Monday, March 14, 2011

The Darkness of the Enlightenment--Brighter in England?

From The American Spectator comes this review of a new book about the Englightenment in France, focused on the philosophe salons that gathered twice a week at the home of Baron Holbach:

Now from Europe comes a candidate fifth horseman [reviewer Joseph A. Harriss refers to our current Four Horsemen of atheism: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens]. Philipp Blom's A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (Basic Books, 361 pages, $29.95), is an erudite, detailed -- and tendentious -- account of the Paris literary salon where the wealthy Baron Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach wined and dined some of the most passionate of the Enlightened. Blom, a German-born, Oxford-educated historian and novelist who lives in Vienna, is also author of a history of Europe from 1900 to 1914.

The forgotten radicalism he celebrates refers to the most anti-religion, anti-revelation, anti-God theorizing done during this period of ferment, when bold new thinking in science, mathematics, religion, and politics was in the air all over Europe. (The French called it the Siècle de Lumières, Germans the Aufklärung.) Blom gladly embraces the desolate world conceived at Holbach's intellectual bull sessions, "a world of ignorant necessity and without higher meaning, into which kindness and lust can inject a fleeting beauty."

Gathered on Thursdays and Sundays in Holbach's elegant town house across the Seine from the Louvre to enjoy multi-course meals -- 30 dishes often filled his groaning board -- were not only the French philosophes like Denis Diderot, creator of the famous Encyclopédie, the father of Romanticism Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the sharp-tongued opponent of tyranny, Voltaire. From the 1750s to the 1770s the salon was also a must for foreign visitors to Paris who wanted to make the avant-garde scene.

English historian Edward Gibbon dropped in occasionally, as did the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume and his fellow Scot, the free-market economist Adam Smith.

Michael Burleigh reviews the same book for WSJ and the author posts the introduction on his website.

Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a book about the Enlightenment a few years ago, emphasizing the positive effects of the English and American Enlightenments above the more deleterious influences of the French: Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, described by the publishers as:

. . . an elegant, eminently readable work, [by] one of our most distinguished intellectual historians gives us a brilliant revisionist history. The Roads to Modernity reclaims the Enlightenment--an extraordinary time bursting with new ideas about human nature, politics, society, and religion--from historians who have downgraded its importance and from scholars who have given preeminence to the Enlightenment in France over concurrent movements in England and America. Contrasting the Enlightenments in the three nations, Himmelfarb demonstrates the primacy and wisdom of the British, exemplified in such thinkers as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, as well as the unique and enduring contributions of the American Founders. It is their Enlightenments, she argues, that created a social ethic--humane, compassionate, and realistic--that still resonates strongly today, in America perhaps even more than in Europe. The Roads to Modernity is a remarkable and illuminating contribution to the history of ideas.

I read Himmelfarb's book when it came out and remember being a little skeptical about her argument, since I knew how anti-Catholic and intolerant of Catholics and the Church David Hume was. In his enlightenment version of English history, he was still as certain as his predecessors of British superiority and distinctiveness--he just left the Church of England and Protestant hegemony out of the picture. Of course, my study of the history of the Enlightenment has not been systematic and most autodidactic, but I have never found that much to applaud in either the lives or the thoughts of the philosophes of that era/school.

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