books pt. 3

A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom.

A Wicked Company is a worthwhile celebration of the Enlightenment’s more radical figures: Holbach, Diderot, Hume. With remarkable foresight, these avowed atheists anticipated sociobiology, evolution, psychology in their philosophical beliefs; they celebrated sex and sensuality, held progressive views on women, and decried slavery and colonialism. The book positions these “protagonists” in opposition to Voltaire and Rousseau – whose fame and influence, Blom argues, unjustly eclipsed theirs.

Blom provides concrete examples of Rousseau’s tortured religious, sexual, and social hang-ups as well as Voltaire’s craven allegiance to the aristocracy and convention, and questions the relevance of their arguments to a scientific, modern society. Blom is excessive in his demonization of Rousseau and the book sometimes reads like a histrionic philosophical death-match between Diderot vs. Rousseau. But the point the book makes about the importance of the human being as a social, empathetic animal resonates on both a micro and macro level, especially as Rousseau’s isolation from the so-called ‘wicked company’ of his former, more progressive salon friends, fed into the paranoia, absolutism, and dangerous irrationality of his romantic philosophy, whereas the deeply social community of Diderot, Hume, and Holbach had a steadfast moral stake in the development and promotion of democracy, natural rights, and utilitarianism.

By revisiting the competing philosophers and their philosophies, Blom implies a through-line between Rousseau and Voltaire’s influence and the religious dogma, economic subjugation, sexual conservatism, and tyranny of both the French Revolution and our modern era. Imagine a world, Blom, implies, where Diderot and not Rousseau commanded more philosophical respect and wielded more influence. Though Blom dramatizes the conflicts repetitively, the colorful, flawed personalities that he describes throughout are distinctive and the implications are fascinating.

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