The source material needn’t even be that old or distant in order to become pliant in the hands of a poet. Friedrich von Schiller further enthused readers moved by eighteenth-century Romanticism and nationalism with his story of the heroic struggle of the sixteenth-century Spanish prince Don Carlos against his tyrannical father Philip II. We know Don Carlos through Schiller’s highly effective play as a noble young man fighting repression, a moving story that Giuseppe Verdi used as inspiration for his eponymous opera. Both Schiller and Verdi were invested in the fight for emancipation of their own countries. The fact that the historical Don Carlos was the mentally unstable and physically infirm result of centuries of Habsburg incest whose fits of rage and rampant sadism were infamous and who was locked up not because of his passion for liberty and free thought but because he had flogged a horse to death and threatened to murder his father is less well known. The idealized young man was a more resonant idea for the romantic sensibilities of Italians and Germans, and for a long time, Schiller’s creation usurped historical reality.
For the tourists posing in front of the graves of the great, the Panthéon is the face of French history, a history written in marble and inscribed in gold, complete with key terms and the names of men to be memorized. Memory co-opts the past to serve the interests of the present, and the dominant interpretation of a collective past becomes the story we tell about ourselves. In this case, it has decided for the moderates who were assimilated into the interests of the powerful and against the radicals and their more difficult message. This official history has been reinforced in books and classrooms, making intellectual gods of Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, and Rousseau. Diderot and d’Holbach, on the other hand, have lost the posthumous battle for public memory.
In their own day they were revered and reviled in equal measure, much visited and written about. D’Holbach’s famous salon could assemble on a single evening luminaries such as Diderot, David Hume (known then primarily as a historian, not as philosopher), the economist and anti-colonialist Guillaume Raynal, the novelist Lawrence Sterne, historian Edward Gibbon, and Cesare Beccaria, the Italian legal reformer and opponent of the death penalty. The salon was not a philosophical school with rigid teachings but an ongoing conversation between scientists and poets, atheists and believers, philosophers and practitioners. Called “the personal enemy of God,” d’Holbach invited priests and other critics to his table and even kept a chaplain at his summer house, to say mass for his conventionally minded mother-in-law.
The radical enlighteners were well connected, but more importantly, their frighteningly radical writings were read and discussed throughout the Western world; The System of Nature, d’Holbach’s materialist masterwork, was on the Church’s List of Forbidden Books and had to be printed and distributed in secret. It still sold more than a hundred thousand copies during the second half of the eighteenth century. Condemned by the Church and hated by the Court, d’Holbach and Diderot were beacons of free-thinking and directly inspired America’s founders. Franklin is likely to have participated at the dinners and ensuing discussions; Jefferson read and admired Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Raynal, as well as their intellectual predecessors (their works are still in his library). For the Declaration of Independence, he transformed the Lockean formulation for the pursuit of life, health, liberty, and possessions into the more properly Epicurean and Diderotean “pursuit of happiness.”
Their relative obscurity is not an unsolvable mystery if one compares their thinking to that of Voltaire and Rousseau, who criticized absolutist excess but not the authoritarian rule of the few over the many; they attacked the Church but sung the praises of the “highest being”; their views were solidly deist and authoritarian and lent themselves to justifying the power of a new, post-Revolutionary politics. Robespierre made Rousseau the patron saint of the new state, heaped him with praise, and had a bust of him carved from a stone taken from the Bastille.
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.