III. D’HOLBACH

1. The Amiable Atheist

The best-beloved of all the philosophes in Paris was a German, born (1723) at Edesheim in the episcopal principality of Speyer. He was baptized as Paul Heinrich Dietrich von Holbach, and was reared as a Roman Catholic. His grandfather had made a fortune by introducing ipecac from Holland to Versailles. At Leiden Paul studied science and learned English. After the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) he settled in Paris, became a French subject, married into a family of financiers, and achieved nobility by investing 110,000 livres at five per cent in the “Company of Secretaries of the King.” He was called “Baron” by his circle because he owned an estate in Westphalia, which brought him sixty thousand livres per year. Altogether he had an annual income of 200,000 livres—“a fortune,” said Morellet, “which no one has ever used more nobly, nor with greater benefit to science and art.”83 He played Maecenas to Marivaux and other authors; he collected a large library, paintings, drawings, and natural-history specimens.

His home became, as one wit put it, “the Café d’Europe”; his dinners and salon in Paris or at his country villa, Grandval, made him, in Horace Walpole’s phrase, the “maître d’hôtel of philosophy.” On Thursdays and Sundays Mme. d’Holbach prepared the table for twelve guests, not always the same, but most frequently the leaders of the anti-Christian war: Diderot, Helvétius, d’Alembert, Raynal, Boulanger, Morellet, Saint-Lambert, Marmontel; sometimes Buffon, Turgot, and Quesnay. Rousseau came, too, but shuddered at the atheism bubbling around him. There Diderot was at his wildest, and the Abbé Galiani kept philosophy on the ground by puncturing theory with wit. The “Synagogue,” as the Baron called these gatherings, met at two o’clock, talked, ate, and talked till seven or eight; those were the days when conversation was unwritten literature, not a chaos of interruptions and trivialities. No topics were barred there; “that was the place,” said Morellet, “to hear the freest, most animated, and most instructive conversation that ever was … in regard to philosophy, religion, and government; light pleasantries had no place there.… It was there, above all, that Diderot lighted our minds and warmed our souls.”84 Diderot himself reported to Mlle. Volland that they talked “of art, poetry, the philosophy of love, … the sentiment of immortality, of men, gods, and kings, of space and time, of death and life.”85 “Sometimes,” said Marmontel, “I thought I heard the disciples of Pythagoras or Plato.”86 Or,

when the fine weather came, we sometimes exchanged these dinners for philosophical walks … along the banks of the Seine; the repast on those days was a large dinner of fish; and we went by turns to the places most celebrated for the supply of that article, commonly to St.-Cloud. We went down early in a boat, breathing the air of the river, and we returned in the evening through the Bois de Boulogne.87

D’Holbach’s salon became so famous that foreigners visiting Paris pulled wires to get an invitation. So, at divers times, came Hume, Sterne, Garrick, Horace Walpole, Franklin, Priestley, Adam Smith, Beccaria. They were somewhat disturbed by the number of atheists they found there; how many times have we heard the story (told by Diderot to Romilly) that when Hume doubted the actual existence of atheists, the Baron assured him, “Here you are at table with seventeen.”88 Gibbon related that the philosophes of Paris “laughed at the cautious skepticism of Hume, preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists, and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt.”89 Priestley also reported that “all the philosophical persons to whom I was introduced at Paris [were] unbelievers in Christianity, and even professed atheists.”90 However, Morellet noted, “a goodly number of us were theists, and not ashamed of it; and we defended ourselves vigorously against the atheists, though we loved them for being such good company.””91Walpole found d’Holbach’s “pigeon house of philosophers” offensive to his English taste. He was so disgusted by perceiving that Raynal knew more than he about English commerce and colonies that he pretended to be deaf. Hume’s own account was perhaps too accommodating: “The men of letters here [in Paris] are really very agreeable; all of them men of the world, living in entire, or almost entire, harmony among themselves, and quite irreproachable in their morals. It would give you great satisfaction to find that there is not a single deist among them.”92 The evidence is rather confusing.

But all agreed that the Baron and his wife were perfect hosts and lovable characters. Mme. d’Holbach, according to Grimm, lived only for her husband; once she had welcomed and nourished his guests, she retired to a corner with her knitting and took no further part in the conversation.93 She died in 1754, in the prime of her life; for a time d’Holbach remained “in a state of utter despair.”94 Two years later he married her sister, who proved equally devoted. He was so unassuming in his manners, so amiable in argument, so secret in his beneficence,95 that hardly anyone suspected him of writing so powerful a defense of atheism as the Système de la nature. “I never saw a man more simply simple,” said his salonnière rival, Mme. Geoffrin.96 Rousseau, who learned to hate nearly all thephilosophes, retained such admiration for d’Holbach’s character that he used him as a model for the virtuous agnostic Wolmar in La Nouvelle Héloïse. Grimm, who analyzed everyone but Rousseau with calm objectivity, wrote:

It was natural for Baron d’Holbach to believe in the empire of reason, for his passions (and we always judge others by ourselves) were such as in all cases to give the ascendancy to virtue and correct principles. It was impossible for him to hate anyone; yet he could not, without an effort, dissemble his professed horror of priests.… Whenever he spoke of these his naturally good temper forsook him.97

So d’Holbach warmly supported the Encyclopédie, contributed money and articles to it, and gave Diderot comfort and courage when even d’Alembert and Voltaire were deserting the enterprise. His articles were mostly on natural science, for in that field the Baron was probably the best-informed of all the philosophes. “I have never met with a man more learned,” wrote Grimm in 1789, “and I have never seen anyone who cared so little to pass for learned in the eyes of the world.”98 He translated many scientific treatises from the German, aided by Naigeon. For this work he was made a member of the academies of Berlin and St. Petersburg. He never sought admission to the French Academy.

