Intellectual history

Believing in Witches and Demons

By Jan Machielsen

How do we assess whether a claim is worthy of belief? What does it mean to treat it with scepticism? Do we reject it outright as a fiction or lie? Or do we simply refuse to act while we wait for further confirmation? After all, as the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) observed, ‘it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.’ Montaigne was writing about witch-burnings, but the question as to whether to act on witchcraft belief was, for him, as much a matter of temperament—a question of trusting one’s beliefs—as it was about reasoned argument. When he was given the opportunity to interview a group of convicted witches while traveling through Germany, he was not convinced, deciding the women needed hellebore instead of hemlock—that is, they were mentally ill, rather than deserving of death. And yet, Montaigne’s witchcraft scepticism was not certain knowledge of a falsehood. It was not knowing. Witches might well exist—Montaigne did not know, and if they did, it might not even matter.

Michael Pacher, The Devil holding up the Book of Vices to St. Augustine (1483)

We do not typically think about the early modern witch-hunt in this way. We tend to see witchcraft almost as axiomatically false, as a falsehood which will wilt away when exposed to reason. US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used witches in that sense in a famous 1927 free speech case: ‘men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.’ Witchcraft, unfortunately, did not die because more and better speech was available. Indeed, as Thomas Waters has shown in a marvellous recent study, witchcraft was nothing if not free-speech-resistant. Yet the concepts and categories—credulity, superstition, bigotry—meant to contain the irrational have been equally persistent. Credulous folk and bigoted inquisitors believe in superstitions, and those superstitious beliefs demonstrate their credulity and/or bigotry. Do not prod this further. Whatever the cost, witchcraft belief can never be reasonable.

Inevitably, it was nineteenth-century historians keen to banish witchcraft into the past who transformed it into an eschatological battle between reason and superstition, between science and (a perversion of) religion. Andrew Dickson White and his student George Lincoln Burr co-opted witchcraft in their A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896) as one more battleground between reactionaries and ‘the thinking, open-minded, devoted men … who are evidently thinking the future thought of the world.’ This reduced the early modern witch-hunt into a conflict between ‘bigots and pedants’ and their heroic opponents, who risked their lives for ‘some poor mad or foolish or hysterical creature.’ This struggle for reason, in which White and Burr were still very much engaged, was very much the preserve of men alone. White’s principal reason for supporting women’s education at Cornell, the university he co-founded in 1865, was to ‘smooth the way for any noble thinkers who are to march through the future’—by ‘increas[ing] the number of women who, by an education which has caught something from manly methods, are prevented from … throwing themselves hysterically across their pathway.’

The early modern witch-hunt has served many moral purposes since then—noble yet doomed peasant revolt, Wiccan holocaust, or feminist ‘gynocide’—but the structures sustaining such readings have long collapsed. Witch-hunting was, for the most part, not an organized affair, instigated by elites. Instead, it was the product of daily interactions between villagers who did not get along. Nor was the witch-hunt particularly severe. With most estimates ranging between 40 and 50, 000 victims—across a continent and multiple centuries—it is easy to list a number of recent environmental catastrophes that cost as many lives in weeks, days, even seconds. The persistence of these moral readings tells us more about our own time than it does about the early modern period.

Jan Luyken, Two Bamberg Girls taken to Their Execution Site (1685)

Now, even the containment field of irrationality no longer appears to be holding. This may also reflect the present, when truth claims seem to have lost their value and the world’s most powerful figure proclaims himself to be the victim of a witch-hunt. In that sense, to study the historiography of witchcraft really is to study ourselves. Yet the demise of irrationality has been a long time coming. In a seminal book in 1997, Stuart Clark taught us that witchcraft belief, far from the preserve of a fringe group of demonologists, was embedded in larger modes of political, religious, and—indeed—scientific thought. Yet the question he was effectively pointing to, and with which we opened, is only more recently being answered: what did it mean to believe, or not believe, in witches? Precisely because it appears to us as almost axiomatically false, the early modern witch-hunt invites us to think about what it means to believe in anything

