Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach

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Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach around 1785, oil painting by Alexander Roslin

Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach [

pɔlɑ̃ˈriː tiˈriː dɔlˈbak], Baron d’Holbach, (born or baptized 8 December 1723 in Edesheim near Landau – died 21 January 1789 in Paris)[1] was a philosopher of the French Enlightenment, best known for his atheistic theses critical of religion.

Holbach was a contributor to the Encyclopédie, to which he wrote numerous articles on metallurgy, chemistry and related subjects. His book System of Nature, which he published in 1770 under the name of Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, who had been dead for ten years at the time, became famous. In this work he explicitly advocated atheism and viewed nature as a materialistic-deterministic chain of processes. Later Holbach wrote mainly moral philosophical and political works. Because of his fierce criticism of the existing absolutist regime and the church, this Enlightenment philosopher published anonymously or pseudonymously, which is why his authorship of several works attributed to him is not clear. His Parisian house was a meeting place and an important center for the exchange of ideas among Enlightenment philosophers, the “philosophes”.

Life and work

Origin, studies and first years in Paris

The Ludwigstrasse in Edesheim. Postcard from 1940. House n° 4 is the birthplace of Paul Thiry d’Holbach.[2]

Baptismal registration of Paul Thiry d’Holbach

Holbach’s parents, Johann Jakob Dietrich (other spelling: Johann Jakob Dirre, the name Dirre was also recorded in the local church register as Tirri or Tyrry; French: Jean Jacques Thiry) (1672-1756) and Catherine Jacobina Holbach (1684-1743) from Edesheim, were vintners.[3] Edesheim belonged at that time to the high diocese of Speyer[4] under Damian Hugo Philipp von Schönborn-Buchheim, who resided in Bruchsal.

Sign at the birthplace of Paul Thiry d’Holbach in Edesheim, today Ludwigstraße 4

Castle in Heeze, Kasteel Heeze te Heeze, owned by François Adam d’Holbach from 1733. In 1735 further buildings were erected. Paul Thiry d’Holbach inherited this estate in 1750.

The maternal grandfather Johannes Jacobus Holbach († 1723) was tax collector for the Prince Bishop of Speyer. Johannes Jacobus Holbach had three children: Franciscus Adam Holbach (or Adam François d’Holbach) (ca. 1675-1753), Margarita Holbach and Jacobaea Holbach (or Catherine Jacobina Holbach). Margarita Holbach was married to Christianus Westerberg since 1705.[5]

Franz Adam Holbach’s country estate in Edesheim: Kupperwolf Castle, named after its later owner

At the age of about eight, the young Paul was given to his maternal uncle Franz Adam Holbach (ca. 1675-1753)[6] (or François Adam d’Holbach, more precisely Messire François-Adam, Baron d’Holbach, Seigneur de Heeze, Leende et autres Lieux)[7] entrusted to him, who had him tutored in his stately Edesheim home by a cleric named François Bellemont.

This Paris-born clergyman was a professed Jansenist, as reported by the Edesheim priest Philipp Krelein in August 1731. Bellemont was supposed to acknowledge Pope Clement XI’s 1713 bull Unigenitus Dei filius in a summons to the responsible Bishop Heinrich Hartard von Rollingen or Damian Hugo Philipp Reichsgraf von Schönborn-Buchheim, Prince-Bishop of Speyer and Prince-Provost of Weißenburg in the years 1719-1743, but refused and was persecuted for it. Although Franz Adam Holbach vehemently opposed the encroachments of the Catholic clergy, François Bellemont preferred to flee to the neighboring Lutheran village of Rhodt. His documents and books were then confiscated by the episcopal commission.[8]

Château du Grand-Val, image of an old postcard (1907), of the building destroyed in 1949

Franz Adam Holbach had emigrated to Paris at a young age and acquired an office as a financial broker in 1713. At that time the Banque générale (from 1718 also Banque royale) founded by John Law on 2 May 1716 was located in Rue Quincampoix in Paris. Through his skill there he had great success at the French West India Company, Compagnie des Indes Occidentales Françaises, also founded by John Law in August 1717, which he converted from other companies into the Compagnie des Indes (English “Company of the West”). He is said to have acquired about 20 million livres in the process.[9] Although the Compagnie des Indes went bankrupt, Franz Adam Holbach was able to secure his capital in real estate and survive the crisis unscathed. In 1720 he was ennobled in Vienna as a knight of the realm, and in 1728 he was raised to the rank of baron of the realm.[10]

With the nobility acquired by purchase, he now belonged to the so-called noblesse commerçante (the trading nobility) in France.[11] D’Holbach grew up in the art historical epoch of the Rococo, a style of European art (from about 1730 to 1770/1780) that had developed from the late Baroque (ca. 1700-1720) and took its starting point in France.

One of Franz Adam d’Holbach’s estates was located in Heeze-Leende. Paul Thiry d’Holbach received other estates from his uncle as a wedding gift, such as in Heeze, Leende and Zesgehuchten (in the province of Noord-Brabant) with Heeze Castle. In 1760 he sold the castle to the Dutch nobleman Jan Maximiliaan van Tuyll van Serooskerken (1710-1762).[12]

After François Bellemont, who was suspected of being a Jansenist, did not comply with a summons to the bishop in Speyer (Damian Hugo Philipp von Schönborn-Buchheim) and after his uncle’s private library was also confiscated by the police in 1731, he moved to Paris together with his nephew.[13]

In 1744, Holbach enrolled as Paulus Holbach Baro Palatinus (i.e. Palatine baron) to study law and natural science at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Here he would study until 1748 and form a lifelong friendship with the later British Whig politician, journalist and writer John Wilkes.[14] With William Dowdeswell, also a fellow student at Leiden University and later an English politician who would succeed as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he spends the summer of 1746 at Heeze-Leende.[15] It is also worth mentioning his acquaintance with Mark Akenside, who studied medicine in Leiden in 1744 and whose poem The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) appeared while he was studying in Leiden and was translated into French by d’Holbach in 1759.[16]

Other companions who later became lifelong friends of his were the Regensburg pastor’s son Friedrich Melchior Grimm and Denis Diderot.

