Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > Letters to Eugenia

Translator's Preface.

In 1819 an anonymous translation of the Letters To Eugenia was published in London by Richard Carlile. This translation in some of its parts was sufficiently complete and correct, but in others it was at absolute variance with the original work; in other parts, also, it was interlarded with matter not written by d'Holbach; and in others, large portions of the original Letters were entirely omitted, as were likewise a number of notes and the whole of the preliminary observations, with which the volume was introduced to the public by Naigeon, so long the intimate friend of both d'Holbach and Diderot. In again presenting the work in an English dress, the London translation has been made the foundation of this, but the whole has been thoroughly revised and collated with the original. The omitted portions have been translated and inserted in their proper places, and though some passages of the London work, not entirely faithful to the original, have been allowed to stand, yet the book, as it now appears, is essentially a new one, and is the most accurate and complete translation of the Letters to Eugenia which has ever been made into the English language.

The work at first came anonymously from the press, and the mystery of its authorship was sedulously maintained in the introductory observations of Naigeon, in consequence of the danger which then attended the issue of Infidel productions, not only in France but throughout Christendom. The book was printed in Amsterdam, at d'Holbach's own expense, by Marc-Michael Rey, a noble printer, to whom the world is greatly indebted for the inestimable aid he rendered the philosophers. But bold as he was, and then living in a country the most free of any in the world, he dared not openly send these Letters from his own press. They were issued in 1768, in two duodecimo volumes, without any publisher's name, and with the imprint of London on the title page, in order to set those persecutors at bay who were prowling for victims, and who sought to burn author, printer, and book at the same pile. The prudence of the author and printer saved them from this fate; but the book had hardly reached France before its sale was forbidden under penalty of fines and imprisonment, and it was condemned by an act of Parliament to be burnt by the public executioner in the streets of Paris, all of which particulars will be narrated in the Biographical Memoir of Baron d'Holbach, which I am now preparing for the press.[*]

Of the excellence of the Letters to Eugenia, nothing need here be said. The work speaks for itself, and abounds in that eloquence peculiar to its author, and overflows with kindly sentiments of humanity, benevolence and virtue. Like d'Holbach's other works, it is distinguished by an ardent love of liberty, and an invincible hatred of despotism; by an unanswerable logic, by deep thought, and by profound ideas. The tyrant and the priest are both displayed in their true colors; but while the author shows himself inexorable as fate towards oppressive hierarchies and false ideas, he is tender as an infant to the unfortunate, to those overburdened with unreasonable impositions, to those who need consolation and guidance, and to those searching after truth. Addressed, as the Letters were, to a lady suffering from religious falsehoods and terrors, the object of the writer is set forth in the motto from Lucretius which he placed on the title page, and which may thus be expressed in English:—

"Reason's pure light I seek to give the mind,
And from Religion's fetters free mankind."

The name of the lady was designedly kept in secrecy, and was unknown, except to a very few, till some years after d'Holbach's death. We now know from the Feuilles Posthumes of Lequinio, who had it from Naigeon, that the Letters were written several years before their publication, for the instruction of a lady formerly distinguished at the French Court for her graces and virtues. They were addressed to the charming Marguerite, Marchioness de Vermandois. Her husband held the lucrative post of farmer-general to the king, and besides inherited large estates. He possessed excellent natural abilities, and his mind was strengthened and adorned by culture and letters. Had his modesty permitted him to appear as such, he would now be known as a poet of genius and merit, for he wrote some poems and plays that were much admired by all who were allowed to peruse them. He was married in 1763, on the day he completed his twenty-first year, to Marguerite Justine d'Estrades, then only nineteen years of age, and whom he saw for the first time in his life only six weeks before they became husband and wife. Like most of the matches then made among the higher classes in France, this was one of a purely mercenary character. The father of the Marquis de Vermandois, and the father of Marguerite, as a means of joining their estates, contracted their children without deigning to consult the wishes of the parties, and obedience or disinheritance was the only alternative. When the compact was concluded, Marguerite was taken from the convent where for five years she had lived as a boarder and scholar, and commenced her married life and her course in the fashionable world at the same time. The match was far more fortunate than such matches then generally proved to be. Marguerite's husband was passionately attached to her, and that attachment was returned. The Marquis was a friend of Baron d'Holbach, and soon after his marriage introduced his wife to him. Among all the beauties of Paris the Marchioness was one of the most lovely and fascinating. Her features were remarkably beautiful, and the bloom and clearness of her complexion were such as absolutely to render necessary the old comparison of the rose and the lily to do them justice. To these were added a voluptuous figure, agreeable manners, the graces and vivacity of wit, and the still more enduring attractions of good humor, purity, and benevolence. A female like her could not but be dear to all who enjoyed her intimacy, and a strong friendship sprang up between her and Baron d'Holbach. Greatly pleased with him at first, Marguerite was afterwards as greatly shocked. When their intercourse had become so familiar as to permit that frankness and freedom of conversation which prevails among intimate friends, she discovered that the Baron was an unbeliever in the Christian dogmas which she had learned at the convent, where, in consequence of her mother's death, she had been educated. She had been taught that an Infidel was a monster in all respects, and she was astounded to find unbelievers in men so agreeable in manners and person, and so profound in learning, as d'Holbach, Diderot, d'Alembert, and others. She could deny neither their goodness nor their intellectual qualities, and while she admired the individuals she shuddered at their incredulity. Especially did she mourn over Baron d'Holbach. He had a wife as charming as herself, formerly the lovely Mademoiselle d'Aïne, whose beautiful features and seductive figure presented

"A combination, and a form, indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal."

Nothing was more natural than that two such women should imbibe the deepest tenderness for each other. But alas! the Baron's wife was tainted with her husband's heresies; and yet in their home did the Marchioness see all the domestic virtues exemplified, and beheld that sweet harmony and unchangeable affection for which the d'Holbachs were eminently distinguished among their acquaintances, and which was remarkable from its striking contrast with the courtly and Christian habits of the day. At a loss what to do, the Marchioness consulted her confessor, and was advised to withdraw entirely from the society of the Baron and his wife, unless she was willing to sacrifice all her hopes of heaven, and to plunge headlong down to hell. Her natural good sense and love of her friends struggled with her monastic education and reverence for the priests. The conflict rendered her miserable; and unable to enjoy happiness, she brooded over her wishes and her terrors. In this state of mind she at length wrote a touching letter to the Baron, and laid open her situation, requesting him to comfort, console, and enlighten her. Such was the origin of the book now presented in an English dress to the reader. It accomplished its purpose with the Marchioness de Vermandois, and afterwards its author concluded to publish the work, in hopes it might be equally useful to others.

The Letters were written in 1764, when d'Holbach was in the forty-second year of his age. Twelve different works he had before written and published, and all without the affix of his name. Eleven were upon mineralogy, the arts and the sciences, and one only upon theology. That one had been secretly printed in 1761, at Nancy, with the imprint of London, and was honored with a parliamentary statute condemning its publication and forbidding its sale or circulation. Christian hatred bestowed upon it the additional honor of causing it to be burned in the streets of Paris by the public executioner. But the prudence of the author protected his life. He attributed the book to a dead man, who had been known to entertain sceptical views. It was entitled Christianity Unveiled, and bore on its title page the name of Boulanger. This was d'Holbach's first contribution to Infidel literature, and the second similar work written by him was the Letters to Eugenia. These were the preludes to more than a quarter of a hundred different productions numbering among them such books as Good Sense, The System of Nature, Ecce Homo, Priests Unmasked, &c., &c., all printed anonymously or pseudonymously at his own expense, without a possibility of pecuniary advantage, and with such extraordinary secrecy as to show that he was actuated by no desire of literary fame. It was love of truth alone that impelled d'Holbach to write. Brilliant, profound, eloquent and excellent as were his writings, attracting notice as they did from the civil and religious powers, commented upon as they were by such men as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, admired as they were by that class who felt and combated the evils of tyranny as well as of religion, of kings as well as of priests,—that class who almost drew their life from the books of him and his compeers,—he was never seduced from the rule he originally laid down for his literary conduct.

A very few persons he was obliged to trust in order to get his writings printed, and but for that fact Baron d'Holbach would now only be known as a gentleman of great wealth, extensive benevolence, and uncommon liberality, as a man of profound learning and agreeable colloquial powers, as the bountiful friend of men of letters, as the soother of the distressed, as the protector of the miserable, and as the affectionate husband and father. So much of him we should have known; but that he was the author of those books which roused intolerant priests and corrupt magistrates, consistories and parliaments, monarchs and philosophers, the people and their oppressors,—that he was the Archimedes that thus moved the world,—would not have been known had he not employed another philosopher, by the name of Naigeon, to carry his manuscripts to Amsterdam, and to direct their printing by Marc-Michel Rey. It was Naigeon who carried the manuscript of the Letters to Eugenia to Holland, together with a number of others by the same author, which also appeared during the year 1768,—an eventful year in the history of Infidel progress. The Letters were carefully revised by d'Holbach before they were sent to press. All the passages of a purely personal character were omitted, some new matter was incorporated, and some sentences were added purposely to keep the author and the lady he addressed in impenetrable obscurity. To raise the veil from a man of so much worth and genius, as well as to carry out his idea of doing good, is one of the reasons which have led to the present preparation and publication of this book.

A. C. M.

* [Webmaster's note: this projected biography was apparently never published.]

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