Historians of early modern demonology have mostly stopped dividing authors into (irrational) believers and (rational) sceptics. As Montaigne has shown, belief can take on many forms. It may be cautious acceptance, or indistinguishable from certain knowledge. It can be highly reasoned, or entirely unthinking. It can also be entirely passive—part of a wider subscription package. Certainly, many eighteenth-century elite thinkers, most notably the founder of methodism John Wesley, treated witchcraft in this way: as proof of the existence of the spirit world but without any expectation to ever meet a witch. Witchcraft belief could be partial and caveated, or it could be extreme. The heterodox political thinker Jean Bodin believed that the devil could even break the laws of nature (because God would permit him), while King James VI of Scotland was virtually alone among the major demonologists to support the ducking or swimming of witches. Belief could be sustained, or discredited, by direct experience with witches and their bodies, which could be tortured and examined for a devil’s mark. Or it could be textual, founded on a wide range of biblical, patristic, and classical texts whose authority was incontrovertible. Nor was belief founded on fear alone. For those ensconced in the safe comfort of their study, tales of witchcraft delighted and entertained as much as any horror story today. And partly because of different and shifting emotional registers, belief in witchcraft could also change over time. Scepticism yielded to belief, and vice versa.

Seen from the angle of what it meant to believe—and why, how much, and when—the entire field of early modern demonology looks very different. It no longer resembles a battlefield between two opposing camps, nor can it sustain an opposition between irrationality and reason, between false belief and knowledge of falsehood. The science of demons is much messier and hence, for historians, much more interesting. It consisted of many conflicts and disagreements, both major and minor. Could witches transform into mice and thus enter homes through key holes? The Lorraine judge Nicolas Remy said yes, the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio said no. Witchcraft also looked very different from different vantage points and at different points of time. One ardent Catholic, the Jesuit Juan Maldonado living in Paris in the run-up to the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, could see Protestantism and witchcraft as the devil’s twin attacks. Like any good brothel-keeper, the devil transformed beautiful courtesans (heretics) into procurers (witches) when they lost their physical appeal. Writing twenty years later in the midst of the Trier ‘super-hunt’, the Dutch Catholic priest Cornelius Loos considered witchcraft belief to be diabolical in origin, making the witch-hunters the devil’s true human allies. Yet Loos was not, as White and Burr once supposed, a harbinger of enlightenment, as they saw themselves. A religious exile from the Dutch Republic, he repeatedly called for a universal crusade against all Protestants.

Unshackled from moral straitjackets and the concepts that defined them, the early modern witch-hunt can actually teach us a great deal. On the level of human interactions, it shows us how forced daily interactions can foster resentment. (A colleague once suggested I write a book about witch-hunting as office politics.) It reveals the processes by which we demonize those with whom we disagree. At the level of belief, following in Montaigne’s footsteps, it should make us question why we believe what we believe, and how we know what we think we know. Most importantly, the early modern witch-hunt, when studied properly, teaches us that we are, when push comes to shove, not very different from those who came before us. And that is perhaps the most sobering thought of all.

Jan Machielsen is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University. He is the author of Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2015), and the editor of The Science of Demons: Early Modern Authors Facing Witchcraft and the Devil, published by Routledge on April 13, 2020. 

Intellectual history

Carrying Coals to New South Wales: The Voyages of the HMS Endeavour

By Editor Spencer Weinreich

The great ships of maritime history are protagonists in their own right. That iconic trio of explorers, NinaPintaSanta Maria. That martyr for American imperialism, USS Maine. That scientific trailblazer, HMS Beagle. That bold adventurer, Kon-Tiki. Following the “lives” of these vessels, rather than the lives of those who sailed in them, brings out the sheer diversity of interests and narratives impelling human beings and their craft across the seas, the overlapping imperatives of commerce, science, and power plotting their courses.

The ship seen in Samuel Atkins’s serene painting, now held by the National Library of Australia, began its life in Whitby, North Yorkshire, built by the local shipwright Thomas Fishborne for the merchant Thomas Millner, also of Whitby. Launched in June 1764, the Earl of Pembroke, as the vessel was christened, was a collier, a cargo ship destined to transport the coal of northern England’s mines.

A hull model of the Earl of Pembroke as a collier, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

But the stars—or in this case, the planets—aligned a different way for the Earl of Pembroke. One of the rarest pieces of serendipity that periodically grace our solar system is the Transit of Venus, in which the planet passes in front of the sun so as to be observable from earth, not unlike the passage of the Moon during a solar eclipse. Transits occur in pairs eight years apart, but with one pair separated from another by more than a century. Astronomically, they are as invaluable as they are rare, affording unique opportunities to learn about the workings of the heavens. In the eighteenth century, astronomers hoped to use the Transit to calculate the distance between the Sun and the earth.

