Climate and Political Reform:
Helvétius on National Character
It is by now well established that the slippery concept of 'national character' was a source of considerable debate amongst leading Enlightenment thinkers in France during the second half of the eighteenth century.1 No lesser a collection of thinkers than Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, d'Alembert, Mably, Condorcet and Helvétius wrote on the subject. In this paper, I examine the context of the eighteenth-century debate on the nature and causes of differences in national character, tracing its origins to Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws (1748). I maintain that this debate was essentially political in nature. My focus here is on the contributions made to it by the philosophe Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), whose treatment of the topic was motivated by a political agenda of progressive reform.
The term national character is an elusive one, combining as it does both the general ("national") and the distinctive ("character").2 Like many of the pivotal terms in French eighteenth-century moral philosophy, such as esprit or moeurs, its meaning is difficult to pin down precisely.3 Its place within contemporary discourse is perhaps best ascertained from the definition it is given in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert. The article on 'national character' (caractère des nations), which is believed to have been written by either d'Alembert or Jaucourt, starts with the following definition:
The character of a nation consists in a certain propensity of the soul more commonly found in certain nations than in others, even though it may not be found in all the members of that nation.4
The article goes on to state that "it seems very likely that climate has a real influence on general character, for the character cannot be attributed to the form of government that always changes after a certain length of time." Like so many of the entries in the Encyclopédie, it overtly promotes an agenda of political and social reform. Thus, the article concludes by stating that "[...] in a despotic state, [...] the people will soon become lazy and vain, with excessive fondness for frivolities." 5
By the time the encyclopédistes wrote on national character, its causes had already been a concern for some time among the "first generation" philosophes, Voltaire and Montesquieu, both of whom wrote on the subject. While scattered remarks on the topic can be found in many of Voltaire's early works,6 the character of nations is a central recurrent theme in Montesquieu's writings. All of Montesquieu's major works, from the Persian Letters to the Spirit of Laws, express a concern with the contemporary political and moral condition of France. It is the latter work which is generally regarded as his magnum opus, as well as his most extensive treatment of national character.
The Spirit of Laws was not the first eighteenth century work to deal extensively with national character others had written sporadically on the subject earlier in the century7 but it was the first major treatment of the topic that presented an underlying theoretical framework to account for the differences in the character of nations. As such, it was the work which most subsequent writers on the topic measured themselves against and responded to.8 Its influence, for example, is evident in the Encyclopédie article quoted earlier. Of all Montesquieu's writings, the Spirit of Laws emphasises most strongly the role of climate in shaping the esprit générale, or general mindset of nations. According to Montesquieu, climate is an important causal factor in shaping the general character of people, and therefore plays a significant role in explaining differences in national character. The invocation of climate as an explanation of national differences was not a new idea, per se Montesquieu here drew on civic humanist sources, which in turn had their roots in antiquity9 but his general and systematic approach was novel. He believed that there were immutable physical laws connecting climate and character; for example, that "people are more vigorous in cold climates [...] because cold air constringes the extremities of the external fibres of the body [and] blood moves more freely towards the heart."10 Physiological reactions to climate thus influence the propensity of characteristics among nations. Despite his lauding of the new experimental method of natural philosophy, Montesquieu's physiology was a rather typical product of Cartesian principles, as the following passage amply demonstrates:
It is known that the vivacity of the eye is often a sign of that of the mind. Now, peoples from cold climates seldom have animated eyes. As there is humidity in excess in their brains, the transmitting nerves are constantly wet and therefore become loose; it follows that they are incapable of producing the swift and sharp vibrations which make eyes bright.11
