of the late M. Boerhaave, his Aphrodisiacus, and joined to
it a dissertation on venereal maladies, of which he himself was the
author. The old physicians in France rose up against a scholar who
affronted them by knowing as much as they. One of the most celebrated
doctors of Paris did him the honor of criticizing his work (a sure
proof that it was good). La Mettrie replied; and, to confound his
adversary still more, he composed in 1736 a treatise on vertigo,
esteemed by all impartial physicians.

By an unfortunate effect of human imperfection a certain base jealousy
has come to be one of the characteristics of men of letters. This
feeling incites those who have reputations, to oppose the progress
of budding geniuses. This blight often fastens on talents without
destroying them, but it sometimes injures them. M. La Mettrie, who was
advancing in the career of science at a giant's pace, suffered from
this jealousy, and his quick temper made him too susceptible to it.

In Saint Malo, he translated the "Aphorisms" of Boerhaave, the
"Materia Medica," the "Chemical Proceedings," the "Chemical Theory,"
and the "Institutions," by this same author. About the same time,
he published an abstract of Sydenham. The young doctor had learned
by premature experience, that if he wished to live in peace, it was
better to translate than to compose; but it is characteristic of
genius to escape from reflection. Counting on himself alone, if I
may speak thus, and filled with the knowledge he had gained from his
infinitely skilful researches into nature, he wished to communicate
to the public the useful discoveries he had made. He published his
treatise on smallpox, his "Practical Medicine," and six volumes of
commentary on the physiology of Boerhaave. All these works appeared at
Paris, although the author had written them at Saint Malo. He joined
to the theory of his art an always successful practice, which is no
small recommendation for a physician.

In 1742, La Mettrie came to Paris, led there by the death of
M. Hunault, his old teacher. Morand and Sidobre introduced him to
the Duke of Gramont, who, a few days after, obtained for him the
commission of physician of the guards. He accompanied the Duke to
war, and was with him at the battle of Dettingen, at the siege of
Freiburg, and at the battle of Fontenoy, where he lost his patron,
who was killed by a cannon shot.

La Mettrie felt this loss all the more keenly, because it was at
the same time the reef on which his fortune was wrecked. This is
what happened. During the campaign of Freiburg, La Mettrie had an
attack of violent fever. For a philosopher an illness is a school of
physiology; he believed that he could clearly see that thought is
but a consequence of the organization of the machine, and that the
disturbance of the springs has considerable influence on that part of
us which the metaphysicians call soul. Filled with these ideas during
his convalescence, he boldly bore the torch of experience into the
night of metaphysics; he tried to explain by the aid of anatomy the
thin texture of understanding, and he found only mechanism where others
had supposed an essence superior to matter. He had his philosophic
conjectures printed under the title of "The Natural History of the
Soul." The chaplain of the regiment sounded the tocsin against him,
and at first sight all the devotees cried out against him.

The common ecclesiastic is like Don Quixote, who found marvelous
adventures in commonplace events, or like the famous soldier, so
engrossed with his system that he found columns in all the books he
read. The majority of priests examine all works of literature as
if they were treatises on theology, and filled with this one aim,
they discover heresies everywhere. To this fact are due very many
false judgments and very many accusations, for the most part unfair,
against the authors. A book of physics should be read in the spirit
of a physicist; nature, the truth, is its sole judge, and should
absolve or condemn it. A book of astronomy should be read in the same
manner. If a poor physician proves that the blow of a stick smartly
rapped on the skull disturbs the mind, or that at a certain degree
of heat reason wanders, one must either prove the contrary or keep
quiet. If a skilful astronomer proves, in spite of Joshua, that the
earth and all the celestial globes revolve around the sun, one must
either calculate better than he, or admit that the earth revolves.

But the theologians, who, by their continual apprehension, might make
the weak believe that their cause is bad, are not troubled by such
a small matter. They insisted on finding seeds of heresy in a work
dealing with physics. The author underwent a frightful persecution,
and the priests claimed that a doctor accused of heresy could not
cure the French guards.

To the hatred of the devotees was joined that of his rivals for
glory. This was rekindled by a work of La Mettrie's entitled "The
Politics of Physicians." A man full of cunning, and carried away
by ambition, aspired to the place, then vacant, of first physician
to the king of France. He thought that he could gain it by heaping
ridicule upon those of his contemporaries who might lay claim to
this position. He wrote a libel against them, and abusing the easy
friendship of La Mettrie, he enticed him to lend to it the volubility
of his pen, and the richness of his imagination. Nothing more was
needed to complete the downfall of a man little known, against whom
were all appearances, and whose only protection was his merit.

