Ruggero Sciuto (Hertford College and The Voltaire Foundation, Oxford)
Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723–1789)
Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach was a German-born, French-naturalized philosopher. His texts are inspired by a profound dislike for superstition and religious beliefs, and his most celebrated treatise, the Système de la nature of 1770, is sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘Bible of atheism’. D’Holbach published the vast majority of his works either anonymously or pseudonymously and worked in close collaboration with other French writers, most notably Denis Diderot and Jacques-André Naigeon. As a result, the limits of d’Holbach’s textual corpus are indistinct. Alongside the Système de la nature, however, scholars largely agree in attributing to d’Holbach, among others, La Théologie portative (1768), Le Bon Sens (1772), La Politique naturelle (1773), and La Morale universelle (1776). In addition to producing this vast array of philosophical and antitheological treatises, d’Holbach also translated several works out of German, English, and Dutch. He contributed in addition to important collaborative works, such as the Encyclopédie and Guillaume Thomas Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes.
Besides being an extremely prolific writer, d’Holbach was also a salon host and a patron of the arts. The only heirs of a wealthy German man who had managed to acquire the title of Baron, d’Holbach and his wife (Charlotte Suzanne d’Aine) welcomed into their Paris home in rue Royale Saint-Roch (present-day rue des Moulins) Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Charles Pinot Duclos, Charles Marie de La Condamine, and André Morellet, among others. On their visits to the French capital, several foreign intellectuals also participated in the gatherings of what Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously and disdainfully dubbed the ‘coterie holbachique’. The list includes, but is not limited to, David Hume, Cesare Beccaria, Horace Walpole, Pietro and Alessandro Verri, Adam Smith, David Garrick, and Benjamin Franklin. The reconstruction of d’Holbach’s correspondence network will help scholars form a better sense of how the ideas of the Parisian philosophes circulated across France, Europe, and beyond.
Key Bibliographic Source(s)
H. Sauter and E. Loos, eds, Paul Thiry Baron d’Holbach. Die Gesamte Erhaltene Korrespondenz (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1986).
As the host of one of the most important Enlightenment salons, d’Holbach was at the very centre of an extensive cultural network that stretched from Scotland to Naples, from Russia to the American colonies. Nevertheless, few letters identified to date as from or to d’Holbach survive. Herman Sauter and Erich Loss list fifty-four letters in their edition of d’Holbach’s correspondence. Two of these, however, are in fact dedicatory epistles rather than real letters, and traces of a third (d’Holbach to Guillaume Debure, of 9 January 1777) have regrettably been lost after the manuscript was purchased by a private buyer in 1878. In 2015, however, an additional letter (d’Holbach to Jean-Baptiste Suard of 26 August 1765) was discovered in Geneva by Emmanuel Boussuge, bringing the overall number of surviving letters from or to d’Holbach to fifty-two. The ratio between active and passive correspondence is rather unbalanced, with only six of the surviving letters being addressed to d’Holbach. The letters exchanged with John Wilkes, Ferdinando Galiani, and David Hume account for more than a third of the total. Other men of letters who are represented with more than one letter include, but are not limited to, Charles Burney, Paolo Frisi, David Garrick, Joseph-Michel-Antoine Servan, and Willem van Haren. As is evident from this list, d’Holbach’s correspondents come from various national backgrounds. The most represented nation is France (9), followed by Great Britain (5), the Italian region (3), the German area (2), the Netherlands (1) and Switzerland (1). At present, the only woman to appear in the list of d’Holbach’s correspondents is Marie-Angélique de Vandeul, Diderot’s daughter. The fifty-two surviving letters from or to d’Holbach are also unequally distributed in time, with the vast majority dating between the years 1765 and 1771. Interestingly, this time range is also the one that saw the publication of d’Holbach’s most important works.
While the number of letters discovered thus far is indeed rather exiguous, evidence suggests that d’Holbach’s epistolary network was originally quite extensive. Looking at the fifty-two letters considered above, as well as the correspondences of two other men of letters who attended d’Holbach’s salon in Paris, André Morellet and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, I have been able to infer the existence of an additional forty-seven letters and to add eight names to the list of d’Holbach’s correspondents, thus doubling the number of letters he is known to have written or received. Moving forward, I intend to look at the correspondences of several individuals in d’Holbach’s cultural network (e.g. d’Alembert, Diderot, Frisi, Galiani, Rousseau, Wilkes, etc.) in the hope of finding references to additional unpreserved (or as yet unidentified) letters from or to d’Holbach. Meanwhile, I am conducting archival research to study the material aspects of d’Holbach’s letters and to identify further correspondences that contain references to either d’Holbach or some of his works. These data will be added to the present inventory in due course.