Fascinated by science, and expecting from it a rapid betterment of human life, d’Holbach looked with unrelenting hostility upon the Church, whose control of education seemed to bar the way to the development of scientific knowledge. He lost no chance of attacking the clergy. He wrote the articles “Prêtres” and “Théocratie” for the Encyclopédie. From 1766 onward he organized with Naigeon a veritable factory of anti-Christian literature. In quick succession appeared Le Tableau des saints, De l’Imposture sacerdotale, Prêtres démasqués, De la Cruauté religieuse, L’Enfer détruit; here was a new apostle of glad tidings—hell had been destroyed.

In 1761 there issued from what some called “this laboratory of atheism” a volume entitled Christianisme dévoilé (Christianity Exposed), written chiefly by d’Holbach but ascribed on the title page to “the late M. Boulanger.” For selling this book a peddler was branded and sent to the galleys for five years; for buying and reselling it a boy was branded and sent to the galleys for nine years.99 It was a frontal assault upon the alliance of Church and state, and quite anticipated Marx’s description of religion as the “opium of the people.”

Religion is the art of intoxicating men with enthusiasm [this word in the eighteenth century meant religious fervor], to prevent them from dealing with the evils with which their governors oppress them.… The art of reigning has become nothing more than that of profiting from the errors and abjection of mind and soul into which superstition has plunged the nations.… By means of threatening men with invisible powers, they [Church and state] force them to suffer in silence the miseries with which visible powers afflict them. They are made to hope that if they agree to being unhappy in this world, they will be happy in the next.100

D’Holbach thought this union of Church and state the fundamental evil in France. “It is as a citizen that I attack religion, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality.”101

Instead of morality the Christian is taught the miraculous fables and inconceivable dogmas of a religion thoroughly hostile to right reason. From his very first step in his studies he is taught to distrust the evidence of his senses, to subdue his reason, … and to rely blindly on the authority of his master.… Those who have shaken themselves free from these notions find themselves powerless against errors sucked in with their mother’s milk.102

To rest morality upon religious beliefs, d’Holbach argued, is a risky procedure, for such beliefs are subject to change, and their fall may damage the moral code allied with them.

Everyone who has discovered the weakness or falsity of the evidence upon which his religion is based … will be tempted to believe that the morality is as chimerical as the religion it is founded on.… That is how it is that the words infidel and libertine have become synonymous. There would be no such disadvantage if a natural morality were taught instead of a theological. Instead of prohibiting debauchery, crime, and vice because God and religion forbid them, we ought to say that all excess is harmful to man’s conservation, makes him despicable in the eyes of society, is forbidden by reason, … and is forbidden by nature, which wants him to work for his lasting happiness.103

It is hard to understand how a man so burdened with money should have found time or urge to write so many books. In 1767 he sent forth a Théologie portative earnestly making fun of Christian doctrines and reducing all theology to the ecclesiastical will to power. In 1768 he published La Contagion sacrée, ou histoire naturelle de la superstition, ostensibly translated “from the English of Jean Trenchard”; and in the same year he issued Lettres à Eugénie, ou préservatif contre les préjugés, which pretended to be by an Epicurean philosopher in Sceaux. In 1769 came an Essai sur les préjugés, par M. du Marsais, explaining that the only cure for the evils of religion was the spread of education and philosophy. And in 1770 the busy Baron published his chef-d’oeuvre, the most powerful single volume issued in the campaign against Christianity.

2. The System of Nature

Système de la nature, ou des lois du monde physique et du monde moral was printed professedly in London, actually in Amsterdam, in two large volumes, and bore, as the name of the author, “M. Mirabaud.” This man, now ten years dead, had been secretary to the French Academy. An introduction gave a sketch of his life and works. No one believed that the good and exemplary Mirabaud had written so scandalous a book.

The quadrennial Assembly of the Clergy (1770), after voting a grant of money to the King, appealed to him to suppress the anti-Christian literature that was circulating in France. Louis XV ordered his prosecutor to act at once. The Parlement of Paris condemned seven books, among them d’Holbach’s Christianisme dévoilé and the Système de la nature, as “impious, blasphemous, and seditious, tending to destroy all idea of divinity, to rouse the people to revolt against religion and government, to overthrow all the principles of public security and morality, and to turn subjects away from obedience to their sovereign.” The books were to be burned, the authors were to be arrested and severely punished. Morellet tells us that ten men knew that d’Holbach was the author, and that they kept the secret for twenty years. The “Synagogue” continued its meetings, and to some of them Mme. d’Holbach invited Canon Bergier, who had just received a pension from the clergy for his scholarly articles defending the Catholic Church. Many suspected Diderot of having written parts of the book. It was, as a whole, too orderly and solemn to have come from his pen, but he may have contributed the flowery apostrophe to Nature at the end. In any case, Diderot felt unsafe in Paris, and thought it wise to visit Langres.

