D'Holbach's Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris

D'Holbach's Coterie: An Enlightenment in Paris

by Alan Charles Kors

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ISBN-13: 9780691617244
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 374
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 9.90(h) x 2.10(d)

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D'Holbach's Coterie

An Enlightenment in Paris


By Alan Charles Kors

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 1976 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05224-3



CHAPTER 1

The Members of the Coterie Holbachique


We owe the name "coterie holbachique" to Rousseau, for whom the term "coterie" was a pejorative. In the Confessions Jean-Jacques wrote of Grimm, Diderot, d'Holbach, and the social friends of these three figures as "the coterie holbachique," and he described a jealous conspiracy against his person and reputation which he believed them to have inspired and orchestrated. In the course of Enlightenment studies, Rousseau's name for a limited set of friends has come to stand in general for the group of men who met regularly at the dinners of Baron d'Holbach throughout the last half of the eighteenth century, many if not most of whom, in fact, were not included by Rousseau in his own use of that expression. There is little to be gained by divesting this important assembly of the name by which it now is called, but to avoid confusion we must be specific in our use of it. There was indeed a circle of men who met regularly and frequently at d'Holbach's homes, and who could identify each other as members of a unique group. It is these men whom we designate as the coterie holbachique.

The dinners and conversations of which Baron d'Holbach was the host were by no means closed affairs. Many figures — friends and critics of the philosophes alike — were occasional guests. Many foreigners and diplomats partook of his hospitality during their stays in Paris. Certain men became intimates of these dinners for a short time, but returned only infrequently, if at all, thereafter. In the course of the approximately thirty-five years during which d'Holbach held his Thursday and Sunday gatherings, a gallery of prominent Frenchmen and Europeans passed through his doors with varying degrees of individual frequency. Death robbed these meetings of several regular visitors, and before the end of d'Holbach's reign as the "maitre d'Hotel de la Philosophic," as Galiani once called him, men born after the tradition of these assemblies had begun were being welcomed at them. Among the thinkers, men of letters and scientists who remained, in the midst of this flux, constant in their attendance and in their appreciation of these dinners, a group-identity arose, one among many such Parisian identities individuals might hold, in this case manifested in their references to themselves and other devotees as members of "the club," "the synagogue," "the bakery," "the Friends of the rue Royale."

It is necessary and helpful, thus, to make a distinction between d'Holbach's salon and the coterie holbachique. The salon flourished for almost a generation, opening its doors to an ever-changing stream of guests. The coterie was composed of the figures — the men for whom d'Holbach's dinners were a regular and important part of their lives — whom this stream of guests came to visit, whose ideas they came to confront. If originally the coterie arose from the salon, it nevertheless was the coterie which provided the significance that the salon was to enjoy. From a gathering of friends in 1749 through 1751, the salon of Baron d'Holbach developed into one of the most intellectually stimulating and widely known private groups in Europe. By the mid-1760s d'Holbach made an effort to limit the growing number of guests, to restore much of the initial intimacy of his circle. Guests still came, and anyone of particular prominence or interest was almost certain to be welcomed, but as always, the two groups, devotees and occasional guests, could be distinguished by the regularity of their presence and by the manner in which they spoke of the "friends of the rue Royale" or were spoken of by them. It was from the personalities and ideas of the devotees that the tone, interests, and conversations of the gatherings at d'Holbach's homes were derived. These devotees, the men who gave d'Holbach's salon its singular character, constituted the "coterie holbachique." From a study and collation of available sources — the letters, memoirs, and written works of regular and occasional visitors to d'Holbach's homes and, to be employed more circumspectly, those of their friends or families — the coterie can be identified.

First, there are those who were unquestionably members of the coterie, in terms both of the sufficiency of the available data and the clear nature of their association. These can be divided into two groups: (1) those who were participants throughout most of the period from 1750 to 1780 — Baron d'Holbach, Denis Diderot, Friedrich-Melchior Grimm, Charles-Georges Le Roy, Jean-François Marmontel, Guillaume-Thomas-Frangois Raynal, Augustin Roux, Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard; and (2) those who were participants only throughout most of the period from 1760 to 1780 — François-Jean de Chastellux, André Morellet, Jacques-André Naigeon. Roughly speaking, these periods are natural divisions in the life of the coterie holbachique. In the 1750s the coterie acquired its dominant characteristics, and its intimate membership became stabilized; in the 1760s and 1770s it achieved and enjoyed its brilliant international reputation.

Second, there are those to whose status certain substantive qualifications must be attached — Ferdinando Galiani and Claude-Adrien Helvétius. Finally, there are two problematic cases for discussion — that of Jean Darcet, arising from the insufficiency of the data but resolved in favor of inclusion; and that of Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger, arising from the suggestive nature of certain evidence and the tradition linking him to d'Holbach's circle, but resolved in the necessity of an exclusion.


* * *

The cast of characters is a mixture of men who require little introduction as figures of the French Enlightenment and men who have fallen into relative historical obscurity. This is not yet the place to study their lives in detail, however, but rather to make their acquaintance and to examine their status as members of the coterie holbachique.


