Publication of Holbach’s

Holbach’s The System of Nature argued that the source of human misery was an ignorance of nature that was both perpetrated and perpetuated by religion and its superstitious beliefs. The treatise was written to provide a framework of true understanding underpinned by the material mechanisms of nature.

Summary of Event

Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’Holbach published Système de la nature: Ou, Des lois du monde physique et du monde moral (1770; The System of Nature, 1797) in 1770 under the pseudonym Mirabaud. The book turned out to be the first, and possibly the only, example of a comprehensive, unmitigated defense of atheistic materialism Atheistic materialism
Materialist philosophy during the rationalist period called the Enlightenment. [kw]Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770)
[kw]Nature, Publication of Holbach’s The System of (1770)
[kw]System of Nature, Publication of Holbach’s The (1770)
[kw]Holbach’s The System of Nature, Publication of (1770)
System of Nature, The (Holbach)
[g]France;1770: Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature[1970]
[c]Philosophy;1770: Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature[1970]
[c]Education;1770: Publication of Holbach’s The System of Nature[1970]
Holbach, Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’
Diderot, Denis
Helvétius, Claude-Adrien
La Mettrie, Julien Offroy de

The System of Nature was the culmination of a trend in contemporary ideas already expressed to varying degrees in Julien Offroy de La Mettrie’s L’Homme machine (1747; Man a Machine, Man a Machine (La Mettrie) 1750; also known as L’Homme Machine: A Study in the Origins of an Idea, 1960), Denis Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles (1749; An Essay on Blindness, Essay on Blindness, An (Diderot) 1750), and Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s De l’esprit
[]De l’esprit (Helvétius)[De Lesprit] (1758; De l’esprit: Or, Essays on the Mind and Its Several Faculties, 1759). Holbach’s work caused considerable consternation in France, not only in the ecclesiastical establishment but also among the French Deistic philosophes who shared many ideas and ideals with Holbach himself. The System of Nature was suppressed by judicial decree and brought out a torrent of denunciations, both from proponents of the Enlightenment and from those who participated in the antirationalist movement to save tradition and religion known as the Counter-Enlightenment. Counter-Enlightenment[Counter Enlightenment]

The System of Nature belongs to the third and final phase of Holbach’s intellectual career. The first phase began in 1749 with Holbach settling in Paris, where he associated himself with philosophes Philosophes such as Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Charles-Georges Le Roy, Jacques-André Naigeon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Jean-François de Saint-Lambert. Among them, Holbach had the closest personal and philosophical ties with Diderot. The philosophes were working on the Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia (Diderot) 1965), a project that epitomized the new rationalism of prerevolutionary France.

For more than thirty years, Holbach’s salon was the main social center of the philosophes and a unique clearinghouse for radical ideas and an intellectual headquarters for the encyclopedists. Holbach contributed about four hundred articles dealing with chemistry, metallurgy, mineralogy, and geology to the Encyclopedia. His interests in those sciences inevitably informed his philosophical outlook, since his materialism dovetailed with the methodology and scope of a rigorously scientific explanation of natural phenomena. In particular, from Holbach’s standpoint, geology’s Geology new evidence concerning the Earth’s history undermined the doctrine of creation Creationism and also the existence of God.

Consequently, the second phase of Holbach’s intellectual career was marked by an uncompromising confrontation with religion and, in particular, the Catholic Church. Catholic Church;and Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’ Holbach[Holbach] The works that he published between 1760 and 1770 espoused the following beliefs: The concept and cult of God stemmed from the ignorant terror of primitive humans seeking to soothe nature’s destructive forces; religious beliefs have been sustained through superstition; religious history is a catalog of senseless disputes, intolerance, prejudice, persecution, and crime; the Church has exploited the gullibility of the masses for its own profit; religions have invariably supported tyrannical regimes to advance their own ambitions of domination; scriptural evidence does not withstand historical and factual objectivity tests; and theological dogmas are a maze of myths and mystifications on which no rational, just, or useful social institution can be based.

The System of Nature heralded the last phase of Holbach’s intellectual progress. It indicated a more philosophical and theoretical approach to the issues with which Holbach was grappling. The treatise attempted to show that humans are entirely products of nature Nature;philosophy of and subject to the laws governing the physical universe—which itself constituted the totality of reality. The soul, or spiritual substance, was an illusion; the moral and intellectual attributes of the individual were simply the operations of his or her organic machine. Since sensibility was a primary function of the animal organism, all higher faculties were derived ultimately from the different forms that sensation took. The only means of knowing humans in nature was through the empirical and rational investigation of matter.

For Holbach, then, nature was the sum of matter and motion. Motion;and nature[nature]
Matter;and nature[nature]
Nature;and matter[matter]
Nature;and motion[motion] All matter was actually or latently in motion, and the material universe was self-created and eternal. All change in nature Nature;and change[change]
Change, in nature represented a communication of motion, a redistribution of energy, which modified the corresponding combination or disposition of material particles, elements, or aggregates. The specific forms that nature exhibited, from terrestrial flora and fauna to heavenly bodies, were forever changing. Humanity was no exception: the ephemeral life of the species depended on the stability of its physical environment.

For Holbach, there was neither chance nor disorder in nature: all was necessity and order, an irreversible chain of causes and effects. Nature;as cause and effect[cause and effect] Freedom was objectively meaningless when applied to human behavior, which, through temperament, education, and environment, manifested the universal determinism of nature. Vice and virtue did not depend on free will; the terms simply designated behaviors helping or hindering the mutual happiness of society and the individual.