Back in Paris, Paul Thiry received his uncle’s name and title by adoption from his uncle, who had been ennobled in Vienna, and he was admitted to the bar at the Parlement in Paris, a position which, however, did not fill him. At times he stayed at his uncle’s sprawling country estate in Heeze-Leende.[17]

A year later he took French citizenship with his uncle; around the same time he was also officially adopted by the latter. He never practiced law; rather, he led the life of a private scholar. In Paris, Holbach lived first in Rue St. Nicaise, then from 1759 in a five-story palace at № 8 Rue Royale Saint Roch[18] (today Rue des Moulins).

Entrance area №. 8 Rue Royale Saint Roch ( today Rue des Moulins)

Parisian life and the Coterie holbachique

After the death of his first wife shortly after the birth of a son in 1754, he married again in 1756, and with his second wife he had three children.
On 11 December 1750, he married a daughter of his cousin, Basile Geneviève Suzanne d’Aîne (1728-1754) (second cousin), his first wife.[19] Three years later, together with the cousin, he inherited his uncle’s fortune and officially assumed his title of baron.

When his father-in-law Jean-Baptiste Nicolas d’Aîne († 1755) died a year later, d’Holbach acquired his post of Conseiller-secrétaire du Roi, a sinecure that gave him access to the higher French nobility.[20]

The annual income of 5500 livres associated with the post may have been equivalent to about 5% of the purchase price invested.[21] According to André Morellet, Holbach had a fortune that yielded an annuity of 60,000 livres per year.[22]

In 1754, when his wife died soon after the birth of their first child, François Paul Nicolas (b. 1753), Holbach was deeply saddened. Two years later, with a dispensation from the pope, he married his late wife’s sister, Charlotte Suzanne d’Aîne (1733-1814),[23] with whom he had three children, son Charles-Marius (1757-1832) and two daughters, Amélie-Suzanne (b. 13 January 1759) and Louise-Pauline (b. 19 December 1759; † 1830),[24] had. His wife Charlotte Suzanne was close friends with Marie-Françoise de Saint-Belin-Malain (1732-1769), wife of Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon.[25] Holbach’s brother-in-law was Marius-Jean-Baptiste Nicolas d’Aîne (1730-1804), chevalier, conseiller du roi, intendant de Justice en la généralité de Tours.[26] The French author and translator Nicolas de la Grange served for a time as tutor to his children.

Portrait of the second wife Mme Charlotte Suzanne d’Holbach. Painting in oil by Alexander Roslin (1718-1793)

D’Holbach led a stationary life between Paris and the country estate of Le Château de Grand-Val, interrupted only by a few journeys. After the death of his first wife in 1754, he traveled with Friedrich Melchior Grimm to the south of France, in 1765 he visited England, and several times he went to Contrexéville in the Vosges for spa treatments. Contrexéville is known for its thermal springs.[27] His mother-in-law Suzanne d’Aîne was the owner of the estate.[28]

D’Holbach built up an extensive private library at his place of residence, but he also collected various works of art.[29] His great interest in mineralogy found expression in an extensive collection of rock samples.

The entanglements of Mme Charlotte Suzanne d’Holbach around 1762 were piquant; some of the guests of the Coterie holbachique were obviously interested in Madame la baronne herself. The journalist Jean Baptiste Antoine Suard and Charles-Georges Le Roy should be mentioned here. The covetous pestering of the journalist Suard and the resulting difficulties with her husband Paul put Charlotte Suzanne d’Holbach in a state of mental upset. Her doctor recommended a milk diet and regular horseback rides, and the lieutenant of the royal hunts, Charles-Georges Le Roy, was found to accompany her. But now the initial desires of the journalist were joined by those of the lieutenant of the royal hunts. In addition, her unpleasant situation was aggravated by an intrigue of Mme Louise d’Épinay, who was herself being courted by the man of letters and historian Charles Pinot Duclos (1704-1772). Duclos tried to win Mme d’Épinay’s confidence by claiming that Mme Charlotte Suzanne d’Holbach was having an affair with her companion, Frederick Melchior Baron von Grimm. In her indignation, the latter now confronted Paul Thiry d’Holbach with the rumor, giving climax to the drama. The consequences were at times a very tense disgruntlement in the d’Holbach house.[30]

David Garrick, a British Shakespearean actor and theatrical entrepreneur, had mutual acquaintances with d’Holbach and Diderot in Paris. Both during his first stay in 1763, and in 1765, he regularly visited the Coterie holbachique (“Holbach’s Clique”). Incidentally, this salon was also referred to as the café de l’europe and he himself as the chef des café de l’europe. The connection to Garrick then led d’Holbach to travel to London in 1765, where he visited his acquaintance Garrick and formed a very ambivalent impression of the England of his time.[31]

D’Holbach was a member of various learned societies of his time, being appointed to the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1754, followed in 1766 by the Electoral Palatine Academy of Sciences, which had only been founded in Mannheim in 1764, and in 1780 by his admission to the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg.
Until the death of Claude Adrien Helvétius, who died in 1771, d’Holbach was not only a frequent guest at the latter’s residence in the Château de Voré, (Collines des Perches, today Département Loir-et-Cher) or in the rue Sainte-Anne in Paris, but the two were also lifelong friends.[32] But also later he regularly took part in the salon life around Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius the widow of Helvetius. However, from the year 1772, the community moved to the n° 59 rue d’Auteuil and was since then also called society of Auteuil, société d’Auteuil or circle of Auteuil, cercle d ‘Auteuil.

D’Holbach was buried in the church of Saint-Roch (Paris).

D’Holbach, like Denis Diderot, found his final resting place in the church of Saint-Roch (Paris).

