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Atheism, Religion and Enlightenment in pre-Revolutionary Europe

Atheism, Religion and Enlightenment in pre-Revolutionary Europe

Mark Curran
Volume: 83
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Atheism, Religion and Enlightenment in pre-Revolutionary Europe
    Book Description:

    The Baron d'Holbach, a prominent figure in the French Enlightenment, is best known for his writings against religion. His prolific campaign of atheism and anti-clericalism, waged from the printing presses of Amsterdam in the years around 1770, was so radical that it provoked an unprecedented public response. For the baron's enemies, at least, it suggested the end of an era: proof that the likes of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were simply a cabal of atheists hell-bent on the destruction of all that was to be cherished about religion and society. The ‘philosophes’, past their prime and under fire, recognised the need to respond, but struggled to know which way to turn. France's institutional bodies, lacking unity and fatally distracted, provided no credible lead. Instead, the voice of reason came from an unlikely source - independent Christian apologists, Catholic and Protestant, who attacked the baron on his own terms and, in the process, irrevocably changed the nature of Christian writing. This book examines the reception of the works of the baron d'Holbach throughout francophone Europe. It insists that d'Holbach's historical importance has been understated, argues the case for the existence of a significant ‘Christian Enlightenment’ and raises questions about existing secular models of the francophone public sphere. Mark Curran is the Munby Fellow in Bibliography, Cambridge University Library.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-969-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-vii)
    mark Curran
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  6. Prologue: Les Saturnelles
    (pp. 1-4)

    In an isolated house in a quiet quarter of 1770s paris, a young german baron awaits his fate. He has been told that the deliberations in the mocked-up debating chamber should only take an instant; he will surely be initiated into the inner sanctum of the philosophe sect by universal acclaim. This is quite some feat. In the two short weeks since he arrived in paris he has been caught up in a whirlwind of dinners and discussions, philosophy and celebrity. He has seen a little of his heroes, turned some heads, and is feeling at once star-struck and racked...

  7. Introduction
    (pp. 5-22)

    The original idea behind this study stemmed from an apparent anomaly contained within Robert Darnton’s twinned works The corpus of clandestine literature in France, 1769–1789 (1995) and The forbidden best-sellers of pre-Revolutionary France (1996). While Darnton’s major argument was largely in keeping with his previous concentration on literary figures excluded from the mainstream success of the Enlightenment, his data contained some remarkable discoveries concerning the popularity of the anti-religious publications of the baron d’Holbach, an aristocratic salon host who lived his life far from the poverty and desperation of the metaphorical grub Street. Out of a total sample of...

  8. 1 The Virtuous Atheist
    (pp. 23-40)

    Once upon a time, in the wooded hills surrounding the Lorranian Spa town of Contrexéville, the baron d’Holbach found himself in the embrace of three peasants, their eyes welling with tears of joy. His walking companion, our witness, had been given the slip, but had returned just in time to catch this tender farewell. Curious, he questioned the baron on the events that had come to pass. D’Holbach, in a gesture typical of his generosity, had just paid to free a poor young lover from his military obligations, bought an 800-franc property for the couple, and given three boxes of...

  9. 2 The Oral and Written Public Sphere
    (pp. 41-56)

    One evening, probably in the mid-1760s, the Neopolitan ambassador to paris, the abbé Ferdinando galiani, found himself bemused by an exposition of atheistic materialism that he witnessed at d’Holbach’s salon. Galiani was a close friend of the baron, and had been attending his dinners regularly since 1759. He was therefore unlikely to have been shocked by the opinions expressed there, certainly not those of d’Holbach and his fellow radical regular guests Diderot and Augustin Roux.¹ Yet, something about the extremity of this particular account, which was probably made by Diderot and came around the time that his and d’Holbach’s materialist...

  10. 3 Books and Pamphlets
    (pp. 57-78)

    This entry comes from d’Holbach’s Théologie portative, the mock pocket dictionary that he published towards the end of 1767 with the tonguein-cheek intention of making theology more accessible to the average reader. His contention that the Church considered only three books tolerable was not to be taken literally, no more so than his claims that the faithful would be better off born without eyes (to save effort tearing in them out to avoid the latest clerical scandal) or that werewolves are useful to Christians in their quest to scare the population.² None the less, his message could hardly have been...

  11. 4 Periodicals
    (pp. 79-92)

    Of all the letters received by the editor of the Journal de Paris, few were quite as peculiar as one that landed upon his desk in 1786. The letter claimed to bear important news. The previous day its author had visited the house of a friend, ‘un curieux’, in whose garden he had witnessed a machine representing all the natural celestial movements. This machine, he reported, was so well constructed that, if viewed with the aid of a microscope, one could focus in upon the earth and make out its atmosphere and vegetation. It was so detailed, in fact, that...

  12. 5 The philosophe Response
    (pp. 93-109)

    Whilst d’Holbach was raining bombs in the house of the Lord, his fellow philosophes were nervously preparing for the fall-out. They knew how their enemies operated. The baron’s radicalism would be used to stain the reputation of the moderates amongst their number. The Système de la nature would be presented as their secret masterpiece, a representation of everything that they had always believed but never dared to publish. In their own attacks on political and ecclesiastical abuses, they had been playing a similar game for years, highlighting occasions of individual fanaticism as examples symptomatic of a wider malaise. Yet, played...

  13. 6 Institutional Reactions in France
    (pp. 110-124)

    Philosophe concerns that the French authorities were attempting to launch a co-ordinated and concerted attack on irreligious publishing in 1770 were justified. During that year, at the height of d’Holbach’s anti-religious campaign, the king, the parlements, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the académie française and various academic institutions endeavoured to work together to produce a strong response. Each of them condemned d’Holbach’s works and declared that they would use all the resources at their disposal to repress them. However, these bodies had overlapping and ill-defined jurisdictions, as well as different priorities and motives for responding to the baron’s campaign. As a...

  14. 7 The Christian Enlightenment?
    (pp. 125-141)

    In the early 1770s, with the philosophes tight-lipped and the French state distracted, scores of Christian apologetic responses to d’Holbach’s campaign rolled unopposed off Europe’s francophone presses. This riot of publishing was accompanied by a remarkable spirit of literary experimentation and a host of new discursive strategies designed to convince typical late eighteenth-century readers. Taken together, these books amounted to a revolution in Christian writing: their contents would have been inconceivable even at the mid-point of the century. The origins of this transformation, its relationship to the Enlightenment and its consequences is the subject of chapter 8. First, however, this...

  15. 8 Beyond the Christian Enlightenment
    (pp. 142-164)

    Despite mounting evidence outlining the contours of a remarkable ‘Christian Enlightenment’ in the international francophone public sphere during the final decades of the ancien régime, some suspicion may still linger. To modern eyes, there is something not quite right about the anti-philosophes. Bad novels and reasoned treatises, utilitarianism and moral outrage – their works certainly read like the Enlightenment. Yet, they were unambiguously directed against the Enlightenment’s leading lights and critiqued significant aspects of the contemporary intellectual Zeitgeist. An article published in the Journal historique et littéraire in 1776, in fact copied from the Journal de Berlin, sarcastically insisted that the...

  16. APPENDIX 1 D’Holbach’s Publications, 1752–1789
    (pp. 167-168)
  17. APPENDIX 2 Responses in French to d’Holbach’s Publications, 1752–1789
    (pp. 169-187)
  18. APPENDIX 3 The Corpus of Periodical Press Articles Produced in Reaction to d’Holbach’s Publications
    (pp. 188-198)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 199-212)
  20. Index
    (pp. 213-218)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 219-219)