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Quandaries of Quinine

By Jessica Sequeira

Quina quina (bark of bark, or holy bark), from the cinchona tree, is native to the Amazon rainforest and the Andes of South America. Its properties have been known for hundreds of years to the Quechua people of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and other countries of the region, who used the bark as a preventive method and a muscle relaxant against the shivering and fever of the disease later called “malaria”. What is not known is the exact process by which the properties of the tree were introduced to Europe. As Fernando Ortiz Crespo puts it: “The entry of Quina Bark into modern pharmacology has been clouded by unreliable sources, apocryphal ornament and botanical confusion.”

The Spanish physicians Juan Fragoso and Nicolas Monardes wrote about medicinal bark in the New World, but Fragoso didn’t give much detail about the tree in his work Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales (Medicinal History of Things Brought from Our West Indies). In the next century, tales circulated about the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, supposedly cured of “tertian fever” by a local doctor who used an extract from the bark of a Peruvian tree. The facts of this tale cannot be proven, but it captured the European imagination, and Linnaeus named the bark “Cinchona officinalis” after the Countess. The criollo Augustinian friar Antonio de la Calancha also studied the bark, as did the Spanish Jesuit Bernabé Cobo, as well as the Italian Jesuit Agostino Salumbrino, who wrote about its use in Lima to treat shivering. Because it was the Jesuits who brought word of quina quina with them not only back to Europe, but also to other regions of the world such as China where they were involved in missionary work, the bark began to be widely referred to as “Jesuit bark”, “Jesuit’s Powder”, or “Pulvis Patrum”.

Today quinine is often associated with the British empire, a word to be found in a Graham Greene novel or linked to the gin and tonics sipped by colonialists in the tropics. But the drug has a long history before that. The implementation of quina quina in the European context involves overlapping global networks from the 17th to the 21st century with different and at times conflicting aims. South American Jesuits, Portuguese and Spanish conversos, members of London’s Royal Society, merchants and soldiers in Asia and Africa, astronomists, botanists, wartime chemists and a great many more researched or used the tree for medical purposes. And, long before the Europeans, indigenous people lived alongside quina quina without the need for “discovery”, cultivating local knowledge that has still not yet been explored with as much depth and respect as it ought to be.

Jacob de Castro-Sarmento. Mezzotint by R. Houston after R. E. Pine. Wellcome Collection.

One part of this story involves the Portuguese Jews who escaped from the Inquisition and moved to London, where they developed and popularized quinine, a product marketed as quintessentially English under the name agoas de Inglaterra (waters of England). To tell this story in all its complexity would require a structure as delicate and beautiful as that of the cinchona alkaloid, whose synthetization in the 20th century would have been impossible without quina quina.

AUTHOR OF MEDICINES

At the age of 28, the Portuguese doctor Jacob de Castro Sarmento escaped from the Portuguese Inquisition by moving to London. He had studied at Mértola, he matriculated at the University of Evora obtaining a degree in classics and the philosophy of Aristotle, and went on to acquire a medical degree at the University of Coimbra. After completing his studies, he worked with the poor in the region of Alemtejo, where he grew interested in fevers. It was here, however, that he also got involved with underground Jewish practices, and both he and his mother were pursued by guardians of the faith.

It was a common move at the time for Jews like him, averse to converting to Catholicism but even more averse to torture, to make a new life in England, since the two countries enjoyed a political and commercial relationship. Eleven years later, in 1735, Sarmento published his Materia Medica Physico-Historico-Mechanica, reprinted in 1756 under the catchier title Do Uso, e Abuso das Minhas Agoas de Inglaterra (On the Use, and Abuse, of My Waters of England). In the meantime, he continued to experiment and advance his career. By the time the second edition came out, he had had more time to understand the effects of the maravilhoza casca (marvelous bark).

Sarmento heavily criticizes his fellow doctors for writing against his medicine for thirty years, when the bark could have been working its good effects. He also identifies a doctor who vended agoas de Inglaterra with a distinct purposes: “another remedy was circulating with the same name, but with a very different process of invention and preparation; its Author always kept the composition of the remedy secret, and attributed to it virtues or properties other than curing intermittent fevers”.[i] Sarmento repeatedly insists that his version is the correct one, and that great claims which don’t take into account warnings about what the bark can and can’t do, and the specific situations and methods its use requires, are a danger.

At this time, all kinds of fevers were grouped as a possible effect of hot weather. Of course, some attributed these ailments to the wrath of God, gleefully pointing toward them as punishments for evil behavior, akin to syphilis. Categories of “heat” and “lax morality” began to overlap, so that regions with hot climates were attributed with dubious ethics. But since epidemics of fever stretched across many 18th-century cities, including Lisbon, this explanation was a troubled one. The King of Portugal himself grew interested in tackling the matter when malaria ravaged the south of his country. While Inquisitors and other religious officials attempted to explain such disease through religion, “natural philosophers”, some of whom were exiled abroad in London, started to provide other explanations in which God was bracketed off at least temporarily, and physiology allowed to take center stage.

Here is where Sarmento offers his services. Notably, he refers to himself as an “Author”, which seems to indicate that medicine is an act as personal as writing a book, one not yet controlled by corporations or laboratory teams. In an uncertain world characterized by an emerging individual self-consciousness, as well as legal precarity regarding brand names, intellectual copyrights, and patents, makers of potions felt very possessive about their recipes and ingredients. Sarmento refers to his potion as minhas Agoas de Inglaterra (my Waters of England) throughout his work, and On the Use, and Abuse, of My Waters of England is a robust defense of “his” medicine, his right to it, and its correct use according to him. For all the talk of Divine Providence, the glory of Portugal, and the benefit to human furthering of Natural History, human ego also plays a role.

Frontispiece of Do uso, e abuso das minhas Agoas de Inglaterra by Jacob de Castro Sarmento (Universidade de Coimbra Digitalis)

Quina quina may have adverse effects, Sarmento admits, but also miraculous ones if used properly, hence the “use and abuse” of the title. Drug use and abuse are familiar ideas in contemporary societies in relation to an individual patient or recreational consumer, but such ideas can apply to the prudent doctor, too. For a man languishing from fever in his bed in some tropical place, the doctor must administer exactly the right combination of ingredients, with the correct dosage. In the edition that I am reading, handwritten notes appear in sepia ink, perhaps marginalia by a medical colleague reading On the Use, and Abuse, of My Waters of England to learn about Sarmento’s techniques, or by a younger man studying to be a physician. Several of the notes are glosses on the prohibitions and warnings about what one should definitely not do. It is as if, in spite of what else could happen, our mysterious note-taker wants to be sure that if his potion does not bring healing, it will at least not usher in death.

HAPPY DISCOVERY

Although it was published in England by the Scottish publisher William Strahan, who also published Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon, Sarmento’s work was deeply tied to Portuguese interests. It was dedicated to Diogo de Mendonça Corte-Real, secretary of state to João V of Portugal, and it begins with these resounding words: “In all of natural history, no greater discovery has been made to this day, nor one more interesting to human Nature and public health, than that of quina quina; and it seems to me that in all of Medical history, nowhere are so many astonishing effects of this admirable bark to be found registered, and with such individuality, as in this little book that I offer to Your Excellency.”[ii]

The second edition recalls how the 1731 edition was written on commission for the minister of Portugal, who was “highly inclined to undertake a natural History of our Brazil”[iii], and reminds His Majesty that “in that Dominion, there lies deposited a far greater providence, and a more priceless treasure to discover by means of our natural History, than all of the precious stones or gold that can be extracted from its mines”[iv]. To put it another way, the quina quina bark in Brazil is a greater treasure to Portugal than even its jewels and gold.

Flipping to the end of Sarmento’s book, readers find a picture of quina quina on the last page, its branches laid flat, its thick leaves accompanied by finer ones, its tiny flowers and its stem in cross-section carefully sliced and sorted in preparation for the mixing of the Agoas de Inglaterra. Pictured this way, its every part exposed, the tree is stripped of sacredness and turned into matter, a resource. In the “Dedicatoria”, the language of Providence signals clear human interests: the world is portrayed as having begun as rude and confused, until humanity gradually learned to turn nature to its uses, as destined by Providence. The “happy discovery”[v] of quina quina forms part of this providential history. Such logic was convenient to the Portuguese government, desperate for a cure for both the “fevers” in their country, and the ones suffered by men posted to Brazil and India.

