A Wicked Company

By Philipp Blom

For all the popularity of today’s New Atheism movement – think writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens – the Old Atheism is a lot less well known.

According to intellectual historian Philipp Blom there’s a reason for this. In A Wicked Company he focuses on the personalities that kept Parisian salon life percolating with controversial ideas in the 18th century, and in particular the conflict between Denis Diderot and Thiry d’Holbach, standard-bearers of the radical Enlightenment, and the more moderate Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In their contest for immortality (that “chimera of great souls”) it was the founding fathers of unbelief who lost out. And so the bones of Voltaire and Rousseau now lie in state in the secular sanctuary of the Pantheon, while those of Holbach and Diderot rest in unknown graves, their works largely forgotten.

Obviously Blom is engaged in a reclamation project that involves taking sides. And, in addition to providing sympathetic biographies of Holbach and Diderot, his narrative history does provide a good general survey of the ideas of the radical Enlightenment, including a full discussion of the materialist and skeptical foundations of its uncompromising atheism.

Voltaire and Rousseau, however, get a rougher ride. The former is described as “a shrewd operator interested mainly in his own reputation and his financial fortune,” a clever writer whose contributions to philosophy never went much beyond “solid common sense liberally sprinkled with ironic wit,” while the latter was – brace yourselves – a “compulsive liar” possessed of a “sinister, self-serving, and self-consuming mind,” not to mention a bitter and paranoid apologist for totalitarianism. Both were also Enlightenment frenemies of the darkest dye, turning against their former comrades in various treacherous, underhanded ways.

In addition to being a bit intemperate in some of his pronouncements, Blom overstates his revisionist agenda. One reason Diderot and Holbach are rarely discussed today is simply because their radical ideas have been so thoroughly adopted, refined, and advanced over the last two hundred years. In a way, they did win in the end. As for the villains of the piece, Voltaire is caricatured as a cynical opportunist, while Rousseau’s reputation has been getting hammered from both the left and the right for at least a century now and scarcely needs any further denigration. At this point, to say anything positive about him would be the bolder, more revisionist path.

While it doesn’t break any new ground, Blom’s book does a good job recounting a dramatic chapter in the intellectual adventure that gave birth to the modern mind. What set that world apart from our own – its sense of optimism and belief in human progress – seems all the more depressing given that we are its inheritors.

Review first published online November 14, 2011.

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