Unfortunately, observations of the 1761 Transit were ruined by adverse weather; to the stargazers at the time, the 1769 recurrence became quite literally the chance of a lifetime to conduct such observations. A number of European powers made plans to seize the moment—the dogged French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil had gone to the Indian Ocean to observe the transit, then hung around for eight years until the next one (see Sawyer Hogg)—including the British Crown. With the king’s backing, the Royal Society and the Royal Navy joined forces to mount an expedition to the Pacific—with the dual purpose of observing the Transit and discreetly exploring and mapping any islands they should encounter along the way.

The Royal Society initially nominated the Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple to lead the expedition, but First Lord of the Admiralty Edward Hawke, a decorated war hero entering his forty-eighth year in the service, declared that he would cut off his right hand before he entrusted a naval ship to a civilian with no maritime experience (Westfall and Sheehan, 327). The compromise candidate was a navy lieutenant barely forty years old, fresh from a surveying expedition to Newfoundland with experience making astronomical observations—one James Cook.

William Hodges, Capt. James Cook of the Endeavour (c.1775)

Cook had grown up in Great Ayton, less than thirty miles to the west of Whitby, and began his nautical career as an apprentice to one of Thomas Millner’s competitors, the Quaker coal merchant John Walker, who became a lifelong friend (see Williams, chapter 2). After nine years sailing the North Sea coal routes, Cook enlisted in the navy in 1755, rising rapidly through the ranks. In 1758, he began to learn surveying, and spent the next decade doing cartographic work on the navy’s behalf.

Cook was promoted to lieutenant in May 1768, a high enough rank that he could take sole command of a ship. The vessel in question was, of course, the Earl of Pembroke, which the Navy had purchased from Millner in April, refitted, and renamed HMS Endeavour, the eighth naval ship to bear that name. The choice of the humble collier to undertake so grand a voyage was no mistake: a well-built collier was study, capacious, and highly maneuverable. Vitally, they were designed with shallow hulls, to aid navigation through the rocky coasts of the North Sea, a feature that would prove invaluable when exploring waters whose shallows, reefs, and sandbars were uncharted.

On August 26, a crew of 94, including the naturalist and future president of the Royal Society Joseph Banks, set out from Plymouth. Two weeks into the voyage, the Endeavour arrived at Funchal in the Madeira Islands to take on fresh supplies, something to which Lieutenant Cook paid close attention. It was fortunate for his crew that he did so: the leading cause of death among eighteenth-century sailors was neither cannonshot nor shipwrecks nor sharks, but scurvy.

Scurvy—a debilitating and ultimately fatal deficiency of Vitamin C—was first observed by the Ancient Egyptians circa 1550 BCE. The connection between the condition and one’s intake of fruits and vegetables is one of the most frequently discovered-and-lost pieces of information in human history, learned by numerous sailors and admirals throughout the medieval and early modern period, yet never firmly or widely established in the medical—to say nothing of the popular—consciousness. In 1747, James Lind, a surgeon onboard the ship HMS Salisbury, devised an experiment in which he treated scurvy sailors with a range of supposed cures, among them hard cider, seawater, garlic, mustard seed, and, crucially, oranges and lemons. He found that the latter worked by far the best—but unfortunately for his seagoing contemporaries he buried this discovery in a single paragraph within a long and dull book that very few people read.

Interestingly, among Lieutenant Cook’s various missions was to test the latest theory about scurvy, which held that the condition stemmed from the depletion of the body’s gases and could be prevented with malt and wort, byproducts from the brewing of beer or whisky. As it happened, not a single one of Cook’s crew succumbed to scurvy—an achievement historians credit to the lieutenant’s scrupulous attention to cleanliness and frequent stops to pick up fresh supplies—and he lauded the virtues of malt and wort to his superiors.

The visit to Funchal was not without incident. The Endeavours quatermaster, Alex Weir, was killed when his leg was caught by the anchor cable and he was dragged into the water. Cook simply kidnapped a replacement from the crew of an American ship also in the harbor, a John Thurman of New York, and proceeded on his way (Hough, 62–63). Impressment, the forcible recruitment of sailors, was rife on the eighteenth-century sea, and was shortly to become a flashpoint of the American Revolution. Amid all the scientific investigations, it must not be forgotten that the Endeavour was a military craft, operating with the full authority of the British Navy.

