Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Stefania Tutino on Credulity, Credibility, and Belief in the Shadow of Mt. Vesuvius’s Eruption of 1660

Stefania Tutino is a professor in the Department of History at UCLA. Her work focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of post-Reformation Catholicism. Her most recent book was A Fake Saint and the True Church: The Story of a Forgery in Seventeenth-Century Naples (Oxford University Press, 2021). Her next book is The Many Faces of “Credulitas,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

She spoke to contributing editor Glauco Schettini about her essay, “The Mystery of Mount Vesuvius’s Crosses: Belief, Credulity, and Credibility in Post-Reformation Catholicism,” in JHI (83.2).


Glauco Schettini: Your article takes us to mid-seventeenth-century Naples and makes us witness a seemingly inexplicable event. In the aftermath of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, black and red crosses began to appear on people’s linens, clothes, and bodies. As rumors about the divine origin of such apparitions spread uncontrolled, Catholic ecclesiastical authorities decided to launch an investigation into their nature. Would you like to summarize the unfolding and the outcomes of this investigation for our readers, as well as its broader meaning?

Stefania Tutino: My investigation uncovered a range of responses at all levels of society, from the most ominous interpretations of the crosses as a sign of God’s wrath foreboding ever more tragic catastrophes, to explanations based entirely on volcanic science and chemical processes. What I found especially interesting is that we do not see theologians or religious figures necessarily reaching for divine interpretations, on the one hand, and secular leaders or natural philosophers leaning toward more secular, “scientific” explanations on the other. Within the Catholic hierarchy, different people held widely divergent interpretations, and by the same token, some political leaders were at least as preoccupied by God’s wrath as their ecclesiastical counterparts. Another interesting aspect of this investigation is the sophistication of information-management systems, so to speak, or the propaganda machine set in motion by both the Roman Curia and the Neapolitan government. Yet another interesting layer in this story is the ways in which potentially supernatural events could become “politicized,” and—the other side of the coin—the fact that religion as an intellectual and cultural category encompassed a much broader set of questions than we might be accustomed to think.

As for the outcome, well, I am tempted not to reveal it and to invite the readers to find out for themselves! Suffice it to say that how the prodigy ended was just as mysterious as how it began. Yet even if at the end of the article readers might not be able to solve the mystery of the crosses, I hope they will feel they have acquired a more nuanced view of the world of post-Reformation Catholic culture.

GS: The story you tell was, as you write, a small but hardly insignificant episode in the history of early modern Europe. With a technique that is characteristic of microhistory, you employ this episode, with all its quirky details, to shed light on the religious culture of seventeenth-century Italy. More than ten years ago, Francesca Trivellato asked if there was a future for microhistory in the age of global history—a question she answered affirmatively. What do you think the future of microhistory looks like? And what can intellectual historians gain from adding a microhistorical approach to their toolkit?

ST: I personally think the future of microhistory looks great, even (and maybe especially) as our horizons get enlarged to a global scale. In this respect, not only do I agree with Francesca Trivellato, but I also think that her considerations on the future of microhistory are already proving true.

One of the features of microhistory that I find particularly important is its ability not to focus on the small for the sake of the small, but to focus on the small to the extent the small can tell us something deeper about the big. I am not a global historian, but the kind of global history I like to read is the kind that merges breadth with depth; that looks at connections and networks, and links, rather than juxtapose, different contexts in a kind of revival of old-school “comparative” history; the kind that poses specific problems in a new light rather than simply extending categories further into space; the kind that plays with scales and examines how specific issues change when we change the scope rather than the kind that simply takes the same unit of analysis and makes it wider by stretching it to cover more ground. For doing all these things, microhistory is a good aid, because few other approaches can teach us about how to make connections as well as microhistory does.

Another aspect of microhistory that makes it exceedingly useful is its intimate relationship with primary sources—nothing will make you more attuned to the need to squeeze sources to the last drop of meaning than the need to investigate a very small phenomenon! Microhistory has a privileged relationship with narrative, not in the sense that microhistorical accounts are narratives (all kinds of history-writing are narratives, not just microhistories!), but in the sense that adopting a microhistorical approach always requires that the historian reflect on the heuristic value of narrative. This is not just an important aspect of our profession, but also an exciting feature of being human and thus being able to use language in that way. Also, microhistory does not like generalizations, and in fact it is a good antidote to the impulse to try to make things neat and simple and one-size-fits-all, which I believe is always a good attitude when studying history. By its very nature, microhistory is inclusive and not methodologically imperialistic: it can live comfortably within a number of different paradigms and historiographical contexts. It offers no grand narrative of its own, but rather seeks to find what does not fit in any given trend or overarching trajectory. In this respect, I think that all historians, even those whose approach is completely different from that of microhistorians, could use a measure of the irreverence toward generalizations, curiosity for the quirk, attention to the discordant that is typical of microhistory.

GS: The story of the crosses reveals the complexity and the internal diversity of what you call “post-Reformation Catholicism.” Throughout the article, you avoid both the term “Counterreformation” and the phrase “Catholic Reform,” which historians have most frequently used to define the multifaceted world of early modern Catholicism. As John O’Malley has reminded us in a book that is now a classic, these terms were forged in the heat of disputes that were academic and confessional at once; they were not just neutral descriptors of historical processes, but also implied a value judgment. Your decision not to use them looks like a way to set aside old debates in order to break new ground. How can thinking in terms of “post-Reformation Catholicism” transform our understanding of the early modern Catholic world?

ST: First of all, I believe that John O’Malley’s discussion of these issues is a classic for a reason: it provides what is in many ways a definitive explanation of both the nature of those terms and their implications. I also wholeheartedly agree with him about the terms “Counterreformation” and “Catholic Reform.” I personally never liked them not simply for all the reasons O’Malley lays down, which you briefly outlined, but also because they never meant much to me. I became a historian of post-Reformation Catholicism at a moment in which the sort of ideological, theological, and even confessional contexts out of which those terms originated were not just criticized, but in fact had started to become insignificant. What I mean to say is that the kind of history of Catholicism which I studied and was academically raised on, so to speak, had already moved away from the history of theology on the one hand, and traditional “ecclesiastical history” on the other, and had advanced toward the much more capacious realm of “religious” history. Thus, for somebody like me, born in 1977, using terms such as “Counterreformation” and “Catholic Reform” seems not just reductive, but also in a sense meaningless. For all these personal and historical reasons, I do think that O’Malley’s definition of “early modern Catholicism” is infinitely more effective at capturing the richness of this kind of history than the traditional alternatives.

You are right, though, that I tend to use “post-Reformation Catholicism” more than “early modern Catholicism,” and this is intentional. I have been starting to notice that in this (otherwise welcome and correct) move to progressively enlarge the range of the phenomena we associate with “early modern Catholicism,” sometimes we are going too far. As I said, I think it is good that we no longer reduce the history of early modern Catholicism to theology, but sometimes we tend to forget that theology mattered quite a bit. The Reformation was an important moment in the history of early modern Europe, and this theological conflict did change the history of the Catholic Church profoundly. The nature and implications of this change went well beyond the realm of theology, but without understanding the theological terms of the conflict, we risk not understanding anything else properly. I like to use the term “post-Reformation Catholicism” as a sign of respect, if you will, for the historical importance of theology, and as a reminder to myself never to lose sight of the vivacity and richness of early modern theology (in conversation with, not in lieu of, early modern religion).

GS: By reconsidering the relationship between credibility and credulity, your article exhorts us to problematize our understanding of belief. In line with the work of historians such as Ethan Shagan, who are trying to show how the very nature of belief changed through history, you suggest that we take early modern belief on its own terms, setting aside contemporary ideas about the proper relationship between belief and rational knowledge. What role do these issues play in your forthcoming book, The Many Faces of Credulitas? And what do they teach us about contemporary notions of belief?

ST: These issues are indeed at the core of my forthcoming book, which is an examination of some aspects of the category of belief in post-Reformation Catholicism. In that book, I make the argument that judgment and credibility became progressively central in the Catholic theological and religious discourse after the Reformation, and I explore the consequences of that centrality for the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Catholicism.