For all his vague Cartesian mechanistic accounts, Montesquieu was making a genuine attempt to employ the new natural philosophy in explaining differences in the character of nations, and in this he was treading new ground. If accepted, his theories had signficant implications for political administration. Should differences in national character have their roots in physical causes determinable by empirical methods, the makers of laws must acquaint themselves with these causes in order to tailor their laws to fit the particular physical constitution of the people they governed. Since different climates gave rise to "different passions and tempers", it would be necessary to ensure that laws were fashioned "in relation both to the variety of those passions and to the variety of those tempers."12
Although a casual reader of the Spirit of Laws might be tempted to conclude that human factors were not of great significance to Montesquieu's theory of national character, a general appraisal of his writings as a whole clearly dispels any notion that he was a climatological determinist. In truth, he ascribed national character to a variety of factors, some climatological and some political. The esprit général, far from being determined entirely by climate, was a group of characteristics resulting from a "complex net of interaction and delicate balance" between climate, laws, government, religion and history.13 Different combinations of these factors produced the differences in national character. In the unpublished Essai sur les causes, for example, Montesquieu explicitly stated that moral factors such as laws and religion went hand in hand with physical ones in determining the character of nations.14
Surprisingly, given the relative sophistication of Montesquieu's treatment of national character in the Spirit of Laws, his account gave rise to a counter-reaction among some of the "second generation" philosophes Baron d'Holbach, David Hume and, crucially, Helvétius who thought that Montesquieu had placed altogether too much emphasis on climate. For them, as for Montesquieu, the debate on national character was essentially a political one: analysing national character and discovering its causes was a means of attaining greater understanding of particular societies, so that legislation and political institutions might be adapted to their needs. They called for social reform of a more ambitious kind than Montesquieu, whose political agenda, as a member of the noblesse de robe, can be fairly described as a desire to return to a monarchical government of intermediaries.15 This counter-reaction in the 1770s and 1780s was part of a general intellectual trend away from emphasising climatological factors,16 heralded perhaps by David Hume's essay "On National Character", which was first published in French translation in 1767.17 Hume argued against Montesquieu and attributed differences in national character to varying social institutions. To him, national character was formed through an interaction between the laws of politics and economics. D'Holbach, too, emphasised the great influence of political institutions.18 No writer on the subject, however, went so far as Claude Adrien Helvétius, who was the only philosophe to reject entirely the idea that climate was a relevant factor in shaping the character of men.19
Like Montesquieu, Helvétius' primary concern was legislation.20 He attacked climatological determinism as an overly simplified and entirely too convenient explanation of human societies, easily abused in the ongoing intellectual battle for social reform. Consequently, substantial parts of both his major works, De l'esprit (1758) and the posthumously published De l'homme (1775), are devoted to a refutation of the philosophical underpinnings of climatological determinism. He saw it as rooted in an erroneous theory of knowledge which traced all mental life to physiological causes. La Mettrie's conception of l'homme machine (1748), of men as machines whose physiological constitution ultimately determined all other properties, social or otherwise, was loathsome to him. Helvétius' own substitute psychological model of man was more or less Hobbesian he took it as a given that human beings were motivated solely by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. These two, he says, "are, and always will be, the only principles of action in man."21 In light of this, a suitable system of punishment and reward could lead men in this direction or that. Helvétius therefore stressed the overwhelming importance of education in the shaping of nations. As one of the French Enlightenment's many Lockean disciples, he regarded the human mind as a blank slate, free not only from innate ideas but also from innate natural dispositions and propensities. Physiological constitution was at most a peripheral factor in men's characters or capabilities. "All men," he maintained, "have an equal disposition for understanding."22 As men were infinitely malleable and infinitely flexible, there was "nothing impossible to education."23 A benevolent educator, given enough knowledge and control, could shape the people in a positive way, since "the understanding, the virtue and genius of man" was simply the "product of instruction."24 In the hands of a social engineer with the right techniques and methods at his disposal, men could be inculcated with vice or virtue, intelligence or stupidity, knowledge or ignorance. Education and law were the only influences of any signficance, and it was therefore of paramount importance to harness them for the betterment of society.
