This is an enthralling look at the Enlightenment in Pre-Revolutionary Paris and, in particular, at one of the many famous salons there - that of Baron d'Holbach. His salon was different from most, often grander salons, which were headed by ladies who wished to encourage literature. Holbach's was more of a male preserve, and he attracted free thinkers, philosophers and scientists. Along with early friends, such as Diderot and Rousseau, his house became a magnet for those thinkers and intellectuals who wished to replace religion with science. The Enlightenment battle cry was "Sapere aude!" - "Dare to know!", but this was easier said that done in a time where the Church and State imposed heavy censorship. Diderot found himself in prison for a while and Holbach himself was forced to publish books under false names and to smuggle chapters out of the country, using ruses such as having different people to copy them out to disguise his own handwriting. Diderot spent most of his life compiling the magnificent "Encyclopadie", but even something, as seemingly innocuous as listing things in alphabetical order, rather than giving precedence to certain topics, was seen as dangerous in those times.
Despite the dangers in their beliefs, the salon became famous throughout Europe. David Hume, who arrived in Paris in 1763 to take up assignment as embassy secretary, was well known for his six volume "History of England". This was seen as daring, as it would have been impossible to write such a work on French history. He was feted, as all Paris scrambled to meet him. Diderot and Holbach (by now, Rousseau had fallen out with a previous friends, as he would also fall out later with Hume), spoke excellent English. They attracted Hume to their salon, as they did other international visitors, including the actor David Garrick and the Italian Cesare Becccaria, who opposed the death penalty.
These were heady times and the group were attacking religion, were against slavery, calling for better education for girls and suggesting that humans were oppressed by religion and should be looking at The Pursuit of Happiness. However, despite all the ideas and philosophy in this book, it is really the human story of a group of men and their lives. About their relationships and the arguments between them and Rousseau, who had become a successful author in his own right and who felt persecuted. Rousseau also successfully combined sentiment with a philosophical defence of religion, which was more acceptable to the majority of people. Also, the whole group were looked on from exile, by Voltaire, afraid that his position was being usurped.
The events and circumstances were against these men, and their ideas. Yet, still they flourished and their ideas could not be repressed. These group of men were advocating ideas that were totally unacceptable at that time - they supported the American revolution and concluded sometimes that only a revolution could rid oppressed people of violence from above. Paris would see that revolution and some of the ideas which led to it, certainly emerged from the salon of Baron d'Holbach, although ultimately they were rejected by Robespierre as being too dangerous. The people who believed that freedom would come when the last King had been strangled by the last Priest's entrails, were rejected in favour of their rival Rousseau. Yet, no group of people had done so much to change the society's way of thinking and, at one time, they were the centre of the intellectual elite. Fascinating read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a last comment, I read the kindle edition of this book and it contained illustrations.