A Wicked Company

The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment


By Philipp Blom

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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.


Chapter 1

Paris is a metropolis to which the bright and ambitious have been drawn for centuries. The lives of the protagonists of this story unfolded on its streets—in its parks, cafés, salons, and bedrooms (and, occasionally, in the country estates dotted around the capital or on a voyage abroad to England, Italy, or even Russia). But far-reaching as they are, the events and ideas that made up this great moment in the history of Western thought have a very clear center, a definitive address, a house number: in the center of the City of Lights, at 10, rue des Moulins, just a stone’s throw from the Louvre and the beautiful colonnades of the Jardin Royal. There stands a handsome seventeenth-century house that was once inhabited by Paul Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, and his wife, and that was for a time the epicenter of intellectual life in Europe. Some of the most exciting minds of the Western world came to Holbach’s salon to partake of sumptuous dinners and discuss dangerous ideas far from the public eye. It is hard to imagine another room that has seen so many brilliant people, heard so many spirited exchanges.
The building breathes quiet confidence and comfort without being demonstratively ornate or flashy. The staircase is still exactly as it was during the eighteenth century: wooden steps framed by elegant, cast-iron railings with gilt flower decor, leading to landings with black-and-white tiles and to the salon on the first floor, a generous room overlooking the street. Here, guests were received and dinners held. The room is in no way ostentatious but spacious enough to accommodate a good dozen people around a large dining table and still leave space for servants to pass behind the diners. The wooden floors are of the period, the ceiling high, and the large bay windows flood the room with light, giving it a gracious, elegant air.
“Elegance” was a watchword in this part of town even two and a half centuries ago, when the adjoining street to the south, the rue Saint-Honoré—with its innumerable tailors and couturiers and the wig makers, coiffeurs, shoemakers, glovers, and others who went with them—was the mecca of the fashion-conscious throughout the Western world. Luxury merchants had been drawn to the area by the huge, looming, eternally unfinished Louvre, the royal palace at the heart of the capital, directly by the banks of the Seine. Courtiers needed to be presentable, and they constantly needed to show off new clothes, setting the tone for the rest of the country and for Europe. But the palace had been practically empty ever since the beginning of Louis XIV’s personal rule in 1661, when the young Sun King, suspicious of the subversive undercurrent of city life, had displaced his court out of the city and eventually to the palace of Versailles. A monstrous construction project in the swamps, its drainage and conversion into the world’s most spectacular park had cost hundreds of workers’ lives, swallowed endless millions, and eventually ruined the kingdom. The Louvre was deserted by the court for most of the year: empty ceremonial halls echoing with the footfall of occasional servants; exquisitely carved furniture covered up, its delicate fabrics (often made from last season’s silk court robes) hidden from view; chandeliers tinkling softly in the breeze as the rooms were aired and cleaned periodically. Only the countless workshops of tradesmen and craftsmen on the ground floor and in the courtyards filled the site with life.
The rue Saint-Honoré, however, continued to do brisk business. As far as fashion was concerned, it was the only place to go. But Holbach had not chosen this part of Paris for its fashionable or royal associations. He was not very interested in his appearance and was an instinctive republican. But the house was convenient, right in the middle of things yet quietly situated in a side street, within easy reach of all amenities. For this part of town was a center not only of fashion but also of intellectual life. Several of his wealthier friends and other salon hosts lived around the corner, and there were bookshops and art dealers. The enclosed universe of the leafy Jardin Royal nearby (lovingly described in Diderot’s novel Rameau’s Nephew) tempted with cafés and chess tables as well as gambling and altogether more carnal pleasures in the shape of gaudily made-up prostitutes in low-cut dresses sauntering past gentlemen in powdered wigs—a theatre of vanities that the baron, by all accounts a model husband, was content to observe from a distance.
