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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.
Historian Blom (The Vertigo Years) visits the salons of 18th-century Europe and compares this "radical" Enlightenment with the more bourgeoisie, "soft Enlightenment" of Votaire, Kant, and other philosophers. Though Baron d'Holbach's uncompromising atheist writings are largely ignored today, his salon was once considered "the epicenter of intellectual life in Europe." Great minds of the time, including Diderot and Rousseau, gathered at his table. Blom draws close to Diderot's Encyclopedia, two decades in the making. Loaded with facts and rife with subversive thought, the Encyclopedia's contributors expounded with impunity on forbidden, dangerous subjects, giving the reading public a proxy seat at Holbach's table. 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 caf 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.