Intellectual history Interview

Behind the Angel of History: An Interview with Annie Bourneuf

By Benjamin Beese and Matthew Johnson

Annie Bourneuf is Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the author of Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible (2015) and Behind the Angel of History: The Angelus Novus and Its Interleaf (2022), both from the University of Chicago Press. Behind the Angel of History is a fascinating and meticulously-researched study crossing the fields of art history and intellectual history. It offers new and often surprising perspectives on the Swiss-born German painter Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), which has become an iconic and arguably clichéd image in the wake of the belated but intensive reception of Walter Benjamin’s last essay, “On the Concept of History” (1940). In this much-debated essay, Benjamin invokes Klee’s angel, whose face “is turned toward the past” as he beholds “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (Selected Writings 1938-1940, 392). Instead of being able to “make whole what has been smashed,” the angel is caught in a storm that prevents him from closing his wings. This storm, which Benjamin identifies with progress, “drives [the angel] irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky” (392). In addition to being an important “thought-image” (Denkbild) for Benjamin’s reflections on history, Klee’s angel took on a darker resonance in light of the fact that Benjamin composed his essay in the last year of his life, before his suicide as he attempted to escape from Vichy France, which had promised to turn German-Jewish refugees over to the German authorities. In the subsequent decades, after the posthumous publication and global reception of Benjamin’s essay, Klee’s angel has become a key point of reference for a wide range of theorists, artists, and activists in their grappling with the concepts of history, catastrophe, and progress.

Benjamin not only wrote about the picture but owned it, and its winding itinerary after his death is “bound up,” as Bourneuf writes, “with the circumstances of Benjamin’s life and the question of his legacy in the narrow sense (to whom should his property—in this case, ‘his most important possession’—go?), inflected with the question of his legacy in a broader sense” (17). After passing through the hands of Theodor and Gretel Adorno, and perhaps Georges Bataille, among others, the Angelus Novus variously “hung in the Institute for Social Research and later in the Adornos’ living room” before it was given to Gershom Scholem, who bequeathed it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (18). While Benjamin’s connection to the picture undoubtedly undergirds its enduring fame, and explains why it has become “a logogram for Benjamin, for the Frankfurt School, for modern Jewish intellectual history, for critical historiography, for memory” (9), Bourneuf is also interested in thinking about its significance beyond this connection. In illuminating analyses of the artwork itself and of writings engaging it, Bourneuf defamiliarizes this image and opens up the different ways it might matter—with and without Benjamin—for thinking about art, politics, and religion in the twentieth century and today. Benjamin Beese and Matthew Johnson interviewed Annie Bourneuf about her new book.  


Benjamin Beese and Matthew Johnson: Your book begins with a “startling discovery” made by the artist R. H. Quaytman about Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920): underneath the watercolor paper, which depicts an angel frequently conflated with Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” there lies a portrait of none other than Martin Luther, the radical early modern theologian. You further assert that, in light of recent studies of the artwork, it is now “certain that the print interleaved in the Angelus is an impression of an 1838 engraving of Luther by the little-known Dresden-based engraver Friedrich Müller” (3). It is a “very ordinary print,” an example of the kind of portrait of Luther that circulated widely in the nineteenth century and “might have hung in any Lutheran home or schoolroom” (6). But the presence of what might be seen as a “hero-image of German nationalism,” as you describe it, “[u]nder, as it were, Benjamin’s ninth thesis, beneath Klee’s drawn angel,” raises a number of tantalizing questions (9). Can you tell our readers a bit about how Quaytman made this discovery and about your own involvement in that process?  

Annie Bourneuf: Quaytman saw Klee’s Angelus Novus at the Israel Museum in 2013 and was drawn immediately to its dark border, wide as a finger—the edge of an engraved portrait. The Angelus consists of three layers: the watercolor paper on which the “new angel” is drawn is glued onto this larger engraving, which is glued onto a piece of cardboard on which Klee wrote the title and date. From across the room or in a bad reproduction, the engraving might look like merely a dark border of the kind Klee often made using ink or watercolor, but when you see it in person, it’s easy to see the engraving’s mesh of parallel lines, an interlocked “LC” monogram, a 1520-something date, the folds of dark robes implying a half-length portrait. She was astonished when no one on the museum staff could tell her about it.

Quaytman makes paintings based on images derived from her intensive investigation of pictures and sites. She had been planning to make work relating to the Benjamin-Scholem correspondence and their differing understandings of image and word. She had been reluctant to engage with the Angelus—such a cliché! But once she saw it in person, she became consumed by the question of this sixteenth-century image that the angel was hiding (mostly) behind its back. She is especially interested in the edges of paintings, and she collects engravings. She surmised from the dark robes that it was a religious figure, and from the linework that it was not really a sixteenth-century print, but a later engraving reproducing a sixteenth-century work.

By the time she contacted me in 2015, she had pretty well exhausted the technological possibilities for peering behind the angel without damaging the work; she had even had it brought to Rome to try infrared thermography. My book, Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible (University of Chicago Press, 2015), was coming out soon, and she thought I might know something. I didn’t, but I threw myself into the investigation as much as I could with newborn twins. My role, as it turned out, was that of egging her on, confirming that there had been absolutely no mention of this engraving in the scholarly literature. (I think it’s likely, by the way, that if the Angelus had been in a collection in, say, New York or Basel—somewhere more frequently visited by Klee specialists—the engraving would be old news.)

By the time I wrote a little essay for the catalogue of her exhibition in Tel Aviv, which dealt with the engraving as an unanswered question, the hypothesis, based on what you could see, was that the interleaf was a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century reproductive print of a sixteenth-century painting, possibly by Lucas Cranach the Elder—that was as far as either of us had got. Quaytman persisted in what was truly a needle-in-a-haystack quest, sifting relentlessly through digitized prints in various collections looking for the right dimensions and robes. Against all odds, she found her needle—this very commonplace 1838 engraving of Luther, which presents itself as a reproduction of a 1521 portrait by Cranach the Elder. As long as you have a good reproduction of the Klee (I recommend the one in the textbook Art Since 1900), you can confirm her identification yourself.

Quaytman made a series of paintings, exhibited at the Miguel Abreu Gallery in fall 2015, dealing with the discovery. And I began presenting and musing over the discovery at workshops and symposia, sharing it with art historians and Benjamin scholars, trying to figure out what to make of this hidden face.

BB and MJ: The significance and implications of Quaytman’s discovery are compounded by the ways in which it prompts us to rethink the interpretative possibilities of the Angelus Novus, which has long existed in the shadow of Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” In turn, while Benjamin plays a central role in your study, you insist that we should remember the difference between Klee’s picture and Benjamin’s “angel of history.” Why is this difference important? What does Quaytman’s discovery open up that we haven’t earlier been able to see?

