He was ‘the most learned nobleman’ in Paris according to Laurence Sterne, ‘un des hommes de son temps les plus instruits, sachant plusieurs des langues de l’Europe’ for the abbé Morellet, ‘le vrai cosmopolite’ in Diderot’s words: there is no doubt that Baron d’Holbach won the affection and the esteem of those who met him.
Two hundred and thirty years after his death, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723-1789) continues to be a challenging figure of the European Enlightenment. Not only was he a materialistic philosopher, a champion of anticlericalism, the author of the monumental Système de la nature known as ‘the Bible of atheists’, an idéologue, a populariser of the natural sciences and a prolific contributor to the Encyclopédie, but he also played a fundamental role as a producer and circulator of clandestine literature and as the centre of a wide intellectual network. All over Europe he was known as the ‘maître d’hôtel de la philosophie’ (in the words of the abbé Galiani), and as ‘the great protector of wits, and the Sçavans who are no wits’ (in those of Sterne). D’Holbach’s house in the rue Royale in Paris hosted one of the most influential and cosmopolitan literary circles of the eighteenth century. According to David Hume, it was ‘a common receptacle for all men of letters and ingenuity’, and it was dubbed ‘the joyous sett’ by Sterne: this is where philosophers, men of letters, statesmen, and churchmen from all over Europe met to engage in free philosophical discussions and be introduced to Parisian society.
German by origin (he was born in the village of Edesheim in the Palatinate), Dutch through his academic training (he studied in Leiden), French by adoption, and cosmopolitan by choice, d’Holbach spoke several languages and translated scientific works from the German and philosophical and irreligious works from the English.
For three days, 9-11 May 2019, the Institute of Advanced Studies of Göttingen at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg hosted ‘The Great Protector of Wits. D’Holbach 1789-2019’, the first international conference entirely dedicated to Baron d’Holbach, organised by Dr Laura Nicolì and Prof. Franziska Meier. Our own ‘joyous sett’ of Enlightenment scholars gathered to discuss the Baron’s works, as well as his figure and his legacy. Speakers engaged with the complexity of d’Holbach’s intellectual agenda, with d’Holbach the philosopher and the philosophe, but also the encyclopédiste and the scientist, the strategist and the ‘metteur en scène’, the translator and the creator of ‘fictions d’autorité’, the clandestine author and the centre of intellectual networks, the pessimistic skeptic and the inspirer of a revolutionary consciousness.
Thanks to the participants’ contributions and through the ensuing debate, there emerged a more nuanced, multifaceted understanding of d’Holbach than is typically conveyed by the secondary literature.
For everyone present, this conference on one of the most important yet neglected figures of the eighteenth century amounted to full immersion in a true microcosm of the European Enlightenment!
– Laura Nicolì