Less than a mile farther east, past the graceful, circular Place de Victoires dominated by a statue of Louis XIV, the world became even more carnal. Heaving with countless porters, grocers, butcher boys, flower sellers, fishmongers, spice dealers, and sausage sellers; ringing with their market cries and warning shouts from dawn to dusk; and reeking to high heaven during the summer months, the Les Halles markets were the stomach of Paris, the source for the ingredients of the baron’s famous twice-weekly dinners.
The area’s other landmark, the magnificent Place Vendôme, originally a speculation scheme that had almost broken the back of its investors and had stood like a huge theatre set as an assembly of empty facades for years, was one of the capital’s preeminent addresses, a place that smelled of money as much as Les Halles did of pickled herring on a warm August day. Ostentatious to the point of vulgarity, it could be reached on foot from the baron’s house within a few minutes, and yet it was a different universe. The stars of Holbach’s intellectual salon were not financiers but writers, scientists, and philosophers.
Several great salons vied for the attention and the presence of the city’s brightest and most fashionable intellectuals. Each of these houses had a distinctive character and orientation, both artistically and politically. Just around the corner in the rue Sainte-Anne, the baron’s friend Claude-Adrien Helvétius regularly welcomed progressive philosophers and writers, but even if Holbach and Helvétius were famous for their hospitality, they were exceptional in a salon landscape dominated by distinguished ladies. Indeed, keeping a salon was the only way for a woman to make her mark on the still overwhelmingly male literary world. At the rue Saint-Honoré, no more than a few minutes from Holbach’s doorstep, the sexually voracious novelist Claudine Guérin de Tencin had welcomed some of the nation’s most powerful and witty men into her salon—and frequently her bed. “One can see that God is a man by the way he treats us women,” she famously sighed, but even divine negligence did not deter her from enjoying life to the full. In 1717 she had given birth to an illegitimate son, whom she had promptly laid on the steps of the Church of Jean-le-Rond. He would grow up to become Jean d’Alembert, one of this century’s most eminent mathematicians and coeditor, with Diderot, of the great Encyclopédie.
After Madame de Tencin’s death in 1749, Marie-Thérèse de Geoffrin (1699–1777), reputedly the greatest hostess of all, held court at the rue Saint-Honoré. No one could dream of making a literary career without her approval, and an invitation to read at her house from a manuscript was not only a mark of recognition but practically a guarantee of success. Voltaire had been a regular here before his exile; government ministers, scientists, poets, and wits mingled here and could speak with a freedom impossible at court or in public. Here, introductions could be made, alliances forged, literary destinies determined. Among the many whose path to later glory led through Madame de Geoffrin’s salon was the young Diderot, who made the acquaintance of a number of writers who would later contribute to his Encyclopédie.
As the example of Madame de Geoffrin indicates, salons fulfilled an important function in eighteenth-century Paris. The usual networking was and still is such an important feature in literary circles—replete with young hopefuls, freshly arrived in the city and eager to make themselves known, and the old, established names wanting to shine and enjoy their growing reputation. But the salons served as much more than just a vehicle for vanity. In an intellectual environment controlled by harsh censorship laws, it was not easy to find places allowing a free exchange of ideas. In eighteenth-century France, no work could legally appear in print without a royal privilege indicating that it had gone through the hands of church censors and been approved. The penalties for contravening these laws were stiff and applied strictly at the discretion of the authorities, such as the chief censor and the mighty Paris parlement, though powerful courtiers were also known to use their influence against books and their authors. Punishments ranged from a symbolic tearing and burning of the book by the hangman of Paris to a few weeks in the Bastille to backbreaking forced labor on the galleys of the French navy (a virtual death sentence) or outright public torture and execution.
Ideas depend on gregariousness and exchange to flourish, but public places, the parks, the many cafés and taverns were too insecure to meet in. The person at the next table could be a police spy, and the merest accusation could suffice to ruin one’s career or force the accused into exile. Even the great Voltaire had found that his considerable wealth did not protect him from prosecution; in 1728, having made one disrespectful quip too many, he had been obliged to leave Paris and eventually France, retiring to a pretty country estate at Ferney, near Geneva and close to the French border.
