The System of Nature

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Opening page of The System of Nature.

The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World (Système de la Nature ou Des Loix du Monde Physique et du Monde Moral) is a work of philosophy by Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789). It was originally published under the name of Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, a deceased member of the French Academy of Science. D'Holbach wrote and published this book – possibly with the assistance of Diderot[1] but with the support of Jacques-André Naigeon – anonymously in 1770, describing the universe in terms of the principles of philosophical materialism: The mind is identified with brain, there is no "soul" without a living body, the world is governed by strict deterministic laws, free will is an illusion,[2] there are no final causes, and whatever happens takes place because it inexorably must. Most notoriously, the work explicitly denies the existence of God, arguing that belief in a higher being is the product of fear, lack of understanding, and anthropomorphism.

Though not a scientist himself, d'Holbach was scientifically literate and he tried to develop his philosophy in accordance with the known facts of nature and the scientific knowledge of the day, citing, for example, the experiments of John Needham as proof that life could develop autonomously without the intervention of a deity. It makes a critical distinction between mythology as a more or less benign way of bringing law ordered thought on society, nature and their powers to the masses and theology. Theology which, when it separates from mythology raises the power of nature above nature itself and thus alienates the two (i.e. "nature", all that actually exists, from its power, now personified in a being outside nature), is by contrast a pernicious force in human affairs without parallel.[3]

The book was considered extremely radical in its day and the list of people writing refutations of the work was long. The prominent Catholic theologian Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier wrote a refutation titled Examen du matérialisme ("Materialism examined"). Voltaire, too, seized his pen to refute the philosophy of the Système in the article "Dieu" in his Dictionnaire philosophique, while Frederick the Great also drew up an answer to it. Its principles are summed up in a more popular form in d'Holbach's Bon Sens, ou idées naturelles opposees aux idées surnaturelles.[4]


