Savages, Romans, and DespotsThinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder

Savages, Romans, and DespotsThinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder

Robert Launay

Print publication date: 2019

ISBN: 9780226575254

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book examines the ways in which modern Europeans came to understand themselves as such, in comparison to other peoples who were either not modern (in particular to ancient Geeks and Romans) or not European, including American “savages” and Asian “despots”. By the nineteenth century these terms were arranged as a timeline charting the progress from savagery to “Oriental” despotism to ancient and finally modern Europeans. However, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the values associated with these terms was far less fixed, and the superiority of modern Europeans was far less self-evident. Accounts of others, sometimes imaginary but sometimes based on real encounters, entered into different, often conflicting, discourses critical of European institutions in the domains of religion, politics, and economy. The French Wars of Religion constituted the impetus for such considerations in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, Jesuit accounts of attempts to convert non-Europeans were central to formulating the terms of such conceptualizations. In the French Enlightenment, accounts of various categories of others figured centrally in debates about natural religion, liberty and political authority, and the social effects of private property. At the end of the eighteenth century, these considerations were synthesized by British thinkers on one hand, contested by German thinkers, particularly Herder, on the other. The book as a whole is a contribution to the history of European ideas about others.