Baron d'Holbach

On this date in 1723, encyclopedist and the Enlightenment's most passionate atheist, Paul Henri Baron von Holbach, was born in Edesheim, Germany, into a Catholic family. An uncle who became a wealthy nobleman brought Holbach to Paris when he was 12, educated him and left him his fortune. Holbach studied law in Holland, returned to Paris, and inherited more wealth. Generously sharing his wealth, Holbach was dubbed the "maitre d'hotel of philosophy." Holbach befriended the Encyclopedists, including Denis Diderot, and corresponded with top thinkers of the Enlightenment. His Parisian home became a hub of the Enlightenment, where intellectuals such as David Hume and visitors such as Benjamin Franklin rubbed shoulders with European aristocrats. Holbach wrote several articles for the Encyclopedia and also translated German scholars, then began writing his philosophical pieces in secret. He did not sign his name to these atheistic and anticlerical works, so, although some were condemned to be burnt by the French parliament, he was spared prosecution. He eventually inspired a "Holbachian" movement of anticlericalism and philosophical materialism.

Holbach's writings include a series of works published in 1770 inquiring into the historicity of Jesus, the saints and other freethought subjects. Christianity Unveiled was published in 1766, The Holy Disease in 1768, System of Nature in 1770, and Le Bon sens (Common Sense) in 1772, followed by several political and moral treatises. In Common Sense, Holbach wrote that "Religion is a mere castle in the air. Theology is ignorance of natural causes; a tissue of fallacies and contradictions." He believed: "Knowledge, Reason, and Liberty, can alone reform and make men happier." He optimistically predicted: "If the ignorance of nature gave birth to the gods, knowledge of nature is destined to destroy them." Holbach translated and adapted many major deistic English writings, including works by John Toland and Thomas Hobbes. Holbach particularly criticized Catholicism as an obstacle to freedom and the common good. System of Nature proposed a society governed by the enlightened, which renounced historic errors. D. 1789.

“ . . . In all parts of our globe, fanatics have cut each other's throats, publicly burnt each other, committed without a scruple and even as a duty, the greatest crimes, and shed torrents of blood . . . 

Savage and furious nations, perpetually at war, adore, under divers names, some God, conformable to their ideas, that is to say, cruel, carnivorous, selfish, blood-thirsty. We find, in all the religions, 'a God of armies,' a 'jealous God,' an 'avenging God,' a 'destroying God,' a 'God,' who is pleased with carnage, and whom his worshippers consider it a duty to serve. Lambs, bulls, children, men, and women, are sacrificed to him. Zealous servants of this barbarous God think themselves obliged even to offer up themselves as a sacrifice to him. Madmen may everywhere be seen, who, after meditating upon their terrible God, imagine that to please him they must inflict on themselves, the most exquisite torments. The gloomy ideas formed of the deity, far from consoling them, have every where disquieted their minds, and prejudiced follies destructive to happiness.

How could the human mind progress, while tormented with frightful phantoms, and guided by men, interested in perpetuating its ignorance and fears? Man has been forced to vegetate in his primitive stupidity: he has been taught stories about invisible powers upon whom his happiness was supposed to depend. Occupied solely by his fears, and by unintelligible reveries, he has always been at the mercy of priests, who have reserved to themselves the right of thinking for him, and of directing his actions.”

—-Baron d'Holbach, Common Sense, 1772

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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