Première Partie // First Part
Chapter 1 De la nature Nature and her Laws.
Chapter 2 Du mouvement et de son origine. Of Motion, and its Origin.
Chapter 3 De la matière, de ses combinaisons différentes et de ses mouvements divers ; ou de la marche de la nature. Of Matter.—Of its various Combinations.—Of its diversified Motion, or of the Course of Nature.
Chapter 4 Des lois du mouvement communes à tous les êtres de la nature. De l’attraction et de la répulsion. De la force d’inertie. De la nécessité. Laws of Motion, common to every Being of Nature.—Attraction and Repulsion.—Inert Force.—Necessity.
Chapter 5 De l’ordre et du désordre, de l’intelligence, du hasard. Order and Confusion.—Intelligence.—Chance.
Chapter 6 De l’homme ; de sa distinction en homme physique et en homme moral ; de son origine. Moral and Physical Distinctions of Man.—His Origin.
Chapter 7 De l’âme et du système de la spiritualité. The Soul and the Spiritual System.
Chapter 8 Des facultés intellectuelles ; toutes sont dérivées de la faculté de sentir. The Intellectual Faculties derived from the Faculty of Feeling.
Chapter 9 De la diversité des facultés intellectuelles ; elles dépendent de causes physiques ainsi que leurs qualités morales. Principes naturels de la sociabilité, de la morale et de la politique. The Diversity of the Intellectual Faculties: they depend on Physical Causes, as do their Moral Qualities.—The Natural Principles of Society.—Morals.—Politics.
Chapter 10 Notre âme ne tire point ses idées d’elle-même. Il n’y a point d’idées innées. The Soul does not derive its ideas from itself—It has no innate Ideas.
Chapter 11 Du système de la liberté de l’homme. A morale chrétienne. Of the System of Man's free agency.
Chapter 12 Examen de l’opinion qui prétend que le système du fatalisme est dangereux. An examination of the Opinion which pretends that the System of Fatalism is dangerous.
Chapter 13 De l’immortalité de l’âme ; du dogme de la vie future ; des craintes de la mort. Of the Immortality of the Soul;—of the Doctrine of a future State;—of the Fear of Death.
Chapter 14 L’éducation, la morale et les lois suffisent pour contenir les hommes. Du désir de l’immortalité ; du suicide. Education, Morals, and the Laws suffice to restrain Man.—Of the desire of Immortality.—Of Suicide.
Chapter 15 Des intérêts des hommes ou des idées qu’ils se font du bonheur. L’homme ne peut être heureux sans la vertu. Of Man's true Interest, or of the Ideas he forms to himself of Happiness.—Man cannot be happy without Virtue.
Chapter 16 Les erreurs des hommes sur ce qui constitue le bonheur sont la vraie source de leurs maux. Des remèdes qu’on leur a voulu appliquer. The Errors of Man,—upon what constitutes Happiness.—the true Source of his Evil.—Remedies that may be applied.
Chapter 17 Des idées vraies ou fondées sur la nature sont les seuls remèdes aux maux des hommes. Récapitulation de cette première partie. Conclusion. Those Ideas which are true, or founded upon Nature, are the only Remedies for the Evils of Man.—Recapitulation.—Conclusion of the first Part.
Deuxième Partie // Second Part
Chapter 1 Origine de nos idées sur la divinité The Origin of Man's Ideas upon the Divinity..
Chapter 2 De la mythologie et de la théologie. Of Mythology, and Theology.
Chapter 3 Idées confuses et contradictoires de la théologie. Of the confused and contradictory Ideas of Theology.
Chapter 4 Examen des preuves de l’existence de Dieu, données par Clarke. Examination of the Proofs of the Existence of the Divinity, as given by Clarke.
Chapter 5 Examen des preuves de l’existence de Dieu données par Descartes, Malebranche, Newton, etc. Examination of the Proofs offered by Descartes, Malebranche, Newton & etc..
Chapter 6 Du panthéisme ou idées naturelles de la divinité. Of Pantheism; or of the Natural Ideas of the Divinity.
Chapter 7 Du théisme ou déisme, du système de l’optimisme et des causes finales. Of Theism.—Of the System of Optimism.—Of final Causes.
Chapter 8 Examen des avantages qui résultent pour les hommes de leurs notions sur la divinité, ou de leur influence sur la morale, sur la politique, sur les sciences, sur le bonheur des nations et des individus. Examination of the Advantages which result from Man's Notions on the Divinity.—Of their Influence upon Mortals;—upon Politics;—upon Science;—upon the Happiness of Nations, and that of Individuals.
Chapter 9 Les notions théologiques ne peuvent point être la base de la morale. Parallèle de la morale théologique et de la morale naturelle. La théologie nuit aux progrès de l’esprit humain. Theological Notions cannot be the Basis of Morality.—Comparison between Theological Ethics and Natural Morality.—Theology prejudicial to the human Mind.
Chapter 10 Que les hommes ne peuvent rien conclure des idées qu’on leur donne de la divinité de l’inconséquence et de l’inutilité de leur conduite à son égard. Man can form no Conclusion from the Ideas which are offered him of the

Divinity.—Of their want of just Inference.—Of the Inutility of his Conduct.

Chapter 11 Apologie des sentiments contenus dans cet ouvrage. De l’impiété. Existe-t-il des athées ? Defence of the Sentiments contained in this Work.—Of Impiety.—Do there exist


Chapter 12 L’athéisme est-il compatible avec la morale ? Is what is termed Atheism compatible with Morality?
Chapter 13 Des motifs qui portent à l’athéisme ce système peut-il être dangereux ? Peut-il être embrassé par le vulgaire ? Of the motives which lead to what is falsely called Atheism.—Can this System be dangerous?—Can it be embraced by the Illiterate?
Chapter 14 Abrégé du code de la nature. A Summary of the Code of Nature.


  1. ^ See Virgil V. Topazio, "Diderot's Supposed Contribution to D'Holbach's Works", in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, LXIX, 1, 1954, pp. 173-188.
  2. ^ System of Nature Vol. 1, Chap XI "Of the System of Man's free agency": "In despite of the gratuitous ideas which man has formed to himself on his pretended free-agency; in defiance of the illusions of this suppose intimate sense, which, contrary to his experience, persuades him that he is master of his will, -- all his institutions are really founded upon necessity: on this, as on a variety of other occasions, practice throws aside speculation."
  3. ^ System of Nature, Ch. I. Essentially a condensed form of what is also stated by Robert Richardson's preface which he condenses from his translation of Ch. I.
  4. ^ Open Library (pdf in French). Amsterdam, 1772

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