Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d' (1723–1789)

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Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d' Holbach, the foremost exponent of atheistic materialism and the most intransigent polemicist against religion in the Enlightenment, was born of honorable but obscure German parents in Edesheim, a small town in the Palatinate; his name was originally Paul Heinrich Dietrich. His upbringing and education were directed by his maternal uncle, Franciscus Adam d'Holbach, who had made a fortune in Paris and assumed French nationality. After studying at the University of Leiden, Holbach came to Paris, in 1749, married his second cousin Basile-Geneviève d'Aine, and soon became a French subject. On his uncle's death in 1753, he inherited the title of Baron d'Holbach, with properties yielding a handsome income of 60,000 livres. The following year his wife died, and in 1756 Holbach married her younger sister, Charlotte Suzanne d'Aine.

On settling in Paris, Holbach had associated with the younger philosophes who, with Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were grouping around the Encyclopédie, to which he also became a major contributor. His salon soon became the main social center, and a sort of intellectual headquarters, for the Encyclopedist movement. The gatherings on Thursdays and Sundays, during more than three decades, at Holbach's house in Rue Royale-Saint-Roch were famous not only for his excellent dinners but also as a unique "clearinghouse" for radical ideas of every type. The more intimate meetings at his country estate of Grandval, near Paris, have been described in fascinating detail in Diderot's letters. The members of Holbach's circle, besides the assiduous Diderot, included Melchior von Grimm, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, d'Alembert, Rousseau, Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Jacques-André Naigeon, Baron de l'Aulne Turgot, and Marquis de Condorcet. Holbach also counted among his acquaintances many foreigners, notably David Hume, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Joseph Priestley, Horace Walpole, David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, Cesare Beccaria, and Benjamin Franklin.

Because he left neither a body of correspondence nor personal papers, Holbach's character must be pieced together from contemporary accounts. The composite picture credits him with an impressive erudition, an extremely methodical mind, a collector's interest in art, and with the qualities of affability, discreet generosity, modesty, loyalty to friends, and a taste for virtuous simplicity. Diderot's more private remarks diverge somewhat from this public image, disclosing that the baron, at least with those nearest him, had moments of moodiness, petulance, and gruffness. But these traits just provide a touch of humanity without essentially altering the picture of him as the virtuous atheist. Even Rousseau, despite growing hostility, used him as the model for Monsieur de Wolmar, the altruistic unbeliever of La nouvelle Héloïse. Indeed, Holbach's comportment as a social being evidently conformed to his deep desire to illustrate, by his own life and personality, the truth of a most cherished philosophical opinion, that atheism and morality are as plausibly bound together as religiosity and true virtue are not.

Although Holbach, until some years after his death, was publicly known merely as le premier maître d'hôtel de la philosophie, he had surreptitiously played a far greater role, known only to a few. Almost everything he wrotewhether because it expounded atheism and materialism, attacked Christianity, or castigated absolute monarchy, the state church, and feudal privilegewas highly subversive under the ancien régime and could have exposed him to the severest penalties. Consequently, his innumerable manuscripts were usually forwarded through secret channels to Holland for publication, after which the books were smuggled back into France. Owing to the strict anonymity that Holbach maintained, bibliographers have since been faced with insoluble problems of exact attribution concerning many texts linked to him.

Philosophical Orientation

Holbach's literary career falls conveniently into three phases. A competent although uncreative student of chemistry, metallurgy, mineralogy, and geology, he translated into French, mainly during the 1750s, a number of works (mostly German) from these fields. He also contributed to the Encyclopédie, beginning in 1752, almost 400 articles dealing with the same sciences. These interests shaped Holbach's philosophical outlook, for his materialism corresponded to the methodology and scope of a rigorously scientific explanation of things. In particular, the new evidence offered by geology concerning Earth's history negated, in his view, the doctrine of creation, and with it the existence of God.

The second phase of Holbach's activity, coinciding with the 1760s, consisted of a relentless militancy against organized religion in general and the Catholic church in particular. Not content with the repeated broadsides of his own composition, he also translated anticlerical, deistic, or materialistic works by various British authors (among them Peter Annet, Anthony Collins, Thomas Woolston, John Toland, and Thomas Hobbes), and he published, with the collaboration of Naigeon, a number of French antireligious texts that had long been circulating clandestinely in manuscript copies. Among Holbach's own tracts, the most important were Le Christianisme dévoilé, ou Examen des principes et des effets de la religion chrétienne (1761); Théologie portative, ou Dictionnaire abrégé de la religion chrétienne (1767); La contagion sacrée, ou Histoire naturelle de la superstition (1768); Lettres à Eugénie, ou Préservatif contre les préjugés (1768); and Histoire critique de Jésus-Christ, ou Analyse raisonnée des Évangiles (1770).

