Read CHAPTER VI - HOLBACH’S SYSTEM OF NATURE. of Diderot and the Encyclopaedists Volume II. , free online book, by John Morley, on

The System of Nature was published in 1770, eight years before the death of Voltaire and of Rousseau, and it gathered up all the scattered explosives of the criticism of the century into one thundering engine of revolt and destruction.  It professed to be the posthumous work of Mirabaud, who had been secretary to the Academy.  This was one of the common literary frauds of the time.  Its real author was Holbach.  It is too systematic and coherently compacted to be the design of more than one man, and it is too systematic also for that one man to have been Diderot, as has been so often assumed.  At the same time there are good reasons for believing that not only much of its thought, but some of the pages, were the direct work of Diderot.  The latest editor of the heedless philosopher has certainly done right in placing among his miscellanea the declamatory apostrophe which sums up the teachings of this remorseless book.  The rumour imputing the authorship to Diderot was so common, and Diderot himself was so disquieted by it, that he actually hastened away from Paris to his native Langres and to the Baths of Bourbonne, in order to be ready to cross the frontier at the first hint of a warrant being out against him. Diderot has recorded his admiration of his friend’s work.  “I am disgusted,” he said, “with the modern fashion of mixing up incredulity and superstition.  What I like is a philosophy that is clear, definite, and frank, such as you have in the System of Nature.  The author is not an atheist in one page, and a deist in another.  His philosophy is all of one piece."

No book has ever produced a more widespread shock.  Everybody insisted on reading it, and almost everybody was terrified.  It suddenly revealed to men, like the blaze of lightning to one faring through darkness, the formidable shapes, the unfamiliar sky, the sinister landscape, into which the wanderings of the last fifty years had brought them unsuspecting.  They had had half a century of such sharp intellectual delight as had not been known throughout any great society in Europe since the death of Michael Angelo, and had perhaps north of the Alps never been known at all.  And now it seemed to many of them, as they turned over the pages of Holbach’s book, as if they stood face to face with the devil of the mediaeval legend, come to claim their souls.  Satire of Job and David, banter about Joshua’s massacres and Solomon’s concubines, invective against blind pastors of blinder flocks, zeal to place Newton on the throne of Descartes and Locke upon the pedestal of Malebranche, wishes that the last Jansenist might be strangled in the bowels of the last Jesuit ­all this had given zest and savour to life.  In the midst of their high feast, Holbach pointed to the finger of their own divinity, Reason, writing on the wall the appalling judgments that there is no God; that the universe is only matter in spontaneous movement; and, most grievous word of all, that what men call their souls die with the death of the body, as music dies when the strings are broken.

Galiani, the witty Neapolitan, who had so many good friends in the philosophic circle, anticipated the well-known phrase of a writer of our own day.  “The author of the System of Nature,” he said, “is the Abbe Terrai of metaphysics:  he makes deductions, suspensions of payment, and causes the very Bankruptcy of knowledge, of pleasure, and of the human mind.  But you will tell me that, after all, there were too many rotten securities; that the account was too heavily overdrawn; that there was too much worthless paper on the market.  That is true, too, and that is why the crisis has come." Goethe, then a student at Strasburg, has told us what horror and alarm the System of Nature brought into the circle there.  “But we could not conceive,” he says, “how such a book could be dangerous.  It came to us so gray, so Cimmerian, so corpse-like, that we could hardly endure its presence; we shuddered before it as if it had been a spectre.  It struck us as the very quintessence of musty age, savourless, repugnant."

If this was the light in which the book appeared to the young man who was soon to be the centre of German literature, the brilliant veteran who had for two generations been the centre of the literature of France was both shocked by the audacity of the new treatise, and alarmed at the peril in which it involved the whole Encyclopædic brotherhood, with the Patriarch at their head.  Voltaire had no sooner read the System of Nature than he at once snatched up his ever-ready pen and plunged into refutation. At the same time he took care that the right persons should hear what he had done.  He wrote to his old patron and friend Richelieu, that it would be a great kindness if he would let the King know that the abused Voltaire had written an answer to the book that all the world was talking about.  I think, he says, that it is always a good thing to uphold the doctrine of the existence of a God who punishes and rewards; society has need of such an opinion.  There is a curious disinterestedness in the notion of Lewis the Fifteenth and Richelieu, two of the wickedest men of their time, being anxious for the demonstration of a Dieu vengeur.  Voltaire at least had a very keen sense of the meaning of a court that rewarded and punished.  The author of the System of Nature, he wrote to Grimm, ought to have felt that he was undoing his friends, and making them hateful in the eyes of the king and the court. This came true in the case of the great philosopher-king himself.  Frederick of Prussia was offended by a book which spared political superstitions as little as theological dogma, and treated kings as boldly as it treated priests.  Though keenly occupied in watching the war then waging between Russia and Turkey, and already revolving the partition of Poland, he found time to compose a defence of theism.  ’Tis a good sign, Voltaire said to him, when a king and a plain man think alike:  their interests are often so hostile, that when their ideas do agree, they must certainly be right.

The philosophic meaning of Holbach’s propositions was never really seized by Voltaire.  He is, as has been justly said, the representative of ordinary common sense which, with all its declamations and its appeals to the feelings, is wholly without weight or significance as against a philosophic way of considering things, however humble the philosophy may be. He hardly took more pains to understand Holbach than Johnson took to understand Berkeley.  In truth it was a characteristic of Voltaire always to take the social, rather than the philosophic view of the great issues of the theistic controversy.  One day, when present at a discussion as to the existence of a deity, in which the negative was being defended with much vivacity, he astonished the company by ordering the servants to leave the room, and then proceeding to lock the door.  “Gentlemen,” he explained, “I do not wish my valet to cut my throat to-morrow morning.”  It was not the truth of the theistic belief in itself that Voltaire prized, but its supposed utility as an assistant to the police.  D’Alembert, on the other hand, viewed the dispute as a matter of disinterested speculation.  “As for the existence of a supreme intelligence,” he wrote to Frederick the Great, “I think that those who deny it advance far more than they can prove, and scepticism is the only reasonable course.”  He goes on to say, however, that experience invincibly proves both the materiality of the soul, and a material deity ­like that which Mr. Mill did not repudiate ­of limited powers, and dependent on fixed conditions.

Let us now turn to the book itself.  And first, as to its author.  The reader of the New Heloisa will remember that the heroine, after her repentance and her marriage, has only one chagrin in the world; that is the blank disbelief of her husband in the two great mysteries of a Supreme Being and another world.  Wolmar, the husband, has always been supposed to stand for Rousseau’s version of Holbach, and Holbach would hardly have complained of the portrait.  The Wolmar of the novel is benevolent, active, patient, tranquil, friendly, and trustful.  The nicely combined conjunction of the play of circumstance with the action of men pleases him, just as the fine symmetry of a statue or the skilful contrivance of dramatic effects would please him.  If he has any dominant passion, it is a passion for observation; he delights in reading the hearts of men.

