Sunday, May 27, 2018

Wicked Company: Holbach's salon, Diderot, & friends (4)

This is the final installment of my review of A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom.

As chapter 18 ends, we find Diderot and Holbach fortunate to die before the onslaught of the French Revolution for which their writings helped pave the way.
Both Diderot and the baron were interred in the ossuarium, a cryptlike room underneath the same altar, together with other famous Frenchmen, such as their friend Claude-Adrien Helvétius, the grand salon hostess Marie-Thérèse de Geoffrin, the great landscape artist André le Nôtre, and the dramatist Pierre Corneille.

During the Revolution, the burial place was ransacked, and the remains were torn from their resting places and scattered across the room. The rebels of the 1871 Paris Commune repeated this blasphemous ritual, and while the bones are still lying in the ossuarium, it was judged impossible to determine the parts of the individual skeletons.
After this chapter comes the "Epilogue: A Stolen Revolution." While Jonathan Israel has advanced the notion of the Radical Enlightenment in a series of scholarly works, Blom has told the story in a popular format. His Epilogue makes his intervention even more radical. This book should be put into as many hands as possible, but it also provides food for thought for more erudite readers.

I lack a detailed knowledge of the French Revolution beyond scattered facts, so Blom provides for me at least quite a revelation and quite an important one. Maximilien Robespierre is unequivocally condemned as a betrayer of the Radical Enlightenment. Considering the complex political mess of the revolutionary period, I won't comment on Robespierre's role in the dictatorship and Terror. Of interest in Blom's account is the emphasis that the most ruthless and violent acts, including those against the Catholic establishment, were not carried out by atheists, and that atheists themselves were executed for being such. Catholicism was supplanted not by atheism but by deism, Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being. In the process Robespierre practically deified Rousseau. Robespierre established elaborate festivals in honor of the Goddess of Reason. These details are most revealing:
With an immense flair for classicist bombast and ideological kitsch, the painter Jacques-Louis David, the chief decorator of the Revolution, designed huge, papier-mâché statues of Virtue, Liberty, and Nature—the latter endowed with multiple breasts that dispersed refreshing water, which was drunk out of a common chalice by eighty-six old men symbolizing the departments of France. On 20 Prairial Year II of the new calendar (June 8, 1794, to the uninitiated), Robespierre held a public ceremony for the Supreme Being in the Tuileries gardens. Attended by a crowd of thousands, it included not only a lengthy sermon by Robespierre but also the ritual burning of a statue of Atheism, the charred debris of which revealed an effigy of Truth—unfortunately blackened by smoke.

Implementing his new religion, Robespierre brooked no opposition, even from the dead. On December 5, 1792, the very day on which he was to give his famous speech demanding the execution of King Louis XVI, he had ordered the removal and smashing of a bust of Helvétius, which had been standing in the Jacobin Club next to an effigy of Rousseau. Helvétius had been celebrated by some Revolutionaries as a proponent of reasonable, republican government.
Note also:
After Robespierre’s fall and execution in 1794, the fortunes of Holbach, Helvétius, and Diderot were revived very briefly by the left-leaning Gracchus Babeuf, whose political thinking would today be described as egalitarianism, perhaps even Socialism. But Babeuf’s attempt to gain control of the reeling ship of state, the “Conspiracy of Equals,” was betrayed, and so was he. During his trial in 1797, he frequently cited Diderot as an inspiration, to no other effect than that Denis was regarded posthumously as a dangerous enemy of the people.
Diderot's posthumous reputation was subject either to neglect or calumny. Adulterated versions of his work were published. Uncorrupted versions of his texts saw light in the latter part of the 19th century. Other unpublished manuscripts remained hidden until well into the 20th century. Aside from the fragmentary publication of Diderot's works, the conditions under which he worked also fostered fragmentation.
His work remained eclectic, partly because he was as much an author of fiction and a talker as he was a systematic writer. Both of these factors conspired against Diderot’s recognition as an important thinker. The nineteenth century was the period of great systematic works, of Kant’s Critiques, Hegel’s grand expositions, Marx and his Capital. Diderot simply did not fit the mold: His best thoughts are to be found in his letters, his fiction, his writings on art, and his essays on other works.

Diderot published no great work of systematic philosophy that could have established his reputation in a climate obsessed with all-embracing answers. In addition to the heterogeneity of his writings, his constant, teasing ambivalence makes it impossible to read the philosophe as a dogmatic author. His work sparkles and often provokes—ultimately leaving the reader alone to make up her own mind. As a result, even historians and philosophers who should be his natural allies have too often overlooked him. The French writer Michel Onfray, for instance, has created a publishing sensation with his Contre-histoire de la philosophie, which concentrates on materialist and atheist authors. In his book Les ultras de lumières (The “Ultras” of the Enlightenment) he devotes entire chapters to personal heroes such as La Mettrie, Meslier, Helvétius, and Holbach—but not Diderot.
Holbach's work was systematic, but having appeared under various pseudonyms under the threat of repression, the establishment of authorship did not come quickly or easily. Holbach's unremitting atheism and materialism kept him out of the philosophical canon. He remained generally obscure, though he had his admirers such as Marx.

The Soviet Union pulled the radical Enlighteners—Holbach, Diderot, and Helvétius—out of the shadows and made them prominent figures of honor. Blom sees the Soviet social order as having had more in common with Rousseau than with the Radical Enlightenment.The fall of the Soviet bloc on top of the rise of postmodernism again relegated Holbach to obscurity. Blom reiterates that philosophical historiography initiated in the 19th century followed that century as the age of German idealism—Kant and Hegel. The Radical Enlightenment continues to be sidelined.