The Système, smuggled in from Holland, was bought eagerly by a wide public, including, says Voltaire, “scholars, the ignorant, and women.”104 Diderot was delighted with it. “What I like,” he said, “is a philosophy clear, definite, and frank, such as you have in the System of Nature. The author is not an atheist on one page and a deist on another. His philosophy is all of one piece”105—quite unlike Diderot’s. What he really liked was that d’Holbach was an atheist on every page. And yet the book was infused with an almost religious devotion to the happiness of mankind. D’Holbach, seeing so much misery in a world ruled by kings and priests, concluded that men would be happier if they turned their backs upon priests and kings, and followed scientists and philosophers. The opening sentences of the book announce its spirit and theme:

The source of man’s unhappiness is his ignorance of nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, … [and] the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, … appear to doom him to continual error.… He takes the tone of his ideas on the authority of others, who are themselves in error, or who have an interest in deceiving him. To remove this Cimmerian darkness, … to guide him out of this Cretan labyrinth, requires the clue of Ariadne, with all the love she could bestow on Theseus.… It exacts a most undaunted courage, … a persevering resolution. …

The most important of our duties, then, is to seek means by which we may destroy delusions that can never do more than mislead us. The remedies for these evils must be sought in Nature herself. It is only in the abundance of her resources that we can rationally expect to find antidotes to the mischief brought upon us by an ill-directed, an overpowering enthusiasm. It is time these remedies were sought; it is time to look the evil boldly in the face, to examine its foundations, to scrutinize its superstructure. Reason, with its faithful guide experience, must attack in their entrenchments those prejudices of which the human race has been too long the victim. …

Let us try to inspire man with courage, with respect for his reason, with an inextinguishable love for truth, to the end that he may learn to consult his experience, and no longer be the dupe of an imagination led astray by authority; … that he may learn to found his morals on his nature, on his wants, on the real advantage of society; that he may dare to love himself; that he may become a virtuous and rational being, in which case he cannot fail to be happy.106

Having so stated his program, d’Holbach proceeds systematically to reject all supernatural beings and considerations; to accept nature with all its beauty, cruelty, limitation, and possibilities; to reduce all reality to matter and motion; and to build upon this materialistic basis a system of morality which he hopes would be capable of transforming savages into citizens, of forming individual character and social order, and of giving a reasonable happiness even to a life inevitably destined to death.

He begins and ends with nature, but he disclaims any attempt to personify it; he defines it as “the great whole that results from the assemblage of matter under its various combinations”; it is d’Holbach’s affectionate name for the universe. Matter he defines cautiously as “in general all that affects our senses in any fashion whatever.”

Everything in the universe is in motion; the essence of matter is to act; if we consider it attentively, we shall discover that no particle of it enjoys absolute repose.… All that appears to us to be at rest does not remain even for one instant in the same state. All beings are continually breeding, increasing, decreasing, and dispersing.… The hardest stones, by degrees, give way to the touch of air.107

The whole offers to our contemplation “nothing but an immense, uninterrupted succession of causes and effects.”108 The more our knowledge grows, the more overwhelming is the evidence that the universe acts only through natural causes. It may be difficult to understand how “inanimate matter can pass into life,” but it is even more difficult to believe that life is a special creation of some mysterious entity external to the material universe. It is difficult to understand how matter can come to feel, but other properties of matter, like “gravity, magnetism, elasticity, electricity,” are “not less inexplicable than feeling.”109

Man too is “a being purely physical,” subject to the same laws that govern the rest of the world. How could a physical body and an immaterial mind act upon each other? The “soul” is merely the total organization and activity of the body, and can have no separate existence. “To say that the soul will feel, think, enjoy, and suffer after the death of the body is to pretend that a clock shivered into a thousand pieces will continue to strike the hour … and mark the progress of time.”110 The conception of mind and soul as immaterial entities has retarded our treatment of mental diseases; when we consider mind as a function of the body we enable medical science to cure many mental disorders by attacking their physical causes.I111

Being a function of the body, mind is subject to the universal rule of natural causes and effects. Chapter XI of the Système is the most eloquent defense of determinism in all the range of French philosophy:

Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his being able to swerve from it even for an instant. He is born without his consent; his organization in no wise depends upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them. He is unceasingly modified by causes, visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give a color to his thinking, and determine his manner of acting. He is good or bad, happy or miserable, wise or foolish, reasonable or irrational, without his will counting for anything in these various states.113

