Companion Piece

Recycled Words: An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Original Literature

By Justin Willson

This is a companion piece to the author’s article, “A Meadow that Lifts the Soul: Originality as Anthologizing in the Byzantine Church Interior,” published in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (vol. 81.1).

Literary critics have a knack for wielding double standards — and nowhere more so than in the judgment of originality. In the Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Northrop Frye asserts that “any serious study of literature soon shows that the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (97). Far from implying an absence of imitation, originality, Frye believes, emerges from its necessity: “The remark of Mr. Eliot that a good poet is more likely to steal than to imitate affords a more balanced view of convention.” Stealing — recycling the style, voice and moves of poets one admires and envies — is the trademark of the good poet. If he can get away with it, and actually create something new in the process, he (and it is often ‘he’ for these critics) may qualify as  what Harold Bloom calls the “strong” poet. For Bloom, who died just this past October (2019), the poet is always wresting his creative power from the titans of the literary canon. Or to put the point in Frye’s more subdued, textually-oriented language: “Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels” (97).

None of this will surprise readers of modernist literature. James Joyce and Ezra Pound, to take but two of the most obvious examples, filled their writings with echoes, citations and parodies, to an extent that blurs the line between imitative use (or reuse) and novelty. This, in the eyes of many critics, was exactly the point. But whereas history has looked with (mostly) favorable eyes on this borrowing and rearranging — the fecund hallmark of the 20th century avant-garde (think, for instance, of Marcel Duchamp’s “found” objects, among them the urinal he ironically christened “Fountain”) — the same cannot be said of medieval art. That is to say, curiously, in the case of medieval art and literature, critics have often hastily dismissed the artistic impulse to revisit and reuse. Works of art that imitate famous models are looked upon as rote recycling, and literary texts that borrow from earlier authors are scorned as mindless copycat.

To be sure, the stakes of copying were vastly higher in a deeply Christian age than they were in post-WWI Europe and America: in medieval Europe, tradition, by and large, was upheld on the evidence of divine revelation, and the artist or intellectual who ventured too far from what the Church taught could be condemned as a heretic. Self-expression, individuality, and originality were not necessarily viewed as the goal of art and life, as they often are today. But they also weren’t entirely foreign to the medieval intellectual. Indeed, a certain kind of originality thrived, and in my contribution to JHI I look at how medieval writers used the metaphor of the anthology as an emblem of their distinctive conception of what it meant to be original.

The word “anthology” comes from two Greek roots: anthos and legein which, together, mean “to gather flowers,” and an anthologia is a bouquet or a garland. The flowers in this metaphor are images or passages from literary works. In typical usage, the English word anthology connotes a book that is just a compilation, which no one would mistake for a work that is a unique literary text. But medieval literature points to the deeper sense of originality that Frye articulates. The anthology — the very embodiment of the derivative — is an emblem of a deeply learned, historically situated originality. Literary culture is borrowed from the past. Every poem is made, more or less, out of earlier poems. Every poet is inevitably indebted to an earlier poet — a dependency that Bloom famously characterized as the “anxiety of influence” which a strong poet tries to overcome. In the original work of art, Frye would say, one expects to find citations and echoes of earlier artworks. Past literature colors new literature through and through. This renders anthologizing a positively creative cultural practice, giving the term a new valence.

Seen this way, the literary and visual canons of art are an ever-evolving anthology, and medieval cultural productions are no exception to this general rule. Medieval writers and visual artists were adept at copying, which is to say they were highly original and inventive. Medieval authors and artists preyed on their predecessors, a pillaging that constituted the lifeline of their tradition. Models, motifs, and turns of phrase borrowed from the past reflected not stagnancy but movement and display. Creativity provided audiences with an opportunity to reappraise the tradition,  presupposing an ability to discern a nuanced recasting of the familiar. Medieval literature and visual art, in other words, could be read as one great ode in praise of copying, to quote a recent title. Cutting and pasting — which the medieval author cherished as much as the modernist — is the signature of a self-reflective art rather than a mark of deficiency.

In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophers abandoned this very medieval (and indeed very classical) way of looking at and appreciating the citational richness of works of literature and visual art. The influential French philosopher Montesquieu castigates les compilateurs,who, in his view, are no better than printers arranging letter blocks on a blank page, or erratic librarians creating new patterns by reshuffling books on a shelf. Like the librarian or the printer, the anthologist, in Montesquieu’s elitist conception, works only with her hands rather than with her mind. But for much of the medieval period the mind that invents and the hand that executes were far less easily divorced than Montesquieu’s dualism implies. Seen in hindsight, it is not the view of Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu but that of medieval authors that bears an affinity with our post-modern stance towards the artist. The Byzantine authors I survey: Procopius (6th century), John of Damascus (8th century), and Leo the Wise (9th century) metaphorically describe the artist as an anthologist who taps into the creative potential of a cultural totality that transcends individuality.