The d’Holbach family at Grand Val

Paul Thiry d’Holbach owned a country estate Le Château de Grand-Val at the mouth of the Marne[33] in Sucy-en-Brie, now N° 27 Rue du Grand-Val on the outskirts of Paris (Val-de-Marne department),[34] more precisely, it belonged to his mother-in-law, Mme Suzanne d’Aîne, née Westerberg (* 1706).[35] Among others, Denis Diderot, a friend of his, was often a guest here during the summer months.[36] Diderot lived on the first floor of the right wing. Here he often retreated.[37]

For a long time, “Father Hoop”, le père Hoop, a medical graduate from Scotland, lived[38] lived with the d’Holbach family on Grand Val.[39]

Activity as translator and encyclopedist

Diderot’s original text in the preface to volume 2 of the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers in which Holbach is introduced without being named

D’Holbach’s work can be roughly divided into three stages:

  • 1752-1760, his contributions to the Encyclopédie are in the foreground. He translated and edited more than 400 articles on scientific and technical subjects such as mineralogy, mining and chemistry. For example, he translated works by Johannes Kunckel on glass production and the two-volume work on mineralogy by Johan Gottschalk Wallerius. But also works of the chemists and metallurgists such as Antonio Neri, Christopher Merret, Johann Friedrich Henckel, Johann Christian Orschall[40] and Georg Ernst Stahl, to specify a few others, were translated by him into French.[41] But he also deals in parallel – from English and French sources – with intellectual and religious history. For example, writings of the English deist and philosopher Anthony Collins.[42]
  • 1760-1770 was the time of works critical of religion, all of which, because of the strict censorship in France, were published under pseudonyms in Holland, such as Das entschleierte Christentum, Le christianisme dévoilé (1761), Letters to Eugenie, Lettres à Eugénie, ou Préservatif contre les préjugés (1768), and The Spirit of Judaism, L’Esprit du judaïsme (1769).
  • 1770-1780 the third decade of his creative life was the phase of his major works: Versuch über die Vorurteile: Essai sur les préjugés, ou De l’influence des opinions sur les mœurs & le bonheur des hommes (17 70), System of Nature (1770), Système de la nature ou des loix du monde physique & du monde moral, Der gesunde Menschenverstand, Le Bon Sens (1772), Das Gesellschaftssystem, oder natürliche Grundsätze der Moral und der Politik, Politique Naturelle, ou Discours sur les vrais principes du Gouvernement (1773), Die universelle Moral, oder die Pflichten des Menschen, gegründet auf seiner Natur, La Morale Universelle, ou Les devoirs de l’homme fondés sur la Nature (1776).

Little is known about the circumstances under which d’Holbach met Denis Diderot, as much of the correspondence between the two is lost. Presumably, they were initially united by their common interest in music. Holbach’s work for the Encyclopédie began with its second volume in 1752, in the preface of which Diderot introduced his new collaborator – at Holbach’s express request without naming him. Despite occasional disagreements, Diderot and d’Holbach always remained on friendly terms.
For this and subsequent volumes, d’Holbach wrote 427 articles signed “-” and an unknown number of anonymous articles on mining, metallurgy, geology, chemistry, mineralogy, and glassmaking.[43] According to an inventory surveyed by John Lough, however, there were said to be more than 1100 articles.[44] There were not only the aforementioned subject areas, but also articles on German politics, history and law, as well as on religious history, myths, beliefs and superstitions.
D’Holbach owned an extensive library of more than 3000 volumes which were auctioned off after his death in 1790.[45]

In addition to his contributions to the Encyclopédie, d’Holbach wrote translations of scientific and technical works from German into French, including those by Johan Gottschalk Wallerius(Minéralogie, 1753), Johann Friedrich Henckel(Introduction à la minéralogie, 1756), Christlieb Ehregott Gellert(Chimie métallurgique, 1758), Johann Gottlob Lehmann(Traités de physique, 1759), and Georg Ernst Stahl(Traité du soufre, 1766). He is also said to have listened to and witnessed lectures and demonstrations by the chemist Guillaume-François Rouelle in the Jardin du Roi.[46]

The Lettre à une dame d’ un certain âge (1752) is considered the first independent publication generally attributed to d Holbach.[47] In a few pages he ironically describes the quarrel of two music lovers about the newly emerged Italian opera.

Holbach’s “Coterie”

The coterie holbachique (“Holbach’s clique”) had a special significance for the exchange of opinions in Holbach’s environment. The word referred to a group of people close to the Enlightenment who met regularly, on Thursdays and Sundays, for several decades during the second half of the 18th century, for dinners at Holbach’s house to freely discuss various topics. In 1759, he moved from the Rue Saint-Nicaise[48] in the 1er arrondissement de Paris to the Rue Royale Saint-Roch, also in the 1st arrondissement.
His residence, then located in the Rue Royale Saint-Roch, is now called Rue de Moulins, after the transformation of Paris by Georges-Eugène Haussmann.[49] Rue Saint-Honoré is in the immediate vicinity.

Although a group of people, the regular meetings could not be assigned to a fixed circle of participants, rather it was in every respect an open, fluctuating circle but even with regulars, hôte principal.[50] The topics of discussion in the evenings were equally open. Another advantageous feature of the meetings is said to have been the excellent cuisine and the well-stocked wine cellar.

The term, which originally had negative connotations, was introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who accused some of its members of conspiring against him and his reputation. Unlike Holbach’s salon, where changing guests frequented, the coterie consisted of a fixed core of people. For d’Holbach himself the meetings were simply chez moi, while his friend Denis Diderot spoke in his correspondence of chez le baron, but also of the Boulangerie, an allusion to d’Holbach’s pseudonym par feu M. Boulanger[51] under which he published Unveiled Christianity. David Hume, a regular visitor and friend of d’Holbach, called the participants les cheiks de la rue Royale.[52]

In genteel society it was considered impolite to argue hard on the merits; also, the piety of the women present was a taboo that was not to be violated. Holbach’s coterie was an unusual phenomenon in that it gave its members the opportunity to debate freely without regard to established conventions.

Besides Holbach himself, the following were members of the Coterie from 1750 to 1780, a selection: Denis Diderot[53], Claude Adrien Helvétius, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, Charles-Georges Le Roy, Jean-François Marmontel, Guillaume Thomas François Raynal, Augustin Roux, Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard (1732-1817). Three other men – François-Jean de Chastellux, André Morellet and Jacques-André Naigeon – attended the meetings only from 1760 to 1780.

