Review of A Wicked Company


“They order, said I, this matter better in France.”



So begins the Prologue to Laurence Sterne’s engaging novel A Sentimental Journey. Since I am writing briefly about eighteenth century French salons for a twenty-first century digital salon, it seems appropriate to borrow the line to introduce my subject. I have recently read an entertaining biography of neglected French radical thinkers of the Enlightenment, specifically Denis Diderot and Baron Thiry d’Holbach. The former, of course, is famous for his novel Rameau’s Nephew and the phenomenal Encyclopédie, and the latter is not famous at all, but according to author Philipp Blom, he should be. Unfortunately they knew and eventually aroused the paranoiac ire of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social theorist who abandoned his five infant children to the care of a foundling hospital, then proceeded to write Émile, ou De l’éducation wherein he expatiates about the corrupting influence of social institutions on the natural goodness and sensibilities of the young.

Blom’s sympathetically written and well-researched book, A Wicked Company: Holbach's Salon and the Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (McClelland & Stewart), informs on many levels as it reminds readers of the influential role played by those Parisian salons hosted by rather extraordinary women like Marie-Thérèse de Geoffrin on rue Saint-Honoré. Unable to put their learning and intelligence to effective use on the public stage, they invited men of genius into their sitting rooms for polite and stimulating conversations; true, but in some instances, they actively encouraged talk of a more brilliant and revolutionary nature, to a degree fomenting revolution.

Wicked company, therefore, is to be understood as the hostile official attitude towards men (mostly men) of intellectual daring who challenged the assumptions of religion and society. Inconvenient thinkers could be imprisoned and atheists could still be executed at the time, a practice I believe some would wish to continue today. That was the purpose of the radical salon: room for a coterie of free thinkers to converse bravely on many subjects, including dangerous critiques of the ancien régime and the Church, without fear of reprisal, at least from their fair hostess.

While acknowledging those scintillating ladies, Blom focuses on the salon conducted by the Baron d’Holbach who wrote many articles for the Encyclopédie and was a rigorous atheist and bold adversary of received opinion. His first major critique of religion, Le Christianisme dévoilé (1761), wisely published anonymously, was “publicly burned by the hangman (a common substitute for burning an unknown author), and angrily attacked in a wave of violent rebuttals and condemnations” (76).

For a period men of varying interests and talents, among them Diderot, Rousseau until he found himself intellectually and religiously at odds, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, and others gathered at the Baron’s house on the rue Royale Saint-Roch to exchange and debate ideas on religious, political, and scientific topics, all served with delectable food and drink. Blom includes a sample menu of a huge array of dishes consumed while enlightened wit and wisdom flowed as freely as the wine, but he provides a more extensive discussion of the unsettling concepts passed along the table.

Undoubtedly the equivalent of French salons existed elsewhere in one form or another. The men’s clubs and coffee houses of eighteenth century London spring to mind, for example, where one could be intellectually browbeaten by Samuel Johnson who hardly challenged the tenets of Christianity or threatened the status quo. Speaking of the English, the great David Hume, who was Scottish, also participated in the Parisian salons, including d’Holbach’s, and earned the sobriquet of le bon David either because of his good character, or his sceptical philosophy, or a combination of both.

Blom relates the sad and interesting story of how Hume inadvertently rubbed Rousseau the wrong way, as many original thinkers did, including our humane hero Denis Diderot. The philosopher of Du Contrat social and childhood education did not hesitate to excoriate his former friends for perceived wrongs, even le bon David who had gone out of his way to help him.

Blom presents Rousseau in a very unflattering light, and he provides persuasive evidence. His real purpose, however, is to celebrate the genius of Diderot (and to a lesser extent that of the Baron) who sought to live a life of reason without denying passion and sensibility, free from religious cant and political oppression. No easy task in the eighteenth century. There was a distinct difference, however, between the two thinkers.

“Holbach could be a bit of a moralist, but Diderot was a flesh-and-blood thinker whose writings were always provocative and often a liberating shock. The baron’s works give the impression that he regards desire as undeniably real and fundamentally unobjectionable but a bit much to deal with. Diderot, on the other hand, saw it as the very stuff of life – aesthetically its highest pleasure, existentially its fundamental reality, and ethically its greatest challenge. Desire is not something we have to live with but the motor of life itself and its fulfilment” (186).

Famous and controversial in his day, Diderot was invited to St. Petersburg by Catherine the Great (who also bought the improvident man’s extensive library) to speak in her palatial salon about ideal governance. He wrote a sample constitution incorporating enlightened political and social principles which she dismissed because it did not essentially defend autocracy. Catherine entertained dangerous ideas like a parlour game; Diderot lived them. He left the Russian capital disheartened and feeling morally compromised as she paid him an annuity.

Unlike Rousseau, he did not produce a coherent systematic philosophy, although his ideas are evident in his letters, essays, and novels. Moreover, Blom suggests that Diderot’s ideas were just too radical for succeeding generations, which explains the slide into quasi-obscurity. Baron d’Holbach, who wrote a hefty tome or two of sometimes impenetrable style, was forgotten entirely, if only because he had scant regard for Rousseau’s thought and never softened his anti-deism. Rousseau’s distrust of reason and his emphasis on feeling impressed the Romantics and those who followed them. Philipp Blom also argues that authoritarian and repressive undercurrents in his social theory met with the approval of Robespierre of the Reign of French Terror. To be fair, one cannot hold Rousseau accountable for the guillotine.


© Kenneth Radu 2012


Kenneth Radu (Photo: Joshua Radu)

Kenneth Radu, a contributing editor of Salon .ll., is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (published by DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC in the not too distant future. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.



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