Baron d'Holbach

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Baron d'Holbach. He'll ruin that chair if he leaves it outside.
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Paul-Henri Thiry d'Holbach (1723 – 1789) was a French philosopher. Maintaining one of the most famous salons of the French Enlightenment, d'Holbach is often considered the first modern atheist.[notes 1] By all accounts, d'Holbach was a pleasant guy to hang out with.

d'Holbach was born in the Palatinate in what is now Germany but moved to France at young age and lived in Paris for most of his life. From the 1750s to the 1780s Holbach maintained a salon at his house, treating guests with wine, food and discussions twice a week. Denis Diderot, the Marquis de Condorcet, Friedrich Grimm, Claude Helvétius and – until a falling-out – Jean-Jacques Rousseau were regulars at d'Holbach's salon, which also received various international luminaries.


d'Holbach's most famous works include Le Christianisme dévoilé, in which he attacked Christianity as a hypocritical and morally and scientifically backwards belief system, and the more philosophical and theoretic Système de la Nature in which he defended atheism, materialism and determinism. He also contributed to Diderot's Encyclopédie.

Due to problems with the censor and a rather opaque writing style, d'Holbach is not as famous as the other great Enlightenment thinkers. His works were largely published under pseudonyms (usually 'the late M. Boulanger', after a deceased friend) and were only positively identified with d'Holbach after his death. The thought of d'Holbach and the members of his salon was radical even for most other Enlightenment philosophers, who tried to settle down for a more moderate deism, where God was believed still to have created the universe, but since then did not actively intervene (as through miracles). Voltaire was known to condemn many of d'Holbach's works, especially after some correctly identified him as the author of Le Christianisme dévoilé.

A famous anecdote tells about David Hume who, attending a dinner at d'Holbach's salon, remarked that he didn't believe anybody could really be an atheist. d'Holbach then asked Hume to count the number of people present at that moment. When Hume replied, he counted eighteen people, d'Holbach said, "I can point to fifteen atheists right here, the other three haven't made up their minds yet."

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  1. Although many, including probably d'Holbach himself, would disagree and credit Jean Meslier.