Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wicked Company: Holbach's salon, Diderot, & friends (2)

I am past the halfway mark through the incredibly detailed, highly readable volume A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom. There are a number of interesting characters in it, and the contrast of characters, styles, philosophies, and behaviors is most interesting. There is the cooperation as well as temperamental and stylistic differences between the heroes of the book, Holbach and Diderot, at the center of the Radical Enlightenment. I also take note of the different perspectives and social roles of Rousseau, Voltaire, and David Hume.

All of the Frenchmen had their shortcomings when it comes to applying their principles to their wives and/or mistresses. Diderot is portrayed as more passionate, more bold in his rejection of traditional morality, and livelier in his writing style than his friend Holbach. (He edited much of the lead out of Holbach's prose.) Both are the heroes of the book, but Diderot comes off as more well-rounded and vital, though Holbach's literary output was prodigious as was his table. Both sought to re-ground morality casting aside not only the repressive morality of Catholicism but all theistically based notions. Nature is the basis of their rational world view and the fulfillment of pleasure combined with cooperation the basis of their morality. Diderot nevertheless was totally unrestrained in his advocacy of sexuality, casting aside whatever inhibitions (Stoical tendencies) that might still be found in Holbach's perspective. (Note though Diderot's disdain for La Mettrie.)

Rousseau was a piece of work. A product of malformed sexuality and upbringing, his paranoia and persecution complex poisoned all of his relationships with his friends, some of whom he also attacked in his writings. While a product of the same Enlightenment intellectual heritage as the Radical Enlightenment, he gave all of these ideas a reactionary spin once he opposed the atheism and sensualism of Holbach and Diderot, whom he grew to detest. He was a proto-Romantic, rebelling against Enlightenment rationalism, attacking the notion of civilizational progress, and equating the uncorrupted state of nature with godliness (though human nature is judged as corrupted by desire), essentially duplicating in modern form the Christian morality the Radical Enlightenment rejected. Despite Rousseau's critique of inequality, his social world view, including his conception of the general will and his views of education, censorship, religion, and political rule, is seeded with authoritarianism. His ideal society has all the features of a police state. Hence Rousseau effectively erases his incipient dialectical notion that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. Blom effectively relates Rousseau's ultimately regressive social vision and his spiteful philosophical betrayal of his former friends to his personal history and pathology.

Voltaire is presented largely as an opportunist, pursuing his own wealth, status, and reputation, and despite his problems with clerical and aristocratic despotism, attacked the Radical Enlightenment for his own ends. (As a deist he attacked atheism.)

David Hume was received as a superstar in France. Feted there, he had the time of his life, but philosophically he was quite at a distance from his hosts despite their enthusiasm for him. Hume was a skeptic rather than an atheist and he lacked that sharp polemical opposition to the social order exhibited by the Radical Enlightenment. Of note in this account is that the French materialists bypassed the epistemological preoccupation with certainty, skepticism, and justification that would drive so much of modern philosophy. For Holbach, who contributed mightily to the development of a scientific world view, science, based on empirical engagement with the world, provided the source for knowledge. No other justification was needed. Hume's philosophical preoccupation was quite foreign to him. And Holbach was quite prescient in his scientific ideas. I think that this was the main way forward at this point, though the epistemology behind it was not finely developed from what I can tell--the nature of concept and theory formation, etc. Hume was innovative in bringing to light fundamental issues that would devastate traditional a priori metaphysics, and it was too early at that point to see clearly what a dead end skepticism as the dogmatic inverse of dogmatism would become.

Generalizing the narrative so far, Blom insists that the Radical Enlightenment has been gravely misrepresented. "Passion is crucial to the radical Enlightenment." (Their moral theory on the positivity of sensual enjoyment, empathy, etc., is detailed, in contradistinction to both Christian morality and nihilism.) But also the Radical Enlightenment's view of Reason is the polar opposite both of Rousseau's repressive world view and technocratic rationalization.
So much of the Enlightenment was or was represented as a cult of “pure reason” (in Immanuel Kant’s key phrase) that it is still common in our day to think of this great philosophical paradigm shift as being concerned merely with making life more rational, more efficient, and less superstitiously medieval. This may be partly true for moderate, often deist thinkers such as Leibniz, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Kant, and even for Diderot’s friend Helvétius, but it was never true of the radical Enlightenment around Diderot and Holbach.

To the Enlightenment radicals, reason is merely a technical faculty of analysis, part of our material constitution. But while moderate thinkers wanted to create a life governed less by the passions and more by rational behavior, a life purified of physical desire and instinctive acts, Holbach and particularly Diderot wanted to create a society in which individuals could live as far as possible in harmony with their desires and fulfill them. Reason was simply a tool for a life that was essentially passionate and governed by vital drives, by pleasure and pain.
Now whether or not this world view is sufficiently well articulated in hindsight is less important than the facile assumptions indiscriminately attributed to the Enlightenment. My first thought is to refer here to Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, which I have always disliked. As it happens, at book's end Blom does refer to it, and he lays all the blame for instrumental reason critiqued therein on the moderate Enlightenment!

There is no mention of William Blake in the book, but while Blake's aversion to much of the Enlightenment (though he had engaged it earlier in life, e.g. via Wollstonecraft and Paine), links the imperial capitalist order Blake opposed to empiricism proximately and materialism somewhat more remotely--specifically the figures of moderate English/Scottish and French Enlightenment, the Frenchmen targeted being Voltaire and Rousseau. Blake could never have been congenial to the materialism of the Radical Enlightenment, but perhaps earlier in life he could have accommodated aspects of it as he accommodated Thomas Paine.

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