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
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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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Blom reminds us that some 18th-century reformers were thoroughgoing materialists, scoffing at religion, even deist religion, and criticizing an oppressive, irrational society.”
"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.”
“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.