All this seems to have been as true of the real Holbach as of the imaginary Wolmar.  We have already seen him as the intimate friend and constant host of Diderot.  He was one of the best-informed men of his time (1723-89).  He had an excellent library, a collection of pictures, and a valuable cabinet of natural history; and his poorer friends were as freely welcome to the use of all of them as the richest.  His manners were cheerful, courteous, and easy; he was a model of simplicity, and kindliness was written on every feature.  His hospitality won him the well-known nickname of the maitre d’hotel of philosophy, and his house was jestingly called the Cafe de l’Europe.  On Sundays and Thursdays, without prejudice to other days, from ten to a score of men of letters and eminent foreign visitors, including Hume, Wilkes, Shelburne, Garrick, Franklin, Priestley, used to gather round his good dishes and excellent wine.  It was noted, as a mark of the attractiveness of the company, that the guests, who came at two in the afternoon, constantly remained until as late as seven and eight in the evening.  To one of those guests, who afterwards became the powerful enemy of the Encyclopædic group, the gaiety, the irreverence, the hardihood of speculation and audacity of discourse, were all as gall and wormwood.  Rousseau found their atheistic sallies offensive beyond endurance.  Their hard rationalism was odious to the great emotional dreamer, and after he had quarrelled with them all, he transformed his own impressions of the dreariness of atheism into the passionate complaint of Julie.  “Conceive the torment of living in retirement with the man who shares our existence, and yet cannot share the hope that makes existence dear; of never being able with him either to bless the works of God, or to speak of the happy future that is promised us by the goodness of God; of seeing him, while doing good on every side, still insensible to everything that makes the delight of doing good; of watching him, by the most bizarre of contradictions, think with the impious, and yet live like a Christian.  Think of Julie walking with her husband; the one admiring in the rich and splendid robe of the earth the handiwork and the bounteous gifts of the author of the universe; the other seeing nothing in it all save a fortuitous combination, the product of blind force!  Alas! she cries, the great spectacle of nature, for us so glorious, so animated, is dead in the eyes of the unhappy Wolmar, and in that great harmony of being where all speaks of God in accents so mild and so persuasive, he only perceives eternal silence."

Yet it is fair to the author of this most eloquent Ignoratio Elenchi, to notice that he honestly fulfilled the object with which he professed to set out ­namely, to show to both the religious and philosophical parties that their adversaries were capable of leading upright, useful, and magnanimous lives.  Whether he would have painted the imaginary Wolmar so favourably if he could have foreseen what kind of book the real Holbach had in his desk, is perhaps doubtful.  For Holbach’s opinions looked more formidable and sombre in the cold deliberateness of print than they had sounded amid the interruptions of lively discourse.

It is needless to say, to begin with, that the writer has the most marked of the philosophic defects of the school of the century.  Perhaps we might put it more broadly, and call the disregard of historic opinion the natural defect of all materialistic speculation from Epicurus downwards. Like all others of his school, Holbach has no perception nor sense of the necessity of an explanation how the mental world came to be what it is, nor how men came to think and believe what they do think and believe.  He gives them what he deems unanswerable reasons for changing their convictions, but he never dreams of asking himself in what elements of human character the older convictions had their root, and from what fitness for the conduct of life they drew the current of their sap.  Yet unless this aspect of things had been well considered, his unanswerable reasons were sure to fall wide of the mark.  Opinions, as men began to remember, after social movement had thrown the logical century into discredit, have a history as well as a logic.  They are bound up with a hundred transmitted prepossessions, and they have become identified with a hundred social customs that are the most dearly cherished parts of men’s lives.  Nature had as much to do with the darkness of yesterday as with the light of to-day; she is as much the accomplice of superstition as she is the oracle of reason.  It was because they forgot all this that Holbach’s school now seem so shallow and superficial.  The whole past was one long working of the mystery of iniquity.  “The sum of the woes of the human race was not diminished ­on the contrary, it was increased by its religions, by its governments, by its opinions, in a word, by all the institutions that it was led to adopt on the plea of ameliorating its lot." On lui fit adopter! But who were the on, and how did they work?  With what instruments and what fulcrum?  Never was the convenience of this famous abstract substantive more fatally abused.  And if religion, government, and opinion had all aggravated the miseries of the human race, what had lessened them?  For the Encyclopædic school never attempted, as Rousseau did, to deny that the world had, as a matter of fact, advanced towards happiness.  It was because the Holbachians looked on mankind as slaves held in an unaccountable bondage, which they must necessarily be eager to throw off, that their movement, after doing at the Revolution a certain amount of good in a bad way, led at last to a mischievous reaction in favour of Catholicism.

Far more immediately significant than the philosophy of the System of Nature were the violence, directness, and pertinacity of its assault upon political government.  Voltaire, as has so often been noticed, had always abstained from meddling with either the theory or the practical abuses of the national administration.  All his shafts had been levelled at ecclesiastical superstition.  Rousseau, indeed, had begun the most famous of his political speculations by crying that man, who was born free, is now everywhere in chains.  But Rousseau was vague, abstract, and sentimental.  In the System of Nature we have a clear presage of the trenchant and imperious invective which, twenty years after its publication, rang in all men’s ears from the gardens of the Palais Royal and the benches of the Jacobins’ Hall.  The writer has plainly made up his mind that the time has at last come for dropping all the discreet machinery of apologue and parable, and giving to his words the edge of a sharpened sword.  The vague disguises of political speculation, and the mannered reservations of a Utopia or New Atlantis, are exchanged for a passionate, biting, and loudly practical indictment.  All over the world men are under the yoke of masters who neglect the instruction of their people, or only seek to cheat and deceive them.  The sovereigns in every part of the globe are unjust, incapable, made effeminate by luxury, corrupted by flattery, depraved by license and impunity, destitute of talent, manners, or virtue.  Indifferent to their duties, which they usually know nothing about, they are scarcely concerned for a single moment of the day with the well-being of their people; their whole attention is absorbed by useless wars, or by the desire to find at each instant new means of gratifying their insatiable rapacity.  The state of society is a state of war between the sovereign and all the rest of its members.  In every country alike the morality of the people is wholly neglected, and the one care of the government is to render them timorous and wretched.  The common man desires no more than bread; he wins it by the sweat of his brow; joyfully would he eat it, if the injustice of the government did not make it bitter in his mouth.  By the insanity of governments, those who are swimming in plenty, without being any the happier for it, yet wring from the tiller of the soil the very fruits that his arms have won from it.  Injustice, by reducing indigence to despair, drives it to seek in crime resources against the woes of life.  An iniquitous government breeds despair in men’s souls; its vexations depopulate the land, the fields remain untilled, famine, contagion, and pestilence stalk over the earth.  Then, embittered by misery, men’s minds begin to ferment and effervesce, and what inevitably follows is the overthrow of a realm.