More generally, reflecting on the question of belief in both the early modern and modern contexts, I think that the prevalent view remains one that sees the Enlightenment as a crucial moment of fracture separating the early modern notion of belief (which is confessional, dogmatic, and, save for a few exceptions, intolerant) from the modern one (which is based on the modern secular individual’s freedom to exercise her reason and thus to retain the right to believe in anything she chooses). I see things a bit differently. To begin with, when I look around in the world, I don’t see that pure reason has exactly triumphed. To the contrary, rather large pockets of credulity and unreasonable beliefs continue to exist even in the Western world, the venue in which the modern secular individual is supposed to thrive. And while of course some of those beliefs are dangerous to our society (and quite literally to the health of our communities!) and require serious reflection, others are simply the manifestation of being human as opposed to perfectly functioning computers. But aside from the state of belief today, I am a scholar of early modern Europe, and from my vantage point I see that the Enlightenment view of the progressive triumph of free secular reason is not a correct standard on which to judge early modernity. In fact, as a historian I believe that the Enlightenment itself needs to be taken as a precise historical moment rather than a kind of Hegelian description of how history inevitably unfolds, and that its complexities need to be explored, not denied. In the book, then, I look at early modern belief not from the point of view of the present, trying to establish how much or how little early modern notions of judgment and credibility measure up to modern ideas. Instead, I examine these phenomena from behind, as it were, as distinctive historical developments of a specific theological, intellectual, and historical tradition, in which, I argue, the tension between faith and judgment, authority and autonomy, belief and knowledge had always been at the center of the debate. In both my forthcoming book and this article, I recover a bit of the vibrancy and richness of pre-modern debates over these questions.

Glauco Schettini is a PhD candidate in history at Fordham University, New York. His research centers on religion and politics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Atlantic world. His dissertation, titled “The Invention of Catholicism: A Global Intellectual History of the Catholic Counterrevolution, 1780s-1840s,” investigates how European and Latin American counterrevolutionary thinkers reinvented Catholicism during the Age of Revolutions.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Domenico Gargiulo, L’eruzione del Vesuvio del 1631 (1656-1660)

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview Intellectual history

Tomás Valle on Eilhard Lubin, Academic Unorthodoxy and post-Reformation Theology

Tomás Valle is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently on a two-year research stay at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, funded by the German-American Fulbright Commission, the DAAD, and the HAB’s Rolf und Ursula Schneider-Stiftung. He specializes in the intellectual cultures of Lutheran universities in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and his dissertation studies post-Reformation humanism through the life and scholarship of Johannes Caselius (1533–1613).

He spoke with contributing editor Jacob Saliba about his essay “Eilhard Lubin, Academic Unorthodoxy, and the Dynamics of Confessional Intellectual Cultures,” in JHI (83.2).


Jacob Saliba: Your article discusses the emergence of a certain kind of post-Reformation theology espoused by the Lutheran professor Eilhard Lubin in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Germany.  Your narrative begins in 1596 when Lubin published Phosphorus, a theological treatise about the origin of evil (i.e., sin), the causative power of God, and the relationship between the two. In it, Lubin does not so much suggest that the source of evil in humanity may in part be due to God, but rather that this formulation requires reevaluation in order to offset assumptions that God is responsible for evil. In simple terms, what was his thesis about God and the origin of evil?

Tomás Valle: A primary goal of Phosphorus is to attack the idea that God might be responsible for sin. The problem is that Lubin does such a spectacularly poor job! His argument makes evil in some sense metaphysically (or physically—the line is blurry) necessary in created things: everything is created out of nothing or non-being, which is equated with evil, but that evil/nothingness (also equated with prime matter!) remains in created things, which gives them an inherent inclination back towards evil/non-being. Lubin also sometimes uses semi-active language for God’s role, such as saying that God “leaves” this inclination in created things. So, there are all kinds of problems in Lubin’s account of theodicy (and creatio ex nihilo, which is the other point he sets out to defend).

JS: Lubin’s Phosphorus was condemned in 1604 (by Albert Grawer), and even so, his home-institution in Rostock supported him as he prevailed against the accusations, further solidifying a positive reputation within Lutheran culture. As you show, this eight-year period of acceptance followed by a successfully performed counter-argument demonstrates a unique phenomenon in the post-Reformation era: theologians could make non-traditional—borderline heretical—arguments without repercussions and while resourcefully self-presenting an orthodox commitment to tradition.  You call this type of thinking unorthodox, rather than heterodox, for its capacity to rework inherited traditions while still accepting the perennial character of tradition itself. Could you discuss these two categories of “unorthodox” and “heterodox” in more detail, and why they matter in this regard?

TV: In suggesting “unorthodoxy” as a heuristic, I want to help historians appreciate the diversity and flexibility of confessional intellectual cultures in early modernity. Calling early modern figures “heterodox” in relation to the surrounding society is often the historian’s retrospective, normative judgment about their private beliefs, which doesn’t reveal much to us about the culture they inhabited, and in fact reinforces the (self-)image of orthodoxy as unified and universal. This has all sorts of problematic consequences for how we narrate early modernity, making it a story of “the orthodox” vs. “the heterodox,” in which the latter look more and more like secular moderns. Figures who don’t fit this narrative get either assimilated to one of the sides or swept under the rug. Of course, lots of other scholars have critiqued and are critiquing this way of approaching early modernity, but I think a terminological shift would be useful.

I like the term “unorthodox” because it can range on an evaluative spectrum from “problematic” to simply “weird” or “unusual.” In this way, it can convey a wide variety of contemporary attitudes, and part of my point is to bring our analysis of past thinkers into closer conversation with the audiences for whom they wrote and spoke. (While not an actor’s category, then, I think “unorthodoxy” can reveal more about a thinker’s relationship to the surrounding culture than “heterodoxy.”) “Unorthodoxy” also has something undefinable about it: it’s not obviously “other” (“hetero-”). Thus it resists both the early modern polemical urge to label one’s opponents and the modern historian’s desire to create clear through lines to the present, both of which end up misrepresenting past actors. Instead, “unorthodox” highlights the ambiguities and divergent views that existed within “orthodox” confessional cultures and the internal tensions that these caused. I think that the more we understand those multipolar tensions—rather than an imagined binary—the better we’ll be able to comprehend the dynamics of cultural and intellectual change in early modernity.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting adding “unorthodox” to a taxonomy of early modern opinions, such that some people would be “orthodox,” others “unorthodox,” and others “heterodox.” My goal is not to classify thinkers but to reveal the flexibility of orthodoxy itself in a culture where there are diverging opinions as to what constitutes “orthodoxy”—which is essentially any culture. In Lubin’s case, I argue, he himself and his local community at Rostock University considered his writings “orthodox,” while his antagonist Grawer tried to paint him as “heterodox” (in this case, “Calvinist”), and Lubin defended himself to a wider audience of theologians by claiming his writings were “unorthodox”—problematic, yes, but not deserving the charge of heterodoxy—and hence preserving his reputation as “orthodox.” So, I want us to reflect on how these terms can work together and apply to the same person, which forces us to sideline our own evaluative perspective to some degree and focus on the cultural situatedness of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination in early modernity. In this way “unorthodoxy” is both a pars destruens for binary thinking about intellectual difference and a pars construens for a more culturally embedded intellectual history.

JS: You say that understanding this type of thought as unorthodox requires an attention to “boundary-work” as a framework. How would you define “boundary-work” and in what ways did it prove crucial to your article’s approach?

TV: The concept of boundary-work was developed in the sociology of science and has been applied to early modern science, but I think it deserves much wider use among intellectual historians. As I explain in the article, theology largely defined the character and role of the other disciplines in the early modern university (and in early modern intellectual culture in general). But the character and role of theology itself wasn’t unanimously agreed on, either between or within confessions; its disciplinary boundaries were a subject for debate and active demarcation—which is to say, for boundary-work, for deciding what is and what isn’t “theological.”

