Intellectual history Think Piece

Reinhart Koselleck and the Century of Catastrophe

By Jonathon Catlin

This post originally appeared as the entry for “catastrophe” on the conceptual history blog Komposita, which was initiated at the University of Bielefeld in honor of Reinhart Koselleck’s centennial. 


Reinhart Koselleck’s onetime denazification instructor Eric Hobsbawm termed the years 1914–1950 the “age of catastrophe.” In a 1997 essay, Koselleck reflects on the difficulty of making sense of this era from its documentary traces, taking as an example a few thousand undelivered letters written by German soldiers dying at Stalingrad that “sought in vain to find meaning in the catastrophe” (178). While Joseph Goebbels intended to present them as heroic propaganda, in Koselleck’s view this project was doomed from the start, for the letters’ “abundance of interpretations” range from “absolute desperation to sarcastic commentaries and ironic observations” and are dominated by a sense of “abandonment and helplessness.” “Today,” he writes, “we are inclined to interpret these events in terms of meaninglessness or even as total absurdity.” Eyewitnesses also failed to invest these events with meaning: “the reality of the battle would not allow for it.” According to what Jan Eike Dunkhase has termed Koselleck’s “historical existentialism,” “attributions of meaning” (Sinnstiftungen) imposed on such inherently absurd histories for ideological purposes are often resisted by the facts (Ibid., 182). Stalingrad and Auschwitz, Koselleck says, “coalesce” in that “they had their common ground in an ideology of salvation, eagerness to make sacrifices and find victims, and the racist ideology of obliteration” (Ibid., 181.) Yet outside redemptive Nazi ideology, both events are “meaningless, or rather, absurd.”

In a late interview, Koselleck reflected on the limitations of historical reflection on the catastrophes to which his generation bore witness, especially on “the catastrophe” of the Shoah. Unlike between French and Germans, he said, there is no “common ground” between Germans and Jews that “allows you to deal with the past in equal terms,” because “the annihilation was so overwhelming” (114). Nevertheless, in his later years Koselleck became an active voice in German memory culture and proposed a number of mnemonic guidelines. Through his contributions to debates about the creation of a federal German Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Koselleck said he had “tried—but failed” to advocate for also commemorating other victim groups including Slavs, Russians, and Poles. However, claims about “the singularity of the extermination of the Jews” led to intractable disagreements; on such “a delicate subject,” he said, the “prejudice” of those still living “will inevitably contaminate memories.” As German Holocaust memory debates (Part 1 and Part 2) continue to demonstrate, what Koselleck called history’s inherent “multiplicity of meanings” (Vielsinnigkeit) (“Absurdity,” 194.) can leave individual memories tangled in knots and working-through blocked by identitarian resistance.

Koselleck dismissed Halbwachs’s notion of “collective memory,” instead employing the metaphor of historical experience as “congealed lava” filling up the individual and hardening: “I cannot transfer my experiences […] I can only communicate them.”  He developed this insight into a maxim: “One has the right to their own memory—I will not allow it to be collectivized.” Notably, the “day of liberation” in 1945 proclaimed by Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985 was for Koselleck “the beginning of slavery” as a Soviet prisoner of war held at Auschwitz and various Gulag camps. Koselleck wrote as one of the vanquished, yet he said the “deliverance” Weizsäcker implied was misleading, “as if we had all been victims,” when in fact, “we Germans were also perpetrators in a very clear sense…to say I am a victim would be a lie to me.”

As Lisa Regazzoni has suggested, it is not entirely surprising that Koselleck turned his interest from concepts to monuments and memorials: the two are analogous in that both are indexes of structural transformations in historical meaning across generations, but are also sources of ideological power, as survivors impose meaning on the deaths of their forebears. Koselleck was an outspoken critic of Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà being dedicated as Berlin’s Neue Wachememorial in 1993. The passive voice of its inscription, “to the victims of war and dictatorship,” suggested that Germans were only victims, while the statue itself imposed a redemptive Christian meaning on the Jewish Shoah. He also objected to the “hierarchy of victims” established by the proposed memorial dedicated exclusively to Europe’s murdered Jews; the lack of a singular memorial would necessitate further memorials to other groups, but the more than three million Soviet prisoners of war murdered by the Nazis have still not been memorialized. “Mourning is not divisible,” he argued in a 1998 article in Die Zeit, especially not along the pseudoscientific categories employed by the SS. Further, in Germany alone, he said, “we are politically responsible, and for that reason we must also remember and memorialize the actions and the perpetrators and not solely the victims.”

Abstract monuments represent the “aporia” of what Koselleck called “negative memory,” which came after redemptive modern memory regimes of heroic national sacrifice. “After the Second World War,” he said, “it became apparent that catastrophe can never be remembered enough and never conclusively,” thus compelling a turn to “negative monuments and process monuments.” He saw these as “attempts to show that the question of meaning has itself become meaningless” and as recognizing “the impossibility of generating meaning through memorialization itself” (“Negative Memory,” 248). Faced with catastrophic histories, “monuments of the absurd” offer “a small margin of escape” through art (20).

In Koselleck’s Bildnachlass in Marburg lie thousands of photographs he took in his journeys through the rubble of Europe’s catastrophic century. They sketch a history of aesthetic strategies for memorializing mass death: from triumphal national monuments to nineteenth-century wars, to smaller obelisks featuring the names of the local dead from World War I, to an early figurative memorial at Auschwitz, to the 17,000 stones erected at Treblinka with the place names of the murdered, to the modernist Treblinka monument in Berlin-Charlottenburg, to the Federal Republic’s monument at the concentration camp Mauthausen.

[Reinhart Koselleck (Photograph), Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Site, undated. Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Bildnachlass Reinhart Koselleck, Inventar-Nr. 090-01-0001-001-(001-024).]

The Mauthausen memorial, an exemplar of negative memory, was designed by the German sculptor Fritz Koenig, who like Koselleck fought on the Eastern Front and was held as a prisoner of war. Dated to 1982/83, it prefigures Peter Eisenman’s 2004 Berlin Holocaust Memorial Berlin in its minimalism, consisting of a large, rusted, V-shaped metal plane with stereometric forms resembling a skeletal human figure lying collapsed in the crevice. Situated overlooking quarries in which starved prisoners were worked to death, it symbolizes the absurdity of this useless labor. Yet this regime of abstract memorialization does not have the last word: In the Bildnachlass one also finds a photo Koselleck took in 2001 of a singular Stolperstein, or stumbling stone, which the artist Gunter Demnig began installing around Germany in 1992. One imagines Koselleck on a visit to Berlin, walking through Kreuzberg at night, and being struck by the glint of the brass plate marking the former residence of a single murdered victim: Sonja Kesten. He even once suggested that allmemorials are “Stolpersteine.”

[Reinhart Koselleck (Photograph), Stumbling Stone commemorating the deportation and murder of Sonja Kesten in Berlin-Kreuzberg, 07.2001. Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Bildnachlass Reinhart Koselleck, Inventar-Nr. 093-01-0011-001-(001).]

Another trace linking Koselleck to histories of catastrophe lies in his library, now held at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach. A note in the catalog entry for his copy of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 Austerlitz states, “This volume was the last reading that Koselleck undertook, and it was still on his bedside table when he died on February 3rd, 2006.”[1] Sebald was born in 1944, making him twenty-one years Koselleck’s junior and part of a younger generation that resented the guilt and complicity of their parents. Sebald said shortly before his untimely death, “I don’t think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. It’s like the head of the Medusa: you carry it with you in a sack, but if you looked at it you’d be petrified.” He reflected that while he found it “necessary above all to write about the history of persecution,” he was “at the same time conscious that […] to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible” (79). Sebald’s solution to this aporia resembles Koselleck’s view of negative memory: “the main scenes of horror are never directly addressed.” Direct images of the camps, he explains, “militate against our capacity for discursive thinking, for reflecting upon these things, and also paralyze, as it were, our moral capacity.” Hence, he concludes, “the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by direct confrontation” (79-80).

Like Koselleck’s reflections on Stalingrad, Sebald’s 1997 lectures On the Natural History of Destruction stressed the cliché nature of popular reactions to the fire-bombing of German cities, which became an unmourned traumatic blockage In The Rings of Saturn (1995), he provocatively juxtaposed colonial atrocities in the Belgian Congo with a large, decontextualized image of corpses found at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His final chapter discusses how the cultivation of silkworms became a popular hobby for children in the Third Reich to teach eugenic selection, and ends with a reflection on his view of “our history” as “nothing but a long account of calamities” (295). He similarly ends his lectures on Destruction by invoking Walter Benjamin’s famous description of how, from the perspective of the Angel of History, history appears not as “a chain of events” but as “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.”