AB: Klee’s 1920 picture has often been seen, as you’ve said, as a depiction of Benjamin’s 1940 passage on the “angel of history”—especially since 1972, when Scholem delivered his lecture on
Walter Benjamin and His Angel.” (Benjamin, in that passage, holds them apart a bit more: Klee’s angel looks “how the angel of history must look.”)

But it became clear as soon as Quaytman discovered her question, before she had her answer, that Klee’s picture is also meditating somehow on chronology, on history—that was what was so obsessing about the mystery of the mostly hidden engraving. Each edge of its three layers displays a date, 1920 (Klee’s watercolor), 1520-something (the engraving), 1920 (the cardboard mount on which Klee penciled the title). While in Benjamin’s Denkbild (thought-image), the “storm drives [the angel] irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned,” the backside of Klee’s “new angel” is turned literally to an image with a sixteenth century date. But the plot thickens—as Quaytman remarked at the outset, 1520-something engravings do not look like that, so there is clearly a mismatch between the date on the print and the date of the print’s production. For a viewer well versed in European art history, the reproductive engraving that it must be is clearly old in its genre and syntax compared to the “new angel,” as it calls itself in the dead language of Latin—that much is clear from the visible margin—and yet not as old as its date.

This implies that Benjamin’s 1940 thesis might be more in dialogue with Klee’s picture than either Benjamin or Klee specialists had previously understood (I too had earlier thought that the Angelus served Benjamin more as a projection screen). But to understand this dialogue qua dialogue, it was necessary first to separate out the various voices. After Quaytman revealed that it was Luther lurking behind the angel—Luther untonsured and antimonastically jowly, in academic robes, Bible in one hand, the other on his breast—I felt it was crucial to understand how Klee’s picture might have meant (along which lines, intersecting with which discourses and debates) when he compounded it in Munich in 1920, before Benjamin bought it.

Some commentators had already suggested that Klee’s Angelus is a riff on the famous rainbow-haloed resurrected Christ of Grünewald’s 1515 Isenheim Altarpiece, which had been taken from Alsace to Munich during the First World War and was on view in the city for almost a year after the armistice. The gesture of pasting a kind of caricature of that hovering, glowing figure—from what was very much seen as one of the last great German Renaissance altarpieces, painted on the very eve of the Reformation—atop a highly routinized portrait of Martin Luther struck me as requiring a new understanding of Klee’s picture in relation to understandings of art history in Germany in the early postwar years, themselves deeply entangled in religiopolitical concepts, embedded in art history as it developed in the wake of Hegel’s understanding of art as something that “in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past” (53, footnote 62), and urgent in the context of messianic politics and white terror in Munich in 1918–19. Joseph Leo Koerner’s book on The Reformation of the Image (2008) was indispensable.

BB and MJ: We are particularly interested in your methodological approach. You take Quaytman’s discovery about the Angelus Novus as a point of departure to think not only about “an earlier moment in the history of the making of this single work but also [about] earlier moments in larger, longer, and far more vexed histories of religions, languages, national identities, and politics” (10). In this regard, your book is as much a work of intellectual history as art history. Could you say more about how you navigate the relationship between formalist and historical approaches—about the ways in which, for example, your book attends both to the materiality of paper, cardboard, and paint and to the philosophical and political legacies of German and Jewish modernity? Phrased differently: How might formalist analysis be an important—and even necessary—tool for the writing of intellectual history?

AB: I see intellectual history and art history as inseparably enmeshed. When, for instance, Martin Buber published an essay on the Isenheim Altarpiece in 1914, or when Walter Benjamin visited it and hung a reproduction in his study, or when the retable itself was displayed in Munich, it was not as a thing either sealed off in a history of painting nor a set of signifieds (Jesus, suffering, transfiguration) separable from the massive, double-winged Schnitzaltar. It is important to attend not only to the panels as Grünewald completed them, but also to the vicissitudes of its afterlife (the rearrangement of the object’s very shape and structuring of vision when it was secularized—its disarticulation allowing the simultaneous display of both sides of its panels for the first time); and to attend, moreover, to the art-historical, but by no means only art-historical, categories through which viewers approach it (“Christian,” “German,” “Gothic”), to those viewers’ relations to those categories, to the way in which the object had been described and understood in earlier discussions—all of it matters. The relation between the object’s presence (of that of its life-size figures, of all that is vivid and immediate in the panels) and its distance (from any modern observer)—something it shares with many of art history’s favorite objects—became especially urgent, in various ways, for Buber, Benjamin, and Klee, among others, as they navigated questions of religion, politics, perception, and historicity.

Their enmeshment is especially obvious around something so charismatic and freighted, but it obtains elsewhere. I recently reread “Resisting Blackmail” by art historian Yve-Alain Bois, the introduction to his 1990 Painting as Model, a book that has been crucial for Quaytman—his vigorous defense of formalism remains vital. There are important connections, conversations among made things, that can be perceived in no other way.

BB and MJ: Your book is organized into three chapters that revolve around particular years that were important in the genesis and reception of the Angelus Novus: 2015, 1920, 1922. Why did you choose these years in particular and why did you order the chapters non-chronologically? Furthermore, what do these years have to do with your interest in larger periods of historical and cultural transformation (e.g., the Reformation, the Weimar Republic, etc.)? 

AB: And I could have called the epilogue “1940”—that’s where I turn back to Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” It was in 2015 that Quaytman discovered Luther, 1920 that Klee made the Angelus Novus, 1922 that Benjamin sought to launch a new journal called Angelus Novus. I took my cue from the multiple edges of Klee’s compound picture, and their prominent dates. The timestamping on those margins is of course the result of the basic Renaissance convention that an artist signs and dates a work, marking it with a singular moment of fabrication which then allows its entry into a linear chronology. Yet Klee’s work both foregrounds and confounds that basic convention and, extending its meditation on art and historical time, presses together Christ by way of Grünewald and Luther by way of Cranach as figurations of what were understood in ideologies dominant in the German Empire as historical watersheds and points of orientation—to be fully modern was to place oneself securely after these moments. At the same time, an alternative model of history undergirding much of the Expressionist avant-garde saw the present as a turning point, the last moment of a long artistic-cum-religious epoch and the dawn of a new one that would resurrect art so that it would no longer be “a thing of the past.” My dates, I hope, both serve my historian’s task of separating out and contextualizing distinct moments in the uses of Klee’s picture and pay homage to Klee’s and Benjamin’s ways of troubling history as linear succession.  

BB and MJ: While your book is devoted, in large measure, to careful analysis of art-historical evidence and to the material traces of the past, you are also interested in more speculative histories. In one chapter, for example, you reflect on the “impossible” position of Benjamin’s journal, named after Klee’s picture, which failed to materialize. Can you explain your “attempt to illuminate what did not happen” (102)? What role does speculation play in the larger argument of your book?   