When I started thinking about boundaries as flexible and in need of demarcation, it gave me a useful lens on a longstanding interest of mine and major theme in early modern intellectual history: the relationship between theology and philosophy. (I should mention, though, that the concept of boundary-work is also relevant for the other boundaries of theology, for example with medicine or law.) It’s very tempting to treat these two somehow as Platonic ideals, as if there were a hard conceptual line dividing them—similarly to how scholars long viewed (and in some cases still view) the division between religion and science. Even studies that look at the influence of philosophy on theology or vice-versa can end up reifying the difference between the two. If we instead see that disciplinary boundary in any particular historical context as having to be constructed, it helps to decompartmentalize our own perspective and puts the dynamic entanglement of early modern intellectual activity into relief.

In addition to taking unorthodoxy and boundary-work individually, I think we can see a correlation between them. Briefly put, theological boundary-work shapes the possibilities for unorthodoxy, and unorthodoxy requires a certain demarcation of the disciplinary boundaries around theology. We see this very clearly in Lubin’s case. Defending his philosophical writings as “unorthodox” requires him to re-demarcate the boundary between theology and philosophy. This correlation puts a seemingly very abstract conceptual problem—the character of theology—in conversation with the concrete, practical realities of reading, writing, and thinking in the early modern period. In doing so, as I suggest at the very end of the article, it puts a different light on the relationship between key cultural and intellectual dynamics of the post-Reformation period.

JS: As you began to think about this article and, consequently, in writing it, what was the importance of situating it within an historiography of the Germanophone world? To put it more precisely, are there elements from Germanophone scholarship that find themselves left out in American scholarship, thereby, requiring renewed attention? Where and how did you put these two types of scholarship into conversation with one another?

TV: Along with putting forward my own heuristic of “unorthodoxy” and arguing that “boundary-work” should be applied more broadly to early modern intellectual history, my article tries to bridge what I see as a divide between Anglophone and Germanophone scholarship on the subject of confessionalization, especially within Lutheranism. The theory goes back in some form to Ernst Walter Zeeden, but it was further developed and made popular by Heinz Schilling and Wolfgang Reinhard in the 1970s, and it started having a significant influence on Anglophone scholarship by the end of the 1980s. By the 1990s and early 2000s, though, several important works critiquing the confessionalization thesis vis-à-vis early modern Lutheranism had been written by Inge Mager, Thomas Kaufmann, and Kenneth G. Appold—all in German. (There’s been, I think, more widespread criticism of confessionalization vis-à-vis Catholicism because of the longstanding terminological/conceptual debate over “Counter-Reformation” and other characterizations of early modern Catholicism.) Since then, Kaufmann has been the most prominent critic of the thesis, putting forward “confessional culture” (Konfessionskultur) as a better conceptual category and one that allows for more flexibility and diversity. There remains a lively debate about how best to characterize Lutheranism in this period, and a younger generation of German scholars in turn has begun creatively building on the work of Kaufmann and others. While my article aims to make a new contribution to this debate, I hope that it can also communicate an updated sense of the status quaestionis to Anglophone scholars—non-specialists in particular—who often describe a version of Lutheran confessionalization that doesn’t account for more recent German scholarship.

JS: I want to place specific emphasis on your point in section II where you describe in exciting detail the status of the theologian in this context. You say that Lubin, by appealing to his established professorship at Rostock and the wider Lutheran community, was able to provide an effective rejoinder against Grawer with relative ease. Is this success particular to one spatial context, namely, a post-Reformation Lutheran Germany? Or, could it occur in other contexts outside of Germany, or even temporally closer to the Reformation? 

TV: I argue that Lubin’s success depended not only on his institutional position (though that was an important factor) but also on the malleable character both of orthodoxy, allowing for what I call “unorthodoxy,” and of the disciplinary boundaries around theology, allowing for boundary-work. These two correlated factors are clear, I think, for Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire c. 1600. As I explain in the article, German Lutheranism’s territorial character made it highly diverse and divided, and the boundary between theology and philosophy was hotly disputed, creating plenty of room for “academic unorthodoxy.” I wanted to make this case specifically for Lutheran intellectual culture, because I think its vibrance has been underappreciated, thanks to the narrative of confessionalization as well as a longstanding bias against “Lutheran Orthodoxy” (the period’s longstanding moniker) as too intellectually “conservative.”

But, I also think that “unorthodoxy”—and specifically the academic variety I deal with in my paper—can be applied to other early modern intellectual cultures as well. After all, as I note at the very end of the article, the Reformation raised the stakes both for “orthodoxy” and for the character and boundaries of theology as an authoritative discipline that determined orthodoxy—i.e., for both ingredients of “academic unorthodoxy,” as I characterize it. Even in Catholicism—which had an important degree of transnational institutional unity, in contrast to Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism—there were plenty of jurisdictional divisions, which could lead to the same sorts of tensions that I argue both allowed for and spurred creative intellectual work at the boundary of theology and philosophy. I would like eventually to look at academic unorthodoxy in a more cross-confessional, explicitly comparative way, but I also hope that scholars working on other contexts can take up the conceptual tool and find it useful (as well as further refine it!).

Moving temporally closer to the Reformation, my argument would have to be somewhat recast. By 1600, confessional lines have been pretty well drawn. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a great deal of intellectual flexibility: that’s my whole point. But, it does mean that being “orthodox” and having an “orthodox” conception of theology meant something different at that time, or was inflected differently, than if we turn back the dial to, say, 1550, when things are much less clearly defined, especially within Protestantism. So, “academic unorthodoxy” would have to look a little different as well. But I think there’s at least more appreciation for the variety of options on the table c. 1550 than c. 1600, which is why I wanted to focus on the later period, when the confessions have taken clearer institutional shape. In both periods, though, I think what those intellectual options actually were still needs a good deal of mapping, which I hope my work can contribute to.

JS: In your final section, you identify a significant historiographic problem, namely, that frameworks which try to force binaries in the intellectual culture of religious institutions lack an appreciative nuance for “flux” and its relationship to the formation of ideas. This flux, in turn, also seems to suggest an important insight on the relationship between “context” and “text,” between history and norms. As a way of understanding concretely this relationship that operates at the core of intellectual history, what would be some mis-readings versus correct readings of Lubin and his wider religious culture? How does the language and implications of “belief” (i.e., faith-commitment) factor into historical interpretation?

TV: I point out three potential misreadings at the end of my paper. First, it would be easy to interpret Lubin’s construction of philosophy as a “safe” category for his writings, outside the sphere of theological judgment, as part of an early modern emancipation of philosophy from the control of theology. This interpretation, though, misses both the theological judgments that go into Lubin’s construction of philosophy as well as the fact that this is a construction—that is, an example of boundary-work in action. This is where the idea of “flux,” specifically disciplinary flux, is most relevant. Early modernity was a period of tremendous, structural transformations in European intellectual life, and it therefore doesn’t help us to treat any discipline, let alone such central ones as philosophy and theology, as transhistorical constants.

Second, I want to distinguish the methodology I’m suggesting from others that may seem similar. Some scholars have argued that giving “orthodox” doctrine a special status distorts our historical analysis by adopting the discourse of the dominant religious authorities at the time. “Unorthodoxy” might seem similar, and I’m in fact trying to counter a similar problem; but I think that not acknowledging the religious ideals and doctrinal standards of a particular culture hinders rather than promotes our understanding of that culture. I don’t think you can understand Lubin’s writings without thinking about how he and his contemporaries coded particular positions as acceptable or unacceptable, and how different contemporary circles coded things differently.

Third (and this gets closest to your question about belief), I don’t want readers to take away that Lubin was simply dissimulating his strange ideas in order to “seem” an orthodox Lutheran. Now, during his self-defense, he did misrepresent his views on the relationship between philosophy and theology, and he used some linguistic slide-of-hand to shrug off Grawer’s attacks. To claim that his statements make him secretly heterodox, though—that’s a retrospective, normative judgment by the historian, as I said above, and in this case (as in most) not one I think is merited. It’s much more revealing, in my view, to accept Lubin’s and his community’s opinion of his orthodoxy, and thereby to challenge and pluralize our understanding of what intellectual options were on the table in early modern Lutheranism.

