Savages, Romans, and Despots Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder
by Robert Launay
University of Chicago Press, 2018
Cloth: 978-0-226-57525-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-57539-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-57542-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

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.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Robert Launay is professor of anthropology at Northwestern University.
 

REVIEWS

Savages, Romans, and Despots is an informative, valuable, delightfully readable book. It will be particularly interesting to those unfamiliar with how writers of the early modern period envisioned themselves through their real and imagined encounters with people of other times and places. Anthropologists and intellectual historians alike will be enticed by this highly accessible account to approach these major thinkers anew.”
— Lawrence Rosen, Princeton University

“Launay has taken a familiar theme and utterly transformed it. No other account of the European self-imagining through the mirror of multiple others covers so wide a range of peoples and places with such acuity and verve as he has done—this is an original, compelling, and persuasive book.”
— Anthony Pagden, University of California, Los Angeles

“Original, persuasive, and accessible, Savages, Romans, and Despots offers a fascinating narrative on ideas of time, space, and history—both of the observer and of the observed society. Launay’s strong sense of history and context in the study of anthropology’s prehistory effectively relinks anthropology to wider currents in contemporary social thought.”
— Dale F. Eickelman, Dartmouth College

"This book, 'more than twenty years in the making' (p. 221), reflects the long, slow, deliberate reading of great authors, forgotten explorers, and contemporary scholars who have shaped the concepts of 'others' which have defined 'ourselves' as modern Europeans. It is a learned, highly readable volume."
— Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines

"Launay’s vast scope of knowledge and evident erudition are major strengths of this book. . . .this is a remarkably comprehensive survey of philosophical representations of human difference in early modern Europe. It is clearly written enough for students and general readers, and scrupulously researched enough to provide new information to specialists in the field."
— American Historical Review

"Savages, Romans and Despots takes the reader on an intellectual journey across the centuries. . . . Launay brings his training as an anthropologist to reread familiar and less familiar authors from innovative angles to provide new insights about how Europeans understood themselves geographically, temporally, and historically."
— H-France Review

"To the question of how early modern Europeans developed their sense of self, Robert Launay. . . provides a comprehensive answer in Savages, Romans, and Despots. He argues that early modern Europeans constructed their identity in contrast to non-European ‘others’. Launay circumvents a theoretical debate on what ‘the Other’ is and rejects a uniform historical definition. Instead, he pragmatically allows the ‘others’ to be any contrasting representation of non-European peoples, which often took the form of ‘savages’, ‘Orientals’, ‘ancients’ and ‘despots’. . . .The result is a rich and rewarding book with many cases of how European thinkers employed the representation of ‘others’ in their texts on political theory, philosophy, history, missionary expeditions, law and religion."
— European History Review