AB: One of the greatest rewards of historical research, I think, is when you are able to construct in detail a plan or project that did not come about. Benjamin’s project for a new journal called Angelus Novus occupied him a great deal in 1921–22; he wrote an ambitious and developed announcement of its program and came close to putting together a first issue. His announcement glosses the title as pointing to the journal’s hoped-for ephemerality and contemporaneity by gesturing towards angels of the Talmud who, he writes, at every moment and in enormous, ever-replenishing numbers, are born, sing before God, and die. His rewriting, as it were, of Klee’s image—whose reference to the Isenheim Altarpiece I can’t imagine the Grünewald devotee Benjamin failing to catch—in terms of Jewish angelology emblematizes one of his journal’s ambitions, of serving as a locus for a kind of Jewish-Christian exchange, but one marked by the “mutual alienness” of the contributions. Benjamin’s journal would have taken its place in a larger context of parallel attempts, such as the journal The Creature, which had a Jewish, a Protestant, and a Catholic editor, in accordance with the plan of Benjamin’s close friend, the Protestant theologian Florens Christian Rang, who also worked on Angelus Novus.

Not a single issue was printed. Benjamin had serious problems with his collaborators; among other things, he counted on Scholem’s active participation when Scholem was not in fact interested in the project, a strain in their friendship that affected how Scholem wrote about Benjamin’s angel decades later. But it was not merely that: the kind of interreligious dialogue Benjamin pursued here, in often contentious conversation with that of other participants in the postassimilatory “Jewish Renaissance,” might be called, to use Scholem’s words, “on the level of historical reality, never anything else but a fiction” (74). Yet it may be described, and, as Benjamin wrote in a letter to Rang, “this unwritten journal could not be any more important or dear to me if it existed” (103).

The historical retrieval of what didn’t happen is an important part of my most recent research, in quite another context, for an upcoming exhibition of the work of photographer and writer Lucia Moholy (1894–1989), curated by Jan Tichy and Jordan Troeller at the Kunsthalle Praha. She was involved in a formidable but failed effort after the Second World War to bring about a very different information economy in scientific publishing from the one we know—a non-commercial one under public ownership, using documentary reproduction, especially microfilm, to deal with the much increased scale and volume of research. Much of her effort was perhaps only reconstructable now; I needed recent historical work provoked by the current landscape of scientific publishing—dominated by companies like Clarivate and Elsevier that extract staggering profits from academic research, much of it publicly funded—to understand the importance of her project.

Benjamin Beese is a graduate student in Germanic Languages & Literatures at the Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in History from Middlebury College.  

Matthew Johnson is Senior Lecturer in Germanic Languages & Literatures at the Ohio State University. He received his Ph.D. in Germanic Studies from the University of Chicago.

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured image: Selection from the cover of Annie Bourneuf’s Behind the Angel of History: The Angelus Novus and Its Interleaf (University of Chicago Press, 2022).

Companion Piece Intellectual history

Three responses to Samuel Moyn’s “Hannah Arendt among the Cold War Liberals”

By Seyla Benhabib, Andrew Gibson, and Artur Banaszewski

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (issue 84, volume 3, July 2023) features the article by Samuel Moyn “Hannah Arendt among the Cold War Liberals.” The article places Arendt’s thought alongside that of her liberal contemporaries—such as Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Talmon, Judith Shklar, and Karl Popper—and argues for a reassessment of the “contributions and limits of her project in political theory” (533). We invited three scholars specializing in Arendt and Cold War liberalism—Professor Seyla Benhabib, Andrew Gibson, and Artur Banaszewski—to write responses to that important article. Please note that the responses were written before the authors had access to Professor Moyn’s forthcoming book, Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times.

Seyla Benhabib

Samuel Moyn is a provocative writer. He regards theoretical disagreements, differences of interpretation and scholarly contestations agonistically, as a fight in which it is existential that those who disagree with him be freed from their delusions and misunderstandings. Thus, a phrase in his article states that “Generations of instrumentalizing, opportunistic, or promotional readings have obscured the relationship that Arendt sustained with Cold War liberals.” Moyn is out to set them right.

Alas, Moyn’s central argument—that even if Arendt was not a liberal, “her very attempt to strike out on her own in developing a new account of freedom proves hostage to many of the intellectual and political premises of Cold War liberalism”—is vague and confused (534; my emphasis). “Proves hostage” is an interesting phrase: does Moyn mean that Arendt was simply influenced by Cold War liberals such as Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Talmon, or Karl Popper? There is no evidence for this, and Moyn only cites that Arendt possessed a copy of Talmon’s book – Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. So, “proved hostage” seems to mean some kind of convergence of ideas and orientations, despite differences between Arendt and Cold War liberals, which Moyn himself acknowledges.

Moyn’s presumption of convergence centers on ‘totalitarianism’ to characterize both Nazism and Stalinism. Unlike classical Anglo-American liberalism, Arendt’s work had little to say about economics and markets, and furthermore, unlike Cold War liberals, she retained in Moyn’s words, “an early nineteenth-century commitment to creative perfectionism” (an aspect of liberal thought appreciated by Nancy Rosenblum). How then does Arendt’s critique of totalitarianism make her a Cold War liberal? In order to place Arendt in the procrustean bed he has created, Moyn radically neglects the milieu out of which Arendt’s critique of Stalinism and developments in the Soviet Union grew.

Arendt was an anti-totalitarian before she came to the United States; she did not become one subsequently. Neither the change in the title of the book from The Burden of our Times to The Origins of Totalitarianism nor subsequent additions (Moyn, 540) alter the fact that Arendt’s views of totalitarianism began with accounts of the failures of the German KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) to which her husband Heinrich Blücher belonged. As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl recounts, she was intimately familiar with the milieu of ex-communist militants who would be called back to Moscow to be murdered or re-educated; with those who fought against fascism in Spain, only to be betrayed by Stalin; and those, like members of the French Communist Party, who did a volte-face in 1939, when the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed (139). Arendt also held on to a belief, which many may consider controversial, that “only Stalin’s regime and not Leninism was, properly speaking, totalitarian” (410). Admittedly, pointing out that Moyn misconstrues the origins of Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism says nothing about the merits of the theory itself, which Moyn hints at but does not engage with.

Moyn refers to my book, Exile, Statelessness and Migration. Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin as “biographically essentialist.” The term ‘essentialism’ is a philosophical concept that postulates the presence of some immutable and fundamental characteristic of phenomena; what exactly is Moyn referring to? This is also a deep misreading of my book since the whole point was to emphasize the divergent paths taken by thinkers such as Arendt, Benjamin, Berlin, Hirschman, and Shklar despite biographical interconnections and overlaps.

