Book Review: Philipp Blom’s Wicked Company

Viennese writer Philipp Blom’s brilliant history of the forgotten radicals of the European Enlightenment

Historian Philipp Blom: writing on thinkers far more daring than those in the Pantheon | Photo: Peter Rigaud

Dining With That Wicked Company

One of the central lessons of history comes with the discovery of how often it gets rewritten.

The chronicles of wars are revised by the victors, enemies are demonized, heroes invented. Important roles played by the inconvenient, however virtuous, are erased and forgotten. With the passage of time, the patterns become clearer, and the outcome gradually appears inevitable, often because of what is left out.

So, too, in the wars of ideas.

In 18th-century Paris, a dazzling circle of intellectuals gathered at the home of the Baron Thiry d’Holbach every Thursday and Sunday for sumptuous dinners and lively discussion of the ideas we have come to know as the French Enlightenment. Their goal was to free men – and women – from the fear and ignorance fostered by religion, and by a church that condemned desire as “lust” and reason as “pride,” and perverted empathy into “meaningful suffering” in the promise of an afterlife.

Over the more than two decades of the Baron’s famed Salon on rue Royale Saint-Roch (now the rue des Moulins) this sparkling company included his close circle of Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Guillaume Raynal and later Claude-Adrien Helvetius and David Hume, and among many others, Adam Smith, David Garrick, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole and Benjamin Franklin.

What transpired between the plates of paté, pigeon and poulet rôti, was what historian Philipp Blom describes as “a moment of astonishing radicalism in European thought,” that was seen as so threatening to both church and government, that it had been all but erased from history.

It is the story of this remarkable Salon that is the subject of Wicked Company: Free Thinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris, Blom’s fourth historical work and a sequel of sorts to his 2004 book on Diderot’s great encyclopedie, called Enlightening the World.

Wicked Company is a wonderful read, a stylishly written and absorbing chapter of intellectual history with a cast of characters so vivid and so memorable, that you leave its pages longing to be invited back for another evening’s carouse. The unpretentious aristocrat d’Holbach and his effusive and brilliant friend Diderot, the increasingly emancipated Louise d’Epinay and the ever-more paranoid J.J. Rousseau, the impish ambassador Fernando Galiani and the genial and deeply courageous David Hume, so beloved he was called “le bon David.

It is the story of a group of thinkers far more daring than those enshrined in the Pantheon.

“When we think of the Enlightenment, we usually think of Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau – who wanted us to be more rational, to privilege our rationality over everything else,” Blom said in a recent interview. “Implicitly, it’s still a very religious discussion, of absolutes enforced with violence and a rejection of our physical selves. The nuisance in all this is that we have bodies, impulses, that they will make us do things we don’t mean to do.”

The Salon was a haven for these philosophes, free from the watchful eyes of the royal and clerical censors. Many of the Enlightenment’s leading voices faced continual threats of arrest or exile, and were often forced to extreme measures: Denis Diderot, after being imprisoned for heresy and forbidden to write philosophical works, concentrated on his great encyclopedie, in which dangerous ideas could be discussed with more scholarly detatchment. Baron d’Holbach, writing Christianity Unveiled under a pseudonym, escaped retribution only through connections at court.

Voltaire, after repeated brushes with the censors, fled Paris and sent his contributions from exile in Switzerland – and took care to distance himself from the most extreme positions. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau, turning against his friends, took a final revenge in his posthumous Confessions, which along with Voltaire’s increasingly vicious attacks, severely damaged their reputations to later generations. Their writing was then suppressed by Maximilien Robespierre, for whom a true society of equals, of observed knowledge, pleasure and kindness, was simply not the kind revolution he had in mind.

Part of the problem may have been that they simply had too much fun. A typical soiree Chez d’Holbach unusually consisted of a reading of a new work by one of the attendees followed by discussion that would quickly fan out into politics, philosophy or history, and of course the essential glue of all social systems, gossip. Among the venison and volaille, talk flowed more freely; it helped too that the host was himself a philosopher, and often more radical than many of his guests, and that he had a wine cellar renowned throughout Paris.