The coterie was very often visited by guests. Abbé Galiani also a frequent visitor jokingly referred to the Baron as maître d’hôtel de la philosophie. Many foreign intellectuals, as well as numerous diplomats and ambassadors, took the opportunity to hold discussions at the Coterie during their stays in Paris, including David Hume, Laurence Sterne, John Wilkes, and Horace Walpole. Women were generally not welcome at the meetings. The tone prevailing at the Coterie surprised many guests, such as Samuel Romilly, who was shocked by Diderot’s openly expressed atheism. But the Coterie ‘s guests also included critics such as the apologist Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier, who had argued against several of Holbach’s works. Diderot wrote in 1765 that Holbach was once annoyed that 27 or 28 guests had come when he was only set for 20. Subsequently, guests seem to have required a formal invitation.[54]

Philosophical contributions

His philosophical work is clearly influenced by Baruch de Spinoza’s critique of the concept of God (compare Rationalism), Claude Adrien Helvétiu’s moral principle, Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s doctrine of materialism, and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac’s formulated sensualist epistemology.

Central points in the reflections of this radical enlightener are theses critical of religion and materialism. His endeavour was to enable human consciousness to gain access to real knowledge by pointing out the errors and blockages caused by metaphysics. Consequently, his criticism is directed at all kinds of religions and their claim to moral absoluteness. In place of an ethics revealed by a creed, he would like to see a form set that is oriented towards social utility and can be empirically verified.

D’Holbach developed a system of sensualist, monistic materialism.[55]

Jacques-André Naigeon regularly frequented the house of Baron d’Holbach, and as secretary he edited and redacted his texts, thus helping to clandestinely disseminate his writings. D’Holbach, however, was concerned for his safety, and so he never gave his own handwritten texts out of the house for printing. Naigeon’s brother, a victualler from Sedan, acted as copyist, writing Holbach’s manuscripts into the pure. Holbach’s writings were published anonymously or under the pseudonym feu Mirabaud.[56]

D’Holbach’s Thought World

D’Holbach views nature as a deterministic system. In this conception of nature, all implications of man derived from his will and desire should be discarded.
Nature knows no system of values or assumptions about what is just or unjust, good or evil. In nature there is an equivalence of all being. Everything arises out of necessity, and no being can act other than it actually does. Thus there is no evil in nature, therefore no evil, and consequently no guilt and no disorder.

People as part of nature are formed by the arrangement of atoms. Only these created the conditions which determined the nature of man and guided his destiny. If man now considers himself a free being, this is nothing but a dangerous self-deception and a spiritual weakness. Man in search of explanation forms assumptions about nature with a considerable amount of errors, illusions and false assumptions. One outgrowth is religions, which blinded and hindered everything. For d’Holbach, they are just superstition. People are unhappy because they do not recognize the essence of nature. Their conceptions are so massively affected by aberrations, illusions, superstitions, and prejudices, that it is only with the greatest difficulty that the individual succeeds in extricating himself from them. For a man so influenced would disregard the study and understanding of nature and run after phantoms, which would lead him away from the simple path to truth and knowledge like will-o’-the-wisps.

For d’Holbach, nature represents the “great whole” in which all phenomena are indispensably interwoven according to laws and thus accessible to human knowledge and ultimately technical use.[57]

Works critical of religion

Holbach and his second wife Charlotte Suzanne d’Aîne (watercolour by Louis Carmontelle, 1766)

After 1760, Holbach’s interests shifted increasingly to criticism of religion. In Le christianisme dévoilé (“Unveiled Christianity”), published clandestinely and pseudonymously, probably in 1766, he harshly condemns the moral and political influence of the Christian religion, which he rejects as absurd and conflictual. The manuscript was apparently entrusted, according to Antoine-Alexandre Barbier, to a good friend of d’Holbach’s, Jean-François de Saint-Lambert,[58] who had it printed by the publisher Le Clerc in Nancy. Through indiscretion, the publisher almost got the author of the book and its bearer into trouble.

The book won acclaim from Diderot and Frederick Melchior Grimm, but met with criticism from Voltaire, who, as a deist, disapproved of the work’s latent atheism. This was followed by La Contagion Sacrée, ou Histoire naturelle de la superstition (1768),[59] where he dealt with the natural history of superstition as a kind of plague. In addition to his own writings critical of religion, he translated a number of early 18th-century English authors and exponents of deism, such as those by Anthony Collins, John Toland, John Trenchard (1662-1723), and Thomas Woolston (1669-1731).[60]

Since writings critical of religion were usually published anonymously or under pseudonyms at this time, it is often difficult to determine the author. Thus the anticlerical work La contagion sacrée, published in 1768, is generally attributed to Holbach. Less clear, however, is his contribution to the Lettres à Eugénie and La Théologie portative, published in the same year, and to the Essai sur les préjugés and Histoire critique de Jésus-Christ, published in 1770. In addition, Holbach was active as a translator and editor of works critical of religion and historical works by other authors, including John Toland. He took a large part of those deistic writings with him from England, which he visited once in 1765.

Holbach’s Système de la nature caused a great stir in 1770, both among Enlightenment thinkers and their opponents. The pseudonymously published work – he published it under the name of the French philosopher Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, who died in 1760, for fear of political persecution – presents a mechanistic worldview in which nature acts on its own and all processes are deterministic.[61] The work explicitly promotes atheism, which it considers morally superior. The author argues against various proofs of God. Belief in higher beings, he argues, is due to ignorance, fear, and habit, and religiously based ethics should be replaced by a “rational” moral system. Thanks to the discretion of his comrades-in-arms, Holbach was always spared persecution by the French authorities, who took action against the authors of such writings. In the subsequent work Le bon sens, published in 1772, Holbach succinctly summarized the theses formulated in Système de la nature.[62]

All in all, one can trace a series of developments in d’Holbach’s texts and writings from an engagement with deism to atheism and finally to a materialistic view, which changes from a deistic critique of religion to a materialism critical of religion.

