Baron d’Holbach,
Philosopher of Common Sense

Ivan Sviták

Professor of Philosophy and Political Science
California State University, Chico

Translated by Jarmila Veltrusky

Studies in the History of Philosophy, Volume 3

Table of Contents

Life and Work 1
Mechanical Materialism 12


Criticism of Religion 27
Natural Moral Principles 37
Sources of Corruption and Reform 45
Rational Egoism 51
Natural Politics 57
Future Society 64
[Bibliography] 71
[Biography] 75
[Publications by Ivan Svitak] 76


Two hundred years ago, a man who came to Paris with an interest in problems of politics and philosophy and some of that quality which is so exquisite, and therefore so detested by fools, known as esprit, wit, must have made his way first of all to the rue Royale Saint Roch. There he would have stopped in front of an imposing palace where, according to the most brilliant wit of the age, Diderot, all men of ability and honor in Paris were wont to gather. But beware! It is said that not every famous and titled savant will find a welcome there. The visitor is expected to be an enemy of despotism. What is this house, that it draws the intellectual elite of France to a magnificent dinner every Thursday and attracts by its renown such visitors from abroad as Franklin, Hume and Priestley, the savants, Garrick the actor and Sterne the writer, as well as Baccaria and dozens of other, less famous men? Let us join one of the bewigged figures as one Thursday at noon, he enters the house.

We come into the dining-room, where we find one group heatedly agitating against the latest despotic measure taken by the king, another thrashing out a problem of philosophy and a third arguing about the chemical composition of matter. Then the guests sit down to dinner, the various discussions merge into a single stream and the conversation covers every kind of topic — science, philosophy, religion — from the most varied standpoints, not forgetting anecdotes which the hostess pretends not to hear. Though the talk does not follow any set plan, it never degenerates into idle chatter but always deals with complicated and profound problems. It is Diderot’s wit that sparkles most brilliantly, but the others are not far behind. Our visitor would find these people easy to get on with; they are simple, amusing and profound and when they take off their wigs after dinner, we find ourselves in the presence of thoroughly modern figures. They go on with their discussion till seven or eight in the evening. After dinner they may go for a walk on the outskirts of Paris, organize a picnic, go to Saint-Cloud or for a trip on the Seine, or stroll through the Bois de Boulogne. Where has our visitor got to? Could it be the salon of some successor of the precieuses, some rich, vain bourgeoise who is trying to ape the glitter of the aristocratic salons? No. We have come to the intellectual furnace of contemporary Europe, into a society engaged in preparing and organizing the publication of the Encyclopedia, a kind of club later to be described by reactionaries as a workshop of revolution and Jacobinism; we are among artists, scholars, philosophers and physicians, in the “café de l’Europe”, to be anathematized by the men of the Restoration as a center of international revolutionary conspiracy against feudalism, in the company of the cleverest people of the century, against whom the prejudiced mediocrity of the age fulminates hatred and warrants for arrest. We find ourselves in a place scornfully nicknamed the synagogue of the philosophical Church, in a drawing-room where, when all is said and done, revolution is indeed being prepared, because we are in an age when it is still possible for revolutions to be prepared in drawing-rooms.

The man who surrounds himself with such eminent savants must be very wise himself. He does, indeed, speak French, Italian, English and Latin, besides his native German, and the breadth of his learning amazes everybody, as also do his splendid library and art collection. Moreover, to offer his friends such choice banquets, he must be rich, this “maitre d’hotel de la


Philosophie”, this “hotelier des esprits”. It is rare enough for anyone to combine the attributes of wealth and wisdom, but in addition to that, this man is the friend of Helvetius, Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, Turgot, Quesnaye, Morellet, Rousseau, Grimm and others, who call him simply “the baron”, unanimously extoll his learning, simplicity, justice and knowledge of natural science, and describe him as an excellent husband, a rare quality even then, as a loyal friend and a wise father, as a man capable of enjoying sensual pleasures without becoming a slave to them, as a noble-minded philanthropist and an unassuming person. Only Madame Geoffrin, who provides us with a few items of gossip about her contemporaries and who probably envied him his glittering salon, maliciously declared that she had never seen greater simplicity in anyone. And then his best friend, Diderot, occasionally sighed in his private correspondence over the baron’s moodiness and lack of humor. On the whole, it would seem that people had a genuine affection for him, rather than merely respecting him as the wealthy Paul Heinrich Dietrich, baron d’Holbach.

He was born in February 1723, in Heidelsheim in Bavaria, he studied at Leyden University and after 1750 lived in Paris as a Naturalized Parisian. Together with the title, his rich father left him property worth 60,000 livres a year. He married Basile Genevieve Suzanne d’Aine, who died shortly afterwards, whereupon, a year later, he married her cousin, Charlotte Suzanne. He thus found himself in a material position that would have enabled him to become the worldly ornament of some drawing room and lead the idle life of gallant cavalier, rather than pioneering a philosophical trend that scandalized even Goethe, d’Alembert and Voltaire. When young Holbach came to Paris, he met Diderot and Volney says that they used to be seen strolling together in the Tuileries, engrossed in philosophical debate. Most probably Diderot exerted a profound influence on Holbach’s philosophical development already at that time. Holbach belonged to the inner core of the encyclopedistes from 1751, when Diderot enlisted him, and beginning with the second volume he regularly contributed scientific articles — he wrote about 400 in all on topics such as mining, which show how his theoretical interest in science was bound up with a practical interest in increasing production. During the same period he also translated from German a number of works on mineralogy. He devoted the first fifteen years of his theoretical activity to natural science, especially to chemistry and mineralogy in which he met with great success. In 1754 he was elected member of the Berlin Academy, then of the Academies of St. Petersburg and Mannheim.

Holbach’s biographers on the whole agree in dividing his theoretical development into three main phases, the first of which is the period of his scientific works (1752-1766). The transition to the second phase, with its anticlerical propaganda (1766-1770), coincides with the events of the sixties, with the banning of the Encyclopedia, the persecution of Helvetius, the battle waged by Voltaire from Ferney, the expulsion of the Jesuits and a certain relaxation of censorship. During this period Holbach wrote a number of pamphlets, the attribution of some of which is still doubtful, because despite its concern for culture, twentieth-century France still lacks a critical edition of his collected works. The best of these minor items of propaganda are the Manual of Religion and the Common Sense, a little materialistic catechism which expounds his philosophical system in a popular form. Many found this


pamphlet even more dangerous than his most famous work, also belonging to this second period. the System of Nature, the mechanical materialist’s Bible. This must really have been a terrible book, since no sooner had it appeared, on August l8th 1770, than the parlement of Paris condemned it to be burned. The speech the Attorney General made at the trial sentencing the book to the pyre shows with it what hatred the philosophes were prosecuted as public enemies and as a cabal of scandalous atheists. What is interesting about the speech is that the Attorney General complains in it that these ideas have become so widespread that they are even percolating into the countryside. And as so often happens with notorious right-wingers, he manages to pronounce, twenty years before the Fall of the Bastille, these prophetic words, correctly assessing the social role the ideas of the Enlightenment were to play: “This spirit (of Enlightenment) has become universal; its aims will not be fulfilled until it has placed legislative and executive power in the hands of the majority, until it has abolished the necessary inequality between estates, hurled the King’s majesty down into the dust and subjugated its own power to the fickle moods of the blind mob.” We could find no better definition of the aims Holbach pursued through his anticlerical propaganda. In the third phase (1770-1776), Holbach concentrated on problems of ethics and politics, working on the Social System, Natural Politics and Universal Ethics. He died on January 21st of that memorable year, 1789.

Holbach published his works anonymously and did not discuss them even with his friends, though his authorship was an open secret. The reasons for his discretion are only too evident, considering that the Calas affair broke in 1762, the Sirven affair in 1764 and on July 1st 1766, the year Holbach began to write his anticlerical pamphlets, the chevalier de la Barre was executed for failing to remove his hat at the procession of the Sacrament. It is no wonder the Holbach wrote under the pseudonyms of abbe Bernier of Mirabeau and had his manuscripts smuggled out of the country by secretary, Naigeon, and printed in Holland. The risks he took were such as to demand great prudence. However, according to Grimm, who is probably exaggerating, some parts of the System of Nature were actually written by Diderot; Naigeon, at least, certainly did have a hand in drafting it. How much did the philosophes actually contribute to the genesis of Holbach’s philosophy? We shall come nearest to the truth if we say that the System of Nature was written by them all, in the sense that if it had not been for the whole intellectual atmosphere of Holbach’s salon, the System of Nature could never have seen the light. It is impossible by now to reconstitute the individual contributions of the various personalities, because they are all merged in the one great collective work. And then the encyclopedistes were not a bunch of vain professors, fighting tooth and nail to assert the priority of their own commonplaces. The ideas of mechanical materialism are the ideas of the whole movement of the Enlightenment and it is Holbach’s merit that he organized them into a system and worked them out in depth, despite the fact that he did not have the best mind among his friends. Specialists disagree as to whether Diderot wrote the greater part of the work or not. One of the best studies on the subject arrives at the conclusion that Holbach was “l’hotelier des esprits” in both senses, that he welcomed both the people and their ideas, and that he rather flattened the philosophy of the


Enlightenment when he gave it an anticlerical edge. It seems that in an age of wit he was deficient in wit and took his own writing too seriously.

That, however, is too harsh a judgement and unfair to Holbach. He was one of a number of gifted figures, though he was not, of course, a Voltaire or a Diderot. But though the brightest lights of the eighteenth century put him in the shade, his mind shines brightly enough to enable us to appreciate his greatness as the author of the System of Nature and not see him only as a clumsy, repetitive and styleless editor of the thoughts of others, a mere svstematizer of Enlightenment ideas. Then we shall not accuse Holbach of having simplified and impoverished the philosophical system of the encyclopedistes because he did not repeat the inconsequentialities of Diderot’s or Voltaire’s deism. On the contrary we should praise him for this, since it led to the creation of the first consequential philosophical atheism.

While Voltaire could give his brilliant wit free play, because he wrote for educated people capable of appreciating the finer points of his irony, Holbach wrote for a less exacting type of reader, to whom he tried to convey a certain minimum of enlightened ideas and from whom he could not expect much sophistication. The Manual of Religion and Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary have a similar content. If we compare the two works in themselves, Voltaire’s is a class above the other. But if our interest lies in the revolutionary impact that the different kinds of writing had on the people of France, then the anonymous pamphlet literature is in no way inferior to the rest and must not be overlooked by the historian. Those few lines of criticism, drastically and without much elegance of style pillorying the clergy’s subservience to the rich, did no less to prepare the ground for the revolution than Voltaire’s light and delicate irony. The pamphleteer has to place himself on the level of the masses for whom he writes. The Manual of Religion is the best of Holbach’s enlightened attacks on religion. In plain alphabetical order and with the thoroughness typical of the German scholar, it takes one concept after another and holds it up to ridicule, presenting theological categories as a series of assorted absurdities. Holbach’s fundamental purpose is to show that priests cultivate divinity in their own interest, to place the most sacred concepts in an ironical light, to expose the irrationality of theological concepts, the contradictions of the Bible, the parasitism of priests and monks living at others’ expense, to impress on people’s minds that the clergy battens on the poor. There is no infallible Church and the notion of immortality is a fraud, as are miracles, which are the effects of natural causes; the laws of God are the privileges of the clergy; the mysteries of faith, a means of fleecing the people; religion is the tool of despotism. So the whole complex of theological problems is simply a maze of errors, dogmas are incomprehensible absurdities, religion is the product of ignorance and fear. The rapacious egoism of the priests, their mercenary fanaticism, their alliance with despotism, their deviousness, the essential anti-humanism of religion — these are the ideas which, in endless and rather tedious variations, Holbach proclaims in dozens of his pamphlets.

Holbach wants to wake people up to an awareness of the irrationality of religion and it is through this prism that he views everything, all religion without exception. He is no longer interested in reforming but wants to destroy it. He does not make up his own version of religion, rational and natural, but


eliminates religion altogether from any rational conception of the world. This is a great theoretical advance on deism, not to mention the fact that the mass dissemination of these views undermined the very foundations of the Church’s power and doctrines. However stale parts of these endless invectives against miracles, Christ’s divinity and so on now appear to us, we should do well to quicken our interest in reading them by recalling that these were the opinions the Paris executioner burned with his own hand. Yet another feature invites comparison with Voltaire. Voltaire directed his main attack against superstition, not against religion. But Holbach sets at the heart of his works the thesis that reason and faith, philosophy and religion are incompatible. That is a remarkable step forward and one which Voltaire, of course, roundly condemned. In the matter of consistent, atheistic materialism, Holbach for all his lack of wit ranks high above Voltaire. For previously, reason had shown only that there is a conflict between reason and irrational, bad religion, but it had left the door open to natural religion, that product of the deists’ self-deception.

Holbach negated the whole positive content of Christianity and of all religion, its social function. By doing so he — together with the whole generation of the encyclopedistes — brought about a great reversal, but he failed to grasp the positive content to which all religions and all theological categories owe their existence. Without it, religion becomes mere nonsense. Just as the priests claimed that all evil sprang from the infringement of religious principles, so Holbach claimed, with equal obstinacy, that all evil sprang precisely from the principles themselves. That is all very well, but if it so, how did this “nonsense” come to have such enormous historical importance? That is a question the philosophes themselves never asked because, in their system, man had in the past been subjected to deliberate deception and prejudice and only in their own day was the light of reason beginning to dawn and dispel the darkness that had been instilled in men’s characters by religious education. Holbach and the other philosophes combatted religion precisely as an obstacle to the light, because they did not see any other force or way that could lead to the liberation of society from despotism, did not see, more specifically, the economic laws of capitalism, those forces which were silently and secretly exerting a far greater influence, through the development of secular culture and the concentration of man’s interests on material prosperity, than all the atheists put together.

All the philosophes were very strongly influenced by English empiricism, which is poor in philosophical content, since it confines itself to those levels of reality that can by apprehended by the senses. Perhaps that is why they failed to gain a deeper insight into the problem of the rise, growth and historical role of religion. Imagining that the nature of religion, like the nature of man, is changeless in itself, they fought in the past with a present enemy and so gave a rather naive twist to the whole problem of religion. Perhaps that is why the great thinkers like Diderot and Voltaire preferred to remain vague deists, sensing that religion is not just nonsense, that religious categories do have a certain positive content. Holbach was too ardent an atheist to maintain this reservation.

Mysteries incomprehensible [to] reason were ridiculed by the philosophes, and


that was in order so long as their quarrel was with theologians. But there were also mysteries which were incomprehensible only to their reason and for which the very next generation was able to furnish a more satisfactory explanation than a sneer or outright rejection. Negative criticism, satisfied with an a limine assessment, is always doomed to sterility because it cannot accept the positive content of an alien, perhaps even a contrary, system of opinions and is forced to assume that no such content exists, which is absurd. Such is the case of Enlightenment anticlericalism. Theological concepts and categories were placed in a comical light, but they could not remain there forever. Other views had to emerge, which apprehended reality not just on its empirical surface, as did the philosophes, but in far greater depth. So the development of atheism follows the peculiar law governing the development of ideologies, according to which views and theories rejected by one period become, in another, the source of further development in theoretical thinking and problems which have not been cleared up become a stimulus for philosophical reflection.

Since the fourteenth century, wherever capitalist production relations begin to emerge, we find certain elements which run critically counter to the view of the world that was formed at the height of the Middle Ages. This view laid stress on supernatural life, man’s imperfection and the immortality of the human soul and aspired to salvation after death. For about four centuries it grew progressively weaker, until it became possible to subject it to a decisive philosophical criticism. We cannot trace here in detail the growth of these elements, which were systematically developed in polemics with the philosophy of scholasticism and in political struggles, because that would mean recapitulating the history of the philosophical theories and socio-political doctrines of the renaissance, the great philosophical systems of the seventeenth century and English classical philosophy. A detailed study of the history of philosophy would enable us to observe the steady maturation of those basic constituent elements of bourgeois ideology which were diametrically opposed to the medieval conception [of] life and of the world and among which predominated the ideas of freedom, personality, reason, science and democracy. Individual elements of bourgeois ideology gradually ripened over several centuries, during which they were still, on the whole, very dependent on medieval philosophy and politics and did not represent an independent ideological force. These elements were, however, qualitatively alien to the medieval framework in which they were nurtured, as is best proved by the system of Spinoza. By the eighteenth century, thanks to the enormous progress made during the English revolution, this process had gone so far that the individual elements could be brought together into the comprehensive system of the new bourgeois ideology, based on natural science, secular morality and critical political ideas, in other words on such aspects of the social consciousness as then represented scientific progress. The social role of this system was to serve as the ideological weapon of the bourgeoisie in its struggle for political power, and individual countries — Italy, England, France, Germany, Russia — gave it their own distinctive coloring without abandoning its foundations. From its cradle this ideology derived critical scepticism and individualism, on the foggy island it acquired a commercial, serious respect for facts, France gave it clarity, wit and elegance, Germany endowed it with


system and profundity and Russia added the principles of revolutionary democracy and emotivity.

To be precise, this evolution brings about the replacement of one ideology by another, the feudal by the bourgeois, and if we were not judging this phenomenon historically, we should have no reason to appreciate the contribution made by the bourgeois ideology, since it, too, was a distorted picture of the world. The important thing is however, that this exchange of ideologies, which was connected with the revolutionary struggle, gave the new ideology a substantially broader objective, scientific content and produced a relatively correct criticism of the medieval view. This progress in culture coincides with a liberation from elements of false consciousness, as is indeed always the case. The false consciousness of that time was represented by theology and that is why the bourgeois ideology had to be ostentatiously hostile to religion. In so far as a new ideology evolves through the negation of the old — which does not, however, exhaust all the dynamics of its formation – this ideology, too, had gradually to develop those elements which were contrary to religion, it had to be atheistic and anticlerical. There is no need to insist that the new ideology was impelled to take this stand by the actual economic conditions. The position of the bourgeoisie in the system of economic and political relations simply obliged it by the factual power of existing conditions to adopt an antireligious attitude and possibly even theoretical atheism. That is also why philosophical atheism is one of the central categories of early bourgeois ideology.

The Enlightenment represents a final breach with medieval culture, a breach which emphasized reason against faith, set natural explanation over against supernatural justification and put free and all-powerful reason in the place of subjective dependence on God. The state, politics, economics and culture are no longer justified supernaturally, in connection with salvation, but in connection with people’s interests, naturally, that is to say on the grounds of man’s relation to his environment, to nature and to society. The Enlightenment view of the world, is not, however, just a secularization of the medieval of the world, it is at the same time a new quality, the expression of a new and different consciousness and knowledge, the most striking feature of which is the new rationalistic philosophy and culture. Reason is the founding principle of the Enlightenment attitude. The reason of the bourgeoisie appeared to be the only real point that could serve as a basis for social order. While progressive in itself, this approach necessarily caused the Enlightenment to view social problems in such a way that to bring about a new society seemed to be merely a matter of spreading this reason more widely, that is to say as ultimately a question of human will and not of actual objective possibilities. In these circumstances the way to liberate society was thought to be education, which derived its enormous significance from the key role ascribed to culture. So for the philosophes the crucial problem is not to change the type of social relations but to order the existing relations more rationally. That is why they were at best political revolutionaries.

At the center of its speculations, the Enlightenment put man and his real interest, instead of God. This represented a Copernican turning-point in social science, even though man was conceived as an abstraction deprived of all


concretely historical particularities. It constituted a total breach with the Middle Ages because — in sharp opposition to the whole of Christianity — man was presumed to be naturally good, not evil and tainted with original sin. A general conviction prevailed — without always being expressed in such extreme form as in Rousseau’s utopian return to nature — that man is essentially good, that nature is the source of truth and what corrupts man is bad society and its prejudices. Paul and Virginie, Attala, Rene and Emile are the literary images of this philosophical idea. So the humanism of the Enlightenment had its source in the hypothesis of man’s natural goodness, to which it urged him to return from the moral corruption of his given society. It took quite a long time before the source of humanism came to be sought in the character of social relations and before it was realized that the only rational and necessary course for history to take was not a return to nature nor to any society of the past but the creation of a different society. To the philosophes, however, the rational and the natural appeared to identical, like reason and nature.

It was not because he elaborated the critical views of the past but because he superseded them that Holbach became the key figure for an understanding of modern atheism. As the materialists advanced in the criticism of Christianity, they had necessarily to come at last to a point where negative criticism, the negation of Christianity, turned into the positive task of working out an ideology which might replace Christianity both in the sphere of philosophical metaphysics and in that of ethics and politics. Quite independently of theoretical atheism, of course, this task had been maturing for a long time, and it has been the content of bourgeois philosophy as a whole ever since the renaissance. But Holbach was the first to link atheism deliberately with politics and ethics, with mechanical materialism, and so to bring about a truly radical theoretical turning-point in the formation of a scientific, antireligious view of the world. Atheism, which had been a critical demon without any responsibility of its own, a destructive weapon of negation, became a component part of philosophical materialism. That is why it is only with Holbach that atheism assumes the character of a subjectively apprehended and elaborated philosophical category. After Holbach, we are obliged to pursue the further development of atheism in the broader philosophical context, in conjunction with other philosophical categories, whereas previously it was not necessary to do so because the various antireligious views that emerged had not been directly connected with philosophy, which remained in the background. They might have drawn their support either from philosophical idealism or from materialism.

