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Week 1

, we read works by Bacon and de la Mettrie, both natural philosophers who argued that we must look at the world as it exists in order to understand it. In the latter case, de la Mettrie went so far as to argue that, lacking evidence, we cannot even say that our mind/soul is separate from our body—which is to say the material world.


Week 2

, we read authors like Voltaire and Kant. Voltaire questioned the norms of society, mocking the irrational aspects of a Europe still dominated by nobles, priests, and received wisdom. Kant meanwhile argued that all people are capable of reason. Yet, in both cases, we also saw that these seemingly universal ideas were mixed up with assumptions about the racial and gendered nature of rationality. We also read Rousseau, who also argued that we are rational beings, existing in nature with no expectation of outside, unnatural intervention. In order to escape a world of individual forces bouncing against each other, canceling each other out, our best hope is to come together in a “social contract.” I suggested to you that we might even think of his solution as a “political technology” in so far as it helped individuals achieve something greater than themselves.


Week 3

, we read Mary Shelley’s novel, written just a few years after the French Revolution (inspired by writers like Voltaire and Rousseu) and the Napoleonic Wars had come to an end. Seen from one perspective, the novel critiques how individual reason and ego, detached from consideration of others, can lead to terrible outcomes. Though this is hardly the only interpretation, it certainly resonates with aftermath of the French Revolution, when Shelley was writing …

Now, in

Week 4

, we move fully into the 19th century. Our readings this week include

The Communist Manifesto

in which Marx and Engels, similar to La Mettrie, look at material conditions and describe an inevitable historical process driven in large part by changes in production and technology. In Ernst Kapp’s writing, we find the argument that technology is actually an extension of ourselves, an “organ projection” that allows us to remake the world in the form of ourselves. In doing so, he suggests, we come to understand ourselves. Furthermore, in the lectures, we begin to touch on imperialism, which can be understood (following Marx and Engels) as a result of changing means of production/technology or (if you’ll allow me to make a big jump from Kapp) a “technology” of its own which allows Europeans to extend themselves around the world, to reshape other societies in their own image, and to understand themselves.

Are Marx and Engels right? Has industrial technology destroyed the feudal order? How? And why does it make the destruction of the bourgeoise inevitable? Do the arguments they make still apply to the present-day as well or are they only referring to their own time and place (c. 1848)?

Francis Bacon
On Superstition and the Virtue of Science
The discoveries which have hitherto been made in the sciences are such as lie close to vulgar notions,
scarcely beneath the surface. In order to penetrate into the inner and further recesses of nature, it is
necessary that both notions and axioms [be] derived from things by a more sure and guarded way, and that a
method of intellectual operation be introduced altogether better and more certain. …
There is no soundness in our notions, whether logical or physical. Substance, quality, action, passion,
essence itself are not sound notions; much less are heavy, light, dense, rare, moist, dry, generation,
corruption, attraction, repulsion, element, matter, form, and the like; but all are fantastical and ill-defined. …
There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses
and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled
and immovable, proceeds to judgment and the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion.
The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it
arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried. …
It is not to be forgotten that in every age natural philosophy has had a troublesome adversary and hard to
deal with,–namely, superstition and the blind and immoderate zeal of religion. For we see among the
Greeks that those who first proposed to man’s uninitiated ears the natural causes for thunder and for storms
were thereupon found guilty of impiety. Nor was much more forbearance shown by some of the ancient
fathers of the Christian Church to those who, on most convincing grounds (such as no one in his senses
would now think of contradicting), maintained that the earth was round and, of consequence, asserted the
existence of the antipodes.
Moreover, as things now are, to discourse of nature is made harder and more perilous by the summaries and
systems of the schoolmen; who, having reduced theology into regular order as well as they were able, and
fashioned it into the shape of an art, ended in incorporating the contentious and thorny philosophy of
Aristotle, more than was fit, with the body of religion. …
Lastly, some are weakly afraid lest a deeper search into nature should transgress the permitted limits of
sobermindedness; wrongfully wresting and transferring what is said in Holy Writ against those who pry into
sacred mysteries to the hidden things of nature, which are barred by no prohibition. Others, with more
subtlety, surmise and reflect that if secondary causes are unknown everything can be more readily referred to
the divine hand and rod,–a point in which they think religion greatly concerned; which is, in fact, nothing
else but to seek to gratify God with a lie. Others fear from past example that movements and changes in
philosophy will end in assaults on religion; and others again appear apprehensive that in the investigation of
nature something may be found to subvert, or at least shake, the authority of religion, especially with the
But these two last fears seem to me to savor utterly of carnal wisdom; as if men in the recesses and secret
thoughts of their hearts doubted and distrusted the strength of religion, and the empire of faith over the
senses, and therefore feared that the investigation of truth in nature might be dangerous to them. But if the
matter be truly considered, natural philosophy is, after the word of God, at once the surest medicine against
superstition and the most approved nourishment for faith; and therefore she is rightly given to religion as
her most faithful handmaid, since the one displays the will of God, the other his power. …
Printed from Houghton Mifflin Company’s History Companion
Julien Offray de La Mettrie
Copyright © Jonathan Bennett 2017. All rights reserved
[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as
though it were part of the original text. Occasional •bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations,
are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. Every four-point ellipsis . . . . indicates the
omission of a brief passage that seems to present more difficulty than it is worth. Longer omissions are reported
between brackets in normal-sized type.—The most recent translation and edition of this work, by Ann Thomson
(Cambridge UP 1996), gives much historical and bibliographical material that is needed for a serious scholarly
study of the work. It also includes translations of other works by La Mettrie that have never before been translated
into English. The original title is L’Homme Machine, an odd bit of French—two nouns side by side—which has to
be translated into odd English. The usual choice has been Man a machine. Ann Thomson’s edition uses Machine
Man, which emits an unwanted whiff of Hollywood. (It was chosen not by her but by the editor of her series.)—The
division into sections is added in this version; it is meant only as a rough guide to the places where new topics
are started on.
First launched: December 2009
La Mettrie
A start on thinking about materialism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Divine revelation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Some empirical facts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Food . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Other influences . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Physical constitution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
The ability to learn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Imagination . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Humanity’s assets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Attention . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Man and the other animals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Innocent criminals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
The law of nature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
The existence of God . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
The law of nature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Self-moving body parts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
The ‘springs’ of the human machine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
More about the organisation of the human body . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Feeling and thought . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
Solving two ‘riddles’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
From sperm to man . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Reconciling ourselves to our ignorance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
The moral advantages of La Mettrie’s view of man . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
La Mettrie
Divine revelation
For a wise man, it is not enough to •study nature and the
truth; he must be willing to •proclaim it for the benefit of the
few who are willing and able to think. As for the rest—the
willing slaves of prejudice—they can’t reach the truth any
more than frogs can fly.
The wisest have said that the soul can be known only by the
light of faith; but as rational beings they claimed the right
to examine what the Bible meant by the word ‘spirit’, which
it uses when speaking of the human soul. And if in their
research they disagree with the theologians on this point,
are the theologians any more in agreement with each other
on everything else?
Here, in a few words, is the result of all their reflections.
(1) If there is a God, he is the creator of nature as much
as of revelation; he gave us the one to explain the other, and
reason to reconcile them.
(2) To distrust what we can learn by studying living
bodies is to see •nature and •revelation as hostile opposites,
and consequently to come out with an absurdity—that God
contradicts himself in his different works, and deceives us.
(3) If there is a revelation, it can’t contradict nature. It’s
only through nature that we can discover what the Gospel’s
words mean: experience is the only guide to that. Previous
commentators have only confused the truth. We’ll see an
example of that ·when we look into the work of· the author of
the Spectacle of Nature, ·Abbé Pluche·, who writes this about
‘It is surprising that a man who debases our soul to
the point of thinking it to be made of clay ventures
to set up reason as the judge and supreme arbiter
of the mysteries of faith. What an astonishing idea
of Christianity we would have if we tried to follow
These reflections, as well as throwing no light on anything to
do with faith, are frivolous objections to the method of those
who think they can interpret the holy books—so frivolous
that I am almost ashamed of spending time refuting them.
A start on thinking about materialism
Philosophers’ theories regarding the human soul? Basically
there are just two of them: the first and older of the two is
•materialism; the second is •spiritualism. [As you will see, this
has nothing to do with the ‘spiritualism’ that traffics in communication
with the dead etc.]
The metaphysicians who implied that matter might well
have the power to think didn’t disgrace themselves as
thinkers. Why not? Because they had the advantage (for in
this case it is one) of expressing themselves badly. To ask
whether unaided matter can •think is like asking whether
·unaided· matter can indicate the time. It’s clear already
that we aren’t going to hit the rock on which Locke had the
bad luck to come to grief ·in his speculations about whether
there could be thinking matter·.
The Leibnizians with their ‘monads’ have constructed
an unintelligible hypothesis. Rather than materialising the
soul ·like the philosophers I have just mentioned·, they
spiritualised matter. How can we define a being ·like the
so-called ‘monad’· whose nature is absolutely unknown to
Descartes and all the Cartesians—among whom Malebranche’s followers have long been included—went wrong
in the same way, ·namely by dogmatising about something
of which they knew nothing·. They admitted two distinct
substances in man, as if they had seen and counted them!
La Mettrie
What makes reason excellent is not its being immaterial
(what a grand meaningless word that is!), but its force, its
scope, or its acuteness. Contrast these two:
•A soul of clay which tackles countless ideas that are
hard to grasp, and sees at a glance, so to speak, how
they are related to one another and what they imply;
•A silly, stupid soul made of the most precious elements.
It is obvious which of these would be the better soul to have!
Blushing at the miserable nature of our origins, as ·the
ancient Roman naturalist· Pliny did—that’s not behaving
like a philosopher. What seems to be base is here the most
precious thing, on which nature seems to have expended
the most art and effort. [’. . . is here the most precious thing’—what
can imagine hearing an Aristotelian saying ‘We mustn’t
believe Toricelli’s experiment, because if we did accept it,
abandoning nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum, what a strange
philosophy we would have! [Toricelli did some experiments with a
set-up that is now recognised to be a barometer.]
