Chap. XXI        The Spreading Campaign



2. Philosophy

Here Helvétius fires a salvo from his Treatise on Man:

The desire of the clergy in all times has been to be powerful and opulent. By what method can it satisfy this desire? By selling hope and fear. The priests, wholesale dealers in these commodities, were sensible that this sale would be assured and lucrative. . . . The power of the priest depends upon the superstitions and stupid credulity of the people. It is of little worth to him that they be learned; the less they know, the more docile they will be to his dictates. . .

In every religion the first objective of the priests is to stifle the curiosity of men, to prevent the examination of every dogma whose absurdity is too palpable to be concealed. . . . Man is born ignorant, but he is not born a fool; and it is not without labor that he is made one. That he should be made such, and be able to extinguish in himself his natural light, much art and method must be employed; instruction must heap upon him error upon error. . . . There is nothing which the sacerdotal power cannot execute by the aid of superstition. For by that it robs the magistrates of their authority and kings of their legitimate power; thereby it subdues the people, and acquires a power over them which is frequently superior to the laws; and thereby it finally corrupts the very principles of morality.

a young Voltaire

Helvétius adds eight chapters on toleration.

Religious intolerance is the daughter of sacerdotal ambition and stupid credulity. . . If I believe my nurse and my tutor, every other religion is false, mine alone is the truth. But is it acknowledged as such by the universe? No: the earth still groans under the multitude of temples consecrated to error. . . . What does the history of religions teach us? That they have everywhere lighted up the torch of intolerance, strewed the plains with corpses, imbrued the fields with blood, burned cities, and laid waste empires. . . . Are not the Turks, whose religion is a religion of blood, more tolerant than we? We see Christian churches at Constantinople, but there are no mosques in Paris. . . . Toleration subjects the priest to the prince; intolerance subjects the prince to the priest.


There was Nicolas Boulanger, another friend of d'Holbach, who labored in the cause till his death (1759), and left behind him a manuscript entitled Antiquity dévoilée (Antiquity Unveiled). D'Holbach kept this in storage till 1765, when the chief minister was Choiseul, friendly to the philosophes, then he sent it to the press with a flaming introduction by Diderot. Religion, said Boulanger, arose through primitive man's fears of floods and other apparently supernatural catastrophes; it was organized by priests and kings in a conspiracy to sanctify tyranny in return for tyrannical enforcement of orthodox belief; and mankind would never escape from that dark conspiracy except by following the light of reason in defiance of priests and kings.

Another abbé, Guillaume Raynal, wrote in 1772 "A Philosophical and Political History of the European Settlements and Commerce in the East and West Indies". It detailed and denounced the greed, treachery, and violence of the Europeans in dealing with the natives of the East and West Indies, and it warned the white man of the terrible revenge that the colored races might take if they ever came to power. It was the first French indictment of colonial exploitation; it was among the first books to stress the importance of commerce in determining modern history. Running through the diffuse volumes were the dominant themes of the Enlightenment: hatred of superstition and priestcraft, and resentment of state-and-Church tyranny over life and thought. Raynal passionately subscribed to the view that Catholicism was an imposture by which prelates and rulers had joined forces to support each other through myths, miracles, propaganda, oppression, and massacre. He appealed to the rulers of Europe to dissociate themselves from all ecclesiastical ties, to allow freedom of speech and publication, and to prepare the way for democratic government. He did not spare Protestantism; this too, he said, had been guilty of intolerance; and he described the fanaticism of the Puritans in New England, the “witch” persecutions in Salem.

He was one of the few philosophes to see and survive the Revolution. He was shocked by its violence and its use of all the old machinery of intolerance. On May 31, 1791, aged seventy-eight, he addressed to the Constituent Assembly a letter warning it against excesses. "I have long dared to tell kings of their duties," he wrote; "let me today tell the people of its errors." He pointed out that the tyranny of the populace could be as cruel and unjust as the despotism of monarchs. He defended the right of the clergy to preach religion, so long as the opponents of priestcraft were left free to speak their minds; he protested against the laws enforcing a state religion, and against the outrages of the mob upon priests. Robespierre persuaded the Assembly to let the old man escape the guillotine, but Raynal's property was confiscated by the government, and he died in destitution ( 1796) amid the triumphs and terrors of the Revolution.


1. The Amiable Atheist

His home became, as one wit put it, “the Café d’Europe”. Those were the days when conversation was unwritten literature, not a chaos of interruptions and trivialities. D’Holbach was writing so powerful a defense of atheism as Système de la nature. Fascinated by science, and expecting from it a rapid betterment of human life, d’Holbach looked with unrelenting hostility upon the Church, whose control of education seemed to bar the way to the development of scientific knowledge. Here was a new apostle of glad tidings — hell had been destroyed.

