Wicked Company

By Sean Carroll | November 5, 2010 8:42 am

Via 3 Quarks Daily, an Economist review of what looks like a fun book: Philipp Blom’s A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.

It is the story of the scandalous Paris salon run by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach, a philosophical playground for many of the greatest thinkers of the age. Its members included Denis Diderot (most famous as the editor of the original encyclopedia, but, Mr Blom argues, an important thinker in his own right), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of romanticism, and the baron himself; even David Hume, a famous Scottish empiricist, paid the occasional visit.

I have a special fondness for these guys, having taught a course about them. As much as I am a forward-thinking person, the modern mode of expression by freethinkers (pounding out passionate diatribes on our keyboards) isn’t quite as much fun as gathering in a salon among good food and drink to denounce hypocrisy and spread the Enlightenment message.

Apparently Blom’s historical account has a contemporary message:

Even today, and even in secular western Europe, the bald and confident atheism and materialism of Diderot and Holbach seems mildly shocking. We still cling stubbornly to the idea of an animating soul, a spiritual ghost in the biological machine. For Mr Blom, the modern, supposedly secular world has merely dressed up the “perverse” morality of Christianity in new and better camouflaged ways. We still hate our bodies, he says, still venerate suffering and distrust pleasure.

This is the message of Mr Blom’s book, hinted at but left unstated until the closing chapters. He believes the Enlightenment is incomplete, betrayed by its self-appointed guardians. Despite all the scientific advances of the past two centuries, magical thinking and the cultural inheritance of Christianity remain endemic.

Sounds pretty darn accurate. Let’s order some bottles of wine and get this job finished!

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  • Grad Student

    From the title, I thought this might be about spending the weekend in Montreal with the philosophers :)

  • spyder

    With so much information available at our fingertips, one would think we would have an enlightened and rational way to govern ourselves, or at least be able to reduce the sheer volume of irrational and senseless babble that pretends to be appeals for voting. Three hundred+ years later, i think we have actually devolved.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    Blom’s work is part of a larger reappraisal of the Enlightenment that’s been going on for some years now. The Princeton historian Jonathan Israel, in particular, has put out a series of impressive books that make the case for the significance of what he calls the radical Enlightenment, the atheistic and democratic Enlightenment whose great initiator was Spinoza. Israel shows in great detail how this movement, despised and persecuted, was really more significant in the long run than the more familiar moderate Enlightenment of Voltaire and others who made their peace with religion and the authoritarian state. What might be called the commonsense of educated people in the 21st Century was first enunciated in Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Israel defines the radical enlightenment “as a package of basic concepts and values [that] may be summarized in eight cardinal points: (1) adoption of philosophical (mathematical-historical) reason as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true; (2) rejection of all supernatural agency, magic, disembodied spirits, and divine providence; (3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual); (4) secular ‘universalism’ in ethics anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity; (5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking; (6) personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults, safeguarding the dignity and freedom of the unmarried and homosexuals; (7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press, in the public sphere; (8) democratic republicanism as the most legitimate form of politics.”

  • Origami

    Thanks for the recommendation! This seems to be a very interesting book indeed (after reading 20% of Kindle edition).

  • bittergradstudent


    Considering that we’re living in a world mostly free of a landed aristocarcy, serfdom and slavery, and in which colonial empires are becoming more of a thing of the past (though not wholly excised), can you really say that? I have mixed feelings about these guys, sitting in opulence and engaging in their personal vendettas (Rousseau was driven from the salons due to being a commoner, for example), and claiming to be the vanguard of justice, while life for 99% of people of the time was a life of nonstop toil and disease.

    Its a condition that still persists today, but lets not kid ourselves about 18th century Britain and France.

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  • Sorpozhi

    I am surprised that some are shocked that the Enlightenment did not run its supposed course. But why? The reformation that came earlier was simply the abandonment of the Catholic hierarchy for a man made hierarchy guided by man’s own conscience in search of – you guessed it right – god! So we are still reaching for that explanatorily intelligible account of the cosmos. No one has in the last 30 years brought this to our notice than S. N. Balagangadhara and his collaborators at Univ of Ghent.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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