I have shown how flawed Pluche’s reasoning is1 in order
(1) to show that if there is a revelation, it isn’t adequately
established just by the Church’s authority without being
examined by reason, as all those who fear reason claim
that it is; and (2) to shield from attack the method of those
who would like to follow the path that I am clearing for
them, interpreting supernatural things—which, taken on
their own, are incomprehensible—by the lights that each of
us has received from nature, ·i .e. interpreting them by the
lights of experience and reason·.
does La Mettrie mean by ‘here’? Perhaps ‘here on this planet’, perhaps
But even if man had come from a
lower-seeming source ·than mere clay·, he would still be the
most perfect of all beings; and if his soul •is pure, noble and
sublime, whatever it •is made of, it is a splendid soul that
entitles its owner to respect.
There is a touch of fanaticism about Pluche’s system, but
even on its own terms his second mode of reasoning seems to
me to be flawed: if our idea of faith is contrary to the clearest
principles and the most unquestionable truths, we should
conclude that this idea is false and that we don’t yet know
the meaning of the Scriptures. We owe this to the honour of
revelation and its author.
Here are two options. Choose one:
•Everything—both nature itself and revelation—is
•Faith can be justified by unaided experience.
Could anything be more ridiculous than our author? I
‘here in the case of man’.]
In this territory, then, experience and observation should
be our only guides. There are countless ·relevant· empirical
data in the records of physicians who were philosophers [here
= ‘philosophers or scientists’], not in ·those of· philosophers who
were not physicians. Physicians have explored and thrown
light on the labyrinth of man; they alone have revealed the
springs hidden under coverings that hide so many marvels
from our sight. [The word translated by ‘spring’ in this work is ressort,
which refers only to the insides of wind-up machines, and has nothing
to do with natural sources of water.] They alone, calmly surveying
our soul, have many times caught it unawares—in its misery,
without despising it, and in its grandeur, without admiring
it. I repeat: these are the only scientists who have the
right to speak on this subject. What could anyone else,
especially the theologians, tell us? Isn’t it ridiculous to hear
them shamelessly holding forth on a subject they are in
no position to understand? It’s not just that (·negatively·)
His mistake is obviously that he assumes the truth of his conclusion as one of his premises.
La Mettrie
they don’t understand it; they have (·positively·) been turned
away from understanding it by obscure studies that have led
them into countless prejudices—in short, fanaticism—which
increases still further their ignorance of the mechanism of
our bodies.
But although we have chosen the best guides, we’ll still
find many thorns and obstacles in our path.
Man is a machine—such a complex machine that it’s
initially impossible to get a clear idea of it or (therefore) to
define it. That is why all the research that the greatest
philosophers have conducted a priori—trying to use the
wings of the mind, so to speak—have led nowhere. Our only
way to discover the true nature of man is a posteriori, ·i.e.
on the basis of empirical evidence·, trying isolate the soul,
as it were disentangling it from the body’s organs. ·When
I speak of what we can ‘discover’·, I don’t mean •discover
with certainty but merely •reach the highest possible level of
all their works? So let us get started, looking not at what
has been thought but at what we should think if we want an
untroubled life.
To each different balance of •bodily fluids or ‘humours’
there corresponds a different mind, character and habits.
Even Galen knew this truth, which Descartes pushed to the
point of saying that medicine, unaided, could change minds
and habits by changing the body. It is true that each man is
different from each other man because of differences in their
‘humours’—melancholy, bile, phlegm, blood, etc.; differences
in what kinds they have, how much of each, and how they
are combined.
When someone is ill, ·all sorts of things may happen to·
his soul:
•his soul drops out of sight, giving no sign that it exists;
•his soul is so agitated by the violence of the illness
that it appears to be doubled;
•recovery from the illness cures imbecility: in the
course of convalescence an idiot becomes a clever
•the illness makes a really fine mind stupid, so that
he doesn’t even know who he is—farewell all that
splendid knowledge acquired at such cost and with
such effort!
. . . .Take the case of a soldier who doesn’t realize that his arm
has been amputated. His illusion—his type of delirium—is
caused by his memory of earlier sensations and of the place
in his body that his soul related them to. If we speak to him
of the missing part, that will start him off: he’ll remember
it and feel all its movements; and that will create a peculiar
indescribable sort of unpleasure in his imagination. [In the
Some empirical facts
Let us, then, ·forget about wings, and use our feet. Let us·
take up the staff of experience and turn our backs on the sad
story of all the futile opinions of philosophers. To be blind
and to believe one doesn’t need this staff—that is the height
of blindness! A modern author [in fact, La Mettrie himself] was
right to say that the refusal to appeal to secondary causes
as well as primary ones is sheer vanity! [God or an action of
God’s may be the •primary cause of that tree’s falling down; if he causes
this by causing a wind that blows down the tree, then that wind is the
•secondary cause of the tree’s falling.] We can, we should, admire
all those geniuses—the Descarteses, the Malebranches, the
Leibnizes, the Wolffs, etc.—in their utterly useless labours;
but tell me: What did we get from their deep meditations and
last line of the above indented passage, ‘a really fine mind’ translates le
plus beau Génie—really meaning ‘the finest genius’? No. Early modern
French frequently used génie in a weaker sense than we have for it today;
La Mettrie
and in that weaker sense it will be translated in this version by ‘’intellect’
The soul and the body fall asleep together. As the
blood’s movement is calmed, a sweet feeling of peace spreads
through the whole machine. The soul feels itself gently
or ‘fine intellect’ or the like. When he applies it to ‘the Descarteses’ etc. a
page back, La Mettrie surely means it in the strong sense, but ironically.]
[This paragraph refers to three ancient Romans who faced death by
execution with notable courage and calmness.] Here’s a man who
•becoming heavy along with the eyelids,
•relaxing along with the brain’s fibres, and thus gradu-
cries like a baby at the approach of death, and there’s one
who jokes about it. What would have changed the bravery of
Canus Julius, Seneca or Petronius into shivering cowardice?
An obstruction in the pancreas or the liver, or a blockage
in the portal vein. Why? Because ·when either of those
happens· the imagination is blocked along with the organs,
and that’s what gives rise to all the varieties of hysteria and
There are people who think •they have been changed
into werewolves, cocks or vampires, or •that they are being
sucked by the dead: what could I say about them that hasn’t
been said already? There are people who think that some
part of them is made of glass and who have to be advised to
sleep on straw (‘so that you won’t break’!), so that the straw
can be set alight, causing them to be afraid of being burnt,
which causes the supposedly glass limb to return to being
a usable affair of flesh and bone. (This fear has sometimes
cured paralysis.) But why would I spend time on them? I
ought to skim through facts that everyone knows.
I shan’t spend more time, either, on details of the effects
of sleep. Look at that exhausted soldier! He is snoring in his
trench to the sound of a hundred cannons! His soul hears
nothing, his sleep is complete unconsciousness. A bomb is
going to crush him and he may feel the blow less than he
would an insect under his foot.
Whereas over there there’s a man who can’t sleep because
of his jealousy, hatred, greed or ambition. The quietest place,
the most soothing cool drinks are all useless for those who
haven’t freed their souls from the torment of the passions.
•becoming paralysed, as it were, along with all the
body’s muscles.
The muscles can’t support the weight of the head, while the
soul can’t support the burden of thought. When it is asleep,
the soul is as if it didn’t exist.
If the blood flows too fast, the soul can’t sleep; if the soul
is too agitated, the blood cannot calm down—you can hear it
rushing through the veins. These are reciprocal ·event-pairs,
one with the causation running from body to soul, the other
running the other way; and yet they are both· causes of
insomnia. A single scare in a dream makes the heart beat
twice as hard, and deprives us of . . . .the sweetness of sleep,
just as would a sharp pain or a full bladder. Finally, as sleep
comes from the mere closing down of the soul’s functions,
little sleeps of the soul—day-dreams—. . . .occur even when
one is awake (or, strictly, half-awake). This shows that the
soul doesn’t always wait for the body in order to go to sleep,
for if it isn’t completely asleep ·in a day-dream· it is awfully
close! That can be seen in the fact that the soul can’t pick
out a single object that it has paid any attention to; ·that is·,
can’t pick it out from the great mass of confused ideas that
are like clouds filling the atmosphere of our brains.
Opium is so closely related to the sleep it brings that it
earns a place in this discussion. This remedy inebriates, as
do wine, coffee, etc., each in its own way, and according to
the dose. The state it puts a man into is the •image of death,
and would seem to be the •tomb of feeling, yet it makes the
La Mettrie
man happy. What sweet lethargy! The soul would like to stay
in it for ever. Having been vulnerable to the greatest miseries,
the soul now feels only the pleasure of •suffering no more
and of •enjoying the most charming tranquillity. Opium even
affects the will: the soul wants to stay awake and enjoy itself,
but the soul forces it, against its will, to go to bed. I shan’t
talk about the history of poisons.
Coffee is the antidote to wine: by lashing the imagination
it dissipates our headaches and our sorrows without saving
them up for the next morning, as wine does.
Let us think about the soul in its other needs.
Raw meat makes animals ferocious; men would be too,
if that was all they ate. This ferocity gives rise in the soul
to pride, hatred, contempt for other nations, stubbornness,
and other feelings that which degrade the character, just as
coarse food makes for a heavy, thick mind that best likes
laziness and inactivity.
[La Mettrie next quotes the English poet Alexander Pope, in French
prose. This version will give the original.]
Pope well knew the power of greed, when he said:
Catius is ever moral, ever grave,
Thinks who endures a knave, is next a knave,
Save just at dinner—then prefers, no doubt,
A rogue with ven’son to a saint without.