Salon hostesses had a very specific and strictly circumscribed function. The writer and salon regular Jean-François Marmontel praised their “grace of the mind, the mobility of their imagination, the ease and natural flexibility of their ideas and their language” and described their conversation as necessary training for writers: “He who wants to write only with precision, energy and vigor must live only with men; but whoever wants style with suppleness, ease, connectedness and a certain je ne sais quoi which is called charm would do well, I believe, to live with women.”1
There was no thought, however, of the women themselves appearing as authors or as philosophers. The natural flexibility and delicacy with which their male contemporaries believed them to be endowed rendered them inspired mediators and facilitators, but little more than that. While the limitations of their role were no doubt intensely frustrating for many of the women concerned, playing hostess was nevertheless the only way open to them of participating in literary society, and it allowed them to influence intellectual life by promoting some authors and artists more than others.
Every salon had its own temperament, its own cast of characters, and its own philosophical or even political orientation. But the salons all shared the invaluable function of giving visitors an opportunity to speak, to listen, to read their works to an appreciative and critical audience, to forge alliances, to find a powerful patron, and just to escape the drudgery and boredom of their working days. Those who were lucky enough to be received at all the great houses could count their weekdays in salons: Mme Geoffrin on Monday, then on Tuesday the home of the philosopher Helvétius, the next day Mme Geoffrin again, then Holbach, and finally the home of Mme Necker. For Saturdays, there were minor salons, but on Sundays several great houses threw open their doors, including Holbach’s, of course.
The glittering world of the salons was nothing but a distant dream for the adolescent Denis Diderot when he set foot in Paris for the first time in 1728, at age fifteen, a pious provincial boy admitted to one of the city’s great schools in preparation for becoming a priest. His father, a master cutler, had accompanied him to oversee his first days in the capital, a dazzling spectacle very far from the quiet surroundings of their home.
Diderot had been baptized on October 6, 1713, in the small town of Langres, in northern Champagne. Eleven months earlier his mother had given birth to another boy, only to lose him days after his birth. She was thirty-four when she married, uncommonly old for the time. The couple would have three more surviving children, whose lives illustrate the family’s devout background. A second son, Didier, would become a thorny priest and forever quarrel with his notorious atheist brother; Angélique, the older sister, became an Ursuline nun against the wishes of her family and apparently died from overwork in the convent at the age of twenty-eight. Only the youngest sister, Denise, would remain a lifelong friend and confidante for her brother.
The Diderots were a prosperous family. The father’s workshop occupied the ground floor of their handsome house, while the family’s living quarters on the higher floors overlooked the cathedral square of the proud town of Langres. Their oldest son was baptized Denis after the sainted missionary beheaded in Paris around the year 250 (but unwittingly also after Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy). He quickly grew into a bright, personable child, fast-witted and outgoing. The father decided that Denis would continue the family tradition and become a priest, so he sent the child to the local school, where he excelled not only at the basics but also at Latin.
But Denis was no bookish boy. When he was about ten years old, he enthusiastically participated in a protracted and at times bloody war between two rival gangs of children, during which two armies of up to a hundred boys squared off with sticks and stones. A childhood memory (described, as so often with Diderot, in dialogue form, and this time directed at a boy from a richer family) paints a no doubt tendentious but highly revealing portrait of the young warrior, as well as of the man he would become. The mature author remembers himself as a Spartan, fierce and proud, and superior in his simplicity to the effeminate Athenian manners of his rival: “You recoil at the sight of the disheveled hair and torn clothes. Yet I was that way when I was young and I was pleasing—pleasing to even the women and girls in my home town in the provinces. They preferred me, without hat and with my chest uncovered, sometimes without shoes, in a jacket and with the feet bare, me, son of a worker at a forge, to that little well-dressed monsieur all curled and powdered and dressed to the nines, the son of the presiding judge.”2 A portrait of the artist as a young man and as a writer: his rebellious spirit, his entertaining vanity, and his—at times exasperating—stylization as a man of the people. Even in later life he would not wear a wig, and portraits show the mature man with short hair and simple clothes, an honest worker like his father, not some grandee dressed after the latest fashion.