Quina quina, as seen in the end pages of Do uso, e abuso das minhas Agoas de Inglaterra by Jacob de Castro Sarmento (Universidade de Coimbra Digitalis).

On Use and Abuse reads in part as a cookbook, with descriptions of situations given along with specific mixtures required, the fruit of Sarmento’s experience of three decades. Quina quina bark must be ground and combined with other substances and liquids, which vary depending on the specific case. Ingredients include malva, cream of tartar, tamarind pulp, flaxseed oil, sal ammoniac, spirit of hartshorn, vinegar, strawberry syrup, juice of oranges from China, lemon juice, green wine or “the best white wine of Lisbon”, lemonade, rhubarb, valeriana silvestre, pure opium, cinnamon water, spiritus mindereri and Mynsicht’s elixir of vitriol. Some are familiar to us, some less so. It is organized into sections focusing on the different ailments that can be treated with quina quina, from varieties of fever (“intermittent”, “ardent” and “nervous”) to other unexpected situations such as “hysterical affects”, “matrimony” (i.e. sex life), constipation, stomachs cheo de flatos depois de comer (full of flatulence after eating), miscarriages, gangrene following surgical operations and amputations, and bullet wounds. The book ends with two testimonials, a common genre similar to today’s book blurbs, attesting to the efficacy of the medicines and once again reinforcing the “Authorship” of Sarmento. The first is by a physician in the Roman curia, Dr Gaspar Rodrigues de Payva, the second by a physician to the King of Angola, Dr Euzebio Catela de Lemos.

Quina quina is truly portrayed as a miracle drug. It seems that the Agoas can be used for nearly everything, diced and dissolved into different recipes. The trick is to determine the correct combination and timing. Rather than immediately prescribing the Agoas, the prudent doctor will often let the fever run its course for a time first, to avoid the patient’s relapse. Specific ingredients are also recommended as complements, such as contrayerva to slow or retard the effect of quina quina, or else as purgatives to help expel noxious substances prejudicial to the patient’s health. Medicine comes to mirror human activity itself, requiring great circumspection and the equanimity to move backward a bit before one can advance.

Although nominally about medicine, the book displays concern about the human being in general. Sarmento’s experience as a doctor shines through, both in his first-person references and in his vivid allusions to others, such as his story of a feverish patient tucked away in bed next to an open window, afflicted by frights and terrors. In the section about bullet wounds, we also read: “I remember noticing the bullet wound in my Father’s leg, which he received in his youth, and which could clearly be seen; many times I heard him declare that even after he was cured, he continued to suffer, or that even the slightest inconvenience bothered him in the place in his leg where the bullet had lodged, and when he died, at 86 years old, he took it with him to the grave”[vi].

In the 18th century, autobiography was not the stand-alone genre it is today, and it is startling to find such first-person accounts in unexpected places such as this medical manual. It might perhaps fit into an alternate tradition of medical writing that includes works by figures such as Gerolamo Cardano and Leonardo da Vinci, and before them many Greeks and Romans, for whom the health of the soul and the health of the body are bound up, and the life of the doctor is connected to that of the patient.

SACRIFICES TO HISTORY

As a muscular relaxant, quina quina had many uses to tranquilize a body overstimulated by heat, mosquitos or the many other undesirable influences which might persecute a poor human organism from the outside. But it had some undesirable internal effects as well, of the kind doctors warn about even today, should they prescribe tablets to patients. Vomiting is a risk. But even more dangerous is an excessive dose, or one taken at the wrong stage of fever, which could relax the body too much, especially the central organ in charge of distributing blood and life to the rest of the system: the heart. Cardiac arrhythmia is the name for an irregular pulse that reaches the extreme of stopping the body entirely, and quina quina is an antiarrhythmic agent. In such cases, it is not unusual for the patient in question to die.

The dose makes the poison, Paracelsus is said to have remarked, implying that medicine improves life in small quantities but turns to poison in larger ones. Quina quina, like other powerful medicines, is also a poison. During the unstable time of experimentation with its effects, 18th-century amateur scientists occasionally inflicted illness when experimenting with the bark, possibly even death. Many untold stories haunt this period when political and medical interests preferred not to notice the invisible hand that gently closed victims’ eyes.

Sarmento assumed a position of importance in the Royal Society when his predecessor, Isaac de Sequeira Samuda, died at the age of 48. Sequeira, another exile from the Portuguese Inquisition, had also been studying quina quina thanks to his contact with Dr Fernando Mendes, another member of the erudite diaspora committed to battling the new strains of fever, with the added experience of having survived England’s Great Plague. On 25 August 1728, Joseph Israel Carrillo, physician to the King of Tunis, sent Sequeira a long letter about the verbascum flower, also mentioning the “arbor Exotica Indica Melancholica”. Just a couple months later, on 22 November 1729, Sequeira passed away under mysterious circumstances linked to his study. The report of his death describes him as having “stopped”.

Sometimes studying the past can feel like detective work, and I still do not know what the exact links between events might be. Certainly, the brief account given of Sequeira’s death matches the medical description of a stopped heart from quina quina. Or perhaps it was the verbascum he was inquiring about in his letter, also used by indigenous peoples as a poison. Upon Sequeira’s death, Jacob de Castro Sarmento published his book about quina quina, alluding to its tragic consequences if not used correctly. He quickly took over Sequeira’s role as a physician and scientific adviser, and life at the Royal Society went on. In his spare time, out of friendship or guilt, he also made the effort to complete an epic poem about the Lusitanian leader Viriatus which Sequeira had begun.

Having escaped the horrors of the Inquisition, a Portuguese exile might find a subtler arena of human sacrifice in London, where oblations were contextualized in terms of a greater good, if not God’s Providence, than the advancement of natural philosophy. In the early 18th century, as the world opened up with new global networks, scientific discoveries were frequently decontextualized from their original circumstances. A plant held sacred by Quechua people, in the context of an indigenous culture that was aware of its power, respectful of its healing properties, and conscious of its potentially dangerous effects as a poison, was transformed into pure matter, a resource for the Europeans desperate for a cure for the diseases ravaging their nations and empire.

The quina quina plant was used to advance solutions and careers as part of larger accounts of Catholic providential history and Progress. Stories about it often assumed a kind of parasitism and mimesis similar to that of the malaria that it sought to cure. By erasing Quechua knowledge and claiming its “discovery”, the story of modern European pharmacology often became one of narrative parasitism that unfolded in parallel with bodily disease. And ironically, it was many of those who had been victims themselves — the Portuguese who suffered from the Inquisition, for instance — who assumed important roles in these processes.


[i] De Castro Sarmento, Jacob. Do Uso, e Abuso das Minhas Agoas de Inglaterra, ix. “corria outro remedio com o mesmo nome, mas na invençam, e preparaçam muito differente; nem seu Autor, que fez sempre segredo de dizer, o de que se compunha o tal remedio, lhe atribuio ja mais ontras virtudes, ou propiedades, que a de curar as febres intermittentes”

[ii] Ibid., iii-iv. “Em toda a Historia natural, se naō tem feito mayor descobrimento ate este dia, nem mais interessante à Natureza humana, e saude publica, do que o da quina quina; e pareceme a mim, que em toda a Historia Medica, se naõ acharàm registrado tantos, e com tanta individuaçam, os pasmozos effeitos desta admiravel casca, como neste pequeno livro que offereço a V. Exa.”

[iii] Ibid, xii. “muito inclinado a entreprender numa Historia natural do nosso Brasil”

[iv] Ibid., xii. “na quelle Dominio, tem depozitado a providencia muito mayor, e mais inextimavel thezouro, a descobrir por meyo de numa Historia natural, do que todas as pedras preciozas e o ouro que das suas minas se podem extrahir”

[v] Ibid., vi. “feliz descobrimento”

[vi] Ibid., 257. “me lembro, que havendo recebido meu Pay hum tiro de bala, em huma perna, na sua mocidade, e ficandolhe nella, como manifestamente lhe percebia; muitas vezes lhe ouvi declarar, que depois da cura que se lhe fez, ja mais padecera o menor inconveniente ou molestia, no lugar, ou perna, donde lhe ficou a tal bala, sendo que morreo de oitenta e seis annos, e a levou consigo a sepultura”


Jessica Sequeira has published the novel A Furious Oyster, the story collection Rhombus and Oval, the essay collection Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age and the hybrid work A Luminous History of the Palm. She has translated many books by Latin American authors, and in 2019 was awarded the Premio Valle-Inclán. Currently she lives between Chile and the UK, where she is based at the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: Quina quina, as seen in the end pages of Do uso, e abuso das minhas Agoas de Inglaterra by Jacob de Castro Sarmento. (Detail). Courtesy of Universidade de Coimbra Digitalis.