This determinism seems to imply fatalism, and d’Holbach, unlike most determinists, frankly accepts the implication. The condition of the universe at any moment is determined by its condition at the preceding moment, and this was determined by its predecessor, and so on as far in the past as you like, so that any moment in the history of the universe may be taken as determining all later moments, as far in the future as you like. This apparent subjection of man—of every genius or saint in every conception or prayer—to some primeval gas does not deter d’Holbach; he accepts his fate with stoic pride:

Man is the work of Nature; he exists in Nature; he is submitted to her laws. He cannot deliver himself from them, nor can he step beyond them, even in thought.… Instead, therefore, of seeking outside the world.… for beings who can procure him a happiness denied him by Nature, let man study this Nature, let him learn her laws, contemplate her forces, observe the immutable rules by which she acts; let him apply these discoveries to his own felicity, and submit in silence to her mandates, which nothing can alter; let him cheerfully consent to ignore causes hidden from him by an impenetrable veil; let him without murmuring yield to the decrees of a universal necessity which can never be brought within his comprehension, nor ever emancipate him from those laws that are imposed upon him by his essence.114

Does this fatalism warrant us in concluding that there is no use in our trying to avoid evil, dishonor, sickness, or death, and that we may as well cease all effort, all ambition or aspiration, and let events take their course? D’Holbach replies that even here we have no choice: heredity and environment have already determined whether we shall subside into apathy or respond actively to the needs and challenges of life. And he anticipates the objection that determinism, by appearing to excuse crime, may increase it. Determinism does not suggest that crime should not be punished; on the contrary it will lead the legislator, the teacher, and public opinion to provide, by laws or morals, better deterrents to crime and more inducements to social behavior; these deterrents and inducements will enter into the environmental factors molding the conduct of men. But determinism does warrant us in considering crime, and all unsocial behavior, as a mental imbalance due to heredity, environment, or circumstance; therefore we must deal with such behavior as we treat disease; we must abandon the use of torture and extreme penalties, for these increase the opposition between the individual and society, and accustom people to violence and cruelty rather than deter them from crime.

In this philosophy, of course, there is no room for God. D’Holbach’s unflagging antipathy, not only to theism but to deism and pantheism as well, led his contemporaries to call him “the personal enemy of the Al-mighty.”115 “If we go back to the beginning we can always find that ignorance and fear have created gods; fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit has adorned or disfigured them; weakness worships them, credulity keeps them alive, custom respects them, tyranny supports them to … serve its own ends.”116 He raises against theism all the old arguments, and grows as hot as Helvétius against the Biblical conception of God.117 The majestic order and regularity of the universe do not suggest to him any supreme intelligence; they are due to natural causes operating mechanically, and require no attribution to a deity who would himself be more inexplicable than the world. Order and disorder, like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, are subjective conceptions, derived from the pleasure or displeasure that our perceptions give us; but man is not “the measure of all things”; his satisfactions are no objective standard to apply to the universe; Nature proceeds without regard to what we, from our infinitesimal point in space, consider good or bad, ugly or beautiful. From the point of view of the whole “there is no such thing as real evil. Insects find a safe retreat in the ruins of the palace that crushes men in its fall.”118 We must learn to regard Nature, with her sublimities and catastrophes, as imperturbably neutral.

All that has been said in the course of this work proves clearly that everything is necessary, that everything is always in order relative to Nature, where all beings do nothing more than follow the laws that are imposed on their respective classes.… Nature distributes with the same hand that which is called order and that which is called disorder, that which is called pleasure and that which is called pain; in short she diffuses, by the necessity of her existence, both evil and good.… Let not man, therefore, either praise her bounty or tax her with malice; let him not imagine that his vociferations or supplications can ever arrest her colossal power, always acting after immutable laws.… When he suffers let him not seek a remedy by recurring to chimeras that his own distempered imagination has created; let him draw from the stores of Nature the remedies which she offers for the evils she brings upon him; let him search in her bosom for those salutary productions to which she has given birth.119

D’Holbach comes close to reintroducing God in the form of Nature. After vowing not to personify it he tends to deify her, speaks of her omnipotence, her will, her plan, her bounty; he thinks of her as man’s best guide, and lets Diderot (?) write a sophomoric apostrophe to her as the concluding paragraph of a powerful book: “O Nature, sovereign of all beings! and ye, her adorable daughters, Virtue, Reason, and Truth, remain forever our only divinities! It is to you that belong the praises of the human race; to you appertains the homage of the earth,” and so on. Such pantheistic piety is hardly in key with d’Holbach’s view of nature as handing out good and evil impartially: “Winds, tempests, hurricanes, volcanoes, wars, plagues, famine, diseases, death are as necessary to her eternal march as the [not everywhere!] beneficent heat of the sun.”120 We are reminded of Calvin’s God, stingy with heaven and lavish of hell.

