The following article provides an analysis concerning the function of the concept of ‘custom’ in Helvétius’ most important work, namely the De l’esprit. First, the article focuses on the conditions according to which customs can be regarded either as something internal to the domain of natural phenomena, or else external to it. A distinction between two different uses of the concept of ‘human nature’ will be tracked in Helvetius’ work. This distinction is fundamental in order to understand, at the one and the same time, both the difference and the continuity between what depends on nature alone, and what depends on customs. Second, the article focuses on the twofold role played by customs, with respect to moral and political issues and to their relationship. This analysis will shed light on a tension between two different ways of interpreting customs in Helvétius : according to the first, customs are determined by automatic processes, independent from any kind of free will or awareness ; conversely, according to the second, customs are the result of a creative, self-aware activity. The same tension is mirrored in the moral field, marking out two different ways of conceiving ethics – either as a normative science or else as a descriptive science – and in the political field, leading to two different ways of conceiving politics – as a result of autonomous social dynamics, or as the principle and bedrock of every social development. As a conclusion, a possible source of unification of these apparently incompatible positions will be found in the ideal of an enlightened political life : the capability of understanding social customs as they are in their autonomy would provide, in fact, the possibility to reform them and to revolutionise them, in order to enhance common virtue and well-being.
Toto, F. (2015). Helvétius e i costumi. Natura e storia, morale e politica. HISTORIA PHILOSOPHICA, 13, 89-110.