If France had been prosperous, all this would have passed for the empty declamation of an excited man of letters.  As it was, such declamation only described, in language as accurate as it was violent and stinging, the real position of the country.  In the urgency of a present material distress, men were not over-careful that the basis of the indictment should be laid in the principles of a sound historical philosophy of society.  We can hardly wonder at it.  What is interesting, and what we do not notice earlier in the century, is that in the System of Nature the revolt against the impotence of society, and the revolt against the omnipotence of God, made a firm coalition.  That coalition came to a bloody end for the time, four-and-twenty years after Holbach’s book proclaimed it, when the Committee of Public Safety despatched Hebert, and better men than Hebert, to the guillotine for being atheists.  Atheism, as Robespierre assured them, was aristocratic.

Holbach’s work may be said to spring from the doctrine that the social deliverance of man depends on his intellectual deliverance, and that the key to his intellectual deliverance is only to be found in the substitution of Naturalism for Theism.  What he means by Naturalism we shall proceed shortly to explain.  The style, we may remark, notwithstanding the energy and coherence of the thought, is often diffuse and declamatory.  Some one said of the System of Nature, that it contained at least four times too many words.  Yet Voltaire, while professing extreme dislike of its doctrine, admitted that the writer had somehow caught the ear of the learned, of the ignorant, and of women.  “He is often clear,” said Voltaire, “and sometimes eloquent, yet he may justly be reproached with declamation, with repeating himself, and with contradicting himself, like all the rest of them." Galiani made an over-subtle criticism on it, when he complained of the want of coolness and self-possession in the style, and then said that it looked as if the writer were pressed less to persuade other people than to persuade himself.  This was a crude impression.  Nobody can have any doubt of the writer’s profound sincerity, or of his earnest desire to make prosélytes.  He knows his own mind, and hammers his doctrines out with a hard and iterative stroke that hits its mark.  Yet his literary tone, in spite of its declamatory pitch, not seldom sinks into a drone.  Holbach’s contemporaries were in too fierce contact with the tusks and hooked claws of the Church, to have any mind for the rhythm of a champion’s sentences or the turn of his periods.  But now that the efforts of the heterodox have taught the Churches to be better Christians than they were a hundred years ago, we can afford to admit that Holbach is hardly more captivating in style, and not always more edifying in temper, than some of the Christian Fathers themselves.

What then is the system of Nature, and what is that Naturalism which is to replace the current faith in the deities outside of observable nature?  The writer makes no pretence of feeling a tentative way towards an answer.  From the very outset his spirit is that of dogmatic confidence.  He is less a seeker than an expounder; less a philosopher than a preacher; and he boldly dismisses proof in favour of exhortation.

“Let man cease to search outside the world in which he dwells for beings who may procure him a happiness that nature refuses to grant; let him study that nature, let him learn her laws, and contemplate the energy and the unchanging fixity with which she acts; let him apply his discoveries to his own felicity, and submit in silence to laws from which nothing can withdraw him; let him consent to ignore the causes, surrounded as they are for him by an impenetrable veil; let him undergo without a murmur the decrees of universal force.”

Science derived from experience is the source of all wise action. It is physical science (la physique), and experience, that man ought to consult in religion, morals, legislature, as well as in knowledge and the arts.  It is by our senses that we are bound to universal nature; it is by our senses that we discover her secrets.  The moment that we first experience them we fall into a void where our imagination leads us endlessly astray.

Movement is what establishes relations between our organs and external objects. Every object has laws of movement that are peculiar to itself.  Everything in the universe is in movement; no part of nature is really at rest.

Whence does nature receive this movement? From herself, since she is the great whole, outside of which consequently nothing can exist.  Motion is a fashion of being which flows necessarily from the essence of matter; matter moves by its own energy; its motion is due to forces inherent in it; the variety of its movements, and of the phenomena resulting from them, comes from variation of the properties, the qualities, the combinations, originally found in the different primitive matters of which nature is the assemblage.

Whence came matter? Matter has existed from all eternity, and a motion is one of the inherent and constitutive qualities of matter; motion also has existed from eternity.

The abstract idea of matter must be decomposed. Instead of regarding matter as a unique existence, rude, passive, incapable of moving itself, of combining itself, we ought to look upon it as a Kind of existence, of which the various individual members comprising the Kind, in spite of their having some common properties, such as extension, divisibility, figure, etc., still ought not to be ranged in a single class, nor comprised in a single denomination.

What is nature’s process?  Continual movement. From the stone which is formed in the bowels of the earth by the intimate combination, as they approach one another, of analogous and similar molecules, up to the sun, that vast reservoir of heated particles that gives light to the firmament; from the numb oyster up to man ­we observe an uninterrupted progression, a perpetual chain of combination and movements, from which there result beings that only differ among one another by the variety of their elementary matters, and of the combination and proportion of these elements.  From this variety springs an infinite diversity of ways of existing and acting.  In generation, nutrition, preservation, we can see nothing but different sorts of matter differently combined, each of them endowed with its own movements, each of them regulated by fixed laws that cause them to undergo the necessary changes.

Let us notice here three of the author’s definitions. (1.) Motion is an effort, by which a body changes or tends to change its place. (2.) Of the ultimate composition of Matter, Holbach says nothing definite, though he assumes molecular movement as its first law.  He contents himself, properly enough perhaps in view of the destination of his treatise, with a definition “relatively to us.”  Relatively to us, then, Matter in general is all that affects our senses in any fashion whatever; and the qualities that we attribute to different kinds of matter, are founded on the different impressions that they produce on us. (3.) “When I say that Nature produces an effect, I do not mean to personify this Nature, which is an abstraction; I mean that the effect of which I am speaking is the necessary result of the properties of some one of those beings that compose the great whole under our eyes.  Thus, when I say that Nature intends man to work for his own happiness, I mean by this that it is of the essence of a being who feels, thinks, wills, and acts, to work for his own happiness.  By Essence I mean that which constitutes a being what it is, the sum of its properties, or the qualities according to which it exists and acts as it does.”

All phenomena are necessary. No creature in the universe, in its circumstances and according to its given property, can act otherwise than as it does act.  Fire necessarily burns whatever combustible matter comes within the sphere of its action.  Man necessarily desires what either is, or seems to be, conducive to his comfort and wellbeing.  There is no independent energy, no isolated cause, no detached activity, in a universe where all beings are incessantly acting on one another, and which is itself only one eternal round of movement, imparted and undergone, according to necessary laws.  In a storm of dust raised by a whirlwind, in the most violent tempest that agitates the ocean, not a single molecule of dust or of water finds its place by chance; or is without an adequate cause for occupying the precise point where it is found.  So, again, in the terrible convulsions that sometimes overthrow empires, there is not a single action, word, thought, volition, or passion in a single agent of such a revolution, whether he be a destroyer or a victim, which is not necessary, which does not act precisely as it must act, and which does not infallibly produce the effects that it is bound to produce, conformably to the place occupied by the given agent in the moral whirlwind.

Order and disorder are abstract terms, and can have no existence in a Nature, where all is necessary and follows constant laws. Order is nothing more than necessity viewed relatively to the succession of actions.  Disorder in the case of any being is nothing more than its passage to a new order; to a succession of movements and actions of a different sort from those of which the given being was previously susceptible.  Hence there can never be either monsters or prodigies, either marvels or miracles, in nature.  By the same reasoning, we have no right to divide the workings of nature into those of Intelligence and those of Chance.  Where all is necessary, Chance can mean nothing save the limitation of man’s knowledge.