When the boy entered his teenage years, he sought out the most intellectual branch of the church. Young Diderot wanted to become a Jesuit, but his father would not hear of it, especially as Denis’ uncle had already indicated that the position of canon at Langres Cathedral would be open to Denis once his education was completed. Much better to have a decent sinecure at home than to enter an order where one might be sent anywhere and lead an uncertain life.
When it became clear that the Langres schoolmasters had little left to teach young Denis, his parents decided to invest in his future and send him to Paris, where he could study at one of the great colleges—a sure first step for a career in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In 1728 the boy and his father boarded a slow coach for an uncertain but exciting future in the capital. Before setting off, the fifteen-year-old, intellectually restless boy formally entered the church. Having been tonsured by the bishop, he now had to be addressed not by his first name but as abbé Diderot.
Around the time when the lanky abbé Diderot was on the road to the capital, the much younger Holbach also arrived there. He had been born in the little town of Edesheim in the German Palatinate in 1723; his father was a well-to-do wine grower. Young Dietrich spent his first years in a handsome manor among vineyards and wood-framed houses. He might have become a wine grower himself, but his future was transformed by a recently ennobled uncle, Baron Franz Adam d’Holbach. The uncle had emigrated and made his fortune in Paris. He had even bought the title of baron from the imperial court in Vienna. Now, in 1728, he decided to adopt his lively nephew, take him to the greatest of all cities, and give him the best education money could buy. Renamed Thiry d’Holbach, the boy proved a voracious reader, fascinated by the sciences, by experiments and the natural world. We know little about his early years beyond this outline. Holbach never appears to have been sufficiently interested in himself to talk about his youth at length, and his home schooling means that no documents about his education survive in school archives.
Ten years separated Diderot and Holbach, a huge gulf during their early years, which they spent in the capital. Other things also differentiated them. The schoolboy Thiry lived in a grand house with servants and was schooled at home, by tutors. Denis, now in his late teens, would have lived in a garret or a frugal lodger’s room, and received only a meager allowance from home—too meager, in any case, to live comfortably. Most of his time outside of class was spent immersing himself in literature: Roman authors as well as some Greek, which he never read as fluently. He attended an ecclesiastical school, most likely the famous Jesuit college Louis-le-Grand, where Molière, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Voltaire had been pupils before him.
We know next to nothing about what the schoolboy Denis was thinking apart from the fact that he had already acquired a strong taste for the authors of Roman and Greek antiquity, so much freer in their ideas than later European authors, and that he liked to play tricks on his teachers by uttering apparently outrageous thoughts and then innocently demonstrating that he had only quoted from the works of great Roman authors. But if this seems little to go on, it is possible to draw inferences about his intellectual world by looking at the country during the 1720s and 1730s, its culture, and its preoccupations.
Diderot attended the Collège Louis-le-Grand, named, of course, after Louis XIV, who had died two years after Diderot’s birth, in 1715. At the height of his fifty-four-year reign, the glorious Sun King had created a courtly culture that was the envy of the world. But eventually time had turned against him, and as an old man, the king had grown jealous of his own former greatness. Two hugely expensive wars (one on the northeastern border in the Netherlands from 1772 to 1778; the other, the 1701–1714 War of the Spanish Succession, fought practically everywhere but in Spain) had all but bankrupted the state. The erstwhile splendid style of the court appeared rigid and old-fashioned to a new generation of artists. Even Versailles, situated miles away from the capital and still a ruinously expensive building site after so many years, had lost much of its luster and appeal in an intellectual and cultural climate slowly moving away from the celebration of absolute monarchs and towards a more Enlightened model of rule and a more urban culture.