Richard Sorrenson has brilliantly elucidated how ships like the Endeavour were really scientific instruments, tools for mapping coastlines and observing weather conditions. Furthermore, the Endeavour functioned as a “floating laboratory,” from which astronomical observations could be made and natural specimens could be taken. So much so, that Banks arranged for an enormous (and enormously expensive) refit of the collier destined for Cook’s second and third voyages, the HMS Resolution, with an unwieldy deluxe set of scientific apparatus. The changes made the Resolution virtually unsailable, and another small fortune was spent undoing Banks’s grandiose renovations.

All that lay in the future, of course, but even without a specialized ship, Banks and company accomplished a great deal from the Endeavour. Charting a large bay on the eastern coast of Australia, for example, Cook and his crew initially decided upon the name “Stingray Bay,” in honor of the area’s most prominent fauna. But a later version of Cook’s journal states, “The great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Botanist Botany Bay” (Beaglehole, 1:ccix). The precise reasons for this change are much debated—bona fide respect for the naturalists’ achievements, flattery to the well-connected Banks, an imperial reclamation of the former French name, “Coste des Herbaiges,” perhaps even a bit of mockery—but the energetic achievements of Banks and company cannot be doubted (Carter, 9–12).

Gweagal shield taken on Cook’s voyage, currently held by the British Museum.

A more visceral form of imperial assertion came in the Endeavour‘s violent confrontation with the Gweagal Aborigines. Cook’s crew had several tense encounters with the indigenous inhabitants of what became Botany Bay: when several Gweagal warriors approached, and offerings of gifts proved unsuccessful, Cook shot one of them in the leg. This bit of violence neither cowed the Gweagal nor resulted in further clashes. Alongside the specimens collected by the naturalists, the Endeavour‘s crew made off with several dozen Gweagal spears and shields. These artifacts survive in the collections of several British museums, which have thus far rebuffed claims by the Gweagal for the return of their patrimony.

With the Transit successfully observed and a wealth of cartographic and scientific data gathered to boot, the Endeavour could begin the journey homeward, a journey not without further incident. On June 11, 1770, the collier—shallow hull notwithstanding—had an abrupt encounter with what we know as the Great Barrier Reef. As the ship began to take on water, Cook’s crew threw more than 50 tons of excess weight overboard, including several cannons. High tide freed the Endeavour from the reef, and the ship managed to make it back to mainland Australia for emergency repairs. In 1969, the cannons and other pieces of ballast were recovered from the waters surrounding the aptly named Endeavour Reef.

Nor was this the end of the Endeavour‘s trials: lightning struck the ship in the Dutch East Indies, near what is now Jakarta. Once more, science came to empire’s aid: the mast was equipped with a rudimentary lightning rod, developed less than twenty years previous by Benjamin Franklin, which averted serious damage.

At long last, the Endeavour made it back to Britain on July 12, 1771, where Cook and Banks’s achievements caused a sensation. Plans were afoot for another expedition almost immediately, but this would be made in another converted collier, ResolutionEndeavour was refitted as a transport and spent a few more years in naval service, making several trips between Britain and the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

The fame won by Cook and Banks did not transfer to their vessel, such that the Navy saw no particular reason to keep the Endeavour. In March 1775 it was sold to the merchant James Mather, in whose service the ship made at least one commercial voyage to Russia (see Baines).

Once again, however, the tremors of world history contrived to jolt the Endeavour out of the world of commercial shipping: His Majesty’s American colonies rebelled against the Crown. To prosecute a transatlantic military operation, ships were needed in large quantities, and merchants could make a tidy sum selling vessels to the Navy. Toward the end of 1775, Mather offered the Endeavour back to the Crown, but battered by thousands of miles’ worth of wind, waves, reefs, lightning, and years of wear and tear, the craft was rejected as unseaworthy. Nothing daunted, Mather simply renamed it the Lord Sandwich (presumably a bit of flattery directed as John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich and legendarily the inventor of the eponymous foodstuff, who had succeeded Hawke as first lord of the admiralty) and tried again. Again he was refused. This time, Mather deigned to make some repairs to the former collier, and finally succeeded in selling it back to the Royal Navy.

