Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron d’

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Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron d’ (1723-1789): French Philosopher.

The Enlightenment’s most outspoken atheist was Baron d’Holbach. He considered religion an enemy of reason, truth, morality, liberty, and peace. D’Holbach was also a philosophic materialist, a utilitarian in ethical matters, and a supporter of constitutional monarchy. Through his wealth, his friendship with Diderot, Denis, and his association with many other leading thinkers, he helped to disseminate a number of radical concepts on the eve of the French Revolution.

His parents were middle class Germans from the village of Edesheim, on the Upper Rhine. He was raised by an uncle who had become a rich, French nobleman, ultimately inheriting his uncle’s title and money. D’Holbach attended the University of Leyden and was naturalized a French citizen in 1753. He was married twice, each time to a cousin. His marriages augmented the fortune, making it possible for him to devote his life to intellectual pursuits. His house in Paris became a gathering place where men of letters could enjoy freewheeling conversation and genial hospitality.

Between 1751 and 1765 d’Holbach wrote almost 400 articles for Diderot’s Encyclopedia, many on topics dealing with mineralogy and metallurgy. During the same period his religious views evolved from anticlericalism to atheism. Deciding that the welfare of society required the repudiation of all gods and priests, d’Holbach arranged for the printing of works to attack religion without jeopardizing himself. He was both inspired and cautioned by Claude Helvetius’ On the Mind, for Helvetius’ treatise promoting materialism earned him considerable harassment by the Catholic Church and the French government. Thus d’Holbach often just edited works by other authors, French translations of English deist tracts or previously unpublished, anti-Christian manuscripts. When he did publish his own compositions, they appeared under aliases.

His first major book, Christianity Unveiled (1761), emphasized the superstitious origins of Christianity and its subsequent role in fomenting strife both within and between nations. His great exposition of the materialist outlook was System of Nature (1770). Like Thomas Hobbes, d’Holbach described all of nature, man included, in terms of matter in motion, driven by the inexorable laws of cause and effect. Supreme among these laws are attraction/repulsion and self-preservation. Human beings differ from other species in that through education, experience, and reason they can actually gain some control over their instincts. Men can learn how to organize their affairs for the twin purposes of staying alive and creating happiness, that harmony between desires and circumstances. The hypothesis of a god is not needed to explain nature, and religious systems, d’Holbach insisted, are pernicious. Religion is born out of fear, survives through prejudice, and empowers tyranny.

State of Nature created a sensation. It was roundly condemned, even by Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, for its outrageous ideas and graceless style. Nevertheless, it made a potent assertion, summarized by d’Holbach in Good Sense (1772): “Theology is but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system, a long tissue of fallacies and contradictions. . . . Men will be good, when they are well instructed, well governed, and when they are punished or despised for the evil, and justly rewarded for the good, which they do their fellow citizens.” D’Holbach was a proponent of traditional moral behavior, but he found societies claiming to be religious were the most corrupt. How could it be otherwise, he asked, when virtue is based on the whims of a capricious god and the dictates of hypocritical priests? A better foundation for virtue was enlightened self-interest.

In his later works, Natural Politics (1773), Social System (1773), and The Universal Morality (1776), d’Holbach argued that society is a natural condition for men and the best society is one where each individual understands personal well-being is advanced only through service to everyone. This service involves a measure of sacrifice, a willingness to labor, and a consciousness of duty. A rational government directs emotions by just legislation to benefit the community. Since most people are not rational, government must be in the hands of an elite, but one restrained by law. In practice, d’Holbach favored a constitutional monarchy, where the king is limited by intermediate bodies, although not necessarily by an elected legislature. He did not oppose privilege, as long as it stemmed from service rather than heredity. He was no friend of revolution, so it was well he died when he did, before witnessing what the turmoil of revolution would inflict on his adopted country. His ideas survived to impact, however indirectly, a whole spectrum of utilitarians, philosophers, and reformers in the nineteenth century.

Further Reading:

Maurice Cranston, Philosophers and Pamphleteers: Political Theorists of the Enlightenment, 1986.

W. H. Wickwar, Baron D’Holbach: A Prelude to Revolution, 1935.

Robert Luehrs