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“Civil War Is the Ongoing Condition of Democracy”: Reflections on Nicole Loraux

By Bruce J. Krajewski

The grand theorist of civil war is Nicole Loraux. The renowned French historian of ancient Greece is for the study of civil war what Hannah Arendt is for students of totalitarianism. While no one would label Loraux a conspiracy theorist, she assumes that “there are processes that define the political in ways that escape the awareness of human societies” (84). What, then, are Americans missing about our current political troubles? Loraux, who died in 2003, ought to be a useful guide during this period after what the Financial Times called “a coup” attempted by Donald Trump at the US Capitol. One member of the mob passed through the Capitol’s rotunda shouldering a Confederate flag, providing an unmissable clue that viewers were witnessing the Civil War’s revival. Recently, the federal government sought to block one seditionist’s pretrial release based on “his fantasy of participating in another Civil War.”

Loraux’s The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens (2002) focuses on an unfortunate kernel at the heart of democracy: polemics, agonistics, a “congenital” model of civil war (the Greek term stasis) that produces political winners and losers (97). This should sound familiar to Americans. In The Federalist, Number 10, James Madison argued that the provisions of the “American constitutions” had not “obviated the dangers” of the unfortunate kernel Madison called factions. Like Madison, Loraux posits that factions and agonistics would be a perennial problem, even when a democracy is united in a war against an external opponent. Stephanie Larson captures this feature of Loraux’s book: “[Loraux] sets stasis back into its political context, instead of considering it an offshoot of some abstract agonistic tendency in mentalité. She argues that the Greek city is intrinsically divided [my emphasis] through discourse yet at the same time reflectively offers a united model as a means of mitigating internal stasis.”

Division—it’s what irritates some about the language of Charlottesville: “fine people on both sides,” or animates some who heard Rudy Giuliani exhorting “trial by combat” before the mob moved to the Capitol on January 6. “Trial” is a reminder that the U.S. justice system functions likewise on an agonistic model which plays out “in a field of pain and death” (1601). Plaintiff versus defendant. Oppressed versus oppressor. Discord is at the heart of democracy’s identity for Loraux, who thought civil war down to its philological roots. She offers readers a “metapsychology of the city” to engage with what escapes our awareness about the political (85). Not that what happened on January 6 was a surprise. “Both sides” anticipated the current conflict. Conservative Glenn Beck claimed that Marxists who had read a book called The Coming Insurrection would “hijack” George Floyd’s death to overthrow the republic. Similarly, liberal commentators insist on their lack of surprise about an attempt to overthrow the election. The attempted coup was legible from both directions.

Civil war is a movement of ripping apart and bringing back together. Loraux says civil war (stasis) is an activity of “two halves of a whole.” The ripping apart includes murder, betrayal, sacrilege, and sacrifice. The flip side involves a strange act that Loraux locates in an ancient oath: remember to forget (42–44). Some ancient Greeks (around 400 BCE) took an oath to promise to forget the horrors of civil war, mostly to return to a place where political consensus would be possible, consensus being “the essential quality of political life” (24). This forgetting also means “denying that [civil war] is the ongoing condition” of democracy (65). For Loraux, the cycle of civil war is unalterable, but that characteristic must be repressed. The trauma caused by stasis is so profound for the Greeks that they engage in “concealing as far as possible the fact of stasis” (64). Loraux claims her project is “to estimate the effects of such an erasure in the memory of Athens” (64). It’s not a straightforward undertaking, causing her to appeal to Sigmund Freud’s commentary on repression in his “Negation” essay (65). Loraux could have leaned on Jacques Lacan to stress her point (Lacan makes an appearance in The Divided City) that the forgetting she points to will result in head-scratching. Lacan says, “Forgetting seems to be something too material, too natural, for us not to think that it goes without saying, when in fact it’s the most mysterious thing in the world as soon as memory is posited as existing” (151). By appealing to psychoanalysis, Loraux suggests readers might take the Greek’s negation of stasis as “a civic version” of a quotidian move: “I want to exclude this from myself” (65). It’s a political version of pretending “as if everything were fine” (153).

Nicole Loraux, The Divided City (Zone Books, 2002).

For pretend peace to return, people pledge to keep forgetting the bloodshed and hatred that ignites each cycle. Divisive discourse is replaced with talk of family, brotherhood, unity. Sentences with “always” and “never” are abandoned. Think of the social media messages to “never forget” Brian Sicknick countered by calls to “always remember” Ashli Babbitt. “Always” and “never” interfere with the polemical cycle. Those are not words for mortals. Mortals don’t participate in eternity. Call this, in Hans Blumenberg’s terms, the difference between life-time and world-time. Oddly, Loraux writes as if civil war has a sunny side. Civil war, she declares, is a “conflict that connects” (111), meaning that everyone participates in a kind of collective amnesia. Forgetting is the crucial ingredient in fashioning a reconciliation to repair political bonds. People must find homogeneity in diversity. E Pluribus Unum.

While a divided city is the model for the book Loraux considered her best, in a related essay, “War inside the Family” (1997), she revisits depictions of civil war with fathers killing their sons. Loraux’s example from Thucydides (39) might remind readers of the son who reported his father to the FBI for being an insurrectionist at the Capitol. The son had to go into hiding after his father’s arrest. Like the film When A Stranger Calls (2006), civil war is a horror that comes from inside the house. We call it domestic terrorism. Intestinal violence. For the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Loraux’s “War inside the Family” is more important than The Divided City. “The family is simultaneously the origin of division and stasis and the paradigm of reconciliation” (7), Agamben says. As Eric D. Meyer explains, “Civil war emerges from the schismatic infighting and family feuding within the Greek household (e.g., the bitter family feud, within the House of Atreus, between Atreus and Thyestes, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Aegisthus, et al.), and is only subsequently sublimated, within the Greek polis, by the establishment of a sovereign rule of law (the foundation of the Athenian Areopagus) which brings the self-perpetuating cycle of familial violence to a stop. With and against Loraux, Agamben argues that there is really no distinction, in Greek political theory or Greek tragedy, between the civil war in the family or in the polis.” This mixing of inside and outside, the private family home and the public realm of politics, has dire consequences. That mixture mirrors the ambiguity in the Greek term stasis, which underscores immobility, taking a stand as a citizen, but also means unrest, the kind that legitimates “every form of depravity (κακοτροπίας)” according to Thucydides.

Nicole Loraux, 1943-2003

Rebecca Comay captures the polyvalence of stasis: “The sixth century poet Alcaeus speaks of a stasis of the winds, as when a ship—a sailing vessel, a ship of state—is caught between countervailing gusts, buffeted from one side to another, marooned in constant motion, as if becalmed” (240). Stasis is the dissolution of the barrier that allows for normality, the quotidian feeling that violence is exterior, on the other side of a wall or barrier, far enough away that an army or a parent or the police can intervene before the outside threat reaches inside. Threats inside the wall generate a different caliber of fear. Culturally, that fear manifests itself in When a Stranger Calls and in The Manchurian Candidate, a film with an overt political dimension that plays up the linkage between family dynamics and international plots that use compromised insiders to exploit a state’s pre-existing factionalism. This analogy between household fury and civil war suits Loraux, who finds in The Divided City (75–77) that analogy permits encountering a question from a different angle. Appealing to Freud and Lacan (264), Loraux shows how the individual’s psyche can be read as a microcosm of the collectivity.