Moyn’s critique of Arendt’s comparative analysis of the American and French Revolutions is not new. Jürgen Habermas challenged Arendt’s account nearly 60 years ago, and Judith Shklar called Arendt’s book a “valentine presented to America.” What is novel in Moyn’s assessment is that Arendt’s account of the French Revolution, and her claim that the Revolution was stymied because of the enormity of economic poverty and inequality, made her blind and deaf towards decolonization struggles in the developing world. I agree with Moyn that Arendt, who wrote enthusiastically about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, should have focused her political brilliance on writing about the Algerian War and Revolution of 1954-1962, as well. But Moyn overshoots again when he writes that “Arendt was open and unapologetic when it came to her imperialist and racist commitments” (548). Recent scholarship both praises Arendt for her path-breaking analysis of “race-thinking before racism,” which is not focused on the color line alone; while also showing the limits of her understanding of the fate of Black Americans. It should give Moyn some pause that many young African-American scholars—such as Danielle Allen, Adom Getachew, and Shatema Threadcraft—have nonetheless found it possible to cull from Arendt’s work, “pearls of wisdom” that they used in their own work.

Moyn’s concluding reflections are about Arendt’s “Jewish exceptionalism,” namely “her support for Jewish self-emancipation through Zionism … and her stringent attitude towards other forms of decolonization…” (533). As opposed to Moyn’s claim that Arendt’s Eurocentrism or racialism accounts for her Jewish exceptionalism, I would argue that it was her sense of the difficulties of the nation-state system, most vividly expressed through the following lines, that may have restrained her: “…like virtually all other events of our century, the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700, 000 to 800,000 people. And what happened in Palestine within the smallest territory and in terms of hundreds of thousands was then repeated in India on a large scale involving many millions of people…” (290-291).

Arendt’s sense of the dead-ends which progressive politics could encounter was alleviated somewhat with the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Movements of 1968, and the anti-Vietnam War movement – all of which she followed avidly. Her last article for the New York Review of Books, “Home to Roost: A Bicentennial Address,” was a reckoning with the transformation of the American Republic into a deceitful, militaristic global power which had lost its sense of public happiness and public freedom and had turned into a consumer-society led by technocrats and Madison-Avenue style politicians. Judging by the reactions of Commentary magazine, other Cold Warriors did not agree. I think that Moyn sadly misjudged the company Arendt kept. These were the disillusioned militants who fought against both Nazism and Stalinism, as well as the early Zionists of the Kibbutz movement who saw Israel betray its ideals and become an ally of superpowers in the Middle East. Nonetheless, despite her unblinkered vision of the collapse of good intentions in politics, Arendt insisted on the capacity of each generation to begin anew and create a different realm of freedom.

Andrew Gibson

Great monuments, like all human things, eventually crumble. In his recent JHI article, Samuel Moyn seeks to add a few cracks to the columns of Hannah Arendt’s political thought, which has long held an outsized influence in the field of political theory. Reading the German-Jewish émigré alongside the “Cold War liberals,” Moyn suggests Arendt is “best understood as displacing the intellectual premises of earlier liberalism, while foreclosing a global approach to the universalization of freedom in equality in an era of decolonization and deracialization.” Writing to “reassess the contributions and limits of her project in political theory,” Moyn unsurprisingly concludes that Arendt’s writings no longer remain a helpful resource to understand our times, nor do they articulate a type of politics worthy of recovery (533). By narrowing the vistas of freedom in the mid-twentieth century and expressing panicked reactions to republican corruption and global emancipation, Arendt’s thinking remains fundamentally limited for thinking about “collective political freedom in the future” (558).

It is clear Moyn is eager to inspire his readers to search for an intellectual foundation more conducive to social, economic, and political liberation than the ones Arendt and her Cold War liberal colleagues provide. Yet, Moyn’s “Cold War liberal” designation sometimes appears more befuddling than illuminating as it casts over such divergent views on liberalism in the mid-twentieth century. Arendt never considered herself a “liberal,” as Moyn well notes; this fact requires him to frequently point out the many differences Arendt had with “Cold War liberals,” and even the gulfs separating those who would identify as such (534). Nevertheless, Arendt and her Cold War contemporaries do share some affinities. Citing recent literature, Moyn contends twentieth-century Anglophone liberalism departed from its earlier premises as it began to focus more intensely on “modernity, personal liberty, and religious toleration” while nineteenth century theorists concentrated on markets, parliamentary institutions, and a “perfectionist account of the creative highest life” (534). Moyn laments the excising of these earlier liberal traditions in Arendt’s writings. “Visitors to Arendt’s gallery of the annals of ‘Western civilization’,” he writes, “will find her walls […] almost completely barren when it comes to the Enlightenment and nineteenth century liberalism” (538). In its place, one finds monuments to the ancients and their conception of politics—particularly (neo)Roman republicanism.

Arendt famously analogized a form of political thinking to “pearl diving,” where one plumbs the depths of the sea of history to find old pearls of wisdom. During the Cold War, she found many “lost treasures” in (neo)Roman republicanism and spent much of her time “projecting the politics she prized backward, associating agency with Rome and the neo-Roman American origins” (541). These artifacts remain on display in On Revolution (1963) and are the subject of Moyn’s most incisive critiques. Here, we read that “Arendt joined Cold War liberal Atlanticism—but sought to defend and rehabilitate the Atlantic republican tradition with a more openly global perspective in the era when formal empire had come to an end” (537-38). Perhaps surprising to readers of the “smash hit” The Origins of Totalitarianism(1951), the ascension of empire mattered less in Arendt’s political theory than did the prospect of imperial decline. Once an empire “crossed irreversibly into decline, as she eventually ended up worrying America was doing in the era of its ‘crises of the republic’ and the Vietnam War,” the results could be just as catastrophic as those produced by a politics devoted to universal emancipation (549). One could almost say Arendt’s “pearl diving” was also a form of “pearl clutching.”

Forty years ago, Judith Shklar came to a similar assessment on Arendt’s catastrophizing tendencies: “Whenever something unfortunate occurred she thought that the end of the republic was near. (One does not forget Weimar easily)” (371). Moyn’s account shares much with Shklar’s early appraisal, suggesting The Origins of Totalitarianism“breathed new spirit into the concept of totalitarianism, which otherwise might not have endured after World War II when fascism disappeared as a living political endeavor” (539). Arendt’s panicked reaction to perceived republican corruption in the United States also made her view of Atlantic republicanism “far more bizarre” than the one offered by John Pocock in his masterful Machiavellian Moment (542). In On Revolution, Arendt idolized the American Revolution because it established political freedom without the “interference of economic justice” while she decried the French Revolution for unleashing a deranged pursuit of universal equality (541, 543). As Moyn states, Arendt’s attempted recovery of the “distinctive model of politics” she identified in the American Revolution became “critical for avoiding the totalitarian modernity that the French Revolution anticipated” (541-2).

