A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Hardcover)

The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment

By Philipp Blom

Basic Books, 9780465014538, 384pp.

Publication Date: November 1, 2010



The acclaimed author of The Vertigo Years tells the remarkable story of the Parisian salon that hosted the eighteenth century’s greatest minds and changed the course of Western philosophy

About the Author

Philipp Blom is the author of The Vertigo Years, Enlightening the World, and To Have and To Hold. He contributes articles to the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian, among others. He lives in Vienna, Austria.

Praise For A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment

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.”
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.”
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.”
Booklist“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.” 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.” 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.


The Spectator (London)“[A] quirky and original book…. Blom weaves their disparate lives and opinions together into a…coherent narrative.” Times Literary Supplement (London)
“[An] engaging portrait of the philosophes’ salons and social lives.”

Choice “Tales of infighting and romantic problems abound…. Blom definitely enlightens readers about how wicked people can be…. Recommended.”