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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

“A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment”, by Philipp Blom

384 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465014538

At first glance, it seems absurd to propose that Denis Diderot, one of the Enlightenment names known to almost everyone, is forgotten, but Philipp Blom, wearing erudition lightly, makes a persuasive case. In his retelling, there was a radical enlightenment, centered on Diderot and Baron d’Holbach, that was atheist, scientific and humane, but it was sabotaged by the deist Voltaire and usurped by the treacherous (and crazy) Rousseau. It was also, of course, hounded by reaction, and if there is a hole in A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment it is the lack of any real description of the official opposition to modernity. It could be found elsewhere, but it really needed to be found here, too.

There were many satellites of Diderot and d’Holbach, some of whose names are remembered: David Garrick was the one who named d’Holbach’s salon a wicked company. But Diderot and d’Holbach, in addition to being close friends, represented the range of opinion and personality within the radical Enlightenment. d’Holbach was the uncompromising atheist who believed in the “machine man.” If he was right, there is not much more to be said about the human condition. Personally, he was the more attractive, generous, a devoted husband, loyal friend, courageous man of principle, living refutation of the charge that atheists cannot be moral.

Diderot was as much an atheist, though he fuzzed up his stance somewhat, and his understanding of humanity was closer to enlightened modern views; that humans are emotional before they are rational and that psychology is the way into understanding. Diderot was a somewhat less attractive neighbor than d’Holbach, though probably preferable to any of the priests and stooges who tried to destroy him. In any event, his view of human nature is amorphous enough to discuss endlessly, although I have a hard time summoning up as much admiration as Blom feels for Diderot’s fiction, which is how he characteristically expressed his philosophical opinions.

Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that the French enlightenment was far too radical, and there is much to support that view here. Strict empiricism led to a vigorous anti-Christian, atheist orientation. Materialism prevailed as the dominant approach. Also at work was an evolutionary philosophy, way ahead of the later Darwin. Utilitarian ideas were also embraced. The substitution of scientific truth for God was well developed, although Hume disputed their faith that progress would lead to perfection. Nor did the Baron himself trust scientific empiricism over the senses: his goal was the maximization of “refined” pleasure and the enhancement of passion.

I think the great advantage of this book is that it does not just lay out some of the important intellectual positions of the group (even the best written analyses of such ideas can become a bit overwhelming after a while). Here, instead, Blom has portrayed the group as individuals, giving us an understanding of them as persons, as they interacted together, and I found this approach much more lively and interesting. A “Glossary of Protagonists” facilitates keeping all of these individuals straight.

In a concluding chapter, the author discusses why he believes the group’s ideas soon faded in prominence, what he terms a “stolen revolution”. Principally, he points to some remarkably timid leaders of the French revolution as being behind this. The “stolen revolution” thesis is interesting, since Himmelfarb (again) argued that most liberal academics had underplayed the significance of the British enlightenment in favor of the French.

Writing solid intellectual history that is both informative and interesting is quite a challenge, but Blom has met it in this fine book. The millions of victims of the ideals of communism, religion and racism in the past couple of centuries would have been better off if the flexible, humane radicals had prevailed over the inflexible and cruel respectable people.

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