Political philosophy and ethics

In 1770 the “Essai sur les préjugés ou de l’influence des opinions sur les mœurs et sur le bonheur des hommes” was published in London anonymously with the initial Mr. D. M.[63] published. This essay on prejudices called for a general state school system as well as a union of the first and third estates under the aegis of philosophy.
It was Frederick II of Prussia who contradicted this work with an essay of his own, Examen de l’Essai sur les préjugés par le philosophe de Sans-Souci (1772 ). This refutation, published at Berlin by Voss, the king submitted to Voltaire on May 24, and to Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert on May 17, 1772, for their consideration.[64] Frederick rejected the claim, however, reflecting more on French conditions, that kings, for example, were the pillars of the church and superstition. He wrote to d’Alembert and Voltaire, among other things, the following lines:

“You wonder that there is a war in Europe of which I know nothing. Do you know that the philosophers, with their constant declamations against what they usually call robbers, have made me peaceable. The Empress of Russia may make war as much as she likes; she has obtained dispensation from Diderot, for handsome money, to let the Russians and Turks beat each other. I, who fear the philosophical censure, the encyclopedic excommunication, and do not wish to commit any crime of laesio philosophiae, keep quiet. And since no book has yet appeared in return for subsidies, I believe that I am permitted by civil and natural law to pay my ally the tax owed to him; and I stand quite in order against those teachers of the human race who arrogate to themselves the right to scourge princes, kings, and emperors who do not obey their regulations. – I have again recovered from the work: ‘Versuch über die Vorurtheile’, and send you some remarks which a friend of mine has made about it in solitude. I think the views of this recluse agree very often with your mode of thought, as well as with the moderation which you observe in all your writings.”

Frederick II.[65]

The reaction of the Prussian philosopher-king did not go unanswered; in 1774 Diderot wrote the Lettre de M. Denis Diderot sur l’Examen de l’Essai sur les préjugés.[66]

In his lesser-known later works, d’Holbach was predominantly concerned with moral and political issues. The writings Système social (1773), Politique naturelle (1773), Ethocratie (1776), and La Morale universelle (1776), whose authorship is not clear, advocate a moral system based on an analysis of human needs and behavior. He sharply criticized the abuse of power and called for reform of the political system. However, he warned against revolutionary upheavals and radical democracy that would plunge the state into chaos.

Visiting salons, Freemasonry

Like the other Enlightenment thinkers, Holbach attended salons such as that of Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius. Thus Madame Helvétius maintained the circle of Auteuil, cercle d’A uteuil or société d’Auteuil, an intellectual circle which she named after her salon at N° 59 rue d’Auteuil. Many of her guests were Freemasons and members of the Lodge of the Neuf Sœurs, but affiliation with the Freemasons was not mandatory. In addition to Paul Thiry d’Holbach, well-known guests of the circle were Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, Denis Diderot, Nicolas Chamfort, Mirabeau, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Constantin François Volney, Dominique Joseph Garat, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de l’Aulne and Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis. There is no proof that Paul Thiry d’Holbach received his light in the Lodge Neuf Sœurs.


Isaac de Pinto, who lived in The Hague, dealt factually with d’Holbach’s work in his Précis des arguments contre les matérialistes : avec de nouvelles réflexions sur la nature de nos connoissances, l’existence de dieu, l’immatérialité de l’ame (1775 ). The materialistic texts and thoughts of d’Holbach experienced an effective transfer – even if not in a unanimously approving manner – via reviews in the contemporary Enlightenment journals in Germany, for example by Albrecht von Haller in the Göttingische Gelehrten Anzeigen.[67]

Frederick II of Prussia, for instance, reproaches the author of the Système de la nature, unknown to him, for having left the path of human experience with his work on nature and God, morality and religion, and states and princes, and exchanged it for the labyrinth of systems philosophy.[68]

Goethe, too, had begun to read d’Holbach’s System of Nature in Strasbourg in 1771, but did not finish it and rejected its statements.[69]

Catalogue of works attributed to Holbach

  • Arrêt rendu à l’amphithéâtre de l’opéra. 1752 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier et al.; authorship disputed by Rudolf Besthorn
  • Lettre à une dame d’un certain âge sur l’état présent de l’opéra. 1752 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier et al.
  • Le christianisme dévoilé, ou Examen des principes et des effets de la religion chrétienne, 1766(?) (as “M. Boulanger”)
    Attribution by Barbier, Morellet et al; authorship acknowledged by Besthorn etal
  • La Contagion sacrée, ou Histoire naturelle de la superstition. 1768 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier; authorship acknowledged by Besthorn etal
  • Lettres à Eugénie, ou Préservatif contre les préjugés, 1768 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier contradictory (Holbach and Fréret); hesitant recognition of Holbach’s authorship by Besthorn
  • Théologie Portative, ou Dictionnaire abrégé de la religion chrétienne. 1768 (as “M. l’Abbé Bernier”)
    attribution by Barbier; Besthorn et al. assume a collective work with predominant participation of Holbach
  • Essai sur les préjugés, ou De l’influence des opinions sur les mœurs & le bonheur des hommes. 1770 (as “Mr. D. M.”)
    Attribution by Barbier; authorship unclear (cf. Vercruysse, 1768)
  • Système de la nature ou des loix du monde physique & du monde moral. 1770 (as “M. Mirabaud”)
    Attribution by Barbier, Morellet, et al; authorship acknowledged by Besthorn et al. German translation:
    • System of Nature., Volume 1 (PDF; 38.34 MB) and Volume 2 ( PDF; 42.39 MB), 1791.
  • Histoire critique de Jésus-Christ, ou Analyse raisonnée des évangiles. 1770 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier; Holbach’s share in the work unclear[70].
  • Tableau des Saints, ou Examen de l’esprit, de la conduite, des maximes & du mérite des personnages que le christiannisme révère & propose pour modèles, 1770 ( anonymous)
    Attributionby Barbier
  • Le Bon Sens du Curé Jean Meslier suivi de son testament. 1772 (anonymous)
    According to a 1772 edition by the author of Système de la nature;attribution by Barbier; authorship acknowledged by Besthorn et al
  • Politique Naturelle, ou Discours sur les vrais principes du Gouvernement. 1773 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier, Morellet etal.
  • Système Social, ou Principes naturels de la morale et de la Politique, avec un examen de l’influence du gouvernement sur les mœurs. 1773 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier et al.
  • Ethocratie, ou Le gouvernement fondé sur la morale. 1776 (anonymous)
    Attribution by Barbier et al.
  • La Morale Universelle, ou Les devoirs de l’homme fondés sur la Nature. 1776
    Attribution by Barbier et al.
  • Die gesunde Vernunft oder die übernatürlichen Begriffe im Widerspruche mit den natürlichen. 1788 (anonymous) Attribution by SUB Göttingen, online
  • Eléments de la morale universelle, ou Catéchisme de la Nature. 1790 (posthumously, as “feu M. le Baron d’Holbach”)
  • Holy Plague & Common Sense. La contagion sacrée, ou histoire naturelle de superstition (1768) & Le bon sens ou idées naturelles opposées aux idées surnaturelles (1772). Ed. Heiner Jestrabek, Freiheitsbaum edition Spinoza, Reutlingen 2016, ISBN 978-3-922589-62-4


