Baron d’Holbach

Philosopher, translator and prominent social figure of the French enlightenment

Paul-Henrl Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, aided to some extent by a partial and growing relaxation in attitudes towards religious scepticism by the 1770s, arguably provided the first avowal of atheism since classical times with his 1770 work Système de la nature. Although published under a pseudonym, later banned and publicly burned, it was this philosophical book which outlined d’Holbach’s thinking as a materialist, a determinist and especially an atheist. In his understanding, it is the mechanistic laws of cause and effect which organise the elaborate system of physical substances of the universe which are not simply designed by god. In Christianisme dévoilé (Christianity Unveiled) which appeared in 1767, he attempts to explain his anti-religious stance; arguing that Christianity and religion work against the moral advancement of humanity:

“Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.”

His attitude towards religion is made particularly clear in the concluding paragraphs of Le Bons Sens(Good Sense), his condensation of Système de la nature:

“Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.”

Baron d’Holbach was more than simply an academic; he strongly believed in the necessity of informing the public about atheism and began a programme for educating society in 1761 with Christianisme dévoilé, continuing thereafter by distributing numerous other pamphlets. D’Holbach attempted to demonstrate that virtue and atheism were, contrary to common belief in a pre-Revolutionary France, not incompatible. Indeed, Rousseau in La nouvelle Heloïse intended his paradoxical figure Womar, an atheist nevertheless espousing Christian values, to be a memorialisation of the Baron.

It is therefore not surprising that his largest contribution was undoubtedly the role he played as a Parisian social figure. Holbach’s eminent salon attended by preeminent intellectuals of the day; Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin to name but a few, gained the reputation in France as le premier maître d’hôtel de la philosophie. Particularly noteworthy is Holbach’s achievement of catering for the elite of mainstream culture and simultaneously providing a meeting place for more radical thought. His coterie included other avowed atheists and even those pushing revolutionary political agendas such as the philosophers Denis Diderot, Jean-François de Saint-Lambert and Jacques-André Naigeon; the writer and critic Jean-François Marmontel; and the historian and priest abbé Guillame-Thomas-François Raynal. It was this group of intellectuals which produced the Encyclopédie (essentially a précis of the belief and thought of the French Enlightenment which also sought to challenge religious, particularly Catholic, dogma) and a number of revisionary religious, ethical and political works which provided much of the ideological basis for the French Revolution.