A Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-revolutionary Paris, by Philipp Blom, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£25, 385 pages
In his new book A Wicked Company, Philipp Blom achieves a rare feat. His aim is to shed new light on a hitherto obscure chapter in the history of 18th-century French thought. More precisely, he resurrects the life and times of Baron d’Holbach, Denis Diderot and their circle of friends, lovers and enemies who met in d’Holbach’s house on rue des Moulins in Paris.
This group constituted the Radical Enlightenment, a philosophical school driven by uncompromising atheism and which has been half-forgotten in the wake of what Blom calls the victory of the “soft Enlightenment” – the legacy of Rousseau and Voltaire, which is both “Deist” and Utopian. The trick that Blom pulls off with such dazzling aplomb is to make the story he tells timely, compelling and occasionally even thrilling.
This is partly because Blom is such a stylish and clever writer: his prose is as lucid and elegant as any of his 18th-century heroes. But it’s also because the history of d’Holbach and his friends has a great deal to tell us about the way we live now. Most crucially, Blom describes how d’Holbach’s thought is predicated on the importance of challenging totalitarian systems, whether in religion or politics.
He does this in his discovery of the all too human truth that idealism never works. This is d’Holbach’s central contribution to political thought, and it is from this position that Blom is able to argue with a convincing swagger that the real history of mankind is not about big ideas but really a matter of “muddling through”.
In his day, Baron d’Holbach had a reputation as great as Voltaire or Rousseau, whom he knew, and was famous both for his atheism and his attachment to food, drink, conversation, writing and sex as the fundamental principles of human existence. In Blom’s portrait he emerges as a kind of 18th-century Christopher Hitchens – a hedonistic contrarian with a compassionate streak. In this he was matched by Diderot, who these days is mainly feted for the Encyclopédie – the encyclopedic dictionary of the arts and sciences of that day and one of the great literary monuments of the 18th century. Diderot was also a sensualist, a great conversationalist (his talk was compared to a fireworks display) and a passionate enemy of all established form of authority, especially God.
The cast of characters assembled around d’Holbach’s table included Edward Gibbon, David Hume, Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin. It was the English actor David Garrick who dubbed the circle “a wicked company” and, as Blom takes us closer to listen in on debates on morality, society and the evil of lies and religion, it’s easy to imagine Richard Dawkins or indeed Hitchens in the fray.
No less modern is the circle’s views on sex – free love, lesbianism and homosexuality are matters of no more moral consequence than choosing between apples and oranges: a liberal and humane view that is the basis for a very 21st-century form of morality based on tolerance rather than scripture.
Most interesting of all is Blom’s coda to the book, which paints a pen portrait of the Marquis de Sade – exactly the kind of free-thinking revolutionary who might be assumed to be the heir of d’Holbach’s atheism, pursuing philosophical freedom to its breaking point in cruelty and crime. Not so, says Blom; de Sade is the very opposite of d’Holbach’s radicalism, which posited that humans were fundamentally motivated by the pursuit of enlightened self-interest – this is what he meant by “society” – rather than the empty and grubby gratification of individual needs, such as to be found in de Sade’s fantasies of rape or murder. D’Holbach’s philosophy posits, in contrast, that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, but that it is quite close.
In this spirit, Blom’s book is not only a pleasure to read but also a celebration of the real and material joys to be found in the godless universe.
Andrew Hussey is dean of the University of London Institute in Paris