A philosophy grew up around the baron’s generously stocked table that denied religious revelation and shunned Christian morality, embracing instead the primal passions (the fundamental motives, said the philosophes, for human behaviour) and cool reason (which could direct the passions, but never stand against them). They dreamt of a Utopia built on pleasure-seeking, rationality and empathy. Their ideal nation would leave no room for what they saw as the twisted ethical code of Christianity, which they argued prized suffering and destructive self-repression.
Not only was their thinking radical, but expressing it was dangerous. Diderot was imprisoned for his writings, an experience, Mr Blom argues, that left him too scared to lay out his philosophy plainly, instead disguising it within numerous plays, novels and letters. Baron d’Holbach published most of his works under pseudonyms, which helped to keep him safe but also condemned him to centuries of philosophical obscurity (except in the officially godless Soviet Union). Even when the French revolution finally came, its self-appointed guardians had no place for the philosophy of the true radicals. For Maximilien Robespierre, chief architect of the reign of terror that followed the revolution, God and religion were far too useful in keeping the population in line.
Mr Blom’s book is part biography and part polemic. He sketches the early lives of Diderot, Holbach, Rousseau and other players in the drama, and describes the philosophy they hammered out. 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.And here is the bit about Voltaire and Rousseau:
Voltaire, he insists, was a milquetoast careerist, too concerned with his own reputation and his comfortable life to say anything truly unsettling. Rousseau he finds even worse. By denigrating reason, celebrating impulse and advocating repression and tyranny in the name of a loosely defined “general will”, Rousseau’s thinking, argues Mr Blom, was actively maleficent (and, unsurprisingly, venerated by Robespierre). It is a tragedy of history, the author concludes, that Voltaire and Rousseau won the battle of ideas, whereas Diderot was reduced to the rank of editor of the encyclopedia, and Holbach was forgotten utterly.Read the full review here.