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The Enlightenment, Asia, and Definitive Works of the Period

The Enlightenment, Asia, and Definitive Works of the Period

Jürgen Osterhammel, Defining the Foreigner, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia. Robert Savage, trans. Princeton University Press, 2018

Discussing other cultures is a vexed process, difficult in itself and prone to encourage accusations of racism and much else. The Western engagement with Asia is of particular significance given the geopolitical significance of both cultures—or, rather, groups of cultures—as well as the long history of the relationship. Robert Savage’s impressive translation of Defining the Foreigner, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia, a weighty and wide-ranging 2013 original by Jürgen Osterhammel, provides not only a fascinating compendium of eighteenth-century responses, but also an attempt to explain shifting Western practices.

Osterhammel considers the Enlightenment era as particularly important in shaping the modern relationship between Asia and the West. In the conclusion, he draws a link between shifting Western ideas and the “belligerence that Great Britain, France, and Russia started to display in Asia and North Africa in the 1790s.” As he put it, a “newly strengthened sense of European exceptionalism in the Napoleonic era, combined with an upsurge of intra-European nationalism . . . pushed Asia to the margins of public consciousness . . . [but] opened up a space for a secular civilizing mission whose ideologists clamored for the chance to impose their will on a crisis-ridden, vulnerable continent (516-517).” The resulting generations of colonial expansion and conflict continue to cast their shadow over the relationship.

There is much of interest in this impressive book, but there are also limitations and the latter deserve attention, not least because the favorable reviews it has attracted may give it a status that is problematic. As the space offered for this review is restricted, I can only cover a view of these points. First, one should consider the methods employed. Osterhammel ranges widely through an important literature of the period, but his coverage of maps and newspapers is far too limited. Even in such an expansive text, Osterhammel makes choices about topics that raise questions. Religion receives inadequate attention, both the extent to which religious considerations affected the responses to “Asia” and the extent to which religion was hardwired into much of eighteenth-century Western culture including “the Enlightenment.” Here, Osterhammel relies on a narrow definition of “Enlightenment” as a purely secular movement. In practice, there were many “Enlightenments,” which means that the interpretative weight and causal force to be placed upon “the Enlightenment” is problematic. Too late for Osterhammel’s original, although surely not for the translation, it is worth noting for example William Bulman’s Anglican Enlightenment: Orientalism, Religion and Politics in England and Its Empire, 1648-1715 (2015). Another important (methodological) study that would have merited attention is Larry Woolf’s Venice and the Slavs: The discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment (2006). While it does not relate to Asia, it shows the complexities of engaging with the imaginative East, and notably the problematic nature of the Enlightenment, and does so in a fashion that is far from glib, reductionist and instrumental.

Returning to religion, closer involvement in India brought first-hand acquaintance with contemporary Hindus and Zoroastrians, whose faiths were found to have some of the same components in their stories as Judeo-Christianity—for example the story of a great flood. In this encounter, Christianity became merely one among a number of religions that took their place in a comparative universal history in which the biblical account was no longer central. Variety was the key; there was not the legacy of conflict seen with Islam. In contrast to Islam, Chinese society was not Judaic in its origin, nor obviously dominated by religion and monotheistic theology, which made for a very different religious dialogue.

There is also the issue of timing. Russia was not showing a new belligerence in the 1790s. It had fought Islamic powers for centuries, and the expansionism at the end of the century was less pronounced than Peter the Great’s attempt to annex part of Persia. More generally, the many continuities between the seventeenth and eighteenth century need handling with care. To do so means placing more weight on the érudits than Osterhammel is prone to do and less on the philosophes. It would be appropriate to note Chantal Grell’s L’Histoire entre Érudition et Philosophie (1993).

There was indeed more published on Asia from the mid-eighteenth century than before. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that this was part of a general expansion of publication in the period, the latter an important point. For example, a sense of Indian political weakness was compatible with growing British cultural interest in India, a pattern also seen with the British and French response to Italy. The varied intellectual developments within the West in the late eighteenth century, especially Neoclassicism, primitivism, Romanticism, and Hellenism, also left relatively little room for intellectual or cultural interest in China. Chinoiserie was a matter of stylistic borrowing, rather than an attempt at cultural alignment. The growth of trade encouraged a response to China in commercial terms, but it was increasingly seen as another market, rather than in terms of a cultural policy. Moreover, due to its policies of exclusion towards the West, Japan was less well known than China to Westerners. Korea was also in a self-imposed isolation.

Rather than drawing a clear-cut pattern of trends, it is more pertinent to note the role of particular conjunctures, a point that is also valid for the handling of texts. For example, Warren Hastings, the Governor of Bengal from 1772 to 1774, and the Governor-General of British India from 1774 to 1784, was willing to engage with Hindu and Persian literature, thought, and mysticism. A patron of Indo-Persian poets who was interested in multicultural governance, Hastings believed that each society had its own politico-cultural genius, and that this character should be adhered to, not violated. This conservative notion of cultural identity and institutions, was qualified under Charles, Marquess Cornwallis, Governor-General from 1786 to 1793, especially in his creation of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal in 1793.

Nevertheless, by the early nineteenth century, British policy had reverted to its earlier conservatism, with a strong willingness to preserve “ancient” institutions as seen, for example, in the careers of Sir Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras from 1819 to 1827, and Charles, Lord Metcalfe, who held a series of posts in India in the first half of the century. Munro, who understood and appreciated Indian customs, was responsible for strengthening the position of Indian judges and for confirming the role of local courts of arbitration, and emphasized the value of using Indians in government. However, as with Spanish syncretism in the New World in the sixteenth century, such an understanding was now in the context of Western imperial power and of how best to arrange and justify control from a Western perspective.

Of course, Osterhammel cannot be expected to have considered all these aspects, nor indeed to have read and assessed all possible related books and sources. That underlines the problems of thinking in terms of definitive works. All history is, in practice, tentative and an interim report, however much public requirements, commercial concerns, and individual preference might lead to presentation in a tone or manner that suggests something weightier. Works of world history, like geopolitics, mighty appear particularly prone to this tendency, and not least because they tend to depart far from source-based scholarship. That is understandable. Possibly less so is the tendency to fail sufficiently to note the possibilities of other approaches and alternative readings. Ironically, or possibly not so much, the conviction of some of the eighteenth-century Western writers, notably in terms of stadial (through stages) theories of human development, is repeated by their would-be successors. The thesis might be attractive, but is overly simplistic, and not least with the tendency to then look for events and false consciousnesses that, allegedly, led this project off-course. Osterhammel is scarcely unique in his method or analysis, but that would underline the need for caution in exposition and reception.

The tone of scholarship is rarely light, so let me add a type of source Osterhammel (like most others) ignores. In 1730, the British writer Henry Fielding, in his play Rape upon Rape or the Coffee-House Politician satirized the fears of Politic, who is so concerned about reports of international developments that he neglects threats to his daughter’s virtue. Three scenes see him concerned about “these preparations of the Turks… Should the Turkish galleys once find a passage through the Straits [of Gibraltar], who can tell the consequence?… Should the Turks come among us, what would become of our daughters then?… and our religion, and our liberty?” One can miss the forest for the trees, Fielding reminded his readers even then. That makes his work also important for understanding this period. He’s not Gibbon, but is certainly part of a mix that evades an easy explanation. Before glibly shaping the past, it is worth considering the complexities of modern assessments of other cultures and the ready ways in which they might be misunderstood in the future.

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