My ongoing project is a history of the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century European thought and centers on Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno’s conception of history as a “permanent catastrophe”—an idea, as I have argued elsewhere, that has often been prematurely dismissed as irrational and overly pessimistic. Existing histories of the German Katastrophe share the contention that ever more exaggerated and inflationary use of the term has led to its contemporary “diffuseness” and semantic “exhaustion.” As the category of catastrophe expanded and proliferated in the twentieth century, these scholars argue, it transformed from naming an event, to a process, to a permanent state (Dauerzustand). Thereby, they claim, it lost descriptive and analytical power, for, as the disaster researcher Wolf Dombrowsky warned already in 1989, “nothing is catastrophic when everything is called catastrophe” (47). Some have even concluded that the term’s inherent ambiguity may “undermine” the requirement of a “relatively stable semantic core” necessary for Begriffsgeschichte (186).

Koselleck’s reflections on the absurdity of twentieth-century history can help us grasp why these failures to conceptualize catastrophe are essential to its aporetic semantics. Koselleck observed that still in the postwar period the concept of crisis’sinflationary usage covers almost all aspects of life” (236). Yet instead of conclude from this that the concept had lost its meaning, he suggested that this discursive profusion “may itself be viewed as the symptom of a historical crisis that cannot as yet be fully gauged” (399).

Susan Neiman argues that the revelations of mass death at Hiroshima and Auschwitz in 1945 ended the era of philosophical modernity that began with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and inaugurated a “postmodern” era that corresponds to Koselleck’s claim about the meaninglessness of history after the mass death of the First World War and the mechanized genocide of the Second. In Neiman’s words, “Auschwitz was conceptually devastating,” defying existing moral, legal, philosophical, and historical frameworks and demanding a reworking of thought itself (251-2). Catastrophes, then, are not simply events causing death and destruction (like accidents, disasters, or calamities), but events or processes of “overturning” or “a subversion of the order or system of things.” Both in “natural” catastrophes like Lisbon (a “natural evil”) and what Adorno called the “natural catastrophe of society” of Auschwitz (a “moral evil”), the trauma of history overwhelms taken-for-granted powers of experience, language, and thought (105).  Thus Jean-François Lyotard compared Auschwitz to an earthquake that destroys not only lives, buildings, and objects but also the instruments used to measure it, so that the devastation itself cannot even be fully gauged (56). As Koselleck said in a 1988 lecture, “there are events for which words fail us, that leave us speechless, and to which we can (perhaps) only respond with silence. We only need to recall the speechlessness of the Germans when they were confronted with their catastrophe, which drew innumerable people and peoples into it. To this day, every attempt to find a language adequate to mass extermination seems to fail” (140-1). Following Neiman and also Koselleck, might we say that catastrophe occurs when concepts themselves fail?

Koselleck wrote that Critique and Crisis “represented an attempt to examine the historical preconditions of German National Socialism, whose loss of reality and Utopian self­-exaltation had resulted in hitherto unprecedented crimes” (1).  He claimed to have met Hannah Arendt in 1956 in Heidelberg, and he shared with her the view that the catastrophes of the twentieth century were rooted in utopian ideologies that claimed to know and execute the laws of history. His 1955 German edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism is extensively annotated at passages including, “It is therefore more than accidental that the catastrophic defeats of the peoples of Europe began with the catastrophe of the Jewish people.” Koselleck also initially intended to entitle his dissertation Dialektik der Aufklärung until he learned of Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944/47 foundational work of Critical Theory by that same name (170). He added that work to the bibliography of the book version he published in 1959, and in a 1973 preface he referred explicitly to a dialectic of enlightenment (x). A telling underlining in his personal copy of Dialectic reveals a thesis he shared regarding the origins of twentieth-century violence: “Enlightenment is totalitarian.”[2] The age of catastrophe was also the death rattle of the age of utopias, and Koselleck once described his own intellectual-political disposition thus: “My basic attitude was skepticism as the minimum condition for reducing utopian excess—including the utopian excess of 1968.”

The “century of the catastrophes,” in which Koselleck lived, he once reflected, was also the century of “technical-industrial expansion,” of “mass murder and exile escalated into the millions,” and of acceleration not toward progress but toward Auschwitz (227).  This was also the period before which the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe had to halt because the semantic stability of the Sattelzeit on which it was premised ran aground on what Walter Benjamin called the Trümmer, or wreckage, of history as “catastrophe in permanence” (164).

In his work on twentieth-century concepts that overstep this modern temporal frame, Anson Rabinbach has argued that “instead of an open-ended horizon of expectation,” concepts such as total war, totalitarianism, and genocide, “bring the catastrophic events of the twentieth century into the semantics of historical experience, emphasizing neither futurity nor acceleration but dystopia and deceleration” (104). The modern experience of navigating crisis by hastening the coming of progress through utopian social planning was superseded by the post-modern fear of catastrophe and the aim of slowing history down. As the construction of new utopias gave way to attempts to avert dystopia, catastrophe thus became the Grundbegriff or “structural signature” for the twentieth century that Koselleck argued crisis was for the modern period.

Adorno thus said in 1965 that after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and in light of the “impending catastrophes” of the Cold War, he could continue to conceive of “progress” only in its most minimal form as “the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe” (143). At the end of the “age of extremes,” in 1992, Günther Anders similarly articulated a maxim followed by many intellectuals of his generation: “it is imperative to think against catastrophe.” This anti-catastrophism was taken up with the same intensity by Koselleck. Already at the opening of his 1959 Critique and Crisis, Koselleck wrote that the whole world had drifted “into a state of permanent crisis,” while accelerating technology threatened to “blow up mankind as well in a self-initiated process of self-destruction” (5). It was a central fallacy of modern utopian philosophies of history, he wrote already in his dissertation, to believe that this political crisis could be anticipated, steered, or—“as catastrophe”—prevented. (Ibid.) Yet he also later wrote that if it is true that “from the industrial system founded on scientific-technical principles comes the infinitely increasing potential for destruction, by virtue of which mankind may annihilate itself at any moment,” then it follows that “anticipating catastrophe is a duty of politics, of the politics of the future” (229-230).

As we continue to blindly accelerate forward into the era of climate change and confront new forms of “slow catastrophe” and what Eva Horn has called “catastrophe without event,” Koselleck’s reflections on the absurdity of catastrophic history also serve as a history of the present, charting a dark course through the modern era that led us here.

[1] Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach. Signatur: BRK2.3. No. 201207689.

[2] See Koselleck’s personal copy of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente. Amsterdam: Querido, 1947, 16. Held at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach. Signature: BRK2.1. No. 201202010

Jonathon Catlin is a co-editor of Komposita, a Fellow in the Berlin Program at Freie Universität Berlin, and a PhD Candidate in History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities at Princeton University, where he is writing a dissertation on the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century thought. His work has appeared in History and Theory, Memory Studies, and the Los Angles Review of Books, among other venues. In 2018 he reviewed the Bielefeld exhibition “Koselleck und das Bild” for the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog, where he is a contributing editor. He tweets @planetdenken.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Reinhart Koselleck (Photograph), Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany at the site of the former concentration camp Mauthausen, undated. Bildarchiv Foto Marburg, Bildnachlass Reinhart Koselleck, Inventar-Nr. 092-01-0001-001-(001-025).

Intellectual history Think Piece

“An Historical Approach to Self-Knowledge: Fr. Joseph Maréchal, SJ as a Jesuit Thinker”

By Andrew Barrette

Fr. Joseph Maréchal, SJ (1878-1944) is known for his work in philosophy and mysticism. He is often cited as a pioneer of so-called transcendental Thomism, a movement that influenced twentieth century thought, especially in the Catholic world. This epithet, not of his choosing, indicates a turn to the subject characteristic of modern, specifically Kantian philosophy. Its use also sometimes implies a solipsistic sense, as if such a turn must remain within this subject here and now. In this piece, I do not offer philosophical arguments against this understanding but rather set the stage for its development by suggesting how Fr. Maréchal’s lifework is marked by cooperation and collaboration with other Jesuits, intellectuals, and cultures. Indeed, in this, there is a method for increasing self-knowledge through conversation and historical reflection.  

Josephus-Marie-François Maréchal was born to Elie Joseph Maréchal and Marie Caroline Duerinckx in 1878 in Charleroi, Belgium. Before he graduated from the College du Sacre-Coeur, in 1895, he entered the Society of Jesus as a novitiate and took his first vows in September of 1897. He went to Leuven to study philosophy until 1901, after which he began working toward his doctorate in Biology. The influence of Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) at this time is often noted, quite correctly, though Fr. Maréchal himself claims to have encountered his thought after 1902. His attention instead to the dynamism of life came from his own study, which likely allowed him to better appreciate Blondel’s genius for this fact. Indeed, already during these years of study, Fr. Maréchal noted the inadequacy of the “manual” tradition of Scholastic philosophy that he experienced in his formation, which reproduced the theses, rather than the texts and thinkers themselves. The emphasis on memorization was not bad in itself, of course, but it tended to overshadow understandings of how authors communicated their thoughts, and often failed to move the imagination and intelligence of readers. He thus felt the need for a renewed approach to philosophy and theology, not at odds but in accord with a tradition in which reading and conversation was so important.