The writer next has a group of chapters (vi.-x.) on Man, his composition, relations, and destiny.  The chief propositions are in rigorous accord with the general conceptions that have already been set forth.  All that man does, and all that passes in him, are effects of the energy that is common to him with the other beings known to us.  But, before a true and comprehensive idea of the unity of nature was possible to him, he was so seized by the variety and complication of his organism and its movements that it never came into his mind to realise that they existed in a chain of material necessity, binding him fast to all other forces and modes of being.  Men think that they remedy their ignorance of things by inventing words; so they explained the working of matter, in man’s case, by associating with matter a hypothetical substance, which is in truth much less intelligible than matter itself.  They regarded themselves as double; a compound of matter and something else miraculously united with it, to which they give the name of mind or soul, and then they proudly looked on themselves as beings apart from the rest of creation.  In plain truth, Mind is only an occult force, invented to explain occult qualities and actions, and really explaining nothing.  By Mind they mean no more than the unknown cause of phenomena that they cannot explain naturally, just as the Red Indians believed that it was spirits who produced the terrible effects of gunpowder, and just as the ignorant of our own day believe in angels and demons.  How can we figure to ourselves a form of being, which, though not matter, still acts on matter, without having points of contact or analogy with it; and on the other hand itself receives the impulsions of matter, through the material organs that warn it of the presence of external objects?  How can we conceive the union of body and soul, and how can this material body enclose, bind, constrain, determine a fugitive form of being, that escapes every sense?  To resolve these difficulties by calling them mysteries, and to set them down as the effects of the omnipotence of a Being still more inconceivable than the human Soul itself, is merely a confession of absolute ignorance.

It is worth noticing that with the characteristic readiness of the French materialist school to turn metaphysical and psychological discussion to practical uses, Holbach discerned the immense new field which the materialist account of mind opened to the physician.  “If people consulted experience instead of prejudice, medicine would furnish morality with the key of the human heart; and in curing the body, it would be often assured of curing the mind too....  The dogma of the spirituality of the soul has turned morality into a conjectural science, which does not in the least help us to understand the true way of acting on men’s motives....  Man will always be a mystery for those who insist on regarding him with the prejudiced eyes of theology, and on attributing his actions to a principle of which they can never have any clear ideas” (ch. ix.).  It is certainly true as a historical fact 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.  Theology assumes perversity as the natural condition of the human heart, and could only regard insanity as an intolerable exaggeration of this perversity.  Secondly, the absolute independence of mind and body which theology brought into such overwhelming relief naturally excluded the notion that, by dealing with the body, you might be doing something to heal the mind.  Perhaps we are now in some danger of overlooking the potency of the converse illustration of what Holbach says:  namely, the efficacy of mental remedies or preventives in the case of bodily disease.

If you complain ­to resume our exposition ­that the mechanism is not sufficient to explain the principle of the movements and faculties of the soul, the answer is, that it is in the same case with all the bodies in nature.  In them the simplest movements, the most ordinary phenomena, the commonest actions, are inexplicable mysteries, whose first principles are for ever sealed to us.  How shall we flatter ourselves that we know the first principle of gravity, by virtue of which a stone falls?  What do we know of the mechanism that produces the attraction of some substances, and the repulsion of others?  But surely the incomprehensibility of natural effects is no reason for assigning to them a cause that is still more incomprehensible than any of those within our cognisance.

It is not given to man to know everything; it is not given to him to know his own origin, nor to penetrate into the essence of things, nor to mount up to the first principle of things.  What is given to him is to have reason, to have good faith, to concede frankly that he is ignorant of what he cannot know, and not to supplement his lack of certainty by words that are unintelligible, and suppositions that are absurd.

Suns go out and planets perish; new suns are kindled, and new planets revolve in new paths; and man ­infinitely small portion of a globe that is itself only a small point in immensity ­dreams that it is for him that the universe has been made, imagines that he must be the confidant of nature, and proudly flatters himself that he must be eternal!  O man, wilt thou never conceive that thou art but an insect of a day?  All changes in the universe; nature contains not a form that is constant; and yet thou wouldst claim that thy species can never disappear, and must be excepted from the great universal law of incessant change!

We may pause for a moment to notice how, in their deliberate humiliation of the alleged pride of man, the orthodox theologian and the atheistic Holbach use precisely the same language.  But the rebuke of the latter was sincere; it was indispensable in order to prepare men’s minds for the conception of the universe as a whole.  With the theologian the rebuke has now become little more than a hollow shift, in order to insinuate the miracle of Grace.  The preacher of Naturalism replaces a futile vanity in being the end and object of the creation, by a fruitful reverence for the supremacy of human reason, and a right sense of the value of its discreet and disciplined use.  The theologian restores this absurd and misleading egoism of the race, by representing the Creator as above all else concerned to work miracles for the salvation of a creature whose understanding is at once pitifully weak and odiously perverse, and whose heart is from the beginning wicked, corrupt, and given over to reprobation.  The difference is plainly enormous.  The theologian discourages men; they are to wait for the miracle of conversion, inert or desperate.  The naturalist arouses them; he supplies them with the most powerful of motives for the energetic use of the most powerful of their endowments.  “Men would always have Grace,” says Holbach, with excellent sense, “if they were well educated and well governed.”  And he exclaims on the strange morality of those who attribute all moral evil to Original Sin, and all the good that we do to Grace.  “No wonder,” he says, “that a morality founded on hypotheses so ridiculous should prove to be of no efficacy."

This brings us to Holbach’s treatment of Morals.  The moment had come to France, which was reached at an earlier period in English speculation, when the negative course of thought in metaphysics drove men to consider the basis of ethics.  How were right and wrong to hold their own against the new mechanical conception of the Universe?  The same question is again urgent in men’s minds, because the Darwinian hypothesis, and the mass of evidence for it, have again given a tremendous shake to theological conceptions, and startled men into a sense of the precariousness of the official foundations of virtue and duty.

Holbach begins by a most unflinching exposure of the inconsistency with all that we know of nature, of the mysterious theory of Free Will.  This remains one of the most effective parts of the book, and perhaps the work has never been done with a firmer hand.  The conclusion is expressed with a decisiveness that almost seems crude.  There is declared to be no difference between a man who throws himself out of the window and the man whom I throw out, except this, that the impulse acting on the second comes from without, and that the impulse determining the fall of the first comes from within his own mechanism.  You have only to get down to the motive, and you will invariably find that the motive is beyond the actor’s own power or reach.  The inexorable logic with which the author presses the Free-Willer from one retreat to another, and from shift to shift, leaves his adversary at last exactly as naked and defenceless before Holbach’s vigorous and thoroughly realised Naturalism as the same adversary must always be before Jonathan Edwards’s vigorous theism.  “The system of man’s liberty,” Holbach says (II. ii.), with some pungency, “seems only to have been invented in order to put him in a position to offend his God, and so to justify God in all the evil that he inflicted on man, for having used the freedom which was so disastrously conferred upon him.”