In his characteristic mood d’Holbach repudiates not only the idea of God but the very word. “The words God and create. . . ought to be banished from the language of all those who desire to speak to be understood. These are abstract words, invented by ignorance; they are only calculated to satisfy men lacking in experience, men too idle or too timid to study nature and its ways.”121 He rejects deism as a compromise with superstition,122 and makes a veritable religion of atheism:

The friend of mankind cannot be a friend of God, who at all times has been a real scourge to the earth. The apostle of nature will not be the instrument of deceitful chimeras, by which the world is made an abode of illusions; the adorer of truth will not compromise with falsehood.… He knows that the happiness of the human race imperiously exacts that the dark, unsteady edifice of superstition shall be razed to its foundations, in order to elevate on its ruins a temple to nature suitable to peace—a fane sacred to virtue.… If his efforts should be in vain; if he cannot inspire with courage beings too much accustomed to tremble, he will at least applaud himself for having dared the attempt. Nevertheless he will not judge his efforts fruitless if he has been able to make only a single mortal happy, if his principles have calmed the transports of one honest mind.… At least he will have the advantage of having banished from his own mind the importunate terror of superstition, … of having trodden underfoot those chimeras with which the unfortunate are tormented. Thus, escaped from the peril of the storm, he will calmly contemplate, from the summit of his rock, those tremendous hurricanes which superstition excites; and he will hold forth a succoring hand to those who shall be willing to accept it.123

3. Morals and the State

But is atheism compatible with popular morality? Can the powerful egoistic impulses of common men be controlled by a moral code shorn of all religious devotion and support? D’Holbach faced this question in the Système de la nature, and returned to it in 1776 with a three-volume Morale universelle. First of all, he doubts if religion, all in all, has made for morality:

In spite of a hell so horrid even in description, what crowds of abandoned criminals fill our cities! … Are condemned thieves and murderers either atheists or skeptics? Those wretches believe in a God … Does the most religious father, in advising his son, speak to him of a vindictive God? … His constitution destroyed by debauchery, his fortune ruined by gambling, the contempt of society—these are the motives that the father employs.124

And even supposing that religion sometimes helps morality, does this balance the harm that religion causes?

Against one timid man whom this idea [of hell] restrains, there are thousands upon whom it operates to no effect; there are millions whom it makes irrational, whom it turns into savage persecutors, whom it converts into wicked … fanatics; there are millions whose minds it disturbs, and whom it diverts from their duty to society.125

And consider the hypocrisy forced upon skeptics by the social pressure of religion:

Those who wish to form an idea of the shackles imposed by theology upon the genius of philosophers born under the “Christian Dispensation,” let them read the metaphysical romances of Leibniz, Descartes, Malebranche, Cudworth, etc., and coolly examine the ingenious but rhapsodical systems entitled “the pre-established harmony” of “occasional causes.”126

Moreover, by concentrating human thought upon individual salvation in another world, Christianity deadened civic feeling in this one, leaving men insensitive to the misery of their fellows, and to the injustices committed by oppressive groups and governments.

D’Holbach rejects the Christian-Voltairean idea that man is born with a sense of right and wrong. Conscience is the voice not of God but of the policeman; it is the deposit of a thousand exhortations, commands, and reproofs falling upon the individual in his growth. “We may define conscience as our knowledge of the effects which our actions produce upon our fellow men, and, in reaction, upon ourselves.”127 Such conscience can be a false guide, for it may have been formed by a slanted education, by misunderstood experience, by erroneous reasoning, or by a corrupt public opinion. There is no vice or crime that cannot be made to seem a virtue by indoctrination or evil example; so adultery, however forbidden by religion, has become a proud achievement, sycophancy is de rigueur at court, rape and rapine, among soldiers, are considered legitimate rewards of risking life and limb. “We see rich men who suffer no pricks of conscience over wealth acquired at the expense of their fellow citizens,” and “zealots whose conscience, blinded by false ideas, … urges them to exterminate without remorse those who have different opinions than their own.” The best that we can hope for is a conscience formed by a better education, by an acquired habit of looking forward to the effects of our actions upon others and ourselves, and by a healthier public opinion which an intelligent individual will hesitate to offend.128

D’Holbach agrees with Christianity that man is by nature inclined to “sin”—i.e., to behavior injurious to the group; but he rejects as ridiculous the notion that this “sinful nature” is an inheritance from the “sin of our first parents.” He accepts egoism as fundamental in human conduct, and, like Helvétius, he proposes to found his moral code upon it by making social behavior advantageous to the individual. “Morals would be a vain science if it did not incontestably prove to man that his interest consists in being virtuous.”129 Something can be achieved by an education that explains the dependence of individual welfare upon the welfare of the group, and a considerable degree of “altruism” can be evoked by appealing to the natural desire for social approval, distinction, and rewards. So d’Holbach formulates his ethic as “the Code of Nature”:

Live for yourself and your fellow creature. I [Nature] approve of your pleasures while they injure neither you nor others, whom I have rendered necessary to your happiness.… Be just, since justice supports the human race. Be good, since your goodness will attract every heart to you. Be indulgent, since you live among beings weak like yourself. Be modest, as your pride will hurt the self-love of everyone around you. Pardon injuries, do good to him who injures you, that you may … gain his friendship. Be moderate, temperate, and chaste, since lechery, intemperance, and excess will destroy you and make you contemptible.130

If government cared more actively for the health, protection, and education of the people, there would be far less crime;131 when one has much to lose he does not readily risk it in unsocial conduct. If education trained pupils to reason, instead of frightening them with irrational beliefs that soon lose their force, men would be morally improved by increased ability to apply experience to action, foreseeing, in the light of the past, the future effects of present deeds. In the long run intelligence is the highest virtue, and such virtue is the best road to happiness.