The materialistic criticism of religion is not the most valuable part of Holbach’s work, but it is undoubtedly the dominant idea, to which all the rest is subordinated. The antireligious bias runs through all the ramifications of his philosophical output as a guiding principle and exerts a substantial influence on both the main spheres that constitute the essence of Holbach’s opinions, that is to say the system of mechanical materialism and his ethico-political views. When we look beyond the popularized form and the clumsy style of his philosophizing chemist, we can perceive the greatness of his basic idea that religion is an instrument for the subjugation of one class by another. From this he infers with absolute consistency an aim which nobody else — not even


Meslier — enunciated so convincingly and irrefutably: every religion must be destroyed. This thesis, which Holbach repeats with the persistence of a Roman senator as his ceterum autem censeo, raised the criticism of religion to the highest level that it was to reach at any point in the eighteenth century. Holbach completed the radical criticism of the deists, carried out the critical task of crushing religious dogma and brought to a theoretical conclusion the task of bourgeois antireligious thinking. That does not mean that the criticism of religion ended with him, but only that henceforth the development of theoretical atheism was to be bound up with a content other than mere criticism of the Church, miracles and dogmas. For Holbach’s work represents a turning away from deism towards a purposeful atheism which retained the critical aspects of English deism — together with the charm with which Voltaire endowed it — but at the same time created a new theory, new, modern atheism such as had never existed before.

Holbach joined critical anticlerical thinking with ideas belonging to the antifeudal political opposition and gave this new ideology a very firm grounding in philosophical materialism. Only in connection with mechanical    materialism could atheism become an independent philosophical category and acquire a philosophical content of its own, whereas previously it had been little more than a term of opprobrium which nobody ever tried to defend in its pure, naked form. Of course, antireligious, atheistic conclusions are implied in deism, because what is a religion that accepts the existence of God only when it is proved by science and Christianity that rejects Christ’s divinity and makes the theologian toil over a proof of his human existence? It is antireligious, indeed quite atheistic, regardless of whether we believe in what is left or not. But it is not yet the decisive turning-point and only the kind of convention which takes atheism to mean any views critical of religion will assimilate it to atheism. In reality what we have here are many views critical of religion, quite a few instances of criticism within theology, various theories which maintain religious premises in one way or another, not theoretical atheism. Such views are atheistic only in their consequences, and that cannot give us any comfort in the sphere of philosophy, because the whole of science and the whole of human practice are atheistic in that sense. The problem at issue is at what point does man create a world view which is not only critical of religion but deliberately excludes God from its explanation of world affairs and which is thus consciously, not just instinctively, atheistic. This qualitative turning-point occurs only with the rise of mechanical materialism, because before that it was neither theoretically nor practically possible. Holbach is the milestone of this revolution, he is the father of modern atheism.

The foundation of his views on religion is the thesis that gods are begotten by ignorance. Man’s notions of divinity are said to arise from the savage’s ignorance of the causes of natural phenomena, his fear of them from his vision of nature as filled with mystery. God is therefore simply the fruit of men’s ignorance and imagination, the most hidden, the most distant and the most incomprehensible cause. The various historical forms he assumes are codetermined by the accidental coincidence of results with imaginary causes and by a personification of natural phenomena. So God is merely a term used to designate an unknown, inexplicable cause, it is simply a personification of


man’s ignorance about nature, an aggregate of all unknown causes. Except for the idea that the gods of all nations were born out of human misery, the rise of men’s notions about them is not given any social justification at all. This thesis is concretely developed in Holbach’s views on mythology, pantheism and theology. The first divinities are the natural elements, as can be seen in classical polytheism and in mythology, that “daughter of nature beautified by poetry”. Natural notions of divinity took shape in pantheism where, by a personification of nature, the gods had intelligence attributed to them by analogy with the intelligence of men and divinity became an immaterial spirit, although the notion of any kind of spirit superior to matter had absolutely no foundation. Finally in theology, that realm of darkness, that science concerned only with things incomprehensible to common sense, further human were absolutized and transferred to God and the pantheistic natural notion of divinity became even more obscure. That is Holbach’s fundamental philosophical thesis about the origin of our notions about the gods.

His critical antireligious ideas Holbach shared with most of the other philosophes. But he differed from them very sharply in his criticism of the philosophical foundations of these views, in his criticism of deism. He made a change which was then a great step forward. Holbach identified theism with deism. He rejected every inconsistent attitude to religion and censured deism for its half-hearted hypotheses, the theory of optimism for its obvious unfoundedness and natural religion for being in fact unnatural because not grounded in reason. Holbach does admit that every man creates his own God and that God changes in accordance with the character of man, but he does not see much difference between the various types of faith in God. He makes the point, then great and new, that when confronted with consistent atheism, those fine theological distinctions between right and wrong, true and heretical notions of God lose much of their significance. All such notions, including the deist, are wrong. And this led to only one possible conclusion: these dangerous fruits must be destroyed. Do not say, you deist, that they are useful to the people, do not mix error with truth, accept the consequences of your own principles, do not cut away the branches, but lay the axe to the trunk.

Holbach was the first to rid atheism of the odium traditionally attached to it and to show that the atheist is simply a man who excludes from his speculation about matter and energy the spiritual powers and imaginary intelligence which merely stand in the way of knowledge. He also wittily answered the old question whether atheism is compatible with morality when he pointed out that what matters after all is people’s conduct, not their notions. An atheist may be a bad or a good man, just as believers are good or bad regardless of their religion, since “a man’s temperament is always more powerful than his gods”. Just as good gods cannot make a man better, and bad gods cannot make him worse, so atheism will not corrupt an honest man nor make a bad man honest. Holbach attributes to factual conditions an equal priority over all notions, whether religious or atheistic.

In one thing alone did Holbach remain inconsistent. He declared that the axe was to be put to the tree and he disagreed philosophically with the view that religion should be retained for the benefit of Voltaire’s tailor, that is to say that it was useful for the people. At the same time he found it very difficult to


decide whether consistent atheism should be preached to the people or not. He did not want atheism to he a justification for the profligate schemers and aristocrats, but he did not regard its principles a[s] suitable for the people either. The old problem, how to govern with atheistic principles, how to govern without religion and keep the people in check, the problem of Bayle and Voltaire, once again appears in its then insoluble form. Truly, if there is no God, everything is allowed, and if everything is allowed there is nothing to stop the poor man taking the property of the rich man. That is why Holbach was as careful about the dissemination of atheist principles among the nobility as among the people. For him, atheism was not a narrow scientific theory, a justification of the practical political demands of the plebeians, as it was to become during the revolution. Holbach regarded atheism as a purely bourgeois doctrine and today, two hundred years later, we can see that he was right.

In conclusion, how are we to assess the total significance of this atheism? It was as the most radical antireligious theory, originally begotten in the milieu of the liberal nobility and reshaped in the course of the bourgeoisie’s political struggle against the Church and the nobility as the props of feudalism. In France, where the conflict between and advanced bourgeoisie and a backward feudalism assumed the most acute form, English deism was developed a stage further and its most critical views were given autonomy in the form of atheism. Holbach’s philosophy is the first modern consistently atheistic and theoretically developed world view, it wages a decisive though narrowly antireligious struggle in accordance with the interest of a revolutionary class and accomplishes a total breach with the practice of justifying morality and law on supernatural grounds. The doctrine of atheism however corresponded to the aims of bourgeois policy for only two or three decades and even before the revolution had run its course it was again replaced by anticlericalism and deism.



We cannot grasp the significance of Holbach’s mechanical materialism unless we realize that it involves something far more important than the founding of a mere school of philosophy, that it provides new solutions to old problems. Mechanical materialism gives a philosophical basis to the creation of a bourgeois culture reposing on science and reason, it springs from an urgent need to provide the newly emerging culture with an abstract expression and theoretical justification. The process of forming the capitalist technology and economics and conceptually preparing for the bourgeois revolutions brought about the collapse of the theoretical notions of the Middle Ages, the irrelevance of which became more and more insistently obvious to the thinking minds of the age. The forming of a new culture also requires a change of scientific criteria and philosophical categories, a break in the pursuit of knowledge which might open the way to further advance by enabling thinking men to grasp the theoretical image of a given society and formulate its goals. This universal cultural process operates also in philosophy, where it finds expression in mechanical materialism, in the conflict between science and faith, the disintegration of scholastic methods and metaphysics, the rise of atheism. Socio-economic changes thus generate not only new living conditions but also new ideas and give rise to fundamental upheavals both in individual scientific disciplines and in the actual mode of thinking.

Mechanical materialism is the theoretical basis of the French Enlightenment. It is exceptionally important, because in the age that prepared the bourgeois revolution there occurred once again with classical sharpness a clash between two antithetical philosophical systems, which echoed the clash between the ideologies of the bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy. In this struggle, mechanical materialism became the philosophy of social progress and it put forward an image of the world which was, at the time, the most accurate reflection of reality as known to the science of the day. It presented itself as militant atheism, as a philosophy with an antifeudal bent and denying the operation of supernatural forces, as a world view reposing on reason, sense-experience and the sciences and boldly voicing ideas contrary to the dogmatism of the Church. In the effort to promote the freedom of personality and transform the world and the social order, the society of the future was portrayed as the reign of natural, sound, common sense. The arguments justifying the order that was being striven for went hand in hand with those urging the necessity of the fall of feudalism. So it was especially the basic social mission of the age — the creation of a “natural” civic society — that required the formulation of a consistent antireligious world view — mechanical materialism. But side by side with the social need, there also existed a strong tendency within science itself to work out a more accurate theoretical and methodological system.

Ever since the renaissance, mechanics and mathematics had stood in the forefront of the sciences and the great successes they had obtained in explaining the world in accordance with mechanical and mathematical laws naturally had an influence also on the sphere of the social sciences, which tried to come to terms with the new methods by seeking to explain not only inanimate nature


but also the organic and social spheres by converting their operation into mechanical, chemical, mathematically ascertainable processes. The rationally quantitative, mechanical approach began, under the influence of mathematics, to penetrate into every domain. Mathematics was the basis of the successes achieved by mechanics, physics and astronomy in creating a new image of the world. Under the influence of the successes obtained by mathematics it came to be thought that science could be recognized as such only if it used quantitative methods. The medieval picture of the world was qualitative — the category of essence was apprehended as a certain quality and not as a quantitatively ascertainable relation, capable of being expressed in a mathematical formula. The collapse of this qualitative picture of the world coincided with the rise of mechanical materialism, which did not, however, mean that the qualitative point of view was abolished but only that mathematical methods became the principal means of investigating qualities. It was an attempt to get at the essence of things by quantitative analysis, to reflect the actual structure of reality and to avoid the pitfall of claiming that the effect of something can be explained by the magical operation of its “essence”, of the otherwise unspecified qualities of thing concerned.

This point of view profoundly influenced the methodology of social science as well. Corresponding to the attempt of science to interpret qualities quantitatively, an attempt was made in philosophy to subject nature and society to the most general laws in motion, an attempt to express the multifarious world of qualities by a mathematical formula, a mechanical law. Newton’s generalizations about motion and his discovery of attraction gave rise, in philosophy, to the supposition that there exist certain general laws which govern human society as well. The law of attraction was borrowed for the purposes of social science. Holbach overlooked that every sphere is governed by laws specific to it; the laws of nature were transposed into spheres where they do not apply, where they lost their inductive character. (In fact this projection of the schemata of natural science into the social sciences went on in different forms right into the nineteenth century, being alimented by the pursuit of exactness in social science.) In the same way, man was also regarded as a complicated machine. The mechanist saw the world and society as an enormous material machine, a mechanism, obeying laws which could be discovered. The scientific mode of thought was extended to the whole world, and nature and life were conceived as processes of material particles governed by laws of causality. Features peculiar to mechanics were extended to nature as a whole, to the history of mankind, and thus constituted the methodological foundation of the specialized sciences. History was the process by which this law, the law of reason, was implemented in time and space, it represented man’s advance towards freedom happiness, prosperity and progress. Reason was the motive principle of the mechanism of history — of progress. Only when it turned out that the stages of history did not lend themselves to a one-sided assessment, that progress did not follow the same course in every sphere, that it was often in retreat, then the very nature of progress was thus called into question. Only then did historical optimism come to be replaced by pessimism on the one hand and. on the other, was given a deeper and more objective justification, no longer in terms of the autonomous evolution of reason but in the dialectical


relationship between the forces and the conditions of production. The standpoint of mechanical materialism was not superseded philosophically until Marx and scientifically until the twentieth century, when the old notions of matter and causality broke down.

Let us now examine the basic features of the new system with reference to Holbach’s work. Holbach sees the world as changing matter, as nature in motion. Nature is a living whole in which all the particles are interconnected, interdependent and caught up in an inescapable process. The world is conceived as necessary, as governed by knowable laws, everything in the material universe moves, every object is governed by its own laws of motion. Nature is thus a system made up of various kinds of movement, imperceptible (internal) and mechanical (external), acquired and spontaneous, simple and complex. So that, in Holbach’s terms, to exist is to undergo the movements corresponding to a certain essence. Motion is a mode of being, it has no source outside being and — like time and space — it is an inseparable attribute of matter. Matter is conceived actively, as an active principle. In this fashion, mechanism finds a way of superseding the old conception of passive, inert matter, which in previous forms of materialism generally required some outside force to set in motion. The eternal motion of matter dispenses with the need to postulate some active agent, whether it be God, the prime mover, or even a force conceived in a purely mechanical manner. Nature is not something that gives rise to actual external nature as a cause does to an effect, it is eternal matter, endowed with orderly motion, eternal attraction and repulsion. Motion itself, previously regarded as an external force, is now conceived as organically bound up with matter, as an attribute of it, as a mode of its existence. There is no beginning, there is eternity, there is only the world which is changing, being born and dying. Nature, constantly reborn out of its ashes — eternal motion — the Phoenix.

The idea that matter and motion are one is basically correct. The mechanical laws of attraction and repulsion of course influenced the conception of motion and change. Motion was apprehended only as a displacement in space, as movement in a circle, not as evolution towards something higher. In connection with that, every change was always primarily a change in space and not a change in time. The circular motion of eternal and, though constantly changing, yet essentially changeless and immutable nature gave rise to that distinctive fatalistic determinism, which so strikingly contrast with, and yet complements, the assumption that there are invariable, universal laws of attraction and repulsion which govern not only nature but also society and the course of man’s personal life. Although Holbach generally declares that motion is an attribute of matter, he still stops short of carrying the dialectical principle through to its logical conclusion and conceiving the fundamental categories of philosophical materialism themselves as subject to evolution; he fails to see that his changeless essences, susceptible only of a spatial kind of motion — one variant of the innumerable recurrences that make up the course of nations — are in fact essences which actually change their character in time. So we should look in vain for those “flowing categories” and changing essences in Holbach. The dialectical notion of change had been adumbrated only as a general principle, as changing nature, and the world of essences was. still


dominated by petrified metaphysics. Figuratively speaking, in Holbach’s conception of the world everything moves except the ultimate categories, which alone are motionless. This shows a development in certain aspects of the dialectical method of thought, a method which had previously been applied only in naive, straightforward, Greek form and which now began, through mechanical materialism and through natural science, to prepare it self for its coming triumph. Holbach greatly contributed to the development of materialistic dialectics also because he made the unchanging world of the traditional ideal prototypes of things, substances and qualities subject to change — though, as yet, only mechanical change. He perceived the universal law of motion in nature only in the sole form in which it was then known, as the law of attraction and repulsion and not as evolution, a movement from the lower to the higher. Even so, Holbach’s mechanical materialism was an outstanding dialectical performance. For at that time philosophy was not yet faced with the question which dialectical materialism argues with the evolutionists, that is to say the character of evolution, but with the question whether to recognize motion as an attribute of matter at all, whether to recognize the actual principle of evolution. The mechanical materialists were not concerned with the problem of what evolution is like, they argued with the theologians about whether evolution exists at all or whether there is only a changeless world of substantial forms. So to reject the contribution actually made by the mechanical materialists to dialectics itself is to oversimplify the history of materialism.

    Holbach emerges as a philosophical materialist also on the question of the knowability of the world. He upholds the empirical origin of ideas and the possibility of complete knowledge, again in opposition to the scholastic theory of knowledge then current, which argued that ideas are inborn, contained elements of agnosticism and rejected experience as the methodological basis of science and the cognitive process. Here Holbach closely followed Locke, who laid the foundations of the Enlightenment theory of knowledge and superseded the theory, universally held and accepted even by Descartes, that ideas are inborn, which obscured and distorted the very essence of the cognitive process by presupposing that the basic ideas in which we think about the world, the “cognitive forms”, are given by God. Locke did away with this inconsequentiality, inferred all knowledge from experience and so became the ancestor of the modern theory of knowledge, both idealistic and materialistic. For Locke’s conclusion gave rise to two epistemological trends, one leading to subjective idealism and agnosticism, to Berkeley, Hume, Kant, the other to French materialism, Feuerbach and Marx. The trends differed on the fundamental issue, that is, on whether the bodies of the outer world are to be regarded as “bundles of sensations” or whether the bundles of sensations are to be regarded as reflections of the bodies. Locke opens the way to both conceptions, because he himself derived simple ideas from the outer world, but not secondary ideas. However, the main subject of this theory of knowledge are ideas, not reality, itself; according to him we know an object only in the form of the ideas it arouses in us. Thus the possible scope of knowledge is limited and the substance, the essence of an object, that which bears its attributes, remains unknown. In this conflict Holbach took the materialistic side. He declared un-


equivocally that the world can be known and averred that ideas are reflections of actual things, in accord with the other philosophes. He conceived this reflection mechanically as a process by which an object acts on a passive subject. In the terms of the criticism Marx addressed to Feuerbach, we might say of him too, that he severs cognition from social practice, regarding the cognition of an object as observation and not as human activity, as praxis. These mechanical features arc heightened by the fact that Holbach’s materialism effaces the distinction between matter and consciousness, eliminated the quantitative differentiation of matter and gives primacy to one-sided sensualism, which destroys reflection as a source of ideas.

The principal social views of the philosophes must also be regarded as essentially mechanico-materialistic ideas, that is, as an inconsistent materialism continually distorted by idealism, not as plain objective idealism. If, in the sphere of social theory, we grant the name of materialism only to the position that social existence precedes social consciousness, then of course we shall not be able to find any materialist whatever in the past history of philosophy because Karl Marx was the first one. But if we take the line that a materialist is a man who sets out to explain society itself as well as its history by natural causes, then we must rank among the materialists those thinkers — however naive or mechanistic — who started out from the existence of society and explained history by the natural causes of historical facts, geographical environment, population density, etc. They may not be historical materialists, but that is not to say that they are not materialists at all. And a place among them certainly belongs to the philosophes, who were among the first to explain society by the natural interests of the individual. Although they are unable to apprehend the individual as a sum of the given social conditions, yet in contrast with the theological idealism which explained history by the super-natural operation of higher forces the Enlightenment, with its principle of self-interest, represents a shift from idealism to materialism and not merely the exchange of one set of idealistic theories for another. The natural explanation of the origin of society and the state by the theory of the social contract, that is, of an agreement made by people in order to protect their property and freedom had a materialistic character. With its thesis that the state is the work of men it struck at the heart of thousand-year old traditions and challenged a theory which idolized absolutism and denied that power had any natural sources at all. Despite the fact that this theory overlooked the class nature of the state and idealized state power, it was nonetheless an achievement on the part of materialism. The thesis that man is the product of the social environment, a thesis which led to the revolutionary conclusion that feudalism must be abolished, also had a strikingly materialistic character. After all, the concept of the social environment included economic relations as well. Admittedly, it was regarded as the result of legislative activity and not as the outcome of autonomous economic development, but it is just this — as Marx himself acknowledged — that opens the way to a materialistic conception of history, to historical materialism. If we look into these neglected aspects of the Enlightenment, we shall be surprized to discover that the thinkers who are naively described as idealists in fact laid the foundations of the materialistic point of view. The error arises because the earlier materialism is viewed unhistorically and compared with a higher, more mature stage in the development of modern historical


materialism. The way to arrive at a correct assessment is by demonstrating that in social science, too, the materialistic conception already existed before Marx.

What led Marxist historians of philosophy to underrate the materialist point of departure was Plekhanov’s penetrating discovery of the fundamental contradiction which runs throughout the materialism of the Enlightenment, that is to say, the vicious circle in which the environment does indeed govern people’s thinking, but people’s thinking governs the environment. This relationship between the environment and people’s mentality theoretically pointed the way either to a helpless capitulation before the status quo or to an idealistic attitude which ascribed to consciousness the power of determining the environment. However inadequate such a solution may be, the fact remains that the philosophe’s basic position is materialistic. For the relationship between opinions and environment did not operate in only one direction, the opinions determining the environment, but also the other way round: the environment determined consciousness, man was the product of his environment. The basic standpoint involved the dialectics of reciprocal action. There was materialism also in the philosophe’s practical attitude, in his endeavor to change the given environment, in the practical way his theory was related to politics, in the philosopher’s active attitude to social tasks, which was the life-creed of all the men of the Enlightenment.

