The Echoes of the Mind (9-19) Julien de La Mettrie

Julien de La Mettrie

Nature seems here eternally to impose a singular condition, that the more one gains in intelligence the more one loses in instinct. ~ Julien de La Mettrie

French physician and philosopher Julien de La Mettrie (1709–1751) was an empiricist who thought the body and mind were intimately connected. He observed the effects on one’s thoughts that coffee, wine, opium, or even a good meal, have. La Mettrie was one of the first modern philosophers to note that “you are what you eat.”

Raw meat makes animals fierce, and it would have the same effect on man. This is so true that the English who eat meat red and bloody, and not as well done as ours, seem to share more or less in the savagery due to this kind of food, and to other causes which can be rendered ineffective by education only.

This savagery creates in the soul: pride, hatred, scorn of other nations, indocility and other sentiments which degrade the character, just as heavy food makes a dull and heavy mind whose usual traits are laziness and indolence. ~ Julien de La Mettrie

La Mettrie was a dyed-in-the-wool matterist: to him, the notion of an immaterial mind was silly.

Man is a machine, and in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified. ~ Julien de La Mettrie

The “single substance” was, of course, matter, of which everything is made.

According to La Mettrie, intelligence was a product of 3 factors: brain size, brain complexity, and education. Humans are marginally more intelligent than other animals, owing to bigger, more complex brains, and because of better education. With proper training, an ape “would be a perfect man, a little gentleman.”

To ascribe moral superiority to man ignores the violence that plagues the species, to which religious belief brings no relief. La Mettrie thought that beliefs in God and the uniqueness of humans were responsible for widespread misery.

La Mettrie dared to openly discuss ideas held privately by many contemporaneous philosophers. The impolitic of his doing so alienated many powerful men. Although La Mettrie was clearly influential, his works were rarely cited; even his name was seldom mentioned.