Along with his priestly responsibilities, Maréchal began teaching biology at the Jesuit College of Louvain while studying theology in 1905. By 1908, the year of his sacerdotal ordination by Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, who had recently founded the Higher of Institute of Philosophy in Leuven, Fr. Maréchal had already done considerable research in the psychology of religious experience. However, in August of 1914, when German forces advanced into Belgium, the Society sent him, with a small group of others, to Oakwood Hall in Romiley, a relatively short-lived Jesuit Seminary just outside Manchester in the United Kingdom. There, he was tasked with teaching the history of philosophy rather than his usual classes in biology and experimental psychology. Without a large library or any manuals to disseminate to the students, he began drafting his great Cahiers or “Notebooks” in the history of philosophy, for which he became so well-known. In these, we find an attempt to present the history ideas as data for self-discovery, taking the history of philosophy as a guide through that labyrinth.

These Cahiers bear the main title and subtitle, The Point of Departure of Metaphysics: Lessons on the Historical and Theoretical Development of the Problem of Knowledge. There is a key to their aim in the title’s distinction between “Historical” and “Theoretical.” Although Fr. Maréchal had, by his admission, worked out the mainlines of the philosophical position before he wrote them, he had not yet traced their development through history: his method was to go through the history of philosophy in order to find the basic possible epistemological positions and show how they impacted metaphysical and theological doctrine. Still more, he aimed to bring the reader, the student through these positions in their interior life to become increasingly aware of both their practical operation and their theoretical formulation. The lessons were, in the first sense, “experimental,” taking as data great thinkers of the past and one’s own mind at work.  

So, in the Cahiers, one is guided through one’s own thinking by scholars in the history of philosophy. But these guides were not all the same. Instead, Fr. Maréchal encourages the student to relate them to each other and judge their positions according to the adequacy of their own mind at work. In that way, the positions become theoretical, aimed toward making judgments about what it meant to know at all. As he distinguishes in the “Introduction” to Cahier I, “[W]e shall only borrow from the progressive history of philosophical ideas the essential phases, which are expressed in the work of the most eminent thinkers. They will present to us, according to a sequence at once logical and historical, a very typical series of attitudes in front of the fundamental problem of epistemology.”[1] This was not mere memorization but historical self-reflection.

During Fr. Maréchal’s lifetime, there were four Cahiers published, namely, the first, second, third, and fifth. This latter one, with the subtitle, “Thomism before Critical Philosophy,” is the one for which he was perhaps most remembered and which likely brought him to be called a “Transcendental Thomist,” as it relates Kantian with Thomist thinking. This sentiment may have been reinforced with the posthumous publication of the fourth Cahier, which also dealt with the post-Kantian systems. Unfortunately, a sixth Cahier was never completed, though it is currently being edited, with the subtitle, “Comparisons with some recent philosophy.” This volume may have addressed some of his aims for the history of philosophy, for it was not only a reckoning with Kantianism or even modern philosophy, but an attempt to contribute to on-going philosophical conversation.

We must also recall that these Cahiers were written during a time when the Catholic Church was especially wary of “modernism.” The encyclical of 1906, “Pascendi Dominici Gregis: On the Doctrine of the Modernists,” evidences this sentiment well. Indeed, another Belgian Jesuit and friend of Fr. Maréchal, Fr. Pierre Scheuer, SJ (1872-1957), had himself been under suspicion of having sympathies with modernism. Although he was able to clarify this was not so, he taught and published less, instead giving direction to members of the society and the College. He also kept in close contact with Fr. Pierre Charles, SJ (1883-1954), who was working especially hard at the time on activities involving missions, formulating philosophically what this meant in his “missiology.” Fr. Maréchal often notes how his work benefited from conversations with these members of the Society, as well as other leading lights at the time, like Gaston Berger, Gaston Fessard, SJ, Étienne Gilson, Ephrem Longpré, OFM, Jacques Maritain, and the list goes on. Each of these thinkers share the sentiment of the social significance of philosophy. Fr. Maréchal’s thought includes an attempt to become increasingly aware of how they related to others, both at present and through history, which meant taking seriously other’s hearts and minds at work.

In this respect, there is an important collection of notes Fr. Maréchal wrote in response to a question about the contents of the Cahiers (pp. 369-370).  The reply includes a list of which passages to study further, in order to understand the general lines of the argument, but it also includes a few points about which he says were not yet published: “1. Deepening of the process of critical reflection; 2. Existentialism, control by critical reflection; 3. Introduction of the notion of “person” in the finality of the human psyche (possession, love, friendship, supernatural charity).” These points he had sketched for inclusion in his sixth Cahier. But they can also be glimpsed in his other work, much of which he published in his lifetime.

We find, for example, voluminous work on religious experience. Through continued teaching duties, which now included the history of philosophy, Fr. Maréchal wrote on the Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions and their relations. As a rule, his comparative work understood religious phenomena to appear within a “doctrine,” a historical set of meanings and values.[2] While it is true that one could not merely enter into another’s existential horizon, if one was not living in it, participating in it, he thought others could be understood according to the basic fact of human communication, as meaning and values were being lived out through a “psychological factor,” as he says in the Introduction to the Study of Mysticisms and Mystics. Thus, his theoretical work on how knowing and feeling took place gave a critical foundation for deepening this reflective work of interpretation and comparison. Moreover—and importantly—what he learned from the genius of other cultures and traditions helped him understand further dimensions of human experience and understanding. 

However, in May of 1940, it was necessary to leave Belgium, once again, due to an outbreak of war. This exodus did not last long, however. Shortly after returning, there was a fire at the Jesuit College in Eegenhoven, just outside Leuven. With some of his writings lost and the end of his teaching due to poor health, he wrote shorter essays and correspondences with the support of his confrères. In his last years, his students recognized the need to ask him about his influences, which he was glad to discuss. In these, he frequently notes the importance of other members of the Society as supporting and furthering his understanding; he expresses a distinctive way of allowing individuals to flourish with their particular potential, skills, talents, and gifts while being guided by the needs of the community. Indeed, in his historical reflection on his own life, we find him discovering a sort of self-knowledge that his life shows us, namely, that to understand ourselves, we must take seriously understanding each other. 

[1] Joseph Maréchal, The Point of Departure of Metaphysics: Lessons on the Historical and Theoretical Development of the Problem of Knowledge. Cahier I: From Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages: The Ancient Critique of Knowledge, my own translation, forthcoming; originally published as Joseph Maréchal, Le Point de Départ de la Métaphysique: Leçon sur le développement historique et théorique du problème de la connaissance. Cahier I : De l’Antnquité a la fin du Moyen Age : La Critique Ancienne de la Connaissance, (Bruges : Museum Lessiaum, 1922). An edition of this volume is currently in preparation at the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College.

[2] Joseph Maréchal, “Introduction to the Study of Mysticisms and Mystics,” my own translation forthcoming, also with the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College; originally published as, “Introduction a L’étude des mysticisms et de la mystique,” in Semaine D’Ethnolgie Religieuse (27 Août-4 Septembre, 1913): 215-221.

Andrew Barrette is a visiting professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is also an associated fellow of the Lonergan Institute and of the Institute of Advanced Jesuit Studies, where he is working especially as the General Editor of the Collected Works of Joseph Maréchal.

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: Arnold Bocklin, “The Isle of the Dead” (1880), Wikimedia Commons.

Think Piece

Haitian Terror in Italian Eyes

By Elena Barattini

It was the 19th of April 1840. The Villanueva, a packet boat flying the Spanish flag, dropped anchor in the flocked harbor of Havana. Fifteen passengers disembarked and stepped foot on Spanish territory. Among them, there was an Italian traveler, getting acquainted with the bureaucratic procedures of the colonial government and the two routine British inspections of the vessel. In fact, as all male passengers were requested to present a papeleta (document) to reach the mainland, two groups of British officers had already fathomed the craft, looking for dreadful proofs of “dealers in coal”: slavers with human cargo.

Never object of a systematic study, quoted, and read just by a few scholars, Carlo Barinetti’s Voyage to Mexico and Havana provides in-depth, although extremely biased, descriptions of the everyday management of economic activities in Tampico, Mexico City, Veracruz, Puebla, Havana, and New Orleans. Carlo Barinetti’s work might be described as a detailed first-hand traveler account of the political landscapes of some of the main trading posts in the Americas in the first half of the 19th century. Skillfully mixing his critique of the present situation of pre-unitary Italy, and his juvenile aversion to the Austrian control of his homeland, the Lombard-Venetian Barinetti defined himself as a convinced liberal. A young enthusiast for the cause of a united and self-governed Italy, he then moved to the pre-Civil war United States, where he taught modern languages, and eventually obtained citizenship.

