A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment Hardcover – Nov 2 2010
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"A perceptive, readable portrayal of a seminal coterie in the history of ideas."
"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.See all Product Description
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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).
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.
The story the book tells is an engaging mixture between vivid biographical material about the throng of intellectuals of the time and the clear exposition of their ideas. For someone new to the subject, the organization may perhaps at times be a little confusing: not only do we constantly move from one thinker to another (with a degree of repetition), but we also move backwards and forwards from the philosophers of the 18th century thinkers to those of the 17th century philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza.
Blom’s sympathies are clearly with the courageous atheists who always ran huge risks, ranging from being imprisoned (as had already happened once to Diderot in 1749) to being tortured and burnt as blasphemers (as happened to the unfortunate La Barre in 1765). Blom is implicitly critical of, for example, Voltaire, who feared to be associated with the radicalism of Holbach’s circle.
The well-known breach between the sophisticated philosophes and the neurotic and paranoid Rousseau, with its momentous philosophical consequences, is very well handled. Diderot and Rousseau had once been close friends. Diderot attached great importance to friendship, and the hurt when Rousseau savagely and publicly turned against him was something that never left him. Blom (rightly, I think) passes severe judgments on Rousseau’s character, on his philosophy and on its mostly dire influence.
Holbach was very wealthy. Except during the summer months when he retreated to his country house at Grandval where Diderot was often his house-guest for weeks at a time, he kept open house in Paris twice a week for a host of intellectuals, sometimes entertaining up to thirty guests for sumptuous meals and lively and witty discussion.
Blom’s character sketches are excellent, and Diderot emerges as a particularly attractive person and takes more and more centre-stage as the book progresses. He is a big enough man to listen to both his rational and his emotional side, torn between a mechanistic view of our behaviour and one which allows of moral choice. He came bitterly to regret the year he had spent at the court of Catharine the Great, coming to regard it as a kind of betrayal of his principles to have consorted with a despot, however enlightened she had professed to be.
The members of the circle had their philosophical differences (Blom is very good on the differences between Holbach and Diderot), but, with the exception of Rousseau who had initially attended this salon, there was always real friendship among them. Many of them contributed to the monumental Encyclopédie of which Diderot was the main editor and to which Blom has devoted a fine earlier volume (see my Amazon review of Blom’s “Encyclopédie”).
There were many visitors to Holbach’s salon from Britain and other countries. Blom is excellent on David Hume’s visit to the mainly atheistic circle in 1763, showing how Hume was even more radical than they were. He considered their philosophical belief in science as untenable as a philosophical belief in God or, for that matter, their convinced atheism. We cannot know that God exists; but we also cannot know that he does not exist: we have to be agnostic.
There is a superb chapter on the value the rationalists, and Diderot especially, attached to the erotic passions. They are nothing to be ashamed of, as the Church taught; and, as the Tahitians assumed, there is no guilt per se in indulging in the natural pleasure they give. The function of Reason is merely to make sure, in accordance with their utilitarian philosophy, that their exercise does not inflict harm on others.
In writing with enthusiasm about the Tahitians’ way of life, he also fears for what French colonialism would do to them: he is an eloquent opponent of colonialism and of slavery.
The philosophy of the Holbach-Diderot circle had done much to undermine the ancien régime; but at the height of the French Revolution, it was not to their humane republicanism that Robespierre turned, but to Rousseau’s totalitarian and quasi-religious ideas, and atheists were delivered to the guillotine. And of course the counter-revolution, the Napoleonic despotism and then the reactionary romanticism of Throne and Altar would have no use for the philosophes either. Philosophy would be dominated by the metaphysics of Kant and Hegel. Where there was respect for the Enlightenment, it was Voltaire with his deism, not Holbach or Diderot, who was regarded as its most important representative. Blom’s attractively written book has set out to redress the balance.
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.