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A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment [Hardcover]

Philipp Blom


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Book Description

Nov. 2 2010
The acclaimed author of The Vertigo Years tells the remarkable story of the Parisian salon that brought together the greatest minds of the 18th century - Rousseau, Hume, Diderot, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin - and changed the world forever.

The Paris salon of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach - where friendship and radical philosophy flourished throughout the 1760s - stands as a seminal event in Western history. Over wine-soaked dinner parties, the finest minds of the Western world matched wits and scandalized one another with their radical ideas. Holbach's house became an epicenter of free thinking, a place like no other in repressive eighteenth-century Europe, frequented by men and women united by their love of intellectual freedom, their contempt for the conventional, and often the danger of persecution. It was a moment of astonishing radicalism in European thought, so uncompromising and bold that its vision has still not been fully realized.

In A Wicked Company, acclaimed historian Philipp Blom describes the fortunes of this group of friends: writers of genius all, full of wit and courage, but also personal contradictions, doubts, conflicts of conscience, and their fair share of arguments and love affairs. Their bracing, liberating, humanist vision bursts free of the page in Blom's telling, and their analysis of our culture remains as valid as it was then. A startlingly relevant work of narrative history, Wicked Company forces us to confront with new eyes modern debates about our society and its future.

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Review

"A perceptive, readable portrayal of a seminal coterie in the history of ideas." 
Booklist

"Hugely enjoyable. . . . To make philosophy accessible is the mark of a good writer; to make it exciting is the mark of a great one." 
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)


From the Trade Paperback edition.

About the Author

Philipp Blom is a writer, editor, literary translator, broadcaster, and journalist. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University. He is the author of several books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Vertigo Years, Encyclopédie, and To Have and to Hold. He frequently contributes articles to the Financial Times, the Independent, and the Guardian, among others.

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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing read--4  stars Jan. 3 2011
By Buzz Advert - Published on Amazon.com
I loved this book and found it difficult to put down. It gains strength as it goes on. In the initial chapters I wasn't always enthralled as I acquired the book hoping to discover more about the history and philosophy and science of the Enlightenment and found certain chapters emphasizing personalities and biography too much (thought this was certainly not the fault of the book's description, which correctly represents itself as concerned with the personalities and lives of the key characters). Incidentally, the book goes very very little into Enlightenment science, but again that's not its purpose. There are parts of the book that go overboard on the soap opera, but this isn't a fault of Blom's; it's simply telling the story of Hollbach's salon and the personal relations of those attached to it. Again, it's simply something I wanted less of due to my own interests--though I must admit I got more interested in the personal aspects as I went along, due to Blom's fetching narrative of fascinating personalities. Therefore, for my proclivities, the strongest early chapters are those on Hume, Descartes and Spinoza. Throughout this wide-ranging and well-researched book, the author does a superb job of distilling the important ideas of the figures' beliefs and philosophies. He does so in an exemplary and clear manner without dumbing things down. Witness the great chapter on Rousseau (Chpt. 12, "The Bear").

In the early chapters I felt that Blom was riding his atheistic hobby horse too much and neglecting other key aspects of the salon regulars. However, this judgment turned out to be premature and wrong as the book eventually takes on many other matters. Simply put, these radical Enlightenment thinkers rejected God and that is the ground-clearing on which their ideas were raised; as such, Blom sensibly emphasizes this negation and then changes the emphasis to their more constructive beliefs (though often returning to their atheism, as it was vital to them, particularly given their environment). In the last half of the book, Diderot emerges as the protagonist, and this is welcome merely because he is so worthy of attention. He is a fascinating Enlightenment thinker and precursor of Modernism, and I agree with Blom that his legacy was suppressed and ignored at the West's peril. Blom persuasively argues that the legacy of the Enlightenment would have been more humane, life-affirming, and complex and less perverse had the radicals carried the day. Regrettably, Voltaire and Rousseau (and Kant, though that's less regrettable) were the dubious winners of the immortality stakes and Diderot, Holbach, and Helvetius--who I wish were featured more in the book--were the losers. I have to say too that he convincingly vilifies Voltaire and Rousseau.

A cavil: Blom does have a tendency to repeat himself a little, and he has an odd way of briefly re-explaining points--both ideas, plot, and character--that have already been mentioned, as if he assumes his readers' attention spans are suspect.

This book is highly recommended for people that liked Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder, Edmunds and Eidinow's Wittgenstein's Poker, and other intellectual histories that combine biography with ideas and history. Comparing the book to a work such as The Age of Wonder may only cause others to depreciate this book by contrast, but that is only because Holmes' book is a 10+ compared with Blom's 9 or 9.5.

Last, this book gets very high marks for sending me off to find works by Epicurus, Seneca, Diderot, Helvetius, Gibbon, Hume, etc. as well as histories of the Enlightenment such as Peter Gay's.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stimulating company Dec 1 2010
By Jay C. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Philipp Blom has proven himself a fine writer of intellectual histories that are learned without sacrificing broad appeal to general readers. I previously enjoyed The Vertigo Years and his current A Wicked Company impresses me further.