For having been too sincere as a philosopher and too obliging as
a friend, La Mettrie was compelled to leave his country. The Duke
of Duras and the Viscount of Chaila advised him to flee from the
hatred of the priests and the revenge of the physicians. Therefore,
in 1746, he left the hospitals of the army where he had been placed by
M. Sechelles, and came to Leyden to philosophize in peace. He there
composed his "Penelope," a polemical work against the physicians in
which, after the fashion of Democritus, he made fun of the vanity of
his profession. The curious result was that the doctors themselves,
though their quackery was painted in true colors, could not help
laughing when they read it, and that is a sure sign that they had
found more wit than malice in it.

M. La Mettrie after losing sight of his hospitals and his patients,
gave himself up completely to speculative philosophy; he wrote his
"Man a Machine" or rather he put on paper some vigorous thoughts
about materialism, which he doubtless planned to rewrite. This work,
which was bound to displease men who by their position are declared
enemies of the progress of human reason, roused all the priests of
Leyden against its author. Calvinists, Catholics and Lutherans forgot
for the time that consubstantiation, free will, mass for the dead,
and the infallibility of the pope divided them: they all united
again to persecute a philosopher who had the additional misfortune
of being French, at a time when that monarchy was waging a successful
war against their High Powers.

The title of philosopher and the reputation of being unfortunate
were enough to procure for La Mettrie a refuge in Prussia with a
pension from the king. He came to Berlin in the month of February
in the year 1748; he was there received as a member of the Royal
Academy of Science. Medicine reclaimed him from metaphysics, and
he wrote a treatise on dysentery, another on asthma, the best that
had then been written on these cruel diseases. He sketched works on
certain philosophical subjects which he had proposed to look into. By
a sequence of accidents which befell him these works were stolen,
but he demanded their suppression as soon as they appeared.

La Mettrie died in the house of Milord Tirconnel, minister
plenipotentiary of France, whose life he had saved. It seems that
the disease, knowing with whom it had to deal, was clever enough
to attack his brain first, so that it would more surely confound
him. He had a burning fever and was violently delirious. The invalid
was obliged to depend upon the science of his colleagues, and he did
not find there the resources which he had so often found in his own,
both for himself and for the public.

He died on the eleventh of November, 1751, at the age of forty-three
years. He had married Louise Charlotte Dréano, by whom he left only
a daughter, five years and a few months old.

La Mettrie was born with a fund of natural and inexhaustible gaiety;
he had a quick mind, and such a fertile imagination that it made
flowers grow in the field of medicine. Nature had made him an orator
and a philosopher; but a yet more precious gift which he received
from her, was a pure soul and an obliging heart. All those who are
not imposed upon by the pious insults of the theologians mourn in La
Mettrie a good man and a wise physician.



Est-ce là ce Raion de l'Essence suprème,
Que l'on nous peint si lumineux?
Est-ce là cet Esprit survivant à nous même?
Il naît avec nos sens, croit, s'affoiblit comme eux.
Helas! il périra de même.



De l'Imp. d'ELIE LUZAC, Fils.

- - -



Il ne suffit pas à un sage d'étudier la nature et la vérité; il doit
oser la dire en faveur du petit nombre de ceux qui veulent et peuvent
penser; car pour les autres, qui sont volontairement esclaves des
préjugés, il ne leur est pas plus possible d'atteindre la vérité,
qu'aux grenouilles de voler.

Je réduis à deux les systèmes des philosophes sur l'âme de l'homme. Le
premier, et le plus ancien, est le système du matérialisme; le second
est celui du spiritualisme.

Les métaphysiciens qui ont insinué que la matière pourrait bien avoir
la faculté de penser, n'ont pas déshonoré leur raison. Pourquoi? C'est
qu'ils ont cet avantage (car ici c'en est un) de s'être mal
exprimés. En effet, demander si la matière peut penser, sans la
considérer autrement qu'en elle-même, c'est demander si la matière peut
marquer les heures. On voit d'avance que nous éviterons cet écueil,
où Mr. Locke a eu le malheur d'échouer.

