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