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.