Jacob Saliba is a PhD student at Boston College where he specializes in modern European intellectual history. His primary focus is twentieth century France, studying the political, philosophical, and religious movements that become profoundly intertwined during the interwar years. Some major themes include: existentialism, phenomenology, personalism, and New Theology. He also holds an MA in political philosophy at Boston College.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Eilhard Lubin, Creative Commons

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Isaac Nakhimovsky on Georg Lukács and Revolutionary Realpolitik

Isaac Nakhimovsky is an historian of political thought with interests in Europe since the 17th century, and the historiography of international law and political economy. He is the author of The Closed Commercial State: Perpetual Peace and Commercial Society from Rousseau to Fichte (Princeton, 2011). He also has contributed to an edition of Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (Hackett, 2013), and in two volumes of essays on eighteenth-century political thought and its post-revolutionary legacies: Commerce and Peace in the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2017), and Markets, Morals, Politics: Jealousy of Trade and the History of Political Thought (Harvard, 2018). His forthcoming book is The Most Liberal of All Ideas: The Political Thought of the Holy Alliance.

He spoke with primary editor Tom Furse about his essay “Georg Lukács and Revolutionary Realpolitik, 1918–19: An Essay on Ethical Action, Historical Judgment, and the History of Political Thought,” which appeared in the JHI (83.1).


Tom Furse: The First World War hangs over, in one way or another, Georg Lukács, Max Weber (“Politics as a Vocation”), Ernst Bloch (Spirit of Utopia), and Friedrich Meinecke, (The Idea of Reason of State in Modern History). At one point you argue that Lukács perceived the war in apocalyptic terms in his book, The Theory of the Novel (1916). Did you find that Lukács’s experience of the latter years of the war in the Central Powers led him to connect war and revolution?

Isaac Nakhimovsky: Georg Lukács ended The Theory of the Novel by drawing a parallel to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s description, a century earlier, of the Napoleonic wars as an “age of absolute sinfulness”: the question was whether a new age of renewal would follow or whether that would remain an empty utopian hope. That historical frame of reference, and the question it raised, were particularly interesting to me, as someone who had, perhaps oddly, come to Lukács via Fichte rather than the other way around. They also seemed particularly evocative in the winter of 2016-17, which is when I suddenly found myself rereading Lukács’s essays “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” with some urgency. These essays, which were published only a couple of months apart in the winter of 1918-19, come to opposite conclusions: the first rejects Bolshevism, the second endorses it.

The question that is usually asked of them—including, retrospectively, by Lukács himself—is, how was it that Lukács became a Marxist? How did he “convert” from his self-styled “romantic anti-capitalism” to Bolshevism? In fact, it was a different question that had originally prompted those essays, namely the question articulated by the editor who published “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” (who happened to be Karl Polanyi): was the war a revolution, or not? Was it just another power struggle, with one form of domination and oppression succeeding another, or an opening for transformative change leading to democracy and peace? From this perspective, what made Lukács’s pair of essays so interesting was that despite their opposing conclusions, they shared a conceptual framework for how to approach such questions.

In both essays, Lukács insisted that there were unavoidable ethical consequences for any individual’s answer to the question of how to conceptualize a particular historical moment: for instance, whether it was a war or a revolution, just another transition of power or a point of no return. This approach to ethical action, which Lukács and his contemporaries associated with Fichte, was distinct both from Kantian reductivism (which risked obviating the need for any historical understanding as a guide for political action) and Hegelian historicism (which risked devolving into an exercise in rationalization or self-legitimation). In this view, Fichte was not a romantic idealist but a theorist of historical contingency, who insisted that ethical action always entailed not only a judgment of ethical principle but also a historical judgment of “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions.”

TF: Like many intellectuals in Europe who joined far-left or far-right parties after the war, Lukács eventually joined the Hungarian Communist Party. Many grappled with the ethics of revolution at this world-historical moment. Gustave Hervé transitioned from revolutionary syndicalism to nationalist chauvinism but maintained revolutionary violence as the ethical choice in face of bourgeois materialism. Hervé and Lukacs were both romantics of a sort, yet Lukács in his essay, “Tactics and Ethics” argues that the individual revolutionary had responsibility for action and inaction in those years 1918-1919. Hervé finds the ideal state at the end justified the means. Did Lukács find the Hungarian Communists’ revolutionary tactics ethically equivalent to Hervé’s thought of violence to achieve revolutionary change in society, or did Hervé’s politics render his revolutionary thought entirely unethical?

IN: Lukács’s conclusion in “Tactics and Ethics” was that one may not murder, but sometimes must (and he did go on to engage in revolutionary violence during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic). The key context for Lukács’s thinking about means and ends in “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” is supplied by Max Weber, whose 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation” has become a canonical discussion of “political realism.”

Although the relationship between Lukács and Weber is well known, what surprisingly seems to have been overlooked are the close parallels between Lukács’s two essays and Weber’s contemporaneous lecture (delivered in January 1919, between the publication of Lukács’s essays, though not published until later). As I show in the article, both Weber and Lukács connected the problem of means and ends to the nineteenth-century idea of Realpolitik: though there’s no reason to assume that Lukács had encountered “Politics as a Vocation” before writing “Tactics and Ethics,” he was most likely familiar with an earlier essay that Weber had published in 1917, which defined “Realpolitik in the narrower sense” as “the adaptation of the means for attaining a given ultimate goal in a particular situation” (note the echo of Fichte). In that essay, Weber invoked both the revolutionary syndicalist and the patriotic soldier fighting to the death as illustrations of why the relationship between means and ends would always remain a matter of individual judgment and ethical responsibility.

From this perspective, Weber’s lecture and Lukács’s essays were parallel applications of this shared ethical framework in a moment of intense crisis. Weber had explicitly referred to Fichte in defining his “ethic of responsibility” as opposed to the “ethic of absolute ends” (responsibility for the consequences of using political power, as opposed to the application of pure moral conviction). Where the dramatic conclusion of Weber’s lecture restricted ethically responsible action to the institutional structure of the state, Lukács’s essays extended it to revolutionary politics outside (and against) the state. In other words, Lukács retained Weber’s earlier view that the revolutionary syndicalist was not necessarily acting irresponsibly out of moral conviction: instead, they could be making the judgment that, in Weber’s words, achieving “the art of the possible” required “striving to attain the possible that lies beyond it.”

The dramatic difference between Lukács’s two essays, then, is not explained by his conversion from romanticism to Bolshevism, or from a neo-Kantian to a Hegelian approach to political ethics. In the first essay, Lukács identified Bolshevism as an ethic of absolute ends; in the second essay, it was an ethic of responsibility. The difference is explained by a revised judgment about historical circumstances: a different answer to Fichte’s question “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions.” In the first essay, the question was how to judge between democratic and undemocratic means for achieving democracy. In the second, the historical circumstances presented a much starker choice between socialism or barbarism.

TF: Notions of transition and transformation are important themes in the article. The first is the so-called transition of Georg Lukács’s political thought between his two essays “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” and “Tactics and Ethics” and the second is the transformative action of revolutionary opportunity to change the world. At one point, in reference to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect, you argue that transformations are not necessarily short moments, but that ‘new’ traits might have seethed for a long time without any visual clue. Do you think that Lukács would have argued that Bolshevism had deeper roots in Hungarian society to it give a chance a transform Hungary into a social democratic society, or was Bolshevism entirely ‘new’ in the post-1918 world?

IN: The reference to Kafka came from an arresting piece by the novelist Aleksandar Hemon, called “Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump,” which I happened to come across in January 2017 while I was also starting to reread Lukács. It found its way into my thinking about Lukács, and ended up staying there, because reading Lukács had also became an occasion for reflecting more broadly on the history of political thought:  a mode of inquiry whose nature and purpose it seemed necessary to reevaluate when confronted with a historical moment of uncertainty and potential systemic change. Ultimately, the article comes to the conclusion that “conversion narratives,” or any historiographical framework that makes it difficult to appreciate the contingency of historical categories, are more likely to inhibit than enhance the historical understanding that informs political judgment: they tend to obscure the existence of other historical possibilities, which in turn makes it harder to invent new political possibilities.