In Système de la nature, Système social (1772, three volumes), Politique naturelle (1772, two volumes), and Éthocratie (1776) the indefatigable millionaire took up the problems of society and government. In these books the attack passes from the Church to the state. D’Holbach agrees with Locke and Marx that labor is the source of all wealth, but, like Locke, he justifies private property as the right of a man to the product of his labor. Himself a noble, he would do away with hereditary aristocracy:

A body of men that can lay claim to wealth and honor solely though the title of birth must of necessity serve as a discouragement to the other classes of citizens. Those who have only ancestors have no right to reward.… Hereditary nobility can only be regarded as a pernicious abuse, fit only for favoring the indolence … and incompetence of one class to the detriment of all.132 … Old title deeds, ancient documents, preserved in medieval castles—are they to confer upon their inheritors a claim to the most exalted posts in Church and state, in the courts of justice, or in the army, regardless of whether these inheritors possess the talents necessary for the proper accomplishment of such duties?133

As for the clergy, let them shift for themselves. Church and state should be strictly separate; religious groups should be treated as voluntary associations, enjoying toleration but no state support; and a wise government will prevent any one religion from intolerance or persecution.134

Himself a rentier, d’Holbach criticizes the idle rentiers of the middle class, and he has a baron’s scorn of businessmen. “There is no more dangerous creature alive then the businessman seeking his prey.”135 The greed of commerce is now replacing dynastic ambitions as a cause of war:

States are ready to cut each other’s throats [for] some heaps of sand. Entire nations become the dupes of avaricious businessmen, who beguile them with the hope of wealth, the fruit of which they gather only for themselves. Countries are depopulated, taxation is piled up, peoples are impoverished, to satisfy the greed of a small group.

He strikes a passing blow at Britain, which had just taken India and Canada:

There is one people who in the transports of their greed seem to have formed the extravagant project of usurping the commerce of the world and making themselves owners of the seas—an iniquitous and mad project whose execution … would hastily bring to certain ruin the nation that is guided by this frenzy.… The day will come when Indians, having learned the art of war from Europeans, will hurl them from their shores.136

D’Holbach is inclined to the physiocratic gospel of laissez-faire:

The government should do nothing for the merchant except to leave him alone. No regulations can guide him in his enterprises so well as his own interest.… The state owes commerce nothing but protection. Among commercial nations those that allow their subjects the most unlimited liberty may be sure of soon excelling all others.137

But then, too, he advises governments to prevent a dangerous concentration of wealth. He quotes with relish St. Jerome’s swift barb, “Dives aut iniquus est, aut iniqui haeres” (The rich man is either a scoundrel or a scoundrel’s heir).138

In almost all nations three quarters of the subjects possess nothing.… When a small number of men absorb all the property and wealth in a state, they become the masters of that state.… Governments seem to have altogether neglected this important truth.139 … When the public will or law ceases to keep the balance even between the different members of society, the laziness of some, aided by force, fraud, and seduction, succeeds in appropriating the fruit of the labor of others.140

Nearly all kings, in d’Holbach’s opinion, ally themselves with the clever minority in exploiting the majority. He seems to be thinking of Louis XV.

On the face of this globe we see only unjust sovereigns, enervated by luxury, corrupted by flattery, depraved by licentiousness, made wicked by impurity, devoid of talents, without morals, … and incapable of exerting an energy for the benefit of the states they govern. They are consequently but little occupied with the welfare of their people, and indifferent to their duties, of which, indeed, they are often ignorant. Stimulated by the desire … to feed their insatiable ambition, they engage in useless, depopulating wars, and never occupy their minds with those objects which are the most important to the happiness of their nation.141

Obviously thinking of the French government, d’Holbach lashes out at the farming of tax collections to private financiers:

The despot addresses himself to a class of citizens who furnish him with the means for his avidity in exchange for the right to extort with impunity from all others.… In his blindness he does not see that the taxes on his subjects are often doubled; that the sums that go to enrich the extortioners are lost to himself; and that the army of subordinatepublicani is subsidized at a pure loss, to make war on the nation.… These brigands, grown rich, arouse the jealousy of the nobility and the envy of their fellow citizens.… Wealth becomes the one and only motive, … the thirst for gold lays hold of every heart.142

At times the comfortable aristocrat talks like the angriest of unplaced youths: “Are nations to work without respite to satisfy the vanity, the luxury, the greed of a pack of useless and corrupt bloodsuckers?”143 In this mood he echoes the Contrat Social of his former friend Rousseau:

Man is wicked not because he is born so but because he is rendered so. The great and powerful crush with impunity the indigent and unhappy. These, at the risk of their lives, seek to retaliate the evil they have received; they attack either openly or secretly a country that to them is a stepmother, who gives all to some of her children, and deprives the others of everything. …

