La Mettrie: an Epicurean System

The following essay (first in a series) is a review of Système d’Épicure (published in 1750), subtitled Philosophical reflections on the origins of animals, by French materialist philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie. The book is unfortunately not available (as far as I know) in English.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) was a physician who treated venereal dis-eases. He seems to have seen himself as a philosophical functionary of Venus, perhaps (metaphorically) a priest or healer. We have to imagine that La Mettrie had to discuss with his patients very intimate details of their sexual lives and tendencies with frankness, and in a spirit of trust, and that this job would have required of him a willingness to not judge or shame his patients. From all this, and also from his body of literature, we may deduce his progressive sexual and social values–particularly progressive for his time.

In the essay A happiness fit for organic bodies: La Mettrie’s medical Epicureanism, Charles T. Wolfe reports that La Mettrie himself (in an anonymous work) referred to his philosophy as an Epicuro-Cartesian System, although in some of his writings he was critical of Descartes. His intellectual legacy involved the re-joining of the soul and the body by describing the soul as material and as part of the body, in this way materializing Cartesianism and healing the Platonic split between body and soul. Wolfe also claims that La Mettrie is an Epicuro-Spinozan, and says that he created a

new and perhaps unique form of Epicureanism in and for the Enlightenment: neither a mere hedonism nor a strict materialist speculation on the nature of living bodies, but a ‘medical Epicureanism’.

Wolfe also cites La Mettrie as saying “The physician is the only philosopher worthy of his country“, and explains that what he means is that the physician defines truth according to matter and nature, rather than as defined by religion or convention. La Mettrie also said: “The best philosophy is that of the physicians“.

La Mettrie, the physician, sees the body as a machine–a machine that produces pleasure (and pain). He firmly roots the search for happiness in the body and in matter. In Man, a Machine, he says: “Nature created us all to be happy“.

An Epicurean System

The Système consists on numbered paragraphs with philosophical contemplations on nature, and appears to have been written as a prose commentary on some of the ideas expressed by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. La Mettrie seemed unfamiliar with Epicurus as a primary, direct source, but he knew of Lucretius and cited him often, as noted by André Comte-Sponville in the essay La Mettrie et le «Système d’Épicure».

In paragraph 49, he labels the latter part of the book “a project for life and death worthy of crowning an Epicurean system“. Considering that the author is elsewhere critical of philosophers who create systems, we have to evaluate this. Epicureanism is a coherent dogmatic philosophy whose ideas are all inter-connected, and here La Mettrie knows and begrudgingly acknowledges that he has birthed a system, and even confers a crown upon it. I say he did so bregudgingly, because he recognized that all these ideas flowed from his first principles, and were connected to each other in such a way, that it was impossible to deny that they made up a philosophical system, and one nearly identical to Epicurus’ own, so that he labeled it “an Epicurean system“.

In The Natural History of the Soul (review upcoming), La Mettrie severely criticizes the “systematizers” of philosophy, but in this book, we see him choosing the words “AN Epicurean system”–which implies that there are OTHER Epicurean systems, and many ways of being Epicurean–, and here we do not see his anti-système rhetoric.

So what does this critique of the systematizers consist of?

A Mass of Prejudices

He says the systematizers are full of bias and prejudice, which impedes the development of true wisdom because they have made up their mind prior to addressing the questions. In paragraph 64 of his Système, La Mettrie says his own “mass of prejudices” of education “disappeared early on in the divine brilliance of philosophy“–which further indicates that he observed how these prejudices were acquired through his society’s education system. We will revisit this when we discuss Anti-Seneca.

Elsewhere in his Natural History of the Soul, he makes frequent appeals to reason without bias or prejudice, saying that pre-judging is not the same as true wisdom. In our present book, he further links true judgement with seeing the relation between two or more ideas with an unbiased mind.

Systems and Presumption

So many philosophers have supported the opinion of Epicurus, that I dared to mix my voice with theirs; Like they did, what I am creating is nothing more than a system; Which shows us what an abyss we are immersed in when, wanting to break through the mists of time, we want to take presumptuous glances at what offers us no grip: because–admit creation (by God) or reject it–it is everywhere the same mystery, everywhere the same incomprehensibility. How did this Earth I live in form? … This is what the greatest geniuses will never do; they will battle in the philosophical field, as I have; they will sound the alarm to devotees, and will not teach us anything. – La Mettrie, Paragraph 41 of Système d’Epicure

We will address creationism at a later point. This is just one of several instances where the author connects systematization with the arrogance and presumption of philosophers. Later, in paragraph 44, he says:

It seems pleasant for (the philosopher) to live, pleasant to be the toy of himself, to play such a funny role, and to believe himself an important character.

