Historian Blom (Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914, 2008, etc.) returns with a flowing, limpid account of an 18th-century French salon that housed the greatest names in French philosophy.
The real star here is Denis Diderot, who, though he never created a comprehensive philosophical system, nonetheless wrestled with troubling ideas of human nature and culture that continue to vex. Blom begins and ends with personal perspectives, wondering why Voltaire and Rousseau (one-time regulars at the salon) are revered, and Diderot and Baron Paul-Thierry d’Holbach (who hosted and wrote, as well, often under a pseudonym) are not nearly so honored. Diderot is known, of course, for his innovative fiction and for his magisterial work—the 17-volume Encyclopédie that took him and his colleagues many years to produce, but which Diderot saw as an onerous burden. Blom then sketches the backgrounds of each of his principals, but he is most interested in the ideas that drew them together, later divided some of them and animated their discussions. Foremost among these is religion. Many at the salon were avowed atheists, during a time when such a position was risky, even suicidal. Diderot went to prison and was released only after promising to eschew blasphemy henceforth. Blom charts the rise and fall of the once-intimate friendship between Diderot and Rousseau, which ended in bitterness and recrimination. Other notables were in and out of the salon, among them David Hume, whose intelligence and philosophy Blom also highlights, Adam Smith and Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Diderot, as Blom reiterates often, reveled in the flesh, believed shame and guilt were instruments of oppression, anticipated Darwin and believed that what we call “intelligent design” is nonsense.
A swift, readable reminder that ideas are exciting—and have consequences.