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Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder

Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder

by Robert Launay

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From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Europeans struggled to understand their identity in the same way we do as individuals: by comparing themselves to others. In Savages, Romans, and Despots, Robert Launay takes us on a fascinating tour of early modern and modern history in an attempt to untangle how various depictions of “foreign” cultures and civilizations saturated debates about religion, morality, politics, and art.
Beginning with Mandeville and Montaigne, and working through Montesquieu, Diderot, Gibbon, Herder, and others, Launay traces how Europeans both admired and disdained unfamiliar societies in their attempts to work through the inner conflicts of their own social worlds. Some of these writers drew caricatures of “savages,” “Oriental despots,” and “ancient” Greeks and Romans. Others earnestly attempted to understand them. But, throughout this history, comparative thinking opened a space for critical reflection. At its worst, such space could give rise to a sense of European superiority. At its best, however, it could prompt awareness of the value of other ways of being in the world. Launay’s masterful survey of some of the Western tradition’s finest minds offers a keen exploration of the genesis of the notion of “civilization,” as well as an engaging portrait of the promises and perils of cross-cultural comparison.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226575391
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/12/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robert Launay is professor of anthropology at Northwestern University.

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Maps of Mankind

In 1777, in a letter to the Scottish historian William Robertson, Edmund Burke wrote: "... Now the Great Map of Mankind is unrolld at once; and there is no state or Gradation of barbarism, and no mode of refinement which we have not at the same instant under our View. The very different Civility of Europe and of China; the barbarism of Persia and of Abyssinia. The erratick manners of Tartary, and of arabia. The Savage State of North America, and of New Zealand (Burke 1984:102)." The inclusion of New Zealand was a novelty. Captain James Cook had circumnavigated the islands less than a decade earlier. His account, as well as that of Bougainville before him, were responsible for the identification of Pacific islanders as "savages" on a par with North American Indians. Burke's inclusion of an African realm, Abyssinia, comparatively high up on the scale of civility demonstrates that Africa was not yet irredeemably relegated to the realm of savagery. The mention of Abyssinia was a nod to Samuel Johnson, who had begun his literary career with a translation (actually a translation of the French translation from the original Portuguese) of the travels of the Jesuit Jerome Lobo (1984). Most surprising of all, China still shared pride of place with Europe, a distinction that it was already in the process of losing.

Exactly one hundred years later, in 1877, Lewis Henry Morgan (1985) published Ancient Society, in which he traced the progress of humankind from lower, middle, and upper savagery through lower, middle, and upper barbarism to civilization. As with Burke, but in far greater detail, each stage was identified by examples from various societies, past or present, from around the globe. Each stage was marked by the adoption of different technologies: the use of fire; the bow and arrow; pottery; the domestication of animals and plants; the smelting of iron; and, finally, alphabetic writing. Such material progress was accompanied by different modes of government, different forms of the family, and different ideas of property. Even more than Burke, Morgan identified Oceania as the locus classicus of savagery. His book enshrined the notion that Native Australians represented the most primitive surviving human society. Thanks, if indirectly, to Morgan, some of the most prominent thinkers of the turn of the twentieth century — Émile Durkheim (1995) and Sigmund Freud (1950) — would focus their critical attention on Native Australians as "primitive" exemplars of universal human characteristics. Morgan's depiction of Native Americans was considerably less derogatory. A denizen of Rochester in upstate New York, Morgan was not only personally acquainted with Iroquois but studied and wrote about their society extensively. This is hardly to suggest that he was invariably open-minded. He specifically selected a phonetic alphabet as the distinguishing mark of civilization in order to exclude the Chinese and other Asian ideographic alphabets.

Morgan's book achieved canonical status in the discipline of anthropology, but its influence extended far more broadly. Karl Marx, for one, was an enthusiastic reader — so much so that, after Marx's death, Friedrich Engels went on to write The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1986), very explicitly basing his account on Morgan's text.

It would be tempting to treat Morgan's text as a long (550-page!) elaboration of Burke's short passage, a fully developed treatment of ideas Burke had only sketched out embryonically. There are, of course, obvious resemblances. Both texts classify all the world's peoples in a graded hierarchy, with modern Europe (and, for Morgan, North America) at the summit. Burke's text is literally panoptic, evoking a metaphor of Europeans on a summit perusing the spectacle of inferior gradations of humanity "at the same instant under our View." Morgan's guiding metaphor, on the other hand, is organic. Savagery contains the "germs" of institutions and ideas that progressively grow to maturity through the stages of human development. Iroquois councils, for example, embody the "germ" of modern parliamentary democracy.