The historically materialistic idea that social existence determines men’s consciousness thus grew out of the Enlightenment theory concerning the role played by the environment in shaping of people’s mentality, out of the magnificent attempt to explain both the personal peculiarities of individuals and the historical process as a whole in terms of a given milieu, of social environment. The concept of environment is allied to the later concept of the material existence of society. “Environment” means not only the geographical conditions, political institutions and social opinions, it also involves some apprehension of the significance of technology and economics. The basic Enlightenment idea of explaining social phenomena in terms of a given environment, of objective social facts, with the help of geographical, economic and political factors, is materialistic. We must not mistake the insufficient depth of mechanical materialism for an idealistic approach. Holbach failed to penetrate to the most elemental sources of the historical process and, stopping at the economic self-interest of the individual as the ultimate motive force of history, he overrated the part played by reason and social opinion. But despite all that, we cannot make an idealist of him unless we take a rigid and unhistorical approach to the whole problem of the precursors of historical materialism in the earlier history of philosophy. The environment forms the man. Behind this discovery of the philosophes there lies the splendid thought that people are not born what they are, that they become it; in this respect the concept of environment supplants the old philosophical lumber of inborn ideas and values. But of course it poses one grave problem. In the Enlightenment concept of environment, elements of superstructure — political institutions, opinions and laws — predominate, so that social consciousness does not emerge as a product of the base. The system of social relations is ultimately determined by the sup-


erstructure and in the charmed circle of environment-consciousness-environment it is the elements [of] social consciousness that preponderate, The relationship of social conditions to the superstructure of consciousness, institutions and individual consciousness, takes on a mechanically one-sided character. But Holbach’s basic defect is not that he failed to apprehend society dialectically but that he regarded the materialistic starting-point, “environment”, not as a product of social existence but as a product of the superstructure. It is conceived not as the outcome of the social practice of men engaged in reshaping the environment but as a simple causal effect of the outside world on human consciousness.

The mechanical materialist manages to grasp only the most general materialistic foundation, the environment and the biological essence of man, and then vainly tries to explain the specific character of society by nature of rather “human nature”. But the mechanistic point of departure, nature, provides only generalizations about the forces of attraction and repulsion, about love and aversion, about self-love or gravitation towards oneself. So mechanical materialism fails in its treatment of social problems because it despoils the principle of materialism [of?] an analysis of the basic material relationship between people. So it presents people merely as victims of their environment and the historical process as the law of evolution of reason.



If we wish to understand any of Holbach’s views about the problem of society we must start from his notion of man, from the philosophical anthropology which he shared with the leading minds of the age, with Diderot, Helvetius and La Mettrie. Holbach was convinced that if he discovered the natural principles which guide man in society, he would have discovered the key to his happiness. What are these principles? What else but those eternal and changeless laws which govern man as an individual, the laws of nature. So the anthropological principle becomes something like a universal point of departure for the study of society and politics. Man is the product of nature, he is subject to its laws. The source of his error is that he thinks himself independent of these laws, that he supposes that inside him there is some special substance, independent of nature, to which he ascribes a false, imaginary spirituality, immateriality and immortality. That is how man came to be erroneously split up into two parts, the physical and the spiritual, and cut off from the laws of nature. Holbach sets out quite programmatically to lead man back to nature. Of course, he proposes to do so by a different path than Rousseau’s return to a state of pristine inviolateness, which is merely a variation on the legend of paradise. Holbach wants to awaken man to a love of reason and virtue, to educate him, to teach him to know nature. Man is therefore conceived as being one with nature, as an integral part of the material totality of nature to whose laws he is subject. Nature is man’s mother, therefore human nature, too, is essentially good, therefore nature does not need to be denied in man, only to be regulated. It is on this human nature that the rule of ethics and politics must be founded. All the disasters of mankind are due precisely to ignorance of human nature.

Man is a part of nature and subject to its laws, he is conceived as a natural being and not as a creature of God. Holbach’s man is no longer that split dualist personality in whom the Christian’s noble soul is divided from his base corporeality but a being whose soul and body are interdependent. The supposition that there exists some non-material substance independent of the body and soul is completely ruled out. It is no longer sin that makes man bad but the conditions in which he lives, the social order and institutions. Therefore he is not responsible for himself, the conditions account for everything. This idea was common to nearly all the philosophes but it assumed a wide variety of forms. Rousseau set good natural man over against a bad society, Voltaire took a more realistic view of their mutual relationship when he saw faulty man in a faulty society. Holbach the moralist sets over against a corrupt environment a man governed by passions which are in themselves neither good nor bad. This way of looking at man mirrors the cultural conflict of the Enlightenment with the Middle Ages. The traditional view regarded human life as a preparation for eternal life. None of Holbach’s advice would have meant anything to medieval man. What is the sense of living in accordance with nature, when that is the way to lose eternal life, when it is the way of death, to the most appalling annihilation? What is the sense of living according to one’s own personal reason and interest, when the only way to obtain true life is precisely to follow God’s commandments without fearing to


deny one’s own reason (what vanity!) and to sacrifice one’s self-interest? In contrast to these principles, Holbach’s view of man represents a return to the materialism of antiquity. It is on these elementally materialistic foundations that he constructs his theory of society.

Holbach’s image of society and of man, the basic notions underlying his social system can be regarded as analogous with his notion of the universe. Nature is matter eternally moving in a circle of recurring generation, change and extinction: an eternal return, eternal circulation of life in the universe, and endless round, governed by immutable laws. Man fits into this great materialistic conception of the universe as well, being just as subject as the lifeless celestial bodies to the general laws that govern the mechanism of this universe. Attraction and repulsion simply take on a humanized form, manifesting themselves as the force of self-preservation, the pursuit of what is beneficial, and the force that repels man from disaster, saves him from destruction. Man is a machine, ruled by the blind mechanism of his passions in the same way as nature is ruled by the laws of animate and inanimate matter. That is the fundamental, stridently mechanistic feature of the system which tends towards a certain fatalism. When Holbach conceived man as a mechanism subject to certain general laws, he did away with the old notions of man, which considered man’s specific characteristic to be his immortal soul, his mind. It was Holbach’s thesis that man is bound by the laws of nature and should not try to escape them, the thesis that man is subject to laws, that first made the science of man possible. When dealing with Holbach’s anthropology, we must attach due right to his materialistic endeavor to subject man to some secularly conceived scientific laws. In this context, we shall perceive that attraction and repulsion, the mechanical basis of Holbach’s ideas about man, constitute the ultimate source of present-day opinions about society and man.

The great materialistic conception in which man, a subject of nature, is bound by universal laws, by cyclical evolution, is not merely an inconsistency of mechanicism, it is first and foremost a victory of the materialistic position over the dualism of Christianity. Holbach’s monism supersedes the Christian division of man. At the same time it effaces the distinction between the physical and the spiritual and reduces all processes to the physical level. Man thus becomes the plaything of mechanical forces. The universal laws of attraction and repulsion are extended to apply to man throughout the ages, whose historical and social conditioning is lost from view. And there is another great point about this anthropology — the belief in the natural equality of man’s reasoning capacities, the belief that the differences between people are differences in the life they live, their experiences, their environment, not differences of stock or blood. This idea of men’s equality, which in no way precluded inequalities of possessions or natural endowments, was something quite different from the later notion of equality before the law, which emerged out of it. Certain ideas and slogans, such as equality, are so conditioned by the period which produced them that we cannot inject into them the real historical content they assumed later without distorting them. The prerevolutionary slogan of men’s equality is not the same thing as the subsequent equality in the eyes of the law. Society had to suffer a drastic disappointment before it could grasp the real content of the dream of men’s fraternity, equality and liberty. 


Even though we appreciate the greatness of the ideas put forward by anthropological materialism, we must take note of its metaphysical character. Holbach’s man is changeless. Just as the motion of eternal nature is circular, so man’s character is eternally the same, governed by the same needs and interests. Man is only a physical, not a social being, a part and offspring of nature, not a product of society. Anthropological materialism apprehends man’s physical, biological aspect quite correctly but wrongly absolutizes it. It dissociates man from his concretely historical social relationships and so turns him into a kind of abstraction, a biologized being stripped of all the attributes of sociability. As a result, man is driven with a kind of blind, desperate necessity by a mechanism of outside forces, he is himself a machine. Holbach did not see the possibilities that man derives from his own practical activity there is an element which enables us to escape from blind mechanical determinism. This view certainly followed from the scientific principles on which materialism was based. But it also included objective elements expressing the social reality that in the conditions of class society human life is the object of forces which man perceives as a force external and incomprehensible to him. The thinker who all his life urged people to take an active part in the political battle against feudalism did not discover, on the purely philosophical level, any free will at all in his bleakly causal world; his abstraction of man is stifled by fatality, and endless succession of inevitable causes admitting of no chance, let alone of any purposeful action. Holbach’s man is nature's slave, fatally determined by his natural and social environment, governed by blind necessity. He is determined by all sorts of things, save only by himself. Metaphysical necessity binds man, turning him into a passive object worked on by impersonal causes and conditions. Its logical climax is the fatalistic vision where the smile of a woman can provoke a war. The distinction between necessity and chance is wiped out, everything is necessary and man stands defenceless before fate. For the mechanical materialist finds himself in a quandary when it comes to putting his own principles into practice. The correct principle which recognizes that the evolution of nature is governed by universal laws is converted in the concrete situation into an abstract, unconditional determinism, in which everything is ultimately as necessary as it is fortuitous.

Nature as the starting-point for the study of man and the knowability and necessity of man’s evolution, these are the materialistic features of Holbach’s anthropology. The basis of his speculations, materialism, and open theism, is essentially valid. But in a sense the materialistic approach has the same kinds of limitations as the earlier idealism. If that regarded nature as a passive principle governed by a spirit, if in the social disciplines it regarded history as the work of the spirit. Providence or reason, now the operational signs were reversed and everything connected with spiritual activity was to be explained as a simple function of matter. Mechanical materialism thus theoretically robbed man of his ability to act. Man became a passive atom of nature, delivered up to the tender mercies of necessity, freedom was reduced to necessity. Further difficulties arose from the unhistorical conception of man’s nature, his changeless essence. Holbach devotes all his efforts to transforming man’s character by means of education, rather than transforming the conditions in which he lives. That was obviously inconsistent with his own principles, because if


human nature is changeless, what should be changed is the environment, which is generally recognized to be a bad influence. Finally, Enlightenment man was very abstract. He was a phantom, not rooted in “empirical man”, as Marx put it, because his general features were drawn out of the air, or out of the thinker’s head, not from any specific case. Man was cut off from his own activity and therefore Holbach was unable to perceive that in the process of social practice human nature changes. The deductive character of the Enlightenment theory of man is, of course, understandable once we realize that apart from the philosophically ungeneralized facts of history, the emerging science of man and society had practically nothing to build on. The most elementary things, like the origin of the human species, were in the realm of pure speculation and, except for a hint at the idea that man evolved from the animal kingdom, all we find in Holbach is the admission that as yet science knows nothing about the problem. This anthropology will enable us to see why the non-socially conceived man who figures in the Enlightenment theories of progress battles only with nature, why Condorcet, Helvetius or Holbach are not aware of the struggle within society as a theoretical principle but see it at best as a regrettable error, generated by chimaeras. The evolution of man and society is conceived as the linear growth of man’s domination over nature.

It is a curious contradiction that in his theory Holbach binds man and subjects him to the law of necessity, while in his practical politics the same theoretician relies on man precisely as a free agent. Is it not strange, that the theoretician who regarded man as passive and accepted the existence of objective laws, simultaneously formulated the political program of the struggle against despotism — the program of his activity? We shall not grasp how such a contradiction arises unless we see it as the outcome of a particular historical situation. For the fact is that the logician who cogitates about history by the syllogistic method and the historian who sees behind the evolution of categories only the autonomous evolution of the philosophical spirit will never understand history as well as the anarchist, the chaos-lover, who regards history as the contrary of a logical order. The contradictions of Enlightenment thought can be understood only if they are seen as resulting from the pressure of social practice on philosophical speculation, as an ideological product which takes shape and develops historically irrespective of whether it is objective and logically consistent or not. In other words, philosophical categories and their development become comprehensible only when we take into account, in addition to the logical activity of the philosophizing head, a procedure which may be agreeable and sometimes not, but which is always correct. A history of philosophy without a sociological explanation of the way categories evolve is merely a fine tissue in which a fictitious explanation of the development of the relations between categories is made to compensate for the perplexity that overwhelms philosophy when it is faced with reality.

What influence did this anthropological standpoint have on the conception of the historical process? Progressive social theories generally arise in periods when a transition towards some higher stage is either going on or felt to be required, that is to say, when the situation itself highlights the need for change. It was certainly this basic historical motive that led the philosophes, too, to their conclusion about the necessity of evolution, to the conviction that history


evolves in a certain direction. If this was practically the first time that any such ideas had appeared, the decisive social impetus must have come from the relatively swift and therefore perceptible development of manufactorial production relations. In previous societies, change occurred only as an elemental and slow process, and so it was not conducive to the formulation of exact laws. But during the Enlightenment, the goal toward which politics is supposed to move was given beforehand; social consciousness helped to shape history.

Holbach believed that society and man are subject to the law of motion which rules the universe. Front there it was only a short step to the conviction that history does not mark time but moves, that mankind marches forward. Holbach and the philosophes thus enriched the dialectics of social evolution by a truly fundamental notion, and it is only in comparison with a higher stage, with Hegel, that we can describe their system as metaphysical. Naturally, they were unable to apprehend evolution as quantitative change and as the consequence of the contradictions inherent in things; it was a kind of circular movement and it was primarily from the development of reason that the development of society was inferred. But all that must not be allowed to conceal the greatness, the originality and the priority of their idea that history is subject to the law of progress, the materialistic character of their principal idea in contrast to the theology of the time. It was the development of the philosophy of history that made the conception of an evolving society possible. The chaos of history, previously ordered by divine predestination, by Providence, was now perceived as the organic evolution of a society subject to the law of evolution, of progress to a higher level. Condorcet and Helvetius sketched out the first attempts to interpret the content of this evolution not only as a triumph of the human spirit but already in terms of economic development and man’s struggle for his own existence. Naturally, the course of history often appeared to the philosophes as a chaos of accidents, but even then their conception of history — as a meaningless jumble of fortuitous facts — was nearer to the truth than the conceptions then current, which were able to express the laws governing the course of history only in terms of fantastic theistic categories, as the inscrutable ways of the Lord, about which man can know nothing save that whatever God does, he does well. That is the meaning of history for Augustine Aurelius, Thomas Aquinas and Bossuet.

Social development is conceived in Holbach as the spread of reason, as a developing movement of the mind. That is why education plays such a great part, why so much weight is attached to doing away with the prejudices and errors that impede the historical process. The struggle of truth and falsehood, science and superstition, philosophy and religion, was a theoretically justified and practically indispensable requirement of the age. Ignorance and irrationality were regarded as the actual source of all social evil. People had not yet come to realize that no education or culture can remove the material foundations of ignorance itself. The philosophes thought they had at last discovered the truth. Everything before them appeared as a history of error and ignorance arising front nescience of the truth about the natural principles which guide man’s conduct. History itself was in fact a mistake, a painful misunderstanding, full of incomprehensible wars, religious prejudices and fanatical crimes. It was a title of wandering, of searching for the truth that had now at last been dis-


covered. The historical process itself was irrational because reason had not yet mastered it. The rejection of previous history, which had about it something of an emotional repulsion to past and present barbarism and tyranny, at the same time revealed an ignorance of the real motive forces of history, an inability to perceive social evolution as necessary. The necessity of history was dependent on recognition by critical reason.

The philosophes were the first to formulate the materialistic idea that the social process is governed by its own specific laws, which had previously been apprehended only in the mythicized form propounded by religious systems, as the logic of God’s design. God plays the part of the unapprehended laws governing nature and man, which are thus removed outside the human world, outside man, and dissociated from natural and social processes. That is why the necessity of the historical process is presented in religion as God’s design, as predestination, as God’s foreknowledge of the course of history. The supposition that the world is thus divinely ordained led to the notion that the actual course of events is inevitable and has no possible alternative, that things are bound together by necessary connections, though the necessity exists only in the mind of God. As far as man is concerned, they are the inscrutable dispensation of God, against which it is vain to rebel, since even when we try to escape God’s plan, we thereby unwittingly fulfil it. Every man is a tragic Oedipus. The superseding of this fatalistic philosophy of history inevitably gave rise either to a rejection of the principle of necessity or to a secular conception of the laws governing it, or to both at the same time, as in the case of the Enlightenment. Some philosophes liberated themselves from necessity and conceived history as a playground of chance, a chaos of secular causes, others tried to give necessitarianism a materialistic sense. Both tendencies ran counter to the religio-idealistic conception of history, the theological view of the social process as governed by higher forces. And though neither was quite free from idealism, they did nonetheless represent materialism in the social sciences.

Law, according to the philosophes and especially Montesquieu, is a necessary relationship deriving from the nature of things, a necessary relationship between the essences of things. Contrary to the objectively idealistic conception according to which law is the fruit of an objective consciousness (God, reason), the Enlightenment, and Holbach with it, takes the materialistic position that law is not made but inheres in the nature of things and phenomena themselves, that it has an objective character. Law is not created by an acting subject, it derives from relations between phenomena, it is a reflection of reality. In this conception of law there is missing the active component of human action, the awareness that social laws are also laws of men’s activity. In contrast to the rigid necessity that governs events in antiquity where, as Heraclitus put it, all men graze beneath the whip of God, men now possess a supposedly limitless freedom of purpose, they possess reason. Man’s freedom, represented by his stomach. Only when this age-old antinomy between man’s consciousness and his existence is theoretically, abolished, when philosophy takes for its basis the conscious practical activity of people, will it become possible to overcome the subjective features in the materialistic conception of social laws as well. So while we must take note of the contradictions that exist


between rigid determinism and the freedom of the political act which is to change society, yet this contradiction is not so profound and impossible to resolve as it appears at first sight. There is a close connection between the objective mechanical laws of attraction and repulsion and the subjective laws of common sense. The principles of common sense, namely that man seeks his happiness and property and that he has a right to do, were regarded as objective laws of nature, which common sense had merely discovered. The natural principles of politics and ethics were theoretically apprehended as necessary relations imposed on man by nature itself. So it is not true that in so far as the philosophes recognized a law governing the order of the universe, they saw it only as a movement of the spirit. For the philosophes, the laws of reason fuse with the laws of science and, for their own period, they are the laws of science. It is meaningless to ask whether they were scientific or not, because the actual content of what is scientific changes. They were scientific in a different manner than the laws of today.

The significance of the Enlightenment notion of laws governing the social order lay in the magnificent discovery that the causes of social evolution lie in man’s material interests, in his striving for happiness and prosperity, a striving which had an absolutely materialistic sense and implied the demand that the basic necessities of people’s lives, both physical and spiritual, be secured. Self-interest as the motive force of history — that is the ultimate basis of the historico-materialistic conception of history. Social relations are here inferred from the principle of egoism, from man’s pursuit of his personal benefit, which is regarded as being at one with the benefit of society. The conflict between these various interests in the rational society of the future, the conflict between the development of productive forces and the new social relations, was still beyond the purview of the philosophical fathers of the revolution. Holbach did not allow for the fact that this principle of egoism might lead to one man being degraded to a mere instrument of another’s self-interest. Thus in the idea that the social order is governed by laws the philosophes put forward a solution to the problem of the meaning of history. They were not, of course, able to discern in history its real, objective meaning, which consists in the setting up and the resolution of contradictions called forth by the succession of socio-economic formations. The meaning of history appears to them as the development of the human spirit, as the advance of reason, and the fundamental contradiction is not yet for them the objective conflict of production forces and relations but only its subjective reflection in people’s mentality, the conflict of reason and error, science and faith. Historically speaking, this is a correct materialistic solution, because social evolution is conceived as a homogeneous, internally contradictory process out of which, as knowledge and social science advance, further economic, ethical and political laws of the social order will emerge. The elementary idea that the laws governing history are only certain necessary social relations was therefore discovered by the philosophes and without it we should not have had the wide range of laws governing the social process that twentieth century science offers us. The mechanical materialists arrived only at the conclusion that such a general, supreme law of social evolution exists and that it coincides with the law of attraction and repulsion which rules the whole universe. But because this law had only a general character and was


incapable of explaining the concrete phenomena of society, actual social life was explained only in terms of the clash between people’s activity and the chaotic course of events; the sole organizing force turned out once again to be human reason. Although the basic thesis was materialistic, its interpretation, founded on ignorance of the real movement of history, again issued in idealism, in the boundless freedom of an infinity of possible courses of events. The theoretical foundations of Holbach’s social system his conception of nature, man, the social order and the historical process share the defects of mechanical materialism, but they also share its virtues.



The types of antireligious doctrines known in history as “atheism” vary as to the social bearers of the view concerned and as to the actual content of the doctrines. The primitive, the slave-owning, the feudal and the capitalist types of social relationships successively transform one exploited class after another from bearers of doctrines of religious opposition into adherents of a stagnating ideology, that is to say, they change the class bearer. In connection with this movement, there occur changes of content within the philosophical category (the so-called immanent development of atheism), from realistic elements deriving from man’s labor, to the secularly speculative materialistic philosophy of antiquity, then to opposition against Church authority and finally to deism and atheism. Modern philosophical atheism has its own particular social functions in individual social formations: the fundamental problems it works on do indeed remain the same but the social status, and therefore also the social significance, of this discipline and of its representatives changes. It was the bourgeoisie that first took atheism for its class ideology and turned it into a weapon against theology and the feudal view of the world. That is why the enormous upsurge of modern philosophical atheism is bound up with the struggle over the capitalist formation, with the battle against serfdom in institutions as well as in thinking, as Lenin put it. From whatever direction a thinker approached reform, he always ran up against the Church: in economics against its feudal system of ownership, in politics against the institution’s organizational power and in ideology against its monopoly of religious education. The energetic refutation of the religious ideology was thus the outcome of political need and the rise and development of atheism confirms the primacy of political motives, which determine the evolution of philosophical categories and make and destroy ideological categories. Atheism arises as a theoretically consistent, radical and logical criticism of the given situation, as a direct antithesis of religious ideology.