From there, he sat sail south. Ending up in Havana in the 1840s, his travel accounts are a powerful harbinger of positions which legitimized the Escalera repression, a mass-punishment of free people of color that followed a summary trial that raised alarm of a suspected plan to end slavery and Spanish rule in Cuba in 1843. Quintessentially political in the observations of what in his opinion did and did not work in the territories he visited, his text represents a key and underrated source for the study of ideas, political forms, and their circulation in the first half of the 19th century Atlantic world. Still intimately linked to the history of power, his literary production reflects his take on that crucible of happenings capable of keeping a privileged, educated, white man awake all night: the Haitian Revolution. As he provided details on the extremely severe measures implemented to police non-white subjects on the island, his words are deeply informative on the broader, generalized, sense of panic surrounding the long wake of happenings that linked La Escalera to the 1791 revolutionary experience.

Walking around Havana, “a place so well known to the Americans”, Barinetti took notes on the “kind of prosperity which shows itself at every step, which render that city highly agreeable and interesting”. The prosperity in question was all bloodstained, made by enslaved people’s hands and sweat. The tons of sugar once produced in French Saint-Domingue were now put on the market by Cuban ingenios (sugar mills) owners. Thousands of enslaved people, who would have once been principally deported a few maritime miles south, were now directed to Cuba, amid what has been defined as  “second slavery”.   

In the intertwined histories of the Haitian Revolution – the largest slave uprising the world has ever seen and the only one that led to the formation of an independent state in 1804 – and the sugar revolution in Cuba, concern and optimism influenced the behaviors of enslavers, travelers, and property owners. On the one hand, in the era of the Saint-Domingue uprisings, there was a “common wind” among the men and women of the African diaspora, characterized by the diffusion of empowering concepts, such as freedom and the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, the recurring metaphor of the fear of contagion, and a constant terror of retaliation meandered through the cities and the plantations of the Caribbean. This constant state of panic went hand in hand with the increase of the enslaved population, especially as the wealth that could be destroyed during such uprisings grew.

Haiti was thus instrumentally invoked to ideologically reinforce slavery in Cuba, emphasizing a “dangerousness” intrinsic to the individuals deprived of their freedom. This was reflected in the strict regulation and the increased surveillance imposed on the free and enslaved population of color on the island. Four years before the Escalera repression, the clase de color (people of color) of Cuba after a given hour had to “be at home, while no assembly of colored people is allowed after sunset; not even two can walk together or stand in the streets” as Barinetti attentively wrote down in his notebooks. The Haitian specter hovered around the island of Cuba, and the constant worry of a mass gory riot of the enslaved affected the very act and portrait of traveling as depicted by the Italian. A “sudden rising” was expected at every corner of the island. Travelers wandered armed, counting on a steady intervention on the part of “a couple of Spaniards or Creoles on horseback” who could “attack and subdue a band of fifty or more slaves, though the latter are generally armed with machetes, or long knives, which they use to cut the sugarcane”.

Not surprisingly, the liberal Barinetti spent several pages on the virtues of the free States in the North of the Union, on free trade and labor. Indeed, his thoughts on abolition are exemplary of the gradualist positioning shared at the time. Recurring to different sets of notions which were structured according to racial precepts, Barinetti shivered at the thought of a black population outnumbering the white one. When describing the misery of the enslaved in Cuba, Barinetti also invoked family separations, the hideous travel across the ocean, the severe physical punishments, and the constant noise of the lash hitting somebody’s back. However, these abolitionist topoi were not mobilized to advocate for immediate emancipation, quite the opposite.

Broadly referring to Cuba and the south of the United States, Barinetti argued slavery simply could not be abolished at that moment: time was not yet ripe.

Come! come here abolitionists! emancipate them, spread knowledge among them, give them equality of rights, and you will see the result. Release them from the natural bonds which form the bulwark behind which the whites feel sheltered, and then what makes me shudder if I only think of it will happen.

Echoing Barinetti’s warnings, from the 1810s to the 1840s the different governors of the Capitanía General de Cuba (General Captaincy of Cuba)put in place harsh preventive measures, safeguarding the nights of sleep of the enslavers, the plantation owners, and colonos (settlers). These policies severely impacted the already constrained agency of enslaved men and women, and free people of color in Cuba. Being black, in the eyes of planters, creole thinkers, and travelers among which Barinetti was no exceptional teller, equated to being on the verge of plotting a Haitian-style fierce uprising. Nonetheless, the relentless rules detailed by Barinetti and his peers were only the beginning.

The mere presence of enslaved and free people of color, walking on the streets of Havana, busy in their numerous occupations, progressively became a serious threat posed to the maintenance of the colony’s social order: the terror took over. Barinetti was not the only one “shuddering”, and the colonial elite was unwilling of taking other risks. The number of deported people from the African continent was augmenting, notwithstanding the treaties with the British and their navy, as the Italian traveler repeatedly underscored. Measures were to be taken, locally. Cuba became a relatively safe harbor for slave owners (and their lucrative economic activities), for it offered an escape from their plantations in Saint Domingue which were quite literally burning since the end of the 18th century. All the while, networks of formerly enslaved and free-born people of color (libres de color) who traveled around the Caribbean were formed. With them, so did ideas of liberation, of living according to one’s own terms. However, they did not level the Haitian terror, together with its harsh social and economic consequences, hunting the very existence of black people around the globe for centuries.

Just three years after the publication of Barinetti’s travel accounts, authorities in Cuba put on an exemplary mass punishment, to the detriment of the libres de color, and particularly targeted to once and for all discourage potential efforts of aligning Cuba’s destiny with that of the former French colony. Gone down in history as the Conspiracy of La Escalera, a scheme supposedly plotted by libres de color of African descent, as well as slaves, creoles, and British abolitionists to burn the bridge built by Spanish rulers in Cuba through the institution of slavery, the 1843 event went down in history as a bloody massacre that ended the lives of thousands. Taking its name from the “ladder” (escalera) employed to break down potential suspects, the alleged insurgency, with the enslaved revolts in western Cuba, have been given great scholarly attention, as has been the case, more recently, with the unutterable repression that followed in January 1844.  

Far from being an isolated, blood-soaked, singular episode in the history of Cuban slavery, the terrain around the repression specifically dedicated to the Escaleraconspiracy had been prepared for years, as Barinetti’s notebooks display. The increased militarization of the island began with the 1837 Constitution – expressly stating  the will to administer Cuba through so-called “special laws” –  the curfew, the unbearable working conditions on the plantations, and the construction of the barracoons all contributed to the muscular violence enforced in repressing the potentially revolutionary Escalera plan. In this respect, Barinetti’s work, printed in New York, circulated in the United States and, most likely, in Italy as well, is particularly significant because of its capacity of foreshadowing future Atlantic happenings. Indeed, his “tremors” were widely shared. Captain General Leopoldo O’Donnell, for example, would make sure he did all he could to eradicate any revolutionary febrility plaguing the island. A dramatic break for the libres de color’s relative autonomy, La Escalera repression was the result of a longstanding repressive apparatus which had been patiently built by Spanish and other foreign viewers who reproduced systematic racism. Works like Barinetti’s shed light on the context surrounding the upcoming repression and emphasize the ideological and material preparation that was enacted through institutions and actors who actively prompted the growth of a rampant anti-black and anti-slave sentiment.

In the aftermath of the Escalera repression, the libres de color in Cuba lost almost all their economic stability, military standing, and everything related to their already precarious social status. However, the impressive resilience shown by the Afro-descendant community in Cuba strenuously proved the weaknesses of O’Donnell and the slave owners’ attacks on black populations.

Indeed, ideas on freedom and emancipation from masters and mistresses, which were far from mild and reconciliatory, did stick around. They dot the juridical transcripts presented to the courtrooms by the enslaved and were embodied in everyday forms of resistance.  In the interstices of standard wording, and formal juridical formulas, enslaved men and women in Cuba spoke up in the tribunals, asserting their rights to be heard. Presenting family reconstruction lawsuits, negotiating the time and conditions of their labor, protesting the vexations of their enslavers, their petitions brought conflicts over race, gender, and power relations directly into the seats of colonial institutions. Over this unequal jurisprudential terrain, gradual emancipation, albeit partial, fragmented, and precarious, was being constructed well before the official royal proclaims that sanctioned a transition out of slavery in 1870 with the free womb law, and ending in 1880 with the abrogation of the patronato (forced apprenticeship) institution.

Barinetti’s travel writing is thus a privileged lens for exploring the entanglements between the Haitian Revolution’s heritage and the Escalera repression. Presenting conversations with doctors, slave and property owners, as well as functionaries, Barinetti’s text reconstructs the extremely abusive context that configured black people’s everyday lives in 19th century Cuba. However, by reading his work against the grain, the actions of the enslaved themselves stand out all the more, forged by experiences of coercion and violence, while being projected towards the construction of an aftermath that eventually tore down the legitimacy of such institutions.  

Elena Barattini is a Global History of Empires Ph.D. candidate at the University of Turin, Italy. Her work examines the legal petitions filed by formerly enslaved women in Cuba, within the Patronato law framework. Her primary research interests are the history of labor and coercion, the place of gender in it, Atlantic slavery and the colonial history of the island of Cuba.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image: Entrada del Puerto de La Habana tomada desde el Colegio de Sn. Carlos. (Entrance to the Port of Havana taken from San Carlos School). Artist: Mialhe, Frédéric, 1810-1881 Lit. de la Rl. Sociedad Patriótica, 1839. Courtesy of University of Miami Library Digital Collection.

