From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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.
Blom here returns to the field of an earlier triumph (Enlightening the World: Encylopédie, the Book That Changed the Course of History, 2005) to take the measure of Encyclopédie’s editor, Denis Diderot. Placing Diderot in the natural habitat of Enlightenment philosophes, the Parisian salon circa 1750, Blom presents one Diderot habituated, hosted by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach. Baron who? readers may wonder, but d’Holbach attracted Diderot, Rousseau, and Hume to his salon and also penned atheistic philosophical tracts. If those endure less in intellectual history than the writings of his guests, d’Holbach’s hospitality receives Blom’s recognition as an incubator of the Enlightenment. Over the baron’s table, as conversationalists volleyed their subversions of the ancien régime and then crystallized the badinage into published works, Blom pauses to summarize its arguments. Those who might not be pleased with such paraphrasing might be placated by Blom’s interludes about the relationships among d’Holbach’s group, their japes, their lusts, their acrimonies: Rousseau, the great lover of humanity, hated Diderot and Hume. A perceptive, readable portrayal of a seminal coterie in the history of ideas. --Gilbert Taylor