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0001
[comparison;early modern Europe;Edward Said;Orientalism;disciplinary history;roots]
This chapter establishes the importance of a comparative perspective in early modern European thought about others. It critically examines different approaches to understanding these conceptualizations in historical perspective. Progressive disciplinary histories, evaluating authors from prior eras in terms of their contributions to contemporary agendas, are invariably anachronistic, as well as approaches which look for the roots of modern ideas. Postcolonial thought, in the wake of the publication of Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, similarly if less optimistically projects contemporary preoccupations onto past writers. The chapter suggests an approach that treats past authors, not as ancestors, but as interlocutors whose ideas need to be understood in terms of the very different projects they were attempting to formulate, in their own terms rather than in ours. (pages 1 - 13)
This chapter is available at:
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0002
[John Mandeville;Marco Polo;Christendom;medieval;piety;Roman Catholicism]
The Travels of John Mandeville are often contrasted to Marco Polo’s account. Both books are medieval narratives of travel to Cathay and to the Indies. Until the recent revival of interest in Mandeville, his book has often been reviled as fanciful if not mendacious, a compilation based on other narratives rather than on personal experience. His very existence, not to mention his travels, has been called into question. However, as a world view that systematically incorporates images of distant others, the book furnishes an apt comparison to later early modern attempts at comparison. Jerusalem, not Europe, is the center of the world, and Mandeville’s imagined community is Christendom rather than Europe. Mandeville’s narrative, structured around the ideas of restructuring Christian piety, presents a forceful critique of his own world and particularly the Roman Catholic clergy. (pages 14 - 35)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0003
[Montaigne;France;Wars of Religion;Tupi;Brazil;relativism;Huguenots;Catholics;cannibals;sixteenth century]
The Wars of Religion in sixteenth century France were the backdrop of Montaigne’s Essays and specifically his elaboration of a stance of philosophical relativism. In his early essay “Of Custom”, he used the bewildering diversity of customs worldwide to suggest that there was no rational basis for deciding how to behave. In his more famous and important essay “Of Cannibals”, he drew on an account of the Tupi of Brazil to call into question categories such as “barbarian” or “savage”, pointing out that otherness did not necessarily mean inferiority. The barbarity of the ways in which Catholics and Huguenots treated their adversaries in France was far more egregious than the cannibalism of the Tupi. More generally, Montaigne disparages himself and his age as mediocre, poised between the simplicity of the cannibals and the true excellence of ancient Greeks and Romans. (pages 36 - 51)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0004
[Jean Bodin;France;sixteenth century;relativism;Hippocrates;Aristotle;climate;religion]
Sixteenth century historians and jurists in France elaborated a position of legal relativism as a means of asserting independence from canons of Roman law and the domination of the Roman Catholic Church. Drawing on the premise that different peoples required different laws and political institutions, Jean Bodin elaborated a comparative scheme, based on Hippocrates, and Aristotle’s theories of the effect of climate upon the body’s humors. Those who lived in hot, cold, and temperate climates had different dispositions, with denizens of temperate climates best suited to rule. Large parts of Europe were outside the temperate zone, which also included Turkey, Persia, and China. Cold climates were associated with the development of the body as opposed to the mind, as opposed to hot climates, including Morocco and Abyssinia, praised for their religiosity. Bodin also wrote a long dialogue between partisans of different religions, promoting an ideal of religious harmony rather than the exclusive domination of any single religion. (pages 52 - 61)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0005
[Jesuits;seventeenth century;China;Confucius;Chinese Rites controversy;Matteo Ricci;Nicolas Trigault;Louis LeComte]
In the seventeenth century, the comparative project, whether suppressed by absolutist regimes or supplanted by a priori social theories, was maintained by the Jesuits, concerned with adapting techniques of proselytization to different kinds of societies worldwide. To the dismay of rival orders, they were able to penetrate China and gain access to the Emperor by emulating the manners and thought of mandarins, in particular by mastery of the writings of Confucius and Confucian classics. This method, pioneered by Matteo Ricci, was described in detail by Nicolas Trigault and later by Louis LeComte. Both penned elaborate and generally highly favorable accounts of Chinese government as well as of Confucian thought. Rival orders challenged the orthodoxy of Jesuit conversions, sparking the Chinese Rites Controversy. (pages 62 - 83)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0006
[Jesuits;Canada;Quebec;Montagnais;Huron;Iroquois;Paul Le Jeune;Jean de Brebeuf;Lafitau]
For much of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits enjoyed monopoly over missions in New France, the French possessions in Canada, particularly Quebec. They published an annual series of Jesuit Relations, accounts of Native Americans and their attempts to convert them. Notably, Paul Le Jeune, the first superior, published an account of an expedition accompanying a hunting band of Montagnais (Innu). Other detailed accounts include Jean de Brebeuf’s mission to the Huron (Wendat). In the eighteenth century, Lafitau published a treatise comparing “American Savages”, particularly the Iroquois among whom he had worked, to Ancient Greeks and Romans, suggesting that the matrilineal Iroquois were actually descendants of the Lycians described by Herodotus. (pages 84 - 105)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0007
[quarrel of the ancients and the moderns;Fontenelle;William Temple;Native Americans;China;Peru;Scythians;Arabs;France;England]
