172. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 2 September 1796

172. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 2 September 1796 ⁠* 


IN your Magazine for June, a Correspondent, who signs himself M.H. [1]  has defended the system of Helvetius, [2]  and asserted that “nothing can be more monstrous and hypothetical, than the notion of a child (whose mind having received no impression, is a total blank, without a single idea) being born with a power of discrimination, a correct judgment, &c.” [3] 

The philosophy of Helvetius has become very fashionable in England. I, however, believe, that all arguments deduced from experience and analogy, are directly in opposition to it. Two individuals — say the advocates of this system, would be precisely similar, if they received precisely the same education; that is, if they should be precisely in the same situations, and the same circumstances; now this can never take place. Thus, they assert what they themselves acknowledge never can be proved.

Materialists and Immaterialists are agreed, that the brain is the organ of thought; we have no business now with the enquiry what it is that thinks — a point which never can be proved, and of which the proof, if possible, would be useless. The brain, however, is the organ of thought, as the eye is the organ of vision; the point, then on which this system rests, is, that the organization of the brain is in all men equally perfect, excepting in absolute idiots and madmen. But is there no gradation from the man of strong and sound intellect, down to the idiot? Has your correspondent never known persons, who, though not in a state of absolute idiotism, are yet little removed from it? Who shall draw the line where these removes end? As there are gradations below the standard of common sense, may we not reasonably infer that there are gradations ascending above it?

The opponents of Helvetius believe in innate aptitudes — not innate ideas. In the same manner as the organ of sight is formed with different degrees of strength in different persons, they assert a difference of perfection in the organ of thought. I have known a child catch a tune before he could articulate a sentence, though his brother never discovered the least inclination for music. Now the education of their ears, had been precisely the same; for their mother had sung the same songs to both in their infancy.

The instance of the Jesuits, which Helvetius adduces, may be applied against his system: it is a well known fact, that their preceptors watched with the utmost attention the disposition of their pupils. One of them was believed incapable of attaining any kind of knowledge, till his tutor tried him in geometry, and he became a celebrated mathematician.

Is the brain always exactly of the same size and shape? Are the ventricles always exactly of the same size? Is the medullary substance always exactly of the same consistence — so that the vibrations may always be propagated with equal swiftness? These questions must all be decided in the affirmative, before it can be proved that all men are equally possessed of intellectual powers.

S. R.

September 2, 1796.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (September 1796), 629 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘S.R.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 215. BACK

[1] Mary Hays (1759–1843; DNB). BACK

[2] Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771), French materialist philosopher and encyclopaedist. His De L’Esprit (1758) asserted that the human mind was a blank at birth. BACK

[3] Monthly Magazine, 1 (June 1796), 385–387. BACK