Intellectual history

Cosmopolitanism in Eighteenth-Century France

By Frank Ejby Poulsen

By Frank Ejby Poulsen

The ancient philosophy of cosmopolitanism had a revival in the 1990s and 2000s. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, a euphoric optimism considered the spread of liberal values through unfettered globalization inevitable. The multiplication of institutions of global governance, especially the International Criminal Court, and the intensification of regional integration confirmed this view. In Beck’s terms, the new cosmopolitanism’s approach is even a social scientific method based on “both/and” rather than the previous “either/or” of methodological nationalism. It aims to reconcile both particularism and universalism rather than opposing them. One can be both a citizen of one country and a citizen of the world.

However, recent events in world politics show a retreat of cosmopolitanism on two fronts. Firstly, in global politics with resurging ethnonationalism and imperialism, and secondly, in national politics with pernicious political polarization around particular interests and partisan identity. Does this mark the failure and the end of new cosmopolitanism? Can we draw any lesson from the past to understand the present collapse of cosmopolitan philosophy? I do not claim to be able to answer these questions here, but I urge the reader to keep them in mind when reading about eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism.

The history of ideas contributes to shaping our overview of the rise and fall of ideas, and this overview may help philosophers understand why these ideas fail and how to improve them. Cosmopolitanism has had many rises and falls through time. Cohen and Fine have identified “four cosmopolitan moments” in history, this new cosmopolitanism being the fourth after ancient Greece, the Enlightenment, and the post-WWII period. I have argued elsewhere that cosmopolitanism does not exist; it never has and probably never will. It remains an ideal that humankind dreams to achieve but fails to establish. Instead, cosmopolitanism provides an alternative vision for solving existing conflicts between local political communities, perpetually recast as worldviews change.

The rise and fall of the Enlightenment “moment” of cosmopolitanism are bound to the fate of the French revolution and its core new political concept—the “nation.” Kant is the most famous figure of cosmopolitanism today, but he was less known then, and revolutionary thinkers influenced his cosmopolitan views. War would be the deathbed of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, as cosmopolitan thinkers (Cloots, Paine) fell victim to growing xenophobia fueled by the stress of revolutionary wars. For this reason, it might be that the next “cosmopolitan moment” must think of war as an integral part of its philosophy, as Fabre and Armitage have started to argue.

The second half of the eighteenth century marks the beginning of modern cosmopolitanism in the theories of natural law and the social contract. In the case of France, one can mark its birthdate with the publication of a pamphlet in 1770, Le cosmopolisme,by Joseph Honoré Rémy. As the title shows, and as a later dictionary of neologisms confirmed (See Mercier below), this particular philosophy was in its development because the –ism form of the adjective cosmopolitan was not fixed yet. One could find either cosmopolisme” or “cosmopolitisme during this period. This –ism, either cosmopolisme or cosmopolitisme, is based on what a “cosmopolite” is, and I shall first flesh out this specific notion.

The adjective cosmopolitan (in French, “cosmopolite,” or less frequently, “cosmopolitain”) became popular during the second half of the eighteenth century, as a quick ngram on Google can show.

The name “cosmopolite” was used in the sixteenth century. However, it first appears in a dictionary in the 1721 edition of the so-called Dictionnaire de Trévoux with the definition of “a man with no fixed abode” or “for whom the whole world is his home or city.” The dictionary refers to the Greek root of the word—kosmos and polites from polis—and implies a reference to Diogenes of Sinope, who coined the word by answering the question of his origins that he was a citizen of the world. Subsequent editions of Dictionnaire de Trévoux and other dictionaries in the late eighteenth century take this exact definition. In 1771 the Trévoux dictionary noted that the word cosmopolite superseded “cosmopolitain” in use.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, a cosmopolite refers to a person who travels but also philosophizes out of these travel experiences. What travels bring is a more profound knowledge of humankind, which appears diverse and embroiled in cultural, religious, moral, or political conflicts. Nevertheless, the cosmopolite reflects what naturally unites this great family beyond cultural specificities. This reflection also enables the cosmopolite to remain distant from his/her own culture and understand other ones.

Several authors take this definition in their writings. In 1750, Fougeret de Montbron published Le cosmopolite, ou citoyen du monde, which popularized the term and is the first book with this title. Fougeret took a polemical and satirical turn to the idea of the general understanding of being a cosmopolitan. It is an account of his grand tour, with his reflections about human diversity and what connects us. However, the conclusion that Fougeret draws from this series of travels is instead “home sweet home” rather than the cosmopolitan and often quoted excerpt from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations Patria est ubicumque est bene” (“one’s country is wherever one does well”).