The change in ownership occasioned yet another renaming—there was already a navy ship called the Lord Sandwich—this time to the eminently original Lord Sandwich 2. The Lord Sandwich 2 was dispatched to the colonies, where it served as a transport and as a prison ship in the British occupation of Rhode Island. But on August 4, 1778, with the French navy closing in on Newport harbor, the British commander ordered surplus ships scuttled to blockade the bay—the Lord Sandwich 2 among them.

For nearly two and a half centuries, Captain Cook’s first naval command has been resting on the bottom of Narragansett Bay, a testament in wood and canvass to the inextricable entanglements of warfare, commerce, science, and empire in oceanic history. No single person who sailed on the Endeavour experienced half so much, or shared in all of the projects and ambitions of the ship—demanding that we broaden our historiographical horizon beyond the human. At the same time, the materiality of the ship—the wood, canvass, rope, tar, and the human resources of crew and captain—affirms the materiality of travel, even as the many repairs and reconstructions bely any static notion of an “object.” Like the ship of Theseus, the Endeavour was never a single thing. So much so, that its journeys continue, on the reverse of every New Zealand fifty-cent coin, in full-scale working replicas, and even into outer space, bequeathing its name to the Space Shuttle Endeavour, a NASA orbiter that flew twenty-five missions between 1992 and 2011. Wonderfully, fragments of the original Endeavour‘s timber were carried on the shuttle, and on Apollo 15—callsign “Endeavour”—when it landed on the Moon in 1971 (Wright). Not quite as far as Venus, but not bad for a North Sea collier.

Space Shuttle Endeavour, photographed from the International Space Station in 2010


As a coda, let me briefly return to Samuel Atkins’s beautiful painting of the HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland. Atkins painted that canvas circa 1794—the ship in question had been resting on the bottom of Narragansett Bay for sixteen years. Though the best years of Britain’s empire are still very much ahead, the loss of the American colonies was a blow to the national psyche. The tranquil grace of the Endeavour, the vehicle for one of the maritime British Empire’s greatest scientific and geographical triumphs, is a potent fantasy in 1794.


Intellectual history

Montaigne’s Bones

By guest contributor Max Norman

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.

Think Piece

Contextualizing the Rise of Comparative Political Theory

By guest contributor Josey Tom

If the creation of subfields within a discipline indicates its development rather than its demise, then political theory is expanding and glowing in a new light. Founded in the mid-1990s, the sub-field known as Comparative Political Theory (CPT) attempts to decolonize the canon of political theory by incorporating non-Western political ideas, texts, concepts and epistemic resources hitherto ignored by political theorists. Roxanne Euben (University of Pennsylvania) who coined the term, introduced it as the project of bringing “non-Western perspectives into familiar debates about the problems of living together, thus ensuring that ‘political theory’ is about human and not merely Western dilemmas” (Euben 1997, 32). The subfield is a reminder that there are still songs to be sung by political theory beyond the West, lest the field’s only song be a dirge—a funeral song for non-Western political concepts, categories, and canons. CPT is the logical culmination of the geopolitical context of decolonization and internal debates about the aims and methods of political theory since the 1950s. These anxieties were amplified by trenchant critiques of eurocentrism by postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholarship in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world.This piece will argue that CPT is an immanent critique in political theory that builds on the legacies of mounting internal critiques.

In an essay that attempts to chart the scope of CPT, political theorist Diego von Vacano (Texas A&M) explains the emergence of CPT in terms of both “critical disciplinary” and geopolitical factors (Vacano 2015, 467). The first contextual factor is the void opened up starting in the late 1970s by critical perspectives on modernity from Western Marxism, critical theory, the genealogical method of Michel Foucault, Edward Said’s study of orientalism, and the Subaltern Studies school, each of which challenged Western paradigms of modernization. The second factor is dissatisfaction with existing formal explanatory paradigms employed in the subfield of comparative politics. The third factor is the backdrop of end of the Cold War and contemporary globalization: The liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal 1989 article “The End of History and the Last Man” and the pessimistic prognosis of the post-Cold War era embedded in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) provided an opening for CPT to offer alternative paradigms.