The human body is a machine that winds itself up, a living
likeness of perpetual motion. The states that fevers •work
up are •kept in a steady state by food. Without food, the soul
loses strength, becomes frenzied, and dies worn out—like a
candle whose light flares up just as it is going out. But if
you feed the body, pouring into its pipes •vigorous sugars
and strong liquors, then the soul—as full of energy as •they
are—arms itself with proud courage, and the soldier who
would have run away if given water becomes fierce and
cheerfully runs towards death to the sound of drums. In
the same way hot water stirs up the blood while cold water
calms it.
How powerful a meal is! Joy revives in a sad heart; it
enters the souls of the diners who express it in the charming
songs that the French are so good at. [In an obscure further
sentence, La Mettrie seems to be saying •that good food will
have a bad rather than a good effect on a Mélancolique, this
presumably being someone who is clinically depressed rather
than merely having ‘a sad heart’; and •that a studious person
will have lost the ability to be cheered up by food.]
(Alexander Pope, Moral Essays)
In Switzerland a certain bailiff. . . .was the most upright and
even indulgent of judges when he was fasting, but heaven
help any poor wretch in the dock when the bailiff had had
a good dinner! He was as apt to hang the innocent as the
It’s the way our machine is provisioned that makes us
lively or brave, and in the same way it makes us think, and
makes us honest. Sometimes one would say that the soul
lives in our stomach. . . .
What excesses we are led to by cruel hunger! The person
who is starving loses his respect for the bodies that gave him
life and for the ones to whom he gave life [that is, a starving
man will eat his children, or his parents, if there is nothing else to eat];
he tears them apart voraciously, making a horrible feast of
them; and in this frenzy the weakest always fall prey to the
La Mettrie
Other influences
still further by (2) education, which women don’t get. With
such help from nature and art, how could men not be
more grateful, generous, constant in friendship, firm in
adversity etc. ·than women are·? But anyone who combines
grace of mind and body with nearly all the tenderest and
most delicate feelings of the heart shouldn’t envy us the
twofold strength that men seem to have been given only so
as to improve their performance in (1) being drawn by the
attractions of beauty and (2) providing pleasures for women.
In saying this I am pretty much following the thought of
·Pernetti·, the author of Letters on Physiognomy.
Pregnancy. . . .usually brings depraved tastes in its wake;
but it goes further than that, and sometimes makes the soul
carry out the most atrocious plots, the effects of a sudden
mania that smothers even the law of nature. Thus the
brain—that womb of the mind—undergoes its own kind of
perversion along with the changes in the womb of the body.
[La Mettrie opens this paragraph with an obscure comparison between
•pregnancy and pâles couleurs, a plural name for a single infirmity, a
•kind of anemia in young women. He associates ‘depraved tastes’ with
‘both •these states’.]
You don’t have to be as great a physiognomist as Pernetti
to guess the quality of someone’s mind from his face or
strongly marked features, any more than you have to be a
great physician to recognise an illness that is accompanied
by its obvious symptoms. Examine the portraits of Locke,
Steele, Boerhaave, Maupertuis and others: you won’t be
surprised to see that they have strong features and eagle
eyes. Go through countless others, and you’ll always be able
to tell the merely handsome from the intellectually brilliant,
and often you’ll be able to tell the honest man from the rogue.
What other kind of frenzy—male or female—occurs in
those who are hunted by continence and good health! This
shy, modest girl has lost all shame and modesty; worse,
she now considers incest merely as a promiscuous woman
considers adultery. If her needs aren’t promptly met, her
troubles won’t be confined to mere episodes of womb trouble,
mania, and so on; this poor woman will die of an affliction for
which there are many doctors. [He means, evidently, that she will
die of continence = virginity; it’s obvious why there are ‘many doctors’ for
that ‘affliction’.]
The air ·that we feel and breathe· has great power. . . .
It can happen that a whole people’s minds are heavy and
stupid, while the minds of another people are lively, light
and penetrating; and this has to be caused in part by the
food they eat, their fathers’ seed2 and the chaos of different
elements floating around in the immensity of the air. The
mind, like the body, has its epidemics and its scurvy.
If you can see at all, you can see the necessary influence
of age on reason. The soul tracks along with the stages
in the body’s progress as it does also with the stages of
education. In the fair sex, the soul also tracks sensitivity
of temperament, which explains the tenderness, affection
and strong feelings ·that women have·, based on passion
rather than on reason; and it also explains such things as
·women’s· prejudices and superstitions whose deep imprint
can scarcely be erased. In men, on the other hand, (1) whose
brains and nerves have the firmness of all solids, the mind is
more muscular, as is the face. And their soul is strengthened
The climate is so dominant that someone who changes
climates is affected by that change, whether or not he wants
to be. He’s a wandering plant that has transplanted itself; if
the climate changes then the plant declines or improves.
The history of animals and men proves the influence of the father’s seed on the minds and bodies of their children.
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We copy everything from those we live with—gestures,
accents, and so on—doing this as involuntarily as the eyelid
blinks when it sees a blow coming, or as a spectator’s
body imitates mechanically, and despite himself, all the
movements of a good mime.
Those remarks show that a thinking man who can’t find
anyone else like himself will be his own best company. If he
keeps company with people who don’t think, his mind will
get rusty; in tennis, we return the ball badly when it is badly
served. Rather than being with an intelligent man who has
had a bad education, I would prefer one who has had no
education, provided he is still young enough. A badly trained
mind is ·like· an actor who has been spoilt by provincial
After all the quadrupeds, it’s the birds that have the most
brain. Fish have big heads, but they are empty of sense, like
those of many men. They have no corpus callosum and very
little brain. Insects have no brain at all.
If you read Willis’s The Brain and The Soul of Brutes, you’ll
see that there’s no end to the •details of nature’s variety or
to the •speculations one might offer about them; so I shan’t
go into •either.
I shall simply draw a conclusion that obviously follows
from these incontrovertible observations: (1) the more ferocious an animal is, the less brain it has; (2) the brain seems
to grow in some way in proportion to ·its owner’s· ability to
learn; (3) here we see that nature always does, and always
will, ensure that what is gained on the side of intelligence is
lost on the side of instinct. Which is greater, the loss or the
I am not claiming that the volume of an animal’s brain
tells us, unaided, how good the animal is at learning. ·For
an animal to be high on that scale·, the •quality of its brain
must correspond to its •quantity, ·i.e. its size·; there must
be a healthy balance between the solids and the fluids.
A ·congenital· idiot does have a brain (he is often said
not to), but it tends to have a bad consistency—for example,
being too soft. It is the same for lunatics: we can sometimes
examine the defects of their brains. But if the causes of
idiocy, madness, etc. are not easy to see, how can we hope to
find the causes of the difference between one ·sound human·
mind and another?. . . .
In addition to the softness of the brain marrow in children,
puppies and birds, Willis remarks that the corpora striata
are discoloured and hard to see in all these animals, and that
their streaks are as imperfectly formed as in paralytics. He
adds (and he’s right) that man has a very large pons varolii,
and that this part of the brain is steadily smaller as we move
Physical constitution
So the soul’s various states are always correlated with the
body’s. But to make a better job of exhibiting this dependence and its causes, let us bring in comparative anatomy.
Let us get into the entrailles [= ‘innards’] of men and animals.
How are we to know human nature if we aren’t informed
by an accurate comparison of the structures of men and
In general, quadrupeds’ brains are pretty much the same
in form and composition as man’s brain. Everywhere—same
shape, same arrangement; with just this essential difference:
relative to body-size, man has the biggest and most convoluted brain of all the animals. Next come the ape, beaver,
elephant, dog, fox, cat, etc.; these are the animals that are
most like man, for they can be compared among themselves
on a scale having to do with the corpus callosum, which
Lancisi said was the home of the soul, an opinion that the
late M. de la Peyronie illustrated with a mass of experiments.
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to the ape and then on through the other animals that I
listed; whereas the calf, ox, wolf, sheep, pig, etc.—in which
the pons variolii is very small—have very big nates and testes.
be remedied? In short, would it be absolutely impossible to
teach a language to such an animal? I don’t think so.
My best candidate for this would be the great ape [= the
Orang-outang], unless we happened to discover some other
species that is even more like ours, as we well might in some
region that hasn’t yet been explored. The great ape is so
like us that naturalists have called it the ‘wild man’ or the
‘man of the woods’. I would select one that •was neither
too young nor too old (most of the ones brought to Europe
are too old), and that had the cleverest physiognomy and
confirmed this promise in a thousand little tests. Finally,
as I am not up to the job of being its tutor, I would send it
to the excellent Amman’s school or to the school of some
other equally skilful teacher, if there is one. [J. K. Amman, a
[These two words are Latin for ‘buttocks’ and ‘testicles’ respectively; but
for some reason they were adopted in the 17th and 18th centuries to
name parts of the brain.]
What are we to make of these and many other observations concerning the—let’s call it—inconstancy of vessels and
nerves, etc.? It’s all very well to be cautious and sparing in
drawing conclusions, but there’s one thing we can say about
all this, namely that all this variety can’t merely show nature
playing meaningless games with us. They show at least the
need for a good and rich organisation, because throughout
the animal kingdom the soul becomes firmer along with the
body, and acquires wisdom in proportion as the body gains
Swiss physician and author of Surdus loquens = ‘The talking deaf man’,
developed a system for teaching congenitally deaf people to speak.] My
The ability to learn
criteria for selecting my great ape pupil, incidentally, are the
ones Amman uses in selecting children for his school.
Think about the differences in animals’ ability to learn.
Sound analogical thinking leads the mind to believe that the
causes I have mentioned are the source of all the differences
between the other animals and ourselves; though we must
admit that our feeble understanding, being restricted to the
crudest observations, can’t see the ties linking the cause
to its effects. The cause-effect tie is a sort of harmony that
philosophers ·and scientists· won’t ever understand.
•Some animals learn to talk and sing; they remember
tunes and get all the notes as exactly as any musician.
•Others (such as the ape) display more intelligence and yet
can’t manage this. Why is this, if it’s not because of a defect
in the speech organs?
