BARON D'HOLBACH (PAUL HEINRICH DIETRICH) (1723-1789), philosophe of the Parisian school of the 18th century, 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 Encyclopedie. Possessed of easy means and being of hospitable disposition, he kept open house for such men as Helvetius, D'Alembert, Diderot, Condillac, Turgot, Buffon, Grimm, Hume, Garrick, Wilkes, Sterne, and for a time Rousseau, who, while enjoying the intellectual pleasure of their host's conversation, were not insensible to the material charms of his excellent cuisine and costly wines.
Although an atheist, or at least a materialist of the most material school, Holbach seems to have been endowed with a more than average share of virtue, and, whether by his courtesy, gentleness, or benevolence, inspired a warm affection in all he met. Even his failings, of which his simple credulity was perhaps the most prominent, were amiable. He was one of the best informed men of his day, and his excellent memory placed at his immediate disposal all the learning he had amassed. He visited England on one occasion, but the solemn stiffness of the British, even while amusing themselves, and the peculiar relations of society, disgusted as much as they surprised him. For the Encyclopédie Holbach 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. Regarding religion as a blind superstitious bondage, maintained on men's minds by the self-interest of the priests, he tried to prove it not only unnecessary but absolutely prejudicial to human morality. This was followed up 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." 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 the tempest that shortly after his death broke over the capital of France. The Système de la Nature struck horror into the minds of even the most "enlightened" of the Parisian philosophers. Charmed by the novelty of their own opinions, and dazzled by the glittering wit and argument with which they had supported them, they had never realized into what extremities they had hurried till this lurid torch revealed the hideous abyss from which they were so little removed. 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 book 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, published at Amsterdam in 1772. In the Système Social (1773), the Politique Naturelle (1773-74), 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 and more pernicious work. He published his books either anonymously or under a borrowed name, and was forced to have them printed out of France. He died in 1789. On the death of his first wife he obtained a papal dispensation to marry her sister, who survived him till 1814.
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 ; Avezae-La vigne, Diderot et la Société du Baron d'Holbach, 1875 ; and Morley's Diderot, 1878.