The themes recurring throughout these and similar books represent a vehement restatement of almost all the arguments for unbelief current in eighteenth-century France. The most characteristic are the following: The idea and cult of God sprang from the ignorant terror of primitive man seeking to placate the destructive powers of nature, and they have survived ever since through superstition; religious history is a catalogue of senseless disputes, intolerance, prejudice, persecution, and crime; the clergy is ordinarily engaged in exploiting the gullibility of the people for its own profit; religions have invariably supported tyrannical governments to further their own ambitions of domination; Scriptural "proofs" of Christianity are worthless as objective historical evidence; theological dogmas are a maze of delusion and mystification on which no rational, just, or useful social institution can be built.

Atheistic Materialism

The third and properly philosophical stage of Holbach's output began in 1770 with the Système de la nature, ou des Lois du monde physique et du monde moral. This firstand onlyexample in the Enlightenment of a comprehensive, unmitigated defense of atheistic materialism was the culmination of a whole trend of ideas already expressed in varying degrees by Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Helvétius, Diderot, and others. It caused much consternation in France, not only among spokesmen for the official faith but among the deistic philosophes as well. It was suppressed by judicial decree, and among the flood of refutations it provoked were those of Voltaire (the article "God" in the Philosophical Dictionary ) and Frederick the Great (Examen critique du Système de la nature ).

The Système de la nature defines man as a product entirely of nature, subject to the laws governing the physical universe that, in turn, constitutes the whole of reality. The soul, or spiritual substance, is an illusion; the moral and intellectual attributes of man are simply his organic machine considered in certain of its special, less visible operations. Since sensibility is a primary function of the animal organism, all our higher faculties are derived ultimately from the different forms that sensation takes. The only means of knowing man in nature is through the empirical and rational investigation of matter.

Nature is the sum of matter and motion. All matter is actually or latently in motion, since energy, or force, is among its inherent properties. The material universe is self-created and eternal. All change in nature represents a communication of motion, a redistribution of energy, which modifies the corresponding combination or disposition of material particles, elements, or aggregates. The totality of matter and motion are eternal and constant, but the specific forms they exhibitrocks, plants, animals, oceans, heavenly bodies, and so forthare forever changing. Each thing or being tends, by the laws of attraction and repulsion, to persist in its essence, until it is finally transformed into something else. Man is no exception: The ephemeral life of his species depends on the stability of the physical environment.

There is neither chance nor disorder in nature: All is necessity and order, an irreversible chain of causes and effects. Freedom is objectively meaningless when applied to human behavior, which, controlled by such factors as temperament, education, and environment, takes part in the universal determinism of nature. Virtue and vice, moreover, need not depend on free will; they simply describe actions favoring or hindering the mutual happiness of society and the individual.


Holbach's principal aim was to construct a system of ethical and political values on materialistic grounds. The supreme natural goal of human existence is happiness, but no one can be happy without the services of others. Ethics, therefore, is the science of human cooperation to promote the well-being of the individual through that of society, and it is based on the positive knowledge of men's reciprocal social needs. If humankind has always been morally corrupt and unhappy, religion has been mainly to blame. Supernatural theology, by falsifying man's nature and linking his salvation to the illusory notions of God and immortality, has entirely subverted ethical truth. Holbach takes pains to show that, all attempted definitions of God being hopelessly self-contradictory, "God" is logically a meaningless term. It is understandable, then, that belief in God should have been historically of no moral utility. For religious morality, founded on dogmatic obscurantism and ritualistic futilities rather than on natural and social realities, has prevented human beings from perceiving and correcting the actual conditions productive of vice and misery. Atheism is thus the prerequisite of all valid ethical teaching. In place of the condemnation of sin, Holbach's exposition of secular and utilitarian ethics is typically accompanied by vibrant appeals to humanitarianism and moving exhortations to civic virtueall in the name of "nature" and "happiness."

Political Theory

In Le bon-sens, ou Idées naturelles opposées aux idées surnaturelles (1772), the most widely read of his books, Holbach offered a popular, unsystematic version of his philosophy. Thereafter, with the growing troubles of the Bourbon regime, he focused his attention on national problems and developed at great length the ethical and political sections of the Système de la nature in a new series of works: Politique naturelle, ou Discours sur les vrais principes du gouvernement (1773); Système social, ou Principes naturels de la morale et de la politique (1773); Éthocratie, ou le Gouvernement fondé sur la morale (1776); and La morale universelle, ou les Devoirs de l'homme fondés sur sa nature (1776).

His own term ethocracy describes the gist of Holbachian political thought. The state, whose role is simply an extension of the social ethics of enlightened self-love, ought to nurture, in every possible way, the virtues of cooperation on which the good of society and the felicity of each of its members depend. The social pact itself is based on the useful services that the individual and society are able to render to one another, and it remains valid only to the extent that its mutually beneficial aims are fulfilled. Since, therefore, the legitimacy of any government varies directly with the happiness of one and all living under it, Holbach proclaimed with courageous logic the people's right, if there were no other hope of assuring their welfare, to overthrow and replace their rulers. Where the happiness of a society was at stake, it was the sovereign; governments, which were merely means to an end, had no absolute or divine authority.