If man be not free, what right have we to punish those who cannot help committing bad actions, or to reward others who cannot help committing good actions?  Holbach gives to this and the various other ways of describing fatalism as dangerous to society, the proper and perfectly adequate answer.  He turns to the quality of the action, and connects with that the social attitude of praise and blame.  Merit and demerit are associated with conduct, according as it is thought to affect the common welfare advantageously or the reverse.  My indignation and my approval are as necessary as the acts that excite these sentiments.  My feelings are neither more nor less spontaneous than the deciding motives of the actor.  Whatever be the necessitating cause of our actions, I have a right to do my best by praise and blame, by reward and punishment, to strengthen or to weaken, to prolong or to divert, the motives that are the antecedents of the action; exactly as I have a right to dam up a stream, or to divert its course, or otherwise deal with it to suit my own convenience.  Penal laws, for instance, are ways of offering to men strong motives, to weigh in the scale against the temptation of an immediate personal gratification.  Holbach does not make it quite distinct that the object of penal legislation is in some cases to give the offender, as well as other people, a strong reason for thinking twice before he repeats the offence; yet in other cases, where the punishment is capital, the legislation does not aim at influencing the mind of the offender at all, but the minds of other people only.  This is only a side illustration of a common weakness in most arguments on this subject.  A thorough vindication of the penal laws, on the principles of a systematic fatalism, can only be successful, if we think less of the wrongdoer in any given case, than of affecting general motives, and building up a right habit of avoiding or accepting certain classes of action.

The writer then justly connects his scientific necessarianism in philosophy with humanity in punishment.  He protests against excessive cruelty in the infliction of legal penalties, and especially against the use of torture, on two grounds; first, that experience demonstrates the uselessness of these superfluous rigours; and, second, that the habit of witnessing atrocious punishments familiarises both criminals and others with the idea of cruelty.  The acquiescence of Paris for a few months in the cruelties of the Terror was no doubt due, on Holbach’s perfectly sound principle, to the far worse cruelties with which the laws had daily made Paris familiar down to the last years of the monarchy.  And Holbach was justified in expecting a greater degree of charitable and considerate judgment from the establishment in men’s minds of a Necessarian theory.  We are no longer vindictive against the individual doer; we wax energetic against the defective training and the institutions which allowed wrong motives to weigh more heavily with him than right ones.  Punishment on the theory of necessity ought always to go with prevention, and is valued just because it is a force on prevention, and not merely an element in retribution.

Holbach answers effectively enough the common objection that his fatalism would plunge men’s souls into apathy.  If all is necessary, why shall I not let things go, and myself remain quiet?  As if we could stay our hands from action, if our feelings were trained to proper sensibility and sympathy.  As if it were possible for a man of tender disposition not to interest himself keenly in all that concerns the lot of his fellow-creatures.  How does our knowledge that death is necessary prevent us from deploring the loss of a beloved one?  How does my consciousness that it is the inevitable property of fire to burn, prevent me from using all my efforts to avert a conflagration?

Finally, when people urge that the doctrine of necessity degrades man by reducing him to a machine, and likening him to some growth of abject vegetation, they are merely using a kind of language that was invented in ignorance of what constitutes the true dignity of man.  What is nature itself but a vast machine, in which our human species is no more than one weak spring?  The good man is a machine whose springs are adapted so to fulfil their functions as to produce beneficent results for his fellows.  How could such an instrument not be an object of respect and affection and gratitude?

In closing this part of Holbach’s book, while not dissenting from his conclusions, we will only remark how little conscious he seems of the degree to which he empties the notions of praise and blame of the very essence of their old contents.  It is not a modification, but the substitution of a new meaning under the old names.  Praise in its new sense of admiration for useful and pleasure-giving conduct or motive, is as powerful a force and as adequate an incentive to good conduct and good motives, as praise in the old sense of admiration for a deliberate and voluntary exercise of a free-acting will.  But the two senses are different.  The old ethical association is transformed into something which usage and the requirements of social self-preservation must make equally potent, but which is not the same.  If Holbach and others who hold necessarian opinions were to perceive this more frankly, and to work it out fully, they would prevent a confusion that is very unfavourable to them in the minds of most of those whom they wish to persuade.  It is easy to see that the work next to be done in the region of morals, is the readjustment of the ethical phraseology of the volitional stage, to fit the ideas proper to the stage in which man has become as definitely the object of science as any of the other phenomena of the universe.

The chapter (xiii.) on the Immortality of the Soul examines this memorable growth of human belief with great vigour, and a most destructive penetration.  As we have seen, the author repudiates the theory of a double energy in man, one material and the other spiritual, just as he afterwards repudiates the analogous hypothesis of a double energy in nature, one of the two being due to a spiritual mover outside of the external phenomena of the universe.  Consistently with this renunciation of a separate spiritual energy in man, Holbach will listen to no talk of a spiritual energy surviving the destruction of the mechanical framework.  To say that the soul will feel, think, enjoy, suffer, after the death of the body, is to pretend that a clock broken into a thousand pieces can continue to strike or to mark the hours.  And having emphatically proclaimed his own refusal to share the common belief, he proceeds with good success to carry the war into the country of those who profess that belief, and defend it as the safeguard of society.  We need not go through his positions.  They are substantially those which are familiar to everybody who has read the Third Book of Lucretius’s poem, and remembers those magnificent passages which are not more admirable in their philosophy than they are noble and moving in their poetic expression: ­

    Nam veluti pueri trepidant atque omnia caecis
    In tenebris metuunt, sic nos in luce timemus
    Interdum, nilo quae sunt metuenda magis quam
    Quae pueri in tenebris pavitant finguntque futura
    Hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
    Non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
    Discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

And so forth, down to the exquisite lines ­

    “Jam jam non domus accipiet te laeta, neque uxoi
    Optima nec dulces occurrent oscula nati
    Praeripere, et tacita pectus dulcedine tangent. 
    Non poteris factis florentibus esse, tuisque
    PraesidiumMisero misère,” aiunt, “omnia ademit
    Una dies infesta tibi tot praemia vitae.” 
    Illud in his rebus non addunt, “nec tibi earum
    Jam desiderium rerum super insidet una.” 
    Quod bene si videant animo dictisque sequantur,
    Dissolvant animi magno se angore metuque. 
    “Tu quidem ut es leto sopitus, sic eris aevi
    Quod superest cunctis privatu’ doloribus aegris: 
    At nos horrifico cinefactum te prope busto
    Insatiabiliter deflevimus, aeternumque
    Nulla dies nobis maerorem e pectore demet.” 
    Illud ab hoc igitur quaerendum est, quid sit amari
    Tanto opère, ad somnum si res redit atque quietem,
    Cur quisquam aeterno possit tabescere luctu.