In 1687, the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns erupted in the French Academy when a poem was recited claiming that the achievements of France under Louis XIV exceeded those of the Ancients. This chapter examines the writings of two major protagonists in the Quarrel, Fontenelle in France and Sir William Temple in England. In their arguments, both writers not only compared Ancients to Moderns but also, in different ways, non-Europeans. For Fontenelle, knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, is cumulative. He compared Native American mythology to that of the Greeks and Romans, and even imagined a time in the future when Native Americans might consider French thinkers in the way that the Moderns considered the Ancients. Temple contested the idea that knowledge was cumulative, preferring the oldest writers to their successors and even oral to written learning, suggesting that the very source of Ancient Greek learning might have been India and China. In another essay “On Heroic Vitrue”, he avoided examples from the ancient world in favor of more distant peoples: China, Peru, Scythians, and Arabs, preferring the virtues of good government as practiced in China and Peru over the military prowess of Scythians and Arabs. (pages 106 - 126)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0008
[Enlightenment;Montesquieu;Voltaire;Rome;China;despotism;monarchy;republics;social theory]
The Enlightenment saw the return of comparative social theory which took non-moderns and well as non-Europeans fully into account, especially with the publication of Montesqueiu’s Spirit of Laws. Montesquieu identified three types of government, republics, monarchies, and despotisms, animated by three different principles: virtue, honor, and fear. Republics were exemplified by Ancient Rome, before the Empire; China, Persia, and Turkey among others were typical despotisms, while most eighteenth century European nations were monarchies. Despotism, embodied by Asian empires, was very much an anti-model. Monarchies, where central authority were held in check, were underpinned by the self-serving commitment of the artistocracy to defend its prerogatives jealously. For Montesquieu, the absence of a hereditary aristocracy was both symptom and cause of the abuses of power by centralized Asian empires such as China. Voltaire challenged Montesquieu’s model, citing the Jesuits to argue that China was in fact subject to the rule of law and that an aristocracy was quite unnecessary. On the contrary, for him, centralized authority was a check on the egregious privilege of the aristocracy. (pages 127 - 145)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0009
[savages;Rousseau;Diderot;Lahontan;religion;property;government;nature;inequality;Tahiti]
Lahontan’s literary dialogue with the wise and well-travelled Huron Adario pioneered a genre which pitted clever dialectical savages against slow-witted Europeans. Adario contrasts the virtues of natural religion and natural equality, in the economic and political domains, with the moral decadence of contemporary France. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality goes further by imagining an asocial humanity, fully free and equal but also profoundly amoral and incapable of transmitting any learned knowledge. Society, for Rousseau, contains the seeds of inequality, but property is the real driving force for social injustice. Diderot reprised the dialogue form used by Lahontan, pitting the Tahitian Orou against a French chaplain whose attempts to defend organized religion and repressive sexual morality fail miserably. These French Enlightenment thinkers all mobilize ideals of Nature to address issues of religion, politics, economics, and sexual morality. (pages 146 - 170)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0010
[Adam Smith;Adam Ferguson;John Millar;Edward Gibbon;Enlightenment;France, Britain, Scotland;division of labor;savagery;despotism]
French Enlightenment writing about savagery, centered on America and Oceania, was centrally concerned with the relationship between property and inequality, while writing about despotism in Asia revolved around political centralization. The two literatures did not tend to intersect until they were synthesized by British, and especially Scottish, thinkers. Adam Ferguson, following the lead of Adam Smith, identified the division of labor as the motor of an ambivalent progress, expanding the horizons of the few while limiting those of the majority, imperiling democratic institutions and personal liberties. John Millar, his younger contemporary, developed his arguments even more systematically if somewhat more optimistically. In England, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire pitted Roman civilization as delicately poised between the savagery of the Germans and the Oriental despotism of the Persians, liberty without order as opposed to order without liberty. His account was in many ways a metaphor for the predicament of modern Europe as he understood it. (pages 171 - 185)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0011
[Germany;Enlightenment;Nation;State;Herder;Greeks;Culture]
The concept of “culture” emerged in late Enlightenment Germany, as opposed to “civilization” in Britain and France. The concept was key to Herder’s critique of French and Scottish Enlightenment thought, as well as that of his teacher, Kant. Herder’s philosophy of history asserted that the values and thought of particular historical eras, embodied in song, poetry, art, and literature, was incommensurable with those of other eras. Herder’s variety of relativism privileged the Nation over and above the State, and reflected his clear preference for the Greeks politically fragmented if culturally united, as opposed to the Romans, whose military state was in important respects antithetical to Herder’s own values. (pages 186 - 209)
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- Robert Launay
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226575421.003.0012
[others;Europe;postcolonial thought;relativism;thought]
This chapter synthesizes the arguments of the book, suggesting that the critique of European thought elaborated in postcolonial theory, the thesis that European representations of others is intrinsically connected to processes of domination, do not always apply to early modern Europe. Frequently, these representations figure in debates about European society itself, debates about religion, law, political order, social inequality, even sexuality. Arguments in these debates frequently employ relativism of one variety or another as a rhetorical strategy, more often than not to bolster a position that is not relativist at all. Ultimately, these arguments need to be understood in their own terms and their own contexts, rather than as precursors, for better or for worse, of contemporary thought. (pages 210 - 220)
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