The Hotel of the Philosophers

I was contacted by an English professor, writer and broadcaster, Rebecca Stott. She is the author of several books, published and translated in a number of countries and languages. You can read more about her on her website. She is at present writing a book on the history of evolution called “Infidels: In search of the First Evolutionists”, which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2012. She is searching out all the places in which always proto-evolutionary ideas were discussed - from a lagoon in Lesbos where Aristotle talked about generation with his students to the desert outside ninth-century Basra to the police-watched houses of Paris and London in the eighteenth-century.

Rebecca asked me kindly if I could go and get some photos of a town house which during the second part of the 18th century belonged to the Baron Holbach where those days’ intelligentsia frequently met. So, here are the photos … and a text prepared by Rebecca:

“Although there is no plaque to distinguish this house from any other eighteenth-century town house in Paris, this house at number 8, Rue des Moulins (then the Rue Royale-Saint Roch), was the centre of the French Enlightenment. Nicknamed the Hotel of the Philosophers or the Synagogue, it belonged to the Baron Holbach, a wealthy French-German intellectual and a passionate atheist, who ran a salon for the radical intelligentsia of Paris every Thursday and Sunday from 1759 to 1789. He had an excellent chef, a dining table that seated fifty, a library of over 3,000 volumes, and a large number of paintings by France's leading artists. Rousseau, Diderot, Buffon, Galiani, Grimm, Marmontel, Naigeon, Saint-Lambert, Suard all passed through these doors. Diderot rarely missed a gathering. Foreign intellectuals such as Adam Smith, Laurence Sterne and Horace Walpole had dinner here during their visits to France. The house was under police surveillance. The very first book of atheism was written here - System de La Nature – by Baron Holbach himself. Early evolutionary ideas were discussed across his table. The leading members of the Encyclopedie met here. With these people for company Diderot published Rève de d'Alembert."

"It was there that one could not fail to hear the freest, the most animated and the most instructive conversation that ever was; when I say free, I mean in terms of philosophy, of religion, of government... there was no bold thought in politics and religion that was not brought forward there, and discussed pr and con, almost with much subtlety and profundity." Morellet, Memoires, 1, 128-30.

'There is the Rue Royale-Saint Roch! All the decent and clever people in Paris gather there. To find the door opened to you, it is not enough to have a title or to be a savant; one must also be good. It is there that exchange is secure. It is there that history, politics, finance, belles-lettres and philosophy are discussed. It is there that men esteem each other enough to contradict each other. It is there that the true cosmopolitan is found." Diderot, Oeuvres, X, 378-379.

Rebecca transmitted a photo of the town house, the way it looked around 1900 and also the portraits of Diderot and the Baron Holbach.
If you know anything about this house or about Holbach or any of the other houses in Paris that might have been the stage for 'evolutionary' conversations before Darwin, please contact Re/Users/rebeccastott/Pictures/iPhoto Library/Originals/2010/9 Jul 2010/RequestDigitalElement.jpegbecca at rebecca@rebeccastott.co uk If you want to know more about early evolutionary ideas in Paris, read her novel, The Coral Thief.
I went to the Louvre last week and actually found the painting of Diderot (by Van Loo) and another one (by Fragonard).


Dianne said...

Thanks for sharing this slice of history - the building looks almost the same now as it did in the 1900's except for the signage.
Oh! if only those walls could talk- what stories they could tell.
Dianne xx

Starman said...

I love M. Diderot's description of the salon.

Ruth said...

This sounds like a fascinating project, and I'm happy that you are a part of it, just wonderful. Paris, the garden of ideas!

Polly said...

I wonder if those now occupying this house are aware of its revolutionary/evolutionary history. Thanks for sharing this with us.

BTW, is the street near eglise St. Roch?

Owen said...

I feel suddenly enlightened... (which is why one keeps returning here...)

Simony said...

Congratulations on such a nice project, Peter! Wouldn't you love to be in that group of intellectuals?

Shionge said...

Cool Peter!!! It is awesome to be part of this process and I'm so proud of you :)

Thank you for sharing the photos too :D

Adam said...

A fascinating story, and Rebecca asked the right person to get the photos!

Looking at the address on Google, I see that there is a dentist installed in the building today, but I'm not sure what the significance of that is!

SusuPetal said...

Marvelous to be contacted by interesting people and likewise projects! Great, Peter!

BLOGitse said...

I agree with Susu! :)
Greetings from Casa!

Rakesh Vanamali said...

Absolutely wonderful piece of history and fabulous project to be part of!

Sir, I do not doubt one bit that one day your work would be featured on a grand scale globally. I'd be among the many happy ones to see that happen!

God bless!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post! Makes me wish there were Salons like this in Paris today! (Actually, it makes me wish I were smart enough to be part of a Salon like this in Paris today--lol).

Paris Paul

Jeanie said...

This is an interesting bit of history I don't know much about, though I always have felt a tad envious of those salons with their stimulating conversations on so many things!

It made me smile when you said you were asked to take the photos. Last year as I prepared to leave for France, my Rick asked me to find 48 Rue de Rome, the former publishing house of Max Eschig, whose music he often purchased for guitar. It seemed way out of the way to the neophyte (it wasn't) and ended up being a wonderful day of listening to guitar music in the shops on Rue de Rome and Madrid before walking toward the opera, Printemps, etc. The photos I got weren't the best (and not too bad), but they were special and I found it! (No plaque, either!) I loved the adventure of it!

My verification word is "quisman" -- not quite "quizman" but enough to think of you as the person who brings me all this new info -- now, when is the quiz?!

Trotter said...

Great post!!
Seating fifty around the table would have been interesting for sure; and that lagoon in Lesbos sounds appealing...

Unknown said...

I went to Paris hoping to see the places where my modern secular identity was formed. I found the apartments mentioned by Arthur Wilson as being the homes of Diderot and Holbach. I also visited the Eglise St. Roche where Diderot and Holbach are buried. I was disappointed to find there were no commemorative plaques.

I believe modern Western societies identify more with empiricism rather than any ideology. An epistemological evolutionary step the Encyclopedists did much to create and promote. I expected to find commemorative plaques and exhibits honouring the people who created our modern empirical identity.

Thanks for the pictures of Holbach's Paris home. I consider these places as important to modern secular empiricists as Jerusalem is to Jewish and Christian religious idealists. People in Paris don't seem to be aware of the significance of these places.