Baron d'Holbach

Baron d'Holbach

Overview
Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (8 December 1723 – 21 January 1789) was a French-German author, philosopher, encyclopedist and a prominent figure in the French Enlightenment. He was born Paul Heinrich Dietrich in Edesheim
Edesheim
Edesheim is a municipality in the Südliche Weinstraße district, in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach was born here....

, near Landau
Landau
Landau or Landau in der Pfalz is an autonomous city surrounded by the Südliche Weinstraße district of southern Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. It is a university town , a long-standing cultural centre, and a market and shopping town, surrounded by vineyards and wine-growing villages of the...

 in the Rhenish Palatinate, but lived and worked mainly in Paris, where he kept a salon
Salon (gathering)
A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to...

. He is best known for his atheism
Atheism
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...

 and for his voluminous writings against religion, the most famous of them being the System of Nature (1770).

D'Holbach's mother (née
NEE
NEE is a political protest group whose goal was to provide an alternative for voters who are unhappy with all political parties at hand in Belgium, where voting is compulsory.The NEE party was founded in 2005 in Antwerp...

 Holbach) was the daughter of the Prince-Bishop
Prince-Bishop
A Prince-Bishop is a bishop who is a territorial Prince of the Church on account of one or more secular principalities, usually pre-existent titles of nobility held concurrently with their inherent clerical office...

's tax collector.
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Quotations

Savage and furious nations, perpetually at war, adore, under diverse names, some God, conformable to their ideas, that is to say, cruel, carnivorous, selfish, blood-thirsty.

ibid., preface

All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.

ibid., chap. 30
Encyclopedia
Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (8 December 1723 – 21 January 1789) was a French-German author, philosopher, encyclopedist and a prominent figure in the French Enlightenment. He was born Paul Heinrich Dietrich in Edesheim
Edesheim
Edesheim is a municipality in the Südliche Weinstraße district, in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach was born here....

, near Landau
Landau
Landau or Landau in der Pfalz is an autonomous city surrounded by the Südliche Weinstraße district of southern Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. It is a university town , a long-standing cultural centre, and a market and shopping town, surrounded by vineyards and wine-growing villages of the...

 in the Rhenish Palatinate, but lived and worked mainly in Paris, where he kept a salon
Salon (gathering)
A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to...

. He is best known for his atheism
Atheism
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...

 and for his voluminous writings against religion, the most famous of them being the System of Nature (1770).

Background


D'Holbach's mother (née
NEE
NEE is a political protest group whose goal was to provide an alternative for voters who are unhappy with all political parties at hand in Belgium, where voting is compulsory.The NEE party was founded in 2005 in Antwerp...

 Holbach) was the daughter of the Prince-Bishop
Prince-Bishop
A Prince-Bishop is a bishop who is a territorial Prince of the Church on account of one or more secular principalities, usually pre-existent titles of nobility held concurrently with their inherent clerical office...

's tax collector. His father, Johann Jakob Dietrich, was a wine
Wine
Wine is an alcoholic beverage, made of fermented fruit juice, usually from grapes. The natural chemical balance of grapes lets them ferment without the addition of sugars, acids, enzymes, or other nutrients. Grape wine is produced by fermenting crushed grapes using various types of yeast. Yeast...

-grower. He was raised in Paris by his uncle Franz Adam Holbach, who had become a millionaire by speculating on the Paris stock-exchange. With his financial support, d'Holbach attended the University of Leiden from 1744 to 1748 and went on to marry his second cousin, Basile-Geneviève d'Aine, in 1749. In 1753 both his uncle and his father died, leaving the 30-year-old d'Holbach with an enormous inheritance. D'Holbach would remain wealthy throughout his life. In 1754, his wife died from an unknown disease. The distraught d'Holbach moved to the provinces for a brief period with his friend Baron Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, baron von Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm was a German-born French author.-Early years:Grimm was born at Regensburg, the son of a pastor...

 and in the following year received a special dispensation from the Pope to marry his deceased wife's sister, Charlotte-Susanne d'Aine.


D'Holbach's salon


Although he spent much of his time at his country estate at Grandval, d'Holbach used his wealth to maintain one of the more notable and lavish Parisian salons
Salon (gathering)
A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to...