As an historian and classicist, Loraux saw her role as descriptive. Still, in addition to psychologists, she sought philosophers to corroborate her reflections about civil war. From Heraclitus’s “war is the father of all things,” to Kant’s famous statement that metaphysics is a “battlefield,” to Martin Heidegger’s notion that profound thinking is a battle (160–177), an influential portion of Western philosophy supplies resonance for Loraux’s commentary on civil war. Heidegger claims that Heraclitus equates war (polemos) with language (logos) and reason (68). For Heidegger, polemic is always combative and binding. He says, war “builds unity” (68). Heidegger taught his students in 1929–30 that the mission of authentic thinking is to make us “again call out to him who is able to drive terror into our Dasein [Being]” (634), a restating of the Führerprinzip. In The Divided City, Loraux gives allegiance to Heidegger’s reading of Heraclitus alone and not to his Führerprinzip, though it’s difficult to imagine that when Loraux published The Divided City in 1997 she was unaware of Heidegger’s baggage. (Victor Farias’s Heidegger et le nazismemade a splash in 1987.)

To begin thinking outside Loraux and Heidegger’s alleged cyclical prison-house of violence, Geoff Waite points to the larger context of Heraclitus’s statement: “War is father of all things, king of all, and some he shows as gods, others as men; some he makes slaves, others free” (64). Gods and men, slaves and free people. Heraclitus’s paternalistic presentation reduces humanity to a limited set of pugilistic pairs. The Loraux-Heidegger-Heraclitus political space is reserved for winners. Regrettably, Loraux and Heidegger were unable to put aside rank in their conceptualizing about a form of government without kings, a government which celebrates not rank but égalité. Did Loraux think rank persisted in modern democracies? The answer seems to be yes, judging, for instance, from the chapter “Democracy Put to the Test of the Stranger (Athens, Paris)” in Born to the Earth in which Loraux sides with Aristotle in asserting that “one cannot make a city of like elements because total homogeneity can never create a single unity” (140).

On the road to egalitarianism, human beings possess the freedom to choose options besides war, civil or otherwise. We have no need of kings or slaves, nor is the fate of democracy bound to perpetual civil war, as Karl Marx wrote of “united co-operative societies” in “The Paris Commune” section of The Civil War in France(1871). Loraux and Heidegger designate war and combat as ineradicable, programmed into democracy, business as usual. But business as usual can be rejected. Free people can elaborate new thoughts without an imposed amnesia, without sacrificing themselves to a formula that fuses Groundhog Day to civil war. This might be as difficult to imagine as a world without capitalism. In the words of Geoff Waite, “Capital and capitalism have the capacity to make the world believe and act as if their only radical alternative, communism, is not an object of possible experience” (“There is No Future in Capitalism’s Dreaming,” Arachnē, 6.2, 1999: 8). Likewise, many scholars engaged in political theory would have us believe it foolish to imagine an alternative to an endless interplay of polemics, agonistics (including “agonistic pluralism”), hatred, Schmittian duels between friends and enemies, and war. This project of limiting the political imaginary intends not to be liberatory.


Bruce J. Krajewski is a writer, translator, and editor based in Texas. He is currently working on an English translation of one of Salomo Friedlaender’s books on Kant.

Featured Image: Excerpt from the cover of Nicole Loraux, The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City (Zone Books, 2006).

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Out of Collapse, a Sacred Unity?

By Péter Buda

“‘God exists’ writes academic and journalist Yelitza Linares (2000) in her account of her conversion to Christianity at the moment when, having taken refuge on the roof of her house destroyed by a flood of mud and rubble, she was persuaded that she was going to die.” Didier Fassin and Paula Vasques recount the case of the 1999 Tragedia in Venezuela caused by massive landslides triggered by heavy rains, when a state of emergency was proclaimed, which was, as they describe, desired by the majority of the population rather than “feared and denounced.” As they recall, “in the name of emotion generated by the cataclysm and its human repercussions,” in order to cope with affliction, “it was the sacred union of the populace that was invoked” by the clergy and government. It was the “the permanence of the theological-political in modern democracies,” that made possible a situation when the humanitarian state of exception became a paradigm.

As collapsologists like Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens have been arguing for some time, due to the  unprecedented interconnectedness of our world, one of several crises “could trigger a gigantic series of domino effects” and lead to global systemic collapses in our lifetime. Or, in the  words of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk of the University of Cambridge, which recently, on 20 January 2021, evaluated the Report of the G20 Science Engagement Group (S20): “[t]he world faces impending disruptions due to the 21st century’s unprecedented, highly complex, and interconnected global systems. These systems have improved the human condition in many respects, but they have also revealed transnational fragility: the economic, health, and political disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic is an active example.”

Time seems to be ripe, then, to consider the prospect that a global humanitarian state of exception could become a more common paradigm. With the impending threat of a global collapse or “Tragedia,” resurgence of the spiritual or invocation of “the sacred union of the populace” may also well be emerging, with all the inherent political consequences.

In this regard, the time around World War I offers a valuable historical perspective. In fact, apart from the frightening analogies that cataclysmic war offers in terms of economic and social crises, its effect on mentalities also provides a helpful benchmark for our efforts to interpret present-day realities in this regard. In an age of unprecedented wars, pandemic, natural disasters (like the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906, the deadliest in US history), and with their concomitant  systemic collapses, religious and spiritual phenomena were on an exceptional rise, refuting the secular expectations of many. “All the pale horses of the apocalypse have stormed through my life: revolution and famine, currency depreciation and terror, epidemics and emigration,” as Stefan Zweig recalled his memories. The protracted war with the extra calamity of the flu pandemic initiated an apocalyptic era in need of divine intervention to bring about universal peace on Earth, as Philip Jenkins pointed out so eloquently. This was a unique socio-psychological epoch. Indeed, as Jenkins argues, ignoring a mental upheaval on a scale of what a contemporary British spiritualist Hereward Carrington had called “a gigantic psychological experiment” undertaken in Europe is tantamount to missing half of the story. Can we expect the return of spirituality and religion today, with an impending Tragedia on the global horizon?

Servigne and Stevens, mentioned above, came out with a new volume a couple of years later (English translation: 9 February 2021), on the topic of the  return of spirituality. Facing an impending global collapse, what we would normally expect from scientists is a more logically punctuated discourse of what we are supposed to do in terms of rational calculus. Instead, what we are confronted with is a warning that “[s]cience, technology and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything,” and that the “distancing of the structures of religion from public life has led to a desacralization of the world,” by which human society “deprived itself of the basic tools we will need in the long term.” The authors’ conclusion is plain and simple: it is impossible to “approach the end of a world without spirituality.” Psychological foundations of a potential invoking of a sort of sacral unity in a case of emergency are present as expected to become the new normal.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Danse Macabre. XII. The Bishop. 1538 Die imposante Galerie, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The head of the world’s biggest spiritual superpower, Pope Francis’ use of the term “crisis” or its equivalent (“trial”) 24 times in the Prologue alone of his recent book (1 December 2020) should be seen and interpreted in this context. As Massimo Faggioli, a professor of Roman Catholic historical theology, someone with intimate knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the current Pope’s strategy, states in one of his recently published works: “Francis’ response to the global crisis is not a retreat or a defense.” The Pope clearly wants to make use of the current and impending crises for reshaping globalisation, indeed, human society, when stating in this aforementioned book that “We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis.” As Francis goes on, we need to create a new political and economic system, which provides authentic – including also spiritual – “securities.” What the Pope advertises is an international society based on a  “moral supernorm,” as we have been informed by Drew Christiansen, the distinguished Jesuit professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. And at the last resort, as the Pope says, when “a supranatural common good is clearly identified, it necessitates a specific, legally and concordantly constituted authority capable of facilitating its fulfilment,” (or, as Pope Benedict XVI recalled Pope John XXIII’s words, a “true world political authority”).

Before everything else, of course, what we mean by “common” needs to be identified, as another insider, the Jesuit Bill McCormick states:

Appeals to the common good ring hollow in our time, as it is the very notion of ‘common’ that is under dispute. Pope Francis, however, has spoken of a ‘reconciled diversity.’ The Holy Spirit brings about communion and unity despite all the manifold differences among humans. The Spirit brings about ‘harmonic unity in diversity.’… This is the genius of Catholicism: holding in tension the universal and particular. It is also an image of the common good we desperately need in our time.

“True world political authority,” as we can see, presupposes a true spiritual authority capable of “reconciling diversity.”

