A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.
A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment. By Philipp Biota. (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2010. Pp. xxii, 361. $29.95.)
This book's author seeks, first, to fill an allegedly important gap in the study of the French Enlightenment by concentrating on the writers and thinkers (particularly Diderot and, to a lesser extent, Hume) who were, sometimes disparagingly, known as the "coterie holbachique." His second aim is to demonstrate that "their works still richly repay rereading, and their careers can serve as both an inspiration and a warning to us" (xx).
Philipp Blom's assiduous study of the "coterie" focuses on its radical ambitions for the reform of pre-Revolutionary French society; hence he properly emphasizes its desire to end the paralyzing intellectual and spiritual influence of the Catholic Church and to promote atheism. Blom also rightly draws attention to the neglect of the ideas of the "coterie" at the Revolution and afterwards as the deistic thought of Voltaire and Rousseau took hold, turning them into the now-archetypal representatives of the French Enlightenment. In such a climate, the hardheaded scientific approach to social and moral questions taken by men such as Diderot and d'Holbach found few adherents, and their ideas had to wait until the twentieth century to be appreciated at their true value.
Even in summary, however, Blom's views cause some unease. True, scholars have mostly neglected d'Holbach, the last of the (very few) book-length studies of his works having appeared as long ago as 1976. But it is simply not true that Diderot "has been reduced to the role he most despised: that of the collator of other people's articles and ideas" as editor of the EncyclopSdie (x). Any current bibliography of eighteenth-century scholarship will show that Diderot's art criticism, novels, dialogues, anticolonial works, and correspondence have all attracted widespread study for many years; again, all his major works are readily available in cheap editions, so that the picture given by Blom is not supported by the evidence.
Indeed, factual evidence is something to which Blom often seems curiously indifferent. At the purely chronological level, for example, he is unreliable: Voltaire left Paris for England in 1726, not 1728; Louis XIV did not fight a war in the Netherlands from 1772 to 1778; Diderot's Pensdes philosophiques appeared in 1746, not 1743, etc. (5, 8, 44). Blom's literary history is also debatable in places: most notably, Rousseau's Lettre a d'Alembert  was motivated by outrage at the idea of establishing a theater at Geneva rather than by a desire for revenge on Diderot (124). Perhaps most serious of all, given his emphasis
on Diderot's posthumous reputation, is Blom's cavalier treatment of the history of his writings: the SupplSment au voyage de Bougainville was neither condemned nor forbidden by the authorities; Jacques le fataliste was first published not in 1875 but in 1796 (311).
Although, arguably, none of these mistakes invalidates Blom's central thesis, they do impair the quality of his work; whatever his intended audience, the author has a duty to get the basic facts right before embarking on any interpretation of them. By this test, Blom's study, for all its merits, is significantly flawed.
University of Manchester, England
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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