Baron d'Holbach
Good Sense

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Hanover Historical Texts Project.

The Author's Preface

WHEN we coolly examine the opinions of men, we are surprised to find, that even in those opinion, which they regard as the most essential, nothing is more uncommon than common sense; or, in other words, nothing is more uncommon, than a degree of judgment sufficient to discover the most simple truths, or reject the most striking absurdities, and to be shocked with palpable contradictions. We have an example of it in Theology; a science revered in all times and countries, by the greatest number of men; an object regarded by them the most important, the most useful, and the most indispensable to the happiness of society. An examination, however slight, of the principles upon which this pretended science is founded, forces us to acknowledge, that these principles, formerly judged incontestable, are only hazardous suppositions, imagined by ignorance, propagated by enthusiasm or knavery, adopted by timid credulity, preserved by custom which never reasons, and revered solely because not understood. "Some," says Montaigne,* " make the world think, that they believe what they do not; others, in greater number, make themselves think, that they believe what they do not, not knowing what belief is." (Essays, B. 2, ch 12.) In a word, whoever will deign to consult common sense upon religious opinions, and will bestow on this inquiry the attention that is commonly given to any objects we presume interesting will easily perceive that those opinions have no foundation; that:religion is a mere castle in the air. Theology is but the ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system; a long tissue of fallacies and contradictions. In every country, it presents us with romances void of probability, the hero of which is himself composed of qualities impossible to combine. His name, exciting in all hearts respect and fear, is only a vague word, which men have continually in their mouths, without being able to affix to it ideas or qualities, which are not contradicted by facts, or evidently inconsistent with one another.

Our notions of this being (of whom we have no idea,) or rather the word by which he is designated, would be a matter of indifference, if it did not cause innumerable ravages in the world. Pre-possessed with the opinion that this phantom is a reality of the greatest interest to them, men, instead of concluding wisely from its incomprehensibility, that they are not bound to regard it, infer on the contrary, that they cannot sufficiently meditate upon it, that they must contemplate it, and reason upon it, without ceasing, and never lose sight of it. Their invincible ignorance, upon this subject, far from discouraging them, irritates their curiosity; instead of putting them upon guard against their imagination, this ignorance renders them decisive, dogmatical, imperious, and even exasperates them against all who oppose doubts to the reveries which their brains have begotten.

What perplexity arises, when it is required to solve an insolvable problem! Unceasing meditation upon an object, impossible to understand, but in which however he thinks himself much concerned, cannot but excite man to be ill-humored, and produce a fever in his brain. Let interest, vanity and ambition, co-operate ever so little with this unfortunate turn of mind, and society must necessarily be disturbed. This is the reason that so many nations have often been the scene of the extravagances of senseless visionaries, who, believing their empty speculations to be eternal truths, and publishing them as such, have kindled the zeal of princes and their subjects, and made them take up arms for opinions, represented to diem as essential to the glory of the Deity, and to the happiness of empires. In all parts of our globe, fanatics have cut other's throats, publicly burnt each other, committed without a scruple and even as a duty, the greatest crimes, and shed torrents of blood. For what t To strengthen, support, or propagate the impertinent conjectures of some enthusiasts, or to give validity to the cheats of some impostors, in the name and behalf of a being, who exists only in their imagination, and who has made himself known only by the ravages, disputes and follies he has caused upon the earth.

Savage and furious nations, perpetually at war, adore, under divers names, some God, conformable to their ideas, that is to say, cruel, carnivorous, selfish, blood-thirsty. We find, in all the religious of the earth, "a God of armies," a "jealous God," an "avenging God," a "destroying God," a "God" who is pleased with carnage, and whom his worshippers consider it as a duty to serve to his taste. Lambs, bulls, children, men, heretics, infidels, king; whole nations are sacrificed to him. Do not the zealous servants of this barbarous God think themselves obliged even to offer up themselves as a sacrifice to him ? Madmen may every-where be seen, who, after meditating upon their terrible God, imagine that to please him they must do themselves all possible injury, and inflict on themselves, for his honor, the most exquisite torments. The gloomy ideas more usually formed of the Deity, far from consoling them under the evils of life, have everywhere disquieted their minds, and produced follies destructive to their happiness.

How could the human mind make any considerable progress, while tormented with frightful phantoms, and guided by men, interested in perpetuating its ignorance and fears? Man has been forced to vegetate in his primitive stupidity; he has been taught nothing but stories about invisible powers upon whom his happiness was supposed to depend. Occupied solely by his fears, and by unintelligible reveries, he has always been at the mercy of his priests, who have reserved to themselves the right of thinking for him, and directing his actions. Thus man has remained a child without experience, a slave without courage, fearing to reason, and unable to extricate himself from the labyrinth, in which ho has so long been wandering. He believes himself forced to bend under the yoke of his gods, known to him only by tine fabulous accounts given by his ministers, who, after binding each unhappy mortal in the chains of prejudice, remain his masters, or else abandon him defenceless to the absolute power of tyrants, 110 less terrible than the gods, of whom they are the representatives upon earth.