The royal ballet was a good example of the changes taking place. An accomplished dancer in his youth, Louis himself had starred in many court productions, written for him by his court composer, the brilliant and irrepressible Jean-Baptiste Lully. In accordance with the king’s taste, most of the works (excepting dance interludes for the comedies of Molière) featured classical gods and mythical heroes, choirs singing effusive praise to absolute rule, and spectacular music to support stage effects such as maritime battles with model ships on moving seas and gods apparently floating through the air. It was all very splendid, very formal, and very festive, much like the giant park extending behind the palace. But after Lully’s disgrace in 1685 on account of his same-sex love affairs carried on too flagrantly even for Versailles (the king’s brother was a cross-dresser), there was nobody to continue this tradition. Lully died two years later from an infection sustained when he accidentally pierced his foot with his conductor’s baton. The fashion was changing. Younger composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau and Marain Marais sought a more emotional, more internal style and often turned to chamber music, reflecting a stronger call for music to be performed and listened to at home by the rising bourgeoisie.
When the king died in 1715, Philippe, Duke of Orléans, son of the king’s cross-dressing brother and the wonderfully candid German princess Liselotte, became regent of France and promptly moved the court back to Paris. Philippe was an avowed atheist who had the works of the scandalous François Rabelais bound into his Bible so that he could read them privately during Mass. He was a cultured and progressive man who attempted to move the impoverished country towards a modern, constitutional monarchy by giving more power to the local parlements, but his liberal style of ruling (to say nothing of his decidedly liberal private life) did little more than confuse a country used to the most rigid, absolutist government. Amidst the squabbling of rival political parties, the country effectively ground to a standstill. In retrospect, the luckless Philippe would have done better as a benevolent dictator.
In one area at least, the liberal regent did have some success. With a great sigh of relief, the metropolis rediscovered its literary and intellectual life. Philippe had loosened censorship and encouraged intellectuals. One man in particular made this new, more modern, and freer tone his own: François-Marie Arouet, born in 1694, was a young, well-to-do man about town. He soon attracted attention, and trouble, with his sharp pen, writing satirical verses about some of the grandest grandees in the land, aristocrats who did not appreciate such an uncommon lack of respect. Arouet was banned from Paris in 1716 after making fun of the regent’s supposed incestuous relationship with his daughter, then allowed back, only to publish a second satire on the duke, who by this time had had enough. In 1717, he had the impertinent scribbler imprisoned in the Bastille, where the young man began writing for the stage. After almost a year Arouet was freed and, after the performance of his tragedy Oedipe, famous. He frequented the most aristocratic salons and could have settled down nicely, were it not for his spirit of mockery.
Upon his release from prison, the fledgling star dramatist began calling himself “Voltaire” (an anagram of Arouet Le Jeune, treating u and v and j and i as interchangeable, as they are in Latin). An aging and childless aristocrat challenged him on his name change, and the town wit could not resist the jibe “Je commence mon nom, monsieur, vous finissez le vôtre” (I am the first of my name, monsieur, you are the last of yours), whereupon the nobleman had him beaten by his servants and thrown into the Bastille a second time. Now the condition of his release was that he would leave the country, and so he did, heading for London, the capital of pragmatic reason and free enterprise. There he immersed himself, among other things, in the writings of Newton and Locke.
By 1728, he was back in France but banned from Paris in perpetuity. Voltaire nonetheless made himself the voice of the most progressive tendencies in society. When the great actress Adrienne Lecouvreur died in 1730, her body was refused a Christian burial on account of her decidedly impious lifestyle and had to be interred in the swampland outside Paris (today the Champ-de-Mars). Voltaire wrote a bitter poem on the matter, asking himself, or rather God, why his country was the home no longer of talent and glory but of bigotry. The urbane wit was becoming an important and acerbic critic of the influence of religion on politics and of cruelty in the name of Christianity.