Intellectual history Think Piece

“Zamanawi-Seletane”: Three Intellectual Responses to Modernity in Ethiopia

By Fasil Merawi 

This piece has the goal of introducing three groups of intellectuals who hold distinct views on Ethiopia’s venture into modernity. If one wants to understand the general spirit of Ethiopian notions of modernity, zamanawi-seletane [modern civilization] emerges as a major concept. Used to characterize the nature of Ethiopian modernity, zamanawi-seletane signifies adopting instrumental rationality in the face of a threat posed by Western colonizers, while simultaneously recognizing the backwardness of one’s nation. It also implies introducing the latest achievements of the Western world in order to uphold the independence of the Ethiopian state. Realizing zamanawi-seletane to this extent requires the introduction of strong institutions, systems of education and forms of administration. In this think piece, I argue that modernity in Ethiopia did not emerge within the moral fabric of the community; however, it was not also animated by the attempt to introduce a direction for a nation’s development from above. 

When Western education was introduced in Ethiopia, the previous focus on church teaching was effectively sidelined. With the arrival of Ethiopian modernity, there was a shift from church education to modern Western education that was inspired by the need to develop an instrumental form of rationality. I follow here Paulos Milkias who characterizes Ethiopian modernity as the emergence of societal rationalization that displaced the power of religion and existing societal beliefs. Being guided by the goals of zamanawi-seletane, Ethiopian intellectuals wondered, in a country that once had a refined ancient civilization, why they were lagging. How can we introduce a conception of Ethiopian modernity that can restore our cultural pride and dignity while also learning from the instrumental achievements of the Western world? Besides the developmental ventures that were carried out by Ethiopian rulers, the question of Ethiopian modernity mainly occupied Ethiopian intellectuals. In the following, I discuss three major groups of thinkers who were involved in shaping the notion of Ethiopian modernity. 

The first group of intellectuals saw their task in explaining the cultural lag found in their nation. They believed that a country which was once known for the Aksumite civilization is currently in a state of backwardness. The believed that one is able to lay the foundations for a process of societal modernization through an appropriation of the instrumental rationality of the western world. The solution they believed in was to simultaneously preserve our cultural values and to learn from the material, scientific, and technological advancements of the West. These intellectuals, including Gebrehiwot Baykedagn (1886-1919), used the cultural lag thesis in order to explain the underdevelopment of Ethiopia. They also suggested that instrumental rationality was a unique contribution of the West to human civilization. Bahru Zewde argues that most attempts by Ethiopian intellectuals to learn from the instrumental rationality of the West tried to adopt the model of “Japanization,” which was a movement spearheaded by few Ethiopian intellectuals in the 1930s. 

Japan was considered the perfect model by intellectuals like Kebede Michael (1916-1998) because it was seen as the only nation that had attained instrumental progress without necessarily embracing Westernization. Nevertheless, Bahru makes the important point that attempts to emulate Japan’s developmental model lacked a sufficient understanding of its particular history and context. Regarding the impact of the works of the intellectuals Bahru admits that it is difficult to determine and that their works were mostly inaccessible to the masses. Still some reformist ideas suggested by intellectuals like Gebrehiwot were introduced within government policies later on. Among the major reformist intellectuals that tried to learn from the instrumental advancements of the West was the doctor, economist, and intellectual Gebrehiwot Baykedagn.

Gebrehiwot’s visions of societal modernization are brought forth in his works አጤምኒልክናኢትዮጵያ (The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia; 1912) and መንግስትና የህዝብ አስተዳደር (State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia; 1924). I argue that two main motives dictate Gebrehiwot’s conception of modernity in The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia. The first one is the need to learn from the success that colonizing nations attained in introducing modernization. Gebrehiwot believed that independence alone cannot lead into modernity and that one could learn even from the colonized. Secondly, there is the need to realize material development without necessarily abandoning one’s own cultural tradition. To meet the goals of a modern project that is founded on a sense of cultural pride, Gebrehiwot suggests there is a need to introduce a new form of history writing that shows a commitment to one’s cultural values. He further contends that there is a need to establish a modern government in Ethiopia that recognizes societal enlightenment as the foundation of processes of democratization. 

As part of his modernization program, Gebrehiwot generally lists ten radical measures that must be practically implemented. First of all, the wealth of the nation and the ruler’s private property must be separated from one another so as to avoid a possible conflict of interest. Secondly, there must be a parallel relation between the level of income of citizens and the amount of taxation levied on them. Thirdly, a uniform form of currency needs to be implemented. Fourthly, there must be a serious effort to further promote the Amharic national language. Fifthly, there is a need to harmonize existing and modern laws. Sixthly, there is a need to establish a modern army. Seventhly, there is a need to introduce a more functioning economic system. Eighthly, the economy needs to be regulated by law. Ninthly, there must be a strong central government and tenthly, the freedom of religion needs to be realized.

In his second work State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia, Gebrehiwot argues that human history is characterized by the dominance of the powerful over the less fortunate. I think that a Eurocentric view manifests itself in three major ways in Gebrehiwot’s approach. First of all, Gebrehiwot’s understanding of human history as a movement from a state of potentiality into actuality uses an analysis of cultural lag and underdevelopment in order to explain Ethiopia’s predicaments. Secondly, again in using the cultural lag thesis, Gebrehiwot seems to assume that there is a universal path to progress and that Ethiopia is lagging behind. Thirdly, Gebrehiwot also implicitly assumes that the West had an exclusive possession of instrumental rationality and that we need to learn from this. I therefore suggest that Gebrehiwot’s analysis is founded on a Eurocentric conception of modernity and that he did not pay enough attention to alternative conceptions of modernity found in the different parts of the world. Having identified the ideas of the first group of intellectuals, now let us move to the second group.

The second group of intellectuals shared the assumption that ancient Ethiopia, which rivaled the achievements of the greatest civilizations of the world, could provide inspiration for a process of cultural revival and renaissance. One of the intellectuals in this group is Asres Yenesew. In his  1958 work ጠቃሚ ምክር (Useful Advice), Asres develops a theory of modernization that is founded on ascribing a unique role to the Ethiopian intellectual. The task of such writers is to resist Western modernization and to provide the intellectual edifice for a cultural renaissance. They should particularly expose the ideological functions of Western education. Asres thinks that the role of a writer is to enlighten the masses. By evoking an analogy between a bee and the writer he argues that just like a bee needs a flower to produce honey, the masses also need the writer in order to realize societal progress. He still cautions that the writers and critics should be careful so as not to propagate Western ideology to the masses in the name of providing knowledge. 

Asres also warns us against equating Ge’ez education, which he saw as a particular form of education, with church education and makes a plea for studying Ethiopian history and texts. He criticized a new generation of Ethiopians for only being interested in studying the modern Western canon and gradually securing a position in the government offices. Asres also criticized his society for entertaining negative attitude towards craftsmanship and at least not being able to attain self-sufficiency. Primarily he thought that Ethiopians need to study our language for it gives us an access to our wisdom and also the hidden medical knowledge that is found in our forests. Asres saw those intellectuals who are educated in the West as the allies of the colonizers. I argue that among Ethiopia’s intellectuals Asres stands out as a unique scholar in developing an explicit criticism of Western modernity. He demonstrated that Western modernity is antithetical to the Ethiopian lived reality and that there is a need to develop a new foundation for social progress that is founded on the revival of the past. 

The third group of intellectuals unites those that tried to attain a unique synthesis between what they perceived as Ethiopian values and Western progress. Modernizers like Eguale Gebreyohannes aimed to develop a new conception of progress that equally accommodates Ethiopian cultural values and Western science and technology. Eguale believed that such a conception of progress should be primarily carried out in the field of education. In his 2003 የከፍተኛ ትምህርት ዘይቤ [Yekefitegna timihirt zeyibe], Eguale argued that if a nation has a system of education that balances different intellectual traditions, then all the problems of our society will be resolved. Using Plato, Eguale argues that knowledge is the foundation of virtue and societal justice. In such an effort to meet the goals of education and enlightenment, Eguale credits Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1974, for making a lasting contribution to modern education. Eguale believed that our program of modernization must allow us to determine the social functions of knowledge. 

The Athenians, Eguale suggests, embodied the principle of an intrinsic interest in knowledge as the foundation of societal progress. Based on a comparison between Western and Ethiopian systems of education, he argues that one problem in our knowledge system is that oral wisdom is not easily transferred from one generation to the other. He saw Ethiopian education as mainly being founded on oral tradition. Furthermore our existing system of education is founded on hostility towards modern Western scientific education. European modernity, according to Eguale, was able to learn from different intellectuals traditions although its primary gaze is oriented towards the controlling of the natural world. Eguale argues that technology is the unique possession of the West. He believed that we need to learn from Western system of education and that the task of the Ethiopian intellectual is to identify the limitations of Western and non-Western, material and immaterial forms of knowledge to then form a creative synthesis. 