I. Participants, C. 1750-c. 1780

Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789). Heir to a large fortune, Baron d'Holbach began entertaining his friends lavishly in Paris during 1749-1750, shortly after his return from the University of Leyden, where he had studied from 1744 to 1748 or 1749. Alexander Carlyle, at Leyden during the same years, recalled the University as a center of remarkable coffee parties, club suppers and constant group conversations. It is perhaps to the Baron's remembrances of his student milieu and its pleasures, and not to a Parisian tradition of salon life, that the coterie holbachique owed its inspiration.

Originally, d'Holbach's dinners grouped his social friends, men such as Margency and Gauffecourt, to cite the two early associates recalled by Mme d'Epinay, and the young intellectuals of Paris whose acquaintance he was making, notably Diderot, Rousseau, Grimm, Marmontel, Roux, Suard and Raynal. Within a short time, his dinners had attracted the scientists Barthez (an anatomist and medical doctor) and Venel (a chemist and medical doctor), and several figures of already established reputations, such as d'Alembert, Duclos, Buffon, and the chemist Rouelle the elder. In the course of the 1750s, Rousseau, Buffon, and d'Alembert ceased to attend d'Holbach's salon; Rouelle appeared (it would seem) less and less frequently, and Barthez and Venel left Paris to accept posts at the University of Montpellier; Duclos left the coterie in 1762. To those who remained, d'Holbach added new friends, namely Le Roy and Saint-Lambert. As the dinners achieved an intellectual level increasingly esoteric and philosophical, d'Holbach's more mundane friends appeared only at rare occasions.

In 1759 d'Holbach purchased the home on the rue Royale, butte Saint-Roch that has become synonymous with his coterie. In addition he would entertain at his family's estate at Grandval, several miles from Paris, where, during the summer, guests often would stay for weeks on end. It is perhaps the Baron's use of Grandval that has led to a certain confusion concerning the coterie. At the rue Royale, d'Holbach entertained, in his own name, the regulars of the coterie and, by special invitation, selected guests. At Grandval, d'Holbach clearly entertained in the name of the d'Aine family, often lodging friends of the family for extended periods. In the midst of the vacation at Grandval, the coterie as well would often assemble for dinners. It was not that d'Holbach had two separate philosophical dinners throughout the year, one for the initiates and one for the lay public (there simply is no evidence for such a description). Rather, d'Holbach was both the head of a family which entertained often at Grandval and the host of a coterie which he assembled twice a week at the rue Royale while in Paris, and frequently but less punctually at Grandval during the season.

D'Holbach's great wealth gave to his salon a glitter beyond its intellectual pleasures. He had, by all accounts, an excellent chef, many servants, abundant and memorable foods, and a remarkable collection of vintage wines. His home offered stimulating resources to the figures whom he entertained: he had a cabinet of natural history, a library of over 3,000 volumes and a large number of paintings by France's leading artists. In addition, he was lavish in his generosity; he supported several poor writers, painters and musicians, including Rousseau for a while, though for the latter the Baron merely was fulfilling his obligation to society in this. The initial success of his salon, therefore, may not have been due solely to the joy of its conversations.

As a man of letters and philosopher, d'Holbach's name was largely unknown in his own time. He wrote voluminously, and a complete bibliography of the works in which he had a major or the single hand would comprise over fifty titles and perhaps 400 articles. Yet almost every work he translated, published, edited or wrote, from the most innocuous or scientific to the most philosophically daring, was published in the strictest anonymity. His most famous work, the Système de la nature, published in 1770, raised a storm in eighteenth-century France second only perhaps to that occasioned by De Fesprit, and because of its aggressive atheism enjoyed a notoriety second to no work of his contemporaries. To have known the identity of its author, however, one would have had to hear him discuss his ideas with the coterie holbachique and believe him capable of writing or publishing them. Many of those who heard him decided that he was this author, but they were the only ones who knew. The record reveals they kept their secret. To all others the Baron was merely the wealthy host and friend of European men of letters.


Denis Diderot (1713-1184). Known to the public primarily as the editor and motive force of the Encyclopédie, Diderot was known to his friends and the intimates of the coterie holbachique, as he would become known to later readers of his works, as a profound philosopher, literary artist, critic and intellectual speculator par excellence. At once a scientist and poet, a cynic and dreamer, a naturalist and metaphysician, a concrete moral absolutist and abstract moral relativist, Diderot held within his own mind and imagination the diversity and dialectic of the Enlightenment. With justice his peers called him "le Philosophe."

Diderot's correspondence offers students of the Enlightenment access to the intimate details of the coterie holbachique as viewed by its most eloquent member. Above all, Diderot communicated in his letters the mood and the ambiance of the circle around d'Holbach. His correspondence is not always the most satisfying source of names and identifications, since he often assumed that its recipients knew who was there, but he made the coterie come alive, captured its tone and caught both its humor and its depth.