This then radical philosophical doctrine meant that all nations had the same potential for reform and improvement. "No nation," wrote Helvétius, "has reason to regard itself superior to others by virtue of its innate endowment."25 Although the people of some nations seem to possess certain qualities in greater abundance than their neighbours, the explanation for this comes 'from above' it is caused by law and government. "If we commonly meet in London, with knowing men, who are with much more difficulty found in France," he says, this is not because "the climate of England [...] is more favourable to genius than [that of France]," but because it is a country where "every citizen has a share in the management of affairs in general."26 "The art of forming men," he concludes, "is in all countries [...] strictly connected to the form of the government."27
It is clear that Helvétius' psychology, combined with his theory of knowledge, provided him with ample grounds for optimism about the possibilities of improving the character of nations. His rejection of climate as a factor in determining national character is thus intimately linked to his larger political vision of progressive social engineering.28 If national character was an inevitable outcome of climate, lawgivers were powerless to change it significantly; at any rate, it meant that attempts to improve the mores of the people, either through laws or education, were severely circumscribed by physical factors outside of human control. In this way, climatological determinism, in both its pure and moderate forms, could be used as a justification for indolence, complacency and despotism. Nothing was more anathema to Helvétius than despotism. It is, he said, "the most formidable enemy of public welfare", changing the character of a nation "always for the worse," and a constant source of "nothing but vices."29 The uniformly ignorant and iniquitous character of the French of his time was, he maintained, the consequence of incompetent and despotic rule.30
Helvétius' fear that climatological determinism might be used to justify oppression and the status quo was not misplaced. Eighteenth-century slavery is a case in point. Helvétius detested the inhuman slave trade, and renounced the pleasure of consuming sugar due to the fact that it was "dyed with human blood,"31 bought with the vile drudgery of his fellow creatures. In the meantime, slave owners, as Condorcet pointed out, quoted the Spirit of Laws to justify the keeping of slaves.32
For all the sympathy that Helvétius' progressive views may elicit, his offhand dismissal of climate as a factor in the formation of national character is problematic when stripped of its rhetorical force and analysed critically. At face value, it is simply a case of the logical fallacy of the argumentum ad consequentiam: If climate determined character, then this justified complacency and despotism, both of which were undesirable. Hence, climatological determinism could not be true. Such a stringent assessment, however, would be unfair. Although Helvétius only makes half-hearted and anecdotal attempts to attack the empirical underpinnings of the climate theory, it is more productive to think of him as a system-builder presenting an alternate and radical, albeit flawed, analysis of the pivotal causes in the forming of society. His thoroughgoing emphasis on the power of social engineering effectively makes the social world independent from the natural world as far as reform and the betterment of man is concerned. Society, in effect, becomes a separate causal nexus existing on top of nature. The lawmaker and by extension, the educator has complete control over the former, and need not consider the latter, leaving the scope for reform limited only by the capabilities of man and the will to bring about progress. This interpretation of Helvétius' philosophy fits well with the traditional characterisation of the Enlightenment as an essentially optimistic and progressive philosophical movement aiming for the betterment of human society.33
The philosophy of Condorcet, the last of the philosophes, is usually seen as the culminating point of the Enlightenment thus construed.34 It is almost certain that Helvétius influenced the views of Condorcet. The two philosophes knew each other, moving as they did in much the same intellectual circles, and Condorcet, like his mentor d'Alembert, frequented the Paris salon of Mme. Helvétius. There are some striking similarities in their views on legislation. Like Helvétius, Condorcet rejected Montesquieu's argument that laws should be tailored to meet the peculiarities of individual societies, and argued that it was enough to consider the nature of Man in vacuo in order to determine the underlying rational principles by which to govern him. This is a view which, while never explicitly stated by Helvétius, fits exceedingly well with his philosophy. Helvétius can therefore be seen as an important link in a chain running from Montesquieu to Condorcet from the lawmaker as the tailor who devises laws to fit pre-existing natural conditions, to the reforming creator and shaper of the conditions themselves, fashioning laws in accordance with the dictates of reason.
