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A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism…

A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (2010)

by Philipp Blom

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This is an interesting book that provides some little-known connections between the larger-known set of ideas that we largely recognize as the "Enlightenment," and is especially aimed at the general reader. Those whose knowledge of the intellectual side of the Enlightenment is moderate to extensive will gain little from the book, but it was still interesting to learn about some of the private lives, loves, and feuds of the people involved therein.

Blom's ultimate emphasis here is on the so-called "radical" Enlightenment, as opposed to the moderate Enlightenment of thinkers like Voltaire. The latter still flirted with the political status quo and entertained deism. After all, Voltaire made his fortune by loaning vast sums of money to European monarchs; it's difficult to rock the boat of ideas when your financial security depends on it. Those of the radical Enlightenment were not afraid to take reason, science, and materialism to its ultimate limits: there are many of them, but the major figures include Baron Holbach, Diderot, d'Alembert, Buffon, Grimm, and Hume. One figure he decidedly excludes from his radical favorites is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, choosing to portray him, rightly or wrongly, as a paranoid megalomanic.

After giving some initial biographical information of the characters that loom the largest in the book - Diderot, Holbach, and Rousseau - we proceed to learn more about their thought and their circle of what are usually considered more minor friends. Blom intermittently keeps referring back to Holbach's twice-weekly dinners that would often be attended some of the greatest minds in Europe. At the table at Grandval, chez Holbach, they would sit down to delectable poulets a la Reine, cold pate, and raspberry gelee (they actually give a menu from one of the gatherings in the book) and talk about the philosophy, religion (largely their intense dislike thereof), and groundbreaking science. I thought the conceit of a big dinner party was an interesting one to tell what amounts to a group biography, and certainly helped keep things both entertaining and engaging.

Not only are the lives and ideas of the current characters discussed in context, but Blom also takes the time to discuss those people that influenced their thought, some of which I only now realized I had not fully fleshed out before. He has a very interesting chapter on Spinozist monism versus Cartesian dualism, and how that argument reverberated through the eighteenth century; later in the book, he discusses how through their thorough familiarity with the classics, Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura" and the Greek atomists Democritus and Leucippus might have been influential in a revival of materialism, too. For the first two-thirds of the book, Blom lets his sizeable bias against Rousseau get in the way of an otherwise much more objective piece of intellectual history. Because of the general nature of the book and the heavy bias toward Rousseau, I can't in all fairness give this book more than 3 stars. For a more sophisticated and nuanced treatment of the Enlightenment, I suggest Peter Gay's two-volume treatment, "The Rise of Modern Paganism" and "The Science of Freedom." The first two volumes of Jonathan Israel's trilogy, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 and Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752 are equally wonderful. ( )
3 vote kant1066 | Oct 14, 2011 |
I love the enlightenment, it is one of my favorite eras of history. this is a wonderful book about the ideas and socity of that time. it focus on diderot, the main ed. of the encyolopedie, it shows that he actually had to more modern mind. an excellent book ( )
  michaelbartley | Feb 26, 2011 |
A Wicked Company provides new and refreshing perspectives on certain individuals of the (French) Enlightenment. The main premise, that Denis Diderot was a major intellectual figure, who has not been given his due in comparison to better known Rousseau and others, is clearly true, though I wonder if 200 years later anyone cares anymore outside of specialists - influence matters, and Rousseau won that game largely because of his wild character and skillful writing. It's hard to imagine Diderot being newly influential today, except perhaps if he were anointed Patron Saint of Wikipedia (I'd support that). As a book about Diederot and Holbach, Enlightenment philosophy, the Encyclopedie, and Parisian Salon's in the 1750s and 60s it's well worthwhile, but not as good as Blom's earlier Enlightening the World which covers a lot of the same ground. ( )
1 vote Stbalbach | Nov 28, 2010 |
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The acclaimed author of The Vertigo Years tells the remarkable story of the Parisian salon that hosted the 18th century's greatest minds and changed the course of Western philosophy.

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