Most of the extant letters of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach may be consulted in:
Sauter, H. and E. Loos, eds, Paul Thiry Baron d’Holbach. Die Gesamte Erhaltene Korrespondenz (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1986).
An additional letter can be read in:
Boussuge, E., ‘Une Lettre inédite du baron d’Holbach à Jean-Baptiste Suard‘, in La Lettre clandestine, 23 (2015), pp. 301–06.
Some of the letters published by Hermann Sauter and Erich Loos can also be read in:
Cushing, M. P., Baron d’Holbach: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Radicalism in France, (New York: 1914).
Leigh, R. A., ‘Les Amitiés françaises du Dr Burney: Quelques Documents inédits’, in Revue de Littérature Comparée, 25 (1951), pp. 161–94.
Lough, J., ‘Le Baron d’Holbach. Quelques Documents inédits ou peu connus‘, in Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France, 57 (1957), pp. 524–43.
Nicolini, F., ‘Lettres inédites du baron et de la baronne d’Holbach à l’abbé Galiani‘, in Etudes Italiennes, 1 (1931), pp. 20–40.
Venturi, F., ‘Une Lettre du baron d’Holbach, in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 2 (1956), pp. 285–7.
Vernière, P., ‘Deux Lettres inédites d’Holbach à Wilkes’, in Revue de Littérature Comparée, 28 (1954), pp. 482–6.
Vernière P., ‘Deux Cas de prosélytisme philosophique au XVIIIe siècle. A propos de deux lettres inédites du Baron d’Holbach‘, in Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France, 55 (1955), pp. 495–9.
Vercruysse, J., ‘D’Holbach et Willem van Haren: Lettres inédites‘, in Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France, 68 (1968), pp. 574–7.
Vercruysse, J., ‘Recherches sur la correspondance d’Holbach’, in Tijdschrift voor de Studie van de Verlichting, 1 (1973), pp. 93–7.
Further resources on d’Holbach’s correspondence include:
Naumann, M., ‘A Propos de Deux Lettres de d’Holbach à Wilkes’, in Revue de Littérature Comparée, 30 (1956), p. 110.
Selected bibliography on d’Holbach:
Boulad-Ayoub, J., ‘D’Holbach, le maître d’hôtel de la philosophie’, in Corpus, 22/23 (1992), pp. 7–11.
Chaussinand-Nogaret, G., Les Lumières au péril du bûcher (Paris: Fayard, 2009).
Curran, M., Atheism, Religion, and Enlightenment in Pre-Revolutionary Europe (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012).
Di Domenico, M. G., Natura, uomo, Dio: Saggio sull’antropologia di d’Holbach (Naples: Loffredo, 1994).
Kors, A. C., D’Holbach’s Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).
Kors, A. C., ‘The Atheism of d’Holbach and Naigeon’, in Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 273–300.
Kozul, M., Les Lumières imaginaires: Holbach et la traduction, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2016).
LeBuffe, M., ‘Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d’Holbach’, in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition).
Lecompte, D., Marx et le baron d’Holbach: Aux Sources de Marx, le matérialisme athée holbachique(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1983).
Minerbi Belgrado, A., Paura e ignoranza: Studio sulla teoria della religione in d’Holbach (Florence: Olschki, 1983).
Muller K., ‘D’Holbach, Determined Fatalist’, in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth-Century, 284 (1991), pp. 291–308.
Musitelli P., ‘En Bonne Compagnie? Verri et Beccaria invités de la coterie du baron d’Holbach’, in Lumières, 21 (2013), pp. 35–48.
Naville, P., Paul Thiry d’Holbach et la philosophie scientifique au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1943).
Sandrier, A., ‘L’Attribution des articles de l’Encyclopédie au baron d’Holbach: bilan et perspectives‘, in Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie, 45 (2010), pp. 44–57.
Sandrier, A., Le Style philosophique du baron d’Holbach: conditions et contraintes du prosélytisme athée en France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Champion, 2004).
Topazio, V. W., D’Holbach’s Moral Philosophy: Its Background and Development (Geneva: Institut et musée Voltaire, 1956).
Vercruysse, J., Bibliographie descriptive des imprimés du baron d’Holbach (Paris: Garnier, 2017).
Wickwar, W. H., Baron d’Holbach: A Prelude to the French Revolution (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935).