A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment

A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment

Philipp Blom

Language: English

Pages: 384

ISBN: 0465014534

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The flourishing of radical philosophy in Baron Thierry Holbach’s Paris salon from the 1750s to the 1770s stands as a seminal event in Western history. Holbach’s house was an international epicenter of revolutionary ideas and intellectual daring, bringing together such original minds as Denis Diderot, Laurence Sterne, David Hume, Adam Smith, Ferdinando Galiani, Horace Walpole, Benjamin Franklin, Guillaume Raynal, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In A Wicked Company, acclaimed historian Philipp Blom retraces the fortunes of this exceptional group of friends. All brilliant minds, full of wit, courage, and insight, their thinking created a different and radical French Enlightenment based on atheism, passion, reason, and truly humanist thinking. A startlingly relevant work of narrative history, A Wicked Company forces us to confront with new eyes the foundational debates about modern society and its future.

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his hands of it. He had wanted to become a great stage author, a famous philosopher, or both, and he had squandered thousands of hours on a work that was rendered useless at the very last moment by a man he had thought was his ally. In fact, the impact of Lebreton’s alterations was not quite as dramatic as Diderot in his disappointment and anger had made it out to be. The twentieth-century discovery of page proofs of the original articles shows that the bookseller Lebreton had mutilated certain

principles and forces? Arguments such as these could have brought the author to the gallows. Many of these philosophical and theological questions would have been little more than intellectual boys’ games to some of the Jesuit-educated authors, but they retained their explosiveness in society. A steady stream of clandestine tracts declared, for instance, that free will and divine omniscience were mutually exclusive, because a free act is necessarily one that will alter the future and God can

27-28. 16 Ibid., 50. 17 Ibid., 172. 18 Letter from Diderot to Sophie Volland, October 15, 1759, in Diderot, Oeuvres, vol. 5, Correspondance, 172. CHAPTER 8 1 Letter from Thiry d’Holbach to David Hume, August 22, 1763, in Thiry d’Holbach, Gesamte erhaltene Korrespondenz, ed. Hermann Sauter and Erich Loos (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1986), 18-19. 2 Roderick Graham, The Great Infidel: A Life of David Hume (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), 264. 3 Ibid., 263. 4 Letter from David Hume to Adam

calls.) When Hume learned that an admirer had come all the way to London to see him and that he had disappointed her, he wrote a gracious letter promising Madame Boufflers that he would make her acquaintance as soon as possible. His chance came more quickly than he had anticipated, when Lord Hertford, recently appointed the English ambassador to France, asked him to accompany him to Paris. Hume was torn between his wish to live a quiet life in Edinburgh, with his friends and his beloved books,

immersing himself in books. Hume had ideas of his own, ideas so radical that he realized they would make him an outcast, an intellectual leper. He was terrified that if he pursued his ideas he might be viewed as “some uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expelled from all human commerce, and left utterly abandoned and disconsolate,” he wrote.17 Young David’s fears were much more than an ordinary adolescent crisis. The ideas preoccupying him were

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