When I came upon the baron d’Holbach in the early 1960s – my undergraduate senior thesis was on d’Holbach’s atheism and the response of Voltaire and others to the Système de la nature, a choice of subject that played a not insignificant role in my scholarly life – there were few secondary sources to guide me, and there were precious few of his works accessible from a university library. As a graduate student studying his salon, his atheism, and his relationships, the only passage to his writings required taking a paper number in the waiting room of the Bibliothèque Nationale, rue de Richelieu, praying for a siège to open up, and waiting patiently for tomes that might or might not be the right editions to be delivered to my desk. Where was this extraordinary digital resource when I most needed it?
The secondary works about d’Holbach still cited by scholars of the Enlightenment when I began my research had been written in 1875, 1914, 1928, 1935, 1943, 1946, and 1955. There was a near universal consensus that it would be in the coterie holbachique that I would find the major movement of organized atheism in the Enlightenment (there were indeed a handful of atheists there, but the vast majority of devotees of the salon were not), and, for most scholars, diversely conspiratorial efforts to bring down the Ancien Régime. As each of these operational hypotheses dissolved in the light of the evidence – to my great disappointment at the time – I understood that one must learn to read texts, archives, correspondence, and contemporaneous records without prepossessed ideas about d’Holbach or his world, however ‘settled’ the scholarship appeared to be. Too many historians, claiming d’Holbach for a particular ideological camp, cited and presented him selectively and tendentiously, leaving one wholly unprepared for and startled by the dimensions and aspects of his work that they did not address or explicate. This narrative extended to the coterie itself.
D’Holbach’s salon was not a collaborative conspiracy or undertaking, pace many a historian and literary historian. The recent release of the truly collaborative Tout d’Holbach database coupled with the Voltaire Foundation’s project to create a digital scholarly edition of d’Holbach’s works (Digital d’Holbach) will allow debates about d’Holbach’s meanings and intentions to engage a large number of scholars and students in a variety of fields, informed by the array of texts on religion, superstition, philosophy, ethics, politics, and happiness that he bequeathed to his contemporaries and to us. Claims about his scepticism or dogmatism, elitism or egalitarianism, pessimism or optimism, happiness as contentment or happiness as hedonistic pleasure, for example, now can receive truly critical reception based upon unfiltered access to his actual works. Those of us who wrote about these matters might well have hoped that readers and students would go beyond our own claims and citations, testing the value of these by setting what we explicated in the context of the larger text and intellectual context, but now that is possible on a whole new scale. It is an exciting opportunity, and it is not only à la portée de tous ceux qui s’y intéressent, but it will expand such interest sizably and noticeably.
– Alan Charles Kors
Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History, University of Pennsylvania