Is the human mind perfect

Summary of The human machine

The French Enlightenment

In the middle of the 18th century the by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert published Encyclopédie. The encyclopedia, which was printed in tens of thousands of copies in spite of the state ban and quickly became the bestseller of its time, perfectly reflected the spirit of the Enlightenment. There was an unbroken belief in the power of reason and science among French intellectuals. Through education it was hoped to advance common good and virtue and ultimately lead all humanity to a freer, happier future. The enlighteners were directed against established authorities in church and state as well as against the superstition and occult customs of the broad masses.

The Enlightenment's criticism of absolutist society led to a massive change in literary production in France, which was determined by censorship, bans and persecution. Many authors felt compelled to publish their works anonymously or abroad. While an opposition grew up in France under the absolute monarchy that ultimately carried out the French Revolution, other states such as Prussia, Austria and Russia gradually opened up to the ideas of the Enlightenmentists. They allowed reforms in the administration, in the school and legal system and in church politics without affecting the class structure and the role of the monarchs. In particular, the King of Prussia Frederick the Great was famous throughout Europe for his tolerance of religious minorities and for his free-thinking attitude. At his court in Potsdam he received enlightened thinkers of his time, including Voltairewith whom he maintained an intensive correspondence.


La Mettrie named a serious illness as a key experience that opened his eyes to the close connection between body and mind. During a campaign in the War of the Austrian Succession, in which he was the personal physician of Duc de Gramont attended, he was seized with a violent fever accompanied by delusions. He could observe in himself how the sick body affected his state of mind and spirit. He wrote his findings in 1745 in the Histoire naturelle de l’âme low. It was publicly cremated in France for its heretical content.

From 1747 the attacks against La Mettrie came to a head in such a way that he was forced to leave France and flee to Holland. He began work on his main work in exile in the Netherlands. Due to the relatively generous censorship regulations, forbidden books for all of Europe were printed there. La Mettrie's writing appeared anonymously as early as October 1747, but was post-dated to 1748.

Had some time before René Descartes called the animal a kind of machine. La Mettrie accused the famous philosopher of recognizing the machine-like and animal nature of humans, but of having remained silent about them for fear of church and state persecution.

Impact history

Dissolved immediately after appearance L’homme machine a scandal. Even the Dutch, known for their tolerance, could not tolerate such a provocative, openly atheistic pamphlet. With great difficulty the author managed to escape from Holland across the border to Prussia. The persecuted philosopher was finally given asylum at the court of the enlightened Prussian king.

L’homme machinewhich, in the eyes of contemporaries, violated morality and custom, not least because of its frank treatment of sexual issues, initially found no approval even among enlightened thinkers. First the German social philosopher Friedrich Albert Lange honored in the 1860s this "whipping boy of French materialism" and his role as the founder of a new philosophical school of thought. However, he also rejected La Mettrie's ethics. It should be just under a century before L’homme machine was examined philosophically and scientifically without moral indignation. The writer Martin Walser referred to in his 2004 novel The moment of love on La Mettrie and created a literary monument to the French.

In times of brain research, computer simulations and artificial intelligence, the discussion about the relationship between body and mind is becoming more topical. Especially in neurobiology, which traces mental and spiritual states back to electrochemical activities of nerve cells, La Mettrie's model finds an astonishing equivalent.