Les Leibniziens, avec leurs monades, ont élevé une hypothèse
inintelligible. Ils ont plutôt spiritualisé la matière, que matérialisé
l'âme. Comment peut-on définir un être dont la nature nous est
absolument inconnue?

Descartes, et tous les Cartésiens, parmi lesquels il y a longtemps
qu'on a compté les Malebranchistes, ont fait la même faute. Ils ont
admis deux substances distinctes dans l'homme, comme s'ils les avaient
vues et bien comptées.

Les plus sages ont dit que l'âme ne pouvait se connaître que par les
seules lumières de la Foi: cependant, en qualité d'êtres raisonnables,
ils ont cru pouvoir se réserver le droit d'examiner ce que l'Ecriture
a voulu dire par le mot Esprit, dont elle se sert en parlant de l'âme
humaine; et dans leurs recherches, s'ils ne sont pas d'accord sur ce
point avec les théologiens, ceux-ci le sont-ils davantage entr'eux
sur tous les autres?

Voici en peu de mots le résultat de toutes leurs réflexions.

S'il y a un Dieu, il est auteur de la Nature, comme de la Révélation;
il nous a donné l'une, pour expliquer l'autre; et la Raison, pour
les accorder ensemble.

Se défier des connaissances qu'on peut puiser dans les corps animés,
c'est regarder la Nature et la Révélation comme deux contraires qui
se détruisent; et par conséquent, c'est oser soutenir cette absurdité:
que Dieu se contredit dans ses divers ouvrages, et nous trompe.

S'il y a une Révélation, elle ne peut donc démentir la Nature. Par la
Nature seule, on peut découvrir le sens des paroles de l'Evangile,
dont l'expérience seule est la véritable interprète. En effet,
les autres commentateurs jusqu'ici n'ont fait qu'embrouiller
la vérité. Nous allons en juger par l'auteur du Spectacle de la
Nature. "Il est étonnant, dit-il (au sujet de Mr. Locke), qu'un homme
qui dégrade notre âme jusqu'à la croire une âme de boue, ose établir
la Raison pour juge et souverain arbitre des mystères de la Foi;
car, ajoute-t-il, quelle idée étonnante aurait-on du Christianisme,
si l'on voulait suivre la Raison?"

Outre que ces réflexions n'éclaircissent rien par rapport à la Foi,
elles forment de si frivoles objections contre la méthode de ceux
qui croient pouvoir interpréter les Livres Saints, que j'ai presque
honte de perdre le temps à les réfuter.

1º. L'excellence de la Raison ne dépend pas d'un grand mot vide de
sens (l'immatérialité); mais de sa force, de son étendue, ou de sa
clairvoyance. Ainsi une âme de boue, qui découvrirait, comme d'un coup
d'oeil, les rapports et les suites d'une infinité d'idées difficiles
à saisir, serait évidemment préférable à une âme sotte et stupide
qui serait faite des éléments les plus précieux. Ce n'est pas être
philosophe, que de rougir avec Pline de la misère de notre origine. Ce
qui parait vil, est ici la chose la plus précieuse, et pour laquelle
la nature semble avoir mis le plus d'art et le plus d'appareil. Mais
comme l'homme, quand même il viendrait d'une source encore plus vile
en apparence, n'en serait pas moins le plus parfait de tous les êtres,
quelle que soit l'origine de son âme, si elle est pure, noble, sublime,
c'est une belle âme, qui rend respectable quiconque en est doué.

La seconde manière de raisonner de Mr. Pluche me parait vicieuse, même
dans son système, qui tient un peu du fanatisme; car si nous avons
une idée de la Foi, qui soit contraire aux principes les plus clairs,
aux vérités les plus incontestables, il faut croire, pour l'honneur
de la Révélation et de son Auteur, que cette idée est fausse, et que
nous ne connaissons point encore les sens des paroles de l'Evangile.

De deux choses l'une; ou tout est illusion, tant la Nature même, que la
Révélation; ou l'expérience seule peut rendre raison de la Foi. Mais
quel plus grand ridicule que celui de notre auteur? Je m'imagine
entendre un péripatéticien, qui dirait: "Il ne faut pas croire
l'expérience de Toricelli: car si nous la croyions, si nous allions
bannir l'horreur du vide, quelle étonnante philosophie aurions-nous?"