However, neglected in Vacano’s broad contextualist account are the three important critiques internalto the discipline of political theory in the twentieth century. The method-centric critique emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from the behavioralist school, which sought to explain and predict political behavior in a value-neutral manner using quantitative methods, as well as from theorists who found their field on the decline. The second critique focused on the Western-centrism of political theory, and is exemplified by the writings of John Gunnell (SUNY Albany), Jeffrey Isaac (Indiana), and Bhikhu Parekh. This critique was fragmented, as dominant understandings of disparate concepts including modernity, liberalism, and universal human rights received flak from different parts of the globe. CPT should be seen as the third major critique of political theory: It is a collective and systematic effort to challenge the Western-centrism of political theory, especially by rethinking existing categories and concepts and incorporating themes, thinkers, and cultural insights from non-Western societies.

The First Critique of Political Theory

In the 1950s and 1960s, the behavioralist school triggered intense self-reflection in political theory. Seminal essays by John Plamenatz (“The Use of Political Theory” [1960]), Isaiah Berlin (“Does Political Theory Still Exist?” [1962]), and Sheldon Wolin (“Political Theory as a Vocation” [1969]) testify to a period of soul-searching within the discipline. While these writings questioning the basis of the field were “marked by the ashes of the Cold War” (Vacano, 468), other seminal reflections on the aims of political theory were written while the Second World War and the early Cold War were still in full swing—notably Leo Strauss’s most important essays on political theory (“Persecution and the Art of Writing” [1952] and “What is Political Philosophy” [1957]).

Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls also contributed to self-reflection of political theory through their meditations on political philosophy. In his essay “The Indispensability of Political Theory” (1983), MacIntyre employs the metaphor of a map to suggest that political theory illuminates the political landscape, helping people navigate their social and political world. Political theory does not diminish in significance despite its lack of comprehensiveness, just as a grossly inaccurate map still holds some practical utility (MacIntyre 1983, 32). In his work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), Rawls similarly describes four roles political philosophy has in a society, namely achieving social co-operation in divisive societies, orienting members of a political community, reconciliation, and carving out feasible political arrangements (Rawls 2001, 1-4).

What motivates all these writings is the hope and promise political theory offers for political life. Political theorists and philosophers ranging from Leo Strauss to John Rawls illuminated the gap between how political theory has been conceived and how it has been practiced. The emergence of CPT should be seen in light of the inability of political theory to live up to its promise and hopes for political life—both within Western societies and globally speaking.

Political theory has not been able to fulfill its potential due to a parochialism that limits or omits non-Western political constellations and concerns. An indispensable task of political theory is to contemplate desirable and feasible political arrangements that might ensure good life for peoples. But what if the proposed political arrangements are predicated on assumptions that privilege a particular part of the globe by effacing dimensions of race and imperialism? When Huntington wrote about the clash of civilizations and Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberalism, they were, despite their biases, performing what George H. Sabine regarded as a crucial function of political theory: “an estimate of probabilities and an estimate of values” (Sabine 1939, 5). Yet when Wolin conceptualizes political theory as a tradition embodying an “inherited form,” he is thinking about a rich inheritance that is definitively Western (Wolin 1969, 1070). If political theorists are tasked with generating political knowledge, they cannot ignore the ideas and perceptions of good life in non-Western societies. The gulf between the lofty visions of political theory and its exclusive character leads us to the second critique of political theory.

The Second Critique of Political Theory

The early 1990s saw the emergence of a critique of the ethnocentrism at the heart of the discipline of political theory. The first strand of this critique targeted particular Western concepts but did not implicate political theory as a whole; it limited its critique to certain categories in light of the non-Western political realities. For instance, scholarship emerging mainly from India challenged hegemonic Western understandings of secularism and modernity, pointing out their inadequacy for understanding non-Western social and political worlds (Bhargava 1999 and Kaviraj 2002). Also under scrutiny was the ethnocentrism embedded in liberal democracy. Bhikhu Parekh’s “The Cultural Particularities of Liberal Democracy” (1992) and “Decolonizing Liberalism” (1993) illustrated the provincialism of liberalism. Debates about Asian values versus Human Rights also questioned the universality of liberal democratic values. The second strand of this critique levelled loftier charges at the discipline as a whole, as exemplified in the writings of Isaac (“The Strange Silence of Political Theory” [1995]) and Parekh (“The Poverty of Indian Political Theory” [2010]). Criticizing the reluctance of American political theorists to contemplate the “events of 1989” in Eastern Europe, Isaac pointed out that political theory was a prisoner of Western European tradition, which, despite constituting a “secure reference point for our political thinking” engenders “intellectual conformity.” Parekh, meanwhile, lamented the absence in non-Western societies of a robust critique of the central categories of the West, despite an awareness of the ethnocentrism and limited explanatory power of those categories.