Eguale’s approach differs from the modernizing programs brought forth by Ethiopia’s reformist intellectuals like Baykedagn in that what he is trying to attain is not the defense of the nation by the appropriation of Western knowledge. He also differs from the renaissance and revivalist intellectuals in that he does not try to elevate Ethiopia’s cultural past as the source of perfection. Despite such differences, just like most Ethiopian intellectuals, Eguale believed that modernization can be attained by instituting a new system of education. I argue that Eguale was not able to attain a synthesis between Ethiopian and Western conceptions of knowledge since his approach, just like other Ethiopian and third world intellectuals, presupposes that technology and instrumental rationality are unique capacities of the West. 

Rather than ascribing a particular form of orientation to a given culture, Eguale tried to recount for the pragmatic interests that animated different forms of knowledge in various parts of the world. Once there is transcultural contact, there is a need for a creative synthesis. Eguale seems to assume that there is a single trajectory that dictates the developmental paths of different societies of the world. He views the instrumental rationality of science and technology as an exclusive possession of the Western world. I argue that we need to instead explore alternative approaches that assume that there is the simultaneous existence of different paths towards modernity.

Fasil Merawi holds a PhD in philosophy from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. His areas of interest include post-metaphysical thinking, ontological pluralism, and multiple modernities. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor and the Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University. Some of his recent publications include “Reflections on Glock’s Conception of Analytic Philosophy” (2021), “An Analysis of Hountondji’s ‘The Struggle for Meaning, Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa’” (2021), and “The Sage and Philosophy in Africa: Revisiting Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli” in Ethics, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Development An Evaluation, edited by Abdul Shakil (2021).

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Mar Di Aethiopia Vulgo Oceanus Aethiopicus, 1650. Wikimedia Commons.

Think Piece

The Ethiopian Socrates on the Shores of Lake Sagatagan 

By Jonathan Egid

Where would you go if you wanted to consult the largest collection of Ethiopian philosophical manuscripts anywhere in the world? Addis Ababa might be a good guess, at the national library or one of the universities. Perhaps elsewhere in the Ethiopian highlands, in the scriptorium of an ancient monastery – Debre Libanos or Abba Garima or one of the hundreds of monastic communities that line the shores of Lake Tana. Or, knowing something of the history of the expropriation of Ethiopian manuscripts, you might think to journey to one of the great libraries of Europe: the Bodleian and British Library both have large collections of manuscripts pillaged during the Napier expedition of 1867-8; or the Bibiliothèque Nationale in Paris, where the Irish-Basque explorer, geographer and linguist Antoine d’Abbadie assembled the largest collection of Ethiopian manuscripts of his day in the late 19th century. None of these however would be quite right. 

If you want to study the broadest, most comprehensive collection of Ethiopian philosophical manuscripts, you would need to travel to rural Minnesota. The campus of Saint John’s University is set in acres upon acres of green and blue. Located two hours west of Minneapolis, there are no towns of any size to the west until North Dakota, and no cities until the Pacific coast nearly one thousand miles away. The landscape is all lake and prairie and thick, primordial forest. There are chipmunks, deer and red squirrels, eagles and orioles and in the evenings the haunting cry of the common loon – Minnesota’s state bird and the creature which adorns the number plates of huge cars dotted across vast, empty parking lots. Saint John’s university grew out of Saint John’s Abbey, established in the mid-19th century to minister to German migrants, and today over one hundred monks still live there, taking daily mass in the hulking concrete spaceship of a church designed by the Hungarian modernist Marcel Breuer.

The Abbey Church at St John’s. Photo: Jonathan Egid.

Opposite the church, across an immaculately manicured lawn is the university’s Alcuin Library, an elegant, if rather more understated building which houses the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML). The Manuscript Library began life as a repository for the preservation of at-risk manuscripts. Father Colman Barry, having witnessed the destruction of two world wars in and despairing for the bibliographic heritage of Europe if the worst fears of the Cold War came to pass, decided to begin a massive project of microfilming and acquisition from libraries in Austria, Spain and Germany. Over the years the focus of preservation was extended from Europe to the Middle East and Ethiopia, and then to the rest of the world. Today there are collections from Egypt, India, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Malta, Nepal, Pakistan and Syria. The manuscript library hosts 400,000 digitized or microfilmed manuscripts.

I was at the HMML to study its Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library (EMML), a collection of 8,000 Ethiopian manuscripts – by some distance the largest in the world – photographed throughout Ethiopia from 1973 onwards. In particular I was after the collection of Fälasfa (philosophy) texts that had been gathered from collections all over the world, including the Vatican libraries and the Austrian National Library. The text itself, sometimes referred to as the Book of Wise Philosophers, is a compendium of philosophical maxims which seems to be a translation of a Christian Arabic gnomologium, now lost, entitled the Kitāb al-Bustān. This text is probably itself based on the Nawādir al-falāsifa, of the 9th century Nestorian Christian Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq. It may have a Greek original, now lost to us, but by now this is little more than speculation.

Over the years the text developed, or rather expanded, with subsequent generations adding or revising material such that earlier texts are far larger than earlier ones. All versions are written in Gə’əz, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the major literary language of Ethiopian Christian history, spoken in northern Ethiopia from antiquity until approximately the 13th century but which survives today only in the church.

Unusually for a Gə’əz text, the identity of the translator and date of the translation is known. Between 1510 and 1522 one abba Mika’el ‘the translator’ translated the text “by mouth”, that is, by orally translating the Arabic text into Gə’əz, with this text being copied by a scribe. Early modern Ethiopians evidently had a quite different notion of what counted as philosophy and who counted as a philosopher that contemporary academia, with not only familiar figures like Socrates, Plato and Diogenes dispensing wisdom, but also David, Solomon and the Ethiopian Saint Yared – the holy man who according to tradition founded traditional poetic composition (qene) and was taught the holy hymns of the Ethiopian church by three white birds sent from God. Much of the text is made up of back-and-forth question and answers between the wise man or wise men and the crowd:

ይቤልዎ፡ ለዲዮጋንዮስ፡ ጠቤብ፡ እፎኑ፡ ይእቲ፡ ሞት፡ 

And they said to Diogenes the Wise: how is this death?

ይቤ፡ መደንግዕት፡ ይእቲ፡ ለአብዕልት፡ ወመፍቅድ፡ ይእቲ፡ ለነዳይን። 

He said: astonishing to the wealthy and necessary to the poor

Many of the philosophical reflections have the flavor of Greek philosophy viewed through the prism of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. One particularly striking example is the Ethiopian retelling of the story of Diogenes and Alexander the Great, in which the former rebukes the latter for stepping into his light. In the Ethiopian version, the details have all changed. Diogenes has become Socrates, and Alexander has become a nameless king. Diogenes-Socrates does not ask the king to move out of his light, but complains of losing the heat that is so vital for his thinking. But it is not only the details, but the overall atmosphere and tone of the passage that has changed. 

Whereas earlier versions showed Diogenes-Socrates bluntly demanding the ruler step out of his light, the Gə’əz version delights in a kind of ironic misunderstanding: the philosopher explains to the King that the only real life is the spiritual life. The King fails to understand, believing that Socrates is complimenting him in speaking of the temporal world of power and riches. Indeed, the philosopher and Ethiopianist Claude Sumner exaggerates only a little when he says that “one seems to be listening to an Oriental monk speaking through the mouth of Socrates” (30).

Other sections of the Book of Wise Philosophers focus on more traditionally philosophical topics like human nature and what makes human beings distinctive from other natural beings:

ይቤ፡ ፩እምጠቤሃን፡ እስመ፡ ሰብእሰ፡ ኢይትሌለይ፡ ወኢይክብር፡ እምነ፡ እንስሳ፡ ዘእንበለ፡ በንገብ፡ ወልቡና፡ ወእመሰ፡ አርመመ፡ ወኢለበወ፡ ኮነ፡ ከመ፡ እንስሳ። 

One of the wise men said: ‘because a man is no better and no more honorable than an animal except with speech and intelligence, if he is silent and does not think, he becomes like an animal’

The interest in animals recurs throughout the Fälasfa, and is apparent too in some of the earlier works translated from Greek into Gə’əz like the Physiologos, a compendium of nature mysticism most likely composed at the turn of the 3rd century in Alexandria. The Physiologos treats in each of its 48 chapters an animal, plant or mineral, describing its appearance, habitat and its natural and spiritual properties, often providing an allegorical interpretation of these properties along Christian lines: the phoenix rises from the ashes like Christ, the pelican that sheds its own blood that its progeny may live again. The work was almost certainly translated directly from Greek into Gə’əz in the Aksumite period, and thus constitutes the earliest work of natural history, and of philosophy in the broad sense, in Gə’əz. 

Some sections of the Fälasfa however use the picturesque adaptation of philosophy to an Ethiopian context in order to make less savory points:

ይቤል ለሰቅራጥ፡ አይኑ፡ አንበሳ፡ የአኪ፡ እምነ፡ አናብስት፡ 

Socrates said: “which lion is most evil from among the lions?”