In Lukács’s case, the putatively ‘new’ trait is the ‘absolute sinfulness’ or ‘barbarism’ of 1919, not the Bolshevism that might or might not present an alternative to it. In that fraught moment, both Lukács and Weber reduced the scope of ethical action to a heroic choice for or against the state: in this way, the ethic of responsibility risks becoming the very kind of blinding ethical imperative that “political realism” is supposedly equipped to resist. In this regard, I came to think that the more skeptical spirit of Fichte’s approach to political ethics was less in evidence in Lukács and Weber’s highly charged interventions of 1919 than it was, decades later, in the political thought of Judith Shklar (whose engagement with Weber, partly via her Harvard teacher and colleague Carl Friedrich, is I think underappreciated).

Shklar’s essay on the “liberalism of fear” has also become a canonical text for “political realism,” but unlike many of her admirers she did not define her realism in direct opposition to Kantian ethics. Instead, like Fichte (who illustrated this particular point with the venerable case of two shipwrecked sailors clinging to a plank that could only support one of them), Shklar denied that an ethic of responsibility could guide action under conditions of necessity and war: conditions which both Fichte and Shklar defined as devoid of any value, save the value of exiting that condition as quickly and effectively as possible.

TF: Did Lenin and Trotsky’s War Communism economic model, even in its early years of 1918-19, change how Lukács saw Bolshevism and think of it as a potentially tragic failure?  

IN: Another important influence on my reading of Lukács and Weber was “The Allure of Dark Times: Max Weber, Politics, and the Crisis of Historicism,” which my former colleagues Stefan Eich and Adam Tooze published in 2017. Weber’s revealing mischaracterization of Trotsky’s position at Brest Litovsk, they maintain, is one indication that his fixed commitment to the state in “Politics as a Vocation” is not a product of sober political realism but an overwrought expression of a tragic fatalism. They develop this claim through a fascinating set of comparisons between Weber, the historian Friedrich Meinecke, and the theologian Ernst Troeltsch—but I was particularly drawn to their discussion of Meinecke, who has long interested me (partly because I think his interpretations of Fichte are wrong in an interesting way). According to Eich and Tooze, Meinecke was able to envisage new political possibilities (such as a supranational Europe) where Weber did not, because Meinecke’s historical perspective on political judgment made him receptive to the social capacity to create new values, which Weber’s rigid neo-Kantianism ruled out.

A different picture emerged by adding Lukács to this comparison between Meinecke (whom Lukács criticized for perverting Hegel into a theorist of Realpolitik) and Weber (whom Meinecke criticized as the Fichte of his time). It suggested that tragic fatalism was in fact an essential characteristic of Meinecke’s approach to historicizing political judgments. More fundamentally, it suggested that a greater receptivity to new political possibilities comes from a greater sensitivity to historical contingency, not an appreciation for the social construction of new values. This last point was, I think, made quite powerfully by Hannah Arendt in her analysis of ethical action in the face of the criminalization of German public life in the 1930s, when one socially generated system of values gave way to another. Under such conditions, Arendt warned, appeals to ethical responsibility too often served to mask accommodations to power (Realpolitik in the pejorative sense); and it was not responsibility but the independent exercise of judgment—an honest answer to the question “how much of what is right can be carried out under the given conditions”—that mattered, even in conditions where the answer was brutally reduced to the recognition of political impotence.

Tom Furse is a PhD student at City, University in London. His dissertation is on how ideas in the social sciences and political economy influenced US military strategy. His interests lie in revolutionary politics, international relations and war.

Featured Image: Portrait of a young Georg Lukács in 1917. Public domain.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Dan Edelstein on the Evolution of “Revolution”

Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, and Professor of Political Science and History (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He studied at the University of Geneva (BA) and the University of Pennsylvania (PhD). He is the author of The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2009), The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2010), and On the Spirit of Rights (Chicago, 2018). He is the co-editor of seven volumes, most recently (with Stefanos Geroulanos and Natasha Wheatley) Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (Chicago, 2020). He is currently working on an intellectual history of revolution, tentatively entitled The Revolution Next Time (Princeton, forthcoming).

Edelstein spoke with contributing editor Glauco Schettini about his essay “A ‘Revolution’ in Political Thought: Translations of Polybius Book 6 and the Conceptual History of Revolution,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).


Glauco Schettini: In your article, you trace the emergence over the early modern era of a Polybian vocabulary of politics, centered around the concept of revolution. This vocabulary spread alongside (and eventually replaced) a preexisting Aristotelian language—which described change in terms of mutation and sedition—and made “revolution” a recurring term of political analysis. You describe this shift as a revolution in its own right. How does your contribution enrich the existing scholarship on the “invention” of revolution as a political concept, to paraphrase Keith Baker?

Dan Edelstein: Keith Baker’s key contribution to the history of revolution was to recognize how revolution became, in his words, an “action frame” after 1789. The French, who were the first to think of themselves as “revolutionaries,” understood revolution as something that they were actively pursuing, as opposed to something that was happening to them. Or as Baker put it, revolution went from “a fact” to “an act.” My article really focuses on the earlier history of “revolution.” Historians generally view “revolution“ in the early-modern period as confused, rather than contested. Sometimes it was used (generally in the plural) to describe an assortment of political disturbances; elsewhere it referred to the cyclical movement of history; occasionally it designated a particularly fateful event. By bringing Polybius’s Histories (and more specifically translations of book 6) into this account, I argue that these different, apparently disconnected, meanings can all be found in his theory of anacyclōsis—an unusual Greek term, which translators typically rendered as “revolution.”

More broadly, I also emphasize how these different understandings of “revolution“ reflect a particular vision of history, or cosmology. It is a vision of a world governed by fortune, in which the future resembles nothing more than the past. The new meaning of revolution that Baker identified, and became widespread in 1789, depended on an “enlightened” or modern vision of history, according to which human societies are gradually moving towards reason and justice.

GS: Your essay looks specifically at translations as key moments not only in the transmission but also in the very creation of political ideas. Faced with the problem of how to render Polybius’ anacyclōsis into modern languages, translators unknowingly reinvented the language of modern politics. Intellectual historians have recently started to pay more attention to translations (see, for example, the 18th-Century Translators Dictionary project based at the European University Institute). We are learning to look at translations from a perspective that is not only philological, and to highlight the role of translators as cultural mediators. What do you think studies of translations have to offer to intellectual historians?

DE: My sense is that most intellectual historians are in the habit of consulting original sources whenever possible. It’s quite common for scholars working on, say, Grotius’s De jure belli ac pacis to flip between the Latin original, Barbeyrac’s translation and notes, and the English translation of Barbeyrac. Similarly, one of the first things we’re taught when we work with ancient languages is always to consult the original. Things get a bit more challenging where reception history is involved. From our contemporary vantage point, where the entire classical library is just a mouse click away, it can be hard to keep track of when specific ancient texts became available in translation. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that Cicero’s De re publica was only rediscovered in 1819 (though fragments of it were known long before).

So I think this temporal quirkiness of ancient texts can lead to their disappearing from intellectual histories. Intellectual history often tracks chronology: authors respond to events and other authors who preceded them, often closely in time. Locke refutes Filmer, Pufendorf rebuts Hobbes, Rousseau responds to Montesquieu, and so on. But reception history disrupts ordinary chronology. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the translation or publication of previously unavailable texts: François Quesnay, the founder of Physiocracy, was deeply marked by an early encounter with Aristotle. Theological texts can similarly exercise a powerful sway centuries after they were written: just think of Augustine’s influence on Calvin or Jansenius.