In conclusion, the debate on national character in eighteenth-century France was to a large extent shaped by political agenda. If shortcomings in the character of nations could be traced to political and educational institutions, it provided a platform from which to argue for institutional reform. If, however, national character could be traced to the inherent physiological nature of the people, it implied that universally optimal laws were unattainable, and this could consequently be made to serve as a justification of the status quo. Helvétius was was an ardent champion of the former view, and his writings are a remarkably unambiguous example of the highly politicised nature of the eighteenth-century debate on national character. Although his works, especially De l'esprit, were much-read in the eighteenth century,35 it is clear that Helvétius ultimately failed in his goal of demolishing the climate hypothesis. In the words of J. W. Johnson, "the advent of [his brand of] scientific empiricism did much to diminish the dignity of classic ideas of climatic influence on men and nations", but it did not succeed in removing them from general philosophical discourse.36 Climate-based theories of national character would continue to thrive throughout the 19th century, albeit as bastions of conservatism rather than political radicalism.37
1. Frederick Hertz, Nationality in History and Politics (London, 1951); Ernest Barker, National Character and the Factors in its Formation (London, 1927).
2. Brückner, Martin, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (UNC Press, 2006), Chapter 4.
3. Coleman, Patrick, "The Idea of Character in the Encyclopédie", Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. (Autumn, 1979), pp. 21-47.
4. Full entry on caractère des nations in the Encyclopédie, in the original French: "Caractère des nations: Le caractère d'une nation consiste dans une certaine disposition habituelle de l'ame, qui est plus commune chez une nation que chez une autre, quoique cette disposition ne se rencontre pas dans tous les membres qui composent la nation: ainsi le caractère des François est la légereté, la gaieté, la sociabilité, l'amour de leurs rois & de la monarchie même, &c. Dans les nations qui subsistent depuis long - tems, on remarque un fond de caractere qui n'a point changé: ainsi les Athéniens, du tems de Démosthene, étoient grands amateurs de nouvelles; ils l'étoient du tems de S. Paul, & ils le sont encore aujourd'hui. On voit aussi dans le livre admirable de Tacite, sur les moeurs des Germains, des choses qui sont encore vraies aujourd'hui de leurs descendans. Il y a grande apparence que le climat influe beaucoup sur le caractere général; car on ne sauroit l'attribuer à la forme du gouvernement qui change toû
6. Lengthier discussions of the topic appear in Voltaire's later works, such as the entry on "Nation" in his Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764) and, of course, in the Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (1756).
7. See for example Espiard de Laborde, Essais sur le génie et le caractére des nations (1743).
8. Romani, Roberto, National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750-1914, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 27.
9. Romani, p. 20
10. Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, Baron de, The Spirit of Laws, translated by Thomas Nugent, revised by J. V. Prichard (London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1914), Book XIV, Chapter 2.
11. Quoted in Romani, p. 26.
12. Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, Book XIV. Chapter 1 "Of Laws in Relation to the Nature of the Climate."
13. Kra, Pauline, "The Concept of National Character in 18th Century France", Cromohs, 7 (2002): 1-6.
14. Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères, Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu, ed. M. André Masson (Paris, 1955), III, pp. 397-430.
15. Cranston, M., Philosophers and Pamphleteers: Political Theorists of the Enlightenment (Oxford, 1986), pp. 30-33.
16. Romani, p. 51
17. As far as I can determine, Hume's Essays Moral, Political and Literary were first published in French as Pensées philosophiques, morales, critiques, littéraires et politiques de M. Hume. (Londres [i.e. Paris], 1767).
18. d'Holbach, Baron Paul Henri Thiry, Systeme social ou principes naturels de la morale et de la politique (3 vols., London, 1774), III. pp. 35-36.
19. Romani, p. 51
20. Wootton, David "Helvétius: From Radical Enlightenment to Revolution", Political Theory, Vol. 28, No. 3. (Jun., 2000), p. 313.
