From The Economist:
Atheism is a hot topic. In recent years writers from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have penned popular tracts advancing the cause of godlessness. But, as the Bible reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. Philipp Blom’s latest book tells the story of a set of remarkable individuals on the radical fringes of the 18th-century European Enlightenment, whose determinedly atheistic and materialist philosophies denied the existence of God or the soul. Echoing ancient thinkers such as Democritus and Lucretius, they held ideas that were to prove too revolutionary even for a revolutionary age.
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.
A philosophy grew up around the baron’s generously stocked table that denied religious revelation and shunned Christian morality, embracing instead the primal passions (the fundamental motives, said the philosophes, for human behaviour) and cool reason (which could direct the passions, but never stand against them). They dreamt of a Utopia built on pleasure-seeking, rationality and empathy. Their ideal nation would leave no room for what they saw as the twisted ethical code of Christianity, which they argued prized suffering and destructive self-repression.