The evidence is contradictory as to exactly when Diderot first became involved with Baron d'Holbach. Few of Diderot's letters prior to 1759 are extant. Arthur M. Wilson, basing his opinion upon the fact that d'Holbach did not collaborate on the Encyclopédie until volume 11, suggested that their relations most probably began in the fall of 1751. Rousseau, on the other hand, discussing the events of 1751, wrote much later in the century that d'Holbach was already "linked for a long time with Diderot." Since d'Holbach had not established himself in Paris until 1749, however, one can say safely that at some time between then and 1751 the two men became friends, and that by 1751 the circle of Diderot, Rousseau, Grimm and d'Holbach was flourishing. Writing of the four of them as they were in 1751, Rousseau declared that "Our principal meeting place ... was the home of Baron d'Holbach."

From this time until the end of his life, Diderot remained the intimate friend, confidant and intellectual associate of Baron d'Holbach. Extraordinarily different in temperaments and in the parameters of their speculations, the two nevertheless remained inseparable. Diderot was a constant — perhaps, with the exception of Suard, the most constant — guest at d'Holbach's dinners, both at the rue Royale and at Grandval. Once, he missed attending the gatherings of the coterie for two consecutive weeks while still in Paris and was obliged to offer explanations and apologies to the Baron. Diderot disliked the social life of Paris, and rarely accepted invitations or visited salons. To one salon alone did he offer himself wholeheartedly, and only there was he truly at ease away from home. There were many "barons" in his correspondence, but d'Holbach was always "the baron" or "our baron." They often exasperated each other, but always they quickly were reconciled. The conversations and the comfort that d'Holbach had to offer meant a great deal to Diderot, and the coterie holbachique became a major part of his life. Diderot contributed, in return, a major part of the vitality of the coterie. His verbal pyrotechnics made deep impressions on visitors and devotees of the coterie alike. Morellet, recalling in his memoirs the people with whom he had contact at d'Holbach's home, described the impact of "le Philosophe": "It was there that I heard ... Diderot, treating a question of philosophy, of the arts or of literature, and, by his impromptu exuberance, his fecundity, his inspired manner, captivating our attention for so long a time."

Friedrich-Melchior Grimm (172323-1807). Diplomat, Parisian literary and political correspondent for several European courts, and occasional contributor on German culture to the Mercure, Grimm was best known to his contemporaries as the author of a biting satire in the midst of the "music war" between partisans of French and of Italian Opera. He has become best known to historians as the author of a remarkable Correspondance litteraire, philosophiqueet critique, at once a rich journal of its time and an as yet largely unappreciated source of Grimm's own confrontation with the problems of eighteenth-century philosophy.

Grimm arrived in Paris early in 1749. At the home of the prince of Saxe-Gotha, he met Rousseau; their mutual love of music led to long discussions and an initially warm friendship. According to the Confessions, it was Rousseau who soon thereafter introduced Grimm into the salons of Paris, including that of Baron d'Holbach, wanting him to meet Diderot, Marmontel, Raynal and d'Alembert, with whom Jean-Jacques already was friendly.

For few other figures is the documentation of participation in the coterie holbachique more rich than it is for Grimm. He was Diderot's closest friend throughout most of their lives and thus the man about whom Diderot wrote most in his letters; his presence at d'Holbach's dinners was mentioned explicitly by Diderot more than that of any other individual. Grimm himself, writing to Catherine the Great in November 1779, mentioned "Baron d'Holbach, in whose home I have lived for thirty years." The word "lived," of course, was figurative, but the regularity of Grimm's attendance of the coterie and the sense of close relation which he felt towards the group made its use justifiable. In a "Philosophical Sermon," Grimm self-deprecatingly described his place within the coterie holbachique, employing the same hyperbolic Biblical flourish which had given such success to his musical satire:

Philosophical Sermon: Pronounced New Years Day, 1770. In the Great Synagogue of the Rue Royale, butte Saint-Roch, In the presence of the arch-priests, petty marquis, and other dignitaries, as well as the simple faithful of the Philosophical Communion, Professing Reason in Paris, by Me, Native of Ratisbon, Minor Prophet, and Unworthy Missionary in the Lands and Languages Beyond China, and in the North, and one of the Least among the Faithful....


Given the force of his personality and the depth of his mind, however, Grimm surely was by no means "one of the least" among the coterie, but one of the most respected and stimulating. His regular presence at d'Holbach's gatherings is attested to abundantly for every year between 1751 and 1773, when he left for Russia. Throughout the 1770s he was often away from Paris, but when he was there, he was again at d'Holbach's home. Supremely independent in his thought and in his life, he lived comfortably for over thirty years in the circle of the coterie holbachique.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from D'Holbach's Coterie by Alan Charles Kors. Copyright © 1976 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • PART I. The Coterie Holbachique and the Enlightenment, pg. 7
  • PART II. The Members of the Coterie Holbachique and the Society of the Ancien Régime, pg. 147
  • PART III. The Members of the Coterie Holbachique and the French Revolution, pg. 259
  • Bibliography, pg. 331
  • Index, pg. 347



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