A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment

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Overview


The flourishing of radical philosophy in Baron Thierry Holbach’s Paris salon from the 1750s to the 1770s stands as a seminal event in Western history. Holbach’s house was an international epicenter of revolutionary ideas and intellectual daring, bringing together such original minds as Denis Diderot, Laurence Sterne, David Hume, Adam Smith, Ferdinando Galiani, Horace Walpole, Benjamin Franklin, Guillaume Raynal, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In A Wicked Company, acclaimed historian Philipp Blom retraces the fortunes of this exceptional group of friends. All brilliant minds, full of wit, courage, and insight, their thinking created a different and radical French Enlightenment based on atheism, passion, reason, and truly humanist thinking. A startlingly relevant work of narrative history, A Wicked Company forces us to confront with new eyes the foundational debates about modern society and its future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historian Blom (The Vertigo Years) visits the salons of 18th-century Europe and compares this "radical" Enlightenment with the more bourgeoisie, "soft Enlightenment" of Votaire, Kant, and other philosophers. Though Baron d'Holbach's uncompromising atheist writings are largely ignored today, his salon was once considered "the epicenter of intellectual life in Europe." Great minds of the time, including Diderot and Rousseau, gathered at his table. Blom draws close to Diderot's Encyclopedia, two decades in the making. Loaded with facts and rife with subversive thought, the Encyclopedia's contributors expounded with impunity on forbidden, dangerous subjects, giving the reading public a proxy seat at Holbach's table. Blom's hugely enjoyable effort succeeds most in exposing readers to the ideas of a wide range of philosophers, from Epicurus to Kant; cleverly, Blom surrounds his medicine with titillating asides, from Rousseau's fetishes (exposing his bottom to female passers-by in Tunis in the hopes of getting slapped) to a selection from D'Alembert's Dream that bears a marked resemblance to a certain café scene in When Harry Met Sally. To make philosophy accessible is the mark of a good writer; to make it exciting is the mark of a great one. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

David Andress, author of The Terror and 1789
A Wicked Company offers an entertainingly brisk introduction to some of the more intriguing byways of the Enlightenment, and in particular a humane and engaging portrait of Diderot, a man of startlingly modern ideas constrained by his humble circumstances to an almost-stifling public discretion.”

Kirkus Reviews
“Historian Blom returns with a flowing, limpid account of an 18th-century French salon that housed the greatest names in French philosophy…. A swift, readable reminder that ideas are exciting – and have consequences.”


Mike Rapport, author of 1848
“A bold book. In A Wicked Company, Philipp Blom recaptures some of the limelight from the most famous figures of the French Enlightenment – Rousseau and Voltaire – by arguing that the more radical ideas of Diderot and Holbach would have more resonance in our own times. Written with pace and verve, the book evokes the vibrancy of the Parisian salons, bringing the protagonists to life – Diderot, Holbach, Rousseau, Hume, Madame de Geoffrin – and puts flesh-and-blood into the story of eighteenth-century intellectual debate.   While challenging the usual pantheon of Enlightenment thinkers, the book offers a lively and readable entry into the wider world of elite culture and ideas in the heady, exciting decades before the French Revolution.”
 

Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Blom skillfully evokes the characters of these young men…. Mr. Blom’s coupling of the lives of the philosophers with their thought helps make their ideas less desiccated than they might otherwise have appeared in the hands of a more academic writer. He has an admirable ability to get to the heart of what Spinoza, Hume or Voltaire argued.”

The Economist 
“Tells the story of a set of remarkable individuals on the radical fringes of the 18th-century European Enlightenment, whose determinedly atheistic and materialist philosophies denied the existence of God or the soul…. [P]art biography and part polemic…it is also an iconoclastic rebuttal of what he describes as the ‘official’ history of the Enlightenment, the sort of history that he finds ‘cut in stone’ on a visit to the Paris Panthéon.  There the bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau were laid to rest with the blessing of the French state.  Neither deserved it, suggests Mr Blom.”

Booklist
“Blom here returns to the field of an earlier triumph…to take the measure of Encyclopedie’s editor, Denis Diderot…. A perceptive, readable portrayal of a seminal coterie in the history of ideas.”
 
Library Journal
“Blom reminds us that some 18th-century reformers were thoroughgoing materialists, scoffing at religion, even deist religion, and criticizing an oppressive, irrational society.”
 

Daily Beast
“Blom brings to life the Enlightenment-shaping debates in the salon of Baron Thierry Holbach…and conveys the high drama that went along with the intellectual debates that helped lay the foundation for the modern world.”
 
Nature
“The French Enlightenment’s triumph of reason over religious dogma was plotted in an eighteenth-century Paris salon. Hosted by Baron Paul-Henri Thiry Holbach, the radical thinkers who gathered there included the philosophers Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Historian Philipp Blom revives their legacy and examines the rivalries that sprang up among the group with competitors such as the writer Voltaire. Their ideas about society and the natural world went on to influence politics and science globally.”
 

Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Blom’s hugely enjoyable effort succeeds most in exposing readers to the ideas of a wide range of philosophers, from Epicurus to Kant; cleverly, Blom surrounds his medicine with titillating asides, from Rousseau’s fetishes (exposing his bottom to female passers-by in Tunis in the hopes of getting slapped) to a selection from D’Alembert’s Dream that bears a marked resemblance to a certain café scene in When Harry Met Sally. To make philosophy accessible is the mark of a good writer; to make it exciting is the mark of a great one.”
 