What course did the transition from deism to atheism concretely take in Holbach’s period? Before Holbach, atheism was not open because it could not be so. The death penalty was too trenchant an argument for a wise man not to respect it. So in normal, stable circumstances the social situation itself prevented even the emergence, let alone the spread, of atheistic views which always necessarily implied disagreement with the fundamental principles of religious ideology. Atheism is essentially the principle of negating this ideology and it contains within itself the germs of the most varied forms that the criticism can assume. Medieval society protected itself from this criticism by the death penalty. That had a two-fold result. Atheism was able to manifest itself only in periods of revolutionary change and only as a marginal phenomenon among people outside the official society. Criticism had to assume the form of religious criticism, it had to put on a show of orthodoxy even when it was consciously heretical, because it was aware that orthodoxy is always in the right so long as it holds the machinery of power, the instruments of torture and the executioner’s block. So the actual social conditions prevented atheism from being theoretically of philosophically formulated and obliged it to take on a


succession of miscellaneous cryptogrammic forms, from the most varied dogmatic deviations right up to deism. That is why, until the eighteenth century, even the most prominent atheists, such as Spinoza, did not deny the existence of God but only expressed unorthodox opinions about the conception and the magnitude of this being and his influence on man and nature, criticized the contradictions between dogmas and took a sceptical attitude to theology as a whole. It was only in Holbach’s time that this situation changed, due to the fact that it was impossible to restrain the spread of illegal trading in books, that the beheading of the English king had had an educational effect on the French aristocracy and that now for the first time a class came to have an immediate interest in the dissemination of atheistic opinions. People and classes must both be forced into being consequent by their self-interest, otherwise it is vain to expect consequentiality from them. So atheism joined forces with revolution from the very first moment that it was able to manifest itself in theoretical form.

The relationship between the state and the Church was settled in 1682 by the Gallican proclamation in favor of the absolutist monarch. The Catholic Church became an effective instrument of monarchical policy and started to combat with even greater energy the bourgeois anti-feudal tendencies in the religious opposition of the Huguenots and the Jansenists. But these were so weak that the bourgeois ideologists who wished to repeat English history on French soil were obliged to look around for a more radical doctrine. And so the new social conditions became objectivized in the bourgeois consciousness as a trend from deism to atheism. One day it will be possible to express in directly sociological, empirical terms how the aggravation of feudal conflicts is reflected in the growing force of the opposition, to enunciate a certain correlation between the development of a revolutionary situation, the involvement of the popular masses in this conflict and the development of atheist ideology. Then it will be possible to ascertain how deistic and secret atheistic pamphlets — unpublished to this day — came to circulate in the orbit of the comte de Boulainvilliers and the due de Noailles and how from there they penetrated into bourgeois circles. Atheism thus became a political ideology aiming to enforce the rights of a class. That explains why political considerations predominated in this atheism and why a strictly objective, scientific study of religion was left to later periods. Meanwhile, the basic philosophical theses of an uncompromising criticism of religion were openly proclaimed for the first time. In the period after 1750, atheistic ideas penetrated into society at large, whereas previously they had been the concern of narrow circles only. There they became simpler but also more radical. If Voltaire’s deism was regarded in the first half of the century as an appalling blasphemy, now a philosopher can say of Voltaire “Il est bigot; c’est un deiste”. It would be hard to find a better illustration of the upsurge of atheism and indifference towards religion than that a radical philosopher regarded even deism as bigotry.

Holbach’s open atheism is the culmination of those tendencies which in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries prepared the way for an open breach with religion. He drew upon two principal sources for his ideas. First, on the English classical philosophy of Locke and Hobbes, on the materialistic theory of knowledge, on their notions of self-interest and the deists’ arguments


against the Church. This influence is demonstrably very strong and without Locke none of the encyclopedistes would have been conceivable. The second source was old and indigenous: the literary epicureanism of Rabelais and Des Perriers, the scepticism of Montaigne, the atomism of Gassendi, Bayle’s discovery that morality is not dependent on religion. All these ideas indirectly reflect the intellectual evolution of the third estate, and in English deism they already began to constitute a philosophically homogeneous bourgeois view of the world, to merge into the organic system best formulated by John Toland. Here we find the beginning of the transition from hidden materialism and atheism to an open discussion of the question of the relationship between reason and faith, the fundamental question around which the whole history of bourgeois philosophy revolves. This question is only the specific form in which the fundamental question of philosophy was expressed in that age, and so diverse problems of gnoseology, ontology, ethics and politics are reflected in it and given back to the age in the shape of various philosophical conceptions of the relationship between reason and faith. The most interesting thing about it is the fact that philosophically divergent answers to this question can have a socially similar or even identical function. The English deists, for instance, were not out to destroy religion but to find a compromise solution to the problem of the relationship between science and faith, a solution that might bring the two forms of social consciousness closer together by retaining religion, making it reasonable and natural, ridding it of irrational superstitions and fanaticism. So they want a rational religion and present themselves as enlightened believers. Holbach, on the contrary, presents himself as an unbeliever striving for a natural, rational morality and for the destruction of religion and rejecting any compromise between science and faith. However, in the battle to give state power a bourgeois content, these antithetical views play an almost identical role.

Once when Hume was dining at Holbach’s and remarked that he did not believe that there were any atheists, someone replied that among the eighteen people present there were fifteen atheists and three who had not made up their minds. This is indicative of the difference between the English deists and the Frenchmen. Despite all its progressive character, English deism was only a new form of theodicy, the theological discipline which has for its object the praise of God’s creation and for its core the proof of God’s existence. It proves the existence of God mainly by means of causality: everything that exists has a cause of its existence. If we inquire after the first cause, that which exists of itself, we come in the end to a supremely perfect and infinite essence — to God. Although deism freed this proof from the quibbles to theology, it continued to regard it as valid. In England the process of superseding the theological heritage did not reach the final stage and so Hume, received by the French philosophes as the representative of a more advanced country, was in fact a backward deist among atheists. English deism, which was an evolutionary form of atheist materialism, led in France to the development of open atheism, not as the logical consequence and culmination of the preceding tendencies but specifically as the result of social pressure on logical consistency. We should be greatly restricting the significance of the progress of theory towards atheism if we tried to limit it to the mere overthrow of religion. Atheism was a historically unique


defeat of the principle of faith, prepared by the whole of European culture, it was a first attempt to understand social processes rationally and so to master them. The philosophes did not just bring about the overthrow of medieval ideas, they overthrew the principle of faith. Struggling their way through the thickets of ignorance, the philosophes achieved something far more valuable than the superseding of religious ideas, they became the pioneers of the principle of criticism.

Faith, involving a certain primary conviction on man’s part that one day things will be better, found an expression in the religious systems, in faith in a supernatural reward in the next world. Man was immortal and could look forward to heaven, to salvation. The Enlightenment showed that there is no such world, that man is mortal. That meant a break in the evolution of religion, but it did not mean the end of faith, which assumed more modern forms, perhaps seemingly compatible with the scientific view of the world. The philosophes divested religion of its power by appropriating its earthly content and secularizing it, turning it into ethical and political doctrines, intellectually mastering what had hitherto been mystery. Even today, religion will not be superseded otherwise than by way of a deeper comprehension of the secular content of religious ideology, through an intellectual mastery of the problem of the meaning of life and of a life style, which continues to nurture the religious quest.

Holbach’s doctrine — consistent atheism — was suited only to the prerevolutionary and revolutionary period, as the intellectual culmination of the antireligious tendency of the age. As soon as atheism had fulfilled its anti-feudal function, it immediately became inopportune, because the same atheist who had earlier so violently attacked despotism would have been apt to see the new postrevolutionary reality as a new form of exploitation, as the despotism of money that it later turned out to be, as a bitter awakening from the romantic dreams of freedom and a natural society. Atheism became outdated and so already in the course of the revolution it was necessary to abandon it, as well as those ideas about the social organization of society that led, via Marat and Babeuf, towards an apprehension of the general outline of future socialism. And here we come to an ideological contradiction. Holbach was theoretically right, but politically his rightness was of no avail, Voltaire was wrong in his deism, but politically he was right. And so atheism fell, together with the politicians oriented towards the poor people of Paris. For what have we to do with radicalism once we hold power in our hands? A class need not go back to the truth, it can equally well go back to error, if that suits its interests. It is self-interest that is decisive, not philosophical consistency. So as the revolution developed, there arose a conflict between a rational and serviceable deism and a radical and consistent but unserviceable atheism, which reflected the fundamental conflict of the revolution, the attitude of the bourgeoisie to the people. Robespierre resolved it practically, at the height of the Jacobin dictatorship, by having atheism guillotined. Atheism could not become the doctrine of the people, not just because of the aristocratic milieu in which it arose and because of the masses’ lack of education, but because of its ineptness to create and foster illusions, to serve the ends of apologetics. Atheism in its pure, naked, true form had to give way to a less true, illusory doctrine, simply because in its


rigorous scientific objectivity it was itself incapable of performing the functions that society demanded of it. So consistent atheism fell, the bourgeoisie gradually came to see that the feudal ideology was not necessarily coincident with religion, it stopped identifying the Church with an institution hostile to itself and so it also ceased to have a personal interest in deepening the anticlerical struggle and theoretical atheism. The slogan of atheism awaited a new social class, the working class of the next century.

The meaning of Holbach’s atheism consists in mechanical materialism. The basis of atheism is a materialistic answer to the principal questions asked by philosophy about the knowability of the world and the relationship between thinking and being, a materialistic conception of the principal philosophical categories, especially those of matter and motion. On all these issues Holbach ruthlessly attacks the scholastic conception and formulates his basic positions in direct opposition to theology. Thus in contrast to the thesis of the inertness of matter, already enunciated in antiquity and continually reiterated since that time, Holbach’s conception of matter constitutes a return to the classical formulations of the atheism of antiquity. Matter is conceived as that which acts on our senses, in other words it is a primary principle, independent of consciousness, eternal, uncreated, possessing the source of motion within itself, incorporating motion. These theses have an immediate atheistic incidence in that they a priori rule out all theological conceptions of creations and make it possible to dispense even with the usual mover, who sets matter in motion. This overcomes the classical difficulties of theology and idealism, such as the problem of the creation or origin of the world. The supposed genesis of nature led theologians to speculate how being arose from non-being. Holbach proposes a much simpler solution to the whole problem — he rejects the question itself: matter is infinite, uncreated, eternal. Nature is explained by itself, it is casus sui; there is no need to presuppose the existence of a creative principle, God or creation. The natural order is the contrary of the order of God’s providence. The order of the universe simply exists and does not call for a religious justification. To sanctify this order by means of theological categories turns out to be unnecessary. Why should God be identified with the order of the universe? There is the order of the universe and that is all. It is simpler. Holbach philosophically generalizes the scientific materialism that was spontaneously developing and utilizes its arguments in order to uphold the materiality of the world. This principle is the chief argument employed by philosophical atheism to demolish the legends about the creation and the immortality of the soul.

Holbach unequivocally repudiates the harmful theological notions of the soul. The immortal soul is a product of the imagination. The soul is material, it is the principle of motion, it is merely the body considered in relation to certain higher functions and capacities. That is why Holbach does not speculate about the soul but derives all intellectual faculties from the faculty of sense. So he regards perceptions as particular vibrations of the nervous system and in the same way he conceives the intellect, memory, imagination, judgement and will as particular modifications of perceptions, which are inseparable from their physical substratum and which owe their own existence solely to our sense experience of the world. The variations between intellectual faculties and char-


acters he also explains by physical causes: the diversified composition of fluid and solid substances in the human body, variously adapted to the sensitivity of individual organisms. If the immortality of the soul collapses, what remains of traditional religion except a system of tendentious lies? And what is left of religion once the philosopher perceives that it is particular function of matter, a mental factor isolated from the physical substratum?

The origin of the idea of God and religion Holbach derives from fear in the face of nature, from incomprehension of natural causes and from ignorance, abused by charlatans and despots. The content of religious systems is endless contradictions, man’s deification of the natural forces on which he is dependent and deliberate deception, combined with the believers’ own self-deception. So the essence of religion coincides for Holbach with man’s ignorance about the external world and an unconscious personification of natural forces, onto which he transposes human attributes, thereby endowing them with a supernatural character. Holbach was among the first to introduce a certain evolutionary conception into the history of religion (the development from fetishism to polytheism and monotheism) but for all that his approach to religion remained unhistorical. The evolution of religion was still regarded only as the evolution of a superstition into which are projected the changing influences of the environment, while the essence of religion remains changeless it is a maze of nonsensical errors. This unhistorical approach comes to the fore whenever Holbach draws his arguments from the history of Christianity, which he regards merely as a history of crafty impostors, foolish fanatics, hypocritical saints, criminals and tyrants, rebels. intriguers — and in this he is right only as regards the point that fanatics are always more dangerous than impostors. The history of the Church, likewise, is a history of profitable disputes, of simony, of ignorance on the part of bishops, a history of vile intrigues by the papal government. The history of Christianity is presented in the Gallery of Saints in the form of lives of charlatans and fanatics. Religion is subjected only to rational analysis, not to historical investigation. History is the illustration of a priori antireligious theses.

If we wanted to go into Holbach’s criticism of religious dogmas, we should have to sort out his various positions according to the fundamental dogmas he dealt with — original sin, the evil in the world, revelation and the rewards and punishments in the life after death. Holbach here demonstrates in various ways the internal contradictions inherent in these ideas and, making use of one dogma against another, he exposes their disagreement with experience, reason and science, their harmful social function. So the whole of theology is only systematized ignorance of natural causes. We do not have to go through this criticism of theology, it will be enough to look at his fundamental criticism of the concept of God. Holbach regards this as the principal chimaera of theology and, analyzing the proofs of the existence of God, he exposes this notion as a metaphysical abstraction of activity, of the motive forces of nature, as an anthropomorphization of natural processes, a fictitious spiritual substance. It is a notion arrived at by abstracting the attributes of man and of nature, by presupposing that the world is divided into dead matter and a spiritual motive principle. God is a word devoid of any real content, it is merely a synonym of fate, necessity, an aggregate of incomprehensible forces. In short, God is a


spiritualized, anthropomorphized abstraction of the unknown motive forces of nature. But Holbach fails to realize that the notion of god might also contain the undiscovered law of social evolution, that is to say, possess a real, though deformed, social content and that the form of the notion itself varies substantially from one period to another.

The social function of religion Holbach perceives in its service of despotism. He regards religion as the art of duping people and turning their minds away from the wickedness of the despots, as a means of fooling people, a means of social control. This alliance of religion with the courts of the mighty  — cesspools perpetually exhaling the infection vice — recurs in countless variations and is one of the central ideas of Holbach’s work as a whole. The alliance of tyrannical despotism and religion, of the rulers of heaven and of earth, of ignorance and slavery, generates an evil which religion vainly tries to palliate. That is why the principal means of breaking the alliance and destroying religious superstition must be freedom and common sense. Holbach was not wrong when he set himself the goal of exposing the Catholic Church as a prop of despotism, but he was mistaken when he took this particular alliance for the root of all evil, when he tried to demonstrate that theological opinions and supernatural ideas actually gave birth to despotism. In this perspective religion became the source of all evil, its main cause; it became the chief culprit because it kept people in ignorance.

Holbach’s analysis of the social function of religion remains essentially valid to this day; it shows us that people must not allow themselves to be duped by any metaphysical phantoms and that in all circumstances they must look for the natural causes of their wretchedness. Holbach quite rightly suspected that “error” holds its ground so obstinately because it cloaks certain interests, the relative status of social classes, that religion is an instrument in the hands of privileged proprietors. The incompatibility of science and religion — that was the new basis of theory. Holbach perceived the antithesis between science and religion, which appeared to him as a discord between natural and supernatural ideas. Starting from this antithesis, Holbach set out to destroy religious ideology by common sense, to demonstrate that it is one piece of nonsense after another, a hodge-podge of phantoms and contradictions, a realm of darkness. The sense of Holbach’s work consists in endless variations on the theme: do not put your trust in gods but in common sense, in yourselves. These things were said by a tiny handful of intellectuals in opposition to the powerful interests of the apparatus of Church and state.

As a result of their unhistorical approach to religion, the philosophes failed to understand that the complex historical evolution of the human spirit is a process whereby abstract thought attains to ever greater depth, a process in which religious error also has a certain place and function. The movement of knowledge is a process by which the more abstract concepts, as well as the whole structure of thought, become ever more precise and apt to express concrete phenomena. It is not only concepts but entire forms of thought and the relations between them that change, together with the whole superstructure. As it advances, human thought does not use the same forms all the time but passes through several evolutionary stages, meanwhile gradually shaping out of the originally amorphous stage of the prelogical thinking of the primitive


those forms of social consciousness which we know today under the names of religion, philosophy, science, art — forms that emerged out of one another by a process of differentiation which is still going on. So not only concepts that are more complex and abstract but also whole systems of abstractions, among which religion is the primordial, concretely sensuous form of explanation of reality. It would be as unhistorical on our part as it was on that of the Enlightenment to regard this primitive mode of thought simply as a violation of logical categories. The germs that will produce religion are interconnected with the germs that will produce science and they give primitive thought its specific character. If we subject religious notions to a purely logical analysis, confront them with science, we deform the actual content of the original notions. We are at fault for ignoring the requirements of a historical investigation of the origin of categories and concepts and not going beyond the Enlightenment notion of a rigid antithesis between error and truth. Historical materialism did not start from the notion that religion is a mere fallacy of the human spirit, that it is a problem of gnoseology, but in accordance with its basic thesis that social existence determines consciousness it set out to discover how the rise and development of this phenomenon was conditioned by the material life of society itself. The principle of dialectical interpretation then subjected religion, too, to the science of the universal laws of all evolution and apprehended it in the context of antithetical evolution, in relation to other social phenomena. This laid the theoretical foundations for a science of religion, which ought to show the changes religion undergoes in the dialectics of changes in production forces and relations, the nature of the general laws that govern its evolution and the special laws of motion that determine its evolution in individual social formations, the nature of the relationship between the economic base and the religious superstructure, the mutual relationship between the function of religion and the other forms of social consciousness. its function in social life. No such science exists as yet, however, because the science of comparative religion has mostly been dominated by the spirit of positivism and has never addressed itself to problems of this kind but has confined itself to comparing religious rites and cults without paying much attention to the other conditions of social life. One day, when the dialectics of the evolution of ideas comes to be explored, perhaps we shall obtain an exact confirmation of Hegel’s triad about the evolution of ideas, according to which the phase of affirming an idea is followed by its negation so as to retain in the final synthesis both of the mutually antithetical ideas. The development of atheism seems to confirm this thesis. Holbach’s atheism is in fact a very clear-cut negation of religious ideas, while the German classical philosophy and Marx bring higher syntheses, superseding at a new level the one-sidedness of pure negation.

The principal result of the disintegration of the medieval world view and the rise of a new early-bourgeois way of thinking is undoubtedly that religion, theology and the speculative, unempirical mode of thought as a whole was overthrown and expelled from natural science. That remains true despite the fact that such views continued to exist. They were no longer dominant and the evolution of science passed them by. Once the closed system of medieval thinking was broken through, philosophy began to develop rapidly. Natural


science was then able to evolve undisturbedly and to cooperate in the creation of new productive forces, which provided the impetus for a new stratification of society. The case of philosophy and social views was substantially different. Machiavelli did not initiate a secular approach to the sphere for society but his views were not so easy to develop further. On the one hand, the evolution of pure theory was here much more tightly bound up with the interests of the feudal class and, on the other hand, speculation of this kind always had a whiff of revolt about it. That is why, with a few exceptions which only go to prove the rule, speculation about society remained on the religious, theological level. Indeed, in those countries where bourgeois democratic reforms or revolutions managed to impose themselves, they did so ideologically under slogans of religious reform. Those few individuals who were capable of perceiving the problems of the religious level as a conflict of social interests or as a question of power and not simply as a question of power and not simply as a question of the truth of some particular verses of the Bible were obliged to remain so isolated from the needs of a social movement that their views could have practical political significance. The renaissance did not, therefore, drive theology out of the sphere of social science. That happened only in the period which gave rise to the ideological preparation of the French bourgeois revolution, in the age of Enlightenment. Not because the men of the eighteenth century had better brains than their predecessors, but because this theoretical task was connected with the liberating mission that awaited the bourgeois — the struggle for the creation of democratic republics.

This great social task, which forms the content of history especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, produced the political preconditions for the further evolution of the most radical deistic theories and plebeio-revolutionary critical ideas and for the rise of modern, contemporary atheism freed from religious attitudes not only in the sphere of nature but in that of society as well. All this did not come about at once but gradually, in four particularly significant stages. Theology and religion were not attacked in the first place as theory but as social practice, that is to say, not in their theoretical but in their social consequences. That is the first stage, which occurred in France in the first half of the eighteenth century and the greatest phenomenon of which was Voltaire. To criticize theology and the religious view of the world in its consequences was certainly brave and meritorious but it was not exactly a great theoretical achievement. The viciousness and pride of the nobility, the idle parasitism of the monks and the extortions of the clergy were perfectly obvious and had provided grounds for criticism of the Church ever since the Middle Ages. In the second half of the century this line in the criticism of religion continues but it is enriched by the emphasis placed on the positive aspect of its view of the world, by the creation of modern mechanical materialism. Religion is no longer confronted by criticism alone but by an entire attitude contrary to all religion, which has only now become fully atheistic. The third evolutionary stage of atheism then emerges in the form of German classical philosophy, where Ludwig Feuerbach wins a unique victory for modern atheism and a crushing defeat for theology when, divesting himself of the one-sidedness of an exclusively negative criticism of the social role of religion and arming himself with Hegel and a psychological approach neglected by the philosophes, he


defeats the theologians with their own weapons. Thus the criticism of theology was consummated.