, which soon became an important meeting place for the contributors to the Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

. Meetings were held regularly twice a week, on Sundays and Thursdays, in d'Holbach's home in rue Royale, but Saint-Roche between approximately 1750 - 1780. Visitors to the salon were exclusively males, and the tone of discussion highbrow, often extending to topics more extensive than those of other salons. This, along with the excellent food, expensive wine, and a library of over 3000 volumes, attracted many notable visitors. Among the regulars in attendance at the salon—the coterie holbachique—were the following: Diderot
Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent person during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie....

, Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, baron von Grimm
Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm was a German-born French author.-Early years:Grimm was born at Regensburg, the son of a pastor...

, Condillac
Étienne Bonnot de Condillac
Étienne Bonnot de Condillac was a French philosopher and epistemologist who studied in such areas as psychology and the philosophy of the mind.-Biography:...

, Condorcet
Marquis de Condorcet
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet , known as Nicolas de Condorcet, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist whose Condorcet method in voting tally selects the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election...

, D'Alembert
Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert was a French mathematician, mechanician, physicist, philosopher, and music theorist. He was also co-editor with Denis Diderot of the Encyclopédie...

, Marmontel
Jean-François Marmontel
Jean-François Marmontel was a French historian and writer, a member of the Encyclopediste movement.-Biography:He was born of poor parents at Bort, Limousin...

, Turgot, La Condamine
Charles Marie de La Condamine
Charles Marie de La Condamine was a French explorer, geographer, and mathematician. He spent ten years in present-day Ecuador measuring the length of a degree latitude at the equator and preparing the first map of the Amazon region based on astronomical observations.-Biography:Charles Marie de La...

, Raynal
Guillaume Thomas François Raynal
Guillaume Thomas Raynal was a French writer and man of letters during the Age of Enlightenment.He was born at Lapanouse in Rouergue...

, Helvétius
Claude Adrien Helvétius
Claude Adrien Helvétius was a French philosopher and littérateur.-Life:...

, Galiani
Ferdinando Galiani
Ferdinando Galiani was an Italian economist, a leading Italian figure of the Enlightenment. Friedrich Nietzsche called him the "most fastidious and refined intelligence" of the 18th century....

, Morellet
André Morellet
André Morellet was a French economist and writer. He was one of the last of the philosophes, and in this character he figures in many memoirs, such as those of Madame de Rémusat....

, Naigeon
Jacques-André Naigeon
Jacques-André Naigeon was a French artist, atheist philosopher, editor and man of letters best known for his contributions to the Encyclopédie and for reworking Baron d'Holbach's and Diderot's manuscripts....

 and, for a time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

. The salon was also visited by prominent British intellectuals, amongst them Adam Smith
Adam Smith
Adam Smith was a Scottish social philosopher and a pioneer of political economy. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations...

, David Hume
David Hume
David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism. He was one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment...

, John Wilkes
John Wilkes
John Wilkes was an English radical, journalist and politician.He was first elected Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives...

, Horace Walpole and Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

.

D'Holbach was known for his generosity, often providing financial support discreetly or anonymously to his friends, amongst them Diderot. It is thought that the virtuous atheist Wolmar in Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought.His novel Émile: or, On Education is a treatise...

's Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse
Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse
Julie, or the New Héloïse is an epistolary novel by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, published in 1761 by Marc-Michel Rey in . The original edition was entitled Lettres de deux amans habitans d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes .The novel’s subtitle points to the history of Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Pierre...

 is based on d'Holbach.

Holbach died in Paris on 21 January 1789, a few months before the French Revolution. The authorship of his various anti-religious works did not become widely known until the early 19th century.

Contributions to the Encyclopédie




For the Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert...

 d'Holbach authored and translated a large number of articles on topics ranging from politics and religion to chemistry and mineralogy. As a German who had become a naturalised Frenchman, he undertook the translation of many contemporary German works of natural philosophy into French. All in all, between 1751 and 1765 he contributed some four hundred articles to the project, mostly on scientific subjects, in addition to serving as the editor of several volumes on natural philosophy
Natural philosophy
Natural philosophy or the philosophy of nature , is a term applied to the study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science...

. D'Holbach may also have written several disparaging entries on non-Christian religions, intended as veiled criticisms of Christianity itself.

Anti-religious works


Despite his extensive contributions to the Encyclopédie, d'Holbach is better known today for his philosophical writings, all of which were published anonymously or under pseudonyms and printed outside of France, usually in Amsterdam
Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the largest city and the capital of the Netherlands. The current position of Amsterdam as capital city of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is governed by the constitution of August 24, 1815 and its successors. Amsterdam has a population of 783,364 within city limits, an urban population...

 by Marc-Michel Rey
Marc-Michel Rey
Marc-Michel Rey was an influential publisher in the United Provinces, who published many of the works of the French Philosophes, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau....