This is, on its face, a legitimate critique of the philosopher. Perhaps we are the center of our own worlds in our own lives and experiences, but no individual or species is at the center of THE universe.

But this critique does deserve at least one reply: I disagree that the philosophers “will not teach us anything“. I mean, as opposed to whom? Do the theologians teach us SOMETHING? Aren’t theologians even more presumptuous when–unlike us materialists–we know that their hypotheses are not based on the study of nature?

Castles in the Air

In his Natural History of the Soul (and you will see that counter-references from his other works will often be useful when studying La Mettrie), in the instances where he is most critical of the systematizing philosophers, we see that he specifically is addressing the idealists–mentioning Malebranche, Leibniz and Descartes by name. He says these idealists built “castles in the air” (châteaux dans l’air). He elsewhere says that these “ambitious metaphysicians” have a “presumptuous imagination“.

Therefore, his critique against systems is specifically a critique of idealists, some of whom he mentions by name, and his accusation of building castles in the air relates to the problem of idealism and lack of empirical, material base in these systems. His reference to having created something “WORTHY OF crowning an Epicurean system” is therefore understood as following on this critique. He is saying that anything worthy of being called a system must first abandon idealism in favor of materialism.

And so, his anti-système rhetoric is a critique of the idealists in particular. When we discuss his argument that we get all our ideas from the senses at the end of this book, this critique will come into relief and focus, but for now it should be noted that the novel A Few Days in Athens–which was also produced by intellectuals from the Enlightenment generation–has parallel sayings where the author charges that the “pedantry of Aristotle” makes people confuse “prejudice for wisdom“. Both the accusation of presumption and the bias argument are made against the other philosophers.

An Epicurean Sceptic?

“The primary springs of all bodies, as well as of our own, are hidden from us and will probably always be.”

It is clear that La Mettrie follows the Epicurean tradition of philosophy, and even at times falls in the lineage of the laughing philosophers (if we consider his “advise to an old lady” who has lost her youth and sexual attraction). Towards the end of his Système, he says:

“… these “projects for life and death”: a voluptuous Epicurean in the course of life until my last breath, and a steady Stoic at the approach of death” … have left in my soul a feeling of voluptuousness which does not prevent me from laughing at the first.”

He is referring to all the paragraphs from the first part of the Système prior to the 49th, which is where he announces his Epicurean “system”. However, he claims, even insists that he is a sceptic and only begrudgingly admits that he is a dogmatist (a “systematizer”, to use his own term). In his Natural History of the Soul, he says “the true philosophy” doesn’t exist.

This raises questions concerning the extent to which it’s prudent to accept truths for which we have no evidence based on analogy with the available evidence, before we must adopt the label “sceptic” about this or that type of truth. To what extent are we being truly humble, and not imprudent or lacking in ability to infer truths, when we admit we do now know something that is considered a dark, unclear mystery? As the Epistle to Herodotus puts it:

We must by all means stick to our sensations, that is, simply to the present impressions whether of the mind or of any criterion whatever, and similarly to our actual feelings, in order that we may have the means of determining that which needs confirmation and that which is obscure.

One final note concerning how, in my view, La Mettrie’s epistemological approach is essentially Epicurean despite his hesitation to call himself a dogmatist: to him, knowledge that does not bring pleasure is rejected–and it is rejected BECAUSE it does not bring pleasure! In paragraph 26 he contrasts the pleasure of being in nature with trying to understand everything rationally, which is more an act of power over nature rather than blissful immersion in it:

Let us take things for what they seem to be. Let us look all around us: this circumspection is not devoid of pleasure and the sight is enchanting. Let us watch it admiringly, but without that useless itch to understand everything and without being tortured by curiosity, which is always superfluous when our senses do not share it with our minds.

On Religion and Politics

While others have related the Epicurean advise to remain apolitical and irreligious to the distinction between imagined community and natural communities, La Mettrie gives us this curious insight in paragraph 76:

Religion is only necessary for those who are incapable of feeling humanity. It is certain that it is useless to the intercourse of honest people. But only superior souls can feel this great truth. For whom then is the wonderful construction of politics made? For minds who would perhaps have found other checks insufficient, a species which unfortunately constitutes the greatest number.

In the next entry, we will see how La Mettrie treats the subject of the Epicurean canon.

Further Reading:

 Système d’Épicure (French Edition)