All the materialistic and idealistic ethics of the past started out from certain changeless moral principles, which were immutable because man’s essential nature was supposed to be immutable. Marxism, which judges everything, and hence man and moral categories too, in the light of evolution, arrived at the new and perspicuous discovery that a moral norm or an ideal good does not have a universal validity but constitutes the norm of a class. The ideal of the good itself neither comes from God nor is inborn by nature but it is simply a social product and it is apprehended in different ways according to people’s situation within production relations. Moral feeling is a manifestation of man’s social nature and conscience is an expression of his group (class) consciousness as a member of a given society. Thus the concept of the good turns out to be very relative, it becomes dependent on the concrete analysis of society and on the striving of individual classes. The criteria of morality and man’s ideal change with the economic order and what are proclaimed to be eternal truths are only the results of age-long experimentation and practical verification by societies based on private ownership. This practice is embodied in rules which take shape in the course of recurring social experience, in the process of the manufacture and exchange of products, in the life process as such. Morality is therefore dependent on the economic conditions from which it arises. If these conditions change, morality comes into conflict with a new interpretation of moral concepts and this is the source of evolution of ethical theories. Countering the notion of absolute moral norms, however, Marxism underscored the relativity of moral norms not only in time but also inside a given society when it found that members of different classes in the same society differ as to some of the moral concepts they hold and that the dominant moral values are the values of the dominant class. People belonging to opposite classes cannot agree about the ideal of the good, freedom or right living so moral principles cannot be grasped apart from their relation to people’s needs and ethics must be based on the material conditions of a changing world. Moral value is a class matter, it is determined by the actual situation of the moralist, because his moral ideal is determined by his position in the class struggle. And if morality is a matter of class, the moralist must identify himself with that particular side in the struggle which represents progress. In these circumstances, the generally human morality is that which, in the given conditions, fights for social progress. The class morality of the progressive class is valid at the same time for the whole of mankind since it defends the interests of all-round development, it is humanism, and it is universally valid because of its class character, not because it wants to bridge the differences between classes. Thus far Marxism.

Almost all ethical and moral theories have a common basis in their assumption that there exist universal moral principles not subject to limitations of either time or space. The idealists derived them from God or regarded them as simply given. The categorical imperative, a faculty of the human soul or moral conscience obliges us to act morally, in accordance with duty, the daimonion or inspiration. In opposition to these views, the role of materialistic ethics was played, historically, by the systems, especially those of Democritus, Epicurus


and Speusippus and in modern times the so-called hedonism of the renaissance and the Enlightenment, which proclaimed the morality of self-interest and assumed that what people pursue above all is pleasure or the absence of pain, seeking their chief good precisely in this. In contrast to the idealists, these hedonistic conceptions had the great virtue of providing a truer explanation of man’'s moral activity, which ceased to be regarded as a supernatural gift and was explained in terms of man, of the plain selfishness which makes him act in a socially useful manner. For the philosophes, the basis of moral judgements is the same but with one striking difference. While the idealists apprehend moral ideals apart from practice, without regard to man’s productive activity and his life process as a whole, the philosophes go beyond these generally idealistic limits and make a substantial step in the direction of materialism when they turn ethics into an instrument of practical social change, when they disclose men’s motives, their interests. That is indeed a fundamental difference, because ethics no longer towers over society as an unattainable moral ideal but is tied in with practice and begins to function in civic life.

It is within these limits that Holbach, too, develops his moral speculations, which are admirable chiefly for their basic ideas, principles that remain true to this day. First of all, there is the principle of the unity of ethics and politics. Being convinced that ethics without politics is powerless and that politics without ethics goes astray, Holbach bound ethics and politics together, whereas previously in the domain of theory the two spheres and always been kept apart. Thus moral practice, if it were to be true, had to be politically immoral, like Macchiavelli’s Prince, and moral theory had to go on ad nauseam powerlessly appealing to mankind to remedy the corruption. The strict separation of the two spheres had its objective basis in the practice of the Middle Ages, in the separation of the political and moral functions of the state and the Church, the two dominant institutions of the feudal era. Holbach broke with this tradition and made a great theoretical discovery, which emphasized the principle of the unity of ethics and politics, when he linked man’s moral amendment with a political program. It is this Archimedes’ point of his social system that has not yet been properly assessed in literature. There are special reasons for this. Holbach is usually acclaimed as the author of the System of Nature and the writer of antireligious pamphlets, whereas his later works on society and morals remain unpublished and are often disparaged even in Marxist literature as an old man’s moralizing. But the assertion that Holbach’s late works on morals are the works of a moralizing pedant cannot be accepted. On the contrary, they are mature works which put forward, for the first time in the history of philosophy, a developed system of bourgeois secular ethics combined with politics and atheism. And if there really are certain elements of heavy-going pedantry in Holbach, they serve as an antidote to the frivolity with which his aristocratic contemporaries regarded this discipline. The principle of the unity of ethics and politics is one of the first programmatic formulations of the unity of philosophy and politics. Of course, Holbach does not yet manage to draw all the consequences from this principle. But he did not palliate the immorality of the prevalent conditions, he was not a moralizing apologist but a positively aggressive critic. His ethics was ultimately politics in disguise, indeed a kind of politics which wanted to establish the social order not on moral opinions but


on people’s real interests and relationships; it subverted the Christian morality founded on chimaeras and served the political ends of the progressive forces in the society of that time.

Starting from the principle of the unity of ethics and politics, Holbach and Helvetius began to connect secular ethics with political practice, to present the transition to a new social order as a morally political demand, to justify moral norms on “naively sociological” grounds — sociological because they start out from social interest and naive because they took as representative of society the economically active individual and apprehended social interest only in an individualistic sense, as the self-interest of man in pursuit of happiness. This social justification of morality was relatively correct and scientific, because it regarded morality as arising from real social relations between people and not as compliance with or deviation from abstractly given norms of good and evil. It was capable of solving the problem of man’s duty and moral obligation as a problem of his interest in good or evil, not a a problem of his personal decision for good or for evil. Morality is no longer based on duties revealed by God or the moralist but on human relationships in which man orientates himself in his journey to happiness. Thus far the social justification of morality was correct; but the philosophes were not yet capable of distinguishing between social relationships, between the relations of social groups and the relations of individuals, they failed to realize that what is wrong with those “natural” human relations of theirs is precisely that in their conception they are not socially substantive but only an agglomerate of individual relationships. The philosophes do not understand the specific character of social groups and classes: self-interest is conceived as a social force, to the personal is attributed the quality of the social. To base morality on human relations was a great advance on the subjectively speculative and religious forms, but morality was to get a truly social foundation only when it took for its starting-point not the interest of the individual but the interest of the social group, the class.

Perhaps Holbach’s greatest fallacy was his attempt at a universal morality. Holbach believed that it is possible to base morality on the universal needs of the human race rather than on local customs and to discover by reason such rules as would apply equally to all inhabitants of the earth. After all, man is everywhere the same, the differences between people are due to climate, government and education and so if only we start from human nature we shall discover clear, rational and exactly demonstrable moral principles, evident to rulers and subjects, philosophers and priests, the ignorant and the learned alike. This morality will guide nations, illuminate politics, take the love of mankind for its principle, it will be the philanthropic philosophy that the future will take for its guide. Holbach dreamt and wrote a great deal in this strain about a single universal morality based on man’s self-interest, forgetting that the existence of class stands in the way of his dream of universally binding human norms. He believed that there are humane principles binding on every man regardless of the class he belongs to, because whatever historical or cultural setting a man lives in. his fate is always simply a human fate, he is everywhere the same man. The humanistic intention is backed by the erroneous idea that man is everywhere the same. That is a biological truth but a sociological fallacy. One man differs from another by the cultural milieu in


which he lives and of which he is the product. Holbach tried to find the same natural principles for the rulers and the ruled, for antagonistic classes, in the belief that there exist certain principles which are common to both. His morality is based on the illusion of a non-existent community of interest in a class society. We must, however, agree that mankind has never ceased to look for some principles of universal morality. There exist certain principles and minimum rules of morality which are binding on men as men and not just as members of the same nation, bloc or class.

Firm believer as he is in the historical invariability and geographical sameness of men, Holbach seeks a morality with eternally valid principles, independent of people’s position in production and their struggle for their material needs, he seeks a subjectively conceived good which might be found within the limits of the existing society. Entangled as he was in this vain search for the principles of a universal, supra-class morality, Holbach worked out only the class principles of a bourgeois morality which had this advantage over the old, feudal version that it was closely bound up with the politics and the political aspirations of the bourgeoisie. Holbach presented the special class interest of the bourgeoisie as the general interest of mankind, which in the last resort it really was at that time. Holbach was not aware of the class character of his theory, he imagined that his opinions were independent of their origin in the capitalist order, the social system and people’s position in it. And yet, behind these independent, universally valid theses, the conditions of capitalism and bourgeois democracy are visible at every step. The abstract moral principles that Holbach sought cannot be inferred by rational speculation alone, for they do not exist outside time and space, outside the class struggle. We can find them only when we concretely ask the question which side in the class struggle is right, which class conducts itself in moral and human fashion. We cannot evaluate the struggling classes according to a speculative criterion common to them both, because no such universally valid criterion exists. The criterion is the actual class for whose interests we are struggling. There is no point in creating universal systems of ethics for all times and classes, because they could never be put into practice. Though certain minimum principles common to both sides in the struggle may apply after all, though they may be generally accepted, that is not to say that they are observed. For two thousand years European society has upheld the general principle “Thou shalt not kill”, and meanwhile its members have gone on killing each other with ever growing violence. The basis of ethical theories simply cannot be a principle, Holbach’s or any other, but only concrete social relations, given by the conditions in which people live. The sphere of ethics is the sphere of all-round human relations and the fundamental problem of these relations cannot be reduced to the question of the most desirable moral relations between individuals. The moralist’s basic question must therefore be: Are the actual foundations of society morally desirable? In this way, the traditionally boring normative ethics will turn into the burning problem of the sociological conditioning of the rise and change of moral notions, which leads to the fundamental answer that a new turn can be given to people’s moral lives only by changing their living conditions as a whole.

Holbach’s secular, bourgeois moral system was born out of a conflict with


Christianity. Christian ethics depicts morals as they should be, not as they are. It tries to capture the ideal of the good and virtuous life, life in accordance with the highest laws of the world. These laws, in the Christian’s view, are laid down by God and they are partly accessible to man in the revealed truth of religion, which teaches him that the highest good is the kingdom of God – “a loving community of moral persons” founded on the love of God, by whose power it will be transformed into an eternal kingdom. The moral requirements of divine law were revealed and fulfilled in the life of Christ, who is thus the embodiment of perfection and beauty, the model of human personality for the moral regeneration of the world. The Christian’s life should be an imitation of Christ, the pursuit of moral perfection. But man’s mortality, the extinction of personality, death, seems to negate the sense of his striving after moral perfection and so the Christian religion offers the believer the perspective of eternal life, of existence after death, the hope of salvation. The bourgeois morality on the contrary emphasized life on earth, interest in knowledge and society, the pursuit of self-improvement, the virtues of commercial society, and it derided the virtues of feudalism, the old ideal of honor, fidelity, chivalry, asceticism. A new ideal of man emerged, different in almost every respect from the medieval ideal. If earlier one of man’s most highly prized qualities was humility and self-contempt, now its place among the virtues is taken by confidence in one’s own powers. If earlier the way to happiness was the way of abnegation, ascesis, the denial of one’s own needs, now this ideal is replaced by a genuine pursuit of pleasure. In the Middle Ages the way of restricting personal needs, ascetic detachment as the way to happiness, was not illusory, in a sense it was philosophically and above all economically justified. Why is man unhappy? Because he has needs which he cannot satisfy. On this asceticism the new morality turned its back.

Holbach sees in the earlier moral systems — especially in Christianity — practically nothing but a series of errors. As is often the case in times of profound social changes, he is inclined to see only the wrong side, to criticize and fail to realize how greatly he is himself dependent on the systems he condemns. His critical approach to the past expends itself in condemnation of the past. Holbach loves only Epicurus, who spoke the language of true wisdom — the language of nature. Otherwise, he says, the philosophers of antiquity did not start from natural principles but only from their overactive imagination and they did not understand man. Medieval religious morality is criticized even more vigorously for having spread the prejudiced belief that virtue can only be a difficult sacrifice, that it must run counter to nature. The linking of moral with religious principles, the linking of principles derived from reason and experience with principles based on religious mysteries, was fatal and brought about the fall of rational morality. People began worrying how to conciliate God rather than how to make their mutual relations rational. This leads to an endless series of outbursts against tyranny and superstition. From these positions Holbach presents the most decisive criticism of religious morality, far sharper and bolder than any that had gone before. Religion is no longer reprobated for its excesses but in itself. Religious principles divide men and nations, give free rein to the passions of the monarchs, they keep man in a state of childishness and make of him a blind tool in the hands of others. These criticisms culminate


in the devastating conclusion, which no one had previously dared to enunciate, that religion made morality immoral.

Thus Holbach represents the culmination of French atheism in the question of ethics as well. No longer content with just establishing that man's natural self-interest is contrary to religion, he proclaims outright that religion is inimical to true morality. Not only does he deny that Christianity has any moralizing power and reject its dogma en bloc, he actually claims that man’s notions of divinity are themselves the source of moral corruption. The aim of the Middle Ages was to secure eternal happiness and morality moved in a circuit of sin, repentance, and redemption, men were first and foremost citizens of heaven. The starting-point of medieval morality was a belief in the innateness of moral principle, and it could hardly have been otherwise in the aristocratico-feudal thinking of men who inherited, together with their coats-of-arms, a superiority of moral estate and a strong sense of the distinction conferred upon them by their very birth, by the blue blood in their veins. Locke, and Holbach and Helvetius after him, created a new ethics as an empirical science founded on experience. If they had admitted the innateness of a moral sense, they would have had no reason not to admit the innateness of an algebraic, chemical or religious sense as well. Morality must therefore be a matter of human relations, of relations between men, not the relationship of an isolated self to God. It was Holbach who most consistently attacked this aspect of religion, and of course of every speculative philosophy as well, when he perceived that religion tends to deaden a man’s relations with his fellows. He felt that in the hands of the priests God is a Medusa’s head, which does no harm to him who wields it but turns everyone else to stone.

It is a paradoxical phenomenon that the most lasting results of a philosopher’s intellectual work are often quite different from what he might have expected. In Holbach’s criticism of Christianity, what appears most durable is not the virulence of his invective against revelation, against the absolute claims of revealed religion, but much rather the fact that he derives morality from social experience, links it with politics and environment. He does not see it only as a program of self-improvement but subjects morality itself to the needs of society. Holbach rules out any kind of revealed morality; he destroys, but only in order to bring out the much more strictly binding character of his philosophical morality. If Bayle proclaimed the possibility of an atheist ethics theoretically, Holbach actually worked it out and so put forward an unprecedented proof of the compatibility of atheism with ethics. Natural morality was as here set up in opposition to religion of every kind, even the natural, and its principles were raised to the status of generally human, universally valid, principles.

It is necessary to read the medieval casuistic moralists, the expounders of god’s design, or the pamphlets of the English deists in order to grasp the full extent of Holbach’s contribution. The deists for the most part recognized the basic principles of Christianity and, while criticizing suprarational mysteries, attempted to create, as an antithesis to revealed religion, some kind of natural religion which might construct a new system out of the rational elements of all the various religions of the world. Some like Voltaire, dreamed of a universal religion. The content of this universal religion was only the universal


morality of the Enlightenment and in so far as the deist God appeared there at all, it was as a God degraded and divested of his attributes of omniscience and omnipotence. What kind of a God is it who is obliged to obey natural law and whose existence has to be proved by reason? In contrast to this, Holbach rejects all religion and sets up the quite modern principles of a new, secular morality. It is no longer individual points in Christianity or Islam that are unnatural, it is every form of religion. This negative attitude to religious morality of course prevents him from fully grasping the earlier systems. He negates them only with his head, as a theoretician, without taking account of the concrete social processes which validated this morality in practice. Morality cannot be based on fantastic relations between heaven and earth but only on real interests and relations between men, it must be derived from experience. Every man can discern good from evil but not what is pleasing to the gods of the various religions. Against a morality formalized by senseless fasts, offerings, prayers and penitences, Holbach sets a morality of common sense. Against morality as a way of pleasing the gods and fulfilling God’s will he sets morality as a way of living on good terms with people. Instead of judging people according to what they believe in, he judges them according to how they behave. Holbach is unequivocally in favor of common sense and therefore he rejects the metaphysical systems of the English deistic moralists, Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, as well. He disagrees with them about the eternity and invariability of moral principles and asks whether theft existed before there was property and the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” before there were men. He censures the deists on the grounds that they did not know man and what motivates him, that they started from fallacious presuppositions about instinct, the moral sense and the love of one’s neighbor, started, in short, from their own delusions and not from reality. In his polemics with the deists, the most progressive moralists of the time, Holbach arrives at the excellent and profound conclusion that morality must start from man himself, not from delusions about him.

Holbach’s system of social views as a whole is great by virtue of its basic tendency, its attempt to survey and explain the whole problem of society and to explain it by the same natural principles. The natural principles of ethics and politics must first be discovered, however, because knowledge about society is still its infancy, everything is obscured by the deliberate deception of theology. The great discovery of a paramount natural principle is the truth that what man seeks in life is happiness and morality must not stand in his way. As against the preceding metaphysical and religious principles this represents a fundamental change, an antimoralistic principle striking at the roots of all normative ethics that aims to inculcate moral ideas upon people from the outside. Morality should obey man, not man morality. The moralists who delight in studies about the concept sollen (“ought”) or the mystery of moral obligation will be outraged by this idea even now. Perhaps because the notion is so up-to-date, exact, scientific, modern, contemporary. It brings morality into accord with self-interest, yes, with ordinary, personal, egoistic self-interest. How frightful! Is morality not precisely the suppression of self-interest, is it not sacrifice? Is it not denial of one’s own self, indeed hatred of it, as the great Pascal said? It is not, Holbach replies. Morality teaches man to understand himself, it


does not make up imaginary duties towards God or a moral principle. Moralists who imagine that man behaves morally for love of virtue are mistaken, because man pursues his self-interest, his permanent self-interest, which is identical with the benefit of society. And a man seeking his happiness, his interest, must look after the interest and happiness of others, too, because he lives in society and only there finds his own happiness. Holbach’s fundamental idea represents a significant watershed in moral theory because it combines self-interest with duty and sets up the postulate of their unity as the guiding principle of morality and law-making. Only this made morality human: gave it the task of teaching men to know where their real self-interest lies.



Like every moralist, Holbach sees before him a society that is corrupt and devotes much effort to searching out the real sources of moral corruption. Rejecting the view that people’s character is formed by climate, he convincingly disputes Montesquieu’s theory and discovers two basic sources of corruption; incorrect opinions and despotic government. The ruling opinions seem to him to be a mere jumble of follies and prejudices, reinforced by the ruling institutions and methods of upbringing. Fallacious opinions or, on the contrary, an insufficiency of correct opinions founded on experience and reason are the chief source of real evil. Fallacious opinions blind people, bring nations under the yoke of despotism, subject them to tyrants and priests. That is why it is necessary to combat fallacious opinions, to propagate correct opinions instead of prejudices and not to be discouraged by the assertion that people are incorrigible. If opinions can move people for the worse, they can also change them for the better. So the cure for corruption is reason, proclaiming the truth and arousing the people from their slumber. The seedbed of fallacious opinions, the source of corruption, is the mire of the court, the despotic government whence corruption spreads like an avalanche — from the monarch to the ministers, the nobility and the ignorant populace. Despotism itself thus appears to Holbach to be a result of the burgeoning of false opinions, a fruit of prejudice, of the incompetence of governments and the ignorance of the people. Such a relationship between opinions and forms of government was conditioned by his actual conception of the historical movement of society, according to which both opinions and governments were only the consequence of the development of reason and not the product of economic conditions. The entire historical process unfolds as a struggle between opinions, as an implementation of intentions or on the contrary as a succumbing to prejudice. Consequently, that which actually determines historical evolution most profoundly and gives rise both to the corruption and to the opinions and governments is left out of account. Nations are said to be ruled not by righteous reason but by despotic force which turns everything to corruption. At the same time, Holbach rightly perceives that under such conditions of despotic government vice becomes a necessity and virtue a misfortune, that virtue is incompatible with tyranny. Because honor and justice are inconvenient virtues indeed if the fate of the nation is decided by corrupt people. If a man wants to succeed, he must cultivate the unethical qualities that will win him the favor of the mighty. So morality is like a charming girl whom all admire but nobody will marry because she has no dowry.

