Paul Henri Holbach

Holbach, Paul Henri


Born 1723, in Edesheim, the Palatinate; died June 21, 1789, in Paris. French materialist philosopher and atheist. Ideologue of the 18th-century revolutionary French bourgeoisie.

The son of a German merchant. Holbach was an active contributor to D. Diderot’s and J. D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia. His Paris salon became one of the centers of the Enlightenment and of atheist thought in prerevolutionary France, and it was frequented by Diderot, C. A. Helvétius, D’Alembert. G. L. Buffon, and J. A. Naigeon. Rousseau attended Holbach’s salon once. Holbach’s principal work was The System of Nature (1770; Russian translation, 1924 and 1940).

Holbach was the most important systematizer of the world view of the 18th-century French materialists. He affirmed the primacy of the material world (nature), which exists independently of human consciousness, is infinite in time and space, and is self-created. According to Holbach, matter is the totality of all existing substances. Its simplest, elementary particles are unchanging, indivisible atoms whose basic properties are extension, weight, shape, impenetrability, and motion. Motion, all forms of which Holbach reduced to mechanical displacement, is an inherent property of all nature or matter. Considering man a part of nature wholly subject to its laws, Holbach denied free will. He consistently developed the materialist sensationalism of John Locke.

Holbach criticized feudal property and feudal forms of exploitation and advocated the necessity for limiting royal power. Relying on an abstract concept of human nature, Holbach reduced the social to the individual and sought explanations for social phenomena in the laws of nature. He agreed with the idealist contractual theory of the origins of society. In Holbach’s opinion, human society develops as a result of the activity of governments and outstanding individuals and the growth of enlightenment. He awaited the realization of the “rule of reason” through the appearance of an enlightened monarch—a humane legislator. Holbach considered man’s interest and benefit to be the basis of his behavior. He and other French materialists put forward the concept of the formative role of the social environment in relation to the individual. Like Helvétius, Holbach played a definitive role in the ideological preparation for 19th-century Utopian socialism (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed.. vol. 2, pp. 147–48).

Holbach wrote witty atheistic works in the spirit of the bourgeois Enlightenment. His works were published anonymously because of persecution by the church, and, as a rule, they were issued outside France.


Textes choisis, vol. 1. Paris, 1957.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv., vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1963.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch.. 2nd ed.. vol. 3, pp. 409–12.
Plekhanov, G. V. Izbrannve filosofskie proizvedeniia, vol. 2. Moscow. 1956. Pages 36–78.
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