"The School of Voluptuousness" & "The Art of Enjoyment" by Julian Offray de la Mettrie

  • Has anyone read this book?

    It's been on my shelf for a little bit as I concerned myself more with Lucretius & Greenblatt/Klein. For context, its author is a forgotten French Materialist & Hedonist thinker from the Enlightenment, its noted as he was more of a physician than philosopher. He was continually chased out of cities in Europe for his hedonistic & Epicurean beliefs, but was allowed by Frederick The Great to practice in Prussia & was appointed a court reader, indeed it was even Frederick The Great who was the orator at Mettrie's funeral.

    Right away it invokes Epicurus, Lucretius, and Horace, and makes the point that not all bodily pleasures are sufficient for happiness. It looks promising, but throughout the middle ages up until the later enlightenment there was a gross misinterpretation of Epicurus & Epicurean Philosophy (though it seems like that's still true today!).

    Front Cover
    Back Cover

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • WOW that Frederick the Great connection sounds interesting and I don't think I have ever heard of this person at all. Given the Frederick connection I wonder if Martin has heard of him (?)


    If that's the "first ever English translation" then there might not be very much out there on la Mettrie.


    1 - How did you hear of him?

    2 - Have you come across any essays on him you can recommend?


    I will start googling now.

  • Charles I see this in wikipedia so this would appear to be a deviation (maybe), but I am not seeing Wikipedia show much original quotation, so I hope we can find a source where you can cut and paste some of the specific quotes about Epicurus:


    WIkipedia: Julien de La Mettrie is considered one of the most influential determinists of the eighteenth century. Along with aiding the furthering of determinism he considered himself a mechanistic materialist.



    I note that his portrait has him smiling, which is a good sign.

  • I sense the broad generalizations in that wikipedia article are largely useless. They could easily be the overbroad generalizations of a hostile historical assessment. We need the original material that he wrote in order to be sure. I find it difficult to believe that if he was as portrayed in that article that Frederick would have seen much merit in him.


    Further, the whole "determinist" label seems slanted toward assuming that just because humans are advanced animals (rather than spirit-beings, presumably) that he could not have still held some sort of "agency" viewpoint consistent with Epicurus. Again we won't know from this kind of broad article where the truth is.

  • 1 - How did you hear of him?

    I found out about him while studying French Philosophy from the 1700s alongside The Marquis de Sade. He's not well known unfortunately. But I have a tendency to find and locate lesser-known people from history who were Epicurean.

    2 - Have you come across any essays on him you can recommend?


    No, not yet. Only these two books, though I'm sure you could find "Machine Man" by him as a pdf somewhere, maybe on Project Gutenberg.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • I skimmed that link that Joshua provided. Does it all add up to anything that Lucretius didn't sum up in much fewer words - that humans and all living things are made from non-living materials, and that there's no supernatural spirit involved?


    I didn't dive deep enough to figure out whether he writes any form of agency out of the question, or addresses "the swerve" at all, and I suppose I should have more patience with these older materialists, as they presumably were risking their lives publishing like this against the church. But did they advance the ball at all from what Epicurus and Lucretius had already laid out for them? I'm gathering that not only did they not advance the ball, they even fumbled what they were given, because they immediately seem to have gravitated to a kind of "hard determinism" that's worse the religion, as Epicurus said.


    But I didn't read deep enough, and I also get the impression that commentators tend to immediately jump from "he's a materialist" to "he's a hard determinist" and that may not necessarily be so (as Epicurus and Lucretius show by their example).

  • But I didn't read deep enough, and I also get the impression that commentators tend to immediately jump from "he's a materialist" to "he's a hard determinist" and that may not necessarily be so (as Epicurus and Lucretius show by their example).

    Cassius This section from "Man a Machine" seems to indicate the type of determinism that Mattrie espoused, one that the academia.edu article correctly identified, as opposed to the hard determinism as listed on wikipedia.