Despotic government has adverse repercussions on the whole of social life, on the national character, on people’s mental endowments, on literature. It stifles talent, turns people away from reflection and diverts them with frivolities, it cuts short the flight of genius, robs art of freedom and turns artists into sycophants. Despotism abuses talent, exploiting it for base ends, it destroys all values, all natural social bonds and therefore morality as well. Tyranny cuts people off from politics, which it transforms into an arcane mystery at which people are allowed only to worship without themselves taking part. Despotic


government is thoughtless, incompetent government, obliged to keep the human spirit in bonds and insensibility. Despotism itself is like a child, capricious, arrogant, it builds and destroys without forethought, it does not think rationally. The writer and philosopher — the friend of reason and truth — is therefore an enemy of the government. Despotism also gives rise to all the vices and crimes of society which seem to triumph over helpless decency. Society is infested with vice and people come to terms with corruption in their laws, upbringing and family life. Despotism corrodes education and family happiness as well. For the religious moralists in the service of the despots are incapable of discerning human nature as it is and so their system of upbringing warps people, turning them into evil, self-centered bigots, it muddles their reason and indoctrinates them with errors which then become hard to eradicate. In a brain bemused with religious chimaeras it is difficult to awaken doubt, that first step towards wisdom, on any kind of subject, because a futile clinging to accepted opinions reinforces ignorance.

The corrupt laws of the despots are dominated by a perverted conception of justice and so the very foundation of the social virtues is undermined, because despotic laws — based on the authority of tradition rather than on the inalienable rights of nature — destroy in people their natural conception of justice, which Holbach regards as the principle that binds people together, as solidarity, sociability. He resolutely disagrees with Hobbes that force is the basis of power and that power determines the law. Although in practice he affirms that the given laws are the outcome of despotism, Holbach finds the essence of law in justice, in the moral postulate. The denunciation of tyranny gives rise to the resolve that despotic laws must be changed and people must be given a clear code of law instead of the catechism, until it becomes possible for bad law to be altogether replaced by good morality. Thus Holbach’s denunciation of tyranny is on the whole accurate and true. Every line denounces tyrannical government — he argues that it is bad government, that the responsibility for all present evils, for the general corruption, belongs to the existing order and that a solution can be brought only by a just government with the help of enlightened legislation. We must greatly appreciate the fact that Holbach, unlike most of the preceding moralists, looked for the social foundations of the prevailing corruption.

But Holbach seems to contradict himself. If the whole of society is immoral and the very infant imbibes corruption with his mother’s milk from the environment, what is the point of moralizing and inculcating virtue, when it is the environment that needs to be changed? We find ourselves once again in the vicious circle of Enlightenment social thinking, from which an unshakeable faith in reason is supposed to extricate us. Belief in the indestructibility and ultimate victory of truth becomes the cure for corruption and error, that universal source of misery. Truth, as yet unknown to men, will prevail even against the force of despotism, and the enemies of the human race, who denounce the heralds of the truth as rebels and enemies of authority, will be defeated. Man’s spirit is awaking and the time is coming when tyranny will come crashing down and justice will prevail. These are the limitations of the philosophes.

Against the somber background of despotism, Holbach picks out justice as


the most important of moral virtues, the foundation of all social virtues, the foundation of law. We can fully agree with the idea that only a just society can be a foundation for morality because it is, in fact, only in such a society that moral categories can function. Conversely, in a society where justice is replaced by sheer force, moral principles are merely ridiculous. We want people to act morally in the midst of norms which are themselves immoral. Morality becomes ridiculous if it operates with moral principles against the naked force of politics. For Holbach, social justice, that is to say just, rational, social norms, laws and policies, is a prerequisite without which a moral system cannot even begin to function. So the practice of his morality is conditional on the nonexistence of feudal injustice, medieval immorality and despotism. Holbach therefore apprehends justice politically, he does not jabber about a general moral principle but demands justice in the concrete, justice against despotism. By justice he means the simple principle of not doing to people what we do not want them to do to us. His zeal for justice does not spring from the noble ardor which is the moralist’s stock-in-trade but from the realistic consideration that justice is more useful than force because force cannot give a right that a greater force could not destroy.

The justice of a given order conditions virtue. What in fact is virtue? Why does man love it? We love virtuous acts because they are good, Holbach tells us, and in that he agrees with other moralists. But he immediately adds that these acts are good only because they are beneficial to us, and there he diverges from the earlier moralists. Virtue is identified with utility, without which it is nonexistent or chimerical. Is virtue an expression of enthusiasm, of beauty of soul? No, it is a habit, an acquired propensity to do good. Surely man acts virtuously because he feels the beauty of virtue, loves virtue for its own sake, regards it as its own reward, doesn’t he? No, he loves it out of self-interest, because it is to his advantage. In this quite simple conception of virtue is contained the profound conflict between the so-called moral pathos and realism, the conflict of materialism and idealism. Moral exaltation admires the outer side of moral behavior, the realist analyzes the sources of this behavior. The priest of some principle extols the moral value of a great act, the scientist tells you that there are situations in which heroism is a matter of course.

In opposition to the self-denial of the Stoics and the Christians, who wanted to deny human nature in order to be virtuous, Holbach follows Epicurus when he says that virtue can be attained by submission to one’s inclinations. Instead of wishing to rid man of his passions, Holbach simply advises him to control them, because to rid oneself of passion is to rid oneself of interest in oneself and others. Instead of stoically counselling man to break his ties with society and turn away from the world towards reflection, Holbach proclaims a morality which tries to make a good citizen of him and arouse his interest in the general happiness. A morality which estranges us from people, which divorces our interest from the interest of others, is bad. We must appreciate Holbach’s effort to liberate morality from endless subjective reflection and make it active, teach it to work. Morality becomes human, humanist, only now that it assents to human nature, passion and reason and takes for its aim the development of people’s capacities and activities. How different from all the preceding


moralists, Stoics, Christians and metaphysicians, who propose that man should become virtuous by becoming indifferent to the world, denying his human nature and thus turning himself within his lifetime into a corpse.

What, in fact, is a virtuous man to go after in his life? Is he to honor power, birth, riches, beauty, talent, wit? Holbach tells us to honor man above all. Christian self-denial and the absence of self-respect that goes with it are abhorrent to him. The most fundamental mistake a man can make is to set a low value on himself, to lower himself. He should, on the contrary, honor himself. Apathy and indifference destroy virtue. To deprive a man of respect for himself and the respect of others is to deprive him of any incentive to virtue. Here the moral system incorporates the great idea of the renaissance about man’s greatness. The self-respect that was advocated was not the respect of vain conceit, it was respect for man’s social usefulness. Man has no right to esteem himself unless he is of benefit to society. An honorable man is simply a man who is just, humane, beneficial to society. If he is immoral, he is a bad citizen and vice versa. This consciousness of his own worth is an infallible mark of the spokesman of a progressive class.

It is in virtue thus apprehended that Holbach finds human happiness. Almost every moralist had put forward his ideas on the subject of happiness and had sought it in fusion with God, in pleasure, in some absolute. Holbach defines happiness relatively, as the matching of capacities with needs. That is much more accurate and correct, because it explains why different people find their happiness in different things. It is no longer a matter of absolutes but a relative relationship between variable values. If we have great needs and great capacities to satisfy them, we shall probably be happy, as will a person with small needs and small capacities to satisfy them. And a person will probably be unhappy if he has great needs and inadequate capacities or if he wastes great capacities on trifles. Holbach’s definition of happiness contains possibilities of dialectical interpretation, some of which Holbach worked out himself. For instance, there is the invariability of happiness. Happiness is statically defined as a state which we wish to remain changeless. But Holbach realizes that permanent happiness turns into unhappiness, that permanent happiness would lead to ossification. The desire for unchanging happiness as the attainment of some absolute state is a mere chimaera, happiness must encompass its own opposite as well. Man’s fate is to suffer, too, and he is happy when he rejoices more than he suffers. Holbach does not absolutize any of the things which are generally thought to constitute happiness — power, wealth, good reputation, glory. Those are means to happiness, which must be neither despised nor regarded as a goal in themselves. So even the basic definition of happiness presents a far more colorful picture than the traditional conception. Furthermore, this definition enables us to deal theoretically with the well-known fact that our actual notion of happiness changes, precisely because our needs and capacities change. Our needs grow in the course of our life. To satisfy the material needs, the needs of the body, is easy, to satisfy the others is far more difficult.

Holbach is truthful and therefore up-to-date also because he perceives man’s happiness as dependent on society. Man cannot make himself happy, no reflection, no self-denial of his needs can replace the basic condition of


happiness — society. It is commonplace and profound, like every truth, and perhaps it is also very topical because today, too, there are tendencies to seek happiness in some locked-up treasure of the family, in private interests and successes, to enclose happiness in barbed wire for fear of disillusionment, to seek it outside human relations, in technical achievements, or in just one special relationship, hermetically sealed off from the broader social context. It was a revolutionary idea in the sphere of morality when, departing from a thousand-year-old tradition which sought happiness in reflection, Holbach the moralist began to perceive that individual and social happiness are one, when he came close to grasping the interdependence between the individual and society. It was an enormous break when, contradicting the Christian tradition which advised man to retreat into the depths of his heart and close the door behind him, somebody at last declared that this door must be thrown wide open, that the task of morality is to join people together by joining their interests, to reject opinions which divide people, to turn people’s passions to their advantage, to incite them to cooperation, in short that morality itself has social tasks to perform and must not be regarded as a matter of inner harmony, clear conscience and elevating reflection. The moral problem of the eighteenth, as of the twentieth, century is not how to cultivate the virtues and the happiness of the individual but how to secure the material and cultural needs of people — the happiness of society.

In his moral system Holbach gave excellent theoretical expression to the need for change in the conception of the good life, for the replacement of feudal by bourgeois values. At the same time he ran into the old conflict common to all previous moral systems, the conflict between the ethical norm and people’s behavior, with the result that like all the earlier moralists he found that his balance sheet concerning what is and what ought to be showed a deficit. In the light of fictitious but moral norms he denounced society as immoral. This conflict between a moral reality which is what ethics wishes and a reality which is immoral but real can be resolved only by a science which replaces moral speculation by a strictly objective scientific analysis. Holbach simply put one set of principles in the place of another, attempted to solve a social crisis by a moral system, a new theoretical formulation of the traditional definitions of moral categories. In that he is alien to us, because present-day morality and ethical theory do not try to carry out a revolution in morality and ethical theory do not try to carry out a revolution in morality in this formal manner but by integrating morality into a general scientific theory of society, by ceasing to justify social movement on moral grounds, denying the central position of moral judgements in social life and letting moral ideas emerge out of social life and not vice versa.

Every unscientific ideology, even when progressive for its age, in time becomes sterile because it is only a simplified intellectual outline, it conserves a certain historically generated conception of man and the world, a conception which is made obsolete by continuing social evolution, by changing relationships. While real social evolution goes on, the upholders of ideas which were ere once progressive tend precisely to preserve these ideas unchanged, they are ruled by the desire to preserve the ideas without substantive changes because they imagine that this will guarantee further progressive


development. That is a mistake, of course, because the progressive slogan of yesterday turns into a defence of stagnation and an ideology which has refused to adapt to changing circumstances and accept perpetual change as the natural state of intellectual development becomes incapable of reflecting the objective world. The eye of a corpse does not see, even when it is open. The same words and the same theses of humanist morality which tended to reinforce human solidarity and the essence of which was once the defence of human rights were transformed by the logic of history into the cynicism of the bourgeois morality, the essence of which is determined by private property and which disrupts human bonds, converting moral values into values of exchange.



Enlightenment ethics rests on the principle of self-interest, on the materialistic foundation of men's interests, and it is set forth in opposition to the spiritualistic morality of duty and sin. The ethical theory of the philosophes, later disseminated under the name of rational egoism — that is Holbach’s ethics of common sense. The morality they proclaim is the most humane of sciences — the science of human happiness. It is a morality that arms man against metaphysics. It tells him that he himself is good, that he should not deny his passions, which are the mainsprings of his conduct, but rationally regulate them, that the basis of his conduct is utility. Man, does an institution tell you what to do? Hear what it has to say but be guided by your own interest. Let us realize how bold it was to place self-interest above the authority of the Church, which had a monopoly in morality and indirectly controlled the state as well. Morality has its basis in man’s natural character, it rightly assumes that man is naturally good and will behave well if he fulfills his own interests and does not prevent others from doing the same. We share these views today, but we make them conditional on the existence of an order such as might prevent the pursuit of self-interest from erupting into social conflicts. Enlightenment ethics thus rests on a new theoretical foundation, on the principle of self-interest, egoism, utilitarianism.

This principle is a modern version of the ancient precepts of Epicurus, who advised man to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to live in accordance with human nature, with nature as such. It is a principle that revolutionizes ethical notions to such an extent that it makes Kant, with his freedom of will, God and immortality of soul, appear as the theoretician of philistines rapt in religious awe of the starry sky and the moral law. It is a principle a priori unacceptable to religion and to all morality of self-denial and duty, a secular, earthly principle, the principle of human happiness. In contrast with earlier doctrines, governed by a norm, morality is now governed by interest. Egoism, the seeking of personal benefit, must also be the principle of morality. The egoism that had been anathematized is not only rehabilitated but made the hub of the system. Self-interest is conceived as the mainspring of human actions and properly conceived interest becomes the basis of morality. What horror for the philistine, for whom it was the height of theoretical boldness to replace supernatural morality by the morality of yet harder duty, simply exchange the kinds of norms that were to go on keeping guard over those dark and suspect demons of the human psyche, not be even mentioned in good society — the passions. What boldness to suppose that there can be any freedom at all without the Church, the monarchy and its bureaucratic administration. Freedom without officials to regulate it is just wicked insolence.

The principle of egoism was widespread in aristocratic society in the guise of the hedonism prevalent in the age of gallantry and of the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, it was veiled with an easy scepticism stemming from a surfeit of too many enjoyments and with a kindly pessimism that treated everything with irony — including itself. The same ethical principles, however, took on a different social function as soon as Holbach integrated them into the political program of the third estate and into the system of mechanical materialism.


Ideas, just like whole ideologies, do not have to change the wording of their principles in order to become something entirely different, perhaps even antithetical; it is enough for them to change their social function.

We should gravely misunderstand this egoism if we regarded it as plain selfishness, which it never was. Holbach does say that we love only ourselves, that a man melting in tears over the urn of his wife is only weeping over himself, but this self-love does not exclude love for others. On his road to happiness the egoist is obliged to become an altruist — an altruist for egoistic reasons and motives — because his own happiness presupposes the happiness of others. Love for other people follows from man’s social nature. So the most selfish theory of self-interest is counter-balanced by real love for one’s neighbor. It is only an apparent paradox that it is precisely the rational egoist who can be the most effective altruist; he best understands the happiness of the other person and can give him effective help. That is precisely what is exciting about dialectics, which admits and presupposes an antithetical connection between moral categories. Holbach understood the principle of interest in a way that emptied the traditional antinomy of egoism and altruism of its meaning. He coined the great, topical and never-aging idea, which aims to join the happiness of the individual with the happiness of other people. It is, in fact, just a paraphrase of the ancient classical principle that we must live for others if we want to live for ourselves, that the sense of human life is to live, to be happy and to help others to be happy. The pursuit of personal benefit therefore by no means implies that everything that is immediately advantageous is moral. The principle of self-love, the active search for happiness, was set over against the principle of the love of one’s neighbor and passive surrender to the inevitable but not in a manner that simply denied the one and replaced it by the other, but so that an absolutized aspect of moralizing altruism was taken up into the new conception as an integral part of it.

The principle of self-interest therefore involves altruism. But that is not all; it also presupposes a harmonious resolution of the relation between personal and social interest. The theory of utility did not mean the pursuit of benefit in a narrowly individual sense alone, it also presupposed a unity of public and private interest. The highest moral principle is not ultimately the personal advantage of the individual but the general happiness. If such harmony exists, then virtue itself is measured by the benefit it brings, the virtuous man is he who benefits society. The barrier between politics and morality falls, they fuse into one, politics begins to moralize and morality becomes political. At this point, however, there arises a serious problem: what about the contradictions between the interests of different individuals? The morality of egoistic self-interest has to be circumscribed by the general interest and so the old antinomy between naked self-interest and the moral law crops up once more in a new form. At the time when the feudal society was disintegrating, the unity of social and private happiness was a great unifying idea, it provided a conceptual solution to the existing conflict between the general happiness and the special interests of the nobility and the clergy. Once the unity between them has been established, this conflict will of course disappear, the philosophes thought, But in fact this longed-for unity turned out to be illusory. Already the revolution itself, and all the more so the development of the


capitalist production relations, brought to light the real conflict between the personal benefit of the individual and the benefit of society as a whole and compromised the aspiration to set up a universal happiness.

Another question fundamental to Holbach’s moral system is the relationship between reason and passion. It is interesting to note that the philosophes are commonly censured for their coldly rational conception of man, although the thinkers who created the anthropology of the Enlightenment were not the cold rationalists that Rousseau said they were. On the contrary, they designated the passions as the basic motive forces in man. Their speculations about man are governed by the dialectics of the relationship between reason and the passions so that they avoid both a narrowly rationalistic conception of man as a creature of reason and its contrary, the reduction of man to a bundle of instincts. Their conception was the best that had existed until that time, it was more objective and truthful than the speculations about man’s everlasting corruption that Christians believed in or the illusion about his infinite goodness that was held by Rousseau. Holbach starts from sheer reality: man is governed by passions. If they are not to destroy him, he must govern them by reason, he must regulate his passions. Only by being rational is it possible to know true happiness. If we are not guided by reason, which shows us the truth, we shall be taken in by all kinds of lies in the sphere of morals as well. Error, prejudice, will lead us astray here, too. Recognizing the strength of passion and trying to fetter it by reason, Holbach turns both against asceticism and against the irrationalism of those theoreticians who in their ethics counted on man’s instinctive goodness and justice, on Socrates’ inner voice, divine admonition, a mystically conceived conscience, on romantic sentiment or on uncontrolled passion. Holbach tried to show how the mythicized forces of passion, feelings, moral conscience, enthusiasm, etc., arise and operate, he tried to reduce the moral exaltation to down-to-earth interest, biology, society. In accordance with the historical mission of his class and with the theoretical means of his age, however, he conceived man's destiny too rationally, as a mechanism of interests and passions. A man's life becomes a curve, the course of which we can determine if we know the coordinates of his passions, interests, environment and upbringing.

Holbach seeks the origin of the moral ideas, opinions, vices and virtues of mankind in the very nature of man, in his passions. While previously it was some moral principle, a relationship to God or to an ideal, that was placed at the roots or morality, Holbach puts there human nature governed by its passions. This is the most objective view up to that date, because it does not start from a moral principle but from that which lies outside morality itself and determines it. So people do not make a decision for good or for evil, they follow their passions. Against the religious conviction that man is by nature evil and governed by sin, Holbach sets the thesis that man is governed by passions which are not, however, a source of evil and which can be governed by reason. The Enlightenment made men the yardstick of morality once again and theoretically united the benefit of the individual with that of society, calling on the individual to play his part in producing the general happiness. In this it was incompatible with Christianity, for which the ideal of a moral life was a monastic renunciation of the world and denial of the self. The philosophes'


active participation in public life was one of the distinctive features of the new ideal way of life. In contrast to the Greek citizen’s and the Stoic’s ideal of a philosophical life in antiquity and to the medieval ideal of the life of a meditating saint or a fighting knight, preference was here given to a conception of life as a task that man is to accomplish, a conception that led to action. Human consciousness, rather than authoritatively revealed truth, began to play the decisive part in morality. Man’s consciousness became the judge of good and evil instead of the Bible; moral principles were no longer derived, whether from sacred writings, from feeling or from God, but became what they really are: the result of men’s reason and experience.

When Holbach affirms that man is governed by passions he is close to materialism, he is looking for what governs man’s existence. The passions are not just psychological qualities, they are forces which the philosophes see as governing social life. Passion is the motive force which impels man to provide himself with food and gratify his instincts. Earlier moralists had worshipped or anathematized the passions, Holbach sees them as they really are. They are necessary and in themselves neither good nor bad, just like man. He, too, is neither good nor bad, he simply seeks happiness, pursues pleasure and avoids pain. The passions are morally neutral, they are good or bad according to the use that is made of them, whether or not they are governed by reason, how they are affected by a given environment and government. So the traditional moral problem of whether man is good or evil from birth must be dismissed outright, because the question itself has no meaning. Whether we become good or evil depends on our environment and on customs that are governed by public opinion. Our value judgements are founded only on custom and imitation. That is why opinion is the queen of the world, why prejudice is so persistent, why progress is arduous and education so vitally important. Holbach thus rejects the traditional pessimistic opinion that human nature is evil. Vice and wickedness arise in the same way as virtue and goodness, according to whether human passions, which are neither good nor bad in themselves and which govern us, are well or badly regulated. Holbach really understood people better than previous moralists had done. He does not divide people into the good and the bad, he does not demand perfection of them, he does not add the burden of morality to the burdens laid on them by life, he does not depict virtue so sublimely that the average mortal is overwhelmed. Holbach does not ask anyone to be perfect, he merely wants people to have more good and less evil in them. For both are in fact always present in man at the same time. In contrast to the one-sidedness of a crudely black-and-white morality, to the schematic division of mankind into the sinners and the elect, Holbach places at the very foundation of man’s moral decision-making the antithetical forces of good and evil. It is not the case that some people are good and others evil but people are always both good and evil at the same time.