More specifically, Holbach proposed radical political and economic reforms for France in keeping with the ethocratic ideal. He advocated, as against the extremes of republicanism and enlightened despotism, a limited, constitutional monarchy, in which intermediate parliamentary bodies would represent the interests of society and would maintain a balance between the opposing dangers of either popular or autocratic tyranny. He called for the abolition of hereditary class privileges and for their replacement by a hierarchy of status based on the degree of socially useful service actually rendered by its members. He defended the principle of progressive taxation according to wealth and wanted individual ownership of property to be as proportionate as possible to the value of work performed, thus eliminating the extremes of opulence and poverty. He insisted on the complete separation of church and state and on the toleration of all religious sects, with the government as a neutral preserving peace among them. Freedom of thought and of the press were to be inviolable; and government had the duty of providing a system of secular public education, with its main objective the inculcation of the social and civic virtues.

Sources and Influence

Among the sources of Holbach's philosophy were classical and modern Epicureanism, the Cartesian universe of matter and motion in perpetual flux, the logical and metaphysical materialism of Hobbes, the determinism and "atheism" of Benedict de Spinoza, the sensationalism of John Locke, and Leibnizian dynamics. Nearer in time, Holbach was indebted to Helvétius for the utilitarian conception; to La Mettrie for the physiological psychology of the homme machine ; and to the experimentalist, evolutionary materialism of Diderot, with whom he had the closest personal and ideological ties.

Despite serious shortcomings, Holbach's ideas are still of considerable interest. Although the value of his critique of Christianity is today limited by the one-sidedness and unimaginativeness resulting from his polemical stance and propagandist aims, historically it led toward the objective and psychological study of religion as a distinctly human invention. The Système de la nature suffers, no doubt, from too much reliance on outmoded scientific theories; from an excessive generalization and simplification of the concrete complexities of nature; and from a tiresome combination of doctrinaire tone and humorless prolixity that were, unfortunately, peculiar to the author. Nonetheless, it remains a classic text in the development of atheistic materialism as the philosophical expression par excellence of modern science. The main weakness of Holbach's political thought is that it exaggerated a rationalist, moralistic, and prescriptive approach to the subject at the expense of the perhaps more important role of economic, sociological, and historical laws of development on which political institutions, and the changes to be made in them, must depend. Nevertheless, it served significantly to prepare for the French Revolution and contributed subsequently to the progress of democratic and utilitarian doctrines.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Annet, Peter; Atheism; Beccaria, Cesare Bonesana; Collins, Anthony; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Condorcet, Marquis de; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Diderot, Denis; Encyclopédie; Enlightenment; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Ethics, History of; Franklin, Benjamin; Gibbon, Edward; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; La Mettrie, Julien Offray de; Locke, John; Materialism; Naigeon, Jacques-André; Priestley, Joseph; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Smith, Adam; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Toland, John; Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Baron de L'Aulne; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Woolston, Thomas.


works by holbach

Holbach's works, despite innumerable editions, have never been published in collected form, and few of them have been reprinted since the first half of the nineteenth century. The following are English translations:

Christianity Unveiled; Being an Examination of the Principles and Effects of the Christian Religion. New York: Columbian Press, 1795; London: R. Carlile, 1819.

Common Sense: or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural. New York, 1795, 1833, 1836. Also published as Superstition in All Ages. New York, 1878, 1890, 1920; Chicago: De Laurence Scott, 1910.

The System of Nature; or, The Laws of the Moral and Physical World. London, 17951796; 1797, 1816, 1820, 1834, 1839, 1840, 1863, 1884; Philadelphia, 1808; New York, 1835; Boston, 1853.

Ecce Homo! or, A Critical Inquiry into the History of Jesus of Nazareth. Edinburgh, 1799; London, 1813, 1823; New York, 1827.

Letters to Eugenia, on the Absurd, Contradictory, and Demoralizing Dogmas and Mysteries of the Christian Religion. London, 1819; New York, 1833; Boston, 1857.

works on holbach

Charbonnel, Paulette, ed. Textes choisis; Préface, commentaire et notes. Paris, 1957.

Cushing, Max Pearson. Baron d'Holbach; A Study of Eighteenth-Century Radicalism in France. Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, New York, 1914.

Hubert, René. D'Holbach et ses amis. Paris, 1928.

Lange, Friedrich Albert. The History of Materialism. Translated by E. C. Thomas. New York: Humanities Press, 1950. Bk. I, Sec. iv, Ch. 3.

Mauthner, Fritz. Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande, 4 vols. Stuttgart and Berlin, 19201923. Vol. III. Ch. 5.

Naville, Pierre. Paul Thiry d'Holbach et la philosophie scientifique au XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1943.

Topazio, Virgil. D'Holbach's Moral Philosophy; Its Background and Development. Geneva, 1956.

Wickwar, W. H. Baron d'Holbach; A Prelude to the French Revolution. London: Allen and Unwin, 1935.

Aram Vartanian (1967)

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Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d' (1723–1789)

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