1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Holbach, Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron d'
HOLBACH, PAUL HEINRICH DIETRICH, Baron d’ (1723–1789), French philosopher and man of letters, of German origin, was born at Heidelsheim in the palatinate in 1723. Of his family little is known; according to J. J. 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. Much of Holbach’s fame is due to his intimate connexion with the brilliant coterie of bold thinkers and polished wits whose creed, the new philosophy, is concentrated in the famous Encyclopédie. 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 J. J. Rousseau, guests who, while enjoying the intellectual pleasure of their host’s 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, ou idées naturelles opposées 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. J. J. Rousseau is supposed to have drawn his portrait in the virtuous atheist Wolmar of the Nouvelle Héloïse. He died on the 21st of January 1789.
Holbach is also the author of the following and other works: Esprit du clergé (1767); De l’imposture sacerdotale (1767); Prêtres démasqués (1768); Examen critique de la vie et des ouvrages de St Paul (1770); Histoire critique de Jésus-Christ (1770), and Ethocratie (1776). For further particulars as to his life and doctrines see Grimm’s Correspondance littéraire, &c. (1813); Rousseau’s Confessions; Morellet’s Mémoires (1821); Madame de Genlis, Les Dîners du Baron Holbach; Madame d’Épinay’s Mémoires; Avezac-Lavigne, Diderot et la société du Baron d’Holbach (1875), and Morley’s Diderot (1878).