Perhaps inspired by Fougeret, Voltaire wrote one of his most celebrated novellas, Candide, in 1759, following the genre set by Montesquieu’s 1721 Persian Letters. Through the eyes of a traveling foreigner, the reader is introduced to the oddities of his/her culture. The plurality of nationalities also provides an occasion for reflecting on the atrocities of war, against which all humankind can unite, and what laws should prevent or regulate them. Less known and forgotten today, an author named Rabelleau published in 1760 Le cosmopolite, in which the narrator is a foreigner who, like Diogenes, leaves his isolated woods to travel the world and arrives in France. In his search for authentic human nature, he shows the French reader the absurdities of French politics, culture, economics, and mores. In the end, he leaves France to continue his search, and it is said that he is still traveling the world.

“Diogenes”. Attributed to Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein  (1751–1829) “Diogenes mit der Lampe auf Menschensuche in Athen“, painting, second half of 17th century. Public domain.

Several pamphlets under the pseudonym of “cosmopolite” used the above definition of “cosmopolite.” The author could claim a rhetorical stance for arguing his/her social or political position as objective truth above national contingencies. The 1750 pamphlet Réflexions d’un cosmopolite defines the cosmopolite as an impartial inhabitant of the world in search of truth. However, an author could abuse this rhetorical stance to mask his/her own political interests as above any particular ones.

Writing as a “cosmopolite” also created an identity of an imagined supranational community. Several thinkers attempted to construct this community and identity based on political, moral, and legal principles. These principles will tentatively form the flesh and bone of the –ism that will become known as cosmopolitanism by the end of the eighteenth century. Tentatively only, because the word for describing this philosophy, the –ism of the cosmopolite, was still new and uncertain by 1801. In Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Néologie, he notes the word “cosmopolisme” instead of the current word “cosmopolitisme.” For Mercier, “cosmopolisme” is a neologism that characterizes a mental disorder supposedly contracted by the person traveling too often and losing a sense of rootedness; “one shall love a place. Even a bird… is fond of a certain hollow tree or rock,” writes Mercier—“either/or.” Appiah would today argue for a “rooted cosmopolitanism”—“both/and.”

“Bird”. Two young women pluck a bird which has a man’s head, while an old woman prays. Etching by F. Goya, 1796/98.

Before Rémy’s 1770 Le cosmopolisme, there had been several notable contributions to fledging this cosmopolitan bird with principles and institutions. The abbé de Saint-Pierre published his Project for Perpetual Peace in Europe in 1713, suggesting a “universal congress” of states, which Rousseau later re-edited. Voltaire, however, satirically noted the Eurocentric character of the congress. Rousseau subsequently changed his mind when he wrote in Émile that one ought to be wary of cosmopolitans who look for duties in books and avoid fulfilling them in real life.

There was, therefore, no clear “cosmopolitanism” when Rémy wrote Le cosmopolisme. He represents the first attempt to putting a name to this ongoing construction of a moral and political system while putting forward themes such as reason, fraternity, and natural sociability that connect humankind. The central question he sets himself to answer is whether the spirit of nations is incompatible with universal benevolence—either/or, or both/and? Voltaire had previously answered that, unfortunately, one had to be the enemy of humankind to be a good patriot (either/or). Rémy answers the opposite and proposes the model of an enlightened monarch limited by Parliament. This monarch should base his policies on his love for the homeland and humankind. This could be translated as emphasizing the need for patriotism and cosmopolitanism to guide a king to become both loved by his subjects and admired by the rest of the world. Rémy wrote this for the future king Louis XVI, who had just married, and he quoted Fénelon’s Télémaque as a reference to cosmopolitanism.

Rémy was a Freemason, and his vision of cosmopolitanism is fused with Freemasonic values. The revolution after 1789 was certainly cosmopolitan in its early years, and several foreigners were granted French citizenship. Two of them, Anacharsis Cloots and Thomas Paine, would be elected at the Convention in 1792. They both had cosmopolitan views about the future of the revolution and a new world order. Counter-revolutionary writers fomented conspiracy theories connecting cosmopolitanism to the revolution resulting from Freemasonic and Illuminati infiltration. John Robison’s 1797 Proofs of a Conspiracy denounced the cosmopolitanism of the revolution and, in particular, Anacharsis Cloots. Abbé Augustin Barruel and J. Lachappelle endorsed the same conspiracy theory and condemned Cloots, the Jacobins, and cosmopolitanism advocated by the “disciples of God Kant.”

