Setting the world to rights

Jonathan Sumption finds that the philosophes of the French Enlightenment shared little with one another and even less with the revolutionaries who followed them

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendship in Pre-Revolutionary Paris Philipp Blom

Weidenfeld, pp.384, 25

Wicked Company is the collective biography of a group of men with little in common, apart from a generalised dissatisfaction with the state of the world around them. Perhaps that is true of most intellectual coteries. The kings of the Parisian Enlightenment of the 18th century were the mathematician Jean d’Alembert and the playwright and journalist Denis Diderot, joint editors of the great Encyclopédie. Their work brought them into contact with a remarkable group of men, who populate the pages of Philipp Blom’s quirky and original book: the economist and journalist Raynal, who never quite shook off his Jesuit origins; the mass of obscurer contributors to the Encyclopédie; the moody and quarrelsome romantic Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who rejected many of their fundamental values; the occasional outsiders like the Scots David Hume and Adam Smith, who were more considerable philosophers than any of them; and Voltaire, a distant and malevolent presence, living in exile in Switzerland, the author of many pungent letters and pamphlets but no serious intellectual work. Blom weaves their disparate lives and opinions together into a more or less coherent narrative. Intellectual history is famously difficult to write for a non-specialist readership. Biography is a good refuge from the difficulties, even if it can rarely do justice to the complexity of the subject.

The link figure in Blom’s group is Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron Holbach. Holbach is not well-known, but perhaps deserves to be. He was a rich German dilletante, by profession a lawyer, educated at Leyden in Holland, who lived most of his life in Paris and died there at the age of 66, a few weeks before the outbreak of the French Revolution. He contributed several articles to the Encyclopédie, mostly on the natural sciences. But his main claim to fame was that he was the author of a number of atheist treatises. These, however, did nothing for his fame in his lifetime because they were written under pseudonyms in order to escape the attention of the censors. As a result, Holbach has come down to posterity not as a philosopher but as the pretentious host mocked by Horace Walpole, and the original of the virtuous unbeliever Baron Wolmar in Rousseau’s Julie.

Blom is interested in Holbach for two reasons. One is that he held a salon twice a week for nearly 30 years at his mansion in the Rue Royale, which was famous for the quality of the food and drink, and for the distinction of the participants. Holbach’s salon provided a central telephone exchange for Philipp Blom’s cast of characters, which confers a sort of unity on his story. The other reason is that Blom aspires to be more than a historian. He has a position of his own. He admires Holbach’s materialism and finds his atheism more honest and intellectually consistent than Voltaire’s deism or Rouseau’s overt rejection of rationality. He thinks that the 18th century took a wrong turning by trying to salve as much as it could of God, while rejecting the teaching and institutional authority of the Christian Church.

Oddly enough, we know little about Holbach’s salon, far less than we know about, for example, the salons of Mme Geoffrin or Mme du Deffand or, later, Mme de Stael. We know that it was well-attended, that it was comfortable, and that it was thought to be important. But that is about it. Gibbon may have described it (admittedly in a thank-you letter) as on a par with the symposia of ancient Greece and Rome. But the rest of us would probably have sided with Walpole, who found the company ‘detestable’, or the Scottish visitor who was disappointed to discover that Diderot, its chief rooster, was a noisy, disputatious show-off. ‘He is certainly very learned, and conscious of his own knowledge’, wrote Sir James Scot to the London blue-stocking Elizabeth Montagu; ‘but he would be a better philosopher and a more agreeable companion if he did not make philosophy a matter of party, and treat subjects of the gravest nature and which require a cool examination too much like the head of an opposition.’ Like most British visitors, he regarded the world of the Paris salons as irredeemably superficial.

As for the atheism, Blom is surely right to be struck by it. By and large, the 18th century funked the question of God. There were deists and agnostics, animists and nature-worshippers, but few out-and-out atheists. The reasons were essentially social and political. They were neatly expressed by Gibbon, who observed of the religions of the ancient world, that they were ‘considered by the people as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful.’ Living in a world in which religion was at the root of all social life for almost every one else, even the most uncompromising rationalists found it hard to imagine how social bonds or moral values could subsist without religious belief to sustain them.

Holbach did his best to meet the challenge. His most influential work, The System of Nature (1770), is a sustained attempt to find some basis for moral values in human nature and the natural world, independent of divine authority or inspiration. But Holbach made few converts. Voltaire, who regarded atheism as destructive of society, thought his views ‘detestable’. A century after his death, the English Victorian sage Henry Sidgwick put his finger on the same problem when he found himself commending a system of belief in which he had no personal confidence, because the confidence of others made it ‘indispensable and irreplaceable — looking at it from a sociological point of view.’

We tend to think of the philosophes of 18th-century France as precursors of the Revolution. Chronologically, of course, they were precursors, and no doubt they did help to undermine the legitimacy of royal power in the last few decades of its existence. But they shared very little with the revolutionaries, apart from a rejection of the intellectual authority of the Church. The Revolution’s worship of the general will, with its inherent tendency to totalitarianism, owed more to the romanticism of Rousseau. Holbach, like Diderot and their friend Helvetius, was buried in the Parisian church of Saint-Roch. The revolutionaries sacked the church and scattered their bones in 1791. It was a symbolic moment.

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