Like other German-Jewish émigrés, Arendt wrote on the American political tradition to teach citizens of her adopted country about their exceptional history and distinct political virtues. As a wise sage steeped in German Bildung, Arendt offered counsel and comfort to Americans in search of meaning. But to those outside the United States, her teachings were less sanguine as she effectively narrowed the horizon for legitimate political activity and shunned revolutionaries from the Global South from being worshiped in the Cold War liberal pantheon. As Moyn suggests, one way of reading Arendt historically is seeing her “globalize her skepticism of the French Revolution’s legacy in a decolonizing age,” making On Revolution read as “postcolonial derangement” (543, 550). Given that Arendt’s early philosophical education was permeated with racial and hierarchical theories, Moyn also contends her “clear assumption [was] that non-white revolution would necessarily channel French manias.” If she had written on the Haitian Revolution, she would surely have found it “pathological, merely worsening […] the French syndrome, by welding political freedom not just to class but also to racial equality” (550).

All of this comes as a surprise to a theorist who famously articulated a romanticized vision of political action in The Human Condition (1958) and praised Zionism early in her career. Yet, to Moyn, Arendt’s romantic vision of action made “freedom […] elusive to the point of foreclosure” (552). Because her vision of action was associated “exclusively with so exceptional and even melodramatic a set of examples,” she ended up “rendering action incompatible with institutional life” and embraced the “geographical morality” commonly held by Cold War liberals (536, 557). For these reasons, among others, Moyn concludes Arendt’s project “ought to be treated as irretrievable in our time” and cautions against retreating to the monumental histories constructed by her and other mid-century thinkers (537). After reading Moyn’s article, however, one wonders what should be erected atop the ruins of Arendt’s thought—and Cold War liberalism, more generally. Should the ambitions of the earlier liberalism be recovered, once stripped of all their faults? Or, are we required to build this broader vision of collective human freedom on entirely new foundations?

Artur Banaszewski

Few twentieth-century scholars can rival the fame and influence of Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s unparalleled status as an icon of modern philosophy makes any critical engagement with her ideas a concurrent comment on the present state of political theory. While Samuel Moyn refrains from explicit criticism of Arendt’s contemporary interpreters and imitators, “Hannah Arendt among the Cold War liberals” convincingly argues her thought is burdened with anxieties and insensitivities that restrict its emancipatory potential in our present age. This annotation may explain Moyn’s acknowledgment that “Arendt wasn’t a liberal, she repeatedly declared—and she was therefore not a Cold War liberal” (534). The ambition of the article is, consequently, not as much to list Arendt’s commonalities and differences with more archetypical Cold War liberals as to display how certain concepts and assumptions she developed contributed to a fundamental shift in liberal thought during the Cold War, which continues to condition liberal imagination today.

Although Arendt never renounced creative agency as the motivation and purpose of her philosophy, Moyn suggests her opposition to securing freedom through institutional means ultimately made the ambitions of her political project unattainable. This opposition constituted a radical rupture with the earlier liberal tradition based on the employment of political institutions to achieve social progress, which made Arendt contribute to the abandonment of “collective emancipation as an aspect of the liberal project” (536). The test of the validity of this position came with the wave of decolonization movements that swept the world in the 1950s and 1960s. According to Moyn, Arendt—alongside the Cold War liberals—failed that test miserably. This is where Moyn’s criticism resonates most strongly: instead of identifying with anti-colonial movements a chance to embrace freedom on a global scale, Arendt assumed that “globalizing postcolonial freedom was despotic in intent or effect” (551), which was grounded in a racialized, hierarchical outlook on the prospect of emancipation of different peoples (557). By choosing allegiance to empire (or avoiding imperial decline) over global liberation, Moyn believes Arendt rendered her legacy “irretrievable in our time” (537).

Although Moyn dedicates much space to the historical context in which the German-Jewish émigré thinker wrote, his argument, at its core, is theoretical: it concerns the contradictions and paradoxes underpinning Arendt’s theory of politics. His article formulates a compelling critique that challenges Arendt’s intellectual legacy. Yet, should we abandon it entirely?

While emphasizing Arendt’s imperialist and racist convictions, Moyn writes that “the intellectual premises of a good part of decolonization after 1945 were in the earlier liberalism that both Arendt and the Cold War liberals rejected” (537). Consequently, one of the questions his JHI article provokes is whether Arendt’s theory of politics can be separated from her unapologetic Eurocentrism and racism. Although Moyn admits Arendt never erected a “racial bar to achieving American freedom” (551), he seems to suggest a cognate bar nevertheless stemmed from her concern for the “enduring realities of human aggression or sin” (536). Even if one condemned and erased hierarchical and prejudiced assumptions of Arendt’s thought, this would not resolve her suspicion of liberation movements caused by programmatic trepidation for the “reality of extermination camps and slave labor.”

One may interpret the exception Arendt and the Cold War liberals made for Jewish self-emancipation as proof of theoretical inclusiveness rather than arbitrariness. Yet Moyn writes explicitly that their support for Zionism constituted “a fundamental challenge to their call for limits in developed countries and anxieties about meaningless violence in developing ones” (557). And so, Arendt and the Cold War liberals reserved the right to decide who could take issue with the reality of global hierarchy of power.

Arendt’s “betrayal” of the prospect of global emancipation appears, therefore, just as racialist as philosophical. In the latter case, Moyn argues Arendt’s refusal of “any notion of historical progress” stemmed from her categorical rejection of the Hegelian idea of dialectical movement towards freedom (546). This suggests that the “demonology of modern emancipation” Arendt shared with the Cold War liberals was, in her case, a response to her perceived bankruptcy of Hegel’s philosophy of history. Among the many writings where she criticized Hegel, Arendt particularly emphasized his moral misguidedness in On Violence: “Hegel’s and Marx’s great trust in the dialectical ‘power of negation’ […] rests on a much older philosophical prejudice: that evil is no more than a privative modus of the good, that good can come out of evil; that, in short, evil is but a temporary manifestation of a still-hidden good” (56). Although the evils Arendt had in mind are not to be dismissed lightly, Moyn challenges the reader to reconsider to what extent the erasure of progress from the philosophy of history contributed to the erasure of progress from our contemporary consciousness. If history is a struggle between the devil and God, the only thing we can look forward to is a Last Judgement.

