Baron d’Holbach was born Paul Heinrich Dietrich (later Thiry) of German parentage, but was raised and educated by an uncle who had made his fortune in France. With his uncle’s death, Holbach inherited his fortune and name, and in 1749, he was naturalized as a French citizen. He was a philosopher, polemicist, and man of leisure whose home in Paris became the base for the philosophes of the 18th-century Enlightenment, including d’Alembert, Rousseau, and Diderot. He contributed some 376 articles, mostly on science, to Diderot’s Encyclopedia, and published The System of Nature (1770) and Good Sense (1772) among other works. Throughout his life, Holbach wrote and contributed to over 50 books. He did not leave behind any personal correspondence, and most of his writings were published under various pseudonyms because of their subversive content; to maintain secrecy, he published Christianity Unveiled (1761), a critical examination of Christianity, under the name of a deceased friend.
Holbach’s philosophy was materialistic and atheistic, a view that was shaped by his studies in the earth sciences. He wrote militant polemics against religion, the contents of which expressed most of the arguments for unbelief at the time. Organized religion, according to Holbach, is superstitious, intolerant, greedy, unreasonable, and the primary cause of man’s suffering. He also largely rejected myth, though recognizing it as a comparatively harmless personification of natural powers in contrast to the fatal errors of theologians who separated off such powers as “God.” Holbach posited an ethical system based on materialistic grounds, in which man, like a machine, is devoid of free will.
In his most popular book, The System of Nature, first published under the pseudonym Mirabaud, Holbach attacks the religious position that would have people suffer for a lifetime without the possibility of mitigation by suicide, an “impulse of nature.” According to Holbach, a person whose life has been refused the pleasures of living by “unknown” deterministic causes “already exists no longer.” In opposition to the then-prevalent view that individuals had obligations to the king or to society not to kill themselves, Holbach argues that the society which “has not the ability or . . . is not willing to procure man any one benefit” has no hold on him, “loses all its rights over him,” and thus cannot object to his suicide.
Paul-Henri Dietrich, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature; or the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, Ch. XIII, “Of Education-Morality & Laws Sufficient to Restrain Man-Desire of Immortality-Suicide,” Appendix, Ch. XIV (1770). Tr. Samuel Wilkinson, 1820–21. Available from Project Gutenberg, release # 8909, including material in introduction from Robert D. Richardson Jr.
from THE SYSTEM OF NATURE
Man in different ages, in different countries, has formed opinions extremely various upon the conduct of those, who have had the temerity to put an end to their own existence. His ideas upon this subject, as upon all others, have taken their tone from his religion, have been governed by his superstitious systems, have been modified by his political institutions. The Greeks, the Romans, and other nations, which every thing conspired to make intrepid, to render courageous, to lead to magnanimity, regarded as heroes, contemplated as Gods, those who voluntarily cut the thread of life. In Hindoostan, the Brahmin yet knows how to inspire even women with sufficient fortitude to burn themselves upon the dead bodies of their husbands. The Japanese, upon the most trifling occasion, takes no kind of difficulty in plunging a dagger into his bosom.
Among the people of our own country, religion renders man less prodigal of life; it teaches that it is offensive to the Deity that he should destroy himself. Some moralists, abstracting the height of religious ideas, have held that it is never permitted to man to break the conditions of the covenant that he has made with society. Others have looked upon suicide as cowardice; they have thought that it was weakness, that it displayed pusillanimity, to suffer, himself to be overwhelmed with the shafts of his destiny; and have held that there would be much more courage, more elevation of soul, in supporting his afflictions, in resisting the blows of fate.
If nature be consulted upon this point, it will be found that all the actions of man, that feeble plaything in the hands of necessity, are indispensable; that they depend on causes which move him in despite of himself–that without his knowledge, make him accomplish at each moment of his existence some one of its decrees. If the same power that obliges all intelligent beings to cherish their existence, renders that of man so painful, so cruel, that he finds it insupportable he quits his species; order is destroyed for him, he accomplishes a decree of Nature, that wills he shall no longer exist. This Nature has laboured during thousands of years, to form in the bowels of the earth the iron that must number his days.