In 1761 there issued from what some called “this laboratory of atheism” a volume entitled Christianisme dévoilé (Christianity exposed). It was a frontal assault upon the alliance of Church and state, and quite anticipated Marx’s description of religion as the “opium of the people.”

Religion is the art of intoxicating men with enthusiasm [this word in the eighteenth century meant religious fervor], to prevent them from dealing with the evils with which their governors oppress them. . . . The art of reigning has become nothing more than that of profiting from the errors and abjection of mind and soul into which superstition has plunged the nations. . . . By means of threatening men with invisible powers, they [Church and state] force them to suffer in silence the miseries with which visible powers afflict them. They are made to hope that if they agree to being unhappy in this world, they will be happy in the next.

D'Holbach thought this union of Church and state the fundamental evil in France. "It is as a citizen that I attack religion, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality.”

Instead of morality the Christian is taught the miraculous fables and inconceivable dogmas of a religion thoroughly hostile to right reason. From his very first step in his studies he is taught to distrust the evidence of his senses, to subdue his reason, . . . and to rely blindly on the authority of his master. . . . Those who have shaken themselves free from these notions find themselves powerless against errors sucked in with their mother's milk.

Instead of prohibiting debauchery, crime, and vice because God and religion forbid them, we ought to say that all excess is harmful to man's conservation, makes him despicable in the eyes of society, is forbidden by reason, . . . and is forbidden by nature, which wants him to work for his lasting happiness.

And in 1770 the busy Baron published his chef d’oeuvre, the most powerful single volume issued in the campaign against Christianity.

2. The System of Nature

. . . it is time to look the evil boldly in the face. to examine its foundations, to scrutinize its superstructure. Reason, with its faithful guide experience, must attack in their entrenchments those prejudices of which the human race has been too long the victim. . . .

Let us try to inspire man with courage, with respect for his reason, with an inextinguishable love for truth, to the end that he may learn to consult his experience, and longer be the dupe of an imagination led astray by authority; . . . that he may learn to found his morals on his nature, on his wants, on the real advantage of society; that he may dare to love himself; that he may become a virtuous and rational being, in which case he cannot fail to be happy.

Having so stated his program, d'Holbach proceeds systematically to reject all supernatural beings and considerations; to accept nature with all its beauty, cruelty, limitation, and possibilities.

The whole offers to our contemplation "nothing but an immense, uninterrupted succession of causes and effects." The more our knowledge grows, the more overwhelming is the evidence that the universe acts only through natural causes. It may be difficult to understand how inanimate matter can pass into life," but it is even more difficult to believe that life is a special creation of some mysterious entity external to the material universe. It is difficult to understand how matter can come to feel, but other properties of matter, like "gravity, magnetism, elasticity, electricity," are "not less inexplicable than feeling.”

Man too is "a being purely physical," subject to the same laws that govern the rest of the world. How could a physical body and an immaterial mind act upon each other? The "soul" is merely the total organization and activity of the body, and can have no separate existence. “To say that the soul will feel, think, enjoy, and suffer after the death of the body is to pretend that a clock shivered into a thousand pieces will continue to strike the hour . . . and mark the progress of time.” The conception of mind and soul as immaterial entities has retarded our treatment of mental diseases; when we consider mind as a function of the body we enable medical science to cure many mental disorders by attacking their physical causes.*

*”It is certainly true as a historical fact,” said John Morley, “that the rational treatment of insane persons, and the rational view of certain kinds of crime, were due to men like Pinel, trained in the materialistic school of the eighteenth century. And it was clearly impossible that the great and humane reforms in this field could have taken place before the decisive decay of theology.”

Again back to d’Holback in his Système,

Man is the work of Nature; he exists in Nature; he is submitted to her laws. He cannot deliver himself from them, nor can he step beyond them, even in thought. . . . Instead, therefore, of seeking outside the world, . . . for beings who can procure him a happiness denied him by nature, let man study this Nature, let him learn her laws, contemplate her forces, observe the immutable rules by which she acts; let him apply these discoveries to his own felicity, and submit in silence to her mandates, which nothing can alter; let him cheerfully consent to ignore causes hidden from him by an impenetrable veil.

“If we go back to the beginning we can always find that ignorance and fear have created gods; fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit has adorned or disfigured them; weakness worships them, credulity keeps them alive, custom respects them, tyranny supports them to. . . serve its own ends. He raises against theism all the old arguments. and grows as hot as Helvétius against the Biblical conception of God."' The majestic order and regularity of the universe do not suggest to him any supreme intelligence; they are due to natural causes operating mechanically, and require no attribution to a deity who would himself be more inexplicable than the world. Order and disorder, like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, are subjective conceptions, derived from the pleasure or displeasure that our perceptions give us; but man is not "the measure of all things"; his satisfactions are no objective standard to apply to the universe; Nature proceeds without regard to what we, from our infinitesimal point in space, consider good or bad, ugly or beautiful. From the point of view of the whole "there is no such thing as real evil. Insects find a safe retreat in the ruins of the palace that crushes men in its fall. We must learn to regard Nature, with her sublimities and catastrophes, as imperturbably neutral.

