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Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789)

Baron d'Holbach was German by birth (Paul Heinrich Dietrich) and education, but French by fortune (he inherited his uncle's money, estate and title). Holbach's estate was a meeting place for the leading French radical thinkers (the philosophes) of the late 18th century. He was an atheist, a determinist, and a materialist: the universe is a complex system of physical substances organized according to mechanistic laws of cause and effect, rather than designed by a god (the view of most of his contemporaries, though not the common view among the philosophes).

Holbach was an opponent of absolute monarchy, state religions and feudal privilege. It is fair to describe him as one of the most radical intellectuals of his time. He authored many works whose radical ideas had to be published in Holland without his name on the title page. His most famous work is The System of Nature (1770). A briefer account of his atheistic materialism was published in 1772: Good (or Common) Sense, or Natural Ideas vs. Supernatural Ideas.

Holbach tried to prove by his life that one could be virtuous and an atheist, contrary to a common view of the time. Rousseau, who disliked Holbach, used him as the model of the 'virtuous unbeliever' in The New Heloise.* Holbach held that atheism is a prerequisite for any valid ethical theory. Religion, he thought, is based on useless and meaningless dogmas and rituals; whereas ethics must be based on social utility and human cooperation.

What is perhaps most puzzling about Holbach is that he brought together in his life two seemingly inconsistent views; for he was both a hard determinist and a social reformer. He believed that human beings are not special in the sense of having souls or free will. We're part of Nature and our choices and desires are as much determined by laws of cause and effect as are the movements of the planets. Even so, he devoted himself to trying to make the world a better place by ridding it of unjust and degrading institutions such as the Church and Absolute Monarchy.

further reading

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Baron d'Holbach by Max Pearson Cushing

Last updated 18-Dec-2013

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