These metaphors are hardly incidental. Rather, they are concrete conceptualizations of different ideas of history, illustrated by the radically different ways in which Greeks and Romans enter into their schemas. Burke's panoptic vision literally replaces history: "We need no longer go to History to trace [human Nature] in all its stages and periods" (Burke 1984:102). History, the recent invention of the Greeks, was also a token of their limits. The Greeks and Romans had no access to the sweeping vision of the world's peoples in the various "gradations" we moderns can enjoy from our heights. The Greeks and Romans are even more important to Morgan, but in a very different way. He devotes six long chapters to a demonstration of how the Greeks and Romans, before they existed in history as we are familiar with them, were for all intents and purposes identical to the Iroquois. For Burke, the contemplation of North American "savages" obviates history; for Morgan, it allows us to write history more completely. Burke's gradations of human nature bear more than superficial resemblance to the Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy 1936), the hierarchical classification of all forms of life from the lowliest up to humankind (excelled only by the angels and by God). For Morgan, the forms were not so much "gradations" as "stages" that told a story: our story, of how we came to be who we are. Burke's spectacle is static; Morgan's unfolds.

The idea that non-Europeans embodied the distant past of modern Europe was hardly an original idea by Morgan's time. To pick but one example, Hegel's lectures on world history, delivered in 1830 and 1831, also situate the origins of history outside of Europe: "World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning (Hegel 1975:197)." For Hegel, world history was embodied by different peoples in different, succeeding epochs: Oriental, Greek, Roman, and finally German (Hegel 1956). "Savages" were outside the pale of history, and consequently uninteresting to Hegel. Native Americans were "like unenlightened children, living from one day to the next, and untouched by higher thoughts or aspirations (1975:165)." In any case, most of them had been exterminated by European settlers. Africa was no better: "Life there consists of a succession of contingent happenings and surprises. No aim or state exists whose development could be followed; and there is no subjectivity, but merely a series of subjects who destroy one another" (Hegel 1975).

Ultimately, Hegel's conception of history was not very different from that of Morgan and his peers: a sequence that extended from savages to Orientals to ancient Greeks and Romans and finally to modern Europeans. Simply, Hegel was radically dismissive of the "savages" at the center of the preoccupations of thinkers who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, came to think of themselves as "anthropologists" or "ethnologists." The difference was largely due to radical shifts in understandings of time in the course of the nineteenth century. Hegel's chronology was still broadly Biblical, a time frame he shared with most of his contemporaries. By the time Morgan wrote Ancient Society, the anthropologists had already incorporated geological time into their understanding of world history. For them, history as Hegel understood it represented a relatively recent phase of human life on earth. For the bulk of human history — or, more specifically, prehistory — "savagery" was the embodiment of the human condition.

Such formulations of universal history were standard fare in the nineteenth century. By then, the categories of "modern" and "Europe" were taken for granted, at least by those who defined themselves in these terms. Upon reflection, neither term is self-evident. Continents, like nations, are "imagined communities" (Anderson 1991). In the Middle Ages, Europe admittedly existed in maps, but no one thought of themselves as "European" until, at the earliest, the fifteenth century (Hay 1957; Pagden 2002). The emergence of the concept of "modern" was roughly contemporary. Well before the emergence of any notion of "modernity," "modern" was opposed to "ancient," and thus depended on the imagined time of "classical antiquity" (Weiss 1969). Needless to say, medieval thinkers were quite cognizant of ancient Greeks and Romans, whom they simply did not consider as qualitatively different from their own contemporaries. Medieval illustrators routinely depicted Greek and Roman rulers as idealized medieval kings, distinguished by their heraldry rather than by their apparel. While the opposition between the past and the present is relatively straightforward, the contrast between "ancient" and "modern" involves a hiatus, the imagination of a prestigious distant past as distinct from the recent and distinctly unglorious past.

For modern Europeans to be convinced of their superiority, they had first to think of themselves as "modern" and "European." The emergence of such notions was implicitly comparative, opposing "moderns" to "ancients," "Europeans" to non-Europeans. By the nineteenth century, such notions were conflated. Non-Europeans were, in a radical sense, not "modern." However, it would be a grave mistake to assume that this was always the case. As these notions were formulated in the course of what we now call "early modern Europe" — roughly from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries — the relationship of "savages," "Orientals," and "ancients" to contemporary Europeans and to one another was not fixed by any means, and was not embedded in an imaginary time line that asserted European superiority.

In short, early modern Europeans defined their identity in contrast to "others." I prefer to refer to "others" rather than the more fashionable, but problematic, notion of "the Other." "Others" almost invariably exist in various shapes and sizes. I shall argue in this book that "savages," "Orientals," and "ancients" were all "others" of modern Europeans, but that they were hardly equivalent, and that the very differences between them were a constant focus of reflection for early modern European thinkers. I must insist that I fully realize how deeply offensive terms such as "savages" and "Orientals" are to many readers, with good reason. (By definition, there are no longer any "ancients," or that, too, might be a controversial term.) However, to the extent that Europeans (and not only early moderns) thought and, in some cases, continue to think in terms of these categories, I want to use them as (imaginary) points of reference. Of course, using "others" as a foil to define one's own identity is, if not a human universal, so widely prevalent that it hardly serves to distinguish early modern Europeans. The point is, rather, that Morgan and his intellectual heirs were and continue to be engaged in a theoretical elaboration of such differences and their implications, an extensive comparative discourse about how and why such differences matter.