But is this defect built into the animal so that it can’t
You know, from Amman’s book and from all those who
have presented his method,3 all the wonderful results he
has achieved with children born deaf, in whose eyes he has
discovered ears (that is how he puts it), and how quickly he
has taught them to hear, speak, read and write. I think that
a deaf person’s eyes see better and more alertly than the
eyes of someone who isn’t deaf, because the loss of one limb
or one sense can increase the strength or the sharpness of
another. But the ape sees and hears, it understands what it
hears and sees. It grasps so perfectly the signs that are made
to it that I’m sure it would do better than Amman’s pupils at
any game or exercise that didn’t involve language. Why then
should the education of apes be impossible? Why couldn’t a
hard-working ape reproduce for itself the sounds needed for
The author of The Natural History of the Soul etc. [this author was La Mettrie himself].
La Mettrie
pronunciation, achieving this—as the deaf do—by imitation?
Well, it might be that the ape’s speech organs can never
articulate anything, whatever we do ·in the way of teaching·;
I don’t venture to pronounce on that question. But I’d be
surprised if it were right, given the close analogy between
ape and man, and the fact we have never found any ·other·
animal that is so strikingly like man, inside and outside, as
the great ape is. Locke was never suspected of credulity, and
he saw no obstacle to believing Sir William Temple’s account
of a parrot that. . . .had learned, as we do, to conduct a sort
of coherent conversation. I know that some have made fun
of this great metaphysician,4 but if someone had announced
to the world that ·some· animals can reproduce without eggs
and without females, would he have found many supporters?
Yet Trembley has discovered such animals, which reproduce
by simple division, without mating. [These were polyps, of which
we shall hear more in item 10 on page 23.] And wouldn’t Amman
have been regarded as mad if he had boasted, in advance of
having any results, that he could teach pupils like his, and in
such a short time? Yet his success has astonished everyone,
and like Trembley he has shot up into immortality. I rank
someone who owes the miracles he performs to his own
intellect above one who owes his miracles to chance. Anyone
who discovers how to make things even better in the finest
of kingdoms, providing perfections it didn’t have, should be
valued more than an •unemployed maker of futile systems
or a •hard-working author of sterile discoveries! Amman’s
discoveries have a different order of value; he has saved men
from the mere instinct to which they seemed condemned;
he has given them ideas, a mind—a soul—that they would
·otherwise· never have had. How much greater this power
is!. . . .
The mechanism that opens the Eustachian tube in the
deaf—couldn’t it also unblock it in apes? An amiable wish
to imitate the master’s pronunciation—couldn’t that free the
organs of speech in animals that can imitate so many other
signs with such skill and intelligence? I defy anyone to point
to a single truly conclusive experiment showing that my plan
is impossible and absurd; and I go further—I am virtually
certain, given the ape’s similarity to us in structure and
operations, that if we went about it in the right way we could
teach this animal to utter sounds and consequently to learn
a language. Then it would no longer be a ‘wild man’ or an
imperfect man, but a perfect man, a small ‘man of the town’
·as against ‘man of the woods’·, with as much material—as
much muscle—for thinking and profiting from its education
as we have.
There’s no sharp line between animals and man; true
philosophers would agree about that. What was man before
he invented words and learned languages? ·Back then·
a member of the human species, with much less natural
instinct than members of other species (he didn’t yet think
he was their king!), was distinguishable from apes and other
animals only by having a facial structure that indicated
greater discernment (which is what now marks off apes
from other animals). Reduced to raw sensory knowledge. . . .,
he saw only shapes and colours, without being able to
distinguish any of them. A perpetual child (whatever his
age), he stuttered out his sensations and his needs, like a
hungry dog wanting to eat or a restless one wanting to be
taken for a walk.
For example, the author of The Natural History of the Soul.
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came from the playwright and man of ideas Bernard le Bovier Fontenelle,
who reported that the deaf man began to speak only a few weeks after
Words, languages, laws, science and arts came, and through
them the rough diamond of our minds was at last polished.
Man was drilled like an animal; he was trained into being an
author in the same way as ·a dog, for instance is· trained to
carry a pack. A mathematician learned how to conduct the
most difficult proofs and calculations, as a monkey learns to
don and doff his little hat or ride his trained dog. Everything
was done by signs; each species understood what it could
understand; and that is how man acquired what our German
philosophers call symbolic knowledge.
You see, nothing is simpler than the mechanism of our
education! It all comes down to sounds, to words, which go
from x’s mouth through y’s ears to y’s brain, which receives
at the same time through y’s eyes the shape of the bodies
that x’s words are the arbitrary signs of.
But who spoke first? Who was the first tutor of the human
race? Who devised the means to make the best use of our
constitutional capacity for learning? I don’t know; the names
of those first geniuses—bless them!—are lost in the mists
of time. But art is the child of nature, and nature must
have long preceded it. [In this context, ‘art’ refers to anything that
suddenly becoming able to hear.]
It isn’t absurd to believe that those first ·intellectually
well-equipped· mortals tried—like that deaf man or like animals and dumb people (who are another sort of animals)—to
express their new feelings and experiences by •movements
provided by their imagination, leading in due course to spontaneous •sounds—different sounds for each animal—this
being a natural expression of their surprise, joy, emotions or
needs. For doubtless those whom nature endowed with more
refined feelings were also given greater facility to express
That is how I see men as having used their feelings or
their instinct to acquire intelligence [esprit, often merely meaning
‘mind’], and used their intelligence to acquire knowledge.
Those are the means, as far as I can grasp them, by which
they filled their brain with the ideas that nature had built
them to receive. They helped one another ·in this task·;
and from small beginnings their abilities gradually increased
until they could pick out any object in the world as easily as
they could a circle.
Just as a violin string. . . .vibrates and makes a sound, so
also the strings of the brain, struck by sound-waves, were
stimulated to give out or repeat the words that reached them.
involves inventiveness, techniques, rules, skill; so linguistic competence
is an ‘art’.]
We must suppose that the men who were best constituted,
those on whom nature has lavished its benefits, will have
taught the others. They couldn’t have heard a new sound, experienced new feelings, or been struck by all the enchanting
beauties of nature, without finding themselves in the same
position as the famous deaf man from Chartres. . . .who at
the age of 40 heard for the first time the astonishing sound of
bells. [What ‘same position’? Presumably: having something amazing
to report, and no means to report it.
[In that first clause, La Mettrie probably set out to say: ‘Just as a violin
string, when a certain sound reaches it, vibrates and makes that same
But the brain is constructed in
such a way that as soon as the optically competent eyes
have received pictures of certain objects, the brain can’t
help seeing what they are like and how they differ from one
another. ·Now, carrying this general account of the brain
back into the very early days of language and knowledge·,
when the signs for these differences were marked or engraved
sound on its own accord. . . ’.]
The account of the deaf man
La Mettrie
on the brain, the soul had to examine the relationships
between them; and this examination wouldn’t have been
possible without the discovery of signs or the invention of
languages. [The next clause speaks of a time when the world was
and less perceptible are harder to learn than other truths,
because it takes a higher level of intellect to grasp and
combine the vast quantity of words that the sciences in
question use to express their truths; whereas sciences that
present themselves through figures or other small signs
are easy to learn; and no doubt it’s this ease that led to
the success of algebraic calculations, more even than their
So all the windy learning that inflates the brain-balloons
of our haughty pedants is merely an enormous mass of
words and figures, which create in the head all the traces
by means of which we recall objects and distinguish them
from one another. . . . These words are so closely linked in
the brain to the figures they represent that we very seldom
imagine an object without ·imagining·the name or sign that
is attached to it.
‘silent’ = it didn’t ‘speak to’ human beings = they didn’t know what to
At the time when the world was almost silent,
the soul confronted all those objects in the manner of a
man who has no idea of proportions looking at a picture
or a sculpture, with no ability to pick out parts of it ·and
see their significance within the whole·. Or in the manner
of a little child (back then the soul was in its childhood)
holding in its hand some bits of straw or wood, having a
vague and superficial intake of them as a bunch but not
being able to count or differentiate them. But if we take
two indistinguishable pieces of wood and attach to one a
tag bearing the numeral ‘1’ and to the other a tag with
the numeral ‘2’, then the child will be able to count them,
and this will set him on the way to learning the whole of
arithmetic. As soon as one external spatial item seems to
him to be equal to another by its numerical sign—·i.e. equal
in the sense that each of them is one item·—he’ll easily
conclude these are two different bodies, and that 1 and 1
make 2, that 2 and 2 make 4, and so on.5
make of it.]
I keep using the word ‘imagine’ because I believe •that
everything is imagined and •that all the parts of the soul
ultimately come down to imagination, which creates them
all, and thus •that judgment, reason and memory are parts
of the soul that are in no way absolute but. . . [The next part
of this sentence is so condensed that it is hard to translate
in a way that makes its point clear. It says that these ‘parts’
of the soul are in no way marked off as absolutely distinct
from the rest. They are merely regions of the soul that
are differentiated from •their surroundings only by being
qualitatively different from •them. The region that contains
them all, our author continues,] is that sort of medullary
screen on which the objects depicted in the eye are projected
as in a magic lantern. But if that is the wonderful and
This real or apparent similarity of external spatial items
is the ultimate basis for all truths and all our knowledge.
(I say ‘. . . or apparent’ not because •I think that our senses
always deceive us, as Malebranche said they do, or because
•I think that our eyes, naturally slightly inebriated, don’t
see objects as they really are (though microscopes daily
prove that they don’t), but because •I don’t want to get
into any argument with the Pyrrhonians [= ‘extreme sceptics’],
most notably Bayle.) The truths whose signs are less simple
There are still people today whose stock of signs isn’t big enough to let them count higher than 20.
La Mettrie
incomprehensible result of how the brain is organised, if
everything is conceived by the imagination, if everything is
explained by it, then why divide up
It is through imagination—through its flattering •brush—that
the cold skeleton of reason is covered in living rosy flesh.