We may regret that Holbach, in dealing with these solemn and touching things, should have been so devoid of historic spirit as to buffet David, Mahomet, Chrysostom, and other holy personages, as superstitious brigands.  And we may believe that he has certainly been too sweeping in denying any deterrent efficacy whatever to the fires of hell.  But where Holbach found one person in 1770, he would find a thousand in 1880, to agree with him, that it is possible to think of commendations and inducements to virtue, that shall be at least as efficacious as the fiction of eternal torment, without being as cruel, as wicked, as infamous to the gods, and as degrading to men.

From his attack on Immortality, Holbach naturally turns with new energy, as do all who have passed beyond that belief, to the improvement of the education, the laws, the institutions, which are to strengthen and implant the true motives for turning men away from wrong and inspiring them to right.  He draws a stern and prolonged indictment against the kings of the earth, in words that we have already quoted above, as unjust, incapable, depraved by license and impunity.  One passage in this chapter is the scripture of a terrible prophecy, the very handwriting on the wall, which was to be so accurately fulfilled almost in the lifetime of the writer: ­“The state of society is now a state of war of the Sovereign against all, and of each of its members against the other.  Man is bad, not because he was born bad, but because he is made so; the great and the powerful crush with impunity the needy and the unfortunate, and these in turn seek to repay all the ill that has been done to them.  They openly or privily attack a native land that is a cruel stepmother to them; she gives all to some of her children, while others she strips of all.  Sorely they punish her for her partiality; they show her that the motives borrowed from another life are powerless against the passions and the bitter wrath engendered by a corrupt administration in the life here; and that all the terror of the punishments of this world is impotent against necessity, against criminal habits, against a dangerous organisation that no education has ever been applied to correct” (ch. xiv.).  In another place:  “A society enjoys all the happiness of which it is susceptible so soon as the greater number of its members are fed, clothed, housed; are able, in a word, without an excessive toil, to satisfy the wants that nature has made necessities to them.  Their imagination is content so soon as they have the assurance that no force can ravish from them the fruits of their industry, and that they labour for themselves.  By a sequence of human madness, whole nations are forced to labour, to sweat, to water the earth with their tears, merely to keep up the luxury, the fancies, the corruption of a handful of insensates, a few useless creatures.  So have religious and political errors changed the universe into a valley of tears.”  This is an incessant refrain that sounds with hoarse ground-tone under all the ethics and the metaphysics of the book.  There are scores of pages in which the same idea is worked out with a sombre vehemence, that makes us feel as if Robespierre were already haranguing in the National Assembly, Camille Desmoulins declaiming in the gardens of the Palais Royal, and Danton thundering at the Club of the Cordeliers.  We already watch the smoke of the flaming chateaux, going up like a savoury and righteous sacrifice to the heavens.

From this point to the end of the first part of the book, it is not so much philosophy as the literature of a political revolution.  There is a curious parenthesis in vindication not only of a contempt for death, but even of suicide; the writer pointing out with some malice that Samson, Eleazar, and other worthies caused their own death, and that Jesus Christ himself, if really the Son of God, dying of his own free grace, was a suicide, to say nothing of the various ascetic penitents who have killed themselves by inches. “The fear of death, after all,” he says, summing up his case, “will only make cowards; the fear of its alleged consequences will only make fanatics or melancholy pietists, as useless to themselves as to others.  Death is a resource that we do ill to take away from oppressed virtue, reduced, as many a time it is, by the injustice of men to desperation.”  This was the doctrine in which the revolutionary generation were brought up, and the readiness with which men in those days inflicted death on themselves and on others showed how profoundly it had entered their souls. We think, as we read, of Vergniaud and Condorcet carrying their doses of poison, of Barbaroux with his pistol, and Valaze with his knife, of Roland walking forth from Rouen among the trees on the Paris road, and there driving a cane-sword into his breast, as calmly as if he had been throwing off a useless vesture.

Holbach has been accused of reducing virtue to a far-sighted egoism, and detached and crude propositions may be quoted, that perhaps give a literal warrant for the charge.  Nominally he bases morality on happiness, but his real base is the happiness of the greatest number.  To borrow Mr. Sidgwick’s classification, Holbach is a universalistic and not an egoistic Hedonist.  The spirit of what he says is, in fact, not individualist but social.  “The good man is he to whom true ideas have shown his own interest or his own happiness to lie in such a way of acting, that others are forced to love and approve for their own interest....  It is man who is most necessary to the well-being of man....  Merit and virtue are founded on the nature of man, on his needs....  It is by virtue that we are able to earn the goodwill, the confidence, the esteem, of all those with whom we have relations; in a word, no man can be happy alone....  To be virtuous is to place one’s interest in what accords with the interest of others; it is to enjoy the benefits and the delights that one is the means of diffusing among them....  The sentiments of self-love become a hundred times more delicious when we see them shared by all those with whom our destiny binds us.  The habit of virtue excites wants within us that only virtue can satisfy; thus it is that virtue is ever its own recompense, and pays itself with the blessings that it procures for others” (ch. xv.)

Surely it is a childish or pedantic misinterpretation to represent this as egoism, whether armed or not with keen sight; and still worse to talk of it as over-throwing the barriers that keep in the throng of selfish appetites.  “Every citizen should be made to feel that the section of which he is a member is a Whole, that cannot subsist and be happy without virtue; experience should teach him at every moment that the wellbeing of the members can only result from that of the whole body” (ch. xv.) To say of such a doctrine as this, that it is to invite every individual to make himself happy after his own will and fashion, and to pull down the barriers of the selfish appetites, is the very absurdity of philosophic prejudice.  It is for us to look at Holbach’s ethical doctrine in its widest practical application, and if we place ourselves at a social point of view, we cannot but perceive that the principle laid down in the words that we have just quoted, was the indispensable weapon against the anti-social selfishness of the oppressive privileged class.  These words represent the ethical side of every popular and democratic movement.  You may class Holbach’s morality as the morality of self-interest, if you please; but its true base lay in social sympathy.  To proclaim happiness as the test of virtue was to develop the doctrine of naturalism; for happiness is the outcome of a conformity to the natural condition of things.  On the other hand, to insist that virtue lies in promoting the happiness of the body social as a whole, was to preach the most sovereign of all truths, in a state of things where the body social as a whole was kept distracted and miserable by the selfishness of a scanty few of its members.  The Church, nominally built upon the morality of the Golden Rule, was perverted into being the great organ of sinister self-interest.  The Atheists, apparently formulating the morality of the Epicureans, were in effect the teachers of public spirit and beneficence.  And, taught in such circumstances, public spirit could only mean revolution.  We may doubt whether Holbach had thought out the very different questions that may be fused under the easy phrase of a basis for morals.  What are the sanctions of moral precepts?  Why ought each to seek the happiness of all?  What is the mark of the difference between right and wrong?  What is the foundation of Conscience, or that habit of mind which makes right as such seem preferable to wrong?  Clearly these are all entirely separate topics.  Yet Holbach, it is obvious, had not divided them in his own mind, and he seems to think that one and the same answer will serve for what he mistook for one and the same question.  He found it enough to say that every individual wishes to be happy, and that he cannot be happy unless he is on good terms with his neighbours; this reciprocity of needs and services he called the basis of morals.  For a rough and common-sense view of the matter, such as Holbach sought to impress on his readers, this perhaps will do very well; but it is not the product of accurate and scientific thinking.

