Saturday, March 4, 2017

Nineteenth Century Europe. The Revolution of Life. By Leo A. Loubere.

The stated goal of Leo Loubere’s Nineteenth Century Europe, is to “to provide the reader with a general descriptive and analytical text for the period of 1814-1914” (Loubere, p. xi). In the Introduction, he writes “the theme of this book is modernization” (Loubere, p. 1). These statements set the stage for explicating his liberal-progressive view of history. Employing modernization, or what some historians call progress, Professor Loubere depicts advancement in democratic representation, rights for minorities & women, and secular challenges to institutionalized Christian clergy. He also presents the opposition to modernization/progress: autocratic governments and their supporters (aristocracy, wealth and clergy).

Politically, the author shows how “governments became increasingly liberal, that is, they both granted and safeguarded individual freedoms…managed to curtail the once absolute power of rulership” with “parliamentary bodies” and “broadened” voting rights which included women after 1914 (Loubere, pp. 1-2). Despite this cheery picture of progress, Loubere does not lose sight of oppressed industrial workers or agricultural peasants. In a passage, typical of his sympathy for the poor, he states “peasants lived off the land, and the nobles and clergy lived off the peasants” (Loubere, p. 72). Sympathy for workers and peasants results in a significant focus on the rise of Socialism, culminating in Chapter 18, “The Second Coming of Socialism.” Loubere’s emplotment, regarding the evolution of democracy, is romantic. Discussing the failed revolts of 1848, which attempted to replace monarchies with republics, he writes “Austrian generals could win battles, but they could not win the war because the real war…consisted of changing social structures and the growing power of new ideas” (Loubere, p. 131).

Loubere spends considerable time on women’s issues. Because of industrialization, “family structure, human relations, the position of women and everyday life, became transformed beyond recognition” (Loubere, pp. 2-3). However, women are not presented as simply passive leaves being blown in the wind of 19th Century forces. Throughout his narrative, the professor describes active female participation in transforming their societies and themselves. He interjects women’s issues into conversations about work, education and role expectation. He provides sections entitled “Women: Bondage and Liberation” and “Condition of Women” within his chapters.

Throughout the book, the Christian religion is presented as a regressive, harmful force in European society. While discussing science and medicine, Loubere adds the following gloss: “The immaterial, the soul or spirit, was a fiction perpetrated on society by advocates of traditional beliefs stemming from ages of gross ignorance about the world” (Loubere, p. 214).  His argument against religion is not confined to the problem of spreading superstition and ignorance. He also catalogs actions by the “alliance between altar and throne” which logistically attempts to restrain democratic progress (Loubere, p. 55). He describes how the “rural population” was “kept in check by religion” (Loubere, p. 76). He examines how in Prussia (Loubere, p. 221), France (Loubere, p. 222), and Russia (Loubere, p. 263), when reform or revolt were beaten back by absolutist force, the clergy was given the task of purging schools and universities of innovative faculty and ideas; replacing them with dogma counseling passivity. This backward thinking and action was not limited to the public sphere. Loubere characterizes “the middle class wife after about the 1870s” as “a remarkable, enlightened person” who no longer “accepted infant mortality as the will of God” (Loubere, p. 246). But he goes on to describe how churchmen attempted to counter this growth by preaching that “an educated woman was a dangerous creature” (Loubere, p. 247). Later in the century, during the land grab in Africa by European powers, clergy were right there with the soldiers “Christianizing all the heathens” (Loubere, p. 337).

Throughout his narrative, Loubere bears witness to the destructive power of violence. He sardonically describes the pattern of leftist “political revolutions, whose violent phases lasted only a few days followed by months of debate, and ending in a violent reckoning of accounts” with military reaction (Loubere, p. 70). Of course he is equally critical of establishment violence to repress society’s advance. Also, his chapter on imperialism stands as in indictment of greed-driven war against native African and Asian populations. Finally, the coda of the book, the unnecessary destruction that was World War I, concludes his criticism of “nation states…ruled by men whose minds had not yet evolved to…recognize war as a menace” (Loubere, p. 333).