21. Helvétius, Claude Adrien, Treatise on Man: His Intellectual Faculties and his Education, transl. W. Hooper, M. D., (London: Albion Press, 1810), p. 146.
22. This would later lead Diderot to remark that if it were true, De l'esprit might just as well have been written by Helvétius' dogkeeper. (Wootton, p. 312).
23. Helvétius, Claude Adrien, De l'esprit or, Essays on the Mind, and Its Several Faculties, anonymous translator (London: 1759), p. 286
24. Helvétius, Treatise on Man, p. 31
25. Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 21
26. Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 100
27. Helvétius, De l'esprit, p. 325
28. For an excellent assessment of Helvétius' views on the possibilities of progressive social engineering, see Berlin, Isaiah "Helvétius" in Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy, (Oxford, 2002), pp. 11-26.
29. Helvétius, Treatise on Man, p. 284.
30. Ibid, p. 286.
31. Quoted in Wootton, p. 308.
32. Romani, p. 62.
33. A clear statement of this view can be found in the introduction to Isaiah Berlin's The Age of Enlightenment: The Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956).
34. See e.g. Goodell, Edward, The Noble Philosopher: Condorcet and the Enlightenment, (Promotheus, 1994); Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de, Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (Philadelphia, 1796).
35. Thanks no doubt to the furor that the publication of De l'esprit aroused among the clerical authorities, and the subsequent public burning of copies by the Paris hangman (Berlin 2002, p. 11).
36. Johnson, J. W., "Of Differing Ages and Climes", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 21, No. 4. (Oct. - Dec., 1960), pp. 465-480.
37. Romani, p. 62
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Berlin, Isaiah, The Age of Enlightenment: The Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956).
Berlin, Isaiah, "Helvétius" in Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Brückner, Martin, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (UNC Press, 2006).
Coleman, Patrick, "The Idea of Character in the Encyclopedie", Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1. (Autumn, 1979), pp. 21-47.
Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de, Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (Philadelphia, 1796).
Cranston, M., Philosophers and Pamphleteers: Political Theorists of the Enlightenment (Oxford, 1986).
Goodell, Edward, The Noble Philosopher: Condorcet and the Enlightenment (Promotheus, 1994).
Diderot, Denis and d'Alembert, Jean Le Rond, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une Société de Gens de lettres, ARTFL Project Encyclopédie, (Rev. 2.1 - 06/2005),
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Helvétius, Claude Adrien, Treatise on Man: His Intellectual Faculties and his Education, transl. W. Hooper, (London: Albion Press, 1810).
Hertz, Frederick, Nationality in History and Politics (London, 1951).
d'Holbach, Baron Paul Henri Thiry, Systeme social ou principes naturels de la morale et de la politique (3 vols., London, 1774), III. pp. 35-36.
Hume, David, Pensées philosophiques, morales, critiques, littéraires et politiques de M. Hume. (London [i.e. Paris], 1767).
Hume, David, "On National Character", Essays, Moral and Political (London, 1748).
Johnson, J. W., "Of Differing Ages and Climes", Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 21, No. 4. (Oct. - Dec., 1960), pp. 465-480.
Kra, Pauline, "The Concept of National Character in 18th century France", Cromohs, 7 (2002): 1-6. < http://www.cromohs.unifi.it/7_2002/kra.html >
Laborde, Espiard de, Essais sur le génie et le caractére des nations (1743).
Lough, J. "Helvétius and d'Holbach", The Modern Language Review, Vol. 33, No. 3. (Jul., 1938), pp. 360-384.
Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, Baron de, The Spirit of Laws, translated by Thomas Nugent, revised by J. V. Prichard (London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1914).
Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, Baron de, Oeuvres complètes de Montesquieu, ed. M. André Masson (Paris, 1955).
Romani, Roberto, National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750-1914, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Wootton, David "Helvétius: From Radical Enlightenment to Revolution", Political Theory, Vol. 28, No. 3. (June, 2000), pp. 307-336.