It’s through imagination that the sciences flourish, the
arts create beauty, forests speak, echoes sigh, rocks weep,
marble breathes and all inanimate objects come to life. It
is imagination that adds to the tenderness of a loving heart
the stimulating attraction of sexual pleasure. Imagination
makes pleasure take root in the study of the philosopher or
the dusty pedant, and it makes scientists as well as orators
and poets. Some people stupidly criticise it, while others
emptily treat it as special; neither knows much about it.
Imagination doesn’t only follow in the train of the Graces and
the fine arts; as well as •painting nature it also measures
it. [Or ‘. . . measures her’. French doesn’t distinguish these; but this
how La Mettrie finished this sentence: le principe sensitif qui
pense dans l’homme?
routinely translated: the sensitive principle that thinks in
actually meaning: the ·whatever-it-is that is· the source of
feeling and thought in man?
[The French principe, like the English ‘principle’ at that time, had two
meanings: (i) as standing for a kind of proposition, (ii) as meaning
something like ‘source’ or ‘cause’ . The remaining seven occurrences
of principe with this meaning—all of them on pages 22–28—will be translated here by ‘principlec ’, with the subscript suggesting ‘cause’.]
Isn’t this a plain contradiction by the supporters of the
mind’s simple nature? When we divide something we can’t
regard it as indivisible! See where we’re led by the misuse of
language and the haphazard use of grand words like ‘spirituality’ and ‘immateriality’ etc. which no-one understands.
Nothing is simpler than to prove a system that is founded,
like this one ·of mine·, on each individual’s private feelings
and experience. If the imagination—a. . . .part of the brain
about whose nature we know as little as we do about its
workings—is naturally small or weak, then it will scarcely
have the strength to note similarities amongst its ideas; it
will be able to see only what is in front of it or what affects
it most vividly, and it won’t make a good job of seeing even
that! But it’s true all the same that
• only the imagination perceives; that
• it makes representations of all objects, along with the
words and figures that characterise them; and thus
that thus—I’ll say it again—
• the imagination is the soul, because it plays all its
version will treat nature as feminine only in places where La Mettrie
seems to be thinking of it in personal terms.] It reasons, judges,
compares and deepens. ·And there are close connections
between imagination’s two sides.· Could it have such a
good sense of the beauty of the pictures that are drawn
for it without understanding their relationships? [He means:
‘. . . without understanding the relationships amongst their parts’.] No.
The rest of this paragraph: Comme elle ne peut se replier sur
les plaisirs des sens sans en goûter toute la perfection ou la
volupté, elle ne peut réfléchir sur ce qu’elle a mécaniquement
conçu, sans être alors le jugement même.
Literal translation of that: Just as it can’t fall back on
the pleasures of the senses without appreciating all their
perfection, all their sensuality, so also it can’t reflect on what
it has conceived mechanically without then becoming ·the
faculty of· judgment itself.
Meaning: ?
La Mettrie
The more the imagination or the feeblest intellect is
exercised, the more well-padded (so to speak) it becomes, the
more it grows, becomes vigorous, robust, wide-ranging, and
able to think. Even the best constitution needs exercise.
what he is getting at: . . . doing this in the spirit of some-
one who is interested in how nature’s advantages are
distributed—perhaps an expert on this topic—not favouring some distributions over others. (Compare: •an expert
wine-critic versus •a spokesman for one particular vineyard.)
A beautiful woman who thinks she is ugly would be as
ridiculous as a clever man who thinks he is stupid. Exaggerated modesty (a rare defect indeed!) is a sort of ingratitude
towards nature. Honest pride on the other hand is the mark
of a fine, great soul, indicated by manly traits moulded by
If organisation is the first asset, and the source of all the
others, then instruction is the second. Without it, the best
constructed brain would be wasted, just as the most handsome man would be merely a crude peasant if he didn’t know
how to behave in society. But ·also, conversely, education is
useless if spent on someone who is constitutionally incapable
of profiting from it·. . . . [La Mettrie’s two-sentence expansion of
Humanity’s assets
[In this context, the verb estimer will be translated as ‘(give moral) respect
(to)’ or ‘admire’. In each case the choice is stylistic, not theoretical.]
Man’s first asset is his physical constitution. All moral
theorists refuse to give moral respect to •qualities that are
given by nature; they give it only to •talents acquired by
reflection and hard work. This is just wrong. Where do
cleverness, knowledge, and virtue come from, if not from a
disposition—·a physical constitution·—that makes us apt to
become clever, learned and virtuous? And where does that
disposition come from if not from nature? All our admirable
qualities come from nature; to her we owe all that we are. So
why wouldn’t I admire •people who have ·excellent· natural
qualities as much as •those who shine because of their
acquired (as it were borrowed) virtues? All merit deserves
respect, wherever it comes from; we only need to know how
to measure it. There is value in
wit, beauty, wealth, and nobility,
although they are children of chance, just as there is in
dexterity, knowledge, virtue, etc.,
·which are not products of chance, i.e. are not directly given
by nature·. Those who have been showered with nature’s
most precious gifts should feel sorry for those who haven’t;
but they can be aware of their advantages without being vain
about them,. . .
this point includes an apparently irrelevant mention of ‘the senses’, a
pun on matrice that can’t be reproduced in English, a gynaecological
analogue that doesn’t fit very well, and a gynaecological anecdote that
adds nothing.]
But a brain that is both well organised and well educated
is a fertile and perfectly seeded plot of ground that produces
a hundred times what it has received. (This figurative style
of writing often lets the writer •express better what is felt
and •add grace to truth itself; ·but I now switch to something
more literal·.) When an imagination is raised by art—·i.e.
by human intervention in the form of education·—to the
splendid, rare dignity of being intellectually first-rate, it seizes
exactly all the relations of ideas it has conceived, and easily
takes in an amazing crowd of items so as eventually to
deduce from them a long chain of consequences. These
consequences are merely new relationships, born from a
how La Mettrie ends that sentence: . . . en connaisseurs.
meaning: . . . as connoisseurs.
La Mettrie
comparison with the first ones, with which the soul finds
a perfect similarity. In my view, that is how the mind is
born. . . .
I say about truth in general what Fontenelle said about
some truths in particular, namely that it must be sacrificed
to social convenience. My mildness of character makes me
avoid all disputes except in cases where a dispute would
make the conversation sharper and livelier. Cartesians would
be wasting their time charging in with their ‘innate ideas’:
I wouldn’t put in a quarter of the effort that Locke did in
refuting such fantasies. What’s the point of writing a big book
establishing a doctrine—·namely that there are no innate
ideas·—that was set up as an axiom three thousand years
Following the principles we have presented and think to
be true, the person with the most •imagination should be
regarded as the one with the most •mind [esprit ] or the most
•intellect [génie ], for these three expressions are synonymous;
and when we utter different words or different sounds with
no real idea or distinction attached to them, it is—I’ll say it
again—an embarrassing blunder if we think we are saying
different things .
So the finest, greatest or strongest imagination is the
most suitable for both the sciences and the arts. I am not
pronouncing on •whether it takes more intelligence to excel
in the art of Aristotle and Descartes and their like than
in that of Euripides and Sophocles and their like; or on
•whether nature ‘spent’ more on producing Newton than
on creating Corneille (though I strongly doubt that it did!).
But it is certain that what gave these men their different
triumphs and their immortal glory was their different uses
of their imaginations.
When someone is said to have ‘little judgment but much
imagination’, this means that his imagination, left too much
to its own devices and almost constantly engaged in looking
at itself in the mirror of its own sensations, •hasn’t acquired
a strong habit of examining closely those sensations themselves, and •is more deeply interested in things’ traces or
images than in the truth of them, what they are ·really· like.
It is true that the imagination’s springs [see note on page 2] are
so lively that it can only glimpse or skim over the surfaces
of objects unless it gets help from attention, the key to the
sciences—the mother of the sciences!
Look at that bird on the branch—always seeming ready
to take flight. The imagination is like that, always swept
along by the swirl of the blood and the spirits: a trace left
by one wave is washed away by the next. The soul chases
after them, often in vain. It can count on missing the ones
that it wasn’t quick enough to seize and pin down. Thus the
imagination is constantly destroyed and renewed, just like
time, of which it is an image.
Our ideas come into our minds in a fast-moving jumble,
pushing one another along. If the imagination is to deserve
its fine label ‘·faculty of· judgment’, it has to (so to speak)
use some of its muscles to stand upright on the brain’s
·tight·ropes, staying for a while above a fleeing object
·so as to contemplate it before it disappears·, and
preventing itself from falling ·off the rope· onto another
object whose time for contemplation hasn’t yet come.
If it doesn’t do that, it will express vividly what it has felt
vividly; it will make orators, musicians, painters, poets—
and not a single philosopher! On the other hand, if from
childhood the imagination has been accustomed to
•disciplining itself,
•not being swept along by its own rush,. . . .
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•stopping its ideas and pinning them down, and
•looking at them from every angle so as to see all sides
pleasures that await him in the reproduction of his species;
an adolescent already, but he knows little about how to
play the game that nature teaches animals so quickly; he
hides, as though it were shameful to feel pleasure and to
be made for pleasure, while animals glory in being Cynics
of them,
then the imagination will be poised to judge. Its reasoning
will enable it to take in the greatest range of objects; and
its liveliness—which is always so promising in children, and
only needs to be disciplined by study and exercise ·to be of
great value to the adult·—will become simply the sharp and
insightful vision without which scientific progress can’t be
These are the simple foundations on which the structure
of logic has been built. Nature laid them for all the human
race, but ·only· some have profited from them, while others
have misused them.
[i.e. followers of the philosopher Diogenes, who claimed to return to his
natural state and to reject social rules and conventions]. Having no
education, they have no prejudices. But, again, look at that
dog and that child who have both lost their master on the
highway: the child is crying and doesn’t know which way to
turn, whereas the dog will soon find its master, having been
helped more by its sense of smell than the child was by his
So nature made us •to be beneath the animals, or at
least •to exhibit vividly the great achievements of education,
which is the only thing that can remove us from that level
and eventually place us above the animals. But shall we
extend that same distinction to
•the deaf,
•those born blind,
•wild men, i.e. ones have grown up in the forests with
•those whose imaginations have been wiped out by
hypochondria, or
•the brutes in human form who display only the crudest instincts?