Loubere is not a historian with ingenious theoretical insight. Even his emphasis on the people from a liberal-progressive perspective is nothing new; Howard Zinn beat him to it by about a decade. What Loubere offers is breadth. He presents both the activities of the rulers and those of the people, thereby offering a more whole picture than most historians. Loubere is a dissenter from those who write only about traditional power politics, the lives of the wealthy, or the dominant institutions. A reader will come away from Nineteenth Century Europe with a broader perspective.

Loubere, Leo A. Nineteenth Century Europe. The Revolution of Life. Engelwood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Sixties. Years of Hope, Days of Rage. By Todd Gitlin.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest US peace organization during the Vietnam War. It began as the student department of the League for Industrial Democracy, an Old Left democratic socialist organization that, by the 1960s “was not much more than a letterhead and a budget” (Gitlin, p. 110). Al Haber took this relic’s barely existent student branch, methodically organized it into a breathing entity concerned with social justice, and attracted activists from a number of campuses. Though concerned with a number of issues, this group coalesced at a time when US interference in Vietnam’s civil war was escalating, making peace a central focus of the SDS program.

A swirl of activism, from peace and civil rights quarters, later magnified by feminist and LGBT organizers, combined with establishment reaction and the era’s zeitgeist. What resulted was a culture-wide tornado that eventually pulled the SDS apart, ended a war, and left greater freedom and cultural innovation on the newly-swept US landscape.

Todd Gitlin was elected president of the breakaway SDS in 1963. This book is not simply a chronology of a change-filled decade’s events. It is the author’s searching attempt to make sense of what happened to him, his generation and his nation. “This is part historical reconstruction, part analysis, part memoir, part criticism, part celebration, part meditation” (Gitlin, p.4). His conclusions about politics, human behavior or outcomes, are sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic; but most often ambiguous. Given the number of strong forces moving people at the time, ambiguity is frequently the most honest response. There is no blueprint to recreate what happened in the 60s. We cannot plan the next burst of freedom. The most we can control in this whirl of chaotic forces are our own actions; and as Gitlin’s chronology demonstrates, even those choices are mined with unintended consequences: The war ended, but the peace movement blew apart. Some organizers burned-out, some joined the Weather Underground and turned to violence, some did the slow work of continued organizing for peace. Also unintended and ambiguous: as the war steadily lost popularity in the late Sixties, so did the anti-war movement” (Gitlin, p. 262).

Gitlin spends a great deal of time portraying African American Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, activists. But he admits that his experience is white, middle class, New Left and male. The journey of that demographic which he represents is common in the Western literary tradition; it most resembles the archetype of Comedy: They begin with college-age innocence and idealism. Privileged, scrubbed white kids advocating American ideals of freedom and fairness.  They continue through disillusion as these young liberals face four innocence-shattering forces: 1) A managerial Liberal government who reneges on the peace and racial justice ideals of Liberalism; 2) Excessive, repeated police/FBI violence & surveillance; 3) Expected but still shocking reactionary conservative violence; 4) Immense socio-cultural dislocation with the breaking of 1950s behavioral taboos. As is common with Comedy, there is a renewal at the end of Gitlin’s journey. A now scarred, experienced generation of activists, along with younger inheritors of their legacy, are depicted in the final chapter entitled “Carrying On.” It is 1987. The author catalogs a multitude of peace, social justice and environmental organizations. But ever the honest skeptical observer (despite his romantic goals), Gitlin cannot resist one last ambiguity which defies comic renewal: “And still there are no guarantees that noble purposes will produce the best of all possible results.” He understands that the general public is not composed of activists, not enthusiastically following their lead, and is turned-off by the Movement’s attitude. But “those who deplore the mess and wildness of social movements should ask themselves whether the world’s managers, left to their own devices, can be trusted to cease torturing and invading peoples who are inconvenient to them…to sustain the planet Earth…On one side, there remains the perennial trap of thinking the old dilemmas can be outmuscled by the good luck of youth; on the other, the trap of thinking the future is doomed to be nothing more than the past; between them, possibly, the  space to invent” (Gitlin, p. 438).

Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties. Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Liberal Awakening. 1815-1830. By Elie Halevy

When Elie Halevy wrote about a “liberal awakening,” he did not mean liberalism as it is currently understood. During the period of 1815 to 1830, liberalism was a political trend that favored middle class advancement. It was based upon the principles of capitalist economy and representative republic. Its goals were to remove obstacles to capitalism, expand the voting populace to include more prosperous untitled males, and make governments represent the interests of middle class men in parliament. Only later, when most of these goals were accomplished, did liberalism evolve to include notions of economic and social justice for all.

Though liberal goals were meant to serve middle class members of society, this book’s narration is from the point-of-view of the politicians in British government: members of parliament and ministers of the cabinet. It is useful to have a history of the ideas and actions of British government concerning reform. But one must bear in mind that this is a part, and not even the greater part, of the forces that resulted in reform. Certainly the pressure for reform came from commoners in the United Kingdom, not from government aristocrats and privileged gentlemen who were already enfranchised. The latter group would have preferred no reform.

But the perspectives and actions of middle class reformers are almost entirely excluded from Halevy’s account. It appears as if the government is pondering, worrying and acting, with minimal outside influence upon them. Though Halevy would find it impossible to ignore all public action by the middle class, their activities are either examined regarding how they affect parliament, or ignored.

This is also true for agricultural and industrial workers. While they were excluded from the liberal agenda, they were influenced by it. Workers certainly felt that, if the middle class deserved representation and consideration by government, they did as well. Again, while Halevy cannot ignore their activities, he reports them in the context of their influence upon parliamentary opinion and legislation. There are sporadic observations of protests repressed, publications censored and public gatherings attacked by troops. But there is little illustration of the organizers of protests, writers silenced or people involved in the gatherings. When Halevy addresses the Peterloo Massacre or the Manchester riots, we still never hear from the commoners massacred or rioting. The view we obtain is how government officials felt afraid when unrest happened, and the repression or concessions with which they responded. Never do we hear from a wife whose husband was shot by the troops at Peterloo, or a loom operator who saw his children go hungry on the wage he was making. As readers, we are not presented with the motives for unrest or reform. This creates an artificial half-history, wherein the state is surrendering concessions and power to a people who barely exist in the narrative. It’s like watching a boxing match where we see one boxer clearly getting hit or landing blows, while the opponent flickers in and out of existence. This view presents reform as if it is handed-down from beneficent powers above, rather than demanded from an active populace below.

Halevy’s puzzling illustration of reform, is explained by his sarcasm when approaching events outside of legislation and motions. He is particularly annoyed when individuals inspire protest which intrudes upon an otherwise orderly parliament: William Cobbett “published with noisy advertisement” a book criticizing the Protestant Reformation while the issue of Catholic Emancipation was being debated (Halevy, p. 219). Henry Hunt, a reformer in the countryside, is called “the fanatical demagogue.” (Halevy, p. 16). Those in Ireland agitating for emancipation are labeled “Irish demagogues.” (Halevy, p. 272). This petulance towards activists reveals a law and order perspective. It explains why he wrote an account of reform primarily from the view parliament and cabinet. Halevy’s version of change is an organized, quiet, top-down order. This interpretation represents neither history nor human nature.

