The blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas, committed to diverse and wide-ranging intellectual history.The JHI defines intellectual history expansively and ecumenically, including the histories of philosophy, literature and the arts, the natural and social sciences, religion, and political thought.
On November 16th, Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, made an important announcement: the bones of Michel de Montaigne have been discovered.
Or, at least, the bones might have been discovered. “Let’s keep our cool,” said Juppé at a press conference that morning. “We haven’t yet found Montaigne. But if it were the case,” he continued, “it would be a great moment for Bordeaux.”
Montaigne, two-time mayor of Bordeaux, minor aristocrat, and inventor of the essay form, died in his tower in 1592, cause of death unknown. The next year the essayist was interred in a chapel on the west bank of the Garonne, the current site of the Musée d’Aquitaine. Montaigne’s cenotaph—a gaudy white marble affair—has been on more or less continuous display since it was carved in 1593. But his physical remains were lost in one of their 19thcentury translations to and from the nearby Chartreuse cemetery, for safekeeping when a fire devastated the chapel. No one seems to have looked for them until last year, when a curator at the Musée, Laurent Védrine, decided to investigate a mysterious crypt in the museum’s basement, sealed since 1886. Miniature cameras returned grainy images of a dusty wooden box, with the big black letters “MONTAIGNE” clearly visible beneath some chunks of fallen plaster. Researchers announced their intention to inventory the contents and to track down a descendant for DNA confirmation, but we’re still waiting for the results.
After the announcement, Juppé sounded a philosophical note in a mid-morning tweet: “In a world in which we speak of anger, and where we confront violence, we must return to our heritage and to the values that are dear to me [sic]. #tolerance #balance #Bordeaux.” Juppé of course knew that the Gilets jauneswould march for the first time the next day, flooding the streets of cities across the country in protest against the economic policies of Emmanuel Macron.
Michel de Montaigne
“C’est moy que je peins,” Montaigne writes in his opening preface “To the reader.” “It’s me that I paint.” The Essays are an intellectual portrait of one of history’s great minds, whose gentle humaneness and grinning wit are as familiar as the high forehead, ruffled collar, and thin moustache with which he is depicted in paintings and on frontispieces. But the book is also the portrait of one of history’s most average bodies, a very particular specimen that readers get to know with the intimacy of a doctor or a lover. We learn, among other things, that Montaigne didn’t like salad but was fond of melon, that he liked to ride on horseback, preferred to make love lying down, not standing up, and walked with a firm gait. This is a book, after all, “consubstantial with its author” (Villey-Saulnier edition, 665C). Finding bones, then, is almost as good as finding a manuscript.
Montaigne’s idiosyncrasies give the Essays much of their charm. They’re also one important source of what might be called Montaigne’s philosophy—a philosophy, or at least an ethics, that is rather accurately summarized by Juppé’s hashtags. “There is no quality so universal in our image of things than diversity and variety,” he writes in “On Experience,” his final essay (1065B). Human beings are simply too complicated to be theorized: “I study myself more than any other subject. It’s my metaphysics; it’s my physics” (1072B). Metaphysics and physics collapse when “every example limps”—every case is peculiar, every example is imperfect—and therefore every inference and every assumption is a kind of violence (1070C).
Even literary interpretation is risky, particularly when books are, like Montaigne’s, “members” of a life, and memorials to it. Montaigne learned this the hard way from the fate of Etienne de la Boétie, the friend of the famous essay “On friendship.” de la Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Slavery praised republican Venice and critiqued monarchy, arguing that, since people willingly grant a tyrant power, people can willingly take it away. The treatise was naturally appropriated by anti-monarchists in the Wars of Religion. But this was a misreading, Montaigne claims: if you knew de la Boétie like he did, you’d see that there was never a better subject, “nor a greater opponent of the disturbances and innovations of his time” (194A). If de la Boétie had written his own Essays, you would never have so misunderstood him. It’s possible, of course, that Montaigne himself was the one willfully misreading de la Boétie. Either way, his polemical interpretation reminds us that we should never entirely trust the fiction of artlessness that the essayist so often affects.
As he got older, Montaigne seemed to realize that his skepticism was, like de la Boétie’s Discourse, potentially dangerous, so in the Essays “I leave nothing to be desired or guessed about me” (“On Vanity,” 983B). Exhaustive self-description is not only a means to self-knowledge or literary immortality. It’s also an insurance policy: The flood of Montaigne’s words will overwhelm reductive misreadings with their sheer copiousness, as indeed the sheer size and labyrinthine complexity of the Essayshave defied all critical attempts at a unified interpretation. Eschewing systematic argument or organization, Montaigne prevents us from using his book, though we may profit from it. Just as we will never know if Montaigne’s representation of de la Boétie—grounded, he tells us, on intimate knowledge that is inaccessible to readers—was accurate, so we will never know for certain just what the Essays are supposed to mean, just what Montaigne is about. And that’s the point: the Essays, like the person who wrote them, ultimately prove to be something of a black box. “What I can’t represent, I point to with my finger,” he writes (983B). In the end, the Essays do no more and no less than point to their author, that infinitely peculiar human being, who, even with all the ink the world, could never be fully incorporated into his book.
Readers tend to remember Montaigne as individualist,as pioneer of a certain kind of Renaissance egoism. But in the final sighs of the Essays, Montaigne concludes that “the most beautiful lives to my mind are those which hew to the common human pattern, orderly, but without miracles or eccentricity” (1116B/C). When things are this complicated, the best policy is to mind your own business. Don’t assume you know better than anyone else (a lesson for Macron, who has publicly proclaimed that the French people never meant to kill their king)—and (for the Gilets jaunes) don’t try to rock the boat. Think of politics in human terms. Read your opponents charitably. Most of all, don’t be cruel.
The newly discovered box, like the cenotaph, may be empty. Part of me hopes that it is, and that readers have to keep searching for Montaigne’s bones in the Essays, reading them quite literally as a portrait, a vivid depiction of a “you” en chair et en os, in flesh and bone. This fleshly Montaigne has all too often been replaced in memory and imagination by a Montaigne made only of words. But you can’t separate the body from the book.
Max Norman studies literature at the University of Oxford.
Here is the first installment of our reading recommendations to kick start your summer…
For teachers and students the promise of free time that comes with summer brings along the existential stress of how to spend it. That question of how to use a short-lived surplus of time isn’t just an opportunity for us to choose among preferences, but rather the ultimate expression of our commitment to the work, political causes and personal relationships we value. This is the argument that Martin Hägglund builds over a deep exploration of philosophy and literature ranging widely from St. Augustine to Proust to Karl Ove Knausgaard in his new book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019). He sharpens this point about the significance of our limited time and the way we spend it by distinguishing his secular philosophy from theological conceptions that project the time of our life endlessly, beyond death. He recovers our moral intuitions as reflections of this secular ethics, and on top of it elaborates a compelling critique of a capitalist economy that converts our time into dollar values and demands more and more of it to the point that we’re powerless to spend it in the way that matters to us. He reads Hegel and Marx as the most profound thinkers on the political implications of our limited time and interprets them for the present. In his review in Jacobin, Samuel Moyn praises Hägglund as a profound example of how supposedly dormant and dusty “Marxist theory” can guide practical ethics and collective politics in a moment when the meaning of “democratic socialism” is debated noy just by scholars and pundits, but committed activists.
