Article abstract: La Mettrie carried the Cartesian mechanism to its logical endpoint by positing, on the basis of his medical understanding, that a human being is a mechanism and that happiness arises from the effects of sense stimuli on this mechanism.
Julien Offroy de La Mettrie came from a comfortable background in Saint-Malo, a busy port town in northwestern France. His father was a merchant in the textile trade and a part of the bourgeoisie that made up the city’s informal governing class. There was enough money to educate the young La Mettrie very well. His early studies in the humanities were carried out in the collèges (private secondary schools) of Coutances and Caen; from there he went on to the Collège du Plessis in Paris. For a time he felt a religious calling and became interested in the Jansenist movement; little evidence of this phase remains, unless it be a later acceptance of a mechanistic causality of human thought and behavior reminiscent of the Jansenist conviction of predestination. In 1725, at the age of sixteen, he entered the Collège d’Harcourt, where Cartesianism was newly introduced, to study natural philosophy. He received his bachelor’s degree two years later. Thereafter he appears to have found his calling, and he entered the medical school at the University of Paris, shifting later to Reims, where he received his bachelor’s and doctorate in medicine in 1733.
La Mettrie went into medical practice in Reims and was never totally divorced from practice for the remainder of his short life. It must be emphasized that his knowledge of anatomy and medicine, gained at a time when both were advancing rapidly, underlay his philosophical views about the mechanism that is the human animal. New skills in dissection, and new medicines from the iatrochemists, became available month by month during this time, and it was easy to reach the exciting conclusion that the human animal-machine would be explicable within the lifetimes of scientists and physicians of the eighteenth century.
After qualification as a physician, La Mettrie moved to Leyden to further his studies with the Dutch chemist-physician Hermann Boerhaave. During his time there, he translated a number of Boerhaave’s texts on diseases, medicine and pharmaceuticals, and chemistry, and composed works of his own on treatment of vertigo and of venereal diseases, as well as reminiscences of his medical practice. La Mettrie married in 1739. He and his wife, the widow Marie-Louise Droneau, produced two children: a daughter in 1741, as well as a son in 1745 who did not survive childhood. The marriage also did not survive, and in 1742, La Mettrie removed to Paris, where he became personal physician to the duc de Grammont, and shortly thereafter the medical officer to the duc’s regiment in the Gardes Françaises. He took part in a number of engagements in the War of the Austrian Succession, which added to his medical skills and observations but left him permanently opposed to human bloodshed.
During the eight years that remained to him, La Mettrie poured out a remarkable series of writings, most of which succeeded in getting him in trouble with some individual or group. In 1745, he published La Volupté (sensual delight), dedicated to the Marquise du Chatelet for her “personal contribution” to the subject matter of the book. In the same year, he produced his first major philosophical writing, Treatise on the Soul. This work was composed as the result of a serious illness and fever that overcame him during the last of the battles in which he was involved, the Siege of Freiburg. Observing the confusion of thought brought about by his physical state, he concluded that “thought is only the result of the organization of the machine [which is the human mind], and … the disruption of its authority greatly influences that part of ourselves that the metaphysicians call the soul.” From this observation it is a short step to the conclusion that human thought and behavior are produced by purely mechanical causes and that the soul, if it exists at all, very likely is as well. Of course, La Mettrie is not speaking from intellectual speculation but from medical experience. He had observed and performed dissections of the brain and nervous system and was familiar with the postmortem evidence that such-and-such a brain lesion was responsible for a particular delusion or disability in the patient before death. He could quite possibly have extended these observations in battlefield medicine, noting how head injuries affected the senses and physical abilities of the wounded. When he spoke of mechanical causes, he spoke with authority.
This did not sweeten the answers of his critics, however. They railed against the “pernicious statements spread through his book on the materialism and mortality of the soul, on the eternity of the world, and on Atheism.” La Mettrie was forced to give up his position with the Gardes Françaises, and his book was ordered burned by the public hangman in Paris. His medical competence was great enough that he moved on to a position as military hospital inspector for Lille, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, and Worms. However, he was not to be satisfied with one battle when he could produce two with a little extra effort. Disgusted by the self-serving incompetence of the medical establishment, particularly in France, in 1746 he produced Politique du médicine (the politics of medicine). The negative response was predictable, and with both clerics and physicians now opposed to him, La Mettrie found it wise to flee to Holland in the...
(The entire section is 2324 words.)