The view of the artist as a conduit or channel of a will that collectively exceeds individual agency and subjectivity is held by many artists today. For instance, in The Annotated Reader (2018), Ryan Gander asked a variety of persons (not just artists) to annotate a short passage from any text that had impacted them. Binding their submissions together, Gander made an anthology, a handbook penned by many hands. Leaves that bore the mark of a bygone act of consumption, the Reader could make no claim to be untouched or new to the market. Rather, its value lay precisely in being a rebinding of twice and thrice-told words, a situation that bears relevance for the thick understanding of tradition and reuse that presided over much of art-making in medieval times.

The impulse to anthologize — an ecologically friendly kind of creativity, if you will — is a legacy of the Middle Ages that lives on in postmodernity. If it doesn’t map on to the crystalline seventeenth-century Enlightenment ideals of total originality, anthologizing has an uncanny resonance with the messier, empirically derived insights of nineteenth-century Darwin:  survival of the fittest, most imitable text is the least common denominator of a viable canon. Traces always remain of  what has come before, and, just as in nature, nothing comes from nothing. This medieval view of originality may be able to help us think through the problems that face us today, above all our obsession with art—and other commodities, cultural and industrial—that seems to have been conceived ex nihilo. The myth of total originality is a symptom of a broader obsession with the property, and unrecycled novelty, that has had serious environmental repercussions. Historicizing originality robs the commodity of its deceptive claim to have come from nowhere.

Justin Willson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art & Archaeology at Princeton University where he works on Byzantine and Slavic art and aesthetics. His publications have appeared in Res: Anthropology & Aesthetics and Studies in Iconography.

Companion Piece Intellectual history

“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Menasseh?”

Read Professor Nadler’s full article from this season’s JHI, “Spinoza and Menasseh ben Israel: Facts and Fictions.”

It just goes to show: even a rabbi can sometimes bend the truth a little, especially in the heat of debate.

In this article, I considered how, during his 1656 “friendly and extemporaneous conversation” in London with the Huguenot minister Jean d’Espagne, the Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh ben Israel claims that the Jewish people do not “anathematize” people. Here is the exchange:

Menasseh: Do you think our rabbis are fools?

D’Espagne: Well, at least crazy. For what do you think about those who think and speak about God in such a blasphemous way? Indeed, why do you not anathematize them?

Menasseh: We are not accustomed to cursing people.

As I note, Menasseh’s remark is striking because this debate took place just two months before Menasseh’s own Talmud Torah congregation of the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam decided to “excommunicate, expel, curse and damn” the young Bento de Spinoza for his “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds”, punishing the future philosopher with the most extended and vitriolic herem (ban or ostracism) ever pronounced by the parnassim (leaders) of that community.

What makes his remark even more interesting is that Menasseh himself was once put under herem by his community. Here are the circumstances:

In early 1640, according to a report in the community’s record book, some anonymous individuals had “put up certain posters or defamatory papers on the doors of the synagogue, on the bridge, at the market and in other places.”[i] The placards, which the report says touched on “the subject of Brazil”, were apparently impugning the business practices and character of certain members of the community involved in the South American trade (mostly sugar). Most likely they were directed at well-established merchants who did not appreciate any new competition and so were making things difficult for others seeking to enter the market. Dishonorable behavior in commerce was one thing, and it would be dealt with, but publicly shaming fellow congregants was yet a more serious violation of the community’s regulations. This kind of insolent behavior could not be tolerated. “It is well understood by all that this deed is abominable, reprehensible, and worthy of punishment.” And so, on February 9, 1640, the members of the ma’amad issued an at-large punishment on the unknown culprits.

We put under herem and announce that the person or persons who have made such papers and posted them are cursed by God and separated from the nation. Nobody may speak with them or do them a favor or give them assistance in any way.

A herem was an act of banning or ostracism (often, somewhat inaccurately, translated as “excommunication”) used by the Amsterdam parnassim to punish congregants who had violated communal regulations and generally to keep people in line. It was a form of religious, social and economic isolation. A person under herem was usually forbidden from participating in synagogue services, as well as from socializing and conducting any business with members of the community. It was an effective measure for maintaining Jewish discipline and social order among relatively new Jews—many of the Amsterdam Sephardim were, or descended from, former conversos—still getting used to an orthodox life.

Soon after the libelous posters appeared, the ma’amad learned who the guilty parties were—Daniel Rachaõ and Israel da Cunha—and the ban was applied to them the very next day. (It was lifted on Rachaõ a week later after he expressed contrition for his actions.)

However, a short time later, the ma’amad discovered that Jonah Abrabanel and Moses Belmonte were also involved in the “Brazilian matter”, either as participants in the original escapade or by circulating new posters again suggesting that certain Portuguese-Jewish merchants were less than honorable. Abrabanel and Belmonte were each given a herem, but were soon back in good standing after expressing deep and sincere remorse for their behavior and paying their fines.