There is no evidence that Cloots was a Freemason, but he was a self-fashioned orator for cosmopolitanism in the French revolution. It was, however, a different form of cosmopolitanism than the previous one expressed by Rémy. Instead of taking a monarchical form, it was a republican one. For Cloots, the French revolution marked the beginning of a universal revolution of people aspiring for liberty, and it would slowly transform all countries into republics. In his view, when all countries are republican, they should form a common polity—the “nation of the human race”— and hence send representatives to the same Parliament. The war was between us (republicans) and them (monarchists); in this sense, only free citizens formed the new political unit called the “nation,” regardless of their origins. The concept of nation is essentially cosmopolitan as it only considers free individuals as forming a sovereign polity. The primary task of the revolution was to unite in a “nation” a plurality of regions with diverse languages, currencies, laws, and cultures.

“Cloots.” H. Rousseau (graphic designer), E.Thomas (engraver) from Augustin Challamel, Desiré Lacroix (eds.) Album du centenaire: Grands hommes et grands faits de la Révolution française (1789-1804). Paris: Furne, Jouvet et Cie, 1889. Public Domain.

In the same vein, but with a decentralized bent, Thomas Paine’s idea of a united world of republics, each a free nation, also constitutes a view opposite to Cloots’s and can be called “cosmopolitan republicanism” in the French revolution. Like Cloots, he saw a future made of free individuals no longer oppressed by monarchies, but living in democratic republics with a universal respect for human rights. However, Paine did not see the need of a federal system of government like Kant, or a single sovereign “nation of the human race” like Cloots. He defended national sovereignty, but saw nationhood in a cosmopolitan way: a community of diverse individuals united by a social contract to defend fundamental rights. There is therefore an individual choice in choosing a nation as a citizen of the world, and a possibility for some institutions protecting universal human rights.

Cloots and Paine had to consider the role of war. Cloots, at first, was reticent because he thought ideas were more powerful than military force. Undoubtedly, he thought, the people oppressed by a monarch would eventually see the advantage of a republic founded on freedom and human rights. However, until they did, those monarchs and their armies threatened the newly established freedom of the French republic, and no one could be free if they lived in fear of an attack from abroad. Paine partook in the American revolutionary war. He was a Quaker and deviated therefore from the biblical proscription to kill another human being. He explained his position, stating that he favored negotiations, but if the will to negotiate were lacking on the enemies’ part, he would choose defensive war.

During the Reign of Terror, Robespierre had Cloots and Paine arrested at the end of 1793 to be guillotined. Paine miraculously escaped, but Cloots did not. Among his lasts words, Cloots told the committee that it had forgotten that “it is liberty, not the place, that makes a citizen,” and that he had left his birthplace to think about the birthplace of the universal republic. Cloots was born in Gnadenthal in 1755, in the Duchy of Cleves, and although he went to the collège du Pléssis-Sorbonne for his early education, he attended the Prussian Académie militaire des nobles in Berlin (1770-1773). The Terror marked the end of this cosmopolitan moment, which was definitely buried by the subsequent revolutionary wars and Napoleonic imperialism.

The next century would often recall Cloots and rehabilitate him and the revolution. In his sixth volume of Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française, Jean Jaurès would see Cloots as having thought of the upcoming socialist revolution that would realize democratic socialism, albeit missing the materialist dialectic step of internationalism. This socialist cosmopolitanism fighting against imperialist capitalism became the hope in the late nineteenth century to rehabilitate the eighteenth-century fight against empire, which failed after the French revolution. That is, until the Stalinist purges of “rootless cosmopolitan” Jewish intellectuals.

Jaurès identified internationalism as a first step to cosmopolitanism, or, in his words, a “national nationalism” before a Clootsian “human nationalism.” “National nationalism” was the project of the nineteenth century until WWI. The institutionalization of a more interconnected world with the UN system and regional organizations would only be achieved after WWII. In the past two decades, we have begun to build what could be described as institutions for “human nationalism” with the ICC and a supranational EU of 27 states “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” Paine and Cloots would marvel at this. However, since February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, we have been forced, not unlike them, to consider the place of war in cosmopolitanism. How best to defend “human nationalism” in the face of imperialistic “national nationalism”?

Frank Ejby Poulsen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen, and an upcoming postdoctoral researcher at the Proyecto CINTER, University of King Juan Carlos, Madrid. His forthcoming monograph, Cosmopolitan Republicanism in the French Revolution: The Political Thought of Anacharsis Cloots and Thomas Paine, will be published by De Gruyter.

Edited by Tingfeng Yan

Featured image: An extremely detailed survey of the activities surrounding the building of the tower of Babel. Engraving, c. 1680. Wellcome Collection.