It is not necessary, again, to point out how Holbach, while expounding the System of Nature, left out of sight the great natural process by which the moral acquisition of one generation becomes the starting-point of further acquisitions in the next.  He forgot the stages.  He talks of Man as if all the races and eras of man were alike, and also as if each individual deliberately worked out sums in happiness on his own account.  It would not only have been more true, according to modern opinions, but more in accordance with Holbach’s own view of necessity, and of the irremovable chain that binds a man’s conduct fast to a series of conditions that existed before he was born, if he had recognised conscience, moral preferences, interest in the public good, and all that he called the basis of morals, as coming to a man with the rest of the apparatus that the past imposes on the present, and not as due to any process of personal calculation.

Holbach had not clearly thought out the growth, the changes, varieties, and transformations among moral ideals.  He was, of course, far too much in the full current of the eighteenth century not to feel that exultation in life and its most exuberant manifestations, which the conventional moralists of the theological schools had set down and proscribed as worldliness and fleshliness. “Action,” he says in this very chapter; “action is the true element of the human mind; no sooner does man cease to act, than he falls into pain and weariness of spirit.”  No doubt this is too absolutely stated, if we are to take some millions of orientals into our account of the human mind, but it has been true of the nations of the west.  Yet the recognition of this law did not prevent the writer from occasionally falling into some of the old canting commonplaces about people being happiest who have fewest wants.  As if, on the contrary, that action which he describes as the true element of man, were not directly connected with the incessant multiplication of wants.  We may take this, however, as a casual lapse into the common form of moralists of ascetic ages.  In substance the System of Nature is essentially a protest against ascetic and quietist ideals.

The second half of the System of Nature treats of the Deity; the proofs of his existence; his attributes; the manner in which he influences the happiness of men.  What is remarkable is that here we have an onslaught, not merely on the Church with its overgrowth of abuses, nor on Christianity with its overgrowth of superstitions, but on that great conception which is enthroned on unseen heights far above any Church and any form of Christianity.  It is theism, in its purest as in its impurest shape, that the writer condemns.  No more elaborate, trenchant, and unflinching attack on the very fundamental propositions of theology, natural or revealed, is to be found in literature.  Pure rationalism has nothing to add to this destructive onslaught.  The tone is not truly philosophic, because the writer habitually regards the notion of a God as an abnormal and morbid excrescence, and not as a natural growth in human development.  He takes no trouble, and it would have been an incredible departure from the mental fashion of the time if he had taken any trouble, to explain theology, or to penetrate behind its forms to those needs, aspirations, and qualities of human constitution in which theology had its best justification, if not its earliest source.  He regards it as an enemy to be mercilessly routed, not as a force with which he has to make his account.  Still, as a piece of rough and remorseless polemic, the second part of the System of Nature remains full of remarkable energy and power.  The most eager Nescient or Denier to be found in the ranks of the assailants of theology in our own day is timorous and moderate compared with this direct and on-pressing swordsman.  And the attack, on its own purely rationalistic ground, is thoroughly comprehensive.  It is not made on an outwork here, or an outwork there; it encircles the whole compass of the defence.  The conception of God is examined and resisted from every possible side ­cosmological, ethical, metaphysical.  To say that the argument is one-sided, is only to say that it is an attack.  But the fact that the writer omits the contributions made under the temporal shelter of theology to morality and civilisation, does not alter the other fact that he states with unsurpassed vigour all that can be said against the intellectual absurdities and moral obliquities that theology has nourished and approved, and only too firmly planted.

Of the elaborate examination of the proofs of the existence of a God adduced by Descartes, Samuel Clarke, Malebranche, and Newton (ch. iv. and v.), we need only say that its whole force might have been summed up in the single proposition that the author once for all repudiates any a priori basis for any beliefs whatever.  It would have been sufficient for philosophic purposes if he had contented himself with justifying and establishing that position.  The fabric of orthodox demonstration would have fallen to the ground after the destruction of its foundations.  Holbach rejected the whole a priori system; it was a matter of course therefore that he rejected each one of the twelve propositions which Clarke had invented by the a priori method.  Holbach held that experience is the source and limit of knowledge, reasoning, and belief, and rejected as a fantastic impertinence of dreamy metaphysicians the assumption that our conceptions measure the necessities of objective existence.  From that point of view, merely to state was to empty of all demonstrating quality such assertions as that something has existed from all eternity; an independent and immutable Being has existed from all eternity; this immutable and independent Being exists by himself, and is incomprehensible; the Being existing necessarily is necessarily single and unique ­and so forth.  Even if we accept this a priori method, and accept the first assumption that something must have existed from all eternity, it was open to Holbach to say, as Locke said on setting himself to examine Descartes’ proof of a God:  “I found that, by it, senseless matter might be the first eternal being and cause of all things, as well as an immaterial intelligent spirit.”  But what we feel is that the whole controversy is being conducted between two disputants on two different planes of thought, between two creatures dwelling in different elements.  To apply to Clarke’s propositions, or to the slightly different propositions of Malebranche, the test of experience, to measure them by the principle of relativity, must be fatal in the minds of such persons as already accept experience as the only right test in such a matter.  It is exactly as if the action of an Italian opera should be criticised in the light of the conditions of real life:  the whole performance must in an instant figure as an absurdity.  No partisan of the lyric drama would consent to have it so judged, and the philosophic partisans of theology would perhaps have been wiser to keep clear of pretensions to prove their master thesis.  They might have been content to keep it as an emotional creation, an imaginative hypothesis, a noble simplification of the chimeras of the primitive consciousness of the race.

As it was, neither side could be convinced by the other, for they had no common criterion.  They had hardly even a common language.  The only effect of Holbach’s blows was to persuade the bystanders who thronged round the lists in that eager time, that the so-called proofs with which the high philosophic names were associated, were only proofs to those who accepted a way of thinking which it was the very characteristic of that age decisively to reject.  The controversial force of this part of the attack simply lay in the piercing thoroughness with which the irreconcilable discrepancies between the seventeenth century notion of demonstration, and that notion in the eighteenth, were forced upon the reader’s attention.

One other remark may be made.  Whatever we may think of the success of the author’s assault on the theistic hypothesis of the universe, it is impossible to deny that he at least succeeds in repelling the various assaults levelled on what is vulgarly termed atheism.  He rightly urges the unreasonableness of taxing those who have formed to themselves intelligible notions of the moving power of the universe, with denying the existence of such a power; the absurdity of charging the very men who found everything that comes to pass in the world on fixed and constant laws, with attributing everything to chance.  If by Atheist, he says, you mean a man who would deny the existence of a force inherent in matter, and without which you cannot conceive nature, and if to this moving force you give the name of God, then an Atheist would be a madman.  Holbach then describes the sense in which Atheists both exist and, as he thinks, may well justify their existence.  Their qualities are as follows:  To be guided only by experience and the testimony of their senses, and to perceive nothing in nature except matter, essentially active and mobile and capable of producing all the beings that we see; to forego all search for a chimerical cause, and not to mistake for better knowledge of the moving force of the universe, merely a separate attribution of it to a Being placed outside of the great whole; to confess in good faith that their mind can neither conceive nor reconcile the negative attributes and theological abstractions with the human and moral qualities that are ascribed to the Divinity.