Financial Times
“The trick that Blom pulls off with such dazzling aplomb is to make the story he tells timely, compelling and occasionally even thrilling. This is partly because Blom is such a stylish and clever writer: his prose is as lucid and elegant as any of his 18th-century heroes. But it’s also because the history of d’Holbach and his friends has a great deal to tell us about the way we live now. Most crucially, Blom describes how d’Holbach’s thought is predicated on the importance of challenging totalitarian systems, whether in religion or politics.... Blom’s book is not only a pleasure to read but also a celebration of the real and material joys to be found in the godless universe.”
 
The American Spectator
“[A]n erudite, detailed…account of the Paris literary salon where the wealthy Baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach wined and dined some of the most passionate of the Enlightened.”
 
The Independent (London) “Blom skilfully weaves his story around a large cast of characters, including Laurence Sterne, who influenced Diderot's sceptical novel Jacques le fataliste, David Hume, Adam Smith, the radical MP John Wilkes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau….. Blom teases out the nuances of the group's ideas with considerable finesse.

The Spectator (London)
“[A] quirky and original book…. Blom weaves their disparate lives and opinions together into a…coherent narrative.”
 
Times Literary Supplement (London)
“[An] engaging portrait of the philosophes’ salons and social lives.”

Choice “Tales of infighting and romantic problems abound…. Blom definitely enlightens readers about how wicked people can be…. Recommended.”

Library Journal
In the 1750s there emerged in Paris a clique of thinkers whose philosophical leanings led them to advocate radical change. Baron d'Holbach hosted the salon where they met; Denis Diderot was the acknowledged star of the circle. Hume visited with them for a while; Rousseau hovered outside the circle, at first as friend, then enemy. The group hoped for social as well as intellectual change, but when the Revolution came, it took a different path. The Revolution's leaders, especially Robespierre, neither wanted nor needed skeptics like Diderot or Holbach; a state religion suited them better than atheism. In the following century, Holbach's and Diderot's ideas virtually disappeared from sight, supplanted by what Blom (The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900?1914) labels "the soft Enlightenment" of Voltaire and Kant. Blom reminds us that some 18th-century reformers were thoroughgoing materialists, scoffing at religion, even deist religion, and criticizing an oppressive, irrational society.Verdict There's little new or original in this book, but its subject matter holds up, and Blom writes well. Given the topic, the absence of Frank E. Manuel's The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods in the bibliography is puzzling.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews

Historian Blom(Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914, 2008, etc.) returns with a flowing, limpid account of an 18th-century French salon that housed the greatest names in French philosophy.

The real star here is Denis Diderot, who, though he never created a comprehensive philosophical system, nonetheless wrestled with troubling ideas of human nature and culture that continue to vex. Blom begins and ends with personal perspectives, wondering why Voltaire and Rousseau (one-time regulars at the salon) are revered, and Diderot and Baron Paul-Thierry d'Holbach (who hosted and wrote, as well, often under a pseudonym) are not nearly so honored. Diderotis known, of course, for his innovative fiction and for his magisterial work—the 17-volume Encyclopédie that took him and his colleagues many years to produce, but which Diderot saw as an onerous burden. Blom then sketches the backgrounds of each of his principals, but he is most interested in the ideas that drew them together, later divided some of them and animated their discussions. Foremost among these is religion. Many at the salon were avowed atheists, during a time when such a position was risky, even suicidal. Diderot went to prison and was released only after promising to eschew blasphemy henceforth. Blom charts the rise and fall of the once-intimate friendship between Diderot and Rousseau, which ended in bitterness and recrimination. Other notables were in and out of the salon, among them David Hume, whose intelligence and philosophy Blom also highlights, Adam Smith and Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Diderot, as Blom reiterates often, reveled in the flesh, believed shame and guilt were instruments of oppression, anticipated Darwin and believed that what we call "intelligent design" is nonsense.

A swift, readable reminder that ideas are exciting—and have consequences.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465014538
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/2/2010
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author


Philipp Blom is the author of The Vertigo Years, Enlightening the World, and To Have and To Hold. He contributes articles to the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian, among others. He lives in Vienna, Austria.
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Table of Contents

Introduction

FATHERS AND SONS

1 City of Lights 1

2 Journeys 15

3 Encyclopedie: Grand Ambitions 37

4 Chez M. Holbach 55

5 Audacity 75

6 Christianity Unveiled 91

7 Only the Wicked Man Lives Alone 113

MARVELOUS MACHINES

8 Le Bon David 133

9 A Natural Philosophy 151

10 Sheikhs of the Rue Royale 165

11 Grandval 181

12 The Bear 199

THE ISLAND OF LOVE

13 Crime and Punishment 217

14 The Most Ungrateful Dogg in the World 231

15 Fame and Fate 245

16 The Empress and the Bean King 257

17 Sex in Paradise 271

18 Fifty Hired Priests 291

Epilogue A Stolen Revolution 305

A Glossary of Protagonists 319

A Very Selective Bibliography 323

Notes 327

Index 345

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