J'ai fait voir combien le raisonnement de Mr. Pluche est vicieux,
[1] afin de prouver premièrement que s'il y a une Révélation, elle
n'est point suffisamment démontrée par la seule autorité de l'Eglise
et sans aucun examen de la Raison, comme le prétendent tous ceux qui
la craignent. Secondement, pour mettre à l'abri de toute attaque la
méthode de ceux qui voudraient suivre la voie que je leur ouvre,
d'interpréter les choses surnaturelles, incompréhensibles en soi,
par les lumières que chacun a reçues de la nature.

L'expérience et l'observation doivent donc seules nous guider
ici. Elles se trouvent sans nombre dans les Fastes des médecins, qui
ont été philosophes, et non dans les philosophes, qui n'ont pas été
médecins. Ceux-ci ont parcouru, ont éclairé le labyrinthe de l'homme;
ils nous ont seuls dévoilé ces ressorts cachés sous des enveloppes
qui dérobent à nos yeux tant de merveilles. Eux seuls, contemplant
tranquillement notre âme, l'ont mille fois surprise, et dans sa misère,
et dans sa grandeur, sans plus la mépriser dans l'un de ces états, que
l'admirer dans l'autre. Encore une fois, voilà les seuls physiciens qui
aient droit de parler ici. Que nous diraient les autres, et surtout
les théologiens? N'est-il pas ridicule de les entendre décider sans
pudeur, sur un sujet qu'ils n'ont point été à portée de connaître,
dont ils ont été au contraire entièrement détournés par des études
obscures, qui les ont conduits à mille préjugés, et pour tout dire
en un mot, au fanatisme, qui ajoute encore à leur ignorance dans le
mécanisme des corps.

Mais, quoique nous ayons choisi les meilleurs guides, nous trouverons
encore beaucoup d'épines et d'obstacles dans cette carrière.

L'homme est une machine si composée, qu'il est impossible de s'en
faire d'abord une idée claire, et conséquemment de la définir. C'est
pourquoi toutes les recherches que les plus grands philosophes ont
faites à priori, c'est à dire, en voulant se servir en quelque sorte
des ailes de l'esprit, ont été vaines. Ainsi ce n'est qu'à posteriori,
ou en cherchant à demêler l'âme comme au travers les organes du corps,
qu'on peut, je ne dis pas découvrir avec évidence la nature même de
l'homme, mais atteindre le plus grand degré de probabilité possible
sur ce sujet.

Prenons donc le bâton de l'expérience, et laissons là l'histoire de
toutes les vaines opinions des philosophes. Etre aveugle, et croire
pouvoir se passer de ce bâton, c'est le comble de l'aveuglement. Qu'un
moderne a bien raison de dire qu'il n'y a que la vanité seule qui ne
tire pas des causes secondes le même parti que des premières! On peut
et on doit même admirer tous ces beaux génies dans leurs travaux les
plus inutiles, les Descartes, les Malebranche, les Leibnitz, les Wolf,
etc.; mais quel fruit, je vous prie, a-t-on retiré de leurs profondes
méditations et de tous leurs ouvrages? Commençons donc et voyons, non
ce qu'on a pensé, mais ce qu'il faut penser pour le repos de la vie.

Autant de tempéraments, autant d'esprits, de caractères et de moeurs
différentes. Galien même a connu cette vérité, que Descartes, et non
Hippocrate, comme le dit l'auteur de l'histoire de l'Ame, a poussée
loin, jusqu'à dire que la médecine seule pouvait changer les esprits
et les moeurs avec le corps. Il est vrai, la mélancolie, la bile, le
phlegme, le sang etc., suivant la nature, l'abondance et la diverse
combinaison de ces humeurs, de chaque homme font un homme différent.

Dans les maladies, tantôt l'âme s'éclipse et ne montre aucun signe
d'elle-même; tantôt on dirait qu'elle est double, tant la fureur la
transporte; tantôt l'imbécilité se dissipe: et la convalescence d'un
sot fait un homme d'esprit. Tantôt le plus beau génie devenu stupide,
ne se reconnait plus. Adieu toutes ces belles connaissances acquises
à si grands frais, et avec tant de peine!

Ici c'est un paralytique, qui demande si sa jambe est dans son lit: là
c'est un soldat qui croit avoir le bras qu'on lui a coupé. La mémoire

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