Of course, we’re familiar with the famous cases in classical reception, like Lucretius or Sextus Empiricus, which blow chronological intellectual history off course. Polybius falls in this category, but adds two further wrinkles: in addition to the “explosive” content, the circumstances of his reception are spread out over a long time (there’s a period of manuscript circulation, followed by multiple editions) and over an array of languages; and the fact that it’s a Greek text (i.e., not as easily accessible as a Latin one) means that the word choices of the translators are especially critical.

Finally, it’s also worth noting how translations themselves evolve over time. As I point out in the article, late eighteenth-century translations of Aristotle‘s Politics adopted the language of “revolution” to describe political regime changes. That’s still the term that most contemporary translations use. But anyone reading Aristotle before 1770 would have encountered a different set of terms, with a different set of meanings. So it’s really important to consult the translations that were available at the time.

GS: Our readers are probably familiar with your previous work on digital humanities and the use of digital tools for historical scholarship. How did these methods figure in the research for this article? What can they tell us about early modern intellectual history that we have not been able to see so far?

DE: Working on a big digital humanities project like “Mapping the Republic of Letters” was a lot of fun! We were basically making things up as we went along. It was also exciting to think about what we could do with data (and metadata more particularly), rather than just text. That said, working with data is extremely time-consuming and can get rather tedious. Designing visualization tools, similarly, is exciting, but also extraordinarily complex and quite expensive.

So I’ve become more interested of late in all the low hanging fruit that mass digitization has made available. Plug away search terms on Google Books for long enough and you’ll likely find treasures. More scholarly databases (such as EEBO, ECCO, Gallica, ARTFL-FRANTEXT, etc.) offer amazing search functionality “out of the box.” Even library catalogs are terrific resources. I discovered the first print translation of Polybius book 6 simply by searching in the online catalog of the Italian National Library. Because the reference to Polybius only appears at the end of a very long subtitle, earlier scholars, using card catalogs or book lists, had missed it. I was just lucky to be working in the digital era.

In this respect, I feel that we should all aspire to be more like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who happily discovered that he was already speaking in prose. We’re all digital humanists now, whether we realize it or not. But once you do realize it, you’ll recognize that there’s a host of simple steps you can take to take advantage of basic digital resources. You don’t have to know how to code, or secure a grant, to unlock 90% of what digitization affords scholarship. Obviously, this (entirely made up!) statistic only applies to fields where mass digitization has taken place. But those of us working on early-modern European intellectual history have an embarrassment of riches.

GS: Although your article is mainly focused on the period of time between the late fifteenth and the seventeenth century, in the concluding section you sketch a narrative that goes up to the Age of Revolutions, and suggest that the eighteenth century witnessed “another revolution in the history of ‘revolution’” as a political concept. The Polybian conception of revolution as a problem was supplanted by the new Enlightenment idea of revolution as a solution, a transformation that you fascinatingly term “the twilight of the Polybians.” What role did Polybius and translations of his Book 6 play in this eighteenth-century process, if any?

DE: This article is taken from a book I’m working on that sketches an intellectual history of revolution from Antiquity to the twentieth century. The American Revolution features as the concluding act of the two English revolutions that preceded it. What these “Three British Revolutions,” as Pocock dubbed them, have in common is an overriding concern with establishing a well-balanced constitution. The primary example of such a constitution came from the Roman Republic, and its primary theorist was none other than Polybius.

What’s striking to me is how the dominant political interpretations of the American Revolution mostly write out the importance of classical authors on American constitutional thought. Gordon Wood made an exception for John Adams (how could he not?), suggesting that Adams was the odd man out among the Founders. But even a cursory reading of the Records of the Federal Convention, the letters of the Founders, or The Federalist reveals that Adams was far from alone in his obsession with classical political thought. The debate over the organization of the senate even appears to have been settled by an authoritative reference to the structure of the Achaean league (which the delegate verbally footnoted!).

In a 1940 article that appeared in the very first issue of the JHI, Gilbert Chinard outlined the extent to which the Founders relied on Polybius in particular. He’s certainly the star of Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (1787). But to appreciate Polybius’s influence, you also have to consider his central place in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English constitutionalism. Put simply, Polybius is everywhere, and serves as a shorthand reference for the idea that the ideal constitution combines elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. While not all Americans were as forthcoming as Adams about seeking this arrangement in their own federal constitution, it doesn’t take much squinting to recognize its outline. As Eric Nelson has persuasively shown, the presidency is an explicitly “monarchic” office (some of whose powers can even be traced back to those of the Roman consuls, in Polybius’s analysis). Many of the delegates in Philadelphia described the senate as an aristocratic chamber; and the House was obviously democratic.

Equally important for my own story, though, is the purpose of this arrangement. Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and others do not hide their conviction that a well-balanced constitution of this sort is specifically designed to prevent another revolution (and Shays’s Rebellion gave them reason to fear one). What made Polybius so attractive is that his theory offered a guarantee against different types of revolution. It guarded against a populist takeover, but also from oligarchy or despotism. That’s the promise of the well-balanced constitution.

So rather than inaugurating an “age of revolutions,” I argue that the American Revolution really marked the close of a Polybian era, during which the revolutions in general were viewed as something dangerous, and were only applauded (and designated as “glorious”) if they brought about the desired Polybian outcome. By 1789, by contrast, the French had learned to stop worrying and love revolution. For them, revolution was a step toward a transfigured future. The modern doctrine of progress—which I distinguish from the Koselleckian idea of acceleration—made the classical phobia of revolution obsolete. Historical change was no longer something to be prevented, but to be embraced. That’s the general idea, at least for now!

Glauco Schettini is a PhD candidate in history at Fordham University, New York. His research centers on religion and politics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Atlantic world. His dissertation, titled “The Invention of Catholicism: A Global Intellectual History of the Catholic Counterrevolution, 1780s-1840s,” investigates how European and Latin American counterrevolutionary thinkers reinvented Catholicism during the Age of Revolutions. An alumnus of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, Italy, he is the author of more than a dozen articles and book chapters.

Featured Image: Bavarian State Library, Munich, Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana) Clm 4660; fol. 1r with the Wheel of Fortune. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Misha Tadd on the Macro-History of the Laozi

Misha Tadd is an Associate Professor in the College of Philosophy at Nankai University. His research addresses pre-Qin and Han Daoist philosophy, comparative religion and philosophy, Traditional Laozegetics, and Global Laozegetics (a concept he developed). He has edited and translated multiple books (Parasites, Worms, and the Human Body in Religion and CultureOrder in Early Chinese Excavated TextsComprehensive Summary Collection of the Classics of Chinese Philosophy) and published in English journals like Diogenes and Religions and top Chinese journals like Philosophical Research, History of Chinese Philosophy,and Xinhua Digest. His recent focus is on cataloguing all the Laozi translations in the world (currently 2012 works in 95 languages) and establishing a worldwide network of scholars to study this Global Laozegetics.

Tadd spoke with contributing editor Grant Wong about his essay “Global Laozegetics: A Study in Globalized Philosophy,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).


Grant Wong: In your article, you argue for considering Laozegetics (“the reception and interpretation of the Laozi in Chinese commentaries”) from a “global, transcultural, and interlinguistic” perspective. What do you feel we are missing in traditional studies of the Laozi when we constrain ourselves to a strictly Chinese approach? You also note that “with its shocking quantity and variety of translations, [the Laozi] indisputably belongs to the entire world.” What does it mean for a text like the Laozi to belong to a global heritage?

Misha Tadd: To start with, most research on the Laozi does not even consider the text’s evolution and transformation within the rich Chinese commentarial tradition and simply engages with intra-textual or historically contextualized analysis. Much is lost by not engaging the broader developments of the use and meaning of the text beyond its earliest beginnings. By imagining that the “original” is all that matters, we actually misunderstand how this foundational classic has impacted individual thinkers and cultural phenomena within Chinese civilization.