Man is almost everywhere a slave. It follows of necessity that he is base, selfish, dissimulating, without honor; in a word, that he has the vices of the state of which he is a member. Everywhere he is deceived, encouraged in ignorance, and prevented from using his reason; of course he must everywhere be stupid, irrational, and wicked; everywhere he sees vice and crime applauded and honored; he concludes that vice is good, and that virtue is only a useless self-sacrifice.… If governments were enlightened, and seriously occupied themselves with the instruction and welfare of the people, and if laws were equitable, … it would not be necessary to seek in another life for financial chimeras which always prove abortive against the infuriate passions and real wants of man.144

How can this exploitation be stopped? The first step is to abolish absolute monarchy. “Absolute power must necessarily corrupt in heart and mind whoever holds it.145 … The power of the king should always be subordinate to the representatives of the people; and these representatives should depend continuously on the will of their constituents”;146 here is a call for the summoning of the fateful States-General of 1789. Since every government derives its powers from the consent of the governed, “the society may at any time revoke these powers if the government ceases to represent the general will”;147 here is the voice of Rousseau and revolution.

But revolutions, sometimes at great cost, destroy the past in order to rebuild it under another phrase and form.

Not through dangerous convulsions, not through conflict, regicide, and useless crimes, can the wounds of the nation be healed. These violent remedies are always more cruel than the evils they are intended to cure.… The voice of reason is neither seditious nor bloodthirsty. The reforms which it proposes may be slow, but therefore all the better planned.148

Men are imperfect, and cannot make perfect states; utopias are chimeras “incompatible with the nature of a being whose feeble machine is subject to derangement, and whose ardent imagination will not always submit to the guidance of reason.… The perfecting of politics can only be the slow fruit of the experience of centuries.”149 Progress is not a straight line, and it is a long one; many generations of education and experiment will be needed to clarify the causes and cures of social ills. Democracy is an ideal, possible only in small states and with widespread popular intelligence; it would be unwise in the France of Louis XVI. Perhaps this new king, so good and well-intentioned, will engage great talents to reform the state. So, in the end, d’Holbach contents himself with a constitutional monarchy, and he dedicates his Éthocratie to Louis as “a just, human, beneficent king, … father of his people, protector of the poor.”150 In that desperate hope the aging philosophe hung up his arms.

4. D’Holbach and His Critics

The Système de la nature is the most thorough and forthright exposition of materialism and atheism in all the history of philosophy. The endless hesitations, contradictions, and subtleties of Voltaire, the vague enthusiasms and ambivalent lucubrations of Diderot, the confusing repudiations of Rousseau by Jean Jacques, are here replaced by a careful consistency of ideas, and a forceful expression in a style sometimes heavy, occasionally flowery, often eloquent, always direct and clear. Yet, realizing that seven hundred such pages would be too much for the general digestion, and anxious to reach a wider audience, d’Holbach expounded his views again, in a simpler forum, in Le Bon Sens, ou idées opposées aux idées surnaturelles (1772). Seldom has a writer been so assiduous in spreading such unpopular convictions.

That he was heard far and wide is proved by the reaction of Frederick the Great to the Système de la nature. He who had so courted the philosophes, and had been lauded as their patron and ideal, turned against them when he saw one of their leaders attacking absolute monarchy as well as Christianity. It had been to his advantage to have the Catholic powers weakened in their internal unity by the campaign against the Church; but to find that rebel ecstasy daring now to insult kings as well as God stirred him to resentment, perhaps to fear. The same pen that had once written Anti-Machiavel now composed a Réfutation du Système de la nature. This man d’Holbach was going too far and too fast. “When one speaks in public,” Frederick suggested, “he should consider the delicacy of superstitious ears; he should not shock anybody; he should wait till the time is sufficiently enlightened to let him think out loud.”151

Apparently at Frederick’s suggestion, but probably still more through fear that the extreme radicalism of d’Holbach would alienate all but atheists and revolutionaries from the philosophic camp, Voltaire, like a general reproving a presumptuous lieutenant, inserted into the article “Dieu” in his Dictionnaire philosophique several pages criticizing d’Holbach’s chef-d’oeuvre. He began:

The author has had the advantage of being read by both learned and ignorant, and by women. His style, then, has merits which that of Spinoza lacked. He is often luminous, sometimes eloquent, although, like all the rest, he may be charged with repetitions, declamations, and self-contradictions. But as regards profundity he is very often to be distrusted both in physics and in morals. The interest of mankind is here involved; we will therefore examine whether his doctrine is true and useful.

Voltaire would not agree that the order which we ascribe to the universe, and the disorder which we may think to find in it, are subjective concepts and prejudices; he argued that the order is overwhelmingly obvious, and that disorder is sometimes painfully clear.

What, is not a child born blind or without legs, or a monstrous freak, contrary to the nature of the species? Is it not the ordinary regularity of nature that makes order, and the irregularity that constitutes disorder? Is it not a great derangement, a dreadful disorder, when nature gives a child hunger and a closed esophagus? Evacuations of every kind are necessary, yet the excretory channels are frequently without openings, which it is necessary to remedy.… The origin of the disorder remains to be discovered, but the disorder is real.

