A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment

By Adams, David | The Historian, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment


Adams, David, The Historian


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). …

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