The Zealotry Of Free Thinkers

Many philosophes ended up gouty and spherical, despite the austerities

The history of ideas is a field that is extraordinarily difficult to popularize. Philipp Blom’s approach is to use collective biography, in the case of “A Wicked Company” the 18th-century thinkers of the Enlightenment’s “forgotten radicalism,” as he puts. They include Diderot, Hume and Rousseau, perhaps not household names like Christopher Hitchens or Oprah Winfrey, but “forgotten”—surely not?

The guests at Baron d’Holbach’s twice-weekly salons were called “wicked company” by British actor-manager David Garrick, who frequented the salons during two sojourns in Paris in the 1760s. Mr. Blom skillfully evokes the characters of these young men, who had rebelled against oppressively small-minded fathers, fleeing to the big city, where they “dared to know” before settling down to the minor celebrity they had acquired by old age. It is not the story of a major event, like the French Revolution, but it has faint ancestral resonances for the atheists, humanists and rationalists who, to popular amusement, recently threatened to arrest the pope on his visit to Britain.

The radicalism of Mr. Blom’s group of thinkers consisted of advocating democracy over monarchy and aristocracy; racial and gender equality; the right to choose one’s individual way of life; freedom of thought and expression, including freedom of the press; and, finally, religious toleration, including the right to believe in nothing at all. Most important, they thought there were no fields of human activity that might not benefit from the application of philosophic reason. Commonplace nowadays, these views were shocking at the time.

Mr. Blom focuses on the rival salons of Paris and the often fraught personal relations of his subjects. The salons were organized by aristocratic men and women, affording the philosophes opportunities to try out their literary wares and show off their quick-wittedness. Some of these convivial occasions involved gargantuan quantities of food and wine, if Mr. Blom’s sample menu offering 30 dishes is any guide. No wonder so many philosophes seem to have ended up gouty and spherical, despite the moral austerities they often enjoined on others.

The atmosphere was undoubtedly heady with speculation. The novelist Laurence Sterne noted that “an infinitude of gaiety & civility reigns among them—& what is no small art, Every man leaves the room with a better Opinion of his own Talents than when he entered.” The more skeptical historian Edward Gibbon remarked on the “intolerant zeal” of those who “preached the tenets of Atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt.” That is an arresting assessment, considering Gibbon’s own skeptical views of religious belief.

Mr. Blom’s coupling of the lives of the philosophes with their thought helps make their ideas less desiccated than they might otherwise have appeared in the hands of a more academic writer. He has an admirable ability to get to the heart of what Spinoza, Hume or Voltaire argued. If readers weary of the ins and outs of philosophical materialism, never mind, since another bodice-ripping liaison dangeureuse is just around the corner. It is useful to be reminded that Diderot, Jean d’Alembert and their contributors produced a 17-volume Encyclopédie consisting of nearly 80,000 individual articles and 20 million words, not to mention an additional 11 volumes of illustrative materials. That it was a collective enterprise probably explains why its editors did not enjoy the posthumous fame of a Kant or Voltaire.

Mr. Blom’s other strategy is the essentially romantic one of pitting his brave little band of free thinkers against a rather stereotypical “authority.” The Catholic Church (and the Calvinist fathers of Geneva) appear only as a reactionary presence, ever ready to symbolically burn books and persecute their authors, as part of an ancien régime whose complexities are not explored. That a parallel Catholic Enlightenment strove to reconcile reason with religion by jettisoning the more obviously ludicrous aspects of faith seems to have passed the author by.

As Mr. Blom concedes, the more mainstream Enlightenment thinkers were appalled by the social implications of his radicals’ views. And even the radicals themselves seemed to have had their doubts. Voltaire was not alone in wishing dark religion upon his servants, to inhibit their thieving fingers, even though he remained a deist himself. Rousseau was also, rightly, worried about the coldness of a purely material universe. And consider a love letter that Diderot wrote in 1759 to his mistress, Sophie: “If there were a kind of law of affinity among our organizing principles, if we could make up one shared being . . . if the molecules of your dissolved lover could become agitated, move and seek your molecules scattered through nature!” Poor Sophie.

Unfortunately, Rousseau’s instrumental view of “civic” religion would lead, directly, to the grotesqueries of the Jacobins’ Cult of Reason—personified by the fat actress Désirée Candéille prancing about half-naked as the “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame in 1793—and to the state’s systematic murder of those who rejected such secular cults, a prefigurement of the age of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Mr. Blom seems to be celebrating the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment for positing “a world of ignorant necessity and without higher meaning, into which kindness and lust can inject a fleeting beauty.” That view of the world is certainly embraced by their intellectual descendants today. But judging by the crowds of people I recently saw mob Pope Benedict XVI on a grim London public-housing estate, it may take more than Mr. Blom’s book to make the radical Enlightenment broadly appealing, especially since the pope’s message combines faith, love and reason.

Mr. Burleigh is the author of “Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror.”


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