If the relation of man with Nature be examined, it will be found that his engagement was neither voluntary on his part, nor reciprocal on the part of Nature. The volition of his will had no share in his birth; it is commonly against his will that he is obliged to finish life; his actions are, as we have proved, only the necessary effects of unknown causes which determine his will. He is, in the hands of Nature, that which a sword is in his own hands; he can fall upon it without its being able to accuse him with breaking his engagements; or of stamping with ingratitude the hand that holds it: man can only love his existence on condition of being happy; as soon as the entire of nature refuses him this happiness; as soon as all that surrounds him becomes incommodious to him, as soon as his melancholy ideas offer nothing but afflicting pictures to his imagination; he already exists no longer; he is suspended in the void; he quits a rank which no longer suits him; in which he finds no one interest; which offers him no protection; which overwhelms him with calamity; in which he can no more be useful either to himself or to others.
If the covenant which unites man to society be considered, it will be obvious that every contract is conditional, must be reciprocal; that is to say, supposes mutual advantages between the contracting parties. The citizen cannot be bound to his country, to his associates, but by the bonds of happiness.
Are these bonds cut asunder? He is restored to liberty. Society, or those who represent it, do they use him with harshness, do they treat him with injustice, do they render his existence painful? Does disgrace hold him out to the finger of scorn; does indigence menace him in an obdurate world? Perfidious friends, do they forsake him in adversity? An unfaithful wife, does she outrage his heart? Rebellious, ungrateful children, do they afflict his old age? Has he placed his happiness exclusively on some object which it is impossible for him to procure? Chagrin, remorse, melancholy, and despair, have they disfigured to him the spectacle of the universe? In short, for whatever cause it may be: if he is not able to support his evils, he quits a world, which from henceforth, is for him only a frightful desert he removes himself for ever from a country he thinks no longer willing to reckon him amongst the number of her children—he quits a house that to his mind is ready to bury him under its ruins—he renounces a society, to the happiness of which he can no longer contribute; which his own peculiar felicity alone can render dear to him: and could the man be blamed, who, finding himself useless; who being without resources, in the town where destiny gave him birth, should quit it in chagrin, to plunge himself in solitude? Death appears to the wretched the only remedy for despair; it is then the sword seems the only friend, the only comfort that is left to the unhappy: as long as hope remains the tenant of his bosom–as long as his evils appear to him at all supportable–as long as he flatters himself with seeing them brought to a termination–as long as he finds some comfort in existence, however slender, he will not consent to deprive himself of life: but when nothing any longer sustains in him the love of this existence, then to live, is to him the greatest of evils; to die, the only mode by which he can avoid the excess of despair. This has been the opinion of many great men: Seneca, the moralist, whom Lactantius calls the divine Pagan, who has been praised equally by St. Austin and St. Augustine, endeavours by every kind of argument to make death a matter of indifference to man. Cato has always been commended, because he would not survive the cause of liberty; for that he would not live a slave. Curtius, who rode voluntarily into the gap, to save his country, has always been held forth as a model of heroic virtue. Is it not evident, that those martyrs who have delivered themselves up to punishment, have preferred quitting the world to living in it contrary to their own ideals of happiness? When Samson wished to be revenged on the Philistines, did he not consent to die with them as the only means? If our country is attacked, do we not voluntarily sacrifice our lives in its defence?
That society who has not the ability, or who is not willing to procure man any one benefit, loses all its rights over him; Nature, when it has rendered his existence completely miserable, has in fact, ordered him to quit it: in dying he does no more than fulfilL one of her decrees, as he did when he first drew his breath. To him who is fearless of death, there is no evil without a remedy; for him who refuses to die, there yet exists benefits which attach him to the world; in this case let him rally his powers–let him oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses him–let him call forth those resources with which Nature yet furnishes him; she cannot have totally abandoned him, while she yet leaves him the sensation of pleasure; the hopes of seeing a period to his pains.
Man regulates his judgment on his fellows, only by his own peculiar mode of feeling; he deems as folly, he calls delirium all those violent actions which he believes but little commensurate with their causes; or which appear to him calculated to deprive him of that happiness, towards which he supposes a being in the enjoyment of his senses, cannot cease to have a tendency: he treats his associate as a weak creature, when he sees him affected with that which touches him but lightly; or when he is incapable of supporting those evils, which his self-love flatters him, he would himself he able to endure with more fortitude. He accuses with madness whoever deprives himself of life, for objects that he thinks unworthy so dear a sacrifice; he taxes him with phrenzy, because he has himself learned to regard this life as the greatest blessing. It is thus that he always erects himself into a judge of the happiness of others– of their mode of seeing–of their manner of feeling: a miser who destroys himself after the loss of his treasure, appears a fool in the eyes of him who is less attached to riches; he does not feel, that without money, life to this miser is only a continued torture; that nothing in the world is capable of diverting him from his painful sensations: he will proudly tell you, that in his place he had not done so much; but to be exactly in the place of another man, it is needful to have his organization–his temperament–his passions–his ideas; it is in fact needful to be that other; to be placed exactly in the same circumstances; to be moved by the same causes; and in this case all men, like the miser, would sacrifice their life, after being deprived of the only source of their happiness.