  • Rudolf Besthorn: Textkritische Studien zum Werk Holbachs. Rütten & Loening, Berlin 1969.
  • Philipp Blom: Bad Philosophers: A Salon in Paris and the Forgotten Legacy of the Enlightenment. Hanser, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-23648-6.
  • François Theodore Claudon: Le baron d’Holbach. C. Allardin, Paris 1835(
  • Sabine Diezinger: Paris in German Travel Descriptions of the 18th Century (until 1789). In: Deutsches Historisches Institut in Paris Institut Historique Allemand de Paris (ed.): Francia – Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte. Volume 14. 1986. Jan Thorbecke Verlag, Sigmaringen 1987, pp. 263-330 (
  • Friedrich II: Examen de l’Essai sur les préjugés par le philosophe de Sans-Souci. Voss, Berlin 1772.
  • Hartmut Harthausen, Hans Mercker, Hans Schröter: Paul Thiry von Holbach: Philosoph der Aufklärung 1723-1789. Catalogue for the exhibition from 11. 6.-2. 7. 1989 at Hambach Castle on the occasion of the bicentenary of his death. Palatinate State Library, Speyer 1989.
  • Alan Charles Kors: D’Holbach’s Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1976, ISBN 0-691-05224-7.
  • Michael LeBuffe:Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d’Holbach. In: Edward N. Zalta (ed.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 6. September 2002; substantive revision 25 August 2010.
  • Katharina Lübbe: Nature and Polis. Die Idee einer “natürlichen Gesellschaft” bei den französischen Materialisten im Vorfeld der Revolution. Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden 1989, ISBN 3-515-05502-9.
  • Manfred Naumann: Holbach und das Materialismusproblem in der französischen Aufklärung. In: Werner Krauss, Hans Mayer (eds.): Grundpositionen der französischen Aufklärung. (= New Contributions to Literary Studies Volume 1). Berlin 1955, pp. 83-128.
  • Pierre Naville: D’Holbach et la philosophie scientifique au XVIIIe siècle. Gallimard, Paris 1967.
  • Peter Olson: The Hotel of the Philosophers.
  • Carl von Prantl: Holbach, Paul Heinrich Dietrich Freiherr von. In: General German Biography (ADB). Vol. 12, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1880, pp. 710-713.
  • Emanuel Rádl: Geschichte der Biologischen Theorien in der Neuzeit. Wilhelm Engelmann, Leipzig 1915, p. 183 f. (Reprint
  • Werner Raupp: Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d’. In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). Vol. 15, Bautz, Herzberg 1999, ISBN 3-88309-077-8, Sp. 716-726.
  • Hermann Sauter:Holbach, Paul T(h)iry von. In: New German Biography (NDB). Volume 9, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1972, ISBN 3-428-00190-7, pp. 510-512 (Digitalisat).
  • Richard Reschika: The Bible of Materialism – Paul Thiry d’Holbach’s ‘System of Nature’. In: Rebels of the Spirit. Sieben Profile, Arnshaugk Verlag, Neustadt an der Orla 2014, ISBN 978-3-944064-21-5, pp. 17-52.
  • Hermann Sauter, Erich Loos (eds.): Paul Thiry Baron d’Holbach: Die gesamte erhaltene Korrespondenz. (= Untersuchungen zur Sprach- und Literaturgeschichte der romanischen Völker XI). Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden 1986, ISSN 0083-4580
  • Virgil M. Topazio: D’Holbach’s Moral Philosophy. Its Backgrounds and Development. Institut et Musée Voltaire, Geneva 1956.
  • Virgil W. Topazio: D’Holbach, Man of Science. In: The Rice University Studies. Vol. 53, No. 4, 1967, pp. 63-68 ( PDF ).
  • Jeroom Vercruysse: Bibliographie descriptive des écrits du Baron d’Holbach. Minard, Paris 1971.
  • Hardy W. Wickwar: Baron d’Holbach; a prelude to the French Revolution. G. Allen & Unwin, London 1935 (Reprint: Kelley Publishers, New York 1968, OCLC 442426 )

Web links

Commons: Baron d’Holbach– Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Wikisource: Paul-Henri Thiry– Sources and full texts (french)

