Robert Launay. Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder. 272 pp., notes, bibl., index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. $32.50 (paper), $97.50 (cloth), $10-32.50 (e-book)

Since its inception, Edward Said’s Orientalism has enjoyed tremendous and well-deserved influence across the humanities and social sciences.[1] While this text has never been without its critics,[2] Said’s underlying assertion that representations of the “other” have been intimately embedded in imperial domination has contributed to a disciplinary commonplace that assumes European imaginings of non-Europeans are inevitably and eternally domineering. It is this overextension (and perhaps simplification) of Said’s thesis that Robert Launay critically addresses in Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder.

From the striking (and sometimes spurious) travel accounts of John de Mandeville to the missionary writings of Jesuits to the relativistic meditations of Johann Gottfried Herder, Launay reveals a mutable and sometimes discordant history of discourse about non-Europeans spanning several centuries. Through the works of Europeans writing primarily in the early modern period, Launay reveals a rich and varied contemplation of “the other.” More specifically, Launay demonstrates how prior to the nineteenth century “savages,” “Oriental despots,” and “ancient” Greeks and Romans—the multiple “others” of the European imaginary—functioned as “convenient rhetorical vehicles” for discussing deeply European issues (12). While non-Europeans could figure as symbolic justifications for European global superiority, this was hardly their only function. Drawing inspiration especially from Foucault’s work in the archaeology of knowledge, Launay mounts a campaign to trace these representations within their specific sociohistorical constellations of ideas and politics.

Though the book is primarily concerned with the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, the opening chapters begin in the late fourteenth century with the travel writings of John de Mandeville. In the wreckage of a limping Europe destabilized by the Hundred Year’s War, Mandeville’s accounts were inflected with a desire to understand Europe’s place in the Christian world. With Israel as the moral center of all things, Mandeville’s “Christocentric” account of global diversity presented peoples of the Far East and the mythic land of “Bagram” as polar opposites of Western Christendom. However, Launay shows us that these people were by no means portrayed in a wholly disapproving light. Rather, Mandeville saw them as noble pagans who were often more worthy of praise than Europeans. Thus, Launay makes clear that modern Europe was neither the center of Mandeville’s world nor, indeed, its social or moral apex.

Chapter 3 carries Launay’s narrative into the sixteenth century of Michel de Montaigne where a world transformed by the Reformation drew stark lines between supporters and critics of Rome. Presented as a retreat from the politico-religious strife of France, Montaigne’s Essays offered a circuitous justification for the persistence of Roman authority. In his reflection on the Tupi “cannibals” of France Antarctique (present-day Brazil), Montaigne cast doubt on the moral superiority of a conflict-ridden Europe. While the Tupi were characterized as socially inferior to the Romans and Greeks of ancient civilizational greatness, modern Europeans, Launay once again underscores, were far from the pinnacle of human progress. In particular, Montaigne suggested that Tupi cannibalism was driven by noble conceptions of honor and revenge, in contrast to the extensive and destructive wars of Europe waged in the name of religion.

Launay proceeds to trace the ramifications of the Reformation through the work of Montaigne’s contemporary Jean Bodin. Launay narrates the sixteenth century French legal scholar’s climatological view of human diversity in relation to contemporary discourse on legal relativism that questioned the universal application of Roman law. Bodin presented a world composed of different climates whose populations were predisposed to corresponding habits and temperaments. While Bodin envisioned France as lying within an ideal temperate zone, it shared this geographical privilege with much of Asia and, perhaps more importantly, not necessarily with its European neighbors. The objective of Bodin’s climatology, Launay concludes, was not to rank the peoples of the world in a hierarchy of humanity so much as it was to plead for a harmony of diverse global kinds governed by the logics of their own locals.

Chapters 5 and 6 move from the rarified realms of French philosophes to the on-the-ground writings of early seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries based in China and North America. A propaganda project designed to illicit the sympathies and financial support of the European masses, Jesuit accounts of “Orientals” and “savages” offered a favorable image of the subjects of conversion whose core institutions were deemed both admirable and not too far removed from European norms.

Approaching the late seventeenth century, Launay examines the divergent views of English statesman William Temple and French intellectual Bernard de Fontenelle to illustrate the ways in which non-Europeans factored into debates regarding the superiority or inferiority of “ancients” and “moderns.” Whereas Temple deified the ancient Greeks and Romans, Fontenelle embraced modern Europe as the zenith of human progress. Both poles of “the Quarrel” (as it became known) utilized non-Europeans as the ground upon which to mount the defense or critique of modernity. While Temple cited India and China as the wellspring of ancient learning, Fontenelle drew comparisons between ancient mythology and Native American “fables” to diminish the contributions of the ancients.

Chapter 8 examines another quarrel of sorts: this time between eminent political philosophers  Montesquieu and Voltaire. At the heart of their different depictions of “the other” lay a debate over the rightful locus of power in eighteenth century France—parliament or the monarchy. Drawing allusions to China and Persia, Montesquieu’s dour depiction of eastern despotism was less a justification of European conquest than it was a critique of absolute monarchy. On the other side of the parliament-monarchy divide, Voltaire’s sinophilia presented a more noble picture of Chinese rule that in turn justified the power of monarchical rule. Turning to discussions of the New World “savage” in the same century, Chapter 9 explores how this figure appeared in the works of Rousseau, Diderot, and lesser known Lahontan, a New France settler and military officer who published travelogues and other works upon his return to Europe.  Launay shows us how, for these authors, the “savage” represented a more natural humanity that Europeans had lost in their development of corrupt institutions like private property.