. His philosophy was expressly materialistic and atheistic and is today categorised into the philosophical movement called French materialism
French materialism
French materialism is the name given to a handful of French 18th century philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment, many of them clustered around the salon of Baron d'Holbach...

. In 1761 Christianisme dévoilé ("Christianity Unveiled") appeared, in which he attacked Christianity
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 and religion in general as an impediment to the moral advancement of humanity. The deistic Voltaire
Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...

, denying authorship of the work, made known his aversion to d'Holbach's philosophy, writing that "[the work] is entirely opposed to my principles. This book leads to an atheistic philosophy that I detest." Christianity Unveiled was followed by others, notably La Contagion sacrée (1768 - "The Sacred Contagion"), Théologie portative (1768 - "Portable Theology") and Essai sur les préjugés (1770 - "Essay on prejudice"). D'Holbach was helped in these endeavours by Jacques-André Naigeon
Jacques-André Naigeon
Jacques-André Naigeon was a French artist, atheist philosopher, editor and man of letters best known for his contributions to the Encyclopédie and for reworking Baron d'Holbach's and Diderot's manuscripts....

, who would later become his literary executor.

The System of Nature


In 1770, d'Holbach published his most famous book, The System of Nature
The System of Nature
The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World is a work of philosophy by Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach . It was originally published under the name of Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, a deceased member of the French Academy of Science...

 (Le Système de la nature), under the name of Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud
Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud
Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud was a French writer and translator.-His life and work:He studied with the Oratorians and fought at the battle of Steenkerque in 1692. A friend of Jean de La Fontaine, he wrote various works of literature, history and philosophy, but failed to publish them...

, the secretary of the Academie Francaise
Académie française
L'Académie française , also called the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution,...

 who had died ten years previously. Denying the existence of a deity
Deity
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....

, and refusing to admit as evidence all a priori
A priori and a posteriori (philosophy)
The terms a priori and a posteriori are used in philosophy to distinguish two types of knowledge, justifications or arguments...

 arguments, d'Holbach saw in the universe nothing save matter in motion, bound by inexorable natural laws of cause and effect. There is, he wrote "no necessity to have recourse to supernatural powers to account for the formation of things."

The System of Nature is a long and extensive work presenting a thoroughly naturalistic view of the world. Some d'Holbach scholars have pointed out that Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot
Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent person during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder and chief editor of and contributor to the Encyclopédie....

 was a close personal friend of d'Holbach's, and that it is unclear to what extent d'Holbach was influenced by him. Indeed, Diderot may possibly have been the author of parts of the System of Nature. Regardless, however, of the extent of Diderot's contribution to the System of Nature, it is on the basis of this work that d'Holbach's philosophy has been called "the culmination of French materialism and atheism."

D'Holbach's objectives in challenging religion were primarily moral: He saw the institutions of Christianity as a major obstacle to the improvement of society. For him, the foundation of morality
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

 was to be sought not in Scripture but in happiness: "It would be useless and almost unjust to insist upon a man's being virtuous if he cannot be so without being unhappy. So long as vice renders him happy, he should love vice." D'Holbach's radicalism posited that humans were fundamentally motivated by the pursuit of enlightened self-interest, which is what he meant by "society," rather than by empty and selfish gratification of purely individual needs. Chapter 15 of Part I of System of Nature is titled "Of Man's true Interest, or of the Ideas he forms to himself of Happiness.--Man cannot be happy without Virtue."
The explicitly atheistic and materialistic The System of Nature presented a core of radical ideas which many contemporaries, both churchmen and philosophes found disturbing, and thus prompted a strong reaction. The Catholic Church in France threatened the crown
House of Bourbon
The House of Bourbon is a European royal house, a branch of the Capetian dynasty . Bourbon kings first ruled Navarre and France in the 16th century. By the 18th century, members of the Bourbon dynasty also held thrones in Spain, Naples, Sicily, and Parma...

 with withdrawal of financial support unless it effectively suppressed the circulation of the book. The list of people writing refutations of the work was long. The Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

 had its pre-eminent theologian
Theology
Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.-Definition:Augustine of Hippo...

 Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier
Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier
Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier was a French Catholic theologian. He was a critic of the philosophes, accusing them in particular of distorting the facts on social life in China and Confucianism.-Life:...

 write a refutation of the Système titled Examen du matérialisme (Materialism examined). Voltaire
Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...

 hastily seized his pen to refute the philosophy of the Système in the article "Dieu" in his Dictionnaire philosophique
Dictionnaire philosophique
The Dictionnaire philosophique is an encyclopedic dictionary published by Voltaire in 1764. The alphabetically arranged articles often criticize the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions. The first edition, released in June of 1764, went by the name of Dictionnaire Philosphique Portatif. It...

, while Frederick the Great also drew up an answer to it. Its principles are summed up in a more popular form in d'Holbach's Common Sense, or Natural Ideas Opposed to Supernatural (Bon Sens, on idées naturelles opposees aux idées surnaturelles) (Amsterdam, 1772).

Politics and morals


In his last works, d'Holbach's attention largely shifts away from religious metaphysics towards moral and political questions. In the Système social (1773), the Politique naturelle (1773–1774) and the Morale universelle (1776) he attempts to describe a system of morality in place of the Christian one he had so fiercely attacked, but these later writings were not as popular or influential as his earlier work. D'Holbach was strongly critical of abuses of power in France and abroad. Contrary to the revolutionary spirit of the time however, he called for the educated classes to reform the corrupt system of government and warned against revolution
Revolution
A revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.Aristotle described two types of political revolution:...

, democracy
Democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

, and mob rule
Ochlocracy
Ochlocracy or mob rule is government by mob or a mass of people, or the intimidation of legitimate authorities.As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus meaning "the fickle crowd", from which the English term "mob" was originally derived in the...

.

His political and ethical views were influenced by British materialist Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

. D'Holbach had personally translated Hobbes' work De Homine ("The Man") into French.

Influences


The materialistic philosophy of Baron d'Holbach had an influence in the historical materialism
Historical materialism
Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx as "the materialist conception of history". Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans...

 of Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

, who studied the ideas of d'Holbach and his fellow French thinker Helvetius in Paris.

Works


English

  • Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton University Press 2010).
  • David Holohan (Translator), Christianity Unveiled by Baron d'Holbach: A Controversy in Documents, (Hodgson Press, 2008).
  • Max Pearson Cushing, Baron d'Holbach: a study of eighteenth-century radicalism in France (New York, 1914).
  • Alan Charles Kors, D'Holbach's Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris (Princeton University Press, 1976).
  • Alan Charles Kors, "The Atheism of D'Holbach and Naigeon", Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
  • John Lough, "Helvétius and d'Holbach", Modern Language Review, Vol. 33, No. 3. (Jul., 1938).
  • T. C. Newland, "D'Holbach, Religion, and the 'Encyclopédie'", Modern Language Review, Vol. 69, No. 3, (Jul., 1974), pp. 523–533.
  • Virgil W. Topazio, D'Holbach's Moral Philosophy: Its Background and Development (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1956).
  • Everett C. Ladd, Jr., "Helvétius and d'Holbach", Journal of the History of Ideas (1962) 23(2): 221-238.
  • Virgil V. Topazio, "Diderot's Supposed Contribution to D'Holbach's Works", in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, LXIX, 1, 1954, pp. 173–188.
  • S. G. Tallentyre (pseud. for Evelyn Beatrice Hall), The Friends of Voltaire
    The Friends of Voltaire
    The Friends of Voltaire, written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, was published in 1906. In 1907 it was published in Great Britain under the author's own name by Putnam's Sons. This classic work about Voltaire was still being printed nearly 100 years later in 2003...

    (1907).
  • W. H. Wickwar, Baron d'Holbach: A Prelude to the French Revolution (1935)
  • G. V. Plekhanov, Essays in the History of Materialism (trans. 1934)
  • John Lough, Essays on the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert (London : Oxford University Press, 1968)

French

  • René Hubert, D'Holbach et ses amis (Paris: André Delpeuch, 1928).
  • Paul Naville, D'Holbach et la philosophie scientifique au XVIIIe siècle. Rev. ed. Paris, 1967
  • J. Vercruysse, Bibliographie descriptive des écrits du baron d'Holbach (Paris, 1971).
  • A. Sandrier, Le style philosophique du baron d'Holbach, Honoré Champion (Paris, 2004).

External links