AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE WICKED COMPANY: FREETHINKERS AND FRIENDSHIP IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY PARIS
By Philipp Blom (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 361pp £25)
WICKED COMPANY IS a group biography of the philosophes, whose courageous and radical thought helped prepare France for the seismic political upheaval of 1789. Philipp Blom deftly delineates the friendship through which Denis Diderot and the Baron d’Holbach pursued philosophical truth and collaborated on the eighteenth century’s most ambitious publishing project: the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (which ran to twenty-eight volumes between 1751 and 1772, covering topics as diverse as azymites and tailor ing). The aim of the Encyclopédie’s editors was ‘to collect all the knowledge that now lies scattered over the face of the earth, to make known its general structure to the men among whom we live, and to transmit it to those who will come after us’ – to make men not only wiser but also ‘more virtuous and more happy’. The relations of both Diderot and d’Holbach to Voltaire and Rousseau (whose posthumous reputations have fared somewhat better in the Anglophone world) are also carefully drawn; as are their connections with foreign writers and intellectuals (Friedrich Grimm, David Hume, Ferdinando Galiani and Count Beccaria) and their interactions with rare examples of freethinking women, the brilliant and wealthy Louise d’Epinay especially.
Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in the small town of Langres in northern Champagne. He was sent to Paris, aged fifteen, to complete his education and train for the priesthood, but rebelled and decided to become a playwright instead: ‘What did I have in mind? To be applauded? Perhaps. To live on familiar terms with the women of the theatre whom I found infinitely lovable and whom I knew to be [of] a very easy virtue? Assuredly.’ The Baron d’Holbach, ten years younger than Diderot, arrived in Paris from Edesheim, in the German Palatinate. He was a precocious child under the supervision of his ennobled uncle. By the time the two men met (in late 1749 or 1750), Diderot was already a famous author, daring to question the Christian faith, and d’Holbach had spent time studying natural science in the Netherlands.
The Encyclopédie began modestly. Struggling to earn money, Diderot was hired to help translate Ephraim Chambers’s English Cyclopaedia of 1728. The project grew when he decided to add commentaries to the original text, and persuaded a syndicate of three booksellers to finance a larger collaborative work, far over-
s p i l l i ng t he l imi t s o f Chambers’s or ig inal, that would become a definitive repos i t o r y o f c e r t a i n knowledge and sceptical thought. D’Holbach, with his understanding of mine r a l ogy, metallurgy and physics, was a very promising potential contr ibutor. The brilliant mathematician, Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, already a member of the Academy of Sciences, also became involved: his name and social connections – he was the illegitimate son of the great salon hostess Mme de Tencin – helped reassure the booksellers that their sizeable investment would be safe.
D’Epinay: not just a pretty face
The novelist Louise d’Epinay was one of the few women to contr ibute to the Encyclopédie. From an impoverished aristocratic family, she had been married at nineteen to her wealthy cousin. She and her husband l ed s eparate l ive s , and i n her countr y house La Chevrette, at Grandval, she accommodated both Grimm (her lover) and Rousseau (with whom she shared an interest in education). Diderot described a portrait of her as ‘the very image of tenderness and voluptuousness’. Rousseau, infamously, quarrelled with d’Epinay, Grimm, and Diderot. D’Epinay wrote to him, challenging his paranoia: ‘You make me pity you. If you are sane, your conduct horrifies me on your behalf, because I do not think it straightforward. It is not natural to spend one’s life suspecting and wounding one’s friends.’
Diderot edited the Encyclopédie from his Par isian home, crammed with paper s . When the volumes became f ashionable, the hostess Madame Geoffr in bought him a sumptuous new dressing gown to write in, inspir ing his essay ‘Regrets About My Dressing Gown’ (1769). The old gown, comfortable and inkstained, had ‘announced the author, the wr iter, the working man’. In the new one, Diderot complained: ‘I look like a rich idler. Nobody knows who I am.’ Blom reconstructs the fear of falling prey to their own reputations, and the difficulties of living up to them, that dogged the philosophes through the 1760s and 1770s.
Blom succeeds in conveying a lot of detailed information about the philosophes’ fr iendships and amorous adventures to the general reader in engaging and readily accessible prose. He is on less certain ground in summar ising the content of their arguments, essays and books. He relies throughout on the ter m ‘ radical Enlightenment’ without precisely defining it. He does, however, refer in the endnotes to Jonathan Israel’s work, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011