The best account I’ve read on that place of theory in daily practice, and activism as a spurr to thought, is Alyssa Battistoni’s recent personal essay “Spadework” in n+1. Battistoni reflects on her time working to organize the graduate student union at Yale between 2016 and 2017. It was, she recalls, in the department graduate meetings before the union election when the political theories that the Political Science students were in school to study finally felt alive and urgent. It was through the daily work of organizing one-on-ones and recruiting potential activists that that limited time in the day, which graduate students always experience as even more fleeting, appeared to Battistoni in all its political significance — “You have one body and twenty four hours in a day,” she discovers, “An organizer ask what you’ll do with them, concretely, now.”
Why would a political theorist and journalist, let alone a woman, be justified in putting forward a philosophical account of Thinking? This is precisely the question that Hannah Arendt herself posed at the beginning of her 1973 Gifford Lecture which forms the basis for much of the first section of my recommendation this month, The Life of the Mind. With journalistic precision and philosophical poignancy, she outlines how she came to the subject of Thinking. It is a subject, she reminds us, traditionally left to what Immanuel Kant called Denver von Gewerbe (professional thinkers). However, Arendt feels that she too has a professional interest in the topic of cognition. Not only as a woman in a topic often left to men, but also as both a journalist and a political theorist: her journalistic observation in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the phenomenon of evil can be banal and everyday and her assertions in her works of political theory that the question of political action is often contemplated by men who are dedicated to contemplation rather than action, posed several philosophical puzzles. If human beings are capable of committing unthinking actions universally acknowledged as evil, what exactly is Thinking and how does it relate to action?
These questions set the tone for Arendt’s multi-volume work that I have been gripped by over the past few months. An unfinished book that she was still working on when she died, it is an excellent read to provide one with an intellectual-historical overview of the subject of Thinking (and it’s relationship to action) in the Western philosophical tradition. For while she is never far away from mentioning her own philosophical milieu of Martin Heidegger and Kant, she explores the question of Thinking by tracing the development of the idea through Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern philosophy. Yet even the books rootedness in its own philosophical milieu tells us something of intellectual-historical interest about the way that post-Kantian European philosophy in the 1970’s related to these earlier periods. In addition, the fact that much of the books content was also derived from both the Gifford Lectures and lectures at The New School for Social Research adds to her writings measured, historical approach alongside the fact that Arendt’s ever lucid style makes for pleasurable reading. A final bonus of this book is that in the Harcourt edition (see link above), the editor has included an appendix of notes from Arendt’s Kant lectures at the New School under the subject heading ‘Judging’. Based on previous conversations Arendt had with the editor, these lecture notes provide a glimpse into what Arendt had planned for the final section of the book that remained unfinished at the time of her death. Taken together, because of its lucid style, it’s intellectual-historical approach, and it’s profound exploration of the highly topical issues of thought, action, and politics, Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind is my recommendation this month.
Reading Niklas Luhmann, whether in the original German or the English translation, can be a profoundly alienating experience. Densely written and difficult to follow, his texts do not offer an easy entry point into sociological theory and are often preceded, if not overshadowed, by the legacy of his extensive archive of notes. [For the curious: Luhmann’s famous Zettelkasten, an intricate filing system for his prolific notes, has recently been digitized and fed into an interactive online system by the Niklas Luhmann-Archiv.] Yet, while slogging through the roughly 350 pages of the first volume of his magnum opus Theory of Society (Stanford University Press, 2012) appears as a daunting task, it can be surprisingly rewarding when contextualized within a longer tradition of sociological theories that imagined society as a system, though were not necessarily classified as systems theory.
Here, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber serve obvious interlocutors, not least because Luhmann himself draws on this very comparison. Though acknowledging both sociologists as founding figures of the discipline and as instrumental in beginning to define the object of sociology, he ultimately contends that both of them, in their shared obsession of the coercive relationship between the individual and the collective, in fact missed their unity indicated by society as a system. More specifically, Luhmann issues a critique of sociology in the Durkheimian sense as a discipline meant to decode modernity through the collection and analysis of “social facts.” Durkheim’s assertion that the psychological and the social are distinct domains that do not overlap—a distinction employed by Durkheim in his Rules of Sociological Method (1895) to separate sociology from competing disciplines—is challenged by Luhmann’s concept of structural coupling between consciousness and communications systems. Weber, meanwhile, is criticized by Luhmann for his dependence on individual action and will, as Luhmann dismisses the relevance of such a cause-and-effect schema for sociology by explaining it as a system-internal function rather than a change induced from the outside.
Effectively, Luhmann argues, sociology has thus not existed as a science with its proper subject. As an alternative, he proposes a radical functionalism that is heavily influenced by cybernetics and information theory and employs the concept of autopoiesis, insisting that the latter constitutes the only way for sociology to understand what it actually is, i.e. a “self-description of society” that is produced not outside of but through society. Yet, it is exactly in this radical functionalism and its denial of any political (and possibly emancipatory) implications for the individuals within said system that Luhmann has clashed most prominently with fellow German sociologist Jürgen Habermas.
and history seem to be tied together in an uneasy way. On one hand, philosophy
still consists to a large extent to engage with the history of philosophy.
There are not many other branches of knowledge that would continually refer
back to their own “classics”. On the other hand, quite a few of these classics
authors did not hold history in high esteem. Aristotle, as is well known, preferred
even drama to history because the latter simply concerns issues that are
contingent. The marriage between history and philosophy quite often results in
monsters in the form of Hegelian philosophies of history: great narratives that
are still among the main targets of critical thought, probably because they are
all too easy to debunk.
If we head
for a more difficult task, or simply want to get deeper in the conundrum, we
might turn to the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg’s work mostly comprises
voluminous books which trace, with utmost erudition, a certain idea or motive –
the idea of myth, the metaphor of ‘reading‘ the world, the motif of the exit
from the cave – from antiquity to the present. Once, when accused of being a
historicist, Blumenberg stated that he would accept this title with pride. Occasionally,
he described his undertaking as a “phenomenology of history” – not an easy task
since phenomenology, here understood in the Husserlian sense, belongs to those
philosophical disciplines that are not particularly friendly with history.
Precisely this lack of communion, however, seems to have allowed Blumenberg to
be particularly conscious about the problem of a history of philosophy as
distinct from a philosophy of history and to develop creative approaches and
these approaches seem to be very simple but proves most efficient. What if we
do not focus on the very question: what is history as a whole? Or go further
still and not even focus on the ‘essence’ of history’s major epochs, but more
modestly on the minor changes and transitions? Even though we might not know
what antiquity is, we could be able to describe what happens when it comes to
an end. Blumenberg argued in a review article from 1958, that this is where the
more interesting historical research ends up:
“If Hellenism and late antiquity, ‘the autumn of the middle ages’ and
the dawn of the modern ages have become attractive recently, the big question
of what ‘history’ stands silently in the background. What is an ‘epoch’? What
is the structure of ‘epochal change’? How is the incongruence of testimonies
and events to be understood and methodologically handled? These are the very
detailed questions that seem to be necessary to discuss and transform the
problem of History from its daunting
massiveness into something graspable.”
observe in these transitions is neither continuity, nor clear-cut rupture,
rather something in-between, a certain overlapping where some issues,
questions, and concepts are still in place but begin to change their meaning or
– as Blumenberg tries to figure it – where answers might be found even if the
questions to which they once belonged are no longer relevant. It is not an
univocal change, but rather a threshold situation in which it is possible to
look into both directions, to understand the new from the perspective of the
old and vice versa. Later, in his magisterial book on The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Blumenberg set up a sort of a
differential test analyzing the two metaphysical conceptions of Nicolas Cusanus
and Giordano Bruno. Despite the fact that the two ideas are very similar and the
authors even, at times, make identical statements, Blumenberg argues that on
closer inspection they point into a different directions. One to a medieval
horizon of thought and the other towards a modern understanding of the world.