This observation is even more significant when we consider the text beyond the Sinographic-sphere—the historical East Asian world that used Chinese and could engage with the Laozi untranslated. If we want to fully comprehend the impact of the Laozi and its philosophy, we must investigate the different versions or interpretive transformations represented by various translations and who was reading which ones. For example, Kafka once wrote that “Laozi’s aphorisms are adamantine nuts. I am spellbound by them, but their kernel remains concealed from me” (Hellen Zhang’s translation). But which Laozi did he mean? Studying the “original” helps little in identifying what type of text people like that celebrated author have encountered. To do so, we must ascertain what translations they read and what philosophical visions were embedded therein. Without this foundational work, the rich life of the text and its travels will remain shallowly understood.

The question of the globalized status of the Laozi, or its “belonging to the entire world,” also relates back to the first question. The common methods of Laozi research miss our current reality. To pretend that this work is only a Chinese classic and not something that has grown much larger is to erase one of the most notable examples of textual translation, transmission, and transformation in human history. We might for example consider how the dissertation by Lucas Carmichael “The Daode jing as American Scripture” asserts that the Laozi (or Daodejing) has become functionally American according to how people produce and engage its many translations and adaptations. This manifestation of the classic reveals one instance of the text “belonging” to a society or community beyond China.

Of course, my claim of the Laozi’s global status relates to the text’s variety of different ways and forms it has engaged with people and places around the world. For example, in Indonesian the Laozi often appears as a work tied to the Chinese diaspora, like with the translations of the Tridharma Association, but also becomes localized via retranslating English versions (e.g. Filsafat Kehidupan Dalam Perspektif). In Iran, a country that enthusiastically engages the Laozi, with 43 translations in Persian, one finds the influence of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his brand of Traditionalism. Nasr actually just published his Persian Laozi translation Tā’ū Tih Chīng: Ṭarīq wa Faḍā’il-i Ān, but it is based on a manuscript from the 1970s. That work represented the first translation into Persian and was part of a period of collaboration that introduced this classic to Iran. Also involved in this project was Toshihiko Izutsu, who wrote the related groundbreaking comparative philosophical work: Sufism and Taoism. Both Nasr and Izutsu engage the Laozi as a storehouse of human wisdom and not just a culturally specific record. It is this more universalist view that has propelled the Laozi to its global status and enabled people from all backgrounds to make the text their own.

GW: In your article you speak to an ever-widening “plurality of Global Laozegetics” created by repeated translations of the text which, in turn, create new meanings for the Laozi at a global scale. As these meanings continue to accrue through varying transcultural contexts, will it still be possible to recognize common intellectual threads among the differing interpretations? At what point is the original intent behind the Laozi overshadowed by our modern understandings of the text?

MT: Even if we bracket the general critique of the notion of original intent, it is quite common to understand this text as something edited and compiled over hundreds of years. Therefore, “original intent” might be only traced to the last major editor, but even if we accept this type of limited intent, it did not remain as the dominant voice of the work for long. This is why I use the language of Laozegetics. Even before the finalization of the canonical text, people were already transforming and interpreting its content in radically different ways. The Laozegetics perspective emphasizes that this is not a question of classical versus modern or East versus West. Rather, this is a circumstance where we have a particularly flexible and abstract work that draws out many different understandings.

To answer your question more directly, the initial usage of the text was overshadowed quite quickly, though exactly what that might be is still obscure. The earliest Laozi commentaries, “JieLao”and “Yu Lao,” are identified with Hanfeizi (c. 280–233 BC), a political thinker sometimes called the “Machiavelli of China.” They present a very hard-nosed political exegesis that is quite distinct from most contemporary readings of “the original.” But that is because the majority of modern scholars understand the Laozi through the lens of commentaries written hundreds of years later. Increased awareness of the impact of the commentarial and even translation tradition on how we imagine the original meaning is one of the great values in this broad research. To pretend to engage the text with untainted eyes is counterproductive, and the remedy is investigating all types of interpretations and their historical impacts.

GW: Throughout your article you detail how different philosophers have interpreted the Laozi from varying political perspectives. It seems as if many translators and readers have read their own meanings into the Laozi without regard to the original intent behind the text. What, then, makes the Laozi distinctive in its numerous translations? In other words, what makes the Laozi, across these translations, the Laozi?

MT: While I’m suspect of the concept of an “original,” there are degrees to which the commentators and translators either more closely follow the exact contents of the text or venture in more creative directions. I do not pass judgment on these different approaches, and I’m not sure why one philological hermeneutic is necessarily superior to any other. Certainly, if we take into consideration the Chinese pre-modern tradition, that is not the approach that would be considered “authentic.” For example, the Daoist priest Du Daojian (1237-1318) explained that the Laozi is not static but transforms with the times: “Han dynasty commentators produced the Han Laozi, Jin dynasty commentators produced the Jin Laozi, and Tang and Song dynasty commentators produced the Tang and Song Laozi” (Xuanjing yuanzhi fahui). This suggests the true “original” Chinese text was conceived as a living transforming manifestation of the Dao in the world.

Of course, in the midst of so many transformations, what remains the same? Why refer to the translated or reinterpreted texts by the same name? There are two sides to this question. First is the issue of content; second is the question of form. Regarding content, it is possible to read the text against its more literal meaning, but at certain points this becomes quite difficult without completely rewriting the work. Most frequently the radical interpretations identify a few concepts or passages as the core and read everything from that perspective. For a text like the Laozi, this is almost a necessity. As I mentioned before, there are different layers of material edited together, and as a result the reader must construct coherency. Still, continuity remains. Regardless of the different metaphysics or political ideologies seen within the text, there exists a consistency in regard to the hidden nature of things, a subversion of language or logic, a critique of selfish humanity, a tendency away from violence, and an ideal of indirect use of power. Regarding form, there is a point in translation especially when the text becomes something different, it becomes rewritten or reimagined to a degree that the result can only be called Laozi-inspired. The exact border between these two manifestations remains murky. To be honest, I have not yet found the perfect standard to delineate the more creative translations from merely related works. For now, I consider the traditional eighty-one chapter divisions, or the basic content of said chapters, to be a useful measure. However, not all Chinese texts and editions include that full content, so this is a topic that deserves continued reflection.

GW: As you note in your article, there exist to your count “2000 translations in 94 languages” of the Laozi. This is a massive base of sources for any one scholar to study, especially given the translations’ varying philosophical, temporal, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Considering these challenges, where do you see yourself taking future research on the Laozi? Are there any particular intellectual trends within these translations that you plan to focus on?

MT: My article is a preliminary macro-history of the Laozi in translation that emerged while building a bibliography of all such translations. That bibliographic work continues with a plan of publication in 2022. Since I submitted the article’s final draft, I’ve already identified twelve new translations and one new language (Kyrgyz). The finalized bibliography will provide a foundation for all people interested in such research, the numbers of which are already growing. Last year, I hosted “The International Conference on Global Laozegetics” at Nankai University; it included over 40 scholars from 12 countries. The goal was to initiate a large dialogue between scholars of the Laozi text from China and those operating in all types of languages like Slovakian, Danish, Thai, Urdu, and Latin. This project brought together experts in language, translation studies, cultural studies, philosophy, and philology. Bridging these disciplinary divides presented challenges, but the event was quite successful. As a result, Nankai University’s College of Philosophy is planning to establish “The Global Laozegetics Research Center.” This platform will facilitate the gathering of people from around the world to investigate the totality of the history and philosophical significance of the Laozi in its many forms.

Therefore, the future of this research relates both to building a new field of study and to developing my own individual projects. For the former, I will be guest editing a special issue for the journal Religions on “Global Laozegetics” in May this year to more fully begin the conversation. For the latter, one of many examples is a study of Stanislas Julien’s 1842 French Laozi, called Le livre de la voie et la vertu,that traces which traditional commentaries inspired the translations of individual passages and then tracks the lineages of those interpretations trans-lingually. Basically, this means mapping interconnections between Chinese and non-Chinese Laozegetics. In summation, Global Laozegetics is a quickly developing direction of research that offers rich opportunities for scholars from multiple specialties using varied methodologies. All are encouraged to participate in this expansive endeavor.

Grant Wong is a Ph.D. student of twentieth-century American popular culture at the University of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in how popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s manifested itself in all aspects of American life, especially within music, capitalism, thought, and youth culture. Grant’s writing can be found in Slate and PopMatters.