In this capacity, Moyn unequivocally castigates Arendt and the Cold War liberals for establishing strict—presumably, overly strict—limits on the prospects for collective emancipation (536). However, the risk of governmental tyranny, alongside the reality of evil, were not the only factors that made Arendt reticent about the idea of global freedom—which relates to the Haitian Revolution she so notoriously ignored in her work. As Hegel famously declared in Phenomenology of Spirit, “it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained.” An excerpt from the first pages of On Revolution could be taken as Arendt’s response to Hegel’s revelation: “To sound off with a cheerful ‘give me liberty or give me death’ sort of argument in the face of the unprecedented and inconceivable potential of destruction in nuclear warfare is not even hollow; it is downright ridiculous” (13). As Jonathan Schell notes, Arendt shared the conviction of many of her contemporaries that nuclear arsenals imposed absolute limits on political change through warfare (249).

Moyn aptly points out Arendt’s conspicuous disregard of the fact that even the American Revolution was a violent insurrection against empire (551). But should consistent support for global emancipation require equal opposition towards all hindrances and constraints to anti-imperial struggle? Or should it nevertheless admit certain limits resulting, for instance, from the principles of restraint and responsibility? There are no simple answers to these concerns, and their exposure by Moyn’s article proves only the far-reaching consequences that critical reassessment of Arendt and Cold War liberalism will involve for our political imagination.

Seyla Benhabib is a Yale University’s Eugene Meyer professor of political science and philosophy, emerita, and a senior research fellow at Columbia Law School. She is a distinguished international scholar who is known for her research and teaching on social and political thought, particularly 20th century German thought and Hannah Arendt.

Andrew Gibson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University where he is writing a dissertation on the “transatlantic Machiavelli,” focusing on twentieth-century debates over the Florentine’s political-historical legacy. He has been a Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow at the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC) and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute (GHI).

Artur Banaszewski is a Ph.D. researcher in the Department of History at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. His doctoral project titled “Disillusioned with communism. Zygmunt Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski and the global decline of orthodox Marxism” explores Eastern European critiques of socialist thought and intersects them with the global political context of the Cold War.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Hannah Arendt at the First Congress of Cultural Critics, photograph, Munich City Museum. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history Interview

The Neomercantilists: An Interview with Eric Helleiner

By Addis Goldman

Eric Helleiner has long been recognized for his foundational contributions to international political economy and studies in global governance. A professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, Helleiner’s recent books include The Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods: International Development and the Making of the Postwar Order (Cornell, 2014) and The Status Quo Crisis: Global Financial Governance After the 2008 Meltdown (Oxford, 2014), along with co-authored books such as The Great Wall of Money: Politics and Power in China’s International Monetary Relations (Cornell, 2014). In addition, he has published over 100 journal articles and book chapters and is presently co-editor of the book series Cornell Studies in Money.

Addis Goldman spoke to Prof. Helleiner about The Neomercantilists: A Global Intellectual History (Cornell, 2021), which, as Helleiner explains, was necessary to write before publishing his latest book, The Contested World Economy: The Deep and Global Roots of International Political Economy (Cambridge, 2023). Although both texts are deeply topically relevant, The Neomercantilists is particularly so. After decades marked by the deepening and dissemination of globalization, recent years have seen the revival of strategic protectionism and the intensification of geoeconomic and geopolitical competition. Although mercantilist ideas about the primacy of exports and the accumulation of state wealth, promoted by figures such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert, have influenced statecraft since the early-modern period, neomercantilism, as Helleiner argues, is a distinct concept worthy of its prefix. 


Addis Goldman: The Neomercantilists addresses a fundamental shortcoming in the intellectual history of international political economy. In the Introduction, you suggest that the ideological atmosphere of the Cold War era effectively marginalized interest in the history of neomercantilism, even within the field of IPE, which has recognized this perspective as part of its canon since the 1970s. Can you talk about some of the initial scholarly motivations for writing this book?

Eric Helleiner: The Neomercantilists was not a book that I planned to write. Beginning around 2015, I set out instead to write a history of the deep roots of the field of international political economy (IPE) in the pre-1945 era. The scholars who pioneered the modern field of IPE in the 1970s — people such as Susan Strange and Robert Gilpin — saw themselves as reviving an earlier pre-1945 tradition of political economy that had analyzed international and global issues. They usually invoked earlier thinkers from the three intellectual perspectives of economic liberalism (e.g., Adam Smith, David Ricardo), neomercantilism (e.g., Alexander Hamilton, Friedrich List), and Marxism (Karl Marx and the later Marxist theorists of imperialism such as Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg). IPE textbooks today continue to cite these deep roots of the field, but no book existed to provide students with a more comprehensive overview of pre-1945 debates about the politics of the world economy. My goal was to fill this gap in the curriculum.

It quickly became evident to me, however, that the history of neomercantilism was the least studied of the three pre-1945 perspectives that were referenced in IPE textbooks. As I delved into this history in more depth, it also became clear that the textbook focus on Hamilton and List was much too narrow, particularly if one embraced a more global perspective. I began to realize that I could not write the broader history of IPE’s deep roots without first writing a book that challenged the conventional understanding of the history of neomercantilist thought in my field. The Neomercantilists was the result. With that completed, I was able to return to the main project which was published earlier this year: The Contested World Economy: The Deep and Global Roots of International Political Economy. The latter has two short chapters on neomercantilist thought, which I could not have presented succinctly without writing the earlier book.

AG: The global reception of Adam Smith’s ideas around the turn of the nineteenth century is decisive for your understanding of neomercantilism and neomercantilists, who are, roughly speaking, “post-1776 thinkers” responding to the “new liberal economic ideology that became increasingly prominent in the wake of the publication of The Wealth of Nations (1776)” (5). To what degree were early neomercantilists such as Alexander Hamilton, a key theorist of the “American System,” responding to the concrete geoeconomic consequences, rather than the ideological content, of Smithian free trade liberalism (and an associated kind of Kantian perpetual peace teleology)?

EH: As you note, I argue that “neomercantilists” were distinguished from earlier “mercantilists” because they were responding to liberal ideas of free trade and free markets that became increasingly prominent after Smith’s 1776 book. Hamilton was one of the first prominent thinkers to do this in a sophisticated way. Although he was familiar with European mercantilist ideas, he went beyond them through his careful engagement with Smithian arguments in his famous 1791 Report on Manufactures. But it is certainly true that he and other neomercantilists were also often responding to the concrete circumstances in which they found themselves, including geopolitical ones.

Indeed, geopolitics loomed large for neomercantilist thinkers. They were focused on promoting not just the wealth of their state but also its power, and they saw the two as intricately connected. They believed that state wealth and power could be cultivated with strategic trade protectionism and other forms of government economic activism, and most were focused on using these policies to promote industrialization, which they saw as critically important for state power. All of these arguments could be found in Hamilton’s report, which also invoked the geopolitical vulnerability experienced by his country in its recent revolutionary war because of its lack of domestic manufacturing capacity. As he put it, “extreme embarrassments of the United States during the late War, from an incapacity of supplying themselves, are still a matter of keen recollection” (37). Like Hamilton, many early neomercantilists also came from places that were threatened by British military power. They often saw that power as underpinned by Britain’s growing industrial might. Many also saw British advocacy of free trade abroad as an effort to consolidate its geopolitical dominance by curtailing other countries’ industrialization and locking them into a subordinate role of commodity exporting. That case was made, for example, by followers of Hamilton, such as Mathew Carey who became a prominent advocate of what Henry Clay referred to in 1824 as the “American System” of protectionism. The same line of argument also featured prominently in the most famous neomercantilist text in the first half of the nineteenth century, Friedrich List’s 1841 The National System of Political Economy, whose content was partly shaped by List’s encounters with Carey and other American protectionists in the 1820s.