3. Morals and the State

D'Holbach rejects the Christian-Voltairean idea that man is born with a sense of right and wrong. Conscience is the voice not of God but of the policeman; it is the deposit of a thousand exhortations, commands, and reproofs falling upon the individual in his growth. "We may define conscience as our knowledge of the effects which our actions produce upon our fellow men, and, in reaction, upon ourselves. Such conscience may be a false guide, for it may have been formed by a slanted education, by misunderstood experience, by erroneous reasoning, or by a corrupt public opinion. There is no vice or crime that cannot be made to seem a virtue by indoctrination or evil example; so adultery, however forbidden by religion, has become a proud achievement, sycophancy is de rigueur at court, rape and rapine, among soldiers, are considered legitimate rewards of risking life and limb. "We see rich men who suffer no pricks of conscience over wealth acquired at the expense of their fellow citizens," and "zealots whose conscience, blinded by false ideas, . . . urges them to exterminate without remorse those who have different opinions than their own."

So d’Holbach formulates his ethic as “the Code of Nature”:

Live for yourself and your fellow creature. I [Nature] approve of your pleasures while they injure neither you nor others, whom I have rendered necessary to your happiness . . . Be just, since justice supports the human race. Be good, since your goodness will attract every heart to you. Be indulgent, since you live among beings weak like yourself. Be modest, as your pride will hurt the self-love of everyone around you. Pardon injuries, do good to him who injures you, that you may . . . gain his friendship. Be moderate, temperate, and chaste, since lechery, intemperance, and excess will destroy you and make you contemptible.

Himself a noble, he would do away with hereditary aristocracy:

A body of men that can lay claim to wealth and honor solely though the title of birth must of necessity serve as a discouragement to the other classes of citizens. Those who have only ancestors have no right to reward. . . . Hereditary nobility can only be regarded as a pernicious abuse, fit only for favoring the indolence and incompetence of one class to the detriment of all. . . . Old title deeds, ancient documents, preserved in medieval castles—are they to confer upon their inheritors a claim to the most exalted posts in Church and state, in the courts of justice, or in the army, regardless of whether these inheritors possess the talents necessary for the proper accomplishment of such duties?

As for the clergy, he left them to shift for themselves. Church and state should be strictly separate; religious groups should be treated as voluntary organizations, enjoying toleration but no government support; and a wise government will prevent any one religion from intolerance or persecution.

Then, too, he advises governments to prevent a dangerous concentration of wealth. He quotes with relish St. Jerome's swift barb, "Dives aut iniquus est, aut iniqui haeres" (The rich man is either a scoundrel or a scoundrel's heir).

In almost all nations three quarters of the subjects possess nothing. . . . When a small number of men absorb all the property and wealth in a state, they become the masters of that state. . . . Governments seem to have altogether neglected this important truth. . . . When the public will or law ceases to keep the balance even between the different members of society, the laziness of some, aided by force, fraud, and seduction, succeeds in appropriating the fruit of the labor of others.

At times the comfortable aristocrat talks like the angriest of unplaced youths: "Are nations to work without respite to satisfy the vanity, the luxury, the greed of a pack of useless and corrupt bloodsuckers?" In this mood he echoes the Contrat Social of his former friend Rousseau:

Man is wicked not because he is born so but because he is rendered so. The great and powerful crush with impunity the indigent and unhappy. These, at the risk of their lives, seek to retaliate the evil they have received; they attack either openly or secretly a country that to them is a stepmother, who gives all to some of her children, and deprives the others of everything. . . .

If governments were enlightened, and seriously occupied themselves with the instruction and welfare of the people, and if laws were equitable, . . . it would not be necessary to seek in another life for financial chimeras which always prove abortive against the infuriate passions and real wants of man.

How can this exploitation be stopped? The first step is to abolish absolute monarchy. "Absolute power must necessarily corrupt in heart and mind whoever holds it. . . . The power of the king should always be subordinate to the representatives of the people; and these representatives should depend continuously on the will of their constituents"; here is a call for the summoning of the fateful States-General of 1789. Since every government derives its powers from the consent of the governed, "the society may at any time revoke these powers if the government ceases to represent the general will”; here is the voice of Rousseau and revolution.

4. D’Holbach and His Critics

The Système de la nature makes a thorough and forthright exposition of materialism and atheism.


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