Our correspondent at The Economist reviews what looks to a provocative new book by Philipp Blom, A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.
Blom sets his book around the happenings of an exceptional Parisian salon — that of Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach — who hosted the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Denis Diderot, and other Enlightenment philosophes — several of whom have largely been forgotten in the wake of what Blom considers to be the “sanitized” intellectual history of the period.
The true heavyweights of the salon, argues Blom, were far more mechanistic, godless, and atheistic than its better known members, several of whom have been appropriated and venerated by a metaphysically minded counter-Enlightenment. It looks to be an informative and provocative read:
Even today, and even in secular western Europe, the bald and confident atheism and materialism of Diderot and Holbach seems mildly shocking. We still cling stubbornly to the idea of an animating soul, a spiritual ghost in the biological machine.
For Mr Blom, the modern, supposedly secular world has merely dressed up the “perverse” morality of Christianity in new and better camouflaged ways. We still hate our bodies, he says, still venerate suffering and distrust pleasure.
This is the message of Mr Blom’s book, hinted at but left unstated until the closing chapters. He believes the Enlightenment is incomplete, betrayed by its self-appointed guardians. Despite all the scientific advances of the past two centuries, magical thinking and the cultural inheritance of Christianity remain endemic.
Those are some fighting words and questionable ideas, but one thing is certain: humans will always cling to the idea of a soul and believe in magic. Our brains naturally generate these ideas and religions run with them.