Individual references

  1. 8 December 1723 is the date of baptism according to the church register; the plaque on the birthplace gives it as the date of birth. In official and ecclesiastical documents, the family name is given as Tiry, Tirry, Thiry or Tyerry (Tierry is a French equivalent of “Dietrich”); from 1754 onwards, he always signed his name as Paul Thiry d’Holbach in papers of notarial character. Cf. Sauter, Loos: Paul Thiry Baron d’Holbach: Die gesamte erhaltene Korrespondenz. S. 7.
  2. The birthplace in Edesheim
  3. Parents genealogy
  4. The local history of Edesheim in the Palatinate(Memento of the Originals december 3, 2013 on the Internet Archive) Info:The archive linkwas inserted automatically and not yet checked. Please check original and archive link according to instructions and then remove this note.@1@2Template:Webachiv/IABot/ (retrieved December 2, 2013).
  5. Data from the Holbach Foundation(Memento of the Originals june 16, 2012 on the Internet Archive) Info:The archive linkwas automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check original and archive link according to instructions and then remove this notice.@1@2Template:Webachiv/IABot/
  6. Hermann Sauter: The Palatine Baron Paul Tiry von Holbach, a Central Figure of the French Enlightenment. Special edition of the Literary Society of the Palatinate for its members. 1972, S. 2–4.
  7. Max Pearson Cushing: Baron D’holbach A Study Of Eighteenth Century Radicalism. (Original 1886). Kessinger Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-4191-0895-6, p. 5. Genealogy Johannes Jacobus Holbach
  8. Hermann Sauter: The Palatine Baron Paul Tiry von Holbach, a Central Figure of the French Enlightenment. Special edition of the Literary Society of the Palatinate for its members. Landau 1972, pp. 3-4.
  9. Herbert Lüthy: Les Mississipiens de Steckborn et la fortune des barons d’Holbach. Swiss contributions to general history, Etudes suisses d’hist. gén. 13, 1955, S. 143–163.
  10. Hermann Sauter: The Palatine Baron Paul Tiry von Holbach, a Central Figure of the French Enlightenment. Special edition of the Literary Society of the Palatinate for its members. Landau 1972, p. 2.
  11. Jacqueline Hecht: Un problème de population active au XVIIIe siècle en France. La querelle de la noblesse commerçante. Population Année (1964) Volume 19 Numéro 2, pp. 267-290
  12. Official website of the Kasteel Heeze in Brabant
  13. Liber. The first book d’Holbach. Editorial notes online(Memento of Originals december 28, 2013 on the Internet Archive) Info:The archive linkwas automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check original and archive link according to instructions and then remove this note.@1@2Template:Webachiv/IABot/ (PDF; 462 kB).
  14. Philipp Blom: Bad Philosophers: A Salon in Paris and the Forgotten Legacy of the Enlightenment. Hanser, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-23648-6, pp. 63; 221. Stewart J. Brown; Timothy Tackett (eds.): Cambridge History of Christianity. Volume 7: Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660-1815. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006, ISBN 0-521-81605-X, pp. 277-280. Stephen Carruthers (Thesis) John Wilkes and the Enlightenment. Dublin Institute of Technology, 1 November 2001 online.
  15. David Holohan: Christianity unveiled by Baron d’Holbach. A controversy in documents. Hodgson Press, Kingston upon Thames 2008, ISBN 978-1-906164-04-1, p. 29.
  16. Mark Curran: Atheism, Religion and Enlightenment in Pre-Revolutionary Europe. Royal Historical Society Studies in History New 2012, ISBN 0-86193-316-8, p. 24
  17. Jeroom Vercruysse Holbach et les Pays-Bas. Vrije Universiteit Brussel, online.
  18. Entrance of the building at № 8 Rue Royale Saint Roch
  19. Biographical data in English
  20. Genealogy of d’Holbach’s parents and parents-in-law
  21. Pierre Naville: D’Holbach et la philosophie scientifique au XVIIIe siècle. Paris 1967, p. 32.
  22. Pierre-Édouard Lémontey: Mémoires de l’Abbé Morellet … Vol. 1, p. 127. Paris 1821 (Online at Google Books)
  23. Portrait of Charlotte Suzanne d’Holbach by Alexandre Roslin(Memento of the Originals november 5, 2013 on the Internet Archive) Info:The archive linkwas automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check original and archive link according to instructions and then remove this notice.@1@2Template:Webachiv/IABot/
  24. Genealogy Charlotte d’Aîne; Profile of Basile-Genevieve d’Aîne
  25. Emma C. Spary, Utopians Garden. French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution. University of Chicago Press, 2000; ISBN 0-226-76863-5; p. 31.
  26. François Lebrun Les intendants de Tours et d’Orléans aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. In: Annales de Bretagne Année. 1971, volume 78, number 78-2, pp. 301-302.
  27. Hermann Sauter: The Palatine Baron Paul Tiry von Holbach, a Central Figure of the French Enlightenment. Special edition of the Literary Society of the Palatinate for its members. 1972, S. 14.
  28. Max Pearson Cushing: Baron D’Holbach A Study Of Eighteenth Century Radicalism. (Original 1886). Kessinger Pub. Co, 2004; ISBN 1-4191-0895-6; p. 11.
  29. Catalogue des livres de la bibliothèque de feu M. le baron d’Holbach. (Éd. 1789). de Chardon, Paris, 1789, Reprint: Hachette livre. BnF, ISBN 978-2-01-263987-4.
  30. Philipp Blom: Bad Philosophers: A Salon in Paris and the Forgotten Legacy of the Enlightenment. Hanser, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-23648-6, pp. 212-215.
  31. Philipp Blom: Bad Philosophers: A Salon in Paris and the Forgotten Legacy of the Enlightenment. Hanser, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-23648-6, p. 225 ff.
  32. Max Pearson Cushing: Baron D’holbach A Study Of Eighteenth Century Radicalism. (Original 1886). Kessinger Publishing, Whitefish MT 2004, ISBN 1-4191-0895-6, p. 13.
  33. Photograph of the building destroyed in 1949
