Alan Charles Kors
The philosophes, wherever they might live their public lives, saw themselves as standing between eras in the history of a civilization and its thought. They were men who examined in their minds the whole fabric of the traditions and givens of the culture that had been passed on to their age. They were men whose minds were increasingly unfettered, for whom the term 'free thought' indicated not only a rejection of certain dogmas, but a description of how the mind of man could behave. They consciously saw themselves as men whose ideas represented a major period of transition for the West in the realms of philosophy, science, art and morality. Some held theories that threatened not only the structure of Catholic or Christian thought, but the structure of a more modern deism as well. For those to whom that deism was the religion of a free and learned man, there was in the very consideration of atheistic or skeptical alternatives a certain heady sense of intellectual liberty and daring to be had. Many held their ideas with a conviction whose spontaneous expression, especially in the face of facile disagreement, would have overstepped the limits which 'sociability' set to that expression. For many of the philosophes, therefore, to be in social accord with the rules of the salons was to a very great extent to be alienated from their own private thoughts, their own convictions, their own enthusiasms.
The contribution of the coterie holbachique as an institution to the world of eighteenth-century letters and thought was that it offered to those philosophes who gravitated to it a haven from that conflict. It was the one place where the philosophes were chez eux, the one place where they were not merely visitors, but at home. D'Holbach had the wealth to entertain and feed his friends, and he could do it as a philosophe. It was there that diversity, candor, intellectual enthusiasm and free speculation could nourish. That is why it became 'our' coterie to its members; that is why d'Holbach became not a host, but 'the maitre d'Hotel of Philosophy.' It was not the mores of that Paris in which they spent the rest of their social lives which dominated the assemblies of the rue Royale; what set the tone there was the need of the philosophes themselves to find a social outlet for their most private and their most extravagant beliefs and speculations. It was not that there were not atheists at the other salons, or skeptics, or men by whom the universe was conceived of as a cold and uncaring abode; it was that only at d'Holbach's home could the atheists and skeptics be the atheists and skeptics that they were, and speak their minds. It was only at d'Holbach's that the deists, the scientists and the literary figures could meet such men in earnest and engage them in open discussion. The sharing of that free exploration and open communication created the exhilaration, community and singular nature of the coterie holbachique. Those who thrived on the spontaneity and candid dialogue of the coterie became its devotees; those who, like Rousseau, felt threatened by the presence of the free-speaking atheists or by the constant questioning of opinions simply left. Frequenting the coterie holbachique, Rousseau had written in his Concessions, 'far from weakening my faith, had strengthened it, because of my natural aversion to disputation, to division.'