The Third Critique of Political Theory: Comparative Political Theory

While reflecting on the nature and task of political theory, Wolin also drew attention to its inherent limitations. Despite its sophisticated categories, political theory can offer only a limited understanding of political phenomena, as there exists a “vast range of political experience” that is inexhaustible by such categories (Wolin 2016, 21).Wolin reminds us, taking his cue from the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, that statements and propositions in political theory are, after all, “abbreviations of reality.” He uses the metaphor of a net to represent the concepts and categories that are employed to understand political phenomena: those suitable for explaining European contexts are often ineffective and erroneous in a non-Western context.

Abstractions are indispensable in the construction of theory. But the problem with political theory these thinkers highlighted is that its “abbreviations” long remained oblivious to non-Western lifeworlds. Abstractions in mainstream political theory continue to be informed by the social and political imaginary of West while ignoring the rest. The net is seldom cast out on the non-Western world. It is in this context that CPT assumes its significance: it functions as the third critique in political theory by pointing out the inherent bias of ethnocentrism that still besets the field’s canon, concepts, and methodologies.

If CPT is to bridge the gap between the promises and practice of political theory, it also needs to examine contemporary global political issues such as right-wing populism.CPT also remains a conscript of the East-West divide: it has yet to engage the strand of decolonial scholarship that shows the non-Western pedigree of concepts often thought to be European in their origins. Laura Marks, for instance, has argued that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “univocity of being” has its source in the great Persian philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina—a history that was erased when philosophy “underwent an ethnic cleansing.” An engagement with strands of European thought that have appropriated the intellectual contributions of the non-European world has the potential to rattle some of the basic assumptions of the subfield and to provide an opportunity to rethink the reluctance of CPT scholars to accept the universality of certain political ideas.

Comparative Political Theory has finally cast its net wide. The catch might indeed be splendid. But for the catch to reach the table, the net must be stronger and the sharks kept at bay.

Josey Tom is a Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. This piece is adapted from his M.Phil. dissertation, entitled “Comparative Political Theory: Contexts, Plurality and Political Action.”

What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: March, Part 2


Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

From childhood we have all been warned against ‘judging a book by its cover.’ I suppose then that I should be somewhat ashamed that I first picked up Julietta Singh’s Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016) precisely because I was enchanted by the glorious colours of its cover. Luckily for me, Unthinking Mastery is the exception that proves the rule. In the introduction to this work of critical theory, Singh sets herself the task of beginning ‘to trace some of the desires and aims of mastery’ from the decolonization movements of the mid-twentieth century through the discourses of anti- and post-colonialism in order to show ‘how the cultural politics of colonialism remain intact and to trace the entanglements of ideological practice and material fact as they signal the legacies of colonialism.(2)’ She does this elegantly and persuasively, examining both political and literary discourses through the frame of two posthumanist lenses: the question of animal and new materialism. The first half of the book engages with anti-colonial thinkers who themselves are thinking through the question of mastery whilst the second builds a close reading of postcolonial literary works that embody the workings of mastery. Ultimately, Singh leaves the reader with a critical toolkit for thinking through the legacies of empire that I have certainly found very useful.

It was certainly an excellent book to read alongside my second recommendation for March: Robert Gildea’s Empires of the Mind: the Colonial Present and the Politics of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). Whereas Singh’s work is very much a work of theory, Gildea’s is a sweeping comparative history of the legacies of empire in France and Britain. He begins the book, and indeed draws its title, from a September 1943 speech delivered by Winston Churchill. In front of a group of Harvard graduates, he declared that ‘the empires of the future would be the empires of the mind.’ Churchill was imagining an end to World War Two that allowed empires to live alongside each other in peace. It was not a vision of the future that included the fragmentation of the British and French empires. Nonetheless, as Gildea observes, the concept of ‘empires of the mind’ is a useful way of thinking about the legacies of colonialism and their continued importance for making sense of our contemporary political moment. In many ways, the book is a call to arms, a persuasive argument that the problems of our time can only begin to be resolved if the British and French are prepared to genuinely reckon with their histories of colonialism. It is, as Gildea admits, not an easy task but a necessary one. As we stare down the barrel of Brexit negotiations, I cannot help but agree.