International political authority does not grow on trees or descend from heaven. It needs to be established as a result of a political process, always driven by the strongest. Returning to our historical analogue, the “traumatic experience” of the First World War became a turning point for the Holy See to launch a campaign for establishing a world organization, as two prominent Jesuit historians of the Vatican’s diplomacy argued. In the same manner, many – especially the Social Gospel movement, the main religious force behind President Wilson’s initiative of the League of Nations – considered the war a supernatural catalyst for establishing the religious brotherhood of humankind, which was supposed to serve as the basis of the League of Nations. Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict XV’s praise of President Wilson clearly indicated that his hope for international organization laid in the global leadership of the United States, as the already mentioned Jesuit diplomatic historians continue, adding, that “in the popular mind the names Benedict XV and Woodrow Wilson became associated with the proposed league of Nations.”

These two protagonists were about to collide in cherishing a utopian internationalism, the way E.H. Carr and Hans J. Morgenthau defined what utopian internationalism is really about: “clothing their global interest in the guise of universal principles,” upon which – in their belief – “a rational and moral political order can and should be established here and now” – under their leadership. Carr, characteristically, was clearly mistaken when failing to admit the role of religious conviction in the construction of perceptions of global interests and principles. Indeed, sentiments like those articulated by a leading advocate of the Social Gospel movement, George D. Herron (who also facilitated backchannel diplomacy in Switzerland between President Wilson and the Holy See on the League of Nations) might have even harbored for the Holy See the promise of a sort of modern synthesis of the sacral and the temporal on a global level. He described President Wilson as a “colossal apostle,” his words as “divine visitations,” and the rostrum of the U.S. Senate becoming “God’s burning altar.”.

Part of the story especially concerning the “rostrum of the U.S. Senate” becoming a “burning altar” may sound odd today, but who knows: at least Pope Francis seems to be cherishing some hope, as he has indicated it in his message sent to President Biden (20 January 2021) “At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses … I likewise ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good.” I cannot help but recall at this point Pope Benedict XVs letter to the American people in 1919, in which the Pontiff “invoked divine help for Wilson” in his peace mission, especially with regard to the establishment of an organization “united under divine law,” with some recognition of the pope’s superior moral authority. As we have seen above, however, “appeals to the notion of ‘common’ ring hollow,” unless it is based on “reconciled diversity” brought about by the “genius of Catholicism.” What the Pope is campaigning for, as our only remaining hope and response to the “crises” or “traumatic experiences” of our world is the invocation of a sacral unity of humankind, meaning more specifically an international order centered around the “moral supernorm” embodied by the Church.

As we can see, placed into their historical context, abstract and even mystical concepts like “universal common good,” “reconciled diversity” and a world organization united under “divine law” are filled at once with tangible content. A mass “conversion to God” as a result of taking “refuge on the roof” of our global home provides fertile ground for ideas of utopian internationalism, obviously not without consequences for the secular paradigm of international as well as church and state relations.


Péter Buda is a PhD student in International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva and has an academic and professional background in international relations and security, religious studies and history. He works currently on historical analogies of the disruptive impact of potential systemic collapses on social mentalities and its possible paradigmatic implications for international order and internationalism.

Featured Image: A Tsunami Hazard Zone warning sign in Bamfield, British Columbia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Arendt, Améry, and the Public Intellectual

By Till Wagner

The position of public intellectuals today is a contested one. On the one hand, they play a significant role in the public deliberation of social and political affairs; on the other hand, there is persistent skepticism toward their perception of the present, based on the widely held sentiment that it is inherently disconnected from reality—that, in short, it is nothing more than an observation from the top of the “ivory tower.” In right-wing attacks against intellectuals, the latter are accused of representing an elitist, biased, and ultimately unrealistic view of society and current affairs.

This populist anti-intellectualism is by no means of recent origin: Already in his 1967 lecture “Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus” (“Aspects of Contemporary Right-Wing Radicalism”), Theodor W. Adorno noted the central role of anti-intellectualism in right-wing ideology. Hinting at its structural similarity to antisemitism, Adorno considered anti-intellectualism an ideology that perceives the intellectual

as a kind of vagrant in life, an ‘air person’ [‘Luftmensch’]. According to this ideology, whoever does not participate in the division of labour, whoever is not bound by their profession to a particular position and thus also to quite particular ideas, but has instead preserved their freedom of spirit, this person is a kind of rascal who needs to be brought into line.

Adorno, “Aspects of Contemporary Right-Wing Radicalism,” 13

Such undifferentiated populist and right-wing ressentiment against intellectuals, which presents one current in the ongoing attacks on academia, science, and the press, at times obscures the fact that self-critical reflection is an integral part of intellectualism itself. This is discernible in both Jean Améry’s and Hannah Arendt’s retrospective analyses of the rise of National Socialism and their critique of the passivity exhibited by some of the time’s most influential intellectuals. Not only do their respective reflections about said passivity and its causes give insight into their philosophy, but they also resonate in the crisis-ridden present in which the value of humanistic thinking may altogether appear questionable.

The biographies of Arendt and Améry show significant parallels: Both were born before the First World War ended, both had to flee National Socialism, both attempted political resistance in some form, both were interned in the camp at Gurs for a while, and both made their experiences an object of their intellectual reflection after the war. Though their respective philosophies are marked by at times sharp contrasts—Améry, for instance, was very critical of Arendt’s concept of a “banality of evil,” which the latter famously developed in her book about the Eichmann-trial in Jerusalem—there are definitive parallels in the critical, intellectual self-reflections they developed in two essays, despite those essays being published more than thirty years apart.

Arendt’s “Portrait of a Period” (1943) is a critical review of Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday, an account of the personal and artistic path of the Austrian novelist, journalist, and playwright, and a depiction of prewar Austria-Hungary and Europe from Zweig’s own perspective. To Arendt, Zweig’s nostalgic—and, in light of Zweig’s suicide in 1942, quite tragic—autobiography is the manifest of a humanistic but in the end apolitical thinker, who was so entrenched in his own social circle that he made himself at home in a world that provided emancipation only to the famous. According to Arendt, Zweig thus experienced the rise of National Socialism in Europe not as a historical and hence inherently political and societal development, but rather as a natural catastrophe.

A similar sentiment is formulated in Améry’s “Von der Verwundbarkeit des Humanismus” (“On the vulnerability of humanism”), which was first published in 1981, three years after Améry took his own life, in the anthology Bücher aus der Jugend unseres Jahrhunderts (“Books from the youth of our century”). In the essay, Améry also takes Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday as the starting point for his reflection on the humanistic intellectual in moments of crises. In contrast to Arendt, though, Améry does not dwell on Zweig but quickly transitions from The World of Yesterday to Romain Rolland, the French novelist, pacifist, and 1915 Nobel Laureate who was a close friend of Zweig, and his magnum opus Jean-Christophe. In both the author and his work, Améry recognizes the titular “vulnerability of humanism.” To him, this vulnerability is marked by a pacifistic attitude fixated on high culture, obsessed with arts, aesthetics, and high values. In its inwardness and gentleness, Améry argues, the vulnerable humanism of Rolland shies away from action, loses sight of reality, and “finally fails in a world in which even humanity must arm itself.” (490) Rolland’s humanism, Améry concludes, is apolitical in the end—and thus ineffective.

The similarity between Améry’s reflections about “vulnerable humanism” and Arendt’s critique of Zweig should not obscure the conflicting theoretical underpinnings of both texts. As Seyla Benhabib points out in The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, Arendt’s biography of Rahel Varnhagen, which she completed while living in exile in Paris in 1938, offers a key to her political thinking. Varnhagen was a German writer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries who hosted an influential salon and was Jewish by birth but later converted to Christianity. Using the categories of the Pariah and the Parvenu in the biography, Arendt describes Varnhagen’s ambivalent relationship with her Jewish origin amidst the struggles of assimilation and aspired emancipation and analyzes her transformation from an ideal-typical Parvenu, who tries with all strength to adapt to the majority society and thereby self-denyingly rejects her own identity, to a Pariah, who, having come to terms with her own identity, is able to turn it from a social flaw into a form of individual resistance. Yet Arendt also criticizes a mode of interacting with the world that she considers a prominent feature of Varnhagen’s cultural and intellectual engagement with the world: “Innerlichkeit,” an introspective way of thinking and understanding, which is mostly concerned with subjective feelings and emotions. Indeed, in the book Arendt argues that this attitude leads to a confusion and, eventually, neglect of the boundaries between the private and the public sphere that she considers crucial for genuine political action, which presupposes mutuality in the shared public sphere.