The chapter (ix.) on the superiority of Naturalism over Theism as a basis for the most wholesome kind of Morality, is still worth reading by men in search of weapons against the presumptuous commonplaces of the pulpit.  In this sphere Holbach is as earnest and severe as the most rigorous moralist that ever wrote.  People who talk of the moral levity of the destructive literature of the eighteenth century would be astonished, if they could bring themselves to read the books about which they talk, by the elevation of the System of Nature.  The writer points out the necessarily evil influence upon morals of a Book popularly taken to be inspired, in which the Divinity is represented as now prescribing virtue, but now again prescribing crime and absurdity; who is sometimes the friend, and sometimes the enemy, of the human race; who is sometimes pictured as reasonable, just, and beneficent, and at other times as insensate:  unjust, capricious, and despotic.  Such divinities, and the priests of such divinities, are incapable of being the models, types, and arbiters of virtue and righteousness.  No; we must seek a base for morality in the necessity of things.  Whatever the Cause that placed man in the abode in which he dwells, and endowed him with his faculties ­whether we regard the human species as the work of Nature, or of some intelligent Being distinct from Nature ­the existence of man, such as we see him to be, is a fact.  We see in him a being who feels, thinks, has intelligence, has self-love, who strives to make life agreeable to himself, and who lives in society with beings like himself; beings whom by his conduct he may make his friends or his enemies.  It is on these universal sentiments that you ought to base morality, which is nothing more nor less than the science of the duties of man living in society.  The moment you attempt to find a base for morals outside of human nature, you go wrong; no other is solid and sure.  The aid of the so-called sanctions of theology is not only needless, but mischievous.  The alliance of the realities of duty with theological phantoms exposes duty to the same ruin which daylight brings to the superstition that has been associated with duty.  It sets up the arbitrary demands of a varying something, named Piety, in place of the plain requirements of Right.  As for saying that without God man cannot have moral sentiments, or, in other words, cannot distinguish between vice and virtue, it is as if one said that, without the idea of God, man would not feel the necessity of eating and drinking.

The writer then breaks out into a long and sustained contrast, from which we may make a short extract to illustrate the heat to which the battle had now come: 

“Nature invites man to love himself, incessantly to augment the sum of his happiness:  Religion orders him to love only a formidable God who is worthy of hatred; to detest and despise himself, and to sacrifice to his terrible idol the sweetest and most lawful pleasures.  Nature bids man consult his reason, and take it for his guide:  Religion teaches him that this reason is corrupted, that it is a faithless, truthless guide, implanted by a treacherous God, to mislead his creatures.  Nature tells man to seek light, to search for the truth:  Religion enjoins upon him to examine nothing, to remain in ignorance.  Nature says to man:  ’Cherish glory, labour to win esteem, be active, courageous, industrious:’  Religion says to him:  ’Be humble, abject, pusillanimous, live in retreat, busy thyself in prayer, meditation, devout rites; be useless to thyself, and do nothing for others.’  Nature proposes for her model, men endowed with noble, energetic, beneficent souls, who have usefully served their fellow-citizens:  Religion makes a show and a boast of the abject spirits, the pious enthusiasts, the phrenetic penitents, the vile fanatics, who for their ridiculous opinions have troubled empires....  Nature tells children to honour, to love, to hearken to their parents, to be the stay and support of their old age:  Religion bids them prefer the oracle of their God, and to trample father and mother under foot, when divine interests are concerned.  Nature commands the perverse man to blush for his vices, for his shameless desires, his crimes:  Religion says to the most corrupt:  ’Fear to kindle the wrath of a God whom thou knowest not:  but if against his laws thou hast committed crime, remember that he is easy to appease and of great mercy:  go to his temple, humble thyself at the feet of his ministers, expiate thy misdeeds by sacrifices, offerings, prayers; these will wash away thy stain in the eyes of the Eternal.’”

Of course, philosophical criticism would have much to say about this glowing mass of furious propositions; for the first voice of Nature hardly whispers into the ear of the primitive man all these high and generous promptings.  But if by Nature we here understand the Encyclopaedists, and by Religion the Catholic Church in France at that moment, then Holbach’s fiery antithèses are a tolerably fair account of the matter.  And the political side of the indictment was hardly less just, though its hardihood appalled men like Voltaire.

“Nature says to man, ’Thou art free, and no power on earth can lawfully strip thee of thy rights:’  Religion cries to him that he is a slave condemned by God to groan under the rod of God’s representatives.  Nature bids man to love the country that gave him birth, to serve it with all loyalty, to bind his interests to hers against every hand that might be raised upon her:  Religion commands him to obey without a murmur the tyrants that oppress his country, to take their part against her, to chain his fellow-citizens under their lawless caprices.  Yet if the Sovereign be not devoted enough to his priests, Religion instantly changes her tone; she incites the subjects to rebellion, she makes resistance a duty, she cries aloud that we must obey God rather than man....  If the nature of man were consulted on Politics, which supernatural ideas have so shamefully depraved, it would contribute far more than all the religion in the world to make communities happy, powerful, and prosperous under reasonable authority....  This nature would teach princes that they are men and not gods; that they are citizens charged by their fellow-citizens with watching over the safety of all....  Instead of attributing to the divine vengeance all the wars, the famines, the plagues that lay nations low, would it not have been more useful to show them that such calamities are due to the passions, the indolence, the tyranny of their princes, who sacrifice the nations to their hideous delirium?  Natural evils demand natural remedies; ought not experience, therefore, long ago to have undeceived mortals as to those supernatural remedies, those expiations, prayers, sacrifices, fastings, processions, that all the peoples of the earth have so vainly opposed to the woes that overwhelmed them?...  Let us recognise the plain truth, then, that it is these supernatural ideas that have obscured morality, corrupted politics, hindered the advance of the sciences, and extinguished happiness and peace even in the very heart of man.”

Holbach was a vigorous propagandist.  Two years after the appearance of his master-work he drew up its chief propositions in a short and popular volume, called Good sense; or Natural Ideas opposed to Supernatural.  His zeal led him to write and circulate a vast number of other tractates and short volumes, the bare list of which would fill several of these pages, all inciting their readers to an intellectual revolt against the reigning system in Church and State.  He lived to get a glimpse of the very edge and sharp bend of the great cataract.  He died in the spring of 1789.  If he had only lived five years longer, he would have seen the great church of Notre Dame solemnly consecrated by legislative decree to the worship of Reason, bishops publicly trampling on crosier and ring amid universal applause, and vast crowds exulting in processions whose hero was an ass crowned with a mitre.