Though Halevy reveals an annoyed, subjective attitude towards agitators from below, his descriptions of parliament and cabinet are positively robotic. Halevy was an academic historian dedicated to truthfully representing leadership with dispassion. His descriptions are dry. To be fair, the English version is a translation from the French, which may have beaten even more caffeine out of the project. Also, British parliamentary motions do not provide the most gripping read. But Halevy does bear responsibility for how he presents a topic. For example, the ascendency of Canning caused upheaval in the British cabinet, involving intense partisan acrimony and a parade of resignations. But Halevy’s description drones like a biblical set of begats as Canning cronies take over positions: “Another of Canning’s friends, Sturges Bourne, received the Home Office at the Ordnance, and the Duke of Portland succeeded Lore Westmoreland as Lord Privy Seal. W Lamb, a supporter of Catholic emancipation, replaced Goulburn as Chief Secretary for Ireland” and so on.  (Halevy, p. 252). Happily, The Liberal Awakening will not interrupt a restful night if read before bedtime.

Halevy, Elie. The Liberal Awakening. 1815-1830. Watkin, E.I. (trans.) New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1961.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. By Ralf Dose.

Born in 1868, Magnus Hirschfeld was so far ahead of his time regarding LGBTQ issues that our 21st Century Western Culture has only caught-up with him in the last decade. His view was that “homosexuality is a natural variant of human sexuality” (Dose, p. 42). Further, he was certain that sexual identity was biological, and “appealed to the findings of genetic research” (Dose, p. 43). It was not only being freely gay or lesbian that Hirschfeld supported. He also supported liberation concerning transgender identity. He invented the term “transvestite” (Dose, p. 46), and supported research into hormone therapy for sexual reassignment (Dose, p. 73). He advanced these views during a time when most of Western Civilization thought of LGBTQ people as (at best) socially degenerate or (at worst) sinful. But Hirschfeld was a medical doctor, whose motto was “through science to justice” (Dose, p. 42).

Dr Hirschfeld’s wide-ranging work included not just research, but also counseling, publishing, political activism against sodomy laws and the founding of an Institute for Sexual Science. The Institute provided classes, counseling and lectures, on sexual topics that spoke to the needs of both LGBTQ and heterosexual visitors. In addition, it sponsored parties and gatherings that fostered LGBTQ community (Dose, pp 97-103). Concerning activism, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, whose purpose was to work for “the abolishment of Paragraph 175 of the German civil code pertaining to homosexuals” (Dose, p. 73). If all of the above were not enough to define Magnus Hirschfeld as far in advance of his time, he also networked with other peace and social justice advocates around an extensive number of issues he supported: birth control, abortion rights, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prostitution reform, anti-censorship efforts, and divorce/marriage reform (Dose, pp 46-48).

There are few books in English on Magnus Hirschfeld. Of those, a minority have informational or literary merit. Ralph Dose’s offering is one of the few worth reading. Co-founder and Director of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in Berlin, Professor Dose is a writer and lecturer on topics of sex education, LGBTQ issues/politics and the history  of sex research. His book is succinct, at little more than 100 pages. But Dose wastes no space. He moves crisply though the chapters, entitled in the following order: “His Life,” “His Work,” “His Impact & Influence,” and “Epilogue: Magnus Hirschfeld in North America.”

While Dose is undoubtedly a fan, whose work and interests mirror those of his subject, this book is no hagiography. Throughout, Professor Dose is critical of the doctor’s performance as an expert witness (Dose, p. 45), his “high-handedness” with aligned political organizations (Dose, p. 48), his disastrous testicular transplant experiments (Dose, p. 74), and his advocacy of eugenics (Dose, p. 78). Dose presents Hirschfeld as a great and flawed pioneer; and pioneers rarely place every footstep on solid ground.

As the Nazis ascended to prominence, Hirschfeld (an outspoken gay, Jewish, leftist activist with unconventional theories), became an endangered species. He survived one near fatal beating when his assailants thought he was dead. Then, on May 6, 1933, The Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked by a mob of “National Socialist physical education students” (Dose, p. 65). Hirschfeld was out of the country, concluding a worldwide lecture tour. He never returned to Germany and died in Nice, in 1935.

Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement will acquaint a reader with the life, work and ideas of a surprisingly forward-thinking individual. In spite of its dreary endgame, the doctor’s life is an inspiring example. It reveals that, despite being born into unenlightened, unsupportive circumstances, one has the capacity to grow and act in a manner that is far in advance of one’s environment.

Dose, Ralf. Magnus Hirschfeld. The Origins of the Gay Liberation Movement. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014.

Monday, January 2, 2017

An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. By Sigmund Freud.

Sigmund Freud did not invent the concept of the human unconscious. That idea had been conceived in a variety of mythologies which preceded him by thousands of years. But he did offer a comprehensive theory of its form and function. Freud also gave humankind a tool for accessing unconscious motivations: psychoanalysis. With this tool, repressed Western societies were able to experience the alleviation of emotional suffering.

An Outline of Psycho-Analysis comes from the pen of Freud, through the translator, to us. Condensed in the space of 90 pages are the key features in Freud’s theory of mind. The Viennese doctor wrote this survey “for professionals, or intelligent laymen willing to pay close attention” (Freud, p. xxi). He begins with a Part One, describing how he views “the psychical apparatus;” involving his division of the unconscious into id, ego and super-ego. The remainder of Part One is parsed among chapters on the interactions of these structures in healthy and unhealthy psyches, along with an elucidation of the value of dream interpretation.

Part Two addresses the technique of psychoanalysis, exemplifying how an analyst is to view and work with a patient. Contained in this section are several ideas about personality that remain in use by mental health professionals today: repression, narcissism, sibling rivalry and so on. However, Freud also expresses the majority of his unsubstantiated analytical legends which say more about his personal psyche than that of the general human population. He discusses the Oedipal Complex, Castration Complex, Female Penis Envy and a number of other propositions which have not withstood psychological exploration over time. It is important to remember that, while many of the doctor’s individual conclusions are now seen as quaint or wrong-headed, Freud’s lasting contributions involve his development of a comprehensive theory regarding the unconscious and his creation of a method to access that unconscious. The reader is fortunate to have this primary document to exemplify a step in the historical development of an idea. Few progenitors of new disciplines get everything right at the beginning. Just look at how medical science has advanced from the theory of bodily humors and the practice of bleeding, to a profession that has cured various cancers. But these excuses aside, Freud’s parents must have been the Lord and Lady Macbeth of the Viennese Jewish community.

Part Three ends the book with “a survey of the increases in knowledge” credited to Freud’s profession, along with consideration of “paths” opened by psychology “for further advances” (Freud, p. 81). Admirably, Dr. Freud includes some self-criticism regarding the limits of understanding during his time. For example, he describes the operation of the unconscious as “a complicated set of simultaneous events” that are improperly described “successively,” thereby presenting these workings inaccurately (Freud, p. 94). The writing of this book commenced in 1938, when Freud was 82 years-old. Though technically it was never finished, a non-fiction reader will gain from it a complete understanding of the essentials of Freudian theory and psychoanalysis.

Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. By Hayden White.

Hayden White’s Metahistory presents a unique historical-literary method of analysis. His technique is reductive. White draws together the ideas of various historians, philosophers and literary critics, using their work as a surgical kit for dissecting the narratives of 19th Century historians. From Roman Jakobson and Claude Levi-Strauss, he obtains the “Theory of Tropes” (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony). From Northrop Frye comes archetypes in plot structure (comedy, romance, tragedy and satire/irony). Stephen C. Pepper supplies four paradigms of discursive argument (formism, organicism, mechanism and contextualism). Karl Mannheim provides ideological implications which White simplifies to four basics (anarchism, conservatism, radicalism and liberalism).