It is not
by chance that this epochal threshold concerns the emergence of what Blumenberg
calls “the Modern Age” (“die Neuzeit”, literally “the New Age”). Another
fruitful approach to the question of history is to ask more specifically about
the history of this Modern age. For this history is different from previous
ones because the modern age understands itself as a new beginning that breaks
with its past. Does this claim not contradict the very project of a history of
this claim? That is at least the suspicion in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, where Blumenberg vigorously and
broadly criticizes the so called theories of ‘secularization.’ Those theories argued
that essential modern ideas and attitudes are nothing but transformed Christian
heritage, e.g. when Max Weber claims that the capitalist work ethos emerged out
of the Puritan search of salvation, or when Karl Löwith describes the modern
philosophies of history as a mere continuation of Christian theologies of
salvation. If that were true, Blumenberg argues, the self-declared aim of
modernity to be autonomous or to be the beginning of something truly new, would
be an illusion.
approaches – the discussion of the epochal threshold and the discussion of the
genealogy of modernity – do not only put forward interesting perspectives on
the problem of history, they also relate to bodies of knowledge other than
those usually discussed in relation to history and theory. In relation to late
antiquity, Blumenberg refers to Hans Jonas and Rudolf Bultmann, among others,
who developed complex models how Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism
interact and interfere. These researchers are anything but positivists, and are
certainly major contributors to the hermeneutic discussion of the 1950s and
beyond. Their history is a history of ideas more than a history of facts: It
belongs the history of dogma and the history of religion. This is a very
important but oddly overlooked field, for historical theology was among the
most admired disciplines of the German university but has rarely been taken into
account in more general discussions of the history of knowledge. Later, in Work on Myth, Blumenberg would have
interesting things to say about dogma that he described a form of knowledge
that is less aiming at answering questions than excluding and eliminating them.
This opens up paths for a more comprehensive approach that would be aware of
the different historicity of different forms of knowledge, as myth, metaphor,
concept, or dogma. Arguably, every tradition would consist in the complex
interplay and overlap of these different forms of knowledge and expression.
In the Legitimacy, Blumenberg refers to the
history of dogma to develop not only his own idea of historical change, but
also his own account of early Christianity. This in turn also allows him to re-narrate
the history of the modern age. Ironically, this work not only refutes the
erroneous genealogies that claim modernity to be the secularization of
Christianity but replaces it by a – no less complex, nor less far reaching –
story about modernity being the second overcoming of Gnostiticsm. It was, according to Blumenberg, not the Christian
eschatology that brought about modern philosophy of history, as Löwith did
argue. Rather, Christian eschatology collapsed in the early phase of
Christianity when the expected second coming of Christ is delayed, a breakdown
that motivated the formation of Christian Dogma. This dogma than entailed the
gnostic assault on it, an assault that in turn is only overcome by the
reevaluation of the world, worldly knowledge, and curiosity that Blumenberg
claims to be characteristic of the modern age. As Löwith himself remarked in
his review of the Legitimacy, we as
readers might ask in the end: “why all this effort of precise distinction,
broad historical erudition, and polemical invectives against the scheme of
Secularization if the critique of this illegitimate category in the end is so
close with what it criticizes”?
discussion on secularization was a very German one, thus Blumenberg’s work,
though translated early, was not broadly received internationally. Nor did his defense
of the Modern Age (die Neuzeit) fit well into the discussion on Postmodernism. Even
today, the growing discussion on Secularism and Secularization seem to rest on
premises so different from Blumenberg’s that it is all but easy to connect him
to it. Still, his thinking allows us to complicate and also criticize the genealogies
of modernity that are being discussed. From Jean Luc Nancy’s “deconstruction of
Christianity” via Charles Taylor’s story of the emergence of a secular age to
Jan Assman’s recent engagement with the “axial Age”. Moreover, Blumenberg’s
meticulous histories of problems highlight that it does make a difference to
reflect on what we actually do when we historicize properly and try to
represent the subtleties of historical change. The history of philosophy – and
maybe also the philosophy of history – might be richer if we were less
concerned with the great answers or grand narratives than with the right
questions that allow us to work out the transitions, thresholds, and traditions
 Hans Blumenberg: Epochenschwelle
und Rezeption, in: Philosophische Rundschau 6 (1958), 94-120, here 94-95.
 Karl Löwith: Review
of Hans Blumenberg, The LEgitimacy oft he Modern Age, in: Philosophische
Last month, April 22, was Earth Day: an annual, global, day of mobilization to push for environmental reform. Often painted as the origin story of the environmental movement, Earth Day, which began in 1970, was originally about regulation and education, centering around issues like the ozone hole, oil spills, and pesticide use. 49 years later, in 2019, Earth Day is tinged with greater urgency: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has given us 12 years to act against the climate crisis, the hottest 20 years in recorded history have occurred in the past 22, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) has announced a million species are at risk of extinction, and extreme weather is increasing as frozen and remote parts of the globe melt at an alarming rate. In response, Extinction Rebellion shut down central London, a teen more savvy than global political leaders leads weekly strikes for climate, and glaciers have Twitter feeds that articulate their own demise. Still, though, political inaction is palpable.
Extinction Rebellion protesters in London, April 2019. Photo: Wiki Commons
Recently, and with fervor, the concept of the Anthropocene has been deployed within academia to articulate the extent and urgency of the global environmental crisis. Originally articulated by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and limnologist Eugene Stoermer at the turn of the millennium, the ‘Anthropocene’ is the proposed name for a new geologic epoch, one which aims “to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). In the logic of Anthropocene, humanity has become a forcing mechanism in global natural processes, producing a clash between ‘human’ or ‘shallow’ time, and ‘deep’ or ‘natural’ time. The ‘Anthropocene’ is an acknowledgement that human activities are changing the world at temporal scales far beyond the histories, lifetimes, or political terms humans normally operate within and imagine.
Graphic of the deep temporal history of the planet. Image: Wiki Commons
In the basic conception of the Anthropocene, there are two actors: mankind and the environment. This sweeping and seemingly compelling divide at once highlights the separation of the two categories and collapses it: if humans are geologic force, we can no longer imagine ourselves outside of nature. Thus, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the Anthropocene brings to an end “the age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” which have underpinned Western notions of modernity (Chakrabarty, 2009). In academia, it also challenges traditional divisions of intellectual production—humanities on the one hand, the sciences on the other—that C.P. Snow famously, if problematically, diagnosed as The Two Cultures (Snow, 1959). So, by revealing the inherent interactions of this purported dualism, the Anthropocene is a powerful concept, one that has been gobbled up by the academic world as a new and innovative way to articulate environmental crises, and to revolutionize traditional siloes of thinking and learning. But perhaps the voracious consumption of the Anthropocene should give us pause. If consumption has been the central engine of producing the Anthropocene—for centuries humanity has rapidly exploited the planet for commodification—what of such a rapid and uncritical consumption of the idea itself? What, exactly, are we doing as we ingest and reproduce Anthropocenic thinking?