ይቤ፡ አንስታያዊት። 

He said: the female

Given the rather mixed bag of insights to be gleaned from the text – why bother with the Fälasfa? Why travel to Minnesota to read the Fälasfa, an Ethiopian translation of an Arabic work that recounts apocryphal stories about Greek philosophers? On the one hand it is a fascinating example of how a text metamorphoses as it crosses geographical and linguistic boundaries. It is a fascinating example of the reception of Greek thought in a part of the world rarely assumed to have much of a philosophical heritage at this early date, and of the processes of the indigenization of cosmopolitan knowledge.

But despite the intrinsic interest of the text, in truth, I was not here for this book alone, but on the trail of another, even more enigmatic work. My doctoral research focuses on the century-long debate over the authorship of the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, a philosophical autobiography set in 17th century Ethiopia, that has been acclaimed both as the ‘jewel of Ethiopian literature’ and as a fake. The Hatäta is a work which has over the last century become embroiled in a seemingly intractable and highly emotive debate about its authorship, namely whether it is the authentic product of a 17th century Ethiopian scholar, or a later 19th century forgery by a lonely Italian monk, stranded in Ethiopia 

Sumner, who took the Fälasfa as the topic for the first volume of his magisterial, five-volume Ethiopian Philosophy, and the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob as the second, suggested that in these early works we see the trickle that would eventually become a great river. Even as translations, the Book of Wise Philosophers is an Ethiopian work, he argued, on account of the way that it was transformed in the process, acquiring a distinctively Ethiopian character: “this work is Ethiopian, not by the originality of its invention, but by the originality of its style and presentation.” This is, according to Sumner, because “Ethiopians never translate literally: they adapt, modify, add, subtract. A translation therefore bears a typically Ethiopian stamp: although the nucleus of what is translated is foreign to Ethiopia, the way it is assimilated into an indigenous reality is typically Ethiopian.” 

I was in Minnesota to examine the development of a philosophical lexicon in Gə’əz, the language of the texts and the dominant literary language of Ethiopia for most of its long history. I wanted to see if there were traces in these earlier text of the ideas expressed in the masterwork of Gə’əz philosophy, the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob. The  debate over the authorship of the text had until recently become bogged down in accusations of bad faith on either side, and I hoped to open up a new avenue of exploration by examining the philosophical vocabulary (basically the set of terms that do the philosophical ‘heavy lifting’) employed in the text, and seeing whether this vocabulary could be better explained as translations of European philosophical terms (which would be the case if the text were a 19th century forgery), or the developments of earlier Ethiopian works like the Book of Wise Philosophers (if it was the ‘authentic’ [product of a 17th century Ethiopian scholar). In particular I was looking for the word that is the lynchpin of the philosophical system of the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, the word ልቡና (Lebuna), denoting the faculty of reason, intelligence or understanding. 

I was in luck. The term was used no less than four times on the very first page of text, in ways that seemed, if not identical, at least recognisably similar to what I had been expecting. Of course, the appearance of a single term proves nothing, and even the appearance of many is inconclusive, but it begins to lay the ground for an argument that the text could have been from 17th century Ethiopia as the relevant concepts were already in use in Gə’əz, that they were not on the one hand, totally unthinkable in the context of 17th century Ethiopia, nor created ex nihilo by an individual genius living alone in a cave. 

My only regret is that I was unable to consult a resource at least as great as the manuscript collection. For most of the last half century, Collegeville was home also to one of the greatest scholars of Ethiopian manuscript culture, the late, great Getatchew Haile who died in 2021. Getatchew was one of those thinkers whose scholarly output beggars belief: hundreds of catalogs, editions, articles, translations into and from Ethiopian and European languages.

Getatchew Haile (1932-2021). Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Shewa in 1931, just a few years before the Italian invasion, Getatchew studied Semitic philology in Cairo and then Tübingen, returning to his home country on the eve of epoch-making changes – the first coup had been attempted against the government of Haile Selassie. The ancient Solomonic dynasty of which that emperor was to be the last was not long for this world. After the revolution of 1974 brought the Derg regime to power, Getatchew found himself on the wrong side of the junta, and during a shootout with their forces was paralysed in the lower back. With the help of friends he escaped his hospital, then his homeland, fleeing first to London and then to the United States, where he settled in a small town just outside the St John’s campus. I can only imagine what this Ethiopian-born, Egyptian-educated scholar must have made of his first Minnesota winter. 

Over eighteen years between 1975 and 1993, Getatchew took to the 8000 microfilmed manuscripts from the EMML project, which he meticulously cataloged and made available to the scholarly community. The final part of this project was supported by the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, making him the first African to receive this coveted award. Most interestingly for me, Getatchew agreed for many years with the prevailing scholarly consensus on the Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, namely that it was a forgery, until late in his life something made him change his mind. 

In 2017, Getatchew published an article in a collection dedicated to his friend, the Amharic language poet Amha Asfaw, arguing in favor of an Ethiopian authorship of the Hatata. I had hoped to speak with him about his change of heart: was it just reviewing the evidence, or was there some deeper hunch informing his opinion? What did he think about recent work on the topic (selfishly I wanted to know what the great man thought of my own small contributions)? Did he think there was any way of settling the problem once and for all? But as it stands, with regard to both the Hatata debate and Getatchew’s own thoughts on the matter, we have nothing but the words on the page, and no option but to advance his work in our own small way. Getatchew Haile’s tombstone rests in the cemetery just outside the St John’s campus, with Gə’əz letters in a peculiar, ornate style carved into the smooth reddish granite opposite Lake Saganatan. This quiet, peaceful place, a land of plains and lakes and forests, has become in the twenty first century a repository for the traces – in handwriting, stone, in lines of code – of the literary and philosophical traditions of an Ethiopia that is in many ways its opposite.

The Tomb of Getatchew Haile. Photo: Jonathan Egid.

Jonathan Joshua Egid is a graduate student at King’s College London. His research explores philosophy and its history in a global orientation with a special interest in the methodologies of intercultural comparison and the historiography of philosophy. He is currently writing about the Hatata Zera Yacob, an enigmatic philosophical autobiography from Ethiopia, and the century long controversy over its authorship. His latest article ‘How does philosophy learn to speak a new language?‘ appeared in Perspectives.

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Lake Sagatagan. Photo: Jonathan Egid.

Think Piece

Margaret Cavendish, ‘Restoring Beds, or Wombs,’ and a Feminist-Materialist Quest for Everlasting Life

By Anne M. Thell

The pursuit of long life has a long history, from Socrates to Jeff Bezos. Less known but no less intriguing in this genealogy is Margaret Cavendish (1623–73), an English writer, philosopher, and demagogue of the Restoration period who devoted much of her career to questions of mortality and developed a corresponding set of strategies to cheat death. The author’s thinking on this subject is timely not only in light of ongoing global affairs, but also for other reasons: Cavendish scholarship is exploding in both literature and, more recently, philosophy, while 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of her birth.

Cavendish was a vitalist-materialist, while she also espoused panpsychism. This means that she viewed nature as a living, moving, and sentient thing, while she also believed that nature is both eternal and infinite. Even when a particular creature dies or “dissolves,” its matter simply dissembles and migrates into new forms. For her, there was no entirely new matter in nature, nor was there entropy. Instead, the matter that composes the universe—from the furthest stars to our fingernails—exists in a state of “perpetual transformation” and thereby exists forever. 

Perhaps the most obvious expression of Cavendish’s interest in immortality appears in her career-long quest for fame (or, in her words, her desire to scale “Fame’s Tower” and “Live in Many Brains”). This emphasis on the continuance of her ideas in “after-Ages” typifies what Michael W. Clune has called “the classical tradition of literary immortality,” whereby authors strive to combat time by claiming that art lives on in perpetuity. This rubric is especially important to Cavendish because she wrote in a period that did not look kindly on female philosophers. She thus imagined her texts as progeny who might achieve “glorious resurrection” in the minds of more enlightened future readers.

But Cavendish moved beyond literary tactics by writing the possibility of eluding death into her metaphysics. Across her later philosophy, which includes Philosophical Letters (1664), Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668), she offered a more totalizing approach to dodging annihilation via the transformational properties innate in natural matter. In the Cavendishean universe, nothing really dies. Instead, natural matter exists in certain formations—a human, say, or a tree—for varied durations before dissolving and then reconfiguring in new ways.

However, the author’s most spectacular—and speculative—solution to preserving bodies against the violence of time appears in the concluding pages of her final philosophical treatise, Grounds of Natural Philosophy. Here, she hypothesizes “Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” that restore life to annihilated bodies. These peculiar devices can restore any natural creature—animal, mineral, vegetable—which means that any given person or thing could be revivified exactly as it existed before decay or illness set in.