This differentiation between the Parvenu and Pariah, together with her profound critique of a nonpolitical “Innerlichkeit,” can be seen as the key element of Arendt’s critique of Zweig. From this perspective, her condemnation of Zweig’s withdrawal into a “sanctuary” secluded by “very thick […] gilded trellises” (319) emerges from her idea of the Parvenu: it is Zweig’s way of positioning himself as an ideal-typical Parvenu who achieved individual emancipation by fame and success while at the same time not reflecting his own identity, which first abets a delusional perception of reality and then consequentially leads to living the apolitical life lamented by Arendt. This backdrop of Arendt’s critique also becomes apparent in the way she analyzes Zweig’s nostalgic depiction of prewar Europe, which interweaves descriptions of arts and culture with articulations of his subjective feelings and thus invites comparison to the “Innerlichkeit” of Varnhagen.

While for Améry, Jewish identity also proved an important topic throughout his work—he discusses the experience of being “made” a Jew by the Nazis as an atheist with little knowledge about Jewish culture in his essay “On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew”, for example—it does not constitute the underlying theme of his critique of “vulnerable humanism.” For him, it is not Romain’s personal withdrawal into a secluded elitist cultural sphere, or his denial of a forced identity and concomitant desire to fit into a society that is hostile toward him, but rather his model of humanism that forms the object of critique.

Born as Hanns Chaim Mayer in Austria, Améry felt at home in both the rural area of the Salzkammergut and existential philosophy with its focus on nature and its yearning for authenticity throughout his youth. In his autobiographically inspired essay collection Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre (“Unmasterly wandering years”), Améry looks back on this youthful affection and his following enthusiasm for the Logical Empiricism of the Wiener Kreis as submissions under different systems of thought that nevertheless proved delusional in their own ways: neither one of the two, Améry argues, takes the reality of society or history into account when formulating a comprehensive understanding of the world.

This self-critical retrospective is strongly informed by Améry’s own experience of being persecuted, interned, and tortured in different National Socialist concentration camps in the 1940s. In his essay “At the Mind’s Limits,” he reflects on the intellectual in Auschwitz and describes how neither analytical thinking nor an aesthetic understanding of the world were of any value in the brutal universe of the camp because they had lost their basis in social reality. Améry thus concludes that the camp internment provided the intellectual who was lucky enough to survive with a profound “philosophical disillusionment, for which other, perhaps infinitely more gifted and penetrating minds must struggle a lifetime.” (20)

A subjective experience of suffering is central to Améry’s essayistic writing and foundational for his sharp, concise, and sometimes painfully honest observations. Indeed, it is the experience of a “philosophical disillusionment”—the realization, that thought must correspond to (social) reality in order to be meaningful—that shaped not only his retrospective assessment of his own early philosophical leanings, but also his critique of “vulnerable humanism.” For Améry, a humanistic intellectualism that is constrained by its own system of thought ultimately inhibits an active and politically meaningful stance toward the world. This insight is the basis from which Améry criticizes the dreamy and hopeful worldview of Rolland’s Jean-Christophe, which in his eyes amounts to a denial of reality and effectively undermines Rolland’s humanistic intentions.

Considering their similar biographies, it comes at no surprise, then, that both Arendt and Améry emphasize the importance of the critical intellectual as a cautious observer of society and politics. Precisely because of this shared, historically conditioned awareness, both warn of the pitfalls inherent in a self-isolating intellectualism.

Their seemingly similar positions, however, are developed on the basis of rather contrasting theoretical approaches that shed light on the distance between both thinkers: while Arendt focuses on issues of social positionality, identity, and their influence on the ability to understand social reality, Améry is concerned with delusional aspects of humanistic intellectual thought itself. The distances that come to light when looking at their argumentative affinities in detail demand from us a more intense practice of reading and understanding, which takes the philosophical roots of superficial argumentation into account. Hopefully, Améry’s and Arendt’s rejection of the flight into illusory worlds and the corresponding blindness towards social and historical reality will be heard—it has not lost its relevance.


Till Wagner is a Master’s student at the Center for Research on Antisemitism, Berlin and has a background in history and political science. He works on the history of antisemitism, on Critical Theory and political philosophy after Auschwitz, and on the transformations of racism and antisemitism in the Digital Society.

Featured Image: Philosophe en meditation, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

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Valignano’s Sumario and the Early Modern Jesuit Discourse about Japan

By Friederike Philippe

The early modern period was characterized by growing and more far-reaching global connections. European travelers, seafarers, merchants, and missionaries reached ever more distant places and encountered numerous ‘new’ cultures along the way. The experience of confrontation with previously unknown cultures triggered the need of re-defining and re-understanding the outline of the European worldview. In order to adjust the imago mundi, new types of travel literature were filled with representations of the Other and, simultaneously, repositionings of the Self.

One fairly new institutionalized actor within the European expansion project was the Jesuit order, founded only in 1534. The order made it its core vocation to send missionaries throughout the world to convey the Catholic doctrine. Hence, when Europeans came to know of a ‘new’ land in the very far East around 1543, Jesuit priests were the first—and for the first 30 years the only—missionaries to travel to Japan. As compensation for a lacking monastic communal life, the Jesuit order built an information network that soon operated globally from the East to the West Indies. Within this network, letters and other writings from each mission station were sent to the order’s main office in Rome, collected there, and then forwarded to the various mission provinces for further circulation and reproduction. This constant exchange of information created a sense of community and affiliation among the order’s members. Additionally, the network provided not only Jesuits with news about the different mission places, but also (lay) scholars of the European Republic of Letters: Jesuits regularly wrote mission reports containing information about, for example, country-specific customs and traditions that were decidedly intended to ‘edify’ both the order’s internal leadership and the wider European readership. Profiting from the constant access to and flow of information, it became common use for Jesuit and non-Jesuit scholars to (re-)use Jesuit writings for scholarly works about the newly ‘discovered’ countries.

One of the most renowned representatives of the Jesuit mission to Japan was Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who first arrived there in 1579. As appointed Visitor of the Jesuit Province of Japan, he was assigned to head the steadily growing Japan mission that counted already over 150.000 converts in the 1580s. Additionally, Valignano was tasked to write an outline of the missionary history of Japan. He was to synthesize personal knowledge acquired during his stay with reports by other Jesuits into an overarching account, which was completed in 1583 and promptly distributed via the Jesuit information network.

Portrait of Alessandro Valignano, 1599. Artist unknown.

Valignano’s Sumario de las Cosas de Japón starts with two chapters describing and evaluating the Japanese regarding traits and customs. In the first chapter, he lists traits he perceives as positive: in comparison to “not only other people of the Orient, but also … of Europe” (5), the Japanese were, for example, more polite, better educated and alphabetized, more patient and self-controlled, and, last but not least, more ‘rational’ (5-24). Pre-Enlightenment, ‘rationality’ referred to the concept of natural law, which was thought to precede any religious (Christian or non-Christian) teaching. According to this law, every human, even without ever having heard of specific Christian teachings, could instinctively distinguish good from evil and thus understand the moral concepts of Christianity. Reason, it was assumed, would lead to a natural understanding of God and his law as the only true one. By characterizing the Japanese as ‘rational’, Valignano thus sets up the missionary endeavor as strongly promising: it would be nothing less than ‘natural’ for the Japanese to follow the Christian faith. Conveniently, this assertion also served as a rhetorical tool to legitimize the continued financial, personnel, and spiritual support of the Japan mission vis-à-vis the Catholic Church in Rome and the Portuguese crown, as the Jesuits held a dual function as representatives for both institutions.