While one may look at Professor White’s categories, and discover areas where addition or subtraction of one or another element could be useful, the idea of examining historical writing by using literary methods is sound. Historians do not merely provide chronologies of events. They explain events. As soon as one takes the purported facts of a chronology and orders them into a coherent plot, the endeavor becomes literary. It is understandable that historians would resist a characterization of their work as literary. Although it is obvious that investigators of history cannot claim to be doing hard science, they like to think that their writing is based upon evidence; therefore closer to science than literature. In spite of historians’ efforts, personal prejudices and influences (social or historical) will affect their work. White’s surgical kit can be used by students of history as some of the tools to examine a composition. This provides a necessary challenge to the closed world that a historian creates in her book; a challenge that keeps the profession honest.

After a highly theoretical introduction, revealing the tools with which he will reduce a work, White launches into a first chapter that sets the stage. He presents the ironic scholarship of the 18th Century Enlightenment. After this, he gets down to the business of parsing the works of the following century’s “realist” historians and historical philosophers. These are some of the most fascinating minds of the 19th Century. The body of the book is illuminating for both the unique methods employed by White and for the brilliant individuals whose interpretations of history influenced Western Civilization from their century onward. Chapter Two focuses on Hegel as a transitional and foundational philosopher of history, ending Part One. Part Two examines the historians Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville and Bruckhart. Part Three examines the philosophers of history Marx, Nietzsche and Croce.

White does an excellent job of avoiding pitfalls that would distract from exemplifying his theory. There certainly are temptations. It would have been satisfying to skewer the clownish Jules Michelet whose breathy patriotism characterizes France, in the first year of the Revolution, as advancing “through that dark winter [of 1789-90] towards the wished-for spring which promises a new light to the world,” then calls this development “a miracle.” (White, p. 151). His one digression from describing Michelet in literary and theoretical terms is when he comments on “another of those lyrical effusions in which he [Michelet] offended both reason and science.” (White, p. 157). But occasional petulance is understandable when examining Michelet. With Karl Marx, it is always tempting to interject one’s political opinions. But White keeps his head down and remains committed to his task. “My own approach to the study of Marx’s thought moves [political and economic] questions to the periphery of discussion. My aim is to specify the dominant style of Marx’s thought about the structures and processes of history-in-general…even though one may be inclined to do different kinds of things on the basis of a belief in one philosophy’s truth.” (White p. 183).

The work of the speculative philosophers in Part Three necessarily takes one a step away from physical reality to meditate on the abstract. White’s addition of literary criticism draws one further away from applying ideas to the mundane world. For example, when Nietzsche begins discussing the threefold divisions of the forms of historical consciousness (antiquarian, critical and monumental), the reader is placed in an abstract realm where one is no longer looking at the work of individual historians as applied to a subject in the physical world. Once White adds his analysis of Nietzsche’s analysis, examining how the three forms relate to metonymy, synecdoche and irony respectively, we have achieved lift-off and cannot even see the ground due to the philosophical clouds between our skyward analytical vehicle and earth. (White p. 351). The same phenomenon occurs when White explains Croce’s view that “the utterance of any sentence is such that it always changes the entire linguistic endowment of the speech community” and “each successive word transforms retroactively the function of all the words coming before it.” (White p. 390). One must be thinking too abstractly about the importance words, and not concretely enough about their location in real books, to make such a statement. But speculative philosophy always runs the risk of losing its connection to the concrete world.

White’s blueprint for examining the literary aspects of historical writing is a useful instrument. It permits the reader to see what cultural devices influence a historian’s prose and ideas. If a narrator has grown-up within an educational system that offers certain limits on written expression, those limits will be evident in that person’s writing style. In addition, the choice of emplotment reveals a historian’s prejudices: If Michelet writes about the French Revolution as a romance, and Burke writes about it as a tragedy, much is revealed about their political perspective and how they are attempting to influence the reader. There are, of course, numerous metahistorical strategies to decipher the influences upon historians of any period; just look at the dominant movements, political systems and critical modes of their times. But White’s focus is of equal value. By the end of his book, the reader is not only presented with a picture of 19th Century historiography, but also has acquired a set of useful and innovative tools with which to microscopically evaluate some methods and intentions of any historian she chooses to read.