  34. Max Pearson Cushing: Baron D’holbach A Study Of Eighteenth Century Radicalism. Kessinger Pub., 2004, p. 11. pictures of the site and its history in French (Memento oftheOriginals january 3, 2012 on the Internet Archive) Info:The archive linkwas inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check original and archive link according to instructions and then remove this note.@1@2Template:Webachiv/IABot/
  35. Friedrich Melchior Grimm: Correspondance littéraire. Tome IV (1757) p. 271 online (PDF; 1.4 MB).
  36. Philipp Blom: Bad Philosophers: A Salon in Paris and the Forgotten Legacy of the Enlightenment. Hanser, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-23648-6, pp. 228-246.
  37. Remains of the Château du Grand-Val; Contemporary view
  38. Denis Diderot: Letters to Sophie Volland. Verlag Philipp Reclam jun., Leipzig 1986, ISBN 3-379-00001-9, pp. 91-92.
  39. L. Scott: The Foreign Quarterly Review. Vol. 11, Treuttel, Würtz, Richter, London 1833 p. 293.
  40. The metallurgical work written by Johann Christian Orschall, Ars Fusoria Fundamentalis Et Experimentalis. (1689) was translated by d’Holbach into the French edition Œuvres métallurgiques. Hardy, Paris 1760.
  41. Hermann Sauter:Holbach, Paul T(h)iry von. In: New German Biography (NDB). Vol. 9, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1972, ISBN 3-428-00190-7, pp. 510-512 (Digitalisat).
  42. Mladen Kozul: D’Holbach et les déistes anglais: la construction des ‘lumières radicales’ à la fin des années 1760. In Stefanie Stockhorst (ed.): Cultural Transfer through Translation. The Circulation of Enlightened Thought in Europe by Means of Translation. Rodopi, 2010, ISBN 978-90-420-2950-7, pp. 274-297.
  43. Vercruysse: Bibliographie descriptive des écrits du Baron d’Holbach. 1751.
  44. John Lough: Essays on the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. Oxford University Press, London 1968, pp. 111-129.
  45. Guillaume Debure: Catalogue des livres de la bibliotheque de feu M. le baron d’Holbach. Chez de Bure l’âiné, 1789.
  46. Mi Gyung Kim: Affinity, that elusive dream. A Genealogy of the Chemical Revolution. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge Massachusetts/ London England 2003, ISBN 0-262-11273-6, pp. 161-218. Elizabeth A. Williams: A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier (The History of Medicine in Context). Ashgate Publishing, Hants UK 2003, ISBN 0-7546-0881-6, p. 119 ff.
  47. Vercruysse, 1752.
  48. John Lough: Le baron d’Holbach. Quelques Documents inédits ou peu connus. In: Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France. 57e Année, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1957), pp. 524-543.
  49. Philipp Blom: Bad Philosophers. A salon in Paris and the forgotten legacy of the Enlightenment. Hanser, 2010, p. 13; 378.
  50. Emanuel Peter: Geselligkeiten: Literature, Group Formation and Cultural Change in the 18th Century. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1999, ISBN 3-484-18153-2, p. 126 ff.
  51. Adrian Room: Dictionary of Pseudonyms. NC: McFarland, Jefferson, 2010 ISBN 0-7864-4373-1, p. 71 (digital copy)
  52. Philipp Blom: Bad Philosophers: A Salon in Paris and the Forgotten Legacy of the Enlightenment. Hanser, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-446-23648-6, pp. 217-218.
  53. Charles Avezac-Lavigne: Diderot, Denis, 1713-1784. E. Leroux, Paris 1875 (PDF; 12.6 MB).
  54. Helmut Holzhey; Vilem Mudroch; Friedrich Ueberweg; Johannes Rohbeck: Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie: Die Philosophie des 18. Jahrhunderts. 2 sem. vols. Schwabe-Verlag, Basel 2008, ISBN 978-3-7965-2445-5.
  55. Lecture on epistemology (PDF; 606 kB). Lecture notes prepared by Gerhard Schurz. 1995, S. 48–49.
  56. @1@2Template:Dead link/ no longer available, search web archives: Biographical data of
  57. Helmut Holzhey, Vilem Mudroch, Friedrich Ueberweg, Johannes Rohbeck: Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie: Die Philosophie des 18. Jahrhunderts. 2 sem. vols. Schwabe-Verlag, Basel 2008, ISBN 978-3-7965-2445-5, p. 568.
  58. David Holohan: Christianity unveiled by Baron d’Holbach. A controversy in documents. Hodgson Press, Kingston upon Thames 2008, ISBN 978-1-906164-04-1, p. 463.
  59. La Contagion Sacrée, ou Histoire naturelle de la superstition. 1768. (PDF; 392 kB).
  60. Hermann Sauter: The Palatine Baron Paul Tiry von Holbach, a Central Figure of the French Enlightenment. Special edition of the Literary Society of the Palatinate for its members. 1972, S. 11.
  61. System of nature.
  62. Hpd. Representation of the first page, System of Nature, in the German translation of 1791
  63. Adrienne D. Hytier: Le philosophe et la despote : histoire d’une inimitié. In Otis Fellows (ed.): Diderot Studies VI. Librairie Droz, Gèneve 1964 p. 67.
  64. Pierre Lepape: Denis Diderot. A Biography. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1994, ISBN 3-593-35150-1, p. 378.
  65. Heinrich Merkens: Ausgewählte kriegswissenschaftliche Schriften Friedrichs des Großen. Hermann Costenoble, Jena 1876, II, pp. VII-VIII.
  66. Denis Diderot Lettre de M. Denis Diderot sur l’Examen de l’Essai sur les préjugés. 1774.
  67. Schmeisser, Martin: Baron d’Holbach in Germany. Reactions in German journals of the Enlightenment. In Christine Haug; Franziska Mayer; Winfried Schröder (eds.): Secret literature and secret book trade in 18th century Europe. Harrassowitz Wiesbaden 2011, pp. 85-108.
  68. Frederick II: Critique of the system of nature. In Friedrich Volz: The Works of Frederick the Great. (as note 24), vol. 7, pp. 258-269, precisely pp. 262 f.
  69. Gero von Wilpert: Goethe-Lexikon (= Kröners Taschenausgabe. Vol. 407). Kröner, Stuttgart 1998, ISBN 3-520-40701-9, p. 482.
  70. Andrew Hunwick (ed.): Histoire critique de Jésus Christ, ou, Analyse raisonnée des Evangiles (= Textes littéraires français 485). Droz, Geneva 1997.

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