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A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment Hardcover – November 2, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.

From Booklist

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (November 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465014534
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465014538
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,198,733 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I loved this book and found it difficult to put down. It gains strength as it goes on. In the initial chapters I wasn't always enthralled as I acquired the book hoping to discover more about the history and philosophy and science of the Enlightenment and found certain chapters emphasizing personalities and biography too much (thought this was certainly not the fault of the book's description, which correctly represents itself as concerned with the personalities and lives of the key characters). Incidentally, the book goes very very little into Enlightenment science, but again that's not its purpose. There are parts of the book that go overboard on the soap opera, but this isn't a fault of Blom's; it's simply telling the story of Hollbach's salon and the personal relations of those attached to it. Again, it's simply something I wanted less of due to my own interests--though I must admit I got more interested in the personal aspects as I went along, due to Blom's fetching narrative of fascinating personalities. Therefore, for my proclivities, the strongest early chapters are those on Hume, Descartes and Spinoza. Throughout this wide-ranging and well-researched book, the author does a superb job of distilling the important ideas of the figures' beliefs and philosophies. He does so in an exemplary and clear manner without dumbing things down. Witness the great chapter on Rousseau (Chpt. 12, "The Bear").

In the early chapters I felt that Blom was riding his atheistic hobby horse too much and neglecting other key aspects of the salon regulars. However, this judgment turned out to be premature and wrong as the book eventually takes on many other matters.
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Format: Hardcover
Philipp Blom has proven himself a fine writer of intellectual histories that are learned without sacrificing broad appeal to general readers. I previously enjoyed The Vertigo Years and his current A Wicked Company impresses me further.

Here he focuses on a group of intellectuals with connections to the Paris salon of Baron Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach during the 1750-1780 period. Denis Diderot is the chief protagonist, but Holbach himself, David Hume (who attended the salon during a stay in France, though not a "radical"), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a salon drop-out), among others, also receive considerable attention. Blom substantively covers many of their ideas, relates biographical highlights, and conveys the flavor of their personalities, ambitions, and abilities. It all meshes into a sustained narrative.

The author believes that the reputation of the Enlightenment "radicals" (Diderot especially, but also Holbach and a few others) has suffered in comparison to more moderate figures (Voltaire and Kant, notably) and to Rousseau. The falling out of Rousseau with Diderot and Hume is one of the principal sub-plots of this volume.

Blom portrays an atheistic and sensualist Diderot, inclinations that were necessarily toned down in his public writing (he had once been imprisoned for his views). He was ahead of his time in several respects, with materialist and evolutionary ideas that anticipated Darwin, a nuanced appreciation of the irrational elements of human nature, and opposition to slavery, for example. Unlike Holbach, who believed that truth was knowable based on observation and that reason could eliminate superstition and bring about a just society, Diderot remained more skeptical.

Blom credits the radical philosophes with several achievements.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an interesting book that provides some little-known connections between the larger-known set of ideas that we largely recognize as the "Enlightenment," and is especially aimed at the general reader. Those whose knowledge of the intellectual side of the Enlightenment is moderate to extensive will gain little from the book, but it was still interesting to learn about some of the private lives, loves, and feuds of the people involved therein.

Blom's ultimate emphasis here is on the so-called "radical" Enlightenment, as opposed to the moderate Enlightenment of thinkers like Voltaire. The latter still flirted with the political status quo and entertained deism. After all, Voltaire made his fortune by loaning vast sums of money to European monarchs; it's difficult to rock the boat of ideas when your financial security depends on it. Those of the radical Enlightenment were not afraid to take reason, science, and materialism to its ultimate limits: there are many of them, but the major figures include Baron Holbach, Diderot, d'Alembert, Buffon, Grimm, and Hume. One figure he decidedly excludes from his radical favorites is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, choosing to portray him, rightly or wrongly, as a paranoid megalomanic.

After giving some initial biographical information of the characters that loom the largest in the book - Diderot, Holbach, and Rousseau - we proceed to learn more about their thought and their circle of what are usually considered more minor friends. Blom intermittently keeps referring back to Holbach's twice-weekly dinners that would often be attended some of the greatest minds in Europe.
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