A Wicked Company tells the remarkable story of Baron Thierry Holbach's Parisian salon, an epicenter of freethinking that brought together the greatest minds of the 18th century. Over wine-soaked dinner parties, the finest intellectuals of the Western world—figures such as Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, Horace Walpole, and Benjamin Franklin—matched wits and scandalized one another with their own ever-more-provocative ideas. Writers of genius all, full of wit and courage (but also personal contradictions, doubts, conflicts of conscience, and their fair share of open arguments and love affairs), this group of friends embodied an astonishing radicalism in European thought, so uncompromising and bold that its bracing, liberating, humanist vision has still not been fully realized. As acclaimed historian Philipp Blom shows, these thinkers' analysis of our culture remains as valid as it was then, and has lost little of its potential to shock—or to force us to confront with new eyes debates about our society and its future.
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Philipp Blom was born in Hamburg and trained as a historian in Vienna and Oxford. He is the author of The Vertigo Years, Enlightening the World, and To Have And To Hold. He frequently contributes articles to the Financial Times, the Independent, and the Guardian among others. A host of cultural programming on Austrian National Radio, he lives in Vienna.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CITY OF LIGHTS
Paris is a metropolis to which the bright and ambitious have been drawn for centuries. The lives of the protagonists of this story unfolded on its streets—in its parks, cafés, salons, and bedrooms (and, occasionally, in the country estates dotted around the capital or on a voyage abroad to England, Italy, or even Russia). But far-reaching as they are, the events and ideas that made up this great moment in the history of Western thought have a very clear center, a definitive address, a house number: in the center of the City of Lights, at 10, rue des Moulins, just a stone’s throw from the Louvre and the beautiful colonnades of the Jardin Royal. There stands a handsome seventeenth-century house that was once inhabited by Paul Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, and his wife, and that was for a time the epicenter of intellectual life in Europe. Some of the most exciting minds of the Western world came to Holbach’s salon to partake of sumptuous dinners and discuss dangerous ideas far from the public eye. It is hard to imagine another room that has seen so many brilliant people, heard so many spirited exchanges.
The building breathes quiet confidence and comfort without being demonstratively ornate or flashy. The staircase is still exactly as it was during the eighteenth century: wooden steps framed by elegant, cast-iron railings with gilt flower decor, leading to landings with black-and-white tiles and to the salon on the first floor, a generous room overlooking the street. Here, guests were received and dinners held. The room is in no way ostentatious but spacious enough to accommodate a good dozen people around a large dining table and still leave space for servants to pass behind the diners. The wooden floors are of the period, the ceiling high, and the large bay windows flood the room with light, giving it a gracious, elegant air.
“Elegance” was a watchword in this part of town even two and a half centuries ago, when the adjoining street to the south, the rue Saint-Honoré—with its innumerable tailors and couturiers and the wig makers, coiffeurs, shoemakers, glovers, and others who went with them—was the mecca of the fashion-conscious throughout the Western world. Luxury merchants had been drawn to the area by the huge, looming, eternally unfinished Louvre, the royal palace at the heart of the capital, directly by the banks of the Seine. Courtiers needed to be presentable, and they constantly needed to show off new clothes, setting the tone for the rest of the country and for Europe. But the palace had been practically empty ever since the beginning of Louis XIV’s personal rule in 1661, when the young Sun King, suspicious of the subversive undercurrent of city life, had displaced his court out of the city and eventually to the palace of Versailles. A monstrous construction project in the swamps, its drainage and conversion into the world’s most spectacular park had cost hundreds of workers’ lives, swallowed endless millions, and eventually ruined the kingdom. The Louvre was deserted by the court for most of the year: empty ceremonial halls echoing with the footfall of occasional servants; exquisitely carved furniture covered up, its delicate fabrics (often made from last season’s silk court robes) hidden from view; chandeliers tinkling softly in the breeze as the rooms were aired and cleaned periodically. Only the countless workshops of tradesmen and craftsmen on the ground floor and in the courtyards filled the site with life.
The rue Saint-Honoré, however, continued to do brisk business. As far as fashion was concerned, it was the only place to go. But Holbach had not chosen this part of Paris for its fashionable or royal associations. He was not very interested in his appearance and was an instinctive republican. But the house was convenient, right in the middle of things yet quietly situated in a side street, within easy reach of all amenities. For this part of town was a center not only of fashion but also of intellectual life. Several of his wealthier friends and other salon hosts lived around the corner, and there were bookshops and art dealers. The enclosed universe of the leafy Jardin Royal nearby (lovingly described in Diderot’s novel Rameau’s Nephew) tempted with cafés and chess tables as well as gambling and altogether more carnal pleasures in the shape of gaudily made-up prostitutes in low-cut dresses sauntering past gentlemen in powdered wigs—a theatre of vanities that the baron, by all accounts a model husband, was content to observe from a distance.