Here he focuses on a group of intellectuals with connections to the Paris salon of Baron Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach during the 1750-1780 period. Denis Diderot is the chief protagonist, but Holbach himself, David Hume (who attended the salon during a stay in France, though not a "radical"), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a salon drop-out), among others, also receive considerable attention. Blom substantively covers many of their ideas, relates biographical highlights, and conveys the flavor of their personalities, ambitions, and abilities. It all meshes into a sustained narrative.

The author believes that the reputation of the Enlightenment "radicals" (Diderot especially, but also Holbach and a few others) has suffered in comparison to more moderate figures (Voltaire and Kant, notably) and to Rousseau. The falling out of Rousseau with Diderot and Hume is one of the principal sub-plots of this volume.

Blom portrays an atheistic and sensualist Diderot, inclinations that were necessarily toned down in his public writing (he had once been imprisoned for his views). He was ahead of his time in several respects, with materialist and evolutionary ideas that anticipated Darwin, a nuanced appreciation of the irrational elements of human nature, and opposition to slavery, for example. Unlike Holbach, who believed that truth was knowable based on observation and that reason could eliminate superstition and bring about a just society, Diderot remained more skeptical.

Blom credits the radical philosophes with several achievements. The successful publication of the imposing Encyclopédie, edited by Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (until he resigned), "...stands as a defining moment in the intellectual history of Europe, a point at which skeptical reason won over orthodoxy, and an important inspiration to the next generation, the generation of the Revolution," Blom writes. The radicals' influence shows up in America in the "pursuit of happiness" notion at the center of the Declaration of Independence, "straight from Holbach's table," the author claims. In a suggestive "Epilogue" he sees later influences on Goethe (who admired Diderot, but not Holbach), Heine, Shelley, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud (though these are covered collectively in less than a page).

A few aspects of A Wicked Company disappointed me. For instance, there is not much on the political thought of the radicals, perhaps because they were thin in that domain themselves. Blom does offer astute observations on the political ideas of the anti-philosophe Rousseau, however.

The bibliography and notes are quite skimpy, which is a problem because there is an extensive secondary literature on much of what is covered here and the absence of references makes it difficult to sort out which interpretations are original and which are derivative. Several of Jonathan Israel's views, for example, seem reflected in those of Blom, but other than a mention of one of Israel's works in the "very selective" bibliography and one "quoted in" note there are no explicit acknowledgements. Perhaps the publisher wished not to scare away non-academic readers, but that seems a mistaken under-estimation of the curiosities of the potential audience.

Mild disappointments like these aside, A Wicked Company is a book I would recommend to almost anyone interested in intellectual history or European history generally. It would be an especially good selection for any book clubs with such interests, possibly best discussed in a salon setting over a lavish four-course meal with appropriate wines (see pages 57-59 for the menu).
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, Yet Standard, History of the Enlightenment Jan. 10 2011
By A Certain Bibliophile - Published on Amazon.com
This is an interesting book that provides some little-known connections between the larger-known set of ideas that we largely recognize as the "Enlightenment," and is especially aimed at the general reader. Those whose knowledge of the intellectual side of the Enlightenment is moderate to extensive will gain little from the book, but it was still interesting to learn about some of the private lives, loves, and feuds of the people involved therein.

Blom's ultimate emphasis here is on the so-called "radical" Enlightenment, as opposed to the moderate Enlightenment of thinkers like Voltaire. The latter still flirted with the political status quo and entertained deism. After all, Voltaire made his fortune by loaning vast sums of money to European monarchs; it's difficult to rock the boat of ideas when your financial security depends on it. Those of the radical Enlightenment were not afraid to take reason, science, and materialism to its ultimate limits: there are many of them, but the major figures include Baron Holbach, Diderot, d'Alembert, Buffon, Grimm, and Hume. One figure he decidedly excludes from his radical favorites is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, choosing to portray him, rightly or wrongly, as a paranoid megalomanic.

After giving some initial biographical information of the characters that loom the largest in the book - Diderot, Holbach, and Rousseau - we proceed to learn more about their thought and their circle of what are usually considered more minor friends. Blom intermittently keeps referring back to Holbach's twice-weekly dinners that would often be attended some of the greatest minds in Europe. At the table at Grandval, chez Holbach, they would sit down to delectable poulets a la Reine, cold pate, and raspberry gelee (they actually give a menu from one of the gatherings in the book) and talk about the philosophy, religion (largely their intense dislike thereof), and groundbreaking science. I thought the conceit of a big dinner party was an interesting one to tell what amounts to a group biography, and certainly helped keep things both entertaining and engaging.

Not only are the lives and ideas of the current characters discussed in context, but Blom also takes the time to discuss those people that influenced their thought, some of which I only now realized I had not fully fleshed out before. He has a very interesting chapter on Spinozist monism versus Cartesian dualism, and how that argument reverberated through the eighteenth century; later in the book, he discusses how through their thorough familiarity with the classics, Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura" and the Greek atomists Democritus and Leucippus might have been influential in a revival of materialism, too. For the first two-thirds of the book, Blom lets his sizeable bias against Rousseau get in the way of an otherwise much more objective piece of intellectual history. Because of the general nature of the book and the heavy bias toward Rousseau, I can't in all fairness give this book more than 3 stars. For a more sophisticated and nuanced treatment of the Enlightenment, I suggest Peter Gay's two-volume treatment, "The Rise of Modern Paganism" and "The Science of Freedom." The first two volumes of Jonathan Israel's trilogy, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 and Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 are equally wonderful.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The City of Lights Feb. 2 2011
By Niklas Anderberg - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
This book is a real page-turner. Blom tells the story of the vibrant salon of baron d'Holbach in Paris in the 18th century, visited by many luminaries from Europe as well as overseas. This he does with verve and zest and an eye for warm-blooded detail. There is no shortage of food, drink and carnal (dis)pleasures in his account. He also wears his philosophical heart on his sleeve. His sympathies are with Holbach, Diderot and other spokesmen (and rarely -women) for what he calls the radical Enlightenment, as opposed to a moderate wing represented by among others Voltaire and Rousseau.
Here's where the trouble starts. A comparison with Judith N. Shklar's classic study of Rousseau, MEN & CITIZENS, makes clear the gulf separating two different approaches to his thinking. Everyone agrees that Rousseau was a tormented soul, increasingly plagued by paranoia and persecution mania. Maybe he also was, as Blom states, a compulsive liar. The sheer amount of emotive language in Blom is striking. The perennial question arises if it is possible to separate somebody's nasty personal traits from his philosophy. The case of Heidegger springs to mind. Ever since Hegel placed responsibility for the Terror and Bertrand Russel for Nazism at the doorstep of Rousseau, it has been a staple of his critics. Blom names Robespierre, Stalin and Pol Pot and stops just short of blaming him for Auschwitz too. One might as well blame Jesus for the Crusades, Marx for the Gulag and Adam Smith for the financial crisis, or so it seems. His concept of a General Will is, to be sure, complex and might be conceived as a form of totalitarian democracy as J.L. Talmon and more recently Jonah Goldberg in his "Liberal Fascism" has argued.
Scholars including Cassirer, Gay, Dent, Wokler, Schneewind, and Shklar, have challenged this line of argument. As Shklar convincingly shows, Rousseau was first and foremost a social critic and not a reformer, let alone revolutionary. Passivity was an ideal state of affairs and he regarded change as in principle detrimental. Rousseau's utopia was held up as a mirror to expose the shortcomings of society, rather than a model for a perfect community in any real world.
With further reading more doubts start creeping in. Blom's casual style makes one question the accuracy of other remarks as well. Neither his classifying of Locke as a great skeptic, his definition of the word religion as "binding down", nor his treatment of the induction/deduction problem is as unambiguous as he would have us believe. Having an opinion is ok, but not every shortcut is necessarily helpful in achieving greater understanding.
A Wicked Company gives a sympathetic and lively picture of turbulent times, soon to be overshadowed by the revolution of 1789. To his understandable chagrin, his protagonists were also to become all but eclipsed by their former friend, turned archenemy. While Rousseau and Voltaire were transferred to the Pantheon, the bones of Diderot are still scattered about in the basement of a minor church. When asked by Blom, the local priest had purportedly never even heard of the great unbeliever baron d'Holbach.
All in all, then, a well-written and pleasant book, but Blom's sweeping statements should sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History and Philosophy - 2 books in one and worth it. Feb. 7 2011
By Digital Rights - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a book of great substance for the uninitiated. That would be me. Philipp Blom's account of the mid 18th century French philosophers is first an interesting piece of history but the hook is the time and effort he takes to carefully explain what these men thought, said, debated and ultimately published. In doing so we get a seat at the table at the great salon of Paris where their discourse carried on.

In A Wicked Company we meet Denis Diderot, Baron Paul Holbach. For over 20 years they hosted private dinners, debates, events or meetings with the great thinkers of the age to debate the existence of god, the Catholic Church, freewill, the morality of a world without god or religion. They tested their ideas. They risked imprisonment, exile and potentially death for sharing and expounding their ideas.

This book is wonderful. I frequently re-read passages as the summaries of their debates and world views are captivating and challenging. I felt stretched in grasping their ideas and to understand the world in which they lived; the suppression of rights and freedom under the French kings and the far from compassionate Catholic Church looming so powerfully over them at all times.

This is a good book when you time and a quiet space. It requires your attention and in return you learn a lot. I appreciated the epilogue and bibliography which is rich in background materials, recommendations and explanations on all the main parties that are profiled or mentioned in the book.

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