Chapter 10 signals the arrival of the Scottish Enlightenment in Launay’s genealogy. Narrating history as a “progressive” march out of “savagery” (most often represented by Native North Americans), Scottish historians Adam Ferguson and John Millar and English historian Edward Gibbon offered overlapping sanguine views of “civilization” as an achievement that came at a great price: the loss of individual liberty and the seeds of “despotism” (embodied in the form of a tyrannical, imperial China). Formed in the factional debates between Whigs and Tories, this jaundiced view of civilization as a “delicate balance” (184) between liberty and tyranny reflected the parliamentary debates of eighteenth century Britain. Launay’s exploration culminates in the Germanic debates of Immanuel Kant and (his student) Johann Gottfried Herder, where a cosmopolitan universalism locked horns with a relativistic romanticism that questioned the presumed superiority of Europeans and the taken-for-granted authority of the (imperial) state.

Given his attention to foundational strains of social thought, Launay’s chapters will no doubt appeal to a wide range of scholars from across the social sciences and humanities. That being said, Savage, Romans, and Despots is particularly relevant to historians of anthropology, the discipline that long claimed the non-western world as its exclusive domain. To be more precise, Launay offers a crucial rejoinder to the more normative historiographical quest for modern anthropology’s precursors as he consistently halts the temptation to draw facile connections between past and present imagining of others. Thus, Launay offers an exemplary contribution to the historicist tradition.

However, as the revered historicist George Stocking noted, an even-handed and empirically grounded treatment of the past almost inevitably piques contemporary interests as we come to see the ways in which seemingly outdated or forgotten projects resonate with the concerns and observations of the present.[3] For instance, reading Launay’s book, one might be tempted to see originating echoes of the recent “ontological turn” (as it is often called) in the works of Lahontan, Rousseau, Diderot, and others who drew stark lines between the more “natural” “savages” of the Americas and a morally and politically debased “modern” Europe.[4] Of course, Launay does not make any such pronouncements. While there is a faint motion towards the disciplinary legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment and German Romanticism in the book’s final pages, Launay quickly staves off the impulse to label these connections “roots,” parenthetically referring to such an assertion as simply “presumptuous” (220). This is to be expected, for, elsewhere in the book, he even appears tentative to characterize Herder as a “cultural relativist” because the term presupposes the existence of the modern idea of “culture” (214). And yet, I think the fact that the book might generate these types of questions in the minds of (some) readers is actually a marker of the power of a principled historicism, for Launay (much like Stocking) not only illuminates the past on its own terms but provides useful material for those with different historiographical agendas.[5]

Of course, Launay has done more than merely provide useful material. Read alongside recent attempts to expand the geographic and temporal scope of the sedimented layers of thought and practice that comprise the study of human diversity,[6] the book effectively augments ongoing efforts to treat the history of humanistic and social scientific thought as situated and contingent tales of knowledge production. The book will function wonderfully as a core text in graduate seminars as it manages to condense complex and foundational paradigms into a brisk 220 pages without succumbing to the monolithic “Europe” of certain strands of postcolonial criticism. As a compelling synthesis of centuries of overlapping and often contentious musings, Savages, Romans, and Despots reveals much about the ways in which the ever-shifting politics of the present shape our imaginings of the world and its varied inhabitants.

[1] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

[2] Importantly, Said addressed his critiques in both an afterword (1994) and preface (2003) in later editions of Orientalism.

[3] George W. Stocking, “On the Limits of ‘Presentism’ and ‘Historicism’ in the Historiography of the Behavioral Sciences,” Journal of the History Behavioral Sciences Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 1, no. 3 (1965): 211–18.  For more on Stocking’s thoughts on historicism versus presentism, see Ira Bashkow, “On History for the Present: Revisiting George Stocking’s Influential Rejection of ‘Presentism,’” American Anthropologist 121, no. 3 (2019): 709–20.

[4] I do not mean to deny the fact that contemporary discussions of “ontology” in anthropology are of a different breed than the “ontology” of past European romantics such as Rousseau. However, if one thinks with Bessire and Bond’s critique of the ontological turn in anthropology, the two might not be so dissimilar: “The ontological turn reifies the wreckage of various histories as the forms of the philosophic present, insofar as it imagines colonial and ethnological legacies as the perfect village for forward-thinking philosophy. Its ideal typologies reproduce the colonizing binaries of structuralism long critiqued by Marxian, postcolonial, feminist, and queer theorists in the name of resisting or undoing the hegemonic effects of such knowledge. [. . .] The overall effect is that the ontological turn standardizes multiplicity and fetishizes alterity through the terms by which it claims to eschew representational politics” (Lucas Bessire and David Bond, “Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique,” American Ethnologist 41, no. 3 (2014): 449). It is the tendency of both discourses of ontology to reify (perhaps unintentionally) alterity that I see as being closely allied. We might also see this as the reaffirmation of the “savage slot” as described by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). I thank Hilary Leathem for bringing this point to my attention.

[5] George W. Stocking, “Presentism and Historicism Once Again: The History of British Anthropology as Intellectual and Personal History,” Journal of Victorian Culture 4, no. 2 (1999): 328–36.

[6] Han F. Vermeulen, Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015); Catrien Santing, “Early Anthropological Interest: Magnus Hundt’s and Galeazzo Capra’s Quest for Humanity,” History and Anthropology, (June 2018): 1–29.

Nicholas Barron: contributions / website /