Less than a mile farther east, past the graceful, circular Place de Victoires dominated by a statue of Louis XIV, the world became even more carnal. Heaving with countless porters, grocers, butcher boys, flower sellers, fishmongers, spice dealers, and sausage sellers; ringing with their market cries and warning shouts from dawn to dusk; and reeking to high heaven during the summer months, the Les Halles markets were the stomach of Paris, the source for the ingredients of the baron’s famous twice-weekly dinners.
The area’s other landmark, the magnificent Place Vendôme, originally a speculation scheme that had almost broken the back of its investors and had stood like a huge theatre set as an assembly of empty facades for years, was one of the capital’s preeminent addresses, a place that smelled of money as much as Les Halles did of pickled herring on a warm August day. Ostentatious to the point of vulgarity, it could be reached on foot from the baron’s house within a few minutes, and yet it was a different universe. The stars of Holbach’s intellectual salon were not financiers but writers, scientists, and philosophers.
Several great salons vied for the attention and the presence of the city’s brightest and most fashionable intellectuals. Each of these houses had a distinctive character and orientation, both artistically and politically. Just around the corner in the rue Sainte-Anne, the baron’s friend Claude-Adrien Helvétius regularly welcomed progressive philosophers and writers, but even if Holbach and Helvétius were famous for their hospitality, they were exceptional in a salon landscape dominated by distinguished ladies. Indeed, keeping a salon was the only way for a woman to make her mark on the still overwhelmingly male literary world. At the rue Saint-Honoré, no more than a few minutes from Holbach’s doorstep, the sexually voracious novelist Claudine Guérin de Tencin had welcomed some of the nation’s most powerful and witty men into her salon—and frequently her bed. “One can see that God is a man by the way he treats us women,” she famously sighed, but even divine negligence did not deter her from enjoying life to the full. In 1717 she had given birth to an illegitimate son, whom she had promptly laid on the steps of the Church of Jean-le-Rond. He would grow up to become Jean d’Alembert, one of this century’s most eminent mathematicians and coeditor, with Diderot, of the great Encyclopédie.
After Madame de Tencin’s death in 1749, Marie-Thérèse de Geoffrin (1699–1777), reputedly the greatest hostess of all, held court at the rue Saint-Honoré. No one could dream of making a literary career without her approval, and an invitation to read at her house from a manuscript was not only a mark of recognition but practically a guarantee of success. Voltaire had been a regular here before his exile; government ministers, scientists, poets, and wits mingled here and could speak with a freedom impossible at court or in public. Here, introductions could be made, alliances forged, literary destinies determined. Among the many whose path to later glory led through Madame de Geoffrin’s salon was the young Diderot, who made the acquaintance of a number of writers who would later contribute to his Encyclopédie.
As the example of Madame de Geoffrin indicates, salons fulfilled an important function in eighteenth-century Paris. The usual networking was and still is such an important feature in literary circles—replete with young hopefuls, freshly arrived in the city and eager to make themselves known, and the old, established names wanting to shine and enjoy their growing reputation. But the salons served as much more than just a vehicle for vanity. In an intellectual environment controlled by harsh censorship laws, it was not easy to find places allowing a free exchange of ideas. In eighteenth-century France, no work could legally appear in print without a royal privilege indicating that it had gone through the hands of church censors and been approved. The penalties for contravening these laws were stiff and applied strictly at the discretion of the authorities, such as the chief censor and the mighty Paris parlement, though powerful courtiers were also known to use their influence against books and their authors. Punishments ranged from a symbolic tearing and burning of the book by the hangman of Paris to a few weeks in the Bastille to backbreaking forced labor on the galleys of the French navy (a virtual death sentence) or outright public torture and execution.
Ideas depend on gregariousness and exchange to flourish, but public places, the parks, the many cafés and taverns were too insecure to meet in. The person at the next table could be a police spy, and the merest accusation could suffice to ruin one’s career or force the accused into exile. Even the great Voltaire had found that his considerable wealth did not protect him from prosecution; in 1728, having made one disrespectful quip too many, he had been obliged to leave Paris and eventually France, retiring to a pretty country estate at Ferney, near Geneva and close to the French border.