Critics of the Anthropocene have rightly pointed out what the concept obfuscates: the long and entangled colonial, patriarchal, capitalist histories of environmental exploitation in which humans were not understood as a homogenous group, or as naturally equal. Such critiques are eloquently laid out in, for example, Jason Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (2016) and Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” (2017). On top of this, far from the revolutionary concept it is purported to be, Anthropocene-thinking is rather familiar: a species-level framework can be found in the environmentalism of Earth Day and it’s more bureaucratic iterations: the IPCC reports and the historic efforts to develop global responses to climate change, from Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972) to the Kyoto Protocol (2005) and beyond. History has therefore shown us that this logic, appealing as it may be, doesn’t hold: in Kyoto, for example, efforts to flatten humans into a monolith were led by developed nations—the main burners of fossil fuels—who deployed a claim to a unified planet to shirk their greater responsibility. The end result of these deliberations is, as argued in ‘Carbon tax: Challenging Neoliberal Solutions to Climate Change,’ a neoliberal model of carbon credits, allowing capitalism and consumption to persist, transforming the air itself into a commodity (Andrew et al., 2010). Conceptually, politically, and pragmatically, then, the simplistic version of the Anthropocene is neither new or revolutionary, nor, it seems, effective. Can the idea of humans as geologic agents in any way help us imagine and do more?
While the ‘human’ of the Anthropocene is overly simplistic and rife with problems, the concept’s attention to temporal diversity could perhaps be its redemption. The collision of shallow and deep time begs the question: How can we make sense of, articulate, or engage with an ancient planet in our fleeting moment with it? In trying to hold multiple timescales in our hands at once, the Anthropocene can help push us to different sources, like natural archives; different timelines, like those traced by plastics or corals; different knowledges, particularly indigenous; different framings, such as a position of care; and fundamentally different definitions of what ‘freedom’ should look like. These shifts invert the equation of the Anthropocene by demanding immediate and sustained attention to the structures that have obscured these different ways of being or knowing, those same structures which have helped shape the dominant narratives of environmental action and political and social change.
Ice cores from high mountain glaciers, stored at Byrd Polar Research Center. Photo by author.
A coral reef in the Red Sea, used to study the effects of the Little Ice Age. Photo: Wiki Commons.
To explore one example briefly. Ice is a productive illustration of the alternative spatial, temporal, and relational modes of thinking possible in a less anthropocentric Anthropocene. Today, as vast chunks of ice detach from Antarctica and high mountain glaciers rapidly retreat, ice is the fragile icon of the climate crisis. But ice also gives us access to an unparalleled natural archive, both in the form of ice cores and in the form of icebergs, which as natural chronometers have recorded the deep history of the planet. These archives remind us that the ebb and flow of ice has shaped the surface of the earth as we know it, and that as interglacial beings, we are subject to the whims of a mass of matter that not only moves, but changes state. But to understand all the facets of the frozen material, Western scientific knowledge-production is not enough. As Julie Cruikshank recounts in Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, to the three First Nation women who are her interlocutors, glaciers “are wilful, sometimes capricious, easily excited by human intemperance but equally placated by quick-witted human responses” (8). How and why glaciers move, and the natural and social stories they tell, are multiple, entangled and complex: we should treat them, and all matter, human or nonhuman, as such.
Liliehöökbreen Glacier, Svalbard. Photo by Author.
By rethinking the meaning of ice, by considering existence at conflicting and complex timescales, and by privileging and being attentive to non-Western epistemologies—which, as Zoe Todd notes, are founded on relationalities that are too often touted as ‘new’ by the West—the Anthropocene can open up to ontological reform, to new systems of governance, and revolutionized modes of knowing (Todd, 2016). The result is a radically different relationship with self, others, and place than that which has underpinned so much of Western thought and society—and justified violent modes of extraction, colonization, and consumption—since the Enlightenment. If freedom, long defined as the liberation of humans from nature, is reconceptualized, the Anthropos of the Anthropocene could be diminished. In humble and thoughtful ways, with an eye to moderation, the idea of the Anthropocene can and should still be consumed.
Andrew, Jane, Mary Kaidonis, and Brain Andrew. “Carbon Tax: Challenging neoliberal solutions to climate change.” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 21 (2010): 611-618.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (January 2009): 197–222.
Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.
Crutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17-18
Moore, Jason W. Anthropocene Or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA : PM Press, 2016.
Snow, Charles Percy. The Two Cultures. London: Cambridge University Press, 2000 .
Todd, Zoe. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism” Journal of Historical Sociology 29, no. 1 (March 2016): 4–22.
Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 2017, 16(4): 761-780.
Last year, philosopher Graham Priest published an article in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association titled “Marxism and Buddhism: Not Such Strange Bedfellows.” In the article, Priest aimed to highlight the complementary elements of Buddhist philosophy with Marxist political theory, while acknowledging that, as schools of thought, these two ways of looking at the world diverge drastically. The crucial similarity between the two, Priest rightly points out, is the fact that both schools “reject the existence of a self/soul; both see being human as being involved in natural processes and natural laws; and both move toward thinking of people in mostly structural terms,” (Priest 7). They also, according to Priest, both make the argument that people are subjected to illusions about the true nature of reality, and provide a framework by which people can see these illusions. Priest suggests that the structural analysis of capitalism provided by Marxism can help to elucidate the philosophy of the human condition presented by Buddhism, and vice versa. A comparative analysis along these lines appears to be possible, and there has been a long tradition of comparing Marxism to religion. The following essay will be a brief history of the relationship between Marxism and religion. It will attempt to highlight, through Hegelian philosophy, another similarity between Marxism and Buddhism, as well as describe the relationship Marxism and Christianity.
The keystone which links Marxism to Buddhist philosophy is Hegel. Hegel’s conception of reality, as a series of dialectically intertwined processes, was reinterpreted by Marx and Engels as a framework by which all of reality could be explained without theology. The important element here is that these men believed that all the things and processes that make up reality could not be understood in isolation, but only in relation to other things and processes. Hence, in Hegel’s Logic, the very mention of “Being” implies the existence of “Nothing” (Hegel, Logic, 82). This fundamental inseparability of objects and processes appears to be the primary way in which Marxist thought, which was inspired by Hegel, is similar to the Buddhist thought that Priest presents. In fact, the philosopher Michael Allen Fox’s book The Accessible Hegel presents the Hegelian dialectical framework as sharing this same fundamental quality with not just Buddhist conceptions of reality, but Taoist ones as well. Both of which, Fox argues, present reality as being a collection of interrelated processes, by which nothing can be understood in isolation. Fox says that, “the idea that opposites are interrelated and define one another, as we have seen, conveys an insight that is truly cross-cultural,” because of its appearance in Hegelian, Buddhist, and Taoist thinking (Fox 48).