Moreover, all the character traits of the Japanese mentioned in Valignano’s description refer to a specific set of values that can be dubbed ‘Jesuit-Catholic.’ Jesuit spirituality embraced education, honesty, piety, patience, and humility not only as reformed expressions of Catholic faith. In the context of Catholic Reform and confessionalization, Jesuits also propagated their spirituality as the only ‘true’ Christian way of life. By attributing traits to the Japanese that clearly correspond to the Jesuit values of ‘true’ faith, Valignano turns them into images of ideal Christians – and thus of the Jesuits themselves— and sets them positively apart not only from other non-Christians, but also from non-Tridentine Catholics. Considering that the Sumario was intended for publication in denominationally divided Europe, it becomes clear that Valignano intended for the reader to take the Japanese as a positive example for ‘true’ Christian values. The ethnographic description was thus conceived and constructed from the context of an inherently European conflict. Valignano instrumentalized his interpretation to not only take a position regarding the intra-European denominational conflict, but also to actively influence it.

After seemingly putting the Japanese on a pedestal, though, Valignano directly relativizes their high standing at the end of the Sumario’s first chapter: While “it cannot be denied that the Japanese people are noble, courteous, of very good natural disposition and intellect, so much so that in many things they are ahead of … the people of Europe,” they are nevertheless “far inferior to them in others” (24). This ‘inferiority’ is discussed in more detail in the second chapter. Here, Valignano associates the Japanese with six of the major Christian sins—pride, irascibility, envy, lust, avarice, and gluttony—as well as with the breaking of several biblical commandments, namely idolatry, manslaughter, adultery, lying, and greed (25-33). Although the Jesuit self-image as embodiment of ‘right’ and ‘true’ morals functions again as reference point for evaluating Japanese traits, this time the evaluated traits clearly contradict biblical values and the ‘correct’ way of life. As a result, the description of the Japanese centers on striking otherness as they are pejoratively characterized as having fallen into a blasphemous, heretical way of life and thus constitute an explicitly negative example that is not to follow.

What follows, however, is a rhetorical twist, in which Valignano claims that the ‘negative’ traits of the Japanese are due to the ‘bad’ influence of Buddhism and Buddhist monks (28). Despite their disposition to ‘rational’ thinking, the Japanese can thus be rescued from the “darkness” with the “light of the Holy Gospel” (28). Valignano accentuates that ‘sinfulness’ is not inherent to the Japanese nature, and that overcoming the ‘negative’ influence of the Buddhist monks is therefore possible—again a rhetorical tool to emphasize the mission’s prospects of success und secure material support.

The argumentative outline of the two chapters reveals the complexity of Valignano’s ethnographic description. Instead of being presented as a monolithic entity, the Japanese are broken down into two categories: Japanese laypeople, who can be ‘saved’, and monks as ‘lost souls.’ Moreover, the Japanese laypeople are simultaneously depicted as both a positive, ideal-Catholic and a negative, heretical example. This leads to their concurrent and paradoxical hierarchical placement both above all other non-Christians and (non-Tridentine) Europeans and below Christian Europeans. Following the theory of Third Space, the production of ethnographic knowledge is performed in a discursive interstice, in which unambiguous markers of difference are suspended and the Other hybridized. As a result, the Japanese can never be located within the European because of the ascribed otherness and associated hierarchization. But they can neither be clearly located within foreign Japan because of the ascribed similarity to or even sameness with the Catholic-European self. Finally, and more broadly, conflict-ridden Europe appeared just as heterogenous as Japan in the Jesuit worldview as exemplified by the Sumario: a homogeneous cultural community of Christian Europeans at the hierarchical top of all ‘civilized nations’ was only an ideal (to be striven for) and disturbed by both the Reformation and ‘misguided’ pre-Tridentine Catholicism.

At the end of the second chapter, Valignano finally concludes: “The Japanese have customs and habits so different from those of all other peoples that it seems they have made a deliberate effort not to be like any people. What this looks like cannot be imagined, … the difference and contrariety is so great that it cannot be described and understood” (33-34). Drawing a picture of utter contrariness that is unimaginable, indescribable, and thus incomprehensible for Europeans, Valignano demonstrates how the Jesuits’ own horizon of knowledge, oriented along post-Tridentine values and inner-European contexts, complicates and ultimately limits the categorization of the Japanese. As a result, the Japanese are put into a special position: Because of the paradoxical simultaneity of seeming resemblance with and striking difference from ‘Orientals’, Europeans, and (even) Tridentine-Catholics, the Japanese contrariness is deemed incompatible with Jesuit categories of knowledge and their otherness as absolute.

Excluding the Japanese from European-Catholic categories of knowledge ultimately serves Valignano as a basis to justify his restructuring of the missionary work in Japan toward accommodative methods as the only way to ensure the continuity and success of the mission in Japan in the Sumario (230). In addition to contextualizing the ethnographic description within inter-European denominational conflicts, he also presents them against the backdrop of conflicts within the Catholic Church regarding institutional requirements and restrictions for missionary work. The descriptions in the Sumario thus also served to secure Valignano’s own position as having the authority to make decisions individually on the basis of local experience and not only after consultation with Church superiors in Rome. Valignano perceived those as ignorant of local conditions und thus inapt to make appropriate decisions – a position he would later defend, not without success, several times to his superiors.[1] Besides the goals of educating a European readership about the Japanese, missionizing them in favor of Tridentine Catholicism, and ensuring support for the mission, Valignano’s interpretation of the Japanese was shaped by his own power-political goals within the Jesuit order.

While the descriptions in the Sumario were strongly purpose-bound and connected to mission-political goals, the broader Jesuit stereotyping narrative about the Japanese as a constitutive Other resonated deeply with European intellectuals and exercised authority over European discourses about the Japanese for well over 100 years, even when decontextualized from its missionary and order-internal context. Only during the Enlightenment was it questioned, with none other than Voltaire complaining in his Essai sur les Mœurs: “I don’t know why the Japanese have been called our moral antipodes; there are no such antipodes among peoples who cultivate their reason.” Valignano might have, above all, self-servingly sought to emancipate himself from restrictions imposed by the order and the papacy, as well as to establish moral authority over non-Europeans and European non-Catholics alike. Ultimately, his Sumario is a striking example of the functionality of the Jesuit order’s information network and how the latter enabled ethnographic information produced outside of Europe by one actor to become authoritative, canonized knowledge within the early modern Republic of Letters.


[1] See confidential notes about negotiations of P. Gil de la Mata with Superior General Claudio Aquaviva, Archivium Societatis Jesu Romanum, Section Japan 3, 76, quoted here from: Schütte (1951), 364.


Friederike Philippe is a doctoral fellow at Global Intellectual History Graduate School (Freie Universität Berlin). Her research focuses on early modern global knowledge production and circulation networks with a special emphasis on European- Japanese intercultural encounters.

Featured Image: Kanō Naizen (1570-1616), folding screen depicting the arrival of Europeans at a shore in Japan, ca. 1600. Courtesy of the Kobe City Museum.

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Thoreau’s Disinterestedness: The Problem of the Journal

By Daniel Nelson

Although keeping a journal was a common practice in Henry David Thoreau’s New England, Thoreau’s own journal writing practice, which by the last decade of his life came to dwarf his other endeavors—specifically, his composition of books and essays for publication and of lectures for performance—was a source of bafflement for his contemporaries. After his death his friend and walking companion William Ellery Channing wrote:

His journals should not be permitted to be read by any, as I think they were not meant to be read. […] I have never been able to understand what he meant by his life. Why did he care so much about being a writer? Why did he pay so much attention to his own thoughts? Why was he so dissatisfied with everyone else, etc.? Why was he so much interested in the river and the woods and the sky, etc.? Something peculiar, I judge.

And Emerson, in his eulogy for his former protégé, lamented: “[…] I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting that, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.” Emerson did not mention that those huckleberry parties were one of the myriad subjects of Thoreau’s Journal, whose author, as Channing’s remark suggests, was more interested in huckleberries and the thoughts they provoked than in readers, let alone in “engineering for all America.” (“Patriotism is a maggot in their heads,” Thoreau had written in Walden.) If writing enthusiastically yet indiscriminately about huckleberries, “his own thoughts,” and “the river and the woods and the sky, etc.,” counted as an ambition with Thoreau, it evidently did not with Emerson and Channing.