Menasseh, however, was incensed by the way in which Jonah Abrabanel, his brother in-law, had been treated. He, of course, as Jonah’s partner, shared his sentiments about the merchants who were seeking to monopolize the Brazil trade, and he may even have been involved in distributing the offending material. But even more, Menasseh felt that the ma’amad had shown great disrespect to Jonah when the whole affair was made public in the synagogue during services, not least by failing to accord him the honorific title senhor when his name was read out. Menasseh lost his temper and protested loudly from the rabbis’ bench. According to the report of the ma’amad, “Menaseh [sic] came from his place and, with loud voice and all worked up, complained that his brother-in-law was not called ‘Senhor‘ – giving him the title that was owed to him.” The congregation’s gabbai responded that Abrabanel did not deserve the title, as it was to be used only with sitting members of the ma’amad. This only made Menasseh madder.

A large part of the assembly left its place, whereupon Menasseh turned on them, without being willing to calm himself, as he was continuously warned to do, until finally two parnassim of the synagogue stood up in order to make him be quiet, and indeed, since they could not do it with sufficient words, used the punishment of herem. They ordered him to stop and to return to his house. He countered with a loud voice: he would not. Then the parnassim, who were in the synagogue, came together, and since the disturbance continued further, they confirmed the punishment of the herem in order to make him [Menasseh] stop, and they ordered as well that no one speak with him.

The members of the ma’amad retired to their chambers, whereupon Menasseh followed them, burst in and

raising his voice and pounding on the table, said in a serious fashion all the unbridled thoughts that came into his mind, so that finally one of the parnassim apprised him that he is the cause of various disturbances … the parnassim told him to leave the chamber and that they regarded him as cut off. He responded to that with loud voice that he was putting them under herem and not the parnassim him, and other such shameful things.

It was an impressive display of righteous indignation. Out of respect for his position and years of service to the community, the ma’amad took some pity on him. Menasseh’s ban, recorded on May 8, 1640 and imposed “for the insubordination, the scene, and the curses, which he had spoken four times”, was in place for only one day.[ii] From sundown to sundown, he was forbidden from entering the synagogue and communicating with any members of the community. On top of that, however, “to serve as an example to others”, he was suspended from his rabbinical duties for a year. It was a heavy penalty for what was regarded as a serious breach of decorum. Unlike his brother-in-law, there is no indication that he ever expressed remorse for his behavior.

[i] The ma’amad‘s records of the event, from which the quotations that follow are taken, are in the Livro dos Acordos da Naçao e Ascamot, in the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Archive 334: Archives of the Portuguese Jewish Community in Amsterdam, Inventory 19 (Ascamot A, 5398–5440 [1638–1680]). See fols. 55–56 and 69–70. These pages are accessible online as #71, 78 and 79 at

They are transcribed in Carl Gebhardt, Die Schriften des Uriel da Costa (Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, 1922), pp. 212–19.

[ii] Livro dos Acordos da Naçao e Ascamot, fol. 70, accessible online as #79 at On 8 September 1647, the page on which the herem against Menasseh was recorded was pasted over with a piece of paper by the ma’amad, “out of respect.”

Companion Piece Intellectual history

In Theory: The JHI Blog Podcast

By Co-Hosts Simon Brown and Disha Karnad Jani

In the past few months, we’ve had the opportunity to speak with several scholars on their new and forthcoming work, and we’ve found these conversations surprising, entertaining, and intellectually exciting. Through these conversations, we’ve been able to ask writers precisely the kinds of questions we often have when we read: why did you choose to write about this? How did you come to your sources? What are the stakes of this debate for you? How should we teach this work? What are the politics that underlie your intervention, and what sort of moral imperative does your work suggest? With a podcast, we can invite listeners into an in-depth discussion on a topic with someone who has been generous enough with their time and scholarship to talk with us, and hopefully allow the listener to leave with a better understanding of the intellectual question at hand, and a desire to search for more. We seek to have frank conversations about the work produced by intellectual historians with those historians themselves, so that we might bring more people into the conversations around the ideas that animate and haunt our pasts and presents.

There’s an exciting proliferation of new work in intellectual history, and our conversations will focus on those original arguments and the ideas behind them. Each discussion will take up a recent book, reconstruct the narrative, walk through the argument and consider how it fits within the broader concerns of the author and her field. These conversations will also allow the author to talk about the ideas and commitments that give their histories the shape they take. Theoretical considerations of the relation between ideas and practices, the social origins of concepts and the status of the “intellectual” can seem disconnected from our work when they’re unmoored from historical examples. Questions like these confront anyone working in the history of ideas, and answers to them can help clarify our narratives. Our interviews will offer the opportunity for scholars to directly engage with them in a way that listeners can find insightful. 

The conversations will span a range of periods, regions and subfields, but all will speak to issues of interest to anyone working broadly in intellectual history. We are eager to talk with early-career scholars about their first books, and also more experienced authors about recent publications.    

If you have an idea for an interview, and would either like us to run it or would like to interview the author yourself, please email us at or with a brief summary of the book you’d like to discuss, your interests, and a timeline for publishing.