Contemporaries of Holbach found these ideas quite disturbing, and there was a huge backlash against The System of Nature. The French Catholic Church threatened the Crown with a withdrawal of financial support unless it effectively suppressed the circulation of the book, Censorship;France
Book censorship;France which was condemned by the Parlement of Paris and publicly burned. Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier, Bergier, Nicolas-Sylvestre the eminent Catholic theologian of the time, wrote a critique entitled Examen du matérialisme: Ou, Réfutation du “Système de la nature”
Examen du matérialisme (Bergier) (1771; examination of materialism: or, refutation of The System of Nature), and Voltaire Voltaire rebuked Holbach in the article “God” “God” (Voltaire)[God] in his Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764; enlarged 1769 as La Raison par alphabet; also known as Dictionnaire philosophique: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765; also as Philosophical Dictionary, Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, A (Voltaire) 1945, enlarged 1962). Frederick the Great of Prussia also published a refutation.

Despite certain shortcomings, however, Holbach’s ideas are still of considerable interest. His critique of Christianity led toward the objective and psychological study of religion Religion;study of as a distinctively human invention, and The System of Nature remains a classic text in the development of atheistic materialism. Some see it as the philosophical expression par excellence of modern science.


The System of Nature has undoubtedly immortalized Holbach. Its fame, or infamy, depending upon one’s outlook, rests on the fact that for the first time in the European intellectual tradition, all the available arguments for materialism and atheism emerged from their earlier clandestine contexts and were given public exposure. Not only did the book challenge traditional religion, it also attacked the various forms of Deism or natural religion that were greatly in vogue at the time as expressions of religion in harmony with the Enlightenment. Holbach argued that both reason and experience lead to the conclusion that nature as a whole was an eternal, infinite being. It was made up of basic material elements, ceaselessly rearranged and subject in all its operations to strictly deterministic Determinism laws. Even the existence of life was merely the product of the working of mechanical natural forces. There was no such thing as free will, but scientific inquiry could discover the methods by which human beings could be “caused” to become useful and well-adjusted members of society.

The ideas of The System of Nature turned out to be so radical for the eighteenth century European intellectual milieu that even some of the eminent intellectual figures of the Enlightenment—such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Frederick the Great—joined Christian thinkers and apologists in the refutation and rejection of Holbach’s groundbreaking thoughts. However, Holbach’s systematically secular philosophical perspective exerted enormous influence on subsequent intellectual movements, not only in Europe but also in America. Advocates and adherents of diverse and sometimes diametrically opposite schools of thought, such as secular humanism, Marxism, utilitarianism, liberalism, and behaviorism, can all legitimately claim Holbach and The System of Nature as powerful precursors. In the history of ideas, The System of Nature is one of the most prominent texts in the drive to remove the supernatural from the world and to naturalize nature.

Further Reading

  • Becker, Carl Lotus. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. First published in 1932, this work voices the dissenting view that though Enlightenment thinkers like Holbach managed to destroy the old St. Augustine’s City of God, their new City of Man was only a reassemblage of the wreckage of the old one.
  • Brown, Stuart, ed. British Empiricism and the Enlightenment. Vol. 5 in Routledge History of Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1995. A collection of philosophical articles on European Enlightenment figures, including Holbach, from the late seventeenth century to the eighteenth century.
  • Cragg, G. R. The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789. New York: Atheneum, 1961. An account of the relationship between the religious establishment and the growing number of antireligious Enlightenment thinkers like Holbach.
  • Cushing, Max Pearson. Baron D’Holbach: A Study of Eighteenth Century Radicalism in France. Reprint. Whitefish, Man.: Kessinger, 2004. A detailed examination of Holbach’s thoughts.
  • Holbach, Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’. System of Nature. Manchester, England: Clinamen Press, 2000. A modernized English translation of Holbach’s Système de la nature, with a new introduction.
  • Kors, Alan Charles. D’Holbach’s Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. A detailed historical account and philosophical demarcation of Holbach’s intellectual circle.
  • Manuel, F. E. The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. A study of the rise of antitheological philosophy in the eighteenth century and Holbach’s legacy of an atheistic political philosophy in the French Revolution.
  • Topazio, Virgil W. D’Holbach’s Moral Philosophy: Its Background and Development. Geneva, Switzerland: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1956. An examination of Holbach’s attempt to divest ethics from religion and how to naturalize morality.
  • Wickwar, W. H. Baron d’Holbach: A Prelude to the French Revolution. Reprint. London: Allen & Unwin, 1968. Still the only full-length biography of Holbach.

Early Enlightenment in France

Voltaire Advances Enlightenment Thought in Europe

D’Alembert Develops His Axioms of Motion

Montesquieu Publishes The Spirit of the Laws

First Comprehensive Examination of the Natural World

Maupertuis Provides Evidence of “Hereditary Particles”

Diderot Publishes the Encyclopedia

Condillac Defends Sensationalist Theory

Helvétius Publishes De l’esprit

Voltaire Satirizes Optimism in Candide

Rousseau Publishes The Social Contract

Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket

Publication of Rousseau’s Confessions

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Étienne Bonnot de Condillac; Denis Diderot; Frederick the Great; Claude-Adrien Helvétius; Paul-Henri-Dietrich d’Holbach; Jean-Jacques Rousseau. System of Nature, The (Holbach)