Because of the title of List’s book, I should also add, as a definitional point, that neomercantilists are sometimes referred to as “economic nationalists.” The label is understandable in the sense that many of them – including List – hoped to make the economy serve nationalist goals. But I steer away from this term in the book for two reasons. First, nationalism can be associated with the advocacy of many other kinds of economic policies, including liberal ones. In other words, not all economic nationalists are neomercantilists. Second, not all neomercantilists are economic nationalists in the sense that some of the ones that I analyzed did not embrace nationalist worldviews. They sought to promote the wealth and power of states that were not conceptualized nation-states, such as empires or sub-imperial states.

AG: The German political economist Friedrich List (1789-1846) looms very large in the book. The title of Chapter 2 is “Friedrich List’s Idiosyncratic Synthesis.” Why “idiosyncratic”? You note that his views of free trade began to change because of “concerns about how the restoration of open trade after Napoleon’s downfall allowed British manufacturing exports to undermine German industry” (45). He produced neomercantilist articles of faith like, “The power of producing wealth is … infinitely more important than wealth itself” (56). He was active on the American scene in the early to mid-nineteenth century. He decried “the cosmopolitical doctrine of Adam Smith,” although he was a political liberal. Why is List so foundational for any account of neomercantilism? 

EH: For most IPE scholars today, List’s 1841 book The National System of Political Economy is the most important neomercantilist work in the pre-1945 years. Particularly well-known is a passage in which he criticized British free traders of hypocrisy for discouraging other countries from pursuing protectionist policies that he believed had built up Britain’s wealth and power in the past. As he put it, “It is a very common device that when anyone has attained the summit of greatness, he kicks away the ladder by which he has climbed up, in order to deprive others of the means of climbing up after him” (295). The phrase “kicking away the ladder” is even the title of a best-selling book on political economy by Ha-Joon Chang.

Building on the work of other historians, I highlight how List’s work synthesized the ideas of many earlier thinkers that he encountered, including those in the United States and France, where he lived for some time. I describe this as an idiosyncratic synthesis because List drew on other people’s ideas in various selective ways while also adding some distinctive twists of his own. The latter included some ideas that were rarely repeated by later neomercantilist thinkers who invoked his work. One example is List’s view that countries in the “tropics” were not suited for industrialization and should remain commodity exporters under conditions of free trade or colonial rule (of which he strongly approved). Another was his view that neomercantilist policies should be seen simply as a temporary strategy to build greater equality among (temperate zone) nations which could then unite in a future “universal republic.”

AG: Chapter 3 is subtitled “The Listian Intellectual World,” while Chapter 4 is titled “List-Inspired Neomercantilism Beyond the Nation-State.” Clearly, List was very influential, but you emphasize that his influence manifested in a variety of divergent political-economic programs. In these chapters, we encounter figures like the German intellectual Gustav Schmoller and the Turkish nationalist Ziya Gökalp, both of whom were interested in a “social version of neomercantilism” (81). The Japanese finance minister Matsukata Masayoshi, who in the 1880s pursued forms of “financial neomercantilism” is also important, as is Mahadev Govind Ranade, the Indian nationalist who, in the late nineteenth century, espoused a “neomercantilism of the colonized” (89, 109). We also encounter Alfredo Rocco, the Mussolini loyalist who advocated “national syndicalism” (101), as well as the British tariff reformers who, at the turn of the twentieth century, conceived of neomercantilist policies in the context of empire. What should we understand about some of these figures and their various Listian-inspired positions?

EH: At the most general level, I think it is important to recognize the extensive international diffusion of List’s neomercantilist ideas. Much ink has been spilled about the global spread of liberal and Marxist ideas in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but less attention has been paid to the international circulation of neomercantilist thought. This relative neglect may reflect the fact that there was no institutional equivalent to the liberal Cobden club or the Marxist Comintern to promote this ideology transnationally. But the ideas of List and other neomercantilists (particularly Henry Carey, son of the Mathew Carey I mentioned earlier) did circulate widely across borders. And like liberal and Marxist thought, these ideas were often adapted in creative ways by the thinkers who imported them.

You have cited some examples of thinkers who adapted List’s ideas in interesting and different ways. Some of them lived in places where List’s protectionist advice could not be followed because of external constraints, such as trade treaties in Matsuakata’s Japan or British colonial policy in Ranade’s India. In this context, they developed innovative ideas about how to pursue neomercantilist goals in other ways. Matsukata, for example, devoted more attention than List to how a central bank could serve developmental goals through mechanisms such as direct lending to firms. Ranade called for Indian industrialization to be supported not just by the direct financial support of colonial authorities but also by the consumption behavior of Indian colonial subjects. Ranade also challenged List’s ideas about tropical countries being suited for manufacturing as well as the German thinker’s positive view of the impact of British imperialism in India.

The case of the British tariff reformers was also particularly intriguing in light of contemporary developments. List was focused on advising countries on how to catch up to British wealth and power. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, some British thinkers began to see his neomercantilist advice as useful for addressing their country’s declining global dominance. Citing the use of tariffs, subsidies, and other activist policies by rising powers, they argued that Britain needed to follow suit and abandon its free trade orientation. Their ideas foreshadowed those of American neomercantilists in the current age.

There were many other interesting examples of how List’s followers modified his thought. For example, while neomercantilists were united in their support for strategic trade protectionism, many of List’s followers did not follow his warning that trade restrictions should only be moderate, temporary, and specifically targeted. They also often endorsed much more extensive government economic activism at the domestic level than List had. Many later neomercantilists also rejected List’s political liberalism, such as the conservative Sergei Witte, who served as finance minister in autocratic Russia between 1892 and 1903. Indeed, neomercantilist thought in the pre-1945 era was associated wide range of political orientations, from that kind of conservative one to more left-wing positions such as Sun Yat-sen’s Chinese socialism.

AG: The American political economist Henry Carey (1793-1879) is a major figure in the book. In your estimation, he was almost as influential as List. What was Carey’s agenda as it relates to theorizing the “American System,” and what prompted him to embrace the neomercantilist cause? You note that his ideas significantly influenced American trade policy in the 1860s at the beginning of the Lincoln administration and that he has been described as “the ideologist of manufacturers” (139). Importantly, he was especially sensitive to the “domestic distributional and social costs of free trade” (148). Although this phrasing is quite loaded today, was Carey a kind of ‘populist’?

