Claude-Adrian Helvétius (1715-71) was a wealthy and high-ranking member of French society. He was acquainted with the leading political and social figures of his time and, through family, with the court and government which he occasionally served in a diplomatic capacity. Philosopher, encyclopedist, and author of the explosive De l'Esprit, he and his wife, Anne Catherine de Ligneville, corresponded with the great and influential throughout Europe.
The letters in this volume were written between 1761 and 1774, a period in which Helvétius enjoyed the fruits of his fame, travelled to England (1764) and Prussia (1765), and produced two books, Le Bonheur and De l'homme, which were published after his death.
In the meantime De l'Esprit provoked an uprecedented outcry from the court and from the religious and civil authorities. Denigrated as the epitome of all dangerous philosophic trends of the age, condemned as atheistic, materialistic, sacriligious, immoral, and subversive, it enjoyed an immense succes de scandale.
Rather than examining the puzzles and paradoxes which surround the affaire de l'Esprit, this volume presents the documents upon which solutions may be based. Helvétius' own letters, often written hastily, under stress, and in fear they might be opened by the Cabinet noir, are less revealing than the letters between other protagonists in the affaire: the Cardinal de Bernis and the Duke de Choiseul, Jean-Omer Joly de Fleury, Malesherbes, Saint-Florentin, Tercier, and Louis xv himself.
It is these letters, together with the appendixes containing edicts, retractions, an condemnations that shed new light not only on the development of the affaire but also on the complex workings of the ancien regime
Mme Helvétius enjoyed an active widowhood, welcoming to her salon in Auteuil a group of intellectuals who came to be known as the Idéologues. A close friend of Benjamin Franklin, she was involved in political events before and during the French Revolution, as well as in Napoleon's coup d'état. In the last letter of the series her grandson describes her burial in her garden, which took place without religious or revolutionary ceremony in the presence of all her favourite pets.
Most of the newly discovered letters are addressed to Helvétius by figures as important as d'Alembert, Boulanger, Chastellux, Saint-Lambert, Servan, Thieriot, and Trublet. Some of these complete an existing exchange, others provide dates for letters already published.
The fifth and final volume will be devoted primarily to a comprehensive index. It will also include a chronological list of all the letters, corrections and modifications, and other useful material.
Though rank and wealth, Helvétius was acquainted with the leading political and social figures of his time, and, through family, with court and government which he occasionally served in a diplomatic capacity. Philosopher and author of the explosive De l'esprit, Helvétius corresponded with the great and the influential throughout Europe. His letters, and those of Mme Helvétius, provide insights into, and new information about, their lives and the political, social, and intellectual history of the eighteenth century.
Volume I contains almost 250 letters written by or to Helvétius or his wife. Of these, the largest collections are those from Helvétius to Mme Helvétius, made available by his descendants, and letters from the future Mmem Helvétius to her aunt, Mme de Graffigny, which are at Yale University. Letters to or from third parties are also included. Much of this correspondence has never before been published.
Correspondance générale d'Helvétius is fascinating to read; it is indispensable for future study of Helvétius' life and work and of Mme Helvétius' influence on her husband his his circle. This volume has a preface by Comte Charles-Antoine d'Andlau, a descendant of Helvétius, and an introduction by the editors setting out their editorial and critical principles and system of annotation. (University of Toronto Romance Series 41)
The previous volumes of this edition have enjoyed international acclaim. "All students of the French Enlightenment will be deeply indebted to D.W. Smith and his team for this superbly conceived and organized collaborative achievement. When complete the Toronto Helvétius will rank among the truly outstanding examples of twentieth-century editorial and bibliographical scholarship." (David Williams, French Studies)