Companion Piece

Transitions, Thresholds, Traditions. Hans Blumenberg and Historical Thought

By Daniel Weidner

This is a companion piece to Daniel Weidner’s recent article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, ‘The History of Dogma and the Story of Modernity: The Modern Age as the “Second Overcoming of Gnosticism”.

Like identical twins, philosophy and history seem to be tied together in an uneasy way. On one hand, philosophy still tries to a large extent to engage with the history of philosophy. There are not many other branches of knowledge that would continually refer back to their own “classics”. On the other hand, quite a few of these classics authors did not hold history in high esteem. Aristotle, as is well known, preferred even drama to history because the latter simply concerns issues that are contingent. The marriage between history and philosophy quite often results in monsters in the form of Hegelian philosophies of history: great narratives that are still among the main targets of critical thought, probably because they are all too easy to debunk.

If we head for a more difficult task, or simply want to get deeper in the conundrum, we might turn to the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg. Blumenberg’s work mostly comprises voluminous books which trace, with utmost erudition, a certain idea or motif – the idea of myth, the metaphor of ‘reading’ the world, the motif of the exit from the cave – from antiquity to the present. Once, when accused of being a historicist, Blumenberg stated that he would accept this title with pride. Occasionally, he described his undertaking as a “phenomenology of history” – not an easy task since phenomenology, here understood in the Husserlian sense, belongs to those philosophical disciplines that are not particularly friendly with history. Precisely these frictions, however, seemsto have allowed Blumenberg to be particularly conscious about the problem of a history of philosophy as distinct from a philosophy of history and to develop creative approaches and detours.

One of these approaches seem to be very simple but proves most efficient. What if we do not focus on the very question what is history as a whole? or the ‘essence’ of history’s major epochs, but more modestly on the minor changes and transitions? Even though we might not know what antiquity is, we could be able to describe what happens when it comes to an end. Blumenberg argued in a review article from 1958 that this is where the more interesting historical research ends up:

“If Hellenism and late antiquity, ‘the autumn of the middle ages’ and the dawn of the modern ages have become attractive recently, the big question of what ‘history’ is stands silently in the background. What is an ‘epoch’? What is the structure of ‘epochal change’? How is the incongruence of testimonies and events to be understood and methodologically handled? These are the very detailed questions that seem to be necessary to discuss and transform the problem of History from its daunting massiveness into something graspable.”[1]

What we observe in these transitions is neither continuity nor clear-cut rupture, rather something in-between, a certain overlapping where some issues, questions, and concepts are still in place but begin to change their meaning or – as Blumenberg tries to figure it – where answers might be found even if the questions to which they once belonged are no longer relevant. It is not an univocal change, but rather a threshold situation in which it is possible to look into both directions, to understand the new from the perspective of the old and vice versa. Later, in his magisterial book on The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Blumenberg set up a sort of differential test analyzing the two metaphysical conceptions of Nicolas Cusanus and Giordano Bruno. Despite the fact that the two ideas are very similar and the authors even, at times, make identical statements, Blumenberg argues that on closer inspection they point in different directions: one to a medieval horizon of thought and the other towards a modern understanding of the world.

It is not by chance that this epochal threshold concerns the emergence of what Blumenberg calls “the Modern Age” (“die Neuzeit”, literally “the New Age”). Another fruitful approach to the question of history is to ask more specifically about the history of this Modern age. For this history is different from previous ones because the modern age understands itself as a new beginning that breaks with its past. Does this claim not contradict the very project of a history of this claim? That is at least the suspicion in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, where Blumenberg vigorously and broadly criticizes the so called theories of ‘secularization.’ Those theories argued that essential modern ideas and attitudes are nothing but transformed Christian heritage, e.g. when Max Weber claims that the capitalist work ethos emerged out of the Puritan search of salvation, or when Karl Löwith describes the modern philosophies of history as a mere continuation of Christian theologies of salvation. If that were true, Blumenberg argues, the self-declared aim of modernity to be autonomous or to be the beginning of something truly new would be an illusion.

Both approaches – the discussion of the epochal threshold and the discussion of the genealogy of modernity – do not only put forward interesting perspectives on the problem of history, they also relate to bodies of knowledge other than those usually discussed in relation to history and theory. In relation to late antiquity, Blumenberg refers to Hans Jonas and Rudolf Bultmann, among others, who developed complex models for how Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism interact and interfere. These researchers are anything but positivists, rather they are certainly major contributors to the hermeneutic discussion of the 1950s and beyond. Their history is a history of ideas more than a history of facts: it belongs the history of dogma and the history of religion. This is a very important but oddly overlooked field, for historical theology was among the most admired disciplines of the German university but has rarely been taken into account in more general discussions of the history of knowledge. Later, in Work on Myth, Blumenberg would have interesting things to say about dogma that he described as a form of knowledge that aims less at answering questions than excluding and eliminating them. This opens up paths for a more comprehensive approach that would be aware of the different historicity of different forms of knowledge, as myth, metaphor, concept, or dogma. Arguably, every tradition would consist of the complex interplay and overlap of these different forms of knowledge and expression.