No! These men-in-body who are not men-in-mind don’t
deserve to be put in a special class of their own. [It
Man and the other animals
Despite all the ways in which man is superior to the ·other·
animals, putting him in the same class as them is doing him
a great honour. The fact is that up to a certain age he is
more of an animal than they are, because he is born with
less instinct.
Which animal would die of hunger in the middle of a river
of milk? Man alone!. . . . ·If he is armed only with what he
is born with·, he doesn’t know that some food is good for
him, that water can drown him, or that fire can turn him
into ashes. Shine candlelight in a child’s eyes for the first
time and he will automatically stretch out his fingers to it,
as thought wanting to ·hold it in his hand, and· examine
it; he’ll pay a price for learning how dangerous it is, but he
won’t need to learn it twice.
Or put him with an animal on the edge of a cliff; only he
will fall. He will drown while the other will swim to safety.
At the age of fourteen or fifteen he hardly glimpses the great
seems, then, that the ‘same distinction’ that is in question here is not
that of being-above-the-other-animals but merely belonging-to-a-singlelegitimate-class.]
I don’t mean to ignore the objections that can be made,
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against my opinion, in support of a basic distinction between
man and animals. Some say that there’s a law of nature in
man, a knowledge of good and evil, that hasn’t been engraved
on the hearts of animals.
A philosopher is entitled to reject any opinion that isn’t
based on experience—does this objection (this ·mere· assertion) have any such basis? Have we experienced anything
to convince us that some ray of light has fallen on man
and been denied to all other animals? If not, then we can’t
know empirically what happens inside animals or even what
happens inside ·other· men, any more than we can not feel
what happens inside ourselves. We know that we think and
that we feel remorse, as an inner feeling forces us to admit
only too well; but this feeling of •ours doesn’t enable us to
judge remorse in •others. So our beliefs about remorse in
other men have to be based on what they say or on external
signs, i.e. on their behaving in the way we do when we feel
the pangs of conscience.
How could we know that speechless animals have been
given the natural law? It would have to be on the basis of
the ‘external signs’ that I have just mentioned, if there are
any. The facts seem to show that they do. A dog that bites
its master. . . .seems to repent the very next moment; it looks
sad, upset, not daring to show itself, and admitting its guilt
by its humble cringing. History gives us the famous example
of a lion that wouldn’t savage a man who had been thrown
to it, because it recognised him as his benefactor. If only
men would always show the same gratitude for kindness and
the same respect for humanity! Then we wouldn’t have to
fear being met with ingratitude, or to fear these wars that
are the scourge of the human race and the real hangmen of
the law of nature. [A fairly widespread and lengthy war was going on
But a being
•to whom nature has given such a precocious, enlightened instinct,
•who judges, synthesizes, reasons and deliberates as
far as the sphere of its activity extends and allows,
•who recognizes benefits received and who reacts to
ill-treatment by pulling away and trying to find a
better master,
•whose structure is like ours,
•who acts as we do, and
•who feels the same passions, pains and pleasures
(more or less vividly, depending on the power of its
imagination and the delicacy of its nerves)
—doesn’t such a being show clearly that it has a sense of
wrongdoing both in itself and in us, that it knows the difference between good and evil, and (in short) that it is ·morally·
aware of what it is doing? Its soul displays the same joys, the
same humiliations, the same setbacks as we do—would such
a soul be able to look calmly and comfortably at the sight
of a fellow creature being torn to pieces. . . .? The animals
give us obvious signs of repentance and of intelligence, so
why is it absurd to think that beings—machines almost as
well-made as we are—were made like us to think, and to
have a sense of ·the demands of· nature?
You may say: ‘Animals are mostly ferocious beings that
can’t have any sense of the harm they do.’ Well, are all men
better able than the animals to distinguish vice from virtue?
There’s ferocity in our species as in theirs. Barbarous men
who habitually infringe the law of nature are not as upset
by what they have done as are those who break the law of
nature for the first time and who haven’t been hardened
by bad examples. Animals and men are alike in this: they
can be temperamentally more or less ferocious, and they
become even more so when they are in fierce company. But
in Europe while La Mettrie was writing this work—hence his reference to
‘these wars’. He was sometimes involved in them as a military doctor.]
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a gentle, peaceful animal living on bland food in the company
of others like it will be opposed to blood and massacres; it
will be ashamed of having spilled blood. There is perhaps this
difference between them and us: for the animals everything
is sacrificed to needs, pleasures and comfort, which they
enjoy more than we do; and their remorse apparently doesn’t
have to be as strong as ours because our needs are not as
strong as theirs. Habit blunts [émousse] and perhaps even
stifles [étouffe] remorse, as it does pleasure.
always distinguish people who are honest, humane, and
virtuous from ones who are none of those, and that •it is
easy to distinguish vice from virtue by the special kinds of
pleasure and revulsion that are their natural effects, then it
follows that animals—being made from the same materials,
with perhaps only a higher level of fermentation needed to
make them the complete equals of men—must share in all
the privileges of animal nature; and that thus there is no
soul or feeling substance that doesn’t have remorse. These
reflections are strengthened by the following one.
If I am right about this, then almost everyone else in
the world is wrong, and you may think that that isn’t fair!
Well, then, suppose for a moment that I am wrong. (1)
Suppose that •even the most excellent animals don’t know
the difference between moral right and wrong; that •they
have no recollection of kindnesses that have been done to
them and no awareness of their own virtues; that •that
famous lion I mentioned doesn’t remember having refused to
kill the man who was inhumanly and brutally thrown to it in
the arena. ·Now set that supposition alongside some plain
facts·. (2) Men from the same country,. . . .from the same
family even, identify one another as enemies, fight against
one another, chain each other up, or kill each other, and
they have no remorse because a prince is paying for these
murders. What is the result of putting (2) these facts together
with (1) the supposition that the law of nature was not given
to animals? Man isn’t moulded from a more precious clay;
nature has used only one ·kind of· dough, merely varying
the yeast. So if animals are totally deprived of the inner
feeling I have spoken about (the feeling that could lead to
their repenting their conduct), then man must be in the same
situation—in which case farewell to the law of nature and
to all the fine books about it! The whole animal kingdom
would be deprived of it. But we can run the argument the
other way: If man can’t avoid admitting that. . . .•he can
Innocent criminals
The law of nature cannot be destroyed; its imprint in all
animals is so strong that I’m quite sure that even the most
savage and fierce of them have moments of repentance. I
believe that if the wild girl from Châlons in Champagne
really did eat her sister, she will have suffered for her crime.
The same is true I think, of everyone who commits a crime,
even if it was involuntary, i.e. was dictated by the person’s
temperament ·in such a way that he couldn’t help acting as
he did·. For example:
•Gaston d’Orléans, who couldn’t help stealing;
•a woman who was afflicted by the same vice during
pregnancy and passed it on to her children;
•a woman who in her pregnancy ate her husband;
•another woman who cut her children’s throats, salted
their bodies and ate a piece every day as a snack;
•a daughter of a cannibal highwayman who became
one herself at the age of twelve, although she had lost
both parents at the age of one and had been brought
up by respectable people;
not to mention the many other examples that fill the pages of
reporters on the social scene and that all show that hundreds
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a criminal; I claim only that those in whom ·temporarily·
the will is corrupt and the conscience silenced are punished enough by remorse when they recover their senses.
I would even go this far: nature should have spared those
unlucky creatures—the ones who are driven on by irresistible
necessity—from ·the punishments of· remorse.
The criminal, the wicked, the ungrateful and those who
are impervious to nature—miserable tyrants who don’t deserve to live—may get cruel pleasure from their barbarity,
but it won’t do them much good, because they will have
calm moments of reflection when their avenging conscience
speaks up, testifying against them and condemning them to
be almost incessantly shredded by their own hands. Anyone
who torments men is tormented by himself; and the evils he
suffers will be a gauge of how much evil he has caused.
On the other hand, there is so much pleasure in doing
good, in feeling and appreciating the kindness we receive, so
much satisfaction in practising virtue, in being good-natured,
humane, tender, charitable, compassionate and generous
(this word alone includes all the virtues), that I hold that
anyone who is unlucky enough not to have been born
virtuous is sufficiently punished ·just by that fact·.
of hereditary vices and virtues are passed on to children from
their parents, just as the vices and virtues a wet-nurse are
passed on to the children she suckles. So I concede that
these unlucky folk mostly don’t realise how bad their crimes
are while they are performing them. For example, bulimia—
·so-called· canine hunger—can extinguish all feelings; it’s a
madness of the stomach that one is forced to satisfy. But
when those women recover their senses and are sobered up
(so to speak), what remorse they feel when they remember
murdering what they held dearest! What punishment for an
involuntary evil that they couldn’t resist and weren’t aware
of! But that is apparently not enough for the judges. Of the
women I have mentioned, two were sentenced to execution
by brutal methods [and he gives details]. I am aware of what
the interests of society require. But I’m sure it would be
better if all judges were first-rate physicians, because only
physicians could tell the innocent criminal from the guilty
one. How can reason govern a depraved or frenzied sense if
it is that sense’s slave?
But •if crime brings its own more or less cruel punishment, •if the longest habit of barbaric behaviour can’t
completely erase repentance from the most callous of hearts;
•if they are torn apart by the mere memory of what they
have done—why terrify weak people’s minds with images
of hell, demons, and walls of fire that are even less real
than Pascal’s?6 As an honest Pope once asked, why do we
need to resort to fables in order to torment the miserable
beings whom we put to death because we don’t think they
are punished enough by their first torturers, i.e. their own
consciences? I don’t mean that it is never just to punish
The law of nature
We weren’t originally made to be learned, and our having
become learned may result from a misuse of our organic
faculties; and we’ll have done this at the expense of the State,
which maintains a crowd of idlers whom vanity has decked
out with the label ‘Philosophers’. •Nature created us all solely
In a group of people or at meals he always needed a rampart of chairs or a person near him on his left to block his sight of the terrifying depths that he
was sometimes afraid of falling into—though he knew this was a delusion. What a terrifying effect of the imagination, or of a pathological circulation
in one of the brain’s lobes! A great man on one side, he was half mad on the other. ·In Pascal·, madness and wisdom each had its department, its
lobe. . . .