Taken at face value, the Journal is not problematic. It is, simply, a record — seven-thousand-pages long and twenty-four years in the making — of the author’s daily hikes, observations, reflections, and experiments. What is problematic, as Channing’s and Emerson’s comments suggest, is that the author of Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” a writer and philosopher of great talent and ambition, seems to have devoted his last dozen years or so to the making of this modest-seeming record. I will be arguing that Thoreau was aware of the problem—which we might loosely refer to as the pointlessness of the Journal, its lack of a telos—and that it was inseparable from the shift in thinking and writing that the Journal represented for him. His contemporaries as well as modern-day critics have failed to understand this shift, in large part because so few writers before or since have undergone it. It is the shift toward disinterested writing: writing that lacks “ambition” in Emerson’s sense; that is not for publication but for its own sake, or perhaps, for its subject matter’s sake. As Thoreau put it, “A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature; he is the corn and the grass and the atmosphere writing” (8:441, 9/2/51).

The first and only monograph on the Journal is Sharon Cameron’s 1985 study Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal. Cameron, who specializes in game-changing artists (Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and, most recently, Robert Bresson), is a major exception to the rule just mentioned, that critics have failed to understand the mid-career shift in Thoreau’s writing and thinking. (A more recent exception is the French scholar François Specq, who writes: “Thoreau’s Journal is […] fundamentally nonteleological. This is deeply unsettling because it defies both the notion of artistic intent and the idea of practical purposefulness” [385].) Cameron claims that not only did “Thoreau c[o]me to think of the Journal as his central literary enterprise,” he also succeeded in that enterprise sufficiently to produce “the great nineteenth-century American meditation on nature” (3). But the Journal defies readers and scholars, Cameron argues, because it refuses to subject nature to any organizing structure or vision, and refuses, in turn, to organize its own prose. “The wholeness of nature and the wholeness of the Journal,” she writes, “will come to be identical. Yet Thoreau’s idea of totality is […] predicated not on connections but on the breaking of connections. In fact, discontinuity could be described as the Journal’s dominant feature, for no thought is ever entirely jointed to or separated from any other thought” (6). Thoreau’s thoughts seem to be random and going nowhere because nature when viewed unprogrammatically seems to be random and going nowhere. Both “[t]he wholeness of nature and the wholeness of the Journal” reside in our ignorance of—in the mystery of—the logic that binds their parts.

Ten years after Cameron’s book, Laura Dassow Walls proposed a solution to the problem of the Journal. If we cease to think of Thoreau as first and foremost a writer of literature, then his devotion to a text of ambiguous literary status—a text that is pointedly without a point, whose dominant feature is discontinuity—ceases to be enigmatic. Walls’s book, Seeing New Worlds: Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, describes connections between Thoreau’s writing and research and contemporary scientific developments, in particular the methodological innovations of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. More forcefully than previous studies of its kind, it claims that Thoreau’s late writings, including the Journal, belong to the discipline of natural science.

The difference between Cameron’s and Walls’s approach to the Journal is stark. For Cameron, the Journal is an experiment in writing, in serving as “nature’s scribe.” For Walls, it is a tool for studying nature. While there is evidence to support both approaches to the Journal—Thoreau is a phenomenonally complex figure who defies classification—I find that Cameron’s analysis does a better job of capturing what was scandalous about the Journal for Thoreau’s contemporaries, namely, its lack of an identifiable purpose. Whereas Walls (whose view of Thoreau’s late career is by now the standard one among Thoreau scholars) smooths over the scandal by reassuring us of the Journal’s usefulness and importance, I want to suggest that the Journal is non-utilitarian and non-teleological by design, and that by confronting this we can learn something about Thoreau’s understanding of nature—something we miss if we concern ourselves exclusively with his achievements as a naturalist or scientist. 

The Thoreau we meet in the Journal is not only indifferent but positively averse to the prospect that any one of his encounters with nature might lead to profit, whether conceived of in literary, philosophical, or scientific terms. He bristles whenever it is suggested that the value of a thing is conditional on its usefulness. His aversion to this instrumentalist conception of value partly explains his abiding love for the shrub oak, with its “scanty garment of leaves” and its “lowly whispering” (9:146, 12/1/56): “A farmer once asked me what shrub oaks were made for, not knowing any use they served. But I can tell him that they do me good” (9:184, 12/17/56). 

At issue here is a kind of “good” that is not good for something else—whose goodness is not that of an instrument. Thoreau tries to see each natural phenomenon as belonging to a self-sufficient order of being, hence, as incapable of being lifted out of its context and into that of any humanly conceived and constructed order. “I love best to have each thing in its season only,” he characteristically remarks (9:160, 12/5/56); and he reproves science—which during Thoreau’s lifetime was increasingly moving away from “the field” and into laboratories—for not distinguishing between “a dead specimen of an animal” and “a living one preserved in its native element” (11:360, 9/30/58). In contrast to his non-appropriative manner of dwelling in and with nature, “science,” according to Thoreau’s own definition, is a matter of “what you can weigh and measure and bring away” (1/5/50). 

The Journal, therefore, is founded on Thoreau’s conjecture, which grows into a conviction, that “[p]erhaps I can never find so good a setting for my thoughts as I shall thus have  taken them out of,” that is, as the setting which is furnished by the Journal’s undiscriminating record of each day’s observed phenomena (3:239, 1/28/52). The entry of the previous day clarifies this insight. To extricate certain thoughts and bring “the related ones […] together into separate essays,” Thoreau writes there, would be an attempt to make good on an experience and a record that is already good, and may be made false (“far-fetched,” not “allied to life”) by attempts at rearrangement, selection, organization—in a word, instrumentalization. The entry concludes: “They [my thoughts] are now allied to life, and are seen by the reader not to be far-fetched. It is more simple, less artful. I feel that in the other case I should have no proper frame for my sketches. Mere facts and dates and names communicate more than we suspect” (3:239, 1/27/52). But they will not thus communicate if, unsuspecting, the writer (or editor, or reader) takes them out of their “proper frame” and tries to make them communicate no more than what he wants them to.

Thoreau’s walking stick (made by himself), courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.

“To walk and work in the woods is like attending a “university,” Thoreau wrote. I suspect a pun here on “universe.” The woods are not the kind of school from which one graduates and goes on to enter the wide world. They are the world, which one returns to, not from:

  Had a dispute with Father about the use of my making this sugar [from the sap of maple trees] when I knew it could be done and might have bought sugar cheaper at Holden’s. He said it took me from my studies. I said I made it my study; I felt as if I had been to a university.

It dropped from each tube about as fast as my pulse beat, and as there were three tubes directed to each vessel, it flowed at the rate of about one hundred and eighty drops in a minute into it. One maple, standing immediately north of a thick white pine, scarcely flowed at all, while a smaller, farther in the wood, ran pretty well. The south side of a tree bleeds first in spring. I hung my pails on the tubes or a nail. Had two tin pails and a pitcher. Had a three-quarters-inch auger. Made a dozen spouts, five or six inches long, hole as large as a pencil, smoothed with a pencil. (8:217-18, 3/21/56)

“He said it took me from my studies. I said I made it my study.”

The “it” here is not nature—the “studies” to which Thoreau’s father refers was precisely his work as a naturalist—but rather things: trees, sap, tubes, pails. The shift toward disinterestedness that I have been discussing in Thoreau’s career was a shift toward valuing things and away from using them, whether for the purposes of science or art or philosophy. 

Plainly, syrup-making was for Thoreau not a final purpose but an intermediate one: not a telos but a kind of anti-telos. Like his other minor projects (gathering driftwood, taking measurements, conducting unsophisticated experiments, collecting local lore), it was a means of avoiding the more conventional, grander purposes that his father and Emerson urged upon him. But this negative work of avoidance was part of a positive project of keeping himself open, “comprehensive,” his energies and identity uncircumscribed. Whereas Emerson faulted him for lacking ambition and the drive to succeed on a grand scale, he faulted Emerson for lacking “a comprehensive character”: for succeeding too much in one direction. “I doubt if Emerson could trundle a wheelbarrow through the streets,” he wrote in the Journal, “because it would be out of character. One needs to have a comprehensive character” (9:250, 1/30/52). For Thoreau, to have a comprehensive character was to be at ease in the company of things no less than in the company of people: to be unashamed of the former’s company when walking through the streets, and unencumbered by the latter’s company—not so much their physical presence as the pressure of their expectations—when walking through the woods. 


Daniel Nelson, who studies 19th century American literature, received his PhD from the University of Rochester.

Featured Image: Manuscript volume of the Journal [The Morgan Library and Museum], courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.