Voltaire was hardly a born revolutionary, however. He simply wanted people to be reasonable, not to topple the existing order. He limited his criticism of religion to exposing superstition and narrow-mindedness, and his jibes against the powerful became markedly more moderate as the years progressed. No doubt his reticence was due in part to his financial and professional position. He had become a very wealthy man after he had realized, in 1728, that the first prize of the state lottery was many times the sum of the price of all tickets combined. Together with some friends he formed a syndicate that had bought up all the tickets, shared the huge winnings, and allowed Voltaire to live wealthily ever after, multiplying his money by lending large sums to European princes, who used them to finance their autocratic rule. Effectively the banker of several absolute monarchs, he was simply not in a position to attack religion or absolute rule, the foundations of their authority.
Voltaire and other Enlightened authors, such as the wonderfully urbane Charles de Montesquieu, represented one side of the new flowering of intellectual life during the regency. But this strand of Enlightenment was limited to high culture, to the few people actively interested in these debates. Another, more popular strand of intellectual life took place within the context of the church. Louis XIV had left his country a poisonous legacy. Increasingly concerned about his undying soul and the possibility of eternal damnation, the formerly voracious bon vivant and serial seducer had by the 1680s turned pious. He had tried to please the Lord by banning the frivolous entertainments he had loved as a young man; marrying his main mistress, Madame de Maintenant; and persecuting Protestants, the largest religious minority in the country, by revoking the Edict of Nantes, which had effectively granted French Protestants freedom of conscience and religious toleration. His cruel policy caused an exodus of some 400,000 men, women, and children, many highly skilled laborers—silk weavers, engineers, tradesmen, and merchants—to the great detriment of France but to the considerable benefit of more tolerant destinations such as the Netherlands, Britain, and Prussia.
France had become a less liberal, more restrictive country in this process. The power behind the throne lay in the hands of the church, and its direction depended on which of the two dominant factions inside Catholicism could secure the most important posts. The church was internally divided between two warring parties, one buoyed by the Counter-Reformation, spearheaded by the Jesuits and influential at court, while the other side, the Jansenists, relied more strongly on the values of the urban bourgeoisie. Jansenism drew its theological inspiration from a Dutch cleric, Cornelis Jansen (1585–1638), and defended a theological view that shared key aspects with Protestant thought. Instead of emphasizing the authority of the pope and the role of the priest and the holy sacraments in the salvation of the soul, Jansenist thought stressed the idea of human depravity and the reliance on divine grace, without which, Jansen had argued, there was no redemption, not even through repentance and good works. Effectively, those who were damned already by divine Providence could not redeem themselves through piety, while those who lived in divine grace needed no pope to tell them what to do. Jansenism took control and power out of the hands of the church and made each individual’s conscience the ultimate authority.
While these theological issues may appear arcane, the ensuing political and very worldly power struggles were all too real, particularly as the Jansenists were in control of the parlement of Paris, an ancient administrative body that was part high court and part lawgiving assembly, a mixture of competences that set it on a collision course with the royal claim to absolute power. In this context it is also significant that according to some sources the young abbé Diderot changed colleges halfway through his schooling from the Jesuit college Louis-le-Grand to the Jansenist college Harcourt, indicating that his sympathies and convictions might have been beginning to shift away already from the scholastic subtleties of Jesuit thinking and towards a more ethicsbased approach.
Whether or not Diderot changed colleges, his religious ideas were certainly affected by another phenomenon, a popular religious frenzy that soon grew into a serious threat to public order. Centered on the cemetery of the city parish of Saint-Médard, only a mile or so from the colleges, the clamor reached its height during Diderot’s school days. A quiet cult had developed at the grave of a former parish priest, François de Pâris, who had lived a life of pious deeds and charity and had died in 1727. Accounts of mysterious healings at his graveside had been making the rounds for some years, but in 1731 the stories about miraculous incidents appeared to intensify, often backed up by signed affidavits. Huddled hopefuls and quiet prayers by the graveside were replaced by the astonishing spectacle of trancelike convulsions followed by healing, and soon the graveyard drew spectators, who loved miracles not for spiritual reasons but for their entertainment value. Ever larger crowds had been attracted and were soon jostling in the surrounding streets to get a place close to the grave and witness the excited faithful—particularly attractive young women—fall into mysterious and ecstatic convulsions before getting up, apparently healed of all afflictions. The police viewed the goings-on with increasing suspicion. “What is most scandalous,” wrote one informer, “is to see pretty young girls in the arms of men, who, while holding them, could be aroused to certain passions, because [the girls show themselves for] two or three hours, neck and breasts uncovered, skirts low, and arms in the air.”3