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to be happy—yes, all, from the earthworm to the eagle up in
the clouds. That’s why •she gave all animals a portion of the
law of nature; how refined a portion any given animal gets
depends on what its organs, in their healthy state, can cope
How, these days, are we to define the law of nature?
It is a sentiment [a French word that can mean ‘feeling’ or ‘belief or
opinion’] that teaches us what we ought not to do, steering by
what we wouldn’t like to have done to us. Dare I add to this
generally accepted idea that in my opinion this sentiment
[now he comes out with it: feeling] is only a kind of fear, a scare,
that is as good for the species as it is for the individual? For
perhaps we respect the purses and lives of others only so as
to protect our own goods, our honour and ourselves, like the
Christians. . . .who love God and embrace so many illusory
virtues only because they are afraid of Hell.
You can see that the law of nature is only an inner
feeling that belongs to the imagination, along with all the
other ·things I have assigned to the imagination·, including
thought. So, obviously, it doesn’t presuppose education,
revelation or a legislator. You’ll think otherwise only if you
wish to confuse it with civil laws in the absurd way that
theologians do.
The weapons of fanaticism may destroy those who uphold
these truths, but they’ll never destroy these truths themselves.
as plenty of experience lets us say that religion doesn’t imply
perfect honesty, that same experience entitles us to think
that atheism doesn’t preclude it!
Who knows after all whether the reason for man’s existence doesn’t lie in his existence itself? Perhaps he was
thrown by chance on a point of the earth’s surface without
knowing how or why, but knowing simply that he has to live
and die, like mushrooms that appear overnight or flowers
that grow beside ditches and cover walls.
Let’s not get bogged down in ·attempts to think about·
infinity; we aren’t built to have the slightest idea of it; and
we’re absolutely incapable of tracing things back to their
origin. And it makes no difference to our peace of mind
whether matter is eternal or was created, whether there is
or isn’t a God. It is stupid to torture ourselves about things
that we can’t know and that wouldn’t make us any happier
if we did manage to know them.
I am told to read the works of the defenders of Christianity
[and he names some]; but what will they teach me? Or rather,
what have they taught me? There’s nothing to them but
boring repetitions by zealous writers who add to each other
only verbiage that is more apt to strengthen than undermine
the foundations of atheism. The arguments that people
base on the spectacle of nature aren’t made any stronger
by their sheer quantity: Either •the structure of one finger,
one ear, one eye or one of the observations of Malpighi [a
pioneer of microscopy] proves everything—proving it better than
Descartes and Malebranche do—or •none of this stuff proves
anything. It ought to be enough for deists, and even for
Christians, to point out that throughout the animal kingdom
a single purpose is achieved by an infinity of different means,
each of which fits the purpose precisely. [Deism differs from
The existence of God
I am not questioning the existence of a supreme Being; on
the contrary, it seems to me extremely probable that there
is such a Being. But that doesn’t prove that some one cult
must be right, as against all the others; it is a theoretical
truth that serves very little practical purpose. So that, just
theism in (a) not appealing to revelation for knowledge of God’s existence
or nature, and/or (b) not attributing to God any continuing interest in
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as the mind recovers. . . .its strength in the strength of the
body, it nearly always returns to its former opinions and
acts accordingly). Anyway it is a lot more than is said
by the physician Diderot in his Philosophical Thoughts, a
high-flying work that won’t convince any atheist. [Diderot
the created world and/or (c) not regarding God as having many personal
For what stronger weapons could one have to
flatten the atheists? If my reason doesn’t deceive me, man
and the whole universe seem to have been destined for this
single cluster of purposes. Everything—sun, air, water, the
organisation and form of bodies—is set out in the eye as
though in a mirror that faithfully presents to the imagination
the objects that are depicted there, in accordance with the
laws that are needed for the endless variety of bodies that
are used for seeing. We see everywhere ears of strikingly
different shapes—e.g. in man, animals, birds, fish—but these
different constructions are used for one single end. All ears
are constructed in such a way that they are mathematically
just right for one single purpose, namely hearing. The deist
asks: ‘Would chance be a great enough mathematician to
achieve this variety of means to a single end?’ He also points
to the parts of animals that are obviously there for future use:
the butterfly in the caterpillar, man in the spermatozoon,
a whole polyp in each of its parts, the adult heart-valve
in the foetal structure that it grows from, the lung in the
foetus, teeth in the hollows from which they grow. . . . And
as deism’s supporters overlook nothing in their attempts
to justify it, tirelessly piling proof upon proof, they want to
take advantage of everything, even the mind’s weaknesses in
certain cases. ‘Look’, they say, ‘at the Spinozas, the Vaninis,
the des Barreaux, the Boindins—apostles ·of atheism· who
do more honour than harm to deism. Their unbelief only
lasted as long as their health did’; and the deists add
that atheists nearly always renounce atheism when •their
passions have weakened along with the body that is •their
wasn’t a physician though he did translate a large medical work. La
Mettrie was a physician.] What is to be said in reply to someone
who says [the quotation runs to the end of this paragraph]: ‘We don’t
know nature at all; causes hidden deep within her may have
produced everything. Look for yourself at Trembley’s polyp!
[See page 23.] Doesn’t it contain inside it the causes of its own
regeneration? Then why would it be absurd to believe that
there exist physical causes for everything that has
been made, causes that govern and interlink the
whole series of events in this vast universe with such
necessity that nothing that happens could have not
happened; that it is our absolutely incurable ignorance of these causes that has made us resort to a
God. . . .?
Thus, •destroying chance isn’t •proving the existence of a
supreme Being, for there may be something that is neither
chance nor God—namely, nature, the study of which can
only produce unbelievers, as is shown by the way of thinking
of all its most successful observers.’
So the ‘weight of the Universe’ won’t bother the atheist,
let alone ‘crush’ him! [La Mettrie here quotes phrases from Diderot.]
All the endlessly recited signs of a Creator. . . ., however hard
they are pushed, are obvious only to anti-Pyrrhonians, i.e.
to those who have enough faith in their reason to think that
they can judge on the strength of certain appearances; but,
as you can see, atheists can fight back with other absolutely
opposite appearances that may be just as strong.
That is certainly everything that can be said in favour
of the existence of a God (though the last argument is
trifling, because such conversions are short-lived—as soon
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The law of nature
of mine who is as free-swinging a Pyrrhonian as I am, a
man of great worth who deserves a better fate. His reply
was very curious. ‘It is true’, he said, ‘that the cases for
and against shouldn’t trouble the soul of a philosopher, who
sees that •nothing is demonstrated clearly enough to force
agreement, and indeed that •the signs offered in support
of one side are immediately destroyed by ones presented in
support of the other. Yet’, he said, ‘the universe will never be
happy unless it is atheistic.’ Here are the reasons given by
this dreadful fellow [La Mettrie is of course joking, as with the words
‘infected’ and ‘poison’ below.]. If atheism were generally accepted
(he said), all the branches of religion would be destroyed, cut
off at the roots. No more theological wars, no more soldiers
of religion—those dreadful soldiers! Nature, now infected
by sacred poison, would get back its rights and its purity.
Mortal men, deaf to all other voices, would calmly follow
only the spontaneous promptings of their own individual
being, which are the only ones that it is dangerous for us to
disregard, the only ones that can lead us, along the pleasant
paths of virtue, to happiness.
Such is the law of nature: anyone who obeys it strictly is
an honest fellow who deserves the confidence of the whole
human race. If someone doesn’t follow it scrupulously, he
is either a knave or a hypocrite, whom I distrust; he can’t
avoid that by conspicuously going through the motions of
belonging to some other religion.
After that let the light-minded populace think differently,
let them dare to claim that it’s dishonest not to believe in
revelation, that we need some religion—any religion—other
than the religion of nature. How miserable! How pitiful! And
what a good opinion each person gives us of the religion he
has embraced! We aren’t trying here to seduce the rabble
into giving us their votes. ·We couldn’t get any votes from
those people by using these arguments·. Anyone who erects
Listen to the naturalists again! They tell us that •the same
causes that enabled a chemist to create the first mirror by
a chance mixture of certain materials are used by nature
to create clear water, which the simple shepherdess uses
for the same purpose; that •the movement that conserves
the world could have created it; that •each body occupies
the place assigned to it by its nature; that •the air had
to surround the earth for the same reason that iron and
other metals are produced by its bowels; that •the sun is
as natural a product as that of electricity; that •it wasn’t
made to heat the earth and all its inhabitants (whom it
sometimes burns) any more than the rain was created in
order to make seeds germinate (which it often spoils); that
•a mirror and water weren’t created to enable us to look at
ourselves in them, any more than was any polished body
with the same property; and that •the eye is indeed a sort of
spy-hole through which the soul can contemplate the images
of objects as they are represented to it by those bodies; but
that •there’s no proof that this organ was really created,
or placed in its socket, specifically for that purpose; that
•Lucretius, Lamy and all past and present Epicureans might
be right when they ·reverse the explanatory order that the
deists and theists believe in, and· claim that the eye sees
only because it happens to be organised and placed as it is,
and that the rules of motion that nature follows in generating
and developing bodies ensure that it wasn’t possible for that
wonderful organ to be organised and placed otherwise.
Those are the cases for and against—a summary of the
great reasons that will always divide philosophers: I’m not
choosing a side. ‘It’s not in my power to decide so great a
controversy between you.’ [La Mettrie says this in a line of Latin
poetry, quoting Virgil.] That’s what I said to a French friend
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altars to superstition in his heart is constitutionally built to
worship idols and not to care about virtue.
But since all the soul’s abilities depend so much on the
specific organisation of the brain and of the whole body that
obviously they are nothing but that very organisation, the
machine is perfectly explained! ·Don’t try to fend off this
thesis by claiming that man is special, not like other animals·.
Suppose that man alone received the law of nature as his
heritage, so that he was alone among animals in having
•that delicate conscience that is so easily wounded,
•that ·capacity for· remorse that is no more foreign to
matter than thought is, and no doubt
•other moral features as well,
would that make him any less of a machine? ·Absolutely
not·! Those differences between man and the others could
be upshots of his having
•a few wheels and springs more than the most perfect
·non-human· animals have,
•a brain proportionately closer to the heart and thus
receiving more blood,. . . .
•and perhaps—how do I know?—unknown causes.
Then would the machine’s organisation suffice to explain
everything? I’ll answer this again: Yes. Since thought
obviously develops with the organs, why shouldn’t the matter
that the organs are made of also be capable of remorse once
it has, in the course of time, become capable of feeling?
Thus ‘the soul’ is an empty term, with no idea associated
with it; a good mind should use it only to refer to the part of
us that thinks. Given the slightest principlec of movement,
[see note on page 12] animate bodies will have everything they
need to move, feel, think, repent and (in brief) to conduct
themselves ·appropriately· in the physical realm and in the
moral realm that depends on it.
I’m not supposing anything. I am claiming that all the old
problems about matter, life, and mind have been definitively
solved. If you don’t yet believe this, here are some empirical
data that will completely satisfy you.
Self-moving body parts
1. All animal flesh palpitates after death, and the more
cold-blooded the animal is and the less it perspires, the
longer this goes on. Tortoises, lizards, snakes etc. bear this
2. Muscles separated from the body contract when they
are pricked.
3. The bowels retain their peristaltic. . . .movement for a
long time ·after death·.
4. A simple injection of warm water reanimates the heart
and the muscles, according to Cowper.
5. A frog’s heart, particularly when left in some warm
place, moves for an hour or more after removal from the body.
If the movement seems to have vanished beyond recovery,
you only need to prick the heart and this hollow muscle
beats again. . . .
6. Francis Bacon, a first-class author, speaks in his
History of Life and Death of a man convicted of treason whose
heart was torn out while he was still alive, and thrown into
the flames; for seven or eight minutes this muscle jumped
up and down, first to a height of one and a half feet and then
gradually tailing away.
7. Take the heart out of a chicken embryo and you’ll see
the same thing. . . . The warmth of one’s breath alone revives
an animal that is on the point of death in a pumped-out
vacuum flask.
Boyle and Steno have reported similar results with pigeons, dogs, rabbits, pieces of whose hearts move just like
whole hearts.. . . .
La Mettrie
8. Caterpillars, worms, spiders, flies and eels show more
of this same phenomenon, and the movement in the cut-off
parts increases in hot water because of the fire it contains.
9. A drunken soldier cut off the head of a turkey-cock
with a sabre. The animal stayed upright, then it walked,
then ran; when it ran into a wall it turned round, beat its
wings, and ran some more until it fell down. As it lay there
its muscles went on moving. I saw this myself; and one can
easily see more or less the same phenomena in kittens or
puppies whose heads have been cut off.
10. After polyps have been cut up, they don’t just
move; within eight days each piece generates a new animal!
I’m sorry for the naturalists’ theory of reproduction—well,
actually, I am pleased, because this discovery ·about polyps·
teaches us never to draw general conclusions, even from the
most abundant and decisive empirical evidence.
I have given many more facts than are needed to prove
beyond all doubt that each tiny part of an organic body
moves according to its own principlec . And to prove that
these movements don’t depend on the nerves, as voluntary
movements do, because they occur without the moving
part’s interacting causally with the circulation, ·i.e. with
the animal spirits that circulate through the nerves·. Now, if
this force can be observed even in fragmentary fibres then
it must also be present in the heart, which is a particularly
complex structure of fibres. I didn’t need Bacon’s anecdote
to convince me of this. It was easy for me to deduce it from
•the perfect structural likeness between human and animal
hearts,. . . .and from •the fact that in corpses everything is
cold and flaccid. If executed criminals were dissected while
their bodies were still warm, the same movements would be
seen in their hearts as are observed in the facial muscles of
decapitated people.
The principlec of motion in whole bodies or in chopped-up
parts of them is such as to produce movements that are not
disorderly as has been thought, but completely regular, both
in warm whole animals and in cold incomplete ones. My
opponents will have to resort to denying countless facts that
anyone can easily verify.
If I am now asked where in our bodies this innate force—
·this principlec of motion·—resides, I reply that it is obviously
situated in what the Ancients called the parenchyma, i.e. the
very substance of the body-parts, excluding
the veins, arteries, nerves, in short, the entire body’s
The result is that each part (·which may be too small to
include any aspect of the body’s organisation·) contains its
own ‘springs’, more or less strong ones depending on that
part’s needs.
The ‘springs’ of the human machine
[The link in English between ‘machine’ and ‘mechanical’ is pretty obvious;
in French it is even more so: machine, machinal.]
Let’s look in more detail at these springs of the human
machine. All the body’s movements—
natural, and
are carried out by them. Aren’t all these mechanical?
•the body draws back, struck with terror at the sight
of an unexpected precipice,
•the eyelids blink under the threat of a blow,
•the pupils contract in bright light to protect the retina
and dilate to see objects in the dark.
And aren’t all these also mechanical?
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•the skin’s pores close in winter to keep the cold away
from the blood-vessels,
•the stomach heaves when upset by poison, by a little
opium or by any emetic, etc.,
•the heart, the arteries and the muscles contract during sleep just as they do when the person is awake,
•the lungs unceasingly do their job as an active bellows.
But in order not to become bogged down in profusion of
poorly understood details, I’ll have to limit myself to a few
questions and reflections.
Why does the sight, or the mere idea, of a beautiful
woman cause special movements and desires in us? What
happens then in certain organs—does it come from the very
nature of those organs? Not at all! It comes from the
interplay between those muscles and the imagination. [He
And aren’t these mechanical as well?
•all the sphincters of the bladder, the rectum, etc. do
their work,
•the heart beats, contracting more strongly than any
other muscle,
•the erector muscles make a man’s penis go erect, like
that of an animal that masturbates, and even of a
child, who can have an erection when that part is
also calls this interplay ‘a sort of sympathie’, using this word in its early
modern sense in which it refers to a kind of causal copying, echoing, or
the like; as when by playing an open-string G on one violin starts a slight
trembling in the G-string of another nearby violin.] All we have here
is one spring that is •set going by the sight of beauty and
•arouses another spring that was sound asleep until the
imagination awoke it. And how can this happen if it isn’t due
to the chaotic tumult of the blood and spirits, moving with
astonishing speed and swelling the hollowed-out organs?
The last example, incidentally, shows that the penis has a
special kind of ‘spring’ that isn’t yet understood, producing
effects that haven’t yet been well explained despite all our
knowledge of anatomy.
Since there is obviously causal interplay between mother
and ·unborn· child7 , and since it is hard to deny the facts
reported by Tulpius and by other equally trustworthy writers. . . ., we believe that that is how the foetus feels the effect
of its mother’s impetuous imagination, as soft wax receives
all sorts of impressions, and that the mother’s desires can be
imprinted on the foetus in a way that we don’t understand. . . .
In saying this I am making amends to Malebranche, ·who
accepted this theory, and· who was excessively mocked for
his ‘credulity’ by authors who hadn’t observed nature closely
enough and wanted to subject it to their ideas.
I shan’t spend any longer on all these subordinate little
springs that everyone knows. But there is another more
subtle and wonderful one, which drives them all. It is the
source of all our feelings, all our pleasures, all our passions
and all our thoughts; for the brain has muscles for thinking
as the legs do for walking. I am talking about the instigating
and impetuous principlec the soul [he gives the Greek word that
was Hippocrates’ name for it]. This principlec exists and is located
in the brain at the starting-point of the nerves, through which
it exerts its control over all the rest of the body. [See note on
page 12 regarding ‘principlec ’.] This explains everything that can
be explained, even the surprising effects of diseases of the
Look at the portrait of the famous Alexander Pope, the
English Voltaire. The efforts and strains of his genius are
etched in his face. It is totally convulsed, his eyes are
At least through the blood-vessels. Mightn’t there also be some through the nerves?
La Mettrie
starting out of their sockets and his eyebrows are lifted
by the muscles in his forehead. Why? Because the root of
his nervous system is in labour and his entire body is bound
to feel the effects of such a difficult birth. Where would
all these phenomena come from if there weren’t an internal
string pulling on the outer ones? To bring a soul into the
explanation of them is to be reduced to the intervention of
the Holy Ghost!
For if what thinks in my brain is not a part of that organ
and thus of the whole body, why, when I am lying calmly in
my bed planning a book or conducting an abstract line of
reasoning, does my blood begin to race? Why is my mind’s
fever transmitted to my veins? With that question in mind,
look at men of imagination, at great poets, at men who are
enchanted by a well-expressed feeling or who are bowled over
by. . . .the charms of nature, of truth or of virtue! By their
enthusiasm, and by what they tell you they have felt, you’ll
judge the cause by its effects. From the harmony ·between
the inner life and the outer· you will discover the material
unity of man. (·Of course ‘harmony’ was made famous in
this context by Leibniz; but· a single anatomist, Borelli, was
better acquainted than any Leibnizian with the harmony
·that unites a man·. Think about it: if
•the tautness in the nerves that produces pain causes
the fever that disturbs the mind and saps its will; if
•an overactive mind disturbs the body and lights the
fire of consumption [= tuberculosis] that carried off Bayle
at such an early age; if
•some ·external· stimulus makes me want—forces me
to desire ardently—something that I didn’t care about
the moment before; and if
•in turn brain-events stir up the same lust and the
same desires,
why divide into two what is obviously only one? ‘But what
about the power of the will?’ That leads nowhere. The will
·does indeed issue commands, but it· •receives and must
obey a hundred commands for every one that it •gives. When
the body is in its healthy state, it obeys because a torrent of
blood and spirits force it to do so, because the will has as
its executives an invisib…
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