Eucharius Rösslin and Thomas Raynalde, The Birth of Mankind (1560), 108. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Cavendish clearly enjoys theorizing these “Beds, or Wombs.” She reasons that they could not be “Fleshy by reason the nature of Flesh is so corruptible,” yet must be “like Flesh, for Softness, or Spunginess; as also for Colour.” She also suspects that they would be located in “the Center of the World,” which is most likely a rocky island in “the Center of the Sea.” The devices consist of a “compounded” substance that contains the building blocks for “all the Kinds and Sorts of the Creatures of this World,” and, obeying laws of self-motion, automatically open once their work is done to release a perfectly restored creature.

We might recall that Cavendish was the author of Blazing World (1666), one of the earliest pieces of science-fiction in English, and thus no novice to the imaginative dimensions of scientific speculation. In keeping with these interests, she places on this island of regeneration a center within the center where the beds themselves are produced. Here we find a spectacular sci-fi vision of a massive “Rocky Creature” that is “all covered with its own Productions”—some wombs “hung by Strings, or Nerves: others stuck close,” some grow out of the “upper parts,” others “the middle” or “lower parts.” This creature is “as lasting as the Sun, or other Planets,” and thus “not subject to decay” (a smart detail that eliminates the problem of finding restoring beds for the restoring beds).

If this all sounds pretty wild, both for the 1660s and today, it is. But it is also canny, self-aware, and largely consistent with her later philosophy. One might immediately notice that these contrivances provide a natural, material, and decidedly gendered account—they are wombs, after all—of revivification that overtly competes with religious notions of resurrection (a rather risky postulate in seventeenth-century England). Indeed, these devices provide a more satisfying explanation for what is essentially a fantasy of an infinite series of lives. One might also notice that these “Beds, or Wombs” eradicate the need for men, sex, or god. In this way, Cavendish reformulates the search for everlasting life in a feminist-materialist way.

Broadly, the wombs also demonstrate Cavendish’s interest in nature’s sentient resilience, as well as its ability to repair and renew its constituent parts. Unlike most scientific thinkers of the period (and notably experimental scientists like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, or Robert Hooke), Cavendish insisted that humans are part of nature—not above it—and thus that we lack the perspectival leverage to see and understand its operations. A committed probabilist, she believed that human knowledge is always approximate (certain options might shave closer to truth than others, but are never perfect or comprehensive). In Grounds, she recognizes that bodily regeneration is wildly conjectural and thus frames the debate as a lighthearted argument between the parts of her mind and pokes fun at herself for too zealous an interest in immortality. Yet in the end, she decides that it is “at least, probable, there were such things in Nature as Restoring-Beds, or Wombs.” Thus Cavendish concludes her career engaging a type of philosophical speculation that produces open-ended pleasure (i.e., the beds are fun to think about and cannot be ruled out entirely). Such inconclusiveness thwarts death, too, as it becomes an interpretive puzzle for future readers.

If rocky “Wombs” seem too eccentric to demonstrate the regenerative impulses that define Cavendish’s later views on nature, we might return to their logical underpinning: her concept of “translation.” Cavendish was a devout materialist—rivaling only Thomas Hobbes as the Restoration thinker most committed to this doctrine—yet she also recognized that bodies tend to slow, decline, and fail. In response to this problem, translation allows infinite transmutation: When any “particular motion” or “Society” ends, its matter is “not annihilated, but changed.” Organic matter exists “by a perpetual supply and succession of particulars,” or “perpetual alternations, generations, and dissolutions.” Hence, “infinite varieties” of combinations generate “infinite varieties” of “Productions,” which are always temporary and contingent.

“The Tree of Life,” c. seventeenth century, British. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain).

Surprisingly, this topic—“Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” in particular and regeneration more broadly—has received only scant attention from Cavendish scholars, although an increasing number are approaching her work from the perspective of eco-criticism, human/non-human relations, and the medical humanities. Cavendish was a thinker uniquely in and out of her time; her work has deeply syncretic aspects—she was well-versed in both ancient and contemporary philosophy—as well as a restless, idiosyncratic streak, which often anticipates much later thinking (e.g., materialist understandings of consciousness, many-worlds theory, deconstructions of the Anthropocene, Romantic views of imagination, biotech-fueled rejuvenation). She is also one important voice in a long line of literary authors who seek to counter neurobiological time and its inevitable erosion of pleasure, sensation, and self.

As is likely obvious by this point, Cavendish was a unique voice of the later seventeenth century. In her thoroughgoing materialism, she shares much with Hobbes; however, unlike Hobbes, she rejects mechanism and claims instead that all of nature lives, thinks, perceives, and moves itself, with intent and volition. Her hylozoism might seem to align her with thinkers like Henry More or Anne Conway; unlike those vitalists, though, Cavendish adamantly denies “spirits” or incorporeal substances in nature: as she argues, nothing can exist “between Something and Nothing.” She does acknowledge the possibility of a “divine soul,” but this supernatural entity falls far beyond the scope of natural philosophy. Along with Hobbes, Descartes, and More, Cavendish sparred with Jan Baptiste van Helmont, whose materialist understanding of disease clearly influenced her medical thinking. But she disparaged his fusing of theology and natural philosophy and his interest in supernatural substances like blas. In sum, her rigorous brand of materialism stands apart because it infuses all natural matter—rocks, algae, humans—with life, sentience, and free will.   

Cavendish’s materialism is also what connects her most vividly to the present day. Indeed, her material theory of mind is a clear precedent to contemporary understandings of consciousness. Anil Seth, for instance, has demonstrated that our sense of self is based on the experience of our bodies, as we perceive our physical condition via internal sense organs. Thus, consciousness is rooted in our nature as biological organisms: we are “beast machines,” a term Seth adapts from Descartes, and the brain ensures our survival and organismic self-regulation. Seth views consciousness as an embodied system (like many other recent thinkers who seek to reconnect body and mind), and locates us firmly within nature, an approach that Cavendish anticipates. Like Seth, Cavendish concentrates on embodied sentience, while she also, as a rationalist-materialist, examines the phenomenology of consciousness as bodily phenomenon.

In these virus-haunted days, lethal threats to life on this planet seem a uniquely modern predicament. Cavendish reminds us to historicize our entreaties for health and longevity, which extend into past and future—from ancient elixirs to a new quest for immortality in Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos (Altos Labs, Unity); Peter Thiel (Methuselah Foundation, Unity); Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Calico)—all invest massive sums in life-extending research, or “biohacking,” which does not strive to eradicate death entirely but, over future decades, to control the body’s relationship with time by, say, arresting bodily degeneration (e.g., sustaining heart or brain health), or reprogramming our bodies on a cellular level (e.g., cell-tissue rejuvenation via didactic proteins). These are appeals for a radical extension of life, if not immortality in the Ponce de León sense. But these dreams of living forever on a dying planet—and then shooting into space to set up new colonies—remain noticeably ego-driven, masculinist, and anthropocentric (whatever trickle-down effects they might have on ordinary people). (Here one cannot help but think of Jonathan Swift’s Struldbrugs.) By contrast, Cavendish’s “Wombs” restore all natural things, not just humans, even after their expiry. She therefore reconfigures a familiar yearning in a way that displaces humans as sole beneficiaries.

Today, with our materialist leanings, our ongoing tussle with the “hard problem” of consciousness, and our tendency to view humans as just one small part of nature, we are perhaps better positioned to notice Cavendish’s ingenuity. Indeed, within the academy at least, she has found her “glorious resurrection.” Her work is now standard fare in literature classes, following the pioneering work of feminist scholars of the 1980s and 1990s (here I think of Sylvia Bowerbank, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Sara Mendelson, Anna Battigelli, Sarah Hutton, and Eileen O’Neill, to name only a few). More recently, she has made her way into the philosophy canon, which is notoriously slow-changing. This is long overdue, since she responds with intelligence and creativity to the same fundamental questions as her more famous male contemporaries. She is vital to understanding more fully the philosophical and scientific debates of her era because she noticed and critiqued their masculinist assumptions, while she also articulated alternate explanations of a universe that she saw as infinite, sentient, and alive. We might even say that this renegade thinker offers a secret history of the so-called “Scientific Revolution,” one that envisions nature as a self-knowing, self-governing system that produces and sustains life in ways far beyond human perception.

Cavendish’s “Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” are one distinctive iteration of the human drive to imagine lives that continue on beyond the grave. They are also the final display of Cavendish’s lifelong investment in preserving natural productions against the indignities of time and, broadly, in refuting the temporal-material conditions of our lives. She strives to enrich experience—and to ennoble bodies—in an intense yet secular battle against “the Nature of Blood and Flesh.” In 2023, as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of her birth, she scores one point in that arduous contest and inches further towards “monumental fame.”

Anne M. Thell is Associate Professor of English literature at National University of Singapore and, in 2022-23, a Sassoon Fellow at The Bodleian Library, Oxford. Her most recent book is the Broadview edition of Cavendish’s Grounds of Natural Philosophy (2020). She is now at work on two new projects: One on mental illness as it relates to early British fiction, and another on Cavendish and time.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta & Tom Furse

Featured Image: “The Fountain of Youth,” 1546, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image Wikimedia Commons.