The Sciences

Wicked Company

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollNov 5, 2010 12:42 PM

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Via 3 Quarks Daily, an Economist review of what looks like a fun book: Philipp Blom's A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.

It is the story of the scandalous Paris salon run by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach, a philosophical playground for many of the greatest thinkers of the age. Its members included Denis Diderot (most famous as the editor of the original encyclopedia, but, Mr Blom argues, an important thinker in his own right), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of romanticism, and the baron himself; even David Hume, a famous Scottish empiricist, paid the occasional visit.

I have a special fondness for these guys, having taught a course about them. As much as I am a forward-thinking person, the modern mode of expression by freethinkers (pounding out passionate diatribes on our keyboards) isn't quite as much fun as gathering in a salon among good food and drink to denounce hypocrisy and spread the Enlightenment message. Apparently Blom's historical account has a contemporary message:

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.

Sounds pretty darn accurate. Let's order some bottles of wine and get this job finished!

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