There are many books that cover the same historical territory as Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2017), but there aren’t many books like it. I had seen the title recommended recently by journalists, activists and historians, all with their own reasons, and after I started reading I could understand how it manages to appeal to a mix of audiences that academic monographs rarely reach. Wood succeeds in doing two things at once that many scholars might imagine as two poles between which they have to navigate and compromise: covering dense historiographical and theoretical debates in a way that convinces readers of the profound political significance of the stakes involved. The book is not a work of original archival research, nor was Wood a historian with that project in mind. She was a political theorist who recognized that the shape of the histories we tell about the origins of capitalism and the “transition” from feudalism can lead us down particular paths in political thinking and action today. She catalogues common narratives of “commercialization” and the rising middle classes and finds again and again the same assumption embedded in each: that modern capitalism is a “natural” condition and some individual, group or class was waiting to bring it to the rest. That repetition doesn’t just uncover the pervasiveness of the premise, it also reminds the reader that accepting it has seriously constrained the possibilities for imagining political and economic systems that do not, in those stories, appear natural at all.

Wood’s argument goes beyond the critique of accounts that try to present artificial structures as natural landscapes, however. She surveys a theoretically complex and politically divisive debate on the development of capitalism in early modern Europe and intervenes to provide her own account. She argues, alongside historians like Robert Brenner, for the “agrarian” origins of capitalism, particularly in England in the seventeenth century, when landlords, large tenants and their landless laborers were all forced to charge higher rents, improve productivity and work more “industriously” to sustain themselves. None of them were the modern heralds waiting to unleash capitalism through their own natural inclination to “truck, barter and exchange,” in Adam Smith’s terms. Wood proceeds to spell out the implications of this one position in a seemingly arcane debate, grappling with difficult debates held mostly among Marxist scholars several decades ago, for the way we ought to understand pressures on labor discipline and the the imperative to political mobilization  in the present. Throughout, The Origin of Capitalism disabuses readers of the unnecessary contrasts that scholars often feel they need to choose between —  elegant prose and theoretical rigor, historiographical engagement and popular appeal, argumentative clarity and political urgency — and shows how they can be written together.  


There is a charming pair of expressions to describe the confessional churn between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism: “to swim the Tiber” is to convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism; “to swim the Thames” is to go in the opposite direction. Though I haven’t converted to anything, I’ve been swimming the Elbe in the last few weeks, straying from my usual Calvinist environs to navigate the unfamiliar waters of Lutheranism.

Frontispiece to On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520)

From the horse’s mouth, as it were, I’ve been enjoying Luther’s Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), a collection of three landmark texts all published in 1520: To the Christian Nobility of the German NationOn the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian. Even at the distance of five centuries, the radical nature of Luther’s vision is breathtaking.

If your superiors are unwilling to permit you to confess your secret sins to whom you choose, then take them to your brother or sister, whomever you like, and be absolved and comforted. Then go and do what you want and ought to do. Only believe firmly that you are absolved, and nothing more is needed. (70)

At a stroke, Luther subverts the church hierarchy, the sacrament of penance, and generations of theology explicating the crucial role of the priest in confession. The other, sharper edge of the sword, however, is the message of consolation, as revolutionary as it is humane: confession can be a painful task, so confess to whomever you feel most comfortable talking to. And then you are free of your sins—no rites of absolution, no works of penance, no vows, “Only believe firmly that you are absolved, and nothing more is needed.” Heady stuff.


JHIBlog Podcast: Simon Brown interviews Sophia Rosenfeld


In this interview, Simon Brown speaks with Sophia Rosenfeld, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Rosenfeld works in the intellectual history of the trans-Atlantic Age of Revolutions, and she has written books on the history of signs and gestures in the French Revolution, and the politics of Common Sense in the eighteenth century. Her new book, Democracy and Truth: A Brief History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), shows how contemporary concerns over how we reconcile science, scholarship and expertise with democracy are not so contemporary after all, and have persisted and changed since their first articulation in the Enlightenment. The conversation ranges from epistemology and politics, to common sense and expertise, to the long history behind our putatively “post-truth” moment.