The real scandal, however, was not in the supposed immorality of the often raucous miracle healings, but in their popular appeal. The dead priest on whose grave the miracles were said to be taking place had been a Jansenist himself and had therefore believed that miracles were one of the ways God chose to indicate his grace to the uncertain faithful, who pursued these miracles enthusiastically. Gripped by religious ecstasy, some of the cult’s most zealous women would have themselves beaten with clubs or even literally nailed to a wooden cross as proof of their limitless devotion. A popular site of pilgrimage to a Jansenist sanctuary or even the chance of a Jansenist on his way to canonization—ideas such as these presented a real and potentially politically divisive threat to the power of Rome and of the king. Only eighteen years earlier, in 1709, the royal party had hit their opponents in the capital by forcing the closure of the convent Port-Royal, which had become an intellectual center of Jansenist thought. A miracle-working saint belonging to the other party would not be tolerated, and on January 27, 1732, the cemetery was closed by royal order, effectively putting an end to the healings at the priest’s graveside and to the crowds.
As a young student, the curious Denis witnessed these orgiastic goingson in the name of religion, and he was revolted by the spectacle, which he would later describe as hysteria. But while the bloody and superstitious excesses of popular miracle cults nauseated the young man, he found his spiritual peace troubled by his very own sensual disorder, which severely tested his desire to spend his life contemplating divine truths. The City of Lights intruded with its worldly temptations, both intellectual and sensual—too sensual for a young mind focused on divine commandments. Conscientiously, the young abbé took up the fight against the stirrings of his unruly body by using the arsenal his faith put at his disposal: praying, wearing hair shirts, fasting, and sleeping on straw to ward off the evil powers. Later in life, he saw his fervor with the detached irony of a psychologist. At some point, he wrote, almost every growing girl or boy was likely to fall into melancholy, seek solitude, and be attracted by the peaceful calm of religious surroundings: “They mistake the first manifestations of a developing sexual nature for the voice of God calling them to Himself; and it is precisely when nature is inciting them that they embrace a fashion of life contrary to nature’s wish.”4
Despite his initial best efforts, nature’s wish prevailed, and Diderot, who would even towards the end of his life confess to feeling moved to tears by the pomp and circumstance of a religious procession, felt irresistibly drawn to another kind of spectacular ritual: the theatre. To the mature man it would later seem that not only his own imagination had been set aflame during these performances: “People had come with ardour, they left in a state of intoxication: some went to visit the girls, others scattered themselves in society.”5
Like a new gospel, the voice of literature was resonating in the young mind, sense and sensibility mingling in its echoes. On long, solitary walks he read and recited his favorite plays over and over, crying at the sad scenes and declaiming the great monologues as he went along. From the cheapest seats, high up in the gods, he would watch performances of his favorite plays, blocking his ears and reciting the text quietly to himself—only allowing himself to hear the actors’ voices when their mouth movements and gestures diverged from the lines he had memorized.
The youthful fascination rapidly became something more like a vocation: “What did I have in mind? to be applauded? Perhaps. To live on familiar terms with the women of the theatre whom I found infinitely lovable and whom I knew to be a very easy virtue? Assuredly.”6 No profession seemed more wonderful to him than that of a playwright, and before long he was head over heels in love not only with the pretty actresses but with the words they spoke, the sentiments they embodied, and the ideas they brought to the stage. The world of Voltaire began to exert its steady pull on the pious boy from the provinces.