Featured Image: Nicholas Roerich, “Laozi,” 1924. Courtesy of WikiArt.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Karie Schultz on Early Modern University Education

Karie Schultz is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of St Andrews (2021-2024) with research interests in the relationship between theology and political thought in early modern Britain and Europe. Her current project examines seventeenth-century Catholic and Reformed student mobility from the British Isles to Europe with a specific focus on confessional and national identity formation. She completed her PhD at Queen’s University Belfast in 2020, followed by a nine-month fellowship at the British School at Rome. Her first monograph, Protestantism, Revolution and Scottish Political Thought: The European Context, 1637-1651 is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press.

Schultz spoke with contributing editor Pranav Jain about her essay “Protestant Intellectual Culture and Political Ideas in the Scottish Universities, ca. 1600–50,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).


Pranav Jain: I appreciated the point in your article that historians should look beyond printed sources, especially to student notebooks and theses. Apart from the themes that you have covered in this essay, what else can we glean from such sources about early modern universities and other subjects?

Karie Schultz: Although sources from the early modern universities—student notebooks, lecture notes, disputations, and philosophical theses—are linguistically and paleographically challenging, they are highly valuable for several reasons. First, they provide critical insights into multiple aspects of university education in the early modern period. Although I use these sources in the article to examine the teaching of ethical and political doctrines, this material provides information about other university subjects (philosophy, theology, logic, and metaphysics). They are an incredibly rich source base for understanding how Scottish intellectual culture developed across multiple disciplines, and they help us situate Scotland within broader European intellectual trends. Lecture notes, student notebooks, and theses also reveal similarities and differences in how regents taught their students about philosophical, theological, and ethical doctrines. They demonstrate how multiple strands of Protestant thought arose within a shared Aristotelian curriculum, especially as Scots attempted to forge a confessional orthodoxy after the Reformation of 1560.  

Second, although this article focuses specifically on the Reformed universities and Protestant intellectual culture, such sources also exist for Catholic institutions across Europe. For example, lecture notes, student notebooks, and disputations survive from the Collegio Romano (the precursor to the modern Pontifical Gregorian University), a Jesuit-run institution that trained Catholic students of different nationalities who came to study in Rome. Upon completing their education, these Catholic students took up careers of political or religious prominence, often in diplomacy, the mission field, or the priesthood. An emphasis on Aristotelian texts and a sustained interest in doctrines about civic life (similar to those advanced in sources from the Scottish universities) also appeared within lecture notes and student notebooks from the Collegio Romano. These sources therefore provide a valuable perspective on similarities and differences in how Reformed and Catholic students were educated to think about politics, theology, ethics, and philosophy in the early modern period.

Lastly, these sources are valuable beyond the university context and help us to better understand the transmission of ideas on a broader social basis. While printed works instrumentally shaped public opinion and created spheres for popular debate in the early modern period, focusing only on printed texts provides little analysis of how religious and political orthodoxies were taught to a significant proportion of the population. The focus on printed works has thus left a fundamental gap in our understanding of early modern intellectual culture, especially regarding how university-educated individuals thought about political duties in a century dominated by instability and civil strife. Furthermore, early modern universities were wealthy, powerful, and culturally significant institutions. Like their Catholic contemporaries, students in Reformed universities frequently took up prominent positions in the community as statesmen, diplomats, lawyers, ministers, or university regents. Through these positions, they could transmit the ideas they learned in the universities to the wider population through sermons, print, and ordinary conversations. For this reason, examining the doctrines that university students were taught about ethics, philosophy, and theology (whether in Scotland or beyond) is essential for understanding the establishment of confessional and political orthodoxies after the Reformation.

PJ: Both historically and historiographically, does your interpretation of Protestant intellectual life in the early seventeenth century apply to educational institutions beyond Scotland, especially those in continental Europe?

KS: Yes, the interpretation of Protestant intellectual life that I advance in the article—one characterized by complex Augustinian and Aristotelian strains of thought about human engagement in politics—applies to educational institutions beyond Scotland. Reformed universities across Europe had a shared Aristotelian framework for the curriculum, even though methodologies might differ. Students educated in European institutions engaged with the same philosophical, theological, and political ideas as students educated in the Scottish universities. Although historians of the Scottish universities have long confronted the misconception that these institutions were intellectually stagnant prior to the Enlightenment, we are increasingly acknowledging that they operated on the cutting edge of the philosophical and theological debates taking place within the British Isles and in continental Europe. Early modern universities were also highly transnational with significant amounts of student mobility. Students from Scotland frequently traveled abroad to receive part (if not all) of their education at universities in Europe. For example, John Forbes of Corse, the leader of the so-called ‘Aberdeen Doctors,’ studied at Heidelberg under David Pareus where he began to develop his ideas about religious irenicism and the unification of the Protestant nations of Europe. The movement of students and regents across the continent meant that the students and regents at the Scottish universities participated in a shared Protestant intellectual culture that extended beyond their own borders.

Furthermore, the political and ethical doctrines considered by students and regents in the Scottish universities have connections to broader Reformed intellectual traditions across Europe. Scholars have long been interested in the relationship between early modern Reformed intellectuals and the political ideas underlying the modern secular state. In this article, I argue that complex Augustinian and Aristotelian strands of thought about human nature and political life permeated university education. Even though students in Scotland studied at confessionalized universities and were taught Reformed theology, they were not predetermined to think about human nature and the purpose of the temporal kingdom in one specific way. This was also certainly the case in Europe where Reformed students received a similar education in theology, philosophy, and ethics which resulted in multiple perspectives on human nature and political life. Importantly, this challenges the notion that there was one consistent body of Reformed political thought emerging from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that laid the foundations for the modern secular state.

PJ: At the end of the essay, you suggest that “the teaching of ethics and politics within the Scottish universities therefore provided students with a variegated intellectual framework for approaching political life, one that they adapted to create their own languages of political legitimacy during the civil wars of the 1640s.” Can you elaborate on what these languages were, and whether they survived the upheavals of the civil wars? 

KS: One primary purpose of university education in seventeenth-century Scotland was to teach students how to live as good and godly subjects in the temporal kingdom. Above all, Scots aimed to establish a nation covenanted with God, and they used university education to instill godly values in their students. However, what it meant to be a godly subject who obeyed God’s commandments for political life varied for Scots, especially during the civil wars of the 1640s. On the one hand, some Scots emphasized human depravity and the need for obedience to civil government, a position that reflected the profound influence of Augustinian ideas on Reformed intellectual culture. Many Scottish royalists, such as John Maxwell, the Aberdeen Doctors, and John Corbet, argued that God ordained government to control human sinfulness and wickedness. As a result, subjects had a primary duty of obedience in the temporal kingdom, whereby they obeyed all laws and the king as God’s regent on earth. Such ideas about obedience and passivity in political life, ones which were derived from viewing government as a tool for restraining sinfulness, thus resonated with the Augustinian emphasis on human depravity that circulated in the Scottish universities.

On the other hand, many Covenanter leaders embraced a form of limited or constitutional monarchy, whereby Parliament and civil law ruled above the king. They emphasized rational human participation in political life, arguing that God allowed human beings to mediate his original power by electing and deposing their magistrates using their reason. The king’s power was legitimate only insofar as he upheld his covenant with God and the people to be a godly and just ruler. If he failed to do so, God called subjects to resistance and active engagement in reconstituting governments. The different perspectives on human nature and political participation that were discussed in the universities therefore gave royalists and Covenanters the language necessary to debate the legitimacy of political authority during the civil wars. The political ideas that emerged from these conversations (absolute sovereignty, consent of the governed, the right of self-defense) are now regarded as the building blocks of the modern secular state. As such, the languages of political legitimacy advanced in the civil wars (ones which were intrinsically connected to the teaching of ethics in the universities) persisted beyond the 1640s, making an awareness of how ideas about human engagement in political life were taught in the universities all the more vital.

Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: Glasgow University around 1650. From James Howie, The Scots Worthies (1876). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.