Despite this apparent connection between his philosophical framework with Buddhism, and Taoism, Hegel argued in Phenomenology of Spirit that Christianity was the highest expression of religious truth (Fox 99-100). According to Fox, Hegel wanted to merge Christianity with the belief the reason governs the development of the universe, although this caused major backlash from non-Christians and Christians alike, such as Marx and Kierkegaard (Fox 100). Hegel was not unaware of the existence of philosophical frameworks from Asia. In fact, in Reason in History, Hegel suggested that the “highest thought” of the metaphysics that came from Asia rested in their proposition that, “ruin is at the same time emergence of a new life, that out of life arises death, but out of death life” (Hegel, Reason in History, 88) However, despite this acknowledgement, Hegel argued that the religions of China and India “lack completely the essential consciousness of the concept of freedom,” which, he argued, was what separated these philosophies from those of Europe (Hegel, Reason in History, 86). Today, we consider this to be regarded as an expression of orientalism, à la Edward Said. But it’s important because it denotes the limits of what Hegel and his contemporaries could appreciate from systems such as Buddhism, despite connections between them we can elucidate today.
It was Hegel’s support of Christianity that Marx first took issue with in Hegel’s schema, which he himself was heavily influenced by. In 1844, Marx published Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In the introduction, Marx wrote the now famous line, “[r]eligion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Tucker 54). Here, as elsewhere in this essay, Marx is clear in what he believed to be religion’s function in human society: a human-constructed refuge from the suffering of life. A few lines down from this oft-repeated quote is a fundamental claim made by Marx which helps contextualize his later work:
The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form. Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
The self-alienation in its “secular form” that Marx claimed existed appears as the form of commodity fetishism in Capital Vol. 1, published in 1867. Here, Marx argued that the pricing of commodities depended on the total aggregate relationships between people, and not the utility of the object itself (Marx, Capital, 165). This reality, according to Marx, tricks people into thinking that commodities have an autonomous value, independent of the sum of human relationships. An illusion of the mind which Marx liked to the illusions of reality brought upon by theology. Capital, as a project, was an attempt to demystify the pricing of commodities and the capitalist system of production as a whole, in a similar fashion to the deconstruction of Christianity that he participated in during the 1840s. The mystification of capital, for Marx, created alienation in people in the way that he argued Christian theology did. In Marx’s world, capitalism and Christianity were not so strange bedfellows (Marx, Capital, 174-175).
But, as numerous scholars have pointed out, Marx and further proponents of Marxism carried on the legacies of Christianity in several respects. William Clare Roberts, for instance, argues in Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital that Marx based the structure of Capital on Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno. Even though Marx rejected the Christian moral ontology, espoused by Dante, that, “[n]o one is responsible for their sins but themselves,” Roberts argues that he replicated the structure of Inferno in order to liken capitalist society to a social hell (Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, 21). Then there is Bertrand Russell, who in 1946 published History of Western Philosophy which clearly cast Marxism as a secularized substitute for the Judeo-Christian understanding of history. Russell argued that Marxism simply cast the theological understandings of history’s teleological trajectory in new terminology:
Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah = Marx
The Elect = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
The Second Coming = The Revolution
Hell = Punishment For The Capitalists
The Millenium = The Communist Commonwealth
It stands to reason that Russell’s typecasting of Marxism as a new form of Christianity was influenced by the rise of the Soviet Union. Vaclav Havel, the last President of Czechoslovakia who presided over the collapse of the Soviet system, also likened the practical application of Marxism to a modern form of theocracy. In his masterful 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel argued that the “hypnotic charm” of the Soviet ideology was due, in part, to its insistence that its legitimacy derived from the authenticity of the social movements that gave birth to the system, and the supposed objective righteousness of those movements (Havel, Open Letters, 129). This created a situation whereby ordinary people within the communist world, including Czechoslovakia, consigned “reason and consciousness” to the state, who were the sole possessors and arbiters of truth. Which, for Havel, directly reflected a Byzantine-esque theocracy because the “highest secular authority [the state] is identical with the highest spiritual authority,” by having authoritarian control over truth and a claim to a sacred history (Havel, Open Letters, 130). These works indicate in differing ways the extent to which Marxism, in Capital and in twentieth-century practice, bore resemblances to Christianity.
It is thus clear that there is sufficient cause to acknowledge similarities between Christianity and Marxism. Today, in the twenty-first century, there is a striking trend in Christianity that is adopting political positions that would be considered Marxist not so long ago. This is expressed most potently in Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home in which he argues that wealth inequality, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity are interconnected with the rise of global capitalism. Pope Francis considers this to be an issue that transcended national boundaries, and he advocates on global cooperation in order to adjust our value-systems in order to move toward ecological balance and wealth equality. Graham Priest forces us to recognize that there is a deep philosophical relationship between Marxism and Buddhism as well. Although there is a major difference between the relationships of Marxism/Christianity and Marxism/Buddhism: Marx’s writings were written specifically in opposition to Christianity. The similarities in Capital’s structure to Inferno and the actions of communists in the twentieth-century may appear as similar to Christianity because of the geographical origins of Marxism. The same cannot be said for Buddhism.
In his July 2002 article in JHI, on “Greek Origins and Organic Metaphors: Ideals of Cultural Autonomy in Neohumanist Germany from Winckelmann to Curtius,” Brian Vick effectively demonstrates the importance of the debate over Greek origins in German scholarship in the late 18th century. The article sheds light on the intensity of the dispute between German classicists and up-and-coming Sprachwissenschaftler who placed increasing importance on the historical precedence and significance of Oriental languages, especially Sanskrit. The problem for classicists came from mounting evidence that Sanskrit was an older relative of more modern European languages, including Greek, and some thinkers (most notably Herder and Friedrich Schlegel) proclaimed it to be the mother-tongue, the Ursprache of all human languages. Friedrich Creuzer built on the work of these Sprachwissenschaftler (and that of his Heidelberg colleague Joseph Görres), claiming that the Oriental heritage of Greek culture included not just the language but also the central mythological and religious content of Greek culture (and, by implication, German culture as well).
Bust of Hegel at the Hegel Archives in Bochum
Hegel was among the thinkers who most vehemently rejected Romantic claims about the historical significance of Oriental cultures, an opposition that has been well-documented at this point. The scholarship of Sir William Jones and other (primarily English) philologists forced Hegel to accept the claims of historical priority, however reluctantly. Unlike the Romantics, however, Hegel rejected the idea that Sanskrit’s historical precedence conferred upon it any special status or gave it any right to share in the glorious efflorescence of Greek culture. The clearly gendered language that Hegel uses to describe India (invariably feminine) and Greece (masculine in unmistakably Winckelmannian terms) is striking. Following what had become a convention of the day, he associates Indian culture with flowers, and in his lectures on the philosophy of history he likens the seductive charm of this “Flower-life” to the beauty of women following childbirth or during the magical transportations of dreamful sleep.
Hegel’s formulation here appears straight-forwardly Orientalist in the Saidian sense – the Orient is sexualized in terms that subject it to the male gaze, the categories of domineering masculine reason, and subjugation to European power. A closer look, however, reveals something more interesting about the place and significance of these ideas in Hegel’s system. Hegel’s statement in the Philosophy of Right (1821) that men are like animals while women correspond to plants suggests that his claims about the femininity of Indian culture constituted more than the chauvinism of Hegel’s day, but were, in fact, of systematic importance (§168A). Hegel’s ideas about human nature and biology are most thoroughly articulated in the Philosophy of Nature (first edition, 1818), and it is in this work that Hegel expounds upon the biological basis of the presumed differences between men sexes. Women’s biology, for Hegel, is a product of their essential nature, a gendered embodiment of Spirit (this is the vitalism of his Naturphilosophie). While men are active and objectified in the world through their anatomy, women are passive and their being is directed inward toward the unarticulated immediacy of feeling. While women find the realization of their essential nature in the family, men use the family as the spiritual foundation from which they can venture forth into the world (this relationship forms the core of Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist critique of modern society in The Second Sex). The feminine is the basis of historical development and the achievement of male rational autonomy, but remains static and is excluded from this development.