Here Blom interjects his most radical thesis:
The Enlightenment applauded and required by the capitalist and imperialist nineteenth century was a moderate version represented by Voltaire, who had always known on which side his bread was buttered, and by the exponents of Idealism, particularly Immanuel Kant. The question at issue here was skepticism. The Enlightenment radicals had argued that there is no grand, metaphysical Truth and that consequently the only valuable knowledge is based on evidence: Do what is useful; avoid what is harmful to yourself or others.

While this moral teaching had the advantage of being simple and easily understood, it was a thorn in the side of Europe’s and America’s burgeoning capitalist societies and their colonial empires. Implacably opposed to the “conspiracy of the priests and magistrates,” to national claims of superiority, to the exploitation of the poor and the oppression of peoples on foreign shores, the radicals stood against the intellectual tide of the century.

The nineteenth century needed a philosophical tradition that justified the colonial enterprise as well as the industrial exploitation of cheap labor, and it turned to the moderate, rationalist Enlightenment to provide it by giving a philosophical justification of religious faith. Meslier, Diderot, and Holbach had pointed out how organized religion leads to an unholy union of priests and magistrates, and the great bourgeois societies of the nineteenth century drew their authority and their social hierarchy out of precisely this union. Historians of philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic therefore emphasized an ultimately deist, religious eighteenth century, with Kant and Voltaire as its greatest exponents.

In this model of history, Immanuel Kant fulfilled a similar function for the eighteenth century as René Descartes had for the seventeenth: His grand metaphysical investigation left open a door through which God could be introduced back into philosophy. Kant argued that our senses determine how the world appears to us and that we may never be able to perceive things as they really are, the “things in themselves.” But instead of accepting that we cannot know anything beyond our perception and that it makes no sense to talk about what we cannot know, he conjectured a purely essential, spiritual reality that is inaccessible to human understanding, a reality in which we might imagine a deity beyond the grasp of the senses. One can read Kant safely without compromising one’s religious beliefs, which can always be safely tucked away among the “things in themselves.” Voltaire, the wit and critical commentator opposed to religious excess, fitted equally well into the designs of a civilization that saw itself as scientific and rationalist, without being antireligious or unpatriotic.

It is worth understanding this idea of rationalism, of scientific reason in harmony with the possibility of religious faith, which still dominates our understanding of the Enlightenment. Kant’s idea of pure reason not only was a field of philosophical research but also represented a cultural ideal: If only we could rationalize the world in its entirety, if only we could rid ourselves of animal instinct and unreasoning impulse, the world would be a better place.
Wow! In this scenario, the Radical Enlightenment has been virtually wiped out of historical memory. Blom sees the Moderate Enlightenment (and deism with it) as an idealized rationalism akin to theology, while the Radical Enlightenment not only strips teleology from the universe but expresses severe skepticism about the ultimate rationality of human beings.
The soft Enlightenment of Voltaire and Kant was highly commensurate with bourgeois values. Reason was celebrated but confined to science, where it did not threaten to violate the sacred grove of religion. Ideally, the human mind was seen as abstract and pure. Merged with faith, it formed the heavy trap door under which the continual guilt of desire and passion was shut away once again in a distasteful souterrain of human nature.
And there's more:
After all, the goal of industrialization was to rationalize society as far as possible; to optimize manufacturing processes, such as division of labor and the assembly line; and to achieve the increasingly efficient planning and control of everything from transport and leisure to sex, punishment, and entertainment. The era that built the greatest railway stations and factories also erected the largest prisons, all according to the same organizing principles of tightly managed production and supply. When the twentieth-century Marxist scholars Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno published their Dialectic of Enlightenment in 1947, they had witnessed (and escaped) the most monstrous travesty of this logic: the fully industrialized murder of human beings in Nazi extermination camps.
Wow and wow! I will comment on this forthwith, but one final quote on the Radical Enlightenment, from the sixth final paragraph of the Epilogue:
The radical humanism emanating from their works was read and understood by a small band of exceptional minds, among them not only the poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who loved Diderot but detested Holbach), Heinrich Heine, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, but also Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.
Stephen Eric Bronner, I, and others have had problems with Dialectic of Enlightenment. As Bronner has argued, the work supplants concrete historical analysis with an abstract, metaphysical historical perspective which also does injustice to the Enlightenment, which Bronner has defended most notably in his book Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. Amazingly, Blom leaves the thesis of Horkheimer and Adorno untouched, but lays the blame on the Moderate Enlightenment! This is quite a radical statement, cutting through the prevailing ideological climate of our time.

It is possible, as critics of Jonathan Israel have asserted, that the political alignments and cleavage between the Radical and Moderate Enlightenment are too neatly schematized. Yet the emphasis on the social values of the Radical Enlightenment cannot be underestimated, given the attacks on the Enlightenment not only by the theocratic fascists of the right, but by the left bourgeois ideologues of the identity politics of our neoliberal era.

I should note nonetheless that the assimilation of Holbach, Diderot, and company into our awareness within the strict area of the discipline of philosophy bears certain limitations. The various dimensions—the scientific ideas and orientation as well as the progressive social values—of the Radical Enlightenment have been so thoroughly absorbed into the progressive tendencies of our time, that the only reason to read Holbach for example (Diderot on the other hand remains relevant from a literary standpoint) would be the same as the reason to read Newton—out of historical rather than current interest. Science has long moved on. The Radical Enlightenment is light on epistemology, which is of central interest to philosophy even when one removes skepticism and foundationalism as a focus of concern.  Still, reading the Radical Enlightenment back into the general historiography of philosophy can alter our historical perspective on its biases, contours, and development.

Here are some additional links. On my website:
On other sites:

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