It was an Epicurean delight, both on and off the table, with the board as unrestrained as the conversation: a meal would consist of four principle courses, each of up to a dozen dishes. So after a first course of two soups, four meat pies or stews as entrees and six platters of hors d’oeuvres, guests might be served a roast of veal and one of beef; with a third course of roasts of chicken, duck, pheasant, lark, accompanied by fritters, haricots, truffles and sorbet. And then it would be time for dessert….  for all the perfect match in a Vouvray or a Château Neuf.

All this took its toll on the poor Diderot, whose letters, Blom tells us, were “full of references to overindulgence.”

“I have eaten like a wolf cub,” Diderot wrote to his mistress Sophie Volant in 1765. “I drank wines with all sorts of names; a melon of incredible perfidy was waiting for me; and do you think it was possible to resist the enormous ice cream? And then the liqueurs; and the café, and then an abominable digestion which has kept me on my feet all night, and which made me pass the morning between the tea pot and another vessel, which decency forbids me to name.”

To the members of the “wicked company,” Philosophy was an active pursuit of answers to the puzzles of the human condition, not so much in a quest for unifying principles, but in the active description of the questions of living.

Diderot was a particularly keen and honest observer, and noticed when what was actually happening in the daily events around him did not fit with their theories.  Following an explosion of romantic intrigue and misunderstandings at the country retreat of Louise d’Epinay worthy of farce, Diderot wrote to Sophie Volant in frustration:

“Nobody knows what to say and nobody dares to say what he knows. Everything seems important because nothing is innocent. And I see all this and die of boredom.”

But the whole affair also raised a question about principles and practice, writes Blom. “Could morality really amount to [any] more than a pile of polite conversation if any adolescent infatuation and any petty jealousy appeared to invalidate the beautified ideas they had discussed. The phlosophes like to portray themselves as virtuous, but where was that virtue now? Were they more than a philosophical equivalent of the emperors new clothes?”

After the visit of the famed English actor and theater manager David Garrick, whose style was much more fluid and naturalistic than the French declamatory tradition, Diderot decided that the actor could not possibly be experiencing all the emotions of the characters. The secret must lie in his control.

“Diderot was captivated by the actor’s apparent ability to divorce expression from feeling,” writes Blom, “to represent emotion to perfection without actually feeling it.”

Which again raised an important philosophical question: “But if true acting demands of the actor to be indifferent to his or her material, then what about the emotional truth of the piece?,” Diderot wondered. “How could art express emotional truth by lying?  And how is communication possible at all if it is so vulnerable to deceit?”

Blom believes that these are questions we need to be asking again today.

“We are in the midst of a free-floating series of discourses who have in common only the prefix of “post;” we have become a “post” culture. We’ve gone too far in the direction of markets… We must reclaim our humanity, if we don’t want to be the museum the Chinese come to visit, with its thatched roofs and Mozart Kugel.”

History can play cruel tricks. Voltaire and Rousseau won the battle for posterity, while Baron d’Holbach disappeared from the philosophical canon, and Diderot was remembered as the editor of an outdated encyclopedia and a few novels and plays, censored manuscripts unavailable through much of the 19th century.

Even the great Adam Smith became remembered by history largely for the “hidden hand” principle in the Wealth of Nations, rather than for his great Theory into Moral Sentiments, which argued for compassion as the source of moral action.

“Having weathered and triumphed over the storms of their own time,” Blom writes, “their legacy would be all but obliterated by what was to come.”

We have Philipp Blom to thank for bringing the intellectual feast of that Wicked Company back to life.


Wicked Company: Free Thinkers and
Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris,
By Philipp Blom
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, (2011)
[originally published in the US as
A Wicked Company: the Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment]

Available at
Shakespeare & Company
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535-50530



See also: A Belle Epoque Unravels

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