Hegel’s thinking about the essential differences between the sexes and between human cultures was hardly without precedent. It can clearly be traced back to Kant’s account of the teleological development of human cultures and the historical achievement of rational autonomy (Germana 2017). Jon Stewart’s article, “Hegel, Creuzer, and the Rise of Orientalism” (Owl of Minerva, Nos. 1-2, 2013-2014) cautions, however, that this narrative is not so simple as it might appear. Stewart’s interest is primarily in Hegel’s philosophy of religion, and he rightly points out that Hegel’s endorsement of Creuzer’s theories regarding the transmission of mythological and religious symbols from India to Greece brings Indian thought into the rich history of the development of Spirit in human cultures, rather than setting it aside as ahistorical and insignificant. He is also right to point out that Hegel was one of the most vocal advocates of the need for modern Europeans to engage in deeper and more meaningful study of the belief systems of the ancient Orient. For the historian of ideas, however, a powerful question remains: How could Hegel embrace Friedrich Creuzer without embracing the Catholic romantic orientalism of Friedrich Schlegel (about whom Hegel’s comments are unequivocally negative)?
An answer to this question can be found in the gendered language of Hegel’s descriptions of Indian and Greek cultures. There is a hitherto unrecognized, but critical difference between Creuzer’s and Hegel’s accounts – the Neoplatonism of the former, and the Aristotelianism of the latter. Hegel’s thoroughly Aristotelian understanding of the teleological, organic development of Spirit through human cultures was able to make use of Creuzer’s model of historical development to arrive at very different conclusions. In the preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel dismisses “conventional opinion” that gets caught up in the question of which philosophical system is “right” and which is “wrong,” arguing instead that the “diversity of philosophical systems” present “the progressive unfolding of truth” (§ 2). From this perspective, Oriental religious ideas also have the “instinct of reason” as their basis, and they have a critical role to play in the teleological development of Spirit toward complete realization and “absolute knowing.” In the Phenomenology, Hegel reverts time and again to organic metaphors to describe the principle underlying this development. Two of the most famous of these metaphors are, in fact, taken directly from Aristotle – the bud that “disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom” (§2, from On the Generation of Animals) and the embryo that contains the full potential of humanity, but which can only make “itself into what it is in itself” through the cultivation of reason (§21, from On the Soul).
In myJHI article, I draw out the implications of Hegel’s Aristotelianism, arguing that in line with Aristotelian views on reproduction India provides the inert material, to which the Greeks contribute the efficient cause that actualizes being and awakens its final cause, the development of Spirit toward complete self-realization in human freedom. Unlike Creuzer, who granted India a privileged status as the progenitor of later world religions, Hegel posited a static subordinate stage of world-historical development whose real significance was limited to its “merely material” contribution to the growth of Spirit in the West.
This conclusion leads in a surprising new direction – toward a reevaluation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, its relation to his philosophy of history, and its place within his system as a whole. Of all of his major works (published in his lifetime and after), the Philosophy of Nature is seen as the most problematic; as Terry Pinkard notes, the work “fell into complete disrepute immediately after his death and has rarely been looked at since by anybody other than dedicated Hegel scholars” (2000, 562-63). Hegel’s views on science – his opposition to Newtonianism and his organic vitalism – have not stood the test of time in anything like the way that his ideas on society, history, morality, and culture have. These ideas have lived on and been fruitfully developed by other thinkers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, in contrast, is an end rather than a beginning in European thought.
However, Hegel’s Naturphilosophie may actually provide a key to the development of his philosophy of history. Like inorganic and organic being, human cultures present the objectification and actualization of Spirit as it is “concretely instantiated,” to use Allison Stone’s apt description from Petrified Intelligence (SUNY Press, 2005, xiii). While other contemporary thinkers, such as Herder and Schelling, used floral metaphors to describe Indian culture, what if Hegel meant it not metaphorically but literally? If we map the philosophy of history over the Philosophy of Nature with Indian culture in the place of “The Plant Nature” (§§343-349), what do we find? Moving “backwards” through less-developed “ontological structures” (again borrowing from Stone, xiii), we find ourselves in the realm that corresponds to Africa, on the one hand, and inorganic being on the other. (China marks a special case, and Hegel’s thinking on China developed after the narrative structure of the philosophy of history was in place.) Africa, in Hegel’s system, is characterized by totemism and fetishism that never really manage to escape the bonds of merely material existence. Africa is essentially inert.
Moving forward into “The Animal Organism,” we find Egypt. In his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel makes much of the Egyptian deification of animals, which he holds to be a considerable progression over the worship of inanimate celestial bodies. Animal being possesses the spark of vitality and subjectivity that is only hinted at in plant life. In a remarkable passage in the philosophy of history lectures, Hegel tarries over the ideas embodied in the Sphinx, with its human head emerging from an animal body. Finally, in the Greeks we possess human nature and in Hegel’s system we are led to the third volume of the Encyclopedia, the Philosophy of Mind.
There is certainly no precise correspondence between the stages of development articulated in the Philosophy of Nature and the lectures on the philosophy of history. Hegel’s thought developed considerably as he delivered and refined his various lecture series throughout the 1820s, as well as the revisions he made to the Encyclopedia just before his death. There is, however, enough of a correspondence to suggest a compelling research project. Allison Stone and Sally Sedgewick (“Remarks on history, contingency, and necessity in Hegel’s Science of Logic,” in Hegel on Philosophy in History, Cambridge University Press, 2019) have raised compellingly similar questions about how far we should read necessity into Hegel’s philosophy of nature and philosophy of history, respectively. We might most profitably engage these questions by bringing the inquiries together.
Nicholas A. Germana is a Professor of History at Keene State College in New Hampshire. His second book, The Anxiety of Autonomy and the Aesthetics of German Orientalism, was published by Camden House in 2017. He is currently working on a study of the Newtonian influence on Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.
Into the twenty-first century, it has been a commonplace that Britain and its soon-to-become independent North American colonies diverged on ideological grounds (exacerbated, of course, by revolution and independence). This division appears dialectical, and has been expressed in multiple ways: a revolutionary Atlantic opposed to a conservative/loyalist Atlantic; or a republican America (sometimes restricted to the United States; other times encompassing many of the new nation-states in the Americas) against a monarchical Europe. These approaches can be found in Bernard Bailyn, J. C. D. Clark, and Carla Gardina Pestana (see The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; The Language of Liberty; The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution). Though ostensibly exorcised from the United States in the late eighteenth century, monarchy is far from a banished (or condemned) concept: Its imagery, symbolism, and constitutional vestiges (at least in the form of the executive branch as established in the United States Constitution) persist in American popular and political culture. Despite the apparent ideological divide, American ambivalence about monarchy has been a recurrent feature throughout colonial and national history. This companion piece to my recent article in the Journal of the History of Ideas will focus on showing the continuities in thinking about monarchy from what we might consider the monarchical culture of the Anglo-American world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – that is, a political community throughout the Atlantic that referred to itself as the British Empire and included Britain and its overseas colonies – to an American society that has often identified itself as republican and modern.