EH: In my view, Carey has not received the attention that he deserves, at least from IPE scholars interested in the history of neomercantilist thought. One reason I think he should be more studied is the one you have highlighted: his distinctive interest in domestic distributional issues. Carey saw trade protectionism as a policy that would not just bolster state wealth and power as a whole but also help to address domestic social inequalities, including gender inequality. He was also interested in its environmental benefits, arguing that free trade exhausted local soils by encouraging unsustainable export-oriented monocrop agriculture. Neither of these ideas can be found in List. Carey also did not share List’s enthusiasm for imperialism and believed that all regions of the world should be encouraged to industrialize, including the “tropics” (which, as already noted, List assigned to a permanent role of commodity-exporting).

Carey deserves more attention not just because of the distinctiveness of his neomercantilist ideas. These ideas were also very influential. In Carey’s own country, protectionists in the second half of the nineteenth century were informed much more by his thought than List. Like List, Carey also became well known in neomercantilist circles around the world. His most famous work published in 1858-9, Principles of Social Sciences, was quickly translated into many languages. And when his ideas diffused abroad, there were often more influential than List’s in fostering opposition to free trade, including in contexts as diverse as early Meiji Japan, post-Confederation Canada, and even Bismarck’s Germany.

Was Carey a populist? I guess it depends on how populism is defined. His writings indeed involve strong attacks on internationally-oriented economic elites that foreshadowed those made by contemporary politicians often described as populist. His specific targets were “traders” (149), a category that included groups such as financiers, commission merchants, shippers, and brokers. In his view, these rootless elites enriched themselves at the expense of producers (such as farmers and workers) and consumers through price manipulation, monopolies, and the fostering of race-to-the-bottom global market pressures. Also similar to some contemporary right-wing American populists today was Carey’s focus on tariffs at the border without much interest in domestic kinds of government economic activism to address inequalities.

AG: East Asia has long been associated with “developmental states” (201) and the statist orientation of East Asian political economy has received ample scholarly attention. In the middle portion of the book, we read about the origins and development of Japanese and Chinese (and to a lesser extent, Korean) neomercantilist thought, encountering figures who built upon mercantilist ideas, local traditions (e.g., Confucianism and Legalism; Japanese “Kokueki ideology”), and Western political economy. Why is it so crucial to understand the “importance of the regional intellectual context in which East Asian mercantilist and neomercantilist ideas emerged” (206)?

EH: It is often assumed that the East Asian developmentalism has its intellectual origins outside the region. A common story is that Meiji Japan’s successful state-led industrialization was informed by the ideas of List (and Carey) and that its model was then exported to the other East Asian countries. It is certainly true that List and Carey were read in Meiji Japan (and later in the rest of East Asia), but this Western-centric diffusion narrative overlooks important local roots of East Asian neomercantilist thought.

In the Japanese case, these roots can be found in what Luke Roberts calls the “mercantilism” of inter-domain competition in Tokugawa Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, mercantilist ideas emerging from that local context were transferred to Japan as a whole, serving a challenge to imported Western economic liberalism. After the Opium Wars, Chinese thinkers also developed important neomercantilist ideas, building on earlier indigenous traditions of thought, dating as far back as the era of the Warring States. A similar story can be found in Korea after its forced economic opening in the 1870s. An intra-regional circulation of ideas also informed and strengthened neomercantilist thought in all three countries.

Recognizing these endogenous roots of East Asian neomercantilism is important not just to correct the historical record. It also helps explain distinctive features of neomercantilist thought in the region, some of which have left legacies in the region to this day. Further, it calls attention to innovative thinkers who presently receive no attention in IPE textbooks, such as Japan’s Ōkubo Toshimichi and Fukuzawa Yukichi, China’s Zheng Guanying and Sun Yat-sen, and Korea’s Yu Kil-chun. More generally, this history highlights how neomercantilist thought emerged in the pre-1945 era in a more decentralized manner than economic liberalism and Marxism. Put simply, List was far less central to this process than Adam Smith or Karl Marx were for the emergence of economic liberalism or Marxism.

AG: The final sections of the book are dedicated to a discussion of neomercantilist thought and policy practice in Russia, Canada, Egypt, Poland, Latin America, and Africa. The Russian, Nikolai Semonovich Mordinov, was a “defensive neomercantilist” (285). The Canadian John Rae was interested in the “power of invention” (290) and influenced John Stuart Mill. The Ottoman-Albanian leader of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, Muhammad Ali, engaged in heavy-handed developmentalism. José Battle y Ordóñez, who governed Uruguay in the early 1900s, rejected Marxian notions of class struggle in favor of a “superior social harmony” (322) predicated on the implementation of neomercantilist policies. The Asante Empire in West Africa in the late nineteenth century was characterized by strong forms of autocratic neomercantilism. And with respect to Pan-African thought, we encounter Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), who pursued what you call a form of “diasporic neomercantilism” (328). What unites and distinguishes this group of thinkers?EH: These figures are united by the fact that their neomercantilist thought also emerged quite independently from that of List. Aside from that, they advanced very different versions of neomercantilist thought. Some of them were also practitioners and policymakers more than theorists. Muhammad Ali, for example, left no treatise of any kind, but I included him because he implemented the most ambitious neomercantilist policies anywhere in the world during his rule. He justified his innovative initiatives in discussions, speeches, and letters in ways that reflected a neomercantilist mindset, but one that was very different than that of List. The Asante leadership also wrote no treatises defending their distinctive neomercantilist policies that were focused on a high degree of state control of their empire’s commerce, until the British annexed their territory in 1896. Even more distinctive were the ideas of Marcus Garvey, who sought to cultivate the wealth and power of the Pan-African community through what I suggest was a diasporic neomercantilist vision.

In contrast to Ali and Garvey, Mordinov and Rae both wrote lengthy scholarly treatises (and before List’s famous 1841 book was published). Rae, in particular, deserves to be better known today. His 1834 book Statement of Some New Principles on the Subject of Political Economy is a very sophisticated (and over four hundred pages) defense of strategic protectionist policies and critique of some aspects of Adam Smith’s work. Written in what Rae called the “Canadian backwoods,” the book attracted little attention at the time of its publication. Rae appears to have been so disappointed by its reception that he abandoned work on political economy altogether and did not even own a copy of his impressive book in his later years.

As you note, however, Rae’s book subsequently gained more recognition when John Stuart Mill endorsed its defense of infant-industry protectionism in a brief passage in his famous Principles of Political Economy (1848). That unusual endorsement was used to justify protectionist policies in many countries and proved very controversial in nineteenth century liberal circles. Indