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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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"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  17 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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A radical, and persuasive, reinterpretation June 17 2011
By Harry Eagar - Published on Amazon.com
At first glance, it seems absurd to propose that Denis Diderot, one of the Enlightenment names known to almost everyone, is forgotten, but Philipp Blom, wearing erudition lightly, makes a persuasive case.

In his retelling, there was a radical enlightenment, centered on Diderot and Baron d'Holbach, that was atheist, scientific and humane, but it was sabotaged by the deist Voltaire and usurped by the treacherous (and crazy) Rousseau.

It was also, of course, hounded by reaction, and if there is a hole in "A Wicked Company" it is the lack of any real description of the official opposition to modernity. It could be found elsewhere, but it really needed to be found here, too.

There were many satellites of Diderot and Holbach, some of whose names are remembered: David Garrick was the one who named Holbach's salon a wicked company. But Diderot and Holbach, in addition to being close friends, represented the range of opinion and personality within the radical Enlightenment.

Holbach was the uncompromising atheist, who believed in the "machine man." If he was right, there is not much more to be said about the human condition. Personally, he was the more attractive, generous, a devoted husband, loyal friend, courageous man of principle -- living refutation of the charge (made more recently by Ronald Reagan) that atheists cannot be moral.

Diderot was as much an atheist, though he fuzzed up his stance somewhat, and his understanding of humanity was closer to enlightened modern views -- that humans are emotional before they are rational and that psychology is the way into understanding. (I definitely disagree with Blom's view that Freud is the modern heir of Diderot, but that is taking opinion far beyond the core of Blom's argument.)

Diderot was a somewhat less attractive neighbor than Holbach, though probably preferable to any of the priests and stooges who tried to destroy him.

In any event, his view of human nature is amorphous enough to discuss endlessly, although I have a hard time summoning up as much admiration as Blom feels for Diderot's fiction, which is how he characteristically expressed his philosophical opinions. I recently read his novel "Jacques the Fatalist," often quoted by Blom, and as a novel it is yawner.

I'd also like to see more evidence for Blom's oft-repeated claim that the Holbach-Diderot salon anticipated Darwinism and 19th century scientific attitudes generally.

Blom does make a persuasive case that the radical Enlightenment was the "greatest intellectual enterprise of the 18th century," although there is room for argument that the hard sciences were just as outstanding.

There can be no doubt that the legacy of the radical Enlightenment was "all but obliterated," not only by despotism and Romanticism, but even more so by the compromising Enlightenment of the deists, who wanted to keep people under the thumb of religion and authority.

They have, except for a few.

The radicals doubted the existence of universal truth, but they were swamped by the idealists who believed in Truth with a capital T, though they could never agree what it was. The problem, writes Blom in words that make reading about the forgotten radicals timely today, is that "Utopias are dangerous precisely because they embody ideals."

The millions of victims of the ideals of communism, religion, capitalism and racism in the past hundred years would have been better off if the flexible,. humane radicals had prevailed over the inflexible and cruel respectable people.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More on the "Radical" French Enlightenment Feb. 18 2011
By Ronald H. Clark - Published on Amazon.com
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The author of this new study of the French enlightenment, Philipp Blom, previously has written an extensive study of Diderot's Encyclopedie, as well as "The Vertigo Years" covering some European intellectual developments during 1900-1914. This book is basically a study of the intellectual circle anchored in dinners held at the Paris home of Baron Paul Thierry Holbach between the 1750's and the 1770's. The French enlightenment has developed into a somewhat interesting and lively topic since Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a controversial attack on it in 2004, rather unfavorably comparing it with the British enlightenment. Among the individuals discussed are Diderot, Rousseau, David Hume, Buffon, Helevetius, Descartes, Spinoza, not all members of the group but folks whose views impacted on the group's discussions.

I think the great advantage of this book is that it does not just lay out some of the important intellectual positions of the group. Even the best written analyses of such ideas can become a bit overwhelming after a while. Here instead, Blom has portrayed the group as individuals, giving us an understanding of them as persons, as they interacted together, and I found this approach much more lively and interesting. A "Glossary of Protagonists" facilitates keeping all of these individuals straight. The book runs some 319 pages of text, 16 pages of endnotes, and includes a three-page very selective bibliography.

Himmelfarb argued that the French enlightenment was far too radical--and there is much to support that view here. Strict empiricism led to a vigorous anti-Christian, atheist orientation. Materialism prevailed as the dominant approach. Also at work was an evolutionary philosophy, way ahead of the later Darwin. Utilitarian ideas were also embraced. The substitution of scientific truth for God was well developed, although Hume disputed their faith that progress would lead to perfection. Nor did the Baron himself trust scientific empiricism over the senses--his goal was the maximization of "refined" pleasure and the enhancement of passion.

With such a cantankerous group, there was bound to be spirited disagreement as well. Blom particularly focuses upon Rousseau, who needed some Deist-like structure to hold on to, and consequently was not ready to jettison religion completely. JJR also felt that reason could generate tyranny, and expressed ideas which were similar to the on-coming Romantic movement. Though not a member, Voltaire also could be extremely critical of the group's ideas.

In a concluding chapter, the author discusses why he believes the group's ideas soon faded in prominence, what he terms a "stolen revolution." Principally he points to some remarkably timid leaders of the French revolution as being behind this. The "stolen revolution" thesis is interesting, since Himmelfarb argued that liberal academics had underplayed the significance of the British enlightenment in favor of the French. Writing solid intellectual history that is both informative and interesting is quite a challenge; the author has met it in this fine book.

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