Two strands of recent scholarship have reoriented our understandings of the Crown’s legal role in governing the American colonies and colonists’ relationship to their monarchs. Work on the seventeenth century has shown that the Crown had an important supervisory legal role and a symbolic role for its American subjects – inclusive of both Europeans and indigenous peoples (Ken MacMillan, Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World; Jenny Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King). Brendan McConville has argued for the continued importance of the monarchy in American culture after 1688 up to 1776, and argued against the importance of republican ideas during this period. According to his study, colonial America was enthusiastic and steadfast in its support of the monarchy, and this was only sundered by competing visions of the king (The King’s Three Faces). Eric Nelson has extended this line of thinking to the Revolution and composition of the Constitution; he argues that royalist ideas were influential in the opposition to King George III and the push for a strong executive in the early U.S. (The Royalist Revolution). These recent studies have led to a royalist revival in scholarship on the monarchy’s place in American legal thought during the seventeenth century and its cultural and intellectual heritage in colonial America and the early United States (for a study of continuing British cultural influence in the U.S. during the early nineteenth century, see Elisa Tamarkin, Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America).
My recent article seeks to link this recent scholarship that emphasizes the importance of monarchy in colonial America to the intellectual history of the British Empire. The eighteenth century is viewed as a key period for the development of identity (Linda Colley, Britons) and ideology (David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire) within the British Empire. This approach fits in with earlier scholarship on this imperial entity as one that was acquired in “a fit of absence of mind” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and that was only recognized as an expansive political community by eighteenth-century contemporaries (see J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England; C. H. Firth, “The British Empire,” pp. 185-89; Richard Koebner, Empire). My article repositions the argument by emphasizing an intellectual means for seventeenth-century subjects of the English (sometimes considered “British”) to view themselves as members of a political community, at times referred to as a “royal empire,” that spanned the Atlantic possessions of the Stuart monarchs (and sometimes extended into Africa and Asia). Much as the scholarship on colonial America has discovered for eighteenth-century colonial populations, allegiance to the Crown was a way to politically identify oneself with others across vast geographies in the seventeenth century – and, as Steven Ellis has argued, even between Ireland and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Steven G. Ellis, “Crown, Community and Government in the English Territories, 1450-1575,” pp. 187-204). With this in mind, my article suggests that the classical formulation of the British Empire as protestant, commercial, maritime, and free should be amended to include that it was royalist.
Monarchy was integral to the ideological origins of the British Empire and a vital cultural and intellectual force in colonial America. It has also had afterlives in the republican United States. There is, of course, a continuing fascination in popular culture with kings and queens: One needs only to think of the anointing of one of the best basketball players of our generation – LeBron James – as “King James”; the adoption of a monarchical gimmick and kingly imagery by the professional wrestler Triple H from 2006 into the present; the continuing spate of films centered on monarchs such as Elizabeth (1998), King Arthur (2004), The King’s Speech (2010), and Mary Queen of Scots (2018); and the interest in the details of each and every royal wedding.
Current political discourses retain several of the features from the seventeenth and eighteenth century debates regarding the benefits and potential pitfalls of monarchy. One such fear was that of an overmighty executive who could corrupt the Constitution and make slaves of citizens. The trend of increasing executive power in the United States has long been recognized by scholars, receiving the attention of academics since the 1960s and its own nomenclature, “The Imperial Presidency” (for the classical articulation of this term, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency). This accumulation of power is often levied against both Democratic and Republican Presidents – though often the accusations of executive tyranny and unconstitutional exercise of power takes a partisan tone In any case, the increasing power exercised by the American executive has prompted comparisons to monarchy – sometimes arguing that the US has long been an “elected monarchy” without a literal crown and title (David Cannadine, “A Point of View: Is the US President an Elected Monarch?”); other times appropriating the language of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to claim that the President has become an absolute monarch and a tyrant, thus affirming the fears of the Anglo-American world of living in a corrupt society (see David Armitage, “Trump and the Return of Divine Right”; for an example of the potential for increasing executive power in a British political context, see Thomas Poole, “The Executive Power Project”).
However, there are also current arguments for the inherent stability and effectiveness of monarchies. In a New York Times op-ed from 2016, Count Nikolai Tolstoy argued for the creation of a monarchy in America, based on the current Canadian model, and that “democracy is perfectly compatible with constitutional monarchy” (“Consider a Monarchy, America”). Tolstoy is the Chancellor of the International Monarchist League, which seeks to “support the principle of Monarchy.” For monarchy in the United States, the Center for the Study of Monarchy, Traditional Governance, and Sovereignty was formed to further bolster the position and study of monarchies. Monarchists have gone so far as to argue that a monarchical system of government, if instituted in the United States, “would be not just a salve for a superpower in political turmoil, but also a stabilizing force for the world at large,” and point to a study showing that, according to economic measures, monarchies outperform other forms of government (“What’s the Cure for Ailing Nations? More Kings and Queens, Monarchists Say”). One response to a certain 2016 presidential campaign was to “Make America Great Britain Again” and re-admit the British monarch as the sovereign of the United States – one is left to wonder how flippant this slogan was meant to be. Indeed, one columnist at the New York Times has argued that Americans have been prone to “clamoring for a king” (Ross Douthat, “Give Us a King!”).
It seems unlikely that any American head of state will wear a crown anytime soon, but it is also difficult to deny the continuation of royal culture in the United States and the increasing relevance of monarchical rhetoric and discourses when discussing its leaders and the state itself; think of our references to the Clintons and Bushes as “dynasties,” the Trump administration being composed of “courtiers,” and the resurgence of scholarship that discusses America in the context of its being an empire (see especially A. G. Hopkins, American Empire: A Global History). Taken together with the recent scholarship that excavates the importance of monarchy in colonial America, my article attempts to develop the intellectual history of monarchy in the English-speaking world and provide this concept with a more nuanced etiology.
The author wishes to thank Mary Bates, Christine McLeod, and Derek O’Leary for reading earlier drafts of this piece and for their suggestions and comments.
Zach Bates is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Calgary. His current dissertation project is a study of the political thought of Scottish colonial administrators in the Atlantic British Empire from 1710 to 1770. He has been awarded fellowships at the New-York Historical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Huntington Library. In addition to his work on the intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth century British Empire, he also has an upcoming article on the Sudan in British film during the first half of the twentieth century. You can reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On May 28, 1919, the first gay rights film was released in German theaters. Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others) follows the story of a homosexual violinist who is blackmailed and forced to commit suicide once his orientation becomes public knowledge. It is also a love story; the violinist comes to terms with his sexuality with the help of a sexologist played by the real-life Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, and a relationship blossoms between the violinist and one of his students. Through an in-film lecture, Hirschfeld develops an argument that bears repeating a century later: variance in sexuality, gender, and gender expression are natural and normal – the problem is societal intolerance.
How was a gay rights film made in 1919? In Germany?