It is Holbach’s great merit in the history of morality that he incorporated the passions which had always been negated and anathematized as the sources of vice. The mainsprings of virtue no longer appear as a gift of God, an outcome of self-denial or exceptionally heroic qualities but as forces inherent in man’s biological structure, self-discovered by common sense. The ancient philosophical idea that we can master the laws of nature only when we submit


to them applies not only to atomic physics but to man as well. Naturae nisi parendo imperamus. Man must also use his reason to acquire knowledge and mastery of the nature which is in him and which governs him no less than the objective laws of external nature and society. Enlightenment anthropology is censured for laying excessive emphasis on the biological foundations of human behavior. Yes, it did emphasize them against the hypocritical morality of Christianity. We value Holbach precisely because he rehabilitated the passions and discredited the pharisaical moralists who offer recipes for virtues which are at variance with man’s possibilities, with his nature, in other words with his instincts, feelings and intellect.

Holbach’s significance for morality ties in the fact that he taught people to see the self-interest that underlies morality and so did the same service for morality as Macchiavelli did for politics, when instead of telling politicians that they should be, he told them what they are. Holbach does not give mankind yet another moral lesson, he shows man what his interests are. That is why the principle of rational egoism was attacked as ruthlessly in ethics as Macchiavelli in politics. Possibly we shall have less respect for moral greatness if we see that there is self-interest behind it, but we shall certainly understand it better. For the principle of self-interest, personal benefit, egoism, explains men’s conduct. Perhaps that is why the concept of interest took so long to impose itself in morality. It was a philosophical expression of the spread of commercial relationships, which made people regard their own interest and benefit as the basis of their conduct. The rationalist morality of the Enlightenment originated from the class practice of the bourgeoisie and was the theoretical generalization of that practice. The class character of this morality was, of course, concealed behind an illusion of its universal validity. But it would be an oversimplification to see behind it only a bourgeois shopkeeper. We do not identify the ideas of the philosophes with late bourgeois morality, where rational egoism is no longer circumscribed by altruism and the principle of general happiness. As soon as class conflicts become acute, this morality is refuted by the attempt to put it actually into practice and theoretical thinking starts trying to develop the intellectual heritage of the philosophes — as must always be the case — in its own way, through an evolution of theory in the direction of utopianism, radical democracy and socialism. The principle of egoism is first infringed by the utopian altruism of the members of the phalansteries, then by the idolization of sexual love in the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, until finally self-interest combines with the interest of society, but only by turning into something qualitatively new — into class interest.

The philosophes and Holbach made enormous progress when they expelled supernatural notions from politics and ethics and combined moral precepts with the idea of self-interest. It was only this, in fact, that enabled morality to become a matter of personal conviction, whereas previously it had been a matter of fear and therefore immoral. The limits within which we are or are not free become clear only when morality comes to include a consciousness of moral determinism, a realization that man does not have a free choice but is obliged to choose what is useful to him, because that follows from his nature, from his passions. Like others before them, of course, the philosophes made


the mistake of regarding the natural principles they had finally discovered as the summit of metaphysical evolution. This was due to a lack of historicism, a failure to realize that just as man’s sinfulness or goodness is not innate either and cannot be apprehended supratemporally but only in connection with a certain socio-economic formation, with certain types of social relations. The theory of rational egoism therefore remained indebted to metaphysics in as much as it merely replaced innate egoism, stemming front man’s nature, and made morality dependent on a supposedly changeless human nature. But at the same time we must appreciate the objectively correct materialistic basis of this morality, which put the satisfaction of instincts at the center of its attention. It taught man the truth that we are impelled towards happiness and the satisfaction of our needs by our instinct of self-preservation, it derived moral norms from people’s experience and social practice, it was active, optimistic morality of a struggling class. Today we do not share the assumption that moral laws are eternal and invariable, because we know that they are not a part of the natural order but only rules conditioned by the age to which they belong. Marxism abolished the illusion of a purely individual egoism, together with the phantom of general happiness; it abolished this antinomy through the principle of the class struggle.



Pre-Marxist social theories have an illusory character: their foundation is not objective science but a jumble of class-determined wishes, illusions and objective knowledge. The great picture of the law of history as these theories depict it turns out, at a deeper level of reality, to be only a projection of contemporary conditions. In pre-Marxist ideology, man replaces the historical process by his own reflection and instead of changes in real life he takes as his starting point the changes in the categories according to which he is supposed to act. In the place of the conflicts of reality, the conflicts of production forces and relations, he puts a conflict that he makes up. In order to conceal the discordance between his fiction and the reality, he mythicizes the real course of things as an evolution of the idea of progress, reason, God or the nation, because an ideologist cannot grasp the real, economic source of the historical process. So the naked economic interests of classes appear in ideologically motivated masks, which combine objective facts with the prejudices of a class, a group or a nation. And yet social theories do not develop by themselves, by a logical auto-evolution of concepts, but in dependence on the qualities and tasks of the class they are defending. That is to say, in concrete terms, that the main views of the philosophes are marked by the dual attitude of the bourgeoisie, which had simultaneously to defend the interests of the masses and to struggle against the nobility in defence of its own interests. So their opinions reflect a particular evolutionary stage of society, where the given state of production forces (and their link with production relations) determines the manner in which the social problems will be solved and so gives rise to the limitations characteristic of that period. Thus the development of social opinions runs into two obstacles which are always stronger than any theory: the nature and the interests of the class it champions and the given state of social relationships, which has to be the point of departure even in those cases where the thinker is determined to supersede this state. That is also the secret of the political theory of Holbach, whose philosophical materialism performed the function of a materialistic explanation socially, too, but who had to abandon his theoretical materialistic premises whenever he came up against the social practice of his class.

The social theories of the bourgeois era reflect the conflict of the day and class, but not always in its true likeness. The social conflict may appear variously disguised in political demands, as the struggle of a national state against Church authority, as a struggle between estates, as a clash of ideals. Most social theories work out this fundamental conflict conceptually, and they themselves develop by negating and resolving this conflict and so communicating to their contemporaries an awareness of its existence. As soon as the conflict is resolved, however, the social theories lose their objective character and turn into dogmatic ideological systems, which derive their conclusiveness only from tradition and which attempt to solve a newly emerging conflict by means of old concepts. In that, however, they cannot succeed because once the social reality has changed, the whole system of old concepts is deprived of its social function. The evolution of social theories is a certain process of formulating, posing and resolving antithetical aspects of this


conflict which drives the evolution of theories and the manner in which theoreticians reacted to changes in social systems; some defended the given reality, others attacked it, while a third group slowly grew to an awareness of a further, emerging conflict. The great majority of philosophers adopted the apologetic point of view, a minority was critical and only people of real talent, of genius, managed to discern, in the midst of the battles between the apologists and the critics, the real problems of the conflict that was coming. At the same time, it depended on the social conditions whether political theory and philosophy as such was capable of fulfilling the function of apologetics, which was enabled to present a semblance of criticality by the fact that men of learning engaged in academic disputes, taking sides on minor matters while the fundamental questions remained untouched. The criticism of the Enlightenment was not a game of this kind, it was an attack on the dominant ideology, which called for great courage on the thinker’s part, because it led to the estrangement of yesterday’s friends, to defeats, depressions, personal decline, persecution and imprisonment. At this high cost it was possible for a man to become a philosopher, which again meant quite simply that he was a friend of truth, of wisdom. The philosophy that the ruling class did not lock up in jail was of little value. The critical spirit of a philosopher worthy of the name was identical with the search for truth.

Social theories take on, in the course of history, different meanings in relation to other forms of ideological expression. Sometimes certain forms of social consciousness dominate throughout a whole era while others remain in the background and their influence on the social psyche is hardly perceptible. We might say that as socio-economic formations succeed one another the superstructure undergoes changes both as regards the interdependence of the individual forms of social consciousness and as regards their significance. The change of socio-economic formation finds its expression in the fact that not only does the content of religion, politics, ethics and science change but that the actual structure of social consciousness does so too, so that at one time, for instance, it is religion that is the basic form of social consciousness, influencing all the rest, then it is morality and then science. From the renaissance onwards, individual forms, art, science and politics, begin to emancipate themselves from the domination of religion, and the religio-moral point of view is also eliminated from politics, which starts to assume the leading position in the structure of social consciousness — taking the place of religion. That was a profound change. For more than a thousand years before the renaissance, politics was completely dominated by ethics, which was, in its turn, governed by religion, by the authority of the sacred scriptures. That is why politico-theoretical speculation was always religio-moral speculation, for Thomas Aquinas as for Luther. Practical politics, of course, did not abide by these speculations and was, even then, a matter of the interests of individual social groups and classes: there was a conflict, acknowledged or not, between the everyday politics of the ruling class and the moral theory which was adduced to justify this rule — the old conflict that opposes theory, which teaches what people should be, to what people really are.

Once we realize that this is how moralizing theory is related to immoral political practice, we shall see more clearly the splendid contribution made by


Macchiavelli and Hobbes, who presented an original solution to this conflict when they abandoned the whole previous tradition of motivating politics by religio-moral considerations and based their theoretical thinking on the bare facts of that immoral practice, when they abandoned the tradition of morally justifying the given system of government and laid the groundwork of scientific speculation about the state and government by simply eliminating all moral speculations. Diametrically opposite to them stood Holbach, who saw politics as the “Morality of nations” and thought that its essence was to apply the natural principles or morality to the life of society.

Just as it is the task of morality to unite man’s interests with his nature, so it is the task of true politics to unite the interests of the sovereign with those of the nation. Princes do not understand their true interest — which is to be the fathers of their nations. The contrary of true politics, which creates harmony between king and citizens, is the bad politics of the king’s self-interest, despotism, tyranny. The baseness of the courts, religious superstition, the uninformedness and indemnity of the rulers, their pact with the priests, all this turns politics into a conspiracy against the nations. The ideas of this unnatural politics do not govern but tyrannize over people, they lead to discontent, misery, corruption, to the disintegration of society, to rebellions. Unlimited power must lead to the abuse of power and to conflicts. Despotism is simply contrary to man’s nature, to the purposes of society, it is the natural enemy of human reason. It requires soldiers and wars in order to maintain itself, to perpetuate tyranny. That is why the people have the right to defend themselves against tyranny: the government is created for the nation, not the other way round. A despot foments rebellion against himself: by shutting himself off from advice, from freedom, he obliges others to advise him by washing his hands in his own blood. Holbach strove to find remedies against despotism here on earth and not in heaven, not in a religious escape from this world, in faith. But however hard Holbach tried to discover the objective causes of despotism, he did not manage to take one essential step — which had already been taken by Macchiavelli — to dismiss the idea of a unity of interest between the rulers and the ruled, to see the prince as the representative and agent of a specific interest and find the roots of social relationships in the evolutionary stage attained by material production.

In accordance with the prevailing opinions, Holbach derives the origin of government from a social contract. As conflicts arose between individual interest, the members of a society selected the best citizens from among themselves and to these they transferred their own rights and entrusted the government. Government is therefore based on the fact that nations were obliged to submit to laws in order to protect themselves from anarchy, they had to submit to government power, which then gave rise to violent tyranny and turned its citizens into slaves and laws into an expression of injustice. The need for government therefore stems from the necessity of a more advanced mode of life and as time goes on it assumes various forms. The relationship between the sovereign and the nation, however, is always based on the social contract, which binds the sovereign to govern in accordance with the safety and welfare of the nation. The people’s obligation to obey is contingent on the sovereign’s ruling in the interest of the nation, if he fails to do his duty, the nation is


released from its obligation. So the occupation of the land is not a source of sovereignty. The rule of force cannot be legitimized.

About the merits, the deficiencies and the possible reforms of government Holbach speculates from many points of view, arriving at the conclusion that so far there is no form of government which guarantees public freedom, because states are governed not by reason but by ignorance and violence. A good form of government would be one which combined the merits of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, while avoiding their faults. Holbach appraises different forms of government not according to how they administer the state but how far they fulfill the interests of the people and defend the welfare of the state. Holbach’s descriptions of forms of government evince an aversion to the defects of hereditary monarchy and an obvious attraction for the republican form of government, especially in its British version, which he regarded as the freest and as a masterpiece of human reason. This admiration is mingled with critical reservations about the people’s representatives, about the party spirit and the excessive patriotism which is only a cloak for self-interest, and about the danger to freedom represented by wealth. Holbach thus criticized many phenomena which are inseparably linked to the bourgeois democratic form of government, often without realizing that what he condemns from his moral standpoint is in fact a historical virtue of capitalism. Holbach has a remarkably low opinion of the representatives of the nation, who were first the military conquerors, then the nobility and then the elected representatives of the people. He perceived that representative institutions easily turn into organs serving the personal interests of the people’s representatives, so that the representation itself becomes illusory. The basic political problem is how to prevent those who have no part in government from becoming a prey to those who govern them. The solution Holbach proposes is, first, that an armed nation should keep its security in its own hands and, secondly, that the people’s representatives should be men of property who will not be tempted to enrich themselves. Consequently, he denies the franchise to the mob, to beggars and to those who have no property; he fears the mob as an instrument easily played on by demagogues. Holbach regards as a citizen only the man who possesses property and so can live off his own, because only such a man can be presumed to have an interest in the preservation of the social order. The realistic thinking which tied the franchise to property was less radical than Rousseau’s utopia, but it was practicable.

Holbach favors a republic. The convulsions of republics are the acute sicknesses of the strong, while the deathly stillness of despotism is a chronic, incurable sickness, it is the peace of mute slaves surrounded by terror. Freedom and danger is better than quiet slavery. So Holbach is a republican and a democrat, but he has a negative attitude to the most radical and simplest way of changing the government — to revolution. He thinks that bloody revolutions merely exchange one form of government for another and do not produce results, do not remove the roots of the evil. At this point we must not be misled by the term he uses. What Holbach means by revolution is a coup d’etat which merely exchanges one tyrant for another, not a course leading to a change of socio-economic formation. So while he was in favor of revolution in the sense of a transition to a different type of social relations, he was against


what he saw as useless bloodshed, against revolution as a mere change of government. Perhaps it was the incessant and fruitless struggle of the nations against the sovereigns that made Holbach disapprove of the people’s engaging in revolutionary activity and obliged him to turn his mind to forms which he thought had a greater chance of success, to rely on the progress of knowledge, reason, experience. It was the character of the previous revolutions, or rebellions, which swept the masses up like a whirlwind and then died away, letting them relapse into indifference towards their situation and confirming them in their habitual conviction that nothing can be done to change it.

Holbach the republican believed that the fundamental condition of the happiness of nations is freedom. This is the condition that enables the welfare and happiness of the nation to be secured and it is limited only by reason, by interest in self-preservation. The government is obliged to secure for its citizens the conditions they require to attain happiness and it always owes its citizens freedom. That is why a sovereign who threatens the freedom of the nation is an enemy of society; society should decide for itself how it is to be governed. Freedom does not lie in a fancied equality, which Holbach regarded as a democratic chimaera at variance with the natural inequality of capacities. Freedom of speech, of thought and of the press, however, cannot make anyone uneasy in a well-run country, they are an antidote to fanaticism and despotic abuses. A free exchange of ideas is necessary, because everyone has a duty to share his knowledge with his fellow-citizens: freedom is simply a bulwark against despotism. Only in a free country does a man learn to think, only a republican is proud, courageous and energetic, because he feels that the law protects and supports him. Just as despotism makes people mean, so freedom instills in them nobility of mind. The sovereign should hold his mandate from the nation: it is not his absolute power but the law of the land that stands supreme. Monarchs should be the fathers of their nations but the nations are the fathers of their kings. Holbach therefore theoretically proclaims that the interests of the nation and those of the sovereign must not be separated, at the very time when the gulf between them was at its deepest and when their reconciliation was quite impossible.

It was also consistent with the bourgeois conception of freedom that in dealing with forms of government and the state, Holbach never enunciated the idea of the historical and class character of the state itself, of the possibility of speculating about its nonexistence, about social life without this institution. So the classless standpoint of Holbach’s speculations confuses two issues — society and the state. He regards the state as the result of a decision made by the people and not as the product of economic necessity, as the guarantor of the individual fights of men and not as the organ of the ruling class for the oppression of the class of producers. The legislator expresses what is supposed to be the general will and acts in the name of the general happiness, because all rational provisions, including the institution of state authority, presuppose that the interests of all are at one. Law is an expression of the interest of society as a whole and of man’s natural rights, it is not an expression of class interest, it springs directly from man’s nature. That is why every law which robs man of his freedom, security or property is unjust and it cannot legitimize any act if it against the common interest, if it is the fruit of despotic tyranny. In


affirming his respect for just laws Holbach is not expressing an admiration for authoritarian orders but expressing a sharply critical attitude to the unjust laws then in force, which are thus presented as mere norms without legal force, norms which can never be laws because they run counter to the natural rights of man.

This bourgeois conception of republican freedom was progressive, indeed revolutionary, in Holbach’s day, because it implied a demand for social equality, for the establishment of democratic institutions, the abolition of the existing order and the granting of democratic civil liberties, that is, it strove for an all-round improvement of the political conditions. At the same time this concept of freedom had a very slight economic content, it was almost devoid of any economic foundation and it was not brought into any deeper theoretical connection with the freedom to enjoy a decent standard of living and material and social prosperity. The philosophes did not stipulate any economic conditions for freedom, perhaps because the bourgeoisie was concerned with something other than prosperity, which it already possessed, it was concerned with the transformation of social institutions. Philosophy did not have to take the economic conditions of freedom into account, because it was the philosophy of a propertied class. The philosophes did not apprehend freedom in connection with the whole of human relationships, as an expression of the laws of nature and society; they gave the concept of freedom a primarily political content. While they perceived that history indicates a certain direction of change, they failed to perceive this progress otherwise than as the ascent of the mind, the growth of freedom. Freedom, however, is never a static situation and no situation existing at any point of time is the end of progress: so freedom must also be conceived as a movement towards freedom, as a process by which freedom gradually comes into being.

What is basically wrong with this “natural politics”, what makes it unnatural? The theoretical basis of the social self-preservation inherent in the isolated individual as a part of nature subject to eternal, invariable laws. Society is conceived only as an aggregate of individuals, so that the laws governing society are identical with the laws that govern man. And because man is not apprehended as the product of social work, the laws are ultimately reduced to natural law, to the universal law of attraction and repulsion. The explanation of social phenomena is carried out by means of excessively general laws which govern the whole cosmos. On the other hand, the notion of the isolated individual, the social atom, cannot provide the basis for an understanding of social phenomena. Capitalist production relations offered production relations offered people greater freedom, they gave them freedom of competition. So theory presented this order as the finally discovered order of reason and freedom, an order consonant with man’s nature. The laws that govern society began to be sought precisely in the sphere of timelessly conceived nature — human nature — and it did not occur to anybody in the eighteenth century that those social foundations are themselves a product of history and that they appear natural only because of a generalization of the transient conditions in which people happen to be living in the period of developing capitalism.

Man lives in social relationships which he himself creates, he lives in mutual


dependence upon others: that is why only social man is natural man. If social institutions clash with individual needs, an antagonism arises between the individual and society. The consciousness that the relation between the individual and the collective is deformed gives rise to the demand for an undisturbed development of the individual’s personality. Individualism, an inseparable part of bourgeois philosophy, once meant a revolt of the personality against authority, against medieval collectivism, and placed the human self at the center of attention. Individualism meant the liberation of the individual from all the fetters of society, it expressed the individual’s right to cut ruthlessly across all frontiers, to fulfill his life’s mission through an all-round development of his individual nature. The progressiveness of this philosophical individualism, bound up as it was with the stormy growth of culture and economy, lay in the demand for man’s right to shape his own individuality, to liberate the personality from feudal serfdom, both intellectual and factual. This individualism was at the same time diametrically opposed to the medieval solution to the problem of the relationship between society and the individual, according to which man acquires a personality precisely by participating in the idea of God, identifying with traditional institutions and opinions, subordinating the individual to society, which takes precedence over subjective will. Freedom and personality are thus acquired not in opposition to society but by identifying with it. This theory, more recently formulated by Hegel in the conservative aspect of his theory of the state, later became the conceptual foundation of the fascistically totalitarian, offensively reactionary tendency which, with new methods but in the same obscurantistically medieval spirit, subordinated precisely that which is of supreme value – man’s personality — to the interest of the state. The adherents of this theory are as convinced as the medieval inquisitors that the individual exists for the benefit of the state, that the state is more important than the individual and therefore has the right to dictate to the individual how he is to conduct himself. At the same time, they are convinced that they are acting in the interest of man whom, through the intermediary of the state, they have taken under their protection. Every inquisitor feels that burning is the last service he can render to the heretic’s soul for its salvation.



The thinkers of the eighteenth century approach social problems with an ingrained aversion for despotism, they judge society according to their own moral notions and they couple moral exaltation with a politically radical slogan. They carry out a criticism of the bases of society from a moral standpoint, from the standpoint of man’s natural right to happiness, security, property and prosperity. They conduct the struggle for their interests by means of moral criticism. The laws of morality, which are also the natural principles of politics, ought to take precedence over the actual relations between people and nations which, in their turn, are at present irrational and bound to collapse. Holbach’s principles of natural politics — derived from the immediate needs of society were interpreted as laws universally valid for all social evolution, since the philosophes failed to realize clearly that they were only the specific expressions of the class struggle in a given period. Holbach himself did not regard his political doctrine as the reflection of a clash between classes and his opinions about society as an expression of the needs of a class, but as the application of the principle of reason, a morality transcending class, the principle of reason and science, as the common interest of society as a whole — from the monarch to the beggar. The class struggle is a principle unknown to Holbach in its true form, but its essence plays an important part, because the class struggle is represented as a struggle between estates. This ideology, which transcends class issues in the cult of abstract humanity and man, was a class proclamation. We must distinguish between the form of the verbal utterance and the role the idea actually played in society. The verbal utterance transcended the class level but in reality it had a specifically class character and a consciously political function.

