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Baron d'Holbach

Paul Henry Thiry, baron d'Holbach (1723 - 1789)[1] was an homme de lettres, philosophe and encyclopédiste. He was born Paul Heinrich Dietrich in Edesheim, Germany.

Of his family little is known: according to JJ Rousseau his father was a rich parvenu, who brought his son at an early age to Paris, where the latter spent most of his life.

Possessed of easy means and being of hospitable disposition, he kept open house for Helvétius, D'Alembert, Diderot, Condillac, Turgot, Buffon, Grimm, Hume, Garrick, Wilkes, Sterne, and for a time JJ Rousseau, guests who, while enjoying the intellectual pleasure of their hosts conversation, were not insensible to his excellent cuisine and costly wines. For the Encyclopédie he compiled and translated a large number of articles on chemistry and mineralogy, chiefly from German sources. He attracted more attention, however, in the department of, philosophy. In 1767 Christianisme dévoilé appeared, in which he attacked Christianity and religion as the source of all human evils.

This was followed up by other works, and in 1770 by a still more open attack in his most famous book, Le Système de la nature, in which it is probable he was assisted by Diderot. Denying the existence of a deity, and refusing to admit as evidence all a priori arguments, Holbach saw in the universe nothing save matter in spontaneous movement. What men call their souls become extinct when the body dies. Happiness is the end of mankind. "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." The restraints of religion were to be replaced by an education developing an enlightened self-interest. The study of science was to bring human desires into line with their natural surroundings. Not less direct and trenchant are his attacks on political government, which, interpreted by the light of after events, sound like the first distant mutterings of revolution.

Holbach exposed the logical consequences of the theories of the Encyclopaedists. Voltaire hastily seized his pen to refute the philosophy of the Système in the article "Dieu" in his Dictionnaire philosophique, while Frederick the Great also drew up an answer to it. Though vigorous in thought and in some passages clear and eloquent, the style of the Système is diffuse and declamatory, and asserts rather than proves its statements. Its principles are summed up in a more popular form in Bon Sens, on idées naturelles opposees aux idées surnaturelles (Amsterdam, 1772), In the Système social (1773), the Politique naturelle (1773-1774) and the Morale universelle (1776) Holbach attempts to rear a system of morality in place of the one he had so fiercely attacked, but these later writings had not a tithe of the popularity and influence of his earlier work. He published his books either anonymously or under borrowed names, and was forced to have them printed out of France. The uprightness and sincerity of his character won the friendship of many to whom his philosophy was repugnant. JJ Rousseau is supposed to have drawn his portrait in the virtuous atheist Wolmar in the Nouvelle Héloise.



  1. d'Holbach's exact date of birth is not known, although he was baptised on December 8, 1723. Various literature about d'Holbach give conflicting death dates. Some state that he died on January 21, 1789, while others give the date June 21, 1789. For more details on which references claim which date, see here.

For further particulars as to his life and doctrines see Grimm's Correspondance littéraire, etc. (1813); Rousseau's Confessions;
Morellet's Mémoires (I82I); Madame de Genlis, Les Diners du Baron Holbeck; Madame d'Epinay's Mémoires; Avezac-Lavigne, Diderot et la société du Baron d'Holbach (1875), and Morley's Diderot (1878).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.