    "We are veritable moles in the field of nature; we achieve little more than the mole's journey and it si our pride which prescribes limits to the limitless. We are in the position of a watch that should say (a writer of fables would make the watch a hero in a silly tale): ``I was never made by that fool of a workman, I who divide time, who mark so exactly the course of the sun, who repeat aloud the hours which I mark! No! that is impossible!'' In the same way, we disdain, ungrateful wretches that we are, this common mother of all kingdoms, as the chemists say. We imagine, or rather we infer, a cause superior to that which we owe all, and which truly has wrought all things in an inconceivable fashion. No; matter contains nothing base, except to the vulgar eyes which do not recognize her in her most splendid works; and nature is no stupid workman. She creates millions of men, with a facility and a pleasure more intense than the effort of a watchmaker in making the most complicated watch. Her power shines forth equally in creating the lowliest insect and in creating the most highly developed man; the animal kingdom costs her no more than the vegetable, and the most splendid genius no more than a blade of wheat. Let us then judge by what we see of that which is hidden from the curiosity of our eyes and of our investigations, and let us not imagine anything beyond. Let us observe the ape, the beaver, the elephant, etc., in their operations. If it is clear that these activities cannot be performed without intelligence, why refuse intelligence to these animals? And if you grant them a soul our are lost, you fanatics! You will in vain say that you assert nothing about the nature of the animal soul and that you deny its immortality. Who does not see that this is a gratuitous assertion; who does not see that the soul of an animal must be either mortal or immortal, whichever ours is, and that it must therefore undergo the same fate as ours, whatever that may be, and that thus in admitting that animals have souls, you fall into Scylla in an effort to avoid Charybdis?"

    As well as this much shorter paragraph.

    "Let us not say that every machine or every animal perishes altogether or assumes another form after death, for we know absolutely nothing about the subject. On the other hand, to assert that an immortal machine is a chimera or a logical fiction, is to reason as absurdly as caterpillars would reason if, seeing the cast-off skins of their fellow caterpillars, they should bitterly deplore the fate of their species, which to them would seem to come to nothing. The soul of these insects (for each animal has its own) is too limited to comprehend the metamorphoses of nature. Never one of the most skillful among them could have imagined that it was destined to become a butterfly. It is the same way with us. What more do we know of our destiny than of our origin? Let us then submit to an invincible ignorance on which our happiness depends."

    This indicates that he did believe in a casual form of determinism, one that is dependent on physics, physiology, and even social & environmental factors, but yet we still have limited agency. Then again, while this is his most famous work, he considers "Discours sur le bonheur" (Discourses on Happiness) to be his masterpiece and expands upon the ethics found in "Machine A Man", which was reported to be hastily written & based off of the teachings of a physician he studied under, who was Epicurean.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • very interesting! Do we have an English translation of "Discourse on Happiness"?


    Are you thinking that the discussion of a " soul" is the agency part? I would think that that term "soul" remains useful so long as we make clear it is not immortal or supernatural and use it as a synonym for "spirit" as in Lucretius.

  • Given his overtly materialist philosophy including the semi-atheistic sayings found in there, I'm sure he intends that the soul is part of the body and would thus be converted back into matter upon decomposition.

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Oh, I stumbled across an interesting find regarding Mettrie.

    It seems that in his Second Volume of Philosophy, he has a book titled "Epicure's System" or "The Epicurus System"

    I have to head out to work, and the document is in French, but luckily I can roughly read and translate French (it might take the whole day).

    “If the joys found in nature are crimes, then man’s pleasure and happiness is to be criminal.”

  • Yes I suspect that commentators about him are going to presume that "since he thinks the soul is material, that necessarily means that it operates as billiard balls so he must be a hard determinist."


    Which would be exactly NOT true, in the case of Epicurus / Lucretius and the swerve.


    So I doubt it is going to be possible for us to know with confidence what he thought unless and until we find his original writings that bear on this direct issue.


    I know in the Frances Wright material there is some reference to this topic that I find less than satisfying, as it seems to avoid taking a position (see below) . So I am thinking that in this period people were just glossing over the whole Epicurus / Lucretius position on the swerve / agency, and we may find that with this writer as well.


    (I seem to remember reading about this being the position of the well known Joseph Priestly as well, but I am really not well versed in these "materialists" of those years. I could be entirely wrong about what they had to say about this subject.)


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    Maybe i should revise my opinion and say that this part of the above exchange DOES endorse the Epicurus/Lucretius position, in the portion underlined, but it's not as clear as I would have liked it to be:


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    Anyway, I may be getting us off on a tangent here. We need more info on this writer's core viewpoints in general, and his explicit cites to Epicurus / Lucretius, if any.