Dangerous (Thinking) Liaisons

Review of A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment, by Philipp Blom (New York: Basic Books, 2010)

Philipp Blom's explicit aim in writing this book is to rehabilitate the historical reputation of the overlooked radical Enlightenment, especially in relation to the esteem now given to what he terms the moderate, or 'soft' Enlightenment. Chief amongst these radicals of the latter half of the Eighteenth Century are Denis Diderot and Baron Paul Thiry Holbach, while the moderates' banner is carried primarily by Rousseau and Voltaire.

Cover of A Wicked Company The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom
Cover of A Wicked Company The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment
by Philipp Blom.

Diderot is remembered today mostly as a compiler of others people's work in his role as editor of the Encyclopédie, although he wrote a number of his own philosophical works, letters and commentaries.  Holbach is scarcely remembered at all, though he also wrote numerous philosophical treatises. Blom argues that Holbach's most important contribution, however, was hosting the most radical of salons in his Paris home.  Though the events of the book take us from St. Petersberg to Tahiti, the center of this radical Enlightenment is the Baron's house at 10, rue des Moulins, "the epicenter of intellectual life in Europe." The number of intellectual giants that graced the Baron's table is so great that Blom appends a helpful glossary of protagonists.

What then distinguished the radicalism of the thinkers so gathered?  In a word, atheism.  Not content with the deism of Voltaire and Rousseau, Holbach's coterie extend the Enlightenment critique of Christianity to all religion, and dismissed all metaphysics as unknowable. In its place, they venerated science, materialism, reason and natural passions. Thus followed a disdain for aristocracy and absolute monarchs, and other surprisingly modern attitudes, such as a higher regard for the intellectual capacities of women, a rejection of shameful attitudes toward sexuality, and a noteworthy critique of slavery.

Blom's work is not merely a history of philosophical debates, but is an entertaining and readable history of the colorful lives of its characters. As well as their intellectual combat, the love affairs, squabbles, bitter fallings-out, and personal foibles of the Enlightened are all exposed, almost as if Blom has channeled the gossips of the time.  The social circles of the European Enlightenment were quite small, and most of the participants had regularly corresponded, if not dined together.  In this atmosphere, any philosophical dispute was also personal.

If the Radicals are to be elevated, then the moderates are to be taken down a peg in comparison.  Blom suggests that Voltaire's less-than-enthusiastic reception of the radicals was motivated not only by jealousy that he could be supplanted by them as the elder statesman of the Enlightenment, but also because he had become a wealthy banker, and thus was dependent on the good will of his clientele, which included many of the aristocracy that the radicals attacked.

Rousseau receives the worst criticism, however, both of his politics and his personal affairs. Politically, his misanthropy and pessimism leads him to craft an ideal state that justifies a ruthless dictatorship, an inspiration for tyrants from Robespierre to Pol Pot.   Personally, his increasing paranoia causes him to turn his back on his former friends amongst the radicals, and accuse them of betrayals and conspiracies to humiliate him.  When Holbach sends him a gift of his favorite wine, Rousseau can only see the gesture as an intentional snub and an insinuation of poverty.

While Holbach and Diderot are the clear heroes of the work, they are not portrayed without their flaws, nor are Voltaire and Rousseau depicted without sympathy.  For the true villains of this story are not the radicals' rival philosophers, but the censors of the church and state, whose disapproving presence looms menacingly over the proceedings.  Blom reminds us of their menace when he points out that in 1768, some readers of Holbach's anti-clerical Christianity Unveiled were flogged, branded, and sentenced to years of hard labor for the crime of merely owning copies of the book, and a young nobleman, the Chevalier de la Barre had been tortured, his tongue pierced, beheaded, and his corpse burned at the stake for  the crime of blasphemy in 1766.  As such denouncing the radicals as atheists was not merely a rhetorical device, but could result in their death. 

So why then were these radicals forgotten? In part, it was because they had been forced to write their works anonymously, and many were written "for the drawer", only to be published posthumously.  In fact, after Diderot was arrested and imprisoned in 1749 for writing the atheistic work Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See, he had been released only under the condition that he sign a letter agreeing to not write any further blasphemous works.  Blom also argues, many have since overlooked the subversive, materialistic content Diderot imbedded in the Encyclopédie itself.  Many of their works were also lost or misattributed for years.

But Blom's primary cause for the historical obscurity of the radical Enlightenment was that it was too radical for the revolution that followed. Just as the French Revolution eventually created in Napoleon a ruler more absolute than the Bourbon kings, and spawned a Terror greater in scope than that of the Bastille, so was the Enlightenment pressed into service of the new, authoritarian regime.  Robespierre saw the deism of Rousseau and Voltaire as well suited for creating a new state religion to serve the Revolution.  Atheism was seen to be as much of a threat to the Revolutionary government as it had been to Royalist Catholicism, and so Robespierre had Rousseau venerated, the radicals reviled, and atheism burned in effigy. Thus, the bones of Rousseau and Voltaire repose in the Panthéon, while those of Diderot and Holbach lie forgotten and unmarked in an obscure church crypt.

Blom further argues that the radicals continued to be ignored in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the Enlightenment thought of Kant and Voltaire was more supportive of industrial capitalism and imperialism than that of the radicals. A provocative idea, nevertheless it needs more support than he provides.  Are we to believe that the robber barons put serious thought into which Enlightenment thinkers best supported their agenda?

While the book is well researched, it is lightly footnoted and Blom is often content to tell us what his subjects thought, rather than let them speak in their own words. Nevertheless, Blom has successfully made his case for a reappraisal of the radicals of the Enlightenment, and as such this book will be of interest to intellectual historians, those interested in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, as well as the New Atheists, in search of their intellectual ancestors.