From the Hardcover edition.


  • Financial Times
    “The trick that Blom pulls off with such dazzling aplomb is to make the story he tells timely, compelling and occasionally even thrilling. This is partly because Blom is such a stylish and clever writer: his prose is as lucid and elegant as any of his 18th-century heroes. But it's also because the history of d'Holbach and his friends has a great deal to tell us about the way we live now. Most crucially, Blom describes how d'Holbach's thought is predicated on the importance of challenging totalitarian systems, whether in religion or politics.... Blom's book is not only a pleasure to read but also a celebration of the real and material joys to be found in the godless universe.”

    The American Spectator
    “[A]n erudite, detailed...account of the Paris literary salon where the wealthy Baron Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach wined and dined some of the most passionate of the Enlightened.”

    The Independent (London)
    “Blom skilfully weaves his story around a large cast of characters, including Laurence Sterne, who influenced Diderot's sceptical novel Jacques le fataliste, David Hume, Adam Smith, the radical MP John Wilkes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.... Blom teases out the nuances of the group's ideas with considerable finesse.
  • Nature
    “The French Enlightenment's triumph of reason over religious dogma was plotted in an eighteenth-century Paris salon. Hosted by Baron Paul-Henri Thiry Holbach, the radical thinkers who gathered there included the philosophers Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Historian Philipp Blom revives their legacy and examines the rivalries that sprang up among the group with competitors such as the writer Voltaire. Their ideas about society and the natural world went on to influence politics and science globally.”

    Publishers Weekly, starred review
    “Blom's hugely enjoyable effort succeeds most in exposing readers to the ideas of a wide range of philosophers, from Epicurus to Kant; cleverly, Blom surrounds his medicine with titillating asides, from Rousseau's fetishes (exposing his bottom to female passers-by in Tunis in the hopes of getting slapped) to a selection from D'Alembert's Dream that bears a marked resemblance to a certain café scene in When Harry Met Sally. To make philosophy accessible is the mark of a good writer; to make it exciting is the mark of a great one.”
  • The Economist
    “Tells the story of a set of remarkable individuals on the radical fringes of the 18th-century European Enlightenment, whose determinedly atheistic and materialist philosophies denied the existence of God or the soul.... [P]art biography and part polemic…it is also an iconoclastic rebuttal of what he describes as the ‘official' history of the Enlightenment, the sort of history that he finds ‘cut in stone' on a visit to the Paris Panthéon.  There the bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau were laid to rest with the blessing of the French state. Neither deserved it, suggests Mr Blom.”

    “Blom here returns to the field of an earlier triumph…to take the measure of Encyclopedie's editor, Denis Diderot.... A perceptive, readable portrayal of a seminal coterie in the history of ideas.”

    Library Journal
    “Blom reminds us that some 18th-century reformers were thoroughgoing materialists, scoffing at religion, even deist religion, and criticizing an oppressive, irrational society.”

    Daily Beast
    "Blom brings to life the Enlightenment-shaping debates in the salon of Baron Thierry Holbach…and conveys the high drama that went along with the intellectual debates that helped lay the foundation for the modern world.”
  • Mike Rapport, author of 1848
    “A bold book. In A Wicked Company, Philipp Blom recaptures some of the limelight from the most famous figures of the French Enlightenment — Rousseau and Voltaire — by arguing that the more radical ideas of Diderot and Holbach would have more resonance in our own times. Written with pace and verve, the book evokes the vibrancy of the Parisian salons, bringing the protagonists to life — Diderot, Holbach, Rousseau, Hume, Madame de Geoffrin — and puts flesh-and-blood into the story of eighteenth-century intellectual debate. While challenging the usual pantheon of Enlightenment thinkers, the book offers a lively and readable entry into the wider world of elite culture and ideas in the heady, exciting decades before the French Revolution.”

    Wall Street Journal
    “Mr. Blom skillfully evokes the characters of these young men…. Mr. Blom's coupling of the lives of the philosophers with their thought helps make their ideas less desiccated than they might otherwise have appeared in the hands of a more academic writer. He has an admirable ability to get to the heart of what Spinoza, Hume or Voltaire argued.”
  • David Andress, author of The Terror and 1789
    A Wicked Company offers an entertainingly brisk introduction to some of the more intriguing byways of the Enlightenment, and in particular a humane and engaging portrait of Diderot, a man of startlingly modern ideas constrained by his humble circumstances to an almost-stifling public discretion.”

    Kirkus Reviews
    “Historian Blom returns with a flowing, limpid account of an 18th-century French salon that housed the greatest names in French philosophy.... A swift, readable reminder that ideas are exciting — and have consequences.”

On Sale
May 8, 2012
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Philipp Blom

About the Author

Philipp Blom is the author of several award-winning books, including A Wicked Company, and The Vertigo Years, which has been made into a three-part television documentary. A frequent lecturer at European and American universities, he also contributes to international newspapers and hosts a radio show on Austrian national radio. Philipp Blom lives in Vienna.

Learn more about this author