Salon hostesses had a very specific and strictly circumscribed function. The writer and salon regular Jean-François Marmontel praised their “grace of the mind, the mobility of their imagination, the ease and natural flexibility of their ideas and their language” and described their conversation as necessary training for writers: “He who wants to write only with precision, energy and vigor must live only with men; but whoever wants style with suppleness, ease, connectedness and a certain je ne sais quoi which is called charm would do well, I believe, to live with women.”1
There was no thought, however, of the women themselves appearing as authors or as philosophers. The natural flexibility and delicacy with which their male contemporaries believed them to be endowed rendered them inspired mediators and facilitators, but little more than that. While the limitations of their role were no doubt intensely frustrating for many of the women concerned, playing hostess was nevertheless the only way open to them of participating in literary society, and it allowed them to influence intellectual life by promoting some authors and artists more than others.
Every salon had its own temperament, its own cast of characters, and its own philosophical or even political orientation. But the salons all shared the invaluable function of giving visitors an opportunity to speak, to listen, to read their works to an appreciative and critical audience, to forge alliances, to find a powerful patron, and just to escape the drudgery and boredom of their working days. Those who were lucky enough to be received at all the great houses could count their weekdays in salons: Mme Geoffrin on Monday, then on Tuesday the home of the philosopher Helvétius, the next day Mme Geoffrin again, then Holbach, and finally the home of Mme Necker. For Saturdays, there were minor salons, but on Sundays several great houses threw open their doors, including Holbach’s, of course.
The glittering world of the salons was nothing but a distant dream for the adolescent Denis Diderot when he set foot in Paris for the first time in 1728, at age fifteen, a pious provincial boy admitted to one of the city’s great schools in preparation for becoming a priest. His father, a master cutler, had accompanied him to oversee his first days in the capital, a dazzling spectacle very far from the quiet surroundings of their home.
Diderot had been baptized on October 6, 1713, in the small town of Langres, in northern Champagne. Eleven months earlier his mother had given birth to another boy, only to lose him days after his birth. She was thirty-four when she married, uncommonly old for the time. The couple would have three more surviving children, whose lives illustrate the family’s devout background. A second son, Didier, would become a thorny priest and forever quarrel with his notorious atheist brother; Angélique, the older sister, became an Ursuline nun against the wishes of her family and apparently died from overwork in the convent at the age of twenty-eight. Only the youngest sister, Denise, would remain a lifelong friend and confidante for her brother.
The Diderots were a prosperous family. The father’s workshop occupied the ground floor of their handsome house, while the family’s living quarters on the higher floors overlooked the cathedral square of the proud town of Langres. Their oldest son was baptized Denis after the sainted missionary beheaded in Paris around the year 250 (but unwittingly also after Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy). He quickly grew into a bright, personable child, fast-witted and outgoing. The father decided that Denis would continue the family tradition and become a priest, so he sent the child to the local school, where he excelled not only at the basics but also at Latin.
But Denis was no bookish boy. When he was about ten years old, he enthusiastically participated in a protracted and at times bloody war between two rival gangs of children, during which two armies of up to a hundred boys squared off with sticks and stones. A childhood memory (described, as so often with Diderot, in dialogue form, and this time directed at a boy from a richer family) paints a no doubt tendentious but highly revealing portrait of the young warrior, as well as of the man he would become. The mature author remembers himself as a Spartan, fierce and proud, and superior in his simplicity to the effeminate Athenian manners of his rival: “You recoil at the sight of the disheveled hair and torn clothes. Yet I was that way when I was young and I was pleasing—pleasing to even the women and girls in my home town in the provinces. They preferred me, without hat and with my chest uncovered, sometimes without shoes, in a jacket and with the feet bare, me, son of a worker at a forge, to that little well-dressed monsieur all curled and powdered and dressed to the nines, the son of the presiding judge.”2 A portrait of the artist as a young man and as a writer: his rebellious spirit, his entertaining vanity, and his—at times exasperating—stylization as a man of the people. Even in later life he would not wear a wig, and portraits show the mature man with short hair and simple clothes, an honest worker like his father, not some grandee dressed after the latest fashion.
When the boy entered his teenage years, he sought out the most intellectual branch of the church. Young Diderot wanted to become a Jesuit, but his father would not hear of it, especially as Denis’ uncle had already ind...
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