White, Hayden. Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Wicked Company. The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. By Philipp Blom.

A Wicked Company is a dream book for historically-minded atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers, of various persuasions. It centers around the brilliant salon of luminaries who gathered bi-weekly at Baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s home in Paris between 1750 and the late 1780s. These were the crowning years of the Enlightenment, when innovative freethinkers crowded into Paris, inspiring and arguing with each other. Paris radiated their ideas to the rest of Europe. There were numerous regulars and guests of note at d’Holbach’s salon: David Hume, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Edward Gibbon, Denis Diderot and many others whose ideas shaped this era. Women were notably absent, which is anomalous among salons of the time, when women were hostesses and participants in the most popular gatherings. Despite his many connections with intelligent women, the Baron was unable to see that they could participate in a serious gathering where feelings could be hurt in the cut and thrust of intense exchange. There were limits to d’Holbach’s enlightenment.

The two protagonists of this book whose lives we follow, are Denis Diderot and Baron d’Holbach. They were among the most important and influential atheists of the Eighteenth Century, and their friendship sustained them through a political environment dominated by Catholic clergy, absolutist monarchy and censorship, against which they struggled. Given that one could be arrested for impious views (Diderot was), or even executed (like Jean-Francois de la Barre in 1766), opposition could be risky. The reader is treated to satisfying clandestine schemes by d’Holbach which enraged and undermined religious and political authorities. He regularly wrote anti-theist manuscripts under pseudonyms, smuggled them out of Paris to be published abroad, then had the books smuggled back into Paris to be read by a vast swath of literate society. Diderot, for his part, encoded his project, the Encyclopedie, with countless irreligious definitions, descriptions and diatribes, which evaded the authorities and made it into the most respectable homes, where their meanings were understood by the astute.

Philipp Blom is a fluid narrator; but his citation skills are a bit sloppy. For example, he discusses how d’Holbach’s “first qualms about religion had appeared during his study of geology,” but offers no note to verify this claim. (Blom, p. 96). Endnotes are necessary evidence in any history, but even more important when the subjects are controversial people whose views are still challenged.

Another area where Blom’s enterprise becomes bumpy concerns his thesis. The introduction begins “You can lose for all sorts of reasons,” and describes that “there is something like a stock market for reputations…If Plato’s stock is riding above that of Aristotle…then we are more likely to translate Plato’s thinking into our language.” (Blom, p. ix). He reasons that, since Diderot and d’Holbach’s atheism has been forgotten, this means that their ideas have no currency. Yes, few people know of Diderot beyond his Encyclopedie, and d’Holbach is almost universally neglected. But the notion that “their ideas fell from grace…and were all but written out of history” (Blom, p. ix) shows little understanding of historical processes. To say, in effect, “the good guys lost,” indicates an unsophisticated way of examining history. Among its’ more important functions, history exists to 1) teach about what happened in the past, 2) illustrate human events or people, and 3) show development in the direction of the present. One may certainly delve deeper to find additional uses for the field, but keeping score is not one of the more intricate, useful paths of exploration. If one is seeking immediate gratification where winning and losing are central, I suggest basketball. Rarely, in history, do ideas precipitate immediate cataclysm within a civilization. Discussions regarding religious authority vs science; atheism vs religion; reason vs superstition; are ongoing processes.

Fortunately, one can ignore the simplistic thesis and enjoy an immensely well-told true story of glittering discussions, by important cultural figures, in Europe’s then central city; as well as appreciate the intrigue of secretly disseminating banned works under the nose of intolerant authorities. A Wicked Company is an intellectual and cultural treasure that offers inspiration to freethinking people in the present. Diderot and d’Holbach show us that there have been predecessors dedicated to rational thought and scientific method; who created enclaves of reason amidst superstition and ignorance, and struggled to enlighten the world.

Blom, Philipp. A Wicked Company. The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. New York: Basic Books, 2010.