The philosophes were immersed in the immediate needs of a political movement, they did not have an impersonal, objective view of the world and of the progressive movement itself, so that the most general questions of the future science of society did not yet arise for them. The needs of this science were enunciated only in conjunction with politics. The problem of society appeared only as the problem of concrete political acts of one kind or another, not in its essence — as a science, as the explanation of the course of history as a whole, of the necessary tendency of history. Politics did not appear as an expression of social movement but only as an attempt to apply the eternal natural principles inherent in nature and the individual. That is why Holbach knows only blind mechanical necessity, excluding chance from the course of social events, the blind natural forces of attraction and repulsion. There is only the mechanism of nature and the pursuit of individual interests in politics, no science of society.

Holbach’s concrete socio-political ideal was in agreement with this general theoretical approach. Holbach was an adherent of the Natural Law theory, that is to say he held the opinion that social institutions have a natural origin and that they spring from a social contract, an agreement useful to everybody, which secures the continued existence of society. This social contract can be cancelled if it does not suit society, but it is the basis of the state, because it is by means of this contract that people come to agree on the laws of social life. Natural society was supposed to guarantee everybody equality before the law,


freedom to trade, fraternity between the nations, the right to own property and personal liberty. These conditions were to bring about the harmonious society of the future. Holbach strove for a society where the interest of an estate could not take the form of privilege but would be subordinated to the common interest, to the general happiness, where there would be equality between men, though that would not, of course, abolish their natural inequality. The implementation of these ideals presupposed the liquidation of injustice and privilege, the abolition of the system of estates. It was, therefore, an essentially, though not verbally, revolutionary objective which aimed to bring about a fundamental change in society, demanded a change in the forms of property, that is to say, for its period it was a radical slogan. As against the feudal system where the chief means of production, land, was held in fee, the principle of private property represented a great step forward. Though its objective significance lay in the fact that it made possible a more rapid development of productive forces by pauperizing the people, it was subjectively motivated by the argument that it would bring an equal distribution of wealth and remove the extreme concentrations of riches and poverty at either end of the scale. For several decades the most civilized men in Europe believed in these principles, until reality itself cruelly discredited such theoretical slogans and showed that society had got rid of one form of oppression only to establish another. The opposition between the exploited and the exploiters was to reappear again, in a still more acute form, when the idyllic description of the benefits the society of the future would bring came to be confronted with real life as it was lived in the colonies of English industrial workers.

The basis of Holbach’s future society is the right to own property. That is the most important of natural rights and the one on which society rests. In upholding the principle of the freedom to own property the philosophes were upholding the basis of bourgeois social relations, and so the society of the future, because their defence of it was coupled with an attack on the feudal form of property. So it is a sign of incomprehension to censure Holbach for defending the right to property, because precisely this demand for the replacement of the feudal form of property by that of private property was the motive power of the revolution, since it gave the mass of the French agricultural workers a material interest in the land, it was a realistic political principle, a factually correct view of the motive powers capable of carrying out the revolution, while the romantic condemnation of property was only a utopia, which was certainly important on account of its emotive power and its prophetic content but which had not connection with reality apart from wishful thinking. The specific features, objective conditions and driving forces of revolution lie in people’s material interests. The programmatic prominence given to the bourgeois demand for the freedom to own property was not a limitation but a correct pinpointing of the fundamental goal — the emancipation of the French peasant from the feudal form of property by a codification of its bourgeois form.

Here we come once more to the breach between the encyclopedistes and Rousseau. We must take the side of the encyclopedistes again and reject Rousseau’s romantic illusions about the state of nature, despite the fact that the arguments he adduced in their support were more revolutionary than the sober speculations of the encyclopedistes. Holbach firmly rejects a philosophy


that turns away from society. If a man were to run away into the woods, into the dreamed-up state of nature, he would have to come right back to the state in which he is now. The savage is no happier than we are, he is merely a strong child who hunts for his food and succumbs to every fleeting passion. The state of nature which is held up to us as an example is simply a state of wretchedness, ignorance and unreason, it is merely an idealization of backwardness. There is no point in idealizing the savage. Freedom without culture is primitivism. Holbach perceives that culture does not deprive man of a broader freedom but rather endows him with it. If we want to be free, we must move further away from the state of nature. We must not go back but remove the causes that keep men in a state of ignorance. It is not the case that people have generated into wickedness from a state of natural goodness. Simply, their education is defective. Even the present corruption is better than a state of savagery. It should be remarked that this conception is not only more correct factually than Rousseau’s romanticism, but also more courageous. When a man loses an illusion, he tends to turn away from reality, to reject it. The courageous course is to let the illusion go without turning one's back on reality, whether the illusion is personal or social.

Holbach perceived the fundamental antagonism in society, the existence of classes, as an inequality between the rights of the estates, as an opposition between the poor and the rich. A free society required that the opposition between wealth and poverty be abolished. Holbach assumed that the artificial inequality between men would be replaced by a natural inequality of property, which seemed to follow from their unequal capabilities. That is not only a limitation. The desire for a harmonious society is an eternal dream of mankind, from the Old Testament prophets to modern science. In the society of the future, men always see prosperity and freedom, the end of the contradictory aspects of present-day society, but they do not see the conflicts inherent in the future state, because the actual dialectics of the evolution of conflict prevents them from doing so. Men and their theories go forward like the knight in the fairy tale, journeying over nine mountains and nine rivers — as soon as he reaches one horizon. a new mountain-range of obstacles appears before him. Nearly all the theoreticians of social evolution, including the utopians, describe the future as a state where the defects of present-day society are resolved, not as a society with new specific conflicts of its own, because these conflicts have not yet evolved in actual reality but exist only as potentialities which history itself has yet to develop. For this reason society never has attained and never will attain that much-desired state for which it is striving. It achieves only a renewal of its conflicts on a higher level, because the evolution of society is the continuous setting-up and resolution of ever more complex conflicts. The application of the Enlightenment ideals of a natural society destroyed the medieval stratification and with it the antagonisms of feudalism, while nobody could suspect that in the course of less than two centuries the development of the same principles would give rise to conflicts that threaten the whole of human culture.

What were the concrete objectives of the politics of the enlightenment, the ways and means that Holbach’s theory proposed for the attainment of the ideal state of society? While it is easy to draw up a project for any constitution,


however perfect, it requires the highest degree of theoretical talent to calculate and plot the route to a new society, to analyze the intrinsic connections between the various stages, both present and future. The program for this route requires a long theoretical preparation, because theory is nothing but a process of intellectual trial and error, eliminating certain eventualities of historical evolution already at the stage of speculation. There is the closest kind of link between a theory of society and the formulation of a practical political program. Theory turns into a program of practical provisions as soon as conditions permit. That is why conservative social groups aware of their class interests so heartily detest every theory as a cryptogram, a prophecy of their own extinction, and do what they can to stifle it at birth. They choose to suppress all social theory, rejecting an intellectual speculation about alternative courses of development, with the exception of apologetics. For what is the use of speculation if it points the way to the extinction of this class? The royal court and the conservative nobility which burnt the books of the enlightenment had a very clear sense of the value of this theory — for the enemy. As soon as they lost their ability to commit the theory to the flames, they revealed their own weakness and the revolution was at the door.

Holbach’s program for the route to the happy society of the future stems from his criticism of the system of estates. The basic demand is for a change of the feudal system, a reform of the absolutist state. Against the injustice of despotism Voltaire demanded feudal legality and that was good, but Holbach demanded political freedom and that was much better. He propounded an open program of the development of bourgeois-democratic liberties, a program stemming from his criticism of the court, the clergy, the bureaucracy and the aristocracy. The central issue in the political program is the reform of state power, which is itself still regarded as a necessary, indispensable instrument, a regulator of interests. This reform coincided with a reform of society and issued in a combination of elements of aristocracy, monarchy and democracy. The program of enlightened reform was seen as a series of political provisions concerning state power and if there was one thing that was not reckoned with, it was that which was of the greatest importance — independent action on the part of the people, the masses. Holbach imagined that the content of the transition to the new society would be political change, the passing of state power from one set of hands to another, but not a fundamental social change. Legislative power would pass to the national assembly, to elected property-owners and an expansion of trade and industry would do away with penury. That is why his political program contains the slogans of freedom and humanism but not that of social equality. Holbach did not rely on a revolution which would create a new social stratification but on an enlightened monarch who would bring about social change by means of legal provisions.

Theoretically the transition to the new society was described as an intellectual process, as a transition from ignorance of natural principles to knowledge of them, as the enlightenment of backward minds, not as a revolutionary social process, effected through changes in the economic and political system. The revolutionary process was seen only as a matter of educating people in new ideals. Holbach takes this essentially negative attitude to political revolution because he believes that human reason itself is


the means by which society can be transformed and therefore he is obliged to give priority to the cultivation of reason, to education, over the independent activity of the masses. So for him the shaping of the future is a question of education, not of a mass movement. The masses are at most the object of the philosophe’s operation, not the subject of the historical process. The people are, for Holbach, only a passive, dangerous mass, which cannot govern itself, so that a parliament of property-owners must govern on its behalf. In these circumstances, politics is a matter of the legislative, legal, acts of princes, which take place while the nation watches in silence, it is not an expression of the objective laws of evolution and class interests, which are themselves implemented by the activity of the masses. It is only political power, with its laws, that has a creative character. Thus a juristic formula is given priority over the objective law governing the evolution of history.

We must not take a narrow view of Holbach’s attitude to political revolution. Holbach was revolutionary by the whole content of his work, because he spoke out unequivocally in favor of the essence of every revolution, a change of existing conditions, a fundamental political reversal. He differed from later revolutionaries on the question of the ways in which the new society is to come about. Towards past revolutions, such as the English, his attitude was positive, he gave the people the right to revolt, but he did not count on it in his program as any kind of solution. The republican content and the democratic sympathies evident in his work found no other outlet than in the forms proper to the politics of that time. Holbach managed to draw up a program for that state policy of a bourgeois republic without it ever occurring to him that the change in the content of politics and the form of political institution, would bring about a change in the whole mechanism of the existence of political power, that it will not be the ruler who carries it out but the most revolutionary class which will lead the masses. So in the most complicated question, that of the transition to a new society, a question which requires not only the greatest amount of fantasy but also the greatest amount of knowledge and ice-cold calculation of interests, Holbach stopped short of grasping the logic of the historical process, he did not catch up, even in his imagination, with the future — the active participation of the masses in the revolutionary decade, the shaping of history by the action of the people. Instead, he bound up his program with the notions of the good ruler that were current in his day. That was his greatest theoretical mistake, thoroughly exposed by the revolutionary developments themselves. Let us say in his defense that the implementation of revolutionary changes has always contained an element which is not theoretically calculable but is supplied only by the revolutionary practice itself.

Holbach considered that the social environment damages man’s character. So the environment must be altered by legislation. The founding stone of his political program is therefore necessarily an enlightened law-giver. All that is required is to find an enlightened ruler who will execute the philosopher’s ideas. So the most difficult problem — how to set social conditions in motion — is transformed into the simple question of the psychological qualities of the ruler, his character, and the essential issue of social relations turns into a search for that squared circle — a righteous monarch. Naturally this king is conceived in a new way, in association with a republican, democratic program, no longer as


God’s representative on earth but as the executor of the sovereign people’s will. Holbach is in favor of a strong central power, he realizes that such a power is indispensable for the implementation of the changes he plans, but he fails to conceive it in its dialectical reversal, as a power that will spring precisely from the total annihilation and disintegration of the power of the absolute monarch, to perceive that the strong power of the enlightened despot will have to pass through a period of broadest democracy in the revolutionary years before it becomes the power of Napoleon. A strong, just ruler, the foundation stone of social development, the alternative to the revolutionary solution that Holbach rejects: his laws, rather than a popular movement, will establish freedom. These notions, which underestimate the active role of the popular masses in the historical process, were of course realistic in their own way, so long as there was no historical experience to show that the revolutionary activity of the masses could produce a permanent result.

Holbach tried to establish such relationships as would enable the moral factor to become the motive power of social evolution, to bring about a union of personal and social interest, to replace legal relationships completely by moral relationships. In this endeavor to shape moral personalities Holbach is a follower of all the moralists, with all their basic deficiencies. Earlier and contemporary moralists clearly saw and condemned the conflicts of their age but imagined that they were solving them by proclaiming their principles of harmony. It was only a later age that discovered that social conflicts cannot be resolved in this way, that the task of theory is not to provide an intellectual balm for the real defects of the social order but to master the conflict practically in order to rid society of the “immorality of the age”. Faced with social conflict, the moralists proposed only illusory, utopian solutions, which were often a proof of their courage and sympathy with the oppressed but which could not affect the politics of interest. The social illusions about the possible creation of a utopia, which were fostered by the moralists, could become an incentive to spiritual activity but in the end they were bound to founder on the actual objective conflicts which gave rise to the “corruption of the age”. So the intellectual reproduction of reality in Enlightenment thinking did not attain to the level of a science (of ethics and politics) but remained merely the groundwork of the critical tradition in European philosophy, a tradition which was only later to lead to revolutionary democracy, to the theory of Marxism, to science.

The natural principles of Holbach’s politics, which once represented its scientific features, in time grew old and obsolete, although their wording remained unchanged and the struggle for equality, liberty and fraternity continued. For every idea changes in the course of time, every idea without exception changes its social function in the course of history and thereby also changes its substance, though it may not change its outer form. It loses its veracity and ceases to be an objective reflection of the existing conditions.

Holbach’s ideals did not cease to be noble objectives. Reality, however, unmasked them as powerless, subjected them to its own specific brand of criticism, deformed and perverted them into the semblance of illusions serving to defend a given period and system of power-relations regardless of their original intentions, destroyed the ideal by means of the inevitable historical


process of the development of the bourgeoisie as a class. That is the historical fate of all mass ideologies. The transformations by which society moves toward its goal do not follow the declared needs of politics, science and philosophy. In the actual course of the revolution, the social thinking of the Enlightenment split into two ideological currents, one of which wanted to realize its ideals regardless of the reality that opposed it, while the other reconciled itself to the impossibility of putting the ideals into practice and degenerated into apologetics. The progressive content of Holbach’s Enlightenment philosophy was, on the one hand, transformed into the merely illusory features of the bourgeois social consciousness and, on the other, preserved in the tradition of social criticism — in Marxism.




1.  Le christianisme devoile, London 1756 (1761).

2.  De la cruaute religieuse, London 1706.

3.  L’esprit du Clerge ou le Christianisme primitif venge des Entreprises et des Exces de nos Pretres modernes, London 1767.

4.  De l’Imposture Sacerdotale ou Recueil de Pieces sur le Clerge, London 1786.

5.  Les pretres demasques ou des Iniquites du Clerge chretien, London 1768.

6.  La Contagion Sacree ou Histoire naturelle de la Superstition, London 1768.

7.  Lettres a Eugenie ou Preservatif contre les Prejuges, London 1768.

8.  Le Militaire philosophe ou Difficultes sur la Religion, London 1768.

9.  Theologie portative, London 1768.

10.  David ou l’Histoire de l’Homme selon le Coeur de Dieu, London 1768.

11.  Examen des Propheties, qui servent de Fondament a la Religion chretienne avec un Essai de Critique sur les Prophetes et les Prophetiens en general, London 1768.

12.  Lettres philosophiques sur l’origine des Prejuges, du Dogme de l’Immortalite, de l’Arne etc., London 1768.

13.  L’Enfer detruit, suivi d’une Dissertation de Whitefool, London 1768.

14.  L’Intolerance convaincue du Crime de Folie, London 1769.

15.  Les plaisirs de l’Imagination, Amsterdam 1769.

16.  Examen critique de la vie et des ouvrages de Saint Paul, London 1770.

17.  L’Esprit de Judaisme, London 1770.

18.  Essai sur le Prejuges, London 1770.

19.  Histoire critique de Jesus‑Christ, Amsterdam 1770.

20.  Le Systeme de la Nature, London 1770.

21.  Tableau des Saints ou Examen de l’Esprit, de la Conduite, des Maximes et du Merite des Personnage, que le Christianisme propose comme modeles, London 1770.

22.  De la Nature humaine, London 1772.

23.  Le bon sens ou Idees Naturelles opposees aux Idees Surnaturelles, London 1772.

24.  La Politique naturelle, London 1772.

25.  Le Systeme sociale, London 1773.

26.  Ethocratie ou le Gouvernement, fonde sur la Morale, Amsterdam 1776.

27.  La Morale universelle, Amsterdam 1776.

28.  Elements de la Morale universelle ou Catechisme de la Nature, Paris.

29.  Recueil philosophique ou Melange des Pieces sur la Religion et la Morale, London 1770.

30.  Hymne au Soleil, Ode de la vie humaine.

31.  Prononciation des Langues Encyclopedie Methodique 1770.

32.  De L’Etat naturel des Peuples ou Essai sur les points les plus importants de la societe civile et de la Societe generale des Nations, Paris 1786.

33.  Examen critique des Apologistes de la Religion chretienne, 1776.

34.  Lettres de Thrasybule a Leucippe, London 1769.

35.  De la Monstruosite pontificale ou Tableau fidele des Papers, London 1772.

36.  Les Recherches sur les Miracles, London 1776.

37.  Reflexions impartiales sur l’Evangileu, London 1769.

38.  Israel venge ou Exposition naturelle de propheties hebraiques, London 1770.

39.  Discours sur les Miracles de Jesus-Christ.


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Antireligioznyj ucebnik dija kruzkov i samoobrazovanija, pod redakeijej M.M. Sejnmana, M. 1938.

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Ivan Svitak, born on October 10, 1925 at Hranice in Moravia, graduated from the real gymnasium, forced labor in a foundry and Charles University in Prague. He worked as a lecturer in the history of philosophy at Charles University, as a scientific worker at the Philosophical Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (1953-1964) and, following an ideological conflict as an extra in Czechoslovak movies. He joined the ranks of Czech philosophers as a representative of humanistic Marxism in the years 1956/1957. For this reason, he was first criticized as a social-democratic deviationist, later silenced for a period of five years and finally expelled from the Communist Party and the Academy of Sciences (1964). He wrote a number of works, a majority of which were confiscated in the Czech original; six of his books are now available in foreign languages. During the Prague Spring he organized a new Democratic Left, independent of reformist communism, and formulated a concept of socialist democracy which proved unacceptable both to the Right and Left, West and East, at home and in emigration. He was participating in an international philosophical conference in Austria when the occupation of Czechoslovakia took place. When the problem of democratization was entrusted to the Central Group of Soviet armed forces, Svitak was deprived of Czechoslovak citizenship—together with the Deputy-Premier and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly. In contrast to them, however, he—as a non-existing Czech citizen—was sentenced to an eight-year imprisonment by the existing Czech state. In addition to this Pulitzer Prize awarded by the Ministry of the Interior, the Minister of Culture bestowed upon him a special distinction by having all his books withdrawn from the public libraries, together with the books by Erich Fromm, Jean-Paul Sartre, Teilhard de Chardin, Alexander Solzhenicyn and John F. Kennedy. Svitak has been serving his sentence in the Wild West—as a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.




Man and His World. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1970.

The Czechoslovak Experiment 1968/1969. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1971.

Montaigne. Chico: California State University, 1972.

Voltaire. Chico: California State University, 1973.

Dialectics of Marxisms. Chico: California State University, 1975.


Verbotene Horizonte. Freiburg im Br.: Rombach Verlag, 1969.

Hajaja Philosoph. Parabeln. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 1970.

Die Unwissenschaftliche Anthropologie. Frankfurt: S Fischer Verlag, 1972.


Filosof zdraveho rozumu. Praha: Nakladatelstvi Cs. adademie ved, 1963.

Montaigne. Praha: Orbis, 1966.

Lidsky smysl kultury. Praha: Ceskoslovensky spisovatel, 1968.

Dialektika moci. Koln: Index, 1973.

Devcatko s cervenou masli. Zurich: Konfrontacion. 1975.

Ivan Svitak also contributed many articles to different books and journals.


SOURCE: Sviták, Ivan. Baron d’Holbach, Philosopher of Common Sense, translated by Jarmila Veltrusky. Chico: California State University, 1976. 76 pp. (Translated from Filosof zdravého rozumu, Holbach.)

Typographical spelling errors, abounding in the original text, have been corrected here. Other obvious corrections (almost all of which consist of adding the word ‘of’) are enclosed in square brackets.

Note also:

Sviták, Ivan. The Dialectic of Common Sense: The Master Thinkers. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1979. ii, 217 pp.

Originally published in Czechoslovakia just prior to Prague Spring in 1968, this collection of three essays on the political and philosophical thought of Montaigne, Voltaire, and Holbach examines the relationships between social life and ideological categories, and economics and the development of ideas.

The Perspectives of Philosophy (1956) by Ivan Sviták

“Anthropological Conditions of Modern Culture” (1964): Conclusion
by Ivan Sviták

The Sources of Socialist Humanism” (1963)
by Ivan Sviták

Man and Philosophy” by Karel Kosík

Historical Surveys of Atheism, Freethought, Rationalism, Skepticism, and Materialism: Selected Works

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Rationalism / Skepticism / Unbelief / Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress

Doubt & Skepticism: A Directed Minimal Bibliography & Web Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Ivan Sviták - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ivan Svitak: A Leninist Lunch With A Lonely Sniper
(The Prague Post, October 20, 1993)
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