Oppressed by the double yoke of spiritual and temporal power, it has been impossible for the people to know and pursue their happiness. As Religion, so Politics and Morality became sacred things, which the profane were not permitted to handle. Men have had no other Morality than what their legislators and priests brought down from the unknown regions of heaven. The human mind, confused by its theological opinions, ceased to know its own powers, mistrusted experience, feared truth and disdained reason, in order to follow authority. Man has been a mere machine in the hands of tyrants and priests, who alone have had the right of directing his, actions. Always treated as a slave, he has contracted the vices of a slave.

Such are the true causes of the corruption of morals, to which Religion opposes only ideal and ineffectual barriers. Ignorance servitude are calculated to make men wicked and unhappy. Knowledge, Reason, and Liberty, can alone reform them, and make them happier. But everything conspires to blind them, and to confirm them in their errors. Priests cheat them, tyrants corrupt, the better to enslave them. Tyranny ever was, and ever will be, the true cause of mail's depravity, and also of his habitual calamities. Almost always fascinated by religious fiction, poor mortals turn not their eyes to the natural and obvious causes of their misery; but attribute their vices to the imperfection of their natures, and their unhappiness to the anger of the gods. T hey offer up to heaven vows sacrifices and presents, to obtain the end of their sufferings, which in reality, are attributable only to the negligence ,ignorance, and perversity of their guides, to the folly of their customs, to the unreasonableness of their laws, and above all, to the general want of knowledge. Let men's minds be filledwith true ideas; let their reason be cultivated; let justice govern them; and there will be no need of opposing to the passions, such a feeble barrier, as the fear of the gods. Men will be good, when they are well instructed, well governed, and when they are punished or despised for the evil, and justly rewarded for the good, which they do to their fellow citizens.

In vain should we attempt to cure men of their vices, unless we begin by curing them of their prejudices. It is only by showing them the truth) that they will perceive their true interests, and the real motives that ought to incline them to do good. Instructors have long enough fixed men's eyes upon heaven; let them now turn them upon earth. An incomprehensible theology, ridiculous fables, impenetrable mysteries, puerile ceremonies, are too fatiguing to be any longer endured. Let the human mind apply itself to what is natural, to intelligible objects, sensible truths, and useful knowledge. Let vain chimeras be banished , and reasonable opinions will of their own accord enter into heads, thought to be destined to perpetual error. Does it not suffice to annihilate or shake religious prejudice, to show, that what is inconceivable to man, cannot be made for him? Does it require anything, but plain common sense, to perceive, that a being incompatible with the most evident notions----that a cause continually opposed to the effects which we attribute to it-that a being, of whom we can say nothing, without falling into contradiction-that a being, who, far from explaining the enigmas of the universe, only makes them more inexplicable-that a being whom for so many ages men have so vainly addressed to obtain their happiness, and the end of their sufferings-does it require, I say, anything but plain, common sense, to perceive-that the idea of such a being is an idea without model , and that he himself is merely a phantom of the imagination ? Is any thing necessary but common sense to perceive, at least , that it is folly and madness for men to hate and torment one another about unintelligible opinions concerning a being of this kind ? In short, does not every thing prove, that Morality and Virtue are totally incompatible with the notions of a God , whom his ministers and interpreters have described, in every country, as the most capricious, unjust, and cruel of tyrants, whose pretended will, however, must serve as law and rule to the inhabitants of the earth ?

To discover the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or of gods. They have need only of common sense. They have only to commune with themselves, to reflect upon their own nature, to consult their visible interests, to consider the objects of society, and of the individuals who compose it; and they will easily perceive, that virtue is advantageous, and vice disadvantageous to such beings as themselves. Let us persuade men to be just, beneficent, moderate, sociable; not because such conduct is demanded by the gods, but, because it is pleasure to men. Let us advise them to abstain from vice and crime; not because they will be punished in the other world , but because they will suffer for it in this.-There are, says a great man,* means to prevent crimes, and these means are punishments; there are means to reform manners, and these means are good examples. Truth is simple; error is complex. uncertain and circuitous. The voice of nature is intelligible; that of falsehood is ambiguous, enigmatical, mysterious. The way of truth is straight; that of imposture is crooked and dark. Truth, forever necessary to man, must necessarily be felt by all upright minds; the lessons of reason are formed to be followed by all honest men. Men are unhappy, only because they are ignorant; they are ignorant, only because everything conspires to prevent their being enlightened; they are wicked, only because their reason is not sufficiently developed.

By what fatality then , have the first founders of all sects given to their gods ferocious characters, at which nature revolts ? Can we imagine a conduct more abominable, than that which Moses tells us his God showed towards the Egyptians, where that assassin proceeds boldly to declare, in the name and by the order of his God, that Egypt shall be afflicted with the greatest calamities that can happen to man ? Of all the different ideas, which they wish to give us of a supreme being, of a God, creator and preserver of mankind, there are none more horrible, than those of the impostor, who represented themselves as inspired by a divine spirit.

Why, O theologians! do you presume to inquire into the impenetrable mysteries of a great being, whom you consider inconceivable to the human mind ? You are the first blasphemers, when you imagine that a being, perfect according to you, could guilty of such cruelty towards creatures whom he has made of nothing. Confess, with us, your ignorance of a creating God; and forbear, in your turn, to meddle with mysteries, which seems unworthy of knowing.

Return to the syllabus.
Return to the History Department.