In the Legitimacy, Blumenberg refers to the history of dogma to develop not only his own idea of historical change, but also his own account of early Christianity. This in turn also allows him to re-narrate the history of the modern age. Ironically, this work not only refutes the erroneous genealogies that claim modernity to be the secularization of Christianity but replaces it by a – no less complex, nor less far-reaching – story about modernity being the second overcoming of Gnosticism.  It was, according to Blumenberg, not the Christian eschatology that brought about modern philosophy of history, as Löwith did argue. Rather, Christian eschatology collapsed in the early phase of Christianity when the expected second coming of Christ was delayed, a breakdown that motivated the formation of Christian Dogma. This dogma than entailed the Gnostic assault on it, an assault that in turn was only overcome by the reevaluation of the world, worldly knowledge, and curiosity that Blumenberg claims to be characteristic of the modern age. As Löwith himself remarked in his review of the Legitimacy, we as readers might ask in the end: “why all this effort of precise distinction, broad historical erudition, and polemical invective against the scheme of Secularization if the critique of this illegitimate category in the end is so close with what it criticizes?”[2]

The discussion on secularization was a very German one, thus Blumenberg’s work, though translated early, was not broadly received internationally. Nor did his defense of the Modern Age fit well into the discussion on Postmodernism. Even today, the growing discussion on Secularism and Secularization seems to rest on premises so different from Blumenberg’s that it is all but easy to connect him to it. Still, his thinking allows us to complicate and also criticize the genealogies of modernity that are being discussed–from Jean Luc Nancy’s “deconstruction of Christianity” via Charles Taylor’s story of the emergence of a secular age to Jan Assman’s recent engagement with the “axial Age”. Moreover, Blumenberg’s meticulous histories of problems highlight that it does make a difference to reflect on what we actually do when we historicize properly and try to represent the subtleties of historical change. The history of philosophy – and maybe also the philosophy of history – might be richer if we were less concerned with the great answers or grand narratives than with the right questions that allow us to work out the transitions, thresholds, and traditions mentioned.

[1] Hans Blumenberg: Epochenschwelle und Rezeption, in: Philosophische Rundschau 6 (1958), 94-120, here 94-95.

[2] Karl Löwith: Review of Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in: Philosophische Rundschau 15/3 (1968), 195-201, here 200.

Companion Piece

Hegel and the Sphinx: The Riddle of World History

By Nicholas Germana

Professor Germana’s essay “The Creuzerstreit and Hegel’s Philosophy of History” is in the most recent Journal of the History of Ideas.

In his July 2002 article in JHI, on “Greek Origins and Organic Metaphors: Ideals of Cultural Autonomy in Neohumanist Germany from Winckelmann to Curtius,” Brian Vick effectively demonstrates the importance of the debate over Greek origins in German scholarship in the late 18th century.  The article sheds light on the intensity of the dispute between German classicists and up-and-coming Sprachwissenschaftler who placed increasing importance on the historical precedence and significance of Oriental languages, especially Sanskrit.  The problem for classicists came from mounting evidence that Sanskrit was an older relative of more modern European languages, including Greek, and some thinkers (most notably Herder and Friedrich Schlegel) proclaimed it to be the mother-tongue, the Ursprache of all human languages.  Friedrich Creuzer built on the work of these Sprachwissenschaftler (and that of his Heidelberg colleague Joseph Görres), claiming that the Oriental heritage of Greek culture included not just the language but also the central mythological and religious content of Greek culture (and, by implication, German culture as well).

Hegel Bust Bochum Archive
Bust of Hegel at the Hegel Archives in Bochum

Hegel was among the thinkers who most vehemently rejected Romantic claims about the historical significance of Oriental cultures, an opposition that has been well-documented at this point.  The scholarship of Sir William Jones and other (primarily English) philologists forced Hegel to accept the claims of historical priority, however reluctantly. Unlike the Romantics, however, Hegel rejected the idea that Sanskrit’s historical precedence conferred upon it any special status or gave it any right to share in the glorious efflorescence of Greek culture.  The clearly gendered language that Hegel uses to describe India (invariably feminine) and Greece (masculine in unmistakably Winckelmannian terms) is striking. Following what had become a convention of the day, he associates Indian culture with flowers, and in his lectures on the philosophy of history he likens the seductive charm of this “Flower-life” to the beauty of women following childbirth or during the magical transportations of dreamful sleep.