Germany had a well-established gay rights movement dating from the mid-19th century. With the German Empire’s 1871 unification and adoption of the Prussian penal code, a sodomy provision (Paragraph 175) became national law. Scientists, cultural figures, and even August Bebel, leader of the Social Democratic Party, fought to repeal the law. In 1897, Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee (Scientific Humanitarian Committee) in Berlin (where the police were relatively tolerant of homosexuality) to advocate for the rights of sexual minorities.
Anders als die Andern continued this decades-long campaign through new means. On November 12, 1918, three days after the German republic was (twice) proclaimed, the provisional government abolished censorship, even for the new medium of film. Before censorship was reintroduced in May 1920 – and only for film – a genre optimistically known as “Aufklärungsfilme” (literally “enlightenment films” but more accurately “sex education films”) flourished They included all manner of “risqué” films, from earnest attempts to address and rectify societal problems such as prostitution to what amounted to early 20th-century clickbait – films with titles like Hyänen der Lust (Hyenas of Passion). Some, like Anders als die Andern, were produced under medical supervision, a testament to the didactic power moving images were assumed to have. The term would specifically be linked to the Vienna-born director-producer Richard Oswald (director of Anders als die Andern), who packaged arguments for social reform in a feature-length format suitable for entertaining mass audiences.
silentfilm.org [San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Different from the Others, A Day of Silents 2016]Anders als die Andern played for a year in theaters and was at the center of controversy over what was appropriate for Germany’s moviegoing public. The film set off intense debates in Germany’s print media, and its showings were no less volatile. If we are to believe written reports, groups of soldiers stormed out of theaters in disgust, hecklers accompanied showings with derisive cries of “Huch nein!” (“Gasp, no!”) and “aber Schwester!” (“but sister!”), and at one showing, someone released live mice. The end came in May 1920 with the (re-)introduction of censorship (the Lichtspielgesetz, which was specific to film), for which Anders als die Andern was in no small part responsible.
New medium, new republic
Film at the time of Anders als die Andern’s release had established itself as mass entertainment. With their bold, blunt messages, the Aufklärungsfilme imagined new roles for the medium. They also posed a possibly existential threat to the art form’s fragile respectability. In virtually every article on Anders als die Andern in German newspapers, sexual minority or scientific journals, and film magazines, the film’s aesthetics and plot were barely discussed. Instead it became an excuse to talk about something else. Between Anders als die Andern’s release and the Lichtspielgesetz, unconscious fears bubbled up for the future of the new German republic.
Critics, perhaps expectedly, took offense at Anders als die Andern’s subject matter. The Film-Kritik commentator B.F. Lüthar was one of the first to review it. His article “‘Anders als die Andern’: the new Aufklärungsfilm” appeared only three days after the premiere. For someone claiming to be baffled, verklempt, rendered speechless (“indeed, I don’t know what I should say”), his prose is surprisingly voluminous. On whether the topic is appropriate for film, he said “well, it’s done, it’s been decided.” It can’t be undone and joins such disturbing works as Death in Venice. Others painted a more sinister picture. Pastor Martin Cornils, for the Kieler Nachrichten a “Call for Censorship” wrote ominously “with ANDERS ALS DIE ANDERN, the realm of the Perverse has been entered.” More than other Aufklärungsfilme, he continued, this one sneaks in “on soft feet,” quietly endangering the social order.
Almost everyone majorly involved in this film was Jewish, with the exception of Conrad Veidt, who plays the main character, and the dancer Anita Berber. Dr. Johannes Ude, in an article entitled “Scientific Movie-trash” in the Christliche Volkswacht railed against Anders als die Andern and was particularly critical of Hirschfeld, writing “Hirschfeld is Jewish, that explains something.” For Ude, Hirschfeld is not scientifically credible, and while he does not link this assertion specifically to Hirschfeld’s Jewishness, it is implied. “Dr. Hirschfeld,” he wrote, “although he appears to be an assimilated Jew, is still in no condition to empathize with our German people in these hard times. With his scientific movie-trash, he did an extremely bad service to our German people.” Oswald mostly attracts attention for his moneymaking abilities.
Oswald’s films were so lucrative that their profitability became its own phenomenon. Dismissing the films’ messages, commentators saw the Aufklärungsfilme as vulgar, silly indications of an enormous public appetite for smut. A humorous take in the Film-Kurier told the story of Herr Meier, a movie theater owner threatened by the bankruptcy vulture:
1.In front of his movie theater stands Herr Meier / and over him hovers the bankruptcy vulture 2. Furiously he says “Screw it / the best thing is, I’ll hang myself” 3. Already the noose was around his neck / and the rescuer luckily neared. 4. Fritz Schulze I’m called / from Richard-Oswald-Film-Verleih.
5. My friend, he says, you surely know / the Oswald films are still drawing [crowds]. 6. So follow the good advice / and take this make! 7.He does it, and look, in thick masses / the people pressed towards Meier’s ticket window. 8. The bankruptcy vulture already gone / and Meier’s wealth is established. 9.So “Oswald” brings him constant luck / Herr Meier becomes noticeably fat. 10. He becomes as fat as a ton / and swims in butter and happiness. 11. To his wife he says full of joy / “Karline, we’re rich people!” 12. But she said softly “My dear Willem” / We owe that to the Oswald-Fillem!” [From the Deutsche Kinematek archive in Berlin, issue of Film-Kurier from 18 July, 1919.]Hopeful, positive takes on Anders als die Andern saw it as a way towards a more humanistic future. An article called “Valid and invalid enlightenment” in Die Freundschaft, a journal for sexual minorities, argued that far more “sexuelle Zwischenstufen” (“sexual intermediaries”) exist than people think and, therefore, the masses need to be educated rather than kept in ignorance. Responses to a special showing by Oswald for Berlin’s cultural luminaries by two articles, one in the Film-Kurier and another in the Berliner Tageszeitung, emphasized how well-made and strongly moral the film is, dismissing the film’s detractors as “völkisch” (“nationalist”) anti-Semites. For them, reactions to the film were symptomatic of a nation divided between enlightened artistic freedom and reactionary xenophobia.
Anders als die Andern’s disappearance is well-documented. Die Freundschaft published several articles with more or less veiled accusations that critics had not seen the film. Critics argued that it was not necessary to see Anders als die Andern to find it offensive. Oswald wrote to the National Assembly accusing those favoring censorship of not having even seen the films they abhorred. These two arguments – that Anders als die Andern was so offensive it shouldn’t be seen or that it was tasteful and completely inoffensive – factored into its disappearance. The film that was supposed to jolt its audiences into compassion was repeatedly rendered harmless.
From our vantage point, Anders als die Andern makes for a strange emissary, encapsulating hopes for an imagined future from a brief window of time when that future was actually possible. The film exists now as a fifty-minute chimera, cobbled together from stills, as well as footage that survived the Nazi takeover and was found in the Soviet Union in 1970. This time around, it is easy to find on Youtube or Archive.org. Anders als die Andern becomes a “twice-told tale,” playing out at both ends of the 20th century, separated by a gap of literal disappearance. It reappeared into a world where the original antagonist, Paragraph 175, remained on the books in Germany; the law would finally be abolished in 1994 and its victims granted reparations in 2016. For us, the audience of the “second tale,” the film’s message of tolerance for sexual minorities continues to resonate on the hundredth anniversary of its premiere. In 1919, Anders als die Andern was ahead of its time; in 2019, it is ahead of ours.
Sara Friedman is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on film and public health in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany.
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