Such theoretical discourses were hardly restricted to Europe. Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah (1958), written in 1377, is a prominent example. Herodotus's Histories and Tacitus's Germania are examples from the ancient world, all the more important in that they constituted explicit and essential models and points of reference for early modern European thinkers. Herodotus's account of the Persian Wars centered on the opposition between Greeks and "barbarians" (i.e., speakers of "foreign" languages) in order to account for the improbable victory of the Greeks over the overwhelming might of the Persian Empire, against which neither Mesopotamia nor Egypt had been able to resist. Herodotus was not only fascinated by the range of differences between Greeks and different varieties of "barbarians," but crucially concerned with identifying which of these differences were morally salient. For Herodotus, the realm of "custom" — modes of worship, burial practices, food preparation, sexual mores, and marriage, to name only some examples — was morally neutral. Political behavior, on the other hand, was intrinsically linked to morality; in a world governed (at least in the long term) by moral forces, it could determine the ability of a people like the Greeks to resist repeated Persian invasions. Tacitus, writing in the early days of the Roman Empire, used his description of "barbarian" Germanic tribes to the opposite effect. As a member of the senatorial class whose power, if not prestige, had been radically curtailed, he offered a depiction of Rome in his other historical works that was one of corruption and moral decay. The Germans, by contrast, whatever their failings, came closer to incarnating the legendary virtues of the Roman Republic (courage, loyalty, honesty, marital fidelity) so sorely lacking in the empire.

What distinguished these classical authors from their early modern counterparts was, most flagrantly, the absence of a category of "antiquity" per se. Of course, Tacitus contrasted (at least implicitly) the vices of the empire with the past virtues of the early republic, but such a contrast was qualitatively different from the division of time into "ancient" and "modern." Herodotus's extensive descriptions of Egyptians and Scythians were not framed in terms of the categories of "Orientals" and "savages," as they very definitely would be in early modern Europe. Early modern thinkers were characterized not simply by their deployment of the categories "savage," "Oriental" and "ancient," but more importantly by the fact that these categories were in continual dialogue with one another, though not necessarily all at the same time. For example, Montaigne's account of the Tupinamba "cannibals" of Brazil (chapter 3) was interlaced with references to classical antiquity; in one passage, he compared their way of life to Plato's Republic. Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws (chapter 8) systematically contrasted Asian "despotism" with ancient republics as archetypes of different modes of government. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, "savages," "Orientals" and "Ancients" were systematically compared not only to contemporary Europeans but to one another. However, these four terms were not arranged as a single sequence until the very end of the eighteenth century, when European hegemony over all the rest of the globe was firmly established.

The question remains: How can we understand the relationship between early modern European understandings of others and more recent, if not contemporary, approaches, between — for example — Burke's text and Morgan's? One obvious solution is to treat early modern (and sometimes earlier) approaches as precursors of modern ones. This is typical of disciplinary histories — for example, surveys of the history of anthropology, where early modern (especially Enlightenment) descriptions and discussions of non-Europeans routinely figure in the opening chapter. Histories of other disciplines often adopt a similar perspective, even citing the same thinkers, while omitting the focus on non-Europeans. The problem with such histories is that they read history backwards. Modern disciplines are the inevitable endpoint. Earlier thinkers are relevant to the extent that they contribute to their emergence. Of course, the authors in question did not — could not — have any awareness that they were doing any such thing. To read Burke's text as a prefiguration of Morgan's is a recipe for misunderstanding, if not miscategorizing, his own preoccupations.

The quest for roots or origins suffers from similar defects. Such an enterprise can be couched in disciplinary terms — for example, The Philosophical Roots of Anthropology (Adams 1998). Unfortunately, some of the themes Adams identifies — "progressivism" and "primitivism," for example — are far too general to be of much analytical utility. Such considerations are not limited to quests for the origins or roots of particular disciplines. Intellectual historians have also written genealogies of "primitivism" (e.g., Lovejoy and Boas 1935) or "progess" (e.g., Nisbet 1969). Such accounts project modern conceptions of "progress" and "primitivity" anachronistically, ignoring the contexts in which specific ideas were formulated or their place in the overall scheme of particular arguments. If the search for predecessors has the merit of extending the scope of inquiry beyond the institutional origins of modern academic disciplines in the nineteenth century, it is ultimately at the expense of stressing continuity and overlooking equally fundamental discontinuities.


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Table of Contents

ONE / Maps of Mankind
TWO / The World Turned Upside Down: Mandeville
THREE / Between Two Saddles: Montaigne
FOUR / Climactic Harmonies: Bodin
FIVE / St. Confucius: The Jesuits in China
SIX / Distant Relations: The Jesuits in New France
SEVEN / Ancients, Moderns, and Others: Fontenelle and Temple
EIGHT / The Specter of Despotism: Montesquieu and Voltaire
NINE / Savage Critics: Lahontan, Rousseau, and Diderot
TEN / From Savagery to Decadence: Ferguson, Millar, and Gibbon
ELEVEN / Cultural Critique: Herder
TWELVE / “Others” Are Good to Think


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