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Holbach, Paul Thiry, Baron D' (1723–1789)


HOLBACH, PAUL THIRY, BARON D' (17231789), French philosopher, scientist, man of letters, founder of a salon, and critic of the ancien régime. Holbach's life and literary career are somewhat shadowy because he published his books clandestinely to avoid persecution and did not write a memoir, diary, or a great number of letters.

Holbach was born in the village of Edesheim in the Palatinate, a German-speaking area close to France and its culture. His parents, non-noble landowners, raised him as a Catholic. In childhood, he was influenced greatly by his uncle François-Adam d'Holbach, a rich financier ennobled in Vienna in 1720 and made a baron in 1728. His uncle arranged for the young boy to leave his parents' home and live with him in Paris. Little is known about Holbach's education except that in 1744 he began his legal studies at the eminent University of Leiden in the Dutch Republic and spent several years there and at his uncle's estate in that country.

Holbach settled in Paris and became a French citizen in 1749 and a barrister before the Parlement of Paris, one of the highest courts of France. But his legal career proved short-lived, for he took much more interest in his social and intellectual life. He organized a salon, holding regular Thursday and Sunday dinners at which he provided excellent food and wine and encouraged the frankest exchange of ideas. Such freethinkers as Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Jacques-André Naigeon, and Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, became members of his social circle, as did many others of varied beliefs. The salon lasted in Paris and at Holbach's country estate nearby into the 1780s.

Holbach could afford such entertaining. His uncle had given him valuable property in 1750 and, at his death in 1753, left his nephew a large legacy in addition to the title of baron of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, in 1750 he married his cousin, Basile-Geneviève-Suzanne d'Aine, a daughter of the wealthy Nicolas and Suzanne d'Aine. Two years after his wife's death in 1754, he married one of her sisters, Charlotte-Suzanne d'Aine. Holbach's fortune was enlarged by these marriages; and in 1756 he purchased the office of secretary to the king, an expensive sinecure conferring automatic French nobility.

Holbach also aspired to be a man of letters. In the early 1750s he wrote a pamphlet favoring Italian over French music and started his collaboration on the Encyclopédie edited by Diderot and d'Alembert, to which he contributed hundreds of signed and anonymous articles on science, technology, religion, politics, geography, and other topics. In addition, from 1752 to 1771, he translated anonymously into French more than ten important German and Scandinavian books on chemistry, mineralogy, and metallurgy. In these books and in his articles for the Encyclopédie, he helped prepare the way for advances in the emerging science of geology and the revolution in chemical theory initiated by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his colleagues.

Holbach's passion for chemistry and mineralogy, his esteem for Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca, and other classical writers, and his admiration for the thought of French and English deists and atheists led him to forsake Catholicism and champion a deterministic, materialistic, and atheistic view of the universe. He thought matter in motion to be the sole reality and believed that men and women were purely physical beings moved by self-interest, yet capable of a humane secular morality. From 1759 to 1770, he secretly translated, edited, and authored many books that denounced all religions and their clergy for fostering illusory supernatural beliefs in God, the soul, miracles, and immortality, all of which Holbach thought increased human suffering. Several of these works sold well, especially Le système de la nature (1769, with a 1770 imprint; The system of nature). Naigeon and a few other members of his circle assisted him in his literary enterprise. In 1770 the Parlement of Paris and the royal administration condemned some of these works, but Holbach escaped prosecution. He concealed his authorship of these writings from all but a few trusted friends, and the government did not zealously seek to discover the identity of the author. He seems to have had protectors in high office.

In the early and mid-1770s, Holbach elaborated on his politics. In several books he asserted that rulers should maximize happiness for the greatest number of their subjects rather than allowing them to suffer from poverty and humiliation. To accomplish this, he rejected divine right absolute monarchy, enlightened despotism, rule by an aristocracy, and democracy. Instead, in the anonymous La politique naturelle (1773; Natural politics), he supported a monarchy that encouraged a wide distribution of land ownership and that was checked by representative bodies of landowners. How much power would be given to these bodies is unclear, but he believed France should not replicate the British House of Commons, which he visited in 1765 and considered corrupt. He also lacked confidence in change by revolution, and in 1776 dedicated his anonymous Éthocratie (Government based on morality) to the recently crowned Louis XVI.

After 1776 Holbach largely stopped writing for publication and did not reveal his opinions of the American Revolution and the calling of the Estates-General in France. He died in January 1789, six months before the fall of the Bastille. During the French Revolution, he became publicly known as the author of controversial works, for Naigeon and Condorcet either republished or wrote commentaries about several of them and identified them as having been written by Holbach. Since then his works have often been reprinted. He deserves to be remembered as the host of a brilliant salon, the writer and translator of important scientific works, and a fervent polemicist for materialistic atheism and political reform. His life exemplifies the French philosophestheir sociability, passion for natural science, and criticism of existing religious and political institutions.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Atheism ; Diderot, Denis; Encyclopédie; Enlightenment ; Philosophes ; Salons .


Primary Source

Holbach, Paul Thiry d'. Oeuvres philosophiques. Edited by Jean-Pierre Jackson. Paris, 1998. A modern French edition of many of Holbach's important books. There is no equivalent edition in English, but there are translations of some of his books.

Secondary Sources

Kors, Alan Charles. "The Atheism of d'Holbach and Naigeon." In Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, edited by Michael Hunter and David Wooton, pp. 273300. Oxford and New York, 1992. On Holbach's irreligious beliefs.

. D'Holbach's Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris. Princeton, 1976. A valuable study of the salon and its members.

Ladd, Everett C. "Helvétius and D'Holbach . . ." Journal of the History of Ideas 23 (1962): 221236. On Holbach's politics.

Naville, Paul. D'Holbach et la philosophie scientifique au XVIIIe siècle. Rev. ed. Paris, 1967. The standard study of his life and works.

Rappaport, Rhoda. "Baron d'Holbach's Campaign for German (and Swedish) Science." Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 323 (1994): 225246. On Holbach's science.

Wickwar, W. H. Baron D'Holbach: A Prelude to the French Revolution. London, 1935. Informative on Holbach's life and thought.

Frank A. Kafker

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