As to matter having the power to generate life and mind, Voltaire, though he too had once inclined to that view, preferred a modest agnosticism to d’Holbach’s confident assumptions:

“Experience [he quotes from the Système] proves to us that the matter which we regard as inert and dead assumes action, life, and intelligence when it is combined in a certain way.” But this is precisely the difficulty. How does a living germ arise? About this the author and the reader are alike ignorant. Hence, are not the System of Nature, and all the [philosophical] systems in the world, so many dreams? “It would be necessary [says d’Holbach] to define the vital principle, which I deem impossible.” Is not this definition very easy? … Is not life organization with feeling? But that these two properties can arise solely from matter in motion it is impossible to prove; and if it is impossible to prove, why affirm it? … Many readers will feel indignant at the decisive tone assumed when nothing is explained.… When you venture to affirm that there is no God, or that matter acts of itself by an eternal necessity, you must demonstrate this like a proposition in Euclid; otherwise you rest your system on a “perhaps.” What a foundation for a belief that is of the greatest importance to the human race!

D’Holbach had supported abiogenesis by referring to the experiments (1748) of the English Jesuit Needham, who believed that he had produced new organisms out of nonliving matter. Voltaire, alert to the latest developments in science, referred to the experiments (1765) of Spallanzani as having shown the error of Needham’s procedure and conclusions. D’Holbach had seen no design in nature; Voltaire sees much. He argues that the development of intelligence in man indicates an intelligence in or behind the universe. Finally he returns to his famous proposition that “if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”; that without belief in a Supreme Being, in his intelligence and his justice, life with its mysteries and miseries would be unbearable. He joins d’Holbach in scorning superstition, but he defends religion as the simple adoration of a deity. He concludes amiably:

I am persuaded that you are in a great error, but I am equally convinced that you are honest in your self-delusion. You would have men virtuous even without a God, although you have unfortunately said that “so soon as vice renders man happy he must love vice”—a frightful proposition, which your friends should have prevailed upon you to erase. Everywhere else you inspire probity. This philosophical dispute will only be between you and a few philosophers scattered over Europe, and the rest of the world will not even hear of it. The people do not read us.… You are wrong, but we owe respect to your genius and your virtue.152

We do not know if Voltaire had his heart in this refutation. We note his light remark, when he heard that Frederick also had written against the Système de la nature, “God had on his side the two least superstitious men in all Europe—which ought to have pleased him immensely.”153 He asked the Duc de Richelieu to let Louis XV know that the unwilling exile of Ferney had written an answer to the audacious book that was the talk of Paris.

D’Holbach’s friends published Voltaire’s critique as a means of advertising the Baron’s ideas. Young rebels took up materialism as a badge of bravery in the war against Catholicism. D’Holbach’s philosophy entered into the spirit of the French Revolution before and after Robespierre—who preferred Rousseau; we hear echoes of the Système in Camille Desmoulins, Marat, and Danton.154 “D’Holbach, more than Voltaire, more than Diderot,” said Faguet, “is the father of all the philosophy and all the anti-religious polemics of the end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century.”155 During the Directory a minister sent copies of a book by d’Holbach to all departmental heads in an attempt to check the Catholic revival.156 In England we feel d’Holbach’s influence in the materialism of Priestley (1777); Godwin’s Enquiry concerning Political Justice stemmed from d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Rousseau in that order of influence;157 and the enthusiastic atheism of Godwin’s son-in-law, Shelley, dated from his reading of the Système de la nature, which he began to translate as a means of enlisting the Oxford dons in the campaign against religion.158 In Germany it was d’Holbach’s materialism, as well as Hume’s skepticism, that aroused Kant from his “dogmatic slumber.” Perhaps Marx, through devious channels, inherited his materialist tradition from d’Holbach.

Long before the Baron wrote, Berkeley had made the most damaging point about materialism: mind is the only reality directly known; matter (since d’Holbach defined it as “all that affects our senses”) is known only indirectly, through mind; and it seems unreasonable to reduce the directly to the indirectly known. We are not so clear about matter as we used to be; we are as much mystified by the atom as by mind; both are being resolved into forms of energy that we cannot understand. And it is as difficult now as in the days of Locke and Voltaire to imagine how “matter” can become idea, much less consciousness. The mechanistic interpretation of life proved fruitful in physiology, but the possibility still remains that organs (matter) may be products and instruments of desire (mind), like the muscles of an athlete. Mechanism, determinism, even “natural law,” may be summary simplifications, logically irrefutable because they are tools invented by the mind for the convenient handling of phenomena, events, and things. These tools have become inextricable elements in scientific thought, but they are unsatisfactory when applied to the mind that fashioned them. We do not know that the world is logical.


I. “It is certainly true as a historical fact,” said John Morley, “that the rational treatment of insane persons, and the rational view of certain kinds of crime, were due to men like Pinel, trained in the materialistic school of the eighteenth century. And it was clearly impossible that the great and humane reforms in this field could have taken place before the decisive decay of theology.” 112

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