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 also just the 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.
This is a book about French Enlightenment thinkers in the circle of Holbach and Diderot. The Introduction makes it clear that Blom is on the side of these clear-headed atheists and that he believes that the attitudes they fought against are still alive and kicking today, not only among religious people but also among those who have secularized religious attitudes, such as a belief that sex is dirty, that suffering ennobles or that genetic research is “playing God” and imperilling the human soul and destiny. (I find some of his characterizations of modern society in this Introduction sweeping and questionable.)
The story the book tells is an engaging mixture between vivid biographical material about the throng of intellectuals of the time and the clear exposition of their ideas. For someone new to the subject, the organization may perhaps at times be a little confusing: not only do we constantly move from one thinker to another (with a degree of repetition), but we also move backwards and forwards from the philosophers of the 18th century thinkers to those of the 17th century philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza.
Blom’s sympathies are clearly with the courageous atheists who always ran huge risks, ranging from being imprisoned (as had already happened once to Diderot in 1749) to being tortured and burnt as blasphemers (as happened to the unfortunate La Barre in 1765). Blom is implicitly critical of, for example, Voltaire, who feared to be associated with the radicalism of Holbach’s circle.
The well-known breach between the sophisticated philosophes and the neurotic and paranoid Rousseau, with its momentous philosophical consequences, is very well handled. Diderot and Rousseau had once been close friends. Diderot attached great importance to friendship, and the hurt when Rousseau savagely and publicly turned against him was something that never left him. Blom (rightly, I think) passes severe judgments on Rousseau’s character, on his philosophy and on its mostly dire influence.
Holbach was very wealthy. Except during the summer months when he retreated to his country house at Grandval where Diderot was often his house-guest for weeks at a time, he kept open house in Paris twice a week for a host of intellectuals, sometimes entertaining up to thirty guests for sumptuous meals and lively and witty discussion.
Blom’s character sketches are excellent, and Diderot emerges as a particularly attractive person and takes more and more centre-stage as the book progresses. He is a big enough man to listen to both his rational and his emotional side, torn between a mechanistic view of our behaviour and one which allows of moral choice. He came bitterly to regret the year he had spent at the court of Catharine the Great, coming to regard it as a kind of betrayal of his principles to have consorted with a despot, however enlightened she had professed to be.
The members of the circle had their philosophical differences (Blom is very good on the differences between Holbach and Diderot), but, with the exception of Rousseau who had initially attended this salon, there was always real friendship among them. Many of them contributed to the monumental Encyclopédie of which Diderot was the main editor and to which Blom has devoted a fine earlier volume (see my Amazon review of Blom’s “Encyclopédie”).
There were many visitors to Holbach’s salon from Britain and other countries. Blom is excellent on David Hume’s visit to the mainly atheistic circle in 1763, showing how Hume was even more radical than they were. He considered their philosophical belief in science as untenable as a philosophical belief in God or, for that matter, their convinced atheism. We cannot know that God exists; but we also cannot know that he does not exist: we have to be agnostic.
There is a superb chapter on the value the rationalists, and Diderot especially, attached to the erotic passions. They are nothing to be ashamed of, as the Church taught; and, as the Tahitians assumed, there is no guilt per se in indulging in the natural pleasure they give. The function of Reason is merely to make sure, in accordance with their utilitarian philosophy, that their exercise does not inflict harm on others.
In writing with enthusiasm about the Tahitians’ way of life, he also fears for what French colonialism would do to them: he is an eloquent opponent of colonialism and of slavery.
The philosophy of the Holbach-Diderot circle had done much to undermine the ancien régime; but at the height of the French Revolution, it was not to their humane republicanism that Robespierre turned, but to Rousseau’s totalitarian and quasi-religious ideas, and atheists were delivered to the guillotine. And of course the counter-revolution, the Napoleonic despotism and then the reactionary romanticism of Throne and Altar would have no use for the philosophes either. Philosophy would be dominated by the metaphysics of Kant and Hegel. Where there was respect for the Enlightenment, it was Voltaire with his deism, not Holbach or Diderot, who was regarded as its most important representative. Blom’s attractively written book has set out to redress the balance.