He who deprives himself of his existence, does not adopt this extremity, so repugnant to his natural tendency; but when nothing in this world has the faculty of rejoicing him; when no means are left of diverting his affliction; when reason no longer acts; his misfortune whatever it may be, for him is real; his organization, be it strong, or be it weak, is his own, not that of another: a man who is sick only in imagination, really suffers considerably; even troublesome dreams place him in a very uncomfortable situation. Thus when a man kills himself, it ought to be concluded, that life, in the room of being a benefit, had become a very great evil to him; that existence had lost all its charms in his eyes; that the entire of nature was to him destitute of attraction; that it no longer contained any thing that could seduce him; that after the comparison which his disturbed imagination had made of existence with non-existence, the latter appeared to him preferable to the first.
Many will consider these maxims as dangerous; they certainly account why the unhappy cut the thread of life, in a manner not corresponding with the received prejudices; but, nevertheless, it is a temperament soured by chagrin, a bilious constitution, a melancholy habit, a defect in the organization, a derangement in the mind; it is in fact necessity and not reasonable speculations, that breed in man the design of destroying himself. Nothing invites him to this step so long as reason remains with him; or whilst he yet possesses hope, that sovereign balm for every evil: as for the unfortunate, who cannot lose sight of his sorrows—who cannot forget his pains–who has his evils always present to his mind; he is obliged to take counsel from these alone: besides, what assistance, what advantage can society promise to himself, from a miserable wretch reduced to despair; from a misanthrope overwhelmed with grief; from a wretch tormented with remorse, who has no longer any motive to render himself useful to others–who has abandoned himself– who finds no more interest in preserving his life? Frequently, those who destroy themselves are such, that had they lived, the offended laws must have ultimately been obliged to remove them from a society which they disgraced; from a country which they had injured.
As life is commonly the greatest blessing for man, it is to be presumed that he who deprives himself of it, is compelled to it by an invincible force. It is the excess of misery, the height of despair, the derangement of his brain, caused by melancholy, that urges man on to destroy himself. Agitated by contrary impulsions, he is, as we have before said, obliged to follow a middle course that conducts him to his death; if man be not a free-agent, in any one instant of his life, he is again much less so in the act by which it is terminated.
It will be seen then, that he who kills himself, does not, as it is pretended, commit an outrage on nature. He follows an impulse which has deprived him of reason; adopts the only means left him to quit his anguish; he goes out of a door which she leaves open to him; he cannot offend in accomplishing a law of necessity: the iron hand of this having broken the spring that renders life desirable to him; which urged him to self-conservation, shews him he ought to quit a rank or system where he finds himself too miserable to have the desire of remaining. His country or his family have no right to complain of a member, whom it has no means of rendering happy; from whom consequently they have nothing more to hope: to be useful to either, it is necessary he should cherish his own peculiar existence; that he should have an interest in conserving himself–that he should love the bonds by which he is united to others– that he should be capable of occupying himself with their felicity—that he should have a sound mind. That the suicide should repent of his precipitancy, he should outlive himself, he should carry with him into his future residence, his organs, his senses, his memory, his ideas, his actual mode of existing, his determinate manner of thinking.
In short, nothing is more useful for society, than to inspire man with a contempt for death; to banish from his mind the false ideas he has of its consequences. The fear of death can never do more than make cowards; the fear of its consequences will make nothing but fanatics or melancholy beings, who are useless to themselves, unprofitable to others. Death is a resource that ought not by any means to be taken away from oppressed virtue; which the injustice of man frequently reduces to despair. If man feared death less, he would neither be a slave nor superstitious; truth would find defenders more zealous; the rights of mankind would be more hardily sustained; virtue would be intrepidly upheld: error would be more powerfully opposed; tyranny would be banished from nations: cowardice nourishes it, fear perpetuates it. In fact, man can neither be contented nor happy whilst his opinions shall oblige him to tremble.