Hegel’s formulation here appears straight-forwardly Orientalist in the Saidian sense – the Orient is sexualized in terms that subject it to the male gaze, the categories of domineering masculine reason, and subjugation to European power.  A closer look, however, reveals something more interesting about the place and significance of these ideas in Hegel’s system. Hegel’s statement in the Philosophy of Right (1821) that men are like animals while women correspond to plants suggests that his claims about the femininity of Indian culture constituted more than the chauvinism of Hegel’s day, but were, in fact, of systematic importance (§168A).  Hegel’s ideas about human nature and biology are most thoroughly articulated in the Philosophy of Nature (first edition, 1818), and it is in this work that Hegel expounds upon the biological basis of the presumed differences between men sexes.  Women’s biology, for Hegel, is a product of their essential nature, a gendered embodiment of Spirit (this is the vitalism of his Naturphilosophie). While men are active and objectified in the world through their anatomy, women are passive and their being is directed inward toward the unarticulated immediacy of feeling.  While women find the realization of their essential nature in the family, men use the family as the spiritual foundation from which they can venture forth into the world (this relationship forms the core of Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist critique of modern society in The Second Sex).  The feminine is the basis of historical development and the achievement of male rational autonomy, but remains static and is excluded from this development.

Hegel’s thinking about the essential differences between the sexes and between human cultures was hardly without precedent.  It can clearly be traced back to Kant’s account of the teleological development of human cultures and the historical achievement of rational autonomy (Germana 2017).  Jon Stewart’s article, “Hegel, Creuzer, and the Rise of Orientalism” (Owl of Minerva, Nos. 1-2, 2013-2014) cautions, however, that this narrative is not so simple as it might appear.  Stewart’s interest is primarily in Hegel’s philosophy of religion, and he rightly points out that Hegel’s endorsement of Creuzer’s theories regarding the transmission of mythological and religious symbols from India to Greece brings Indian thought into the rich history of the development of Spirit in human cultures, rather than setting it aside as ahistorical and insignificant.  He is also right to point out that Hegel was one of the most vocal advocates of the need for modern Europeans to engage in deeper and more meaningful study of the belief systems of the ancient Orient. For the historian of ideas, however, a powerful question remains: How could Hegel embrace Friedrich Creuzer without embracing the Catholic romantic orientalism of Friedrich Schlegel (about whom Hegel’s comments are unequivocally negative)?

An answer to this question can be found in the gendered language of Hegel’s descriptions of Indian and Greek cultures.  There is a hitherto unrecognized, but critical difference between Creuzer’s and Hegel’s accounts – the Neoplatonism of the former, and the Aristotelianism of the latter.  Hegel’s thoroughly Aristotelian understanding of the teleological, organic development of Spirit through human cultures was able to make use of Creuzer’s model of historical development to arrive at very different conclusions.  In the preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel dismisses “conventional opinion” that gets caught up in the question of which philosophical system is “right” and which is “wrong,” arguing instead that the “diversity of philosophical systems” present “the progressive unfolding of truth” (§ 2).  From this perspective, Oriental religious ideas also have the “instinct of reason” as their basis, and they have a critical role to play in the teleological development of Spirit toward complete realization and “absolute knowing.” In the Phenomenology, Hegel reverts time and again to organic metaphors to describe the principle underlying this development.  Two of the most famous of these metaphors are, in fact, taken directly from Aristotle – the bud that “disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom” (§2, from On the Generation of Animals) and the embryo that contains the full potential of humanity, but which can only make “itself into what it is in itself” through the cultivation of reason (§21, from On the Soul).

In my JHI article, I draw out the implications of Hegel’s Aristotelianism, arguing that in line with Aristotelian views on reproduction India provides the inert material, to which the Greeks contribute the efficient cause that actualizes being and awakens its final cause, the development of Spirit toward complete self-realization in human freedom.  Unlike Creuzer, who granted India a privileged status as the progenitor of later world religions, Hegel posited a static subordinate stage of world-historical development whose real significance was limited to its “merely material” contribution to the growth of Spirit in the West.

This conclusion leads in a surprising new direction – toward a reevaluation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, its relation to his philosophy of history, and its place within his system as a whole.  Of all of his major works (published in his lifetime and after), the Philosophy of Nature is seen as the most problematic; as Terry Pinkard notes, the work “fell into complete disrepute immediately after his death and has rarely been looked at since by anybody other than dedicated Hegel scholars” (2000, 562-63).  Hegel’s views on science – his opposition to Newtonianism and his organic vitalism – have not stood the test of time in anything like the way that his ideas on society, history, morality, and culture have. These ideas have lived on and been fruitfully developed by other thinkers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, in contrast, is an end rather than a beginning in European thought.

However, Hegel’s Naturphilosophie may actually provide a key to the development of his philosophy of history.  Like inorganic and organic being, human cultures present the objectification and actualization of Spirit as it is “concretely instantiated,” to use Allison Stone’s apt description from Petrified Intelligence (SUNY Press, 2005, xiii). While other contemporary thinkers, such as Herder and Schelling, used floral metaphors to describe Indian culture, what if Hegel meant it not metaphorically but literally? If we map the philosophy of history over the Philosophy of Nature with Indian culture in the place of “The Plant Nature” (§§343-349), what do we find?  Moving “backwards” through less-developed “ontological structures” (again borrowing from Stone, xiii), we find ourselves in the realm that corresponds to Africa, on the one hand, and inorganic being on the other.  (China marks a special case, and Hegel’s thinking on China developed after the narrative structure of the philosophy of history was in place.) Africa, in Hegel’s system, is characterized by totemism and fetishism that never really manage to escape the bonds of merely material existence.  Africa is essentially inert.

Moving forward into “The Animal Organism,” we find Egypt.  In his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel makes much of the Egyptian deification of animals, which he holds to be a considerable progression over the worship of inanimate celestial bodies.  Animal being possesses the spark of vitality and subjectivity that is only hinted at in plant life. In a remarkable passage in the philosophy of history lectures, Hegel tarries over the ideas embodied in the Sphinx, with its human head emerging from an animal body.  Finally, in the Greeks we possess human nature and in Hegel’s system we are led to the third volume of the Encyclopedia, the Philosophy of Mind.

There is certainly no precise correspondence between the stages of development articulated in the Philosophy of Nature and the lectures on the philosophy of history.  Hegel’s thought developed considerably as he delivered and refined his various lecture series throughout the 1820s, as well as the revisions he made to the Encyclopedia just before his death.  There is, however, enough of a correspondence to suggest a compelling research project.  Allison Stone and Sally Sedgewick (“Remarks on history, contingency, and necessity in Hegel’s Science of Logic,” in Hegel on Philosophy in History, Cambridge University Press, 2019) have raised compellingly similar questions about how far we should read necessity into Hegel’s philosophy of nature and philosophy of history, respectively.  We might most profitably engage these questions by bringing the inquiries together.

Nicholas A. Germana is a Professor of History at Keene State College in New Hampshire.  His second book, The Anxiety of Autonomy and the Aesthetics of German Orientalism, was published by Camden House in 2017.  He is currently working on a study of the Newtonian influence on Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.

Companion Piece Think Piece

Return of the King? Monarchy in American Thought

By Zach Bates

This is a companion essay to the author’s “The Idea of Royal Empire and the Imperial Crown of England, 1542–1698”, published in the January 2019 edition of the JHI.

Into the twenty-first century, it has been a commonplace that Britain and its soon-to-become independent North American colonies diverged on ideological grounds (exacerbated, of course, by revolution and independence).  This division appears dialectical, and has been expressed in multiple ways: a revolutionary Atlantic opposed to a conservative/loyalist Atlantic; or a republican America (sometimes restricted to the United States; other times encompassing many of the new nation-states in the Americas) against a monarchical Europe. These approaches can be found in Bernard Bailyn, J. C. D. Clark, and Carla Gardina Pestana (see The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; The Language of Liberty; The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution).  Though ostensibly exorcised from the United States in the late eighteenth century, monarchy is far from a banished (or condemned) concept: Its imagery, symbolism, and constitutional vestiges (at least in the form of the executive branch as established in the United States Constitution) persist in American popular and political culture.  Despite the apparent ideological divide, American ambivalence about monarchy has been a recurrent feature throughout colonial and national history.  This companion piece to my recent article in the Journal of the History of Ideas will focus on showing the continuities in thinking about monarchy from what we might consider the monarchical culture of the Anglo-American world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – that is, a political community throughout the Atlantic that referred to itself as the British Empire and included Britain and its overseas colonies – to an American society that has often identified itself as republican and modern.

Two strands of recent scholarship have reoriented our understandings of the Crown’s legal role in governing the American colonies and colonists’ relationship to their monarchs.  Work on the seventeenth century has shown that the Crown had an important supervisory legal role and a symbolic role for its American subjects – inclusive of both Europeans and indigenous peoples (Ken MacMillan, Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World; Jenny Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King).  Brendan McConville has argued for the continued importance of the monarchy in American culture after 1688 up to 1776, and argued against the importance of republican ideas during this period. According to his study, colonial America was enthusiastic and steadfast in its support of the monarchy, and this was only sundered by competing visions of the king (The King’s Three Faces).  Eric Nelson has extended this line of thinking to the Revolution and composition of the Constitution; he argues that royalist ideas were influential in the opposition to King George III and the push for a strong executive in the early U.S. (The Royalist Revolution).  These recent studies have led to a royalist revival in scholarship on the monarchy’s place in American legal thought during the seventeenth century and its cultural and intellectual heritage in colonial America and the early United States (for a study of continuing British cultural influence in the U.S. during the early nineteenth century, see Elisa Tamarkin, Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America).

My recent article seeks to link this recent scholarship that emphasizes the importance of monarchy in colonial America to the intellectual history of the British Empire.  The eighteenth century is viewed as a key period for the development of identity (Linda Colley, Britons) and ideology (David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire) within the British Empire.  This approach fits in with earlier scholarship on this imperial entity as one that was acquired in “a fit of absence of mind” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and that was only recognized as an expansive political community by eighteenth-century contemporaries (see J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England; C. H. Firth, “The British Empire,” pp. 185-89; Richard Koebner, Empire).  My article repositions the argument by emphasizing an intellectual means for seventeenth-century subjects of the English (sometimes considered “British”) to view themselves as members of a political community, at times referred to as a “royal empire,” that spanned the Atlantic possessions of the Stuart monarchs (and sometimes extended into Africa and Asia).  Much as the scholarship on colonial America has discovered for eighteenth-century colonial populations, allegiance to the Crown was a way to politically identify oneself with others across vast geographies in the seventeenth century – and, as Steven Ellis has argued, even between Ireland and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Steven G. Ellis, “Crown, Community and Government in the English Territories, 1450-1575,” pp. 187-204).  With this in mind, my article suggests that the classical formulation of the British Empire as protestant, commercial, maritime, and free should be amended to include that it was royalist.

Monarchy was integral to the ideological origins of the British Empire and a vital cultural and intellectual force in colonial America. It has also had afterlives in the republican United States.  There is, of course, a continuing fascination in popular culture with kings and queens: One needs only to think of the anointing of one of the best basketball players of our generation – LeBron James – as “King James”; the adoption of a monarchical gimmick and kingly imagery by the professional wrestler Triple H from 2006 into the present; the continuing spate of films centered on monarchs such as Elizabeth (1998), King Arthur (2004), The King’s Speech (2010), and Mary Queen of Scots (2018); and the interest in the details of each and every royal wedding.

Current political discourses retain several of the features from the seventeenth and eighteenth century debates regarding the benefits and potential pitfalls of monarchy.  One such fear was that of an overmighty executive who could corrupt the Constitution and make slaves of citizens.  The trend of increasing executive power in the United States has long been recognized by scholars, receiving the attention of academics since the 1960s and its own nomenclature, “The Imperial Presidency” (for the classical articulation of this term, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency).  This accumulation of power is often levied against both Democratic and Republican Presidents – though often the accusations of executive tyranny and unconstitutional exercise of power takes a partisan tone  In any case, the increasing power exercised by the American executive has prompted comparisons to monarchy – sometimes arguing that the US has long been an “elected monarchy” without a literal crown and title (David Cannadine, “A Point of View: Is the US President an Elected Monarch?”); other times appropriating the language of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to claim that the President has become an absolute monarch and a tyrant, thus affirming the fears of the Anglo-American world of living in a corrupt society (see David Armitage, “Trump and the Return of Divine Right”; for an example of the potential for increasing executive power in a British political context, see Thomas Poole, “The Executive Power Project”).

However, there are also current arguments for the inherent stability and effectiveness of monarchies.  In a New York Times op-ed from 2016, Count Nikolai Tolstoy argued for the creation of a monarchy in America, based on the current Canadian model, and that “democracy is perfectly compatible with constitutional monarchy” (“Consider a Monarchy, America”).  Tolstoy is the Chancellor of the International Monarchist League, which seeks to “support the principle of Monarchy.”  For monarchy in the United States, the Center for the Study of Monarchy, Traditional Governance, and Sovereignty was formed to further bolster the position and study of monarchies.  Monarchists have gone so far as to argue that a monarchical system of government, if instituted in the United States, “would be not just a salve for a superpower in political turmoil, but also a stabilizing force for the world at large,” and point to a study showing that, according to economic measures, monarchies outperform other forms of government (“What’s the Cure for Ailing Nations?  More Kings and Queens, Monarchists Say”).  One response to a certain 2016 presidential campaign was to “Make America Great Britain Again” and re-admit the British monarch as the sovereign of the United States – one is left to wonder how flippant this slogan was meant to be.  Indeed, one columnist at the New York Times has argued that Americans have been prone to “clamoring for a king” (Ross Douthat, “Give Us a King!”).

It seems unlikely that any American head of state will wear a crown anytime soon, but it is also difficult to deny the continuation of royal culture in the United States and the increasing relevance of monarchical rhetoric and discourses when discussing its leaders and the state itself; think of our references to the Clintons and Bushes as “dynasties,” the Trump administration being composed of “courtiers,” and the resurgence of scholarship that discusses America in the context of its being an empire (see especially A. G. Hopkins, American Empire: A Global History).  Taken together with the recent scholarship that excavates the importance of monarchy in colonial America, my article attempts to develop the intellectual history of monarchy in the English-speaking world and provide this concept with a more nuanced etiology.

The author wishes to thank Mary Bates, Christine McLeod, and Derek O’Leary for reading earlier drafts of this piece and for their suggestions and comments. 

Zach Bates is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Calgary.  His current dissertation project is a study of the political thought of Scottish colonial administrators in the Atlantic British Empire from 1710 to 1770.  He has been awarded fellowships at the New-York Historical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Huntington Library.  In addition to his work on the intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth century British Empire, he also has an upcoming article on the Sudan in British film during the first half of the twentieth century.  You can reach him via email: