mother (née Holbach) was the daughter of the Prince-Bishop's
tax collector. His father, Johann Jakob Thiry, was a wine-grower.
The young Paul Henry's studies were financed by his uncle, Franz
Adam Holbach, who had become a millionaire by speculating on the
Paris stock-exchange. After inheriting two large fortunes the still
young d'Holbach became very wealthy and would remain so for life.
had one of the more notable salons in Paris. It was one of the
most important meeting places for contributors to the Encyclopédie.
Meetings were held regularly twice a week from approximately 1750
- 1780. The tone of discussion among the visitors was highly civilized
and it covered more diverse topics than that of other salons.
This, along with other features including excellent food, expensive
wine, and a library of over 3000 volumes, attracted many notable
the regulars in attendance at the salon were: Diderot, Grimm,
Jean-François Marmontel, D'Alembert, Helvétius,
Ferdinando Galiani, and André Morellet. The salon was also
well-frequented by British intellectuals: Adam Smith, David Hume,
Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon, amongst others. D'Holbach was owner
of Heeze Castle, situated in the Duchy of Brabant, actually in
the Encyclopédie he authored and translated a large number
of articles on topics such as politics, religion, chemistry and
mineralogy. The translations he contributed were chiefly from
German sources. He was better known, however, for his philosophical
writings. These writings expressed a materialistic and atheistic
position. His work is today categorised into the philosophical
movement called "French materialism".
1767 Christianity unveiled (Christianisme dévoilé)
appeared, in which he attacked Christianity and religion as counter
to the moral advancement of humanity. This was followed up by
other works, and in 1770 by a still more open attack in his most
famous book, The System of Nature (Le Système de la nature).
the existence of a deity, and refusing to admit as evidence all
a priori arguments, d'Holbach saw in the universe nothing save
matter in motion. In this, he was influenced by John Toland. The
foundation of morality is happiness: "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." This theory of morality can
be seen as a precursor to utilitarianism.
Système de la nature presented a core of radical ideas
which many contemporaries found disturbing, thus prompting a strong
reaction. The Catholic Church in France threatened the crown with
a withdrawal of financial support unless it effectively suppressed
the circulation of the book. The list of people writing refutations
of the work was long. The Roman Catholic Church had its pre-eminent
theologian Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier write a refutation of the
Système titled Examen du matérialisme (Materialism
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. 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 describe a system of morality in place of the one he had so
fiercely attacked, but these later writings were not as popular
or influential as his earlier work.
to a fear of persecution, he published his books either anonymously
or under pseudonyms. Additionally, the books were published outside
of France, usually in Amsterdam. D'Holbach was strongly critical
of abuses of power in France and abroad. Contrary to the revolutionary
spirit of the time however, he called for the educated classes
to reform the corrupt system of government and warned against
revolution, democracy, and "mob rule".
is thought that the virtuous atheist Wolmar in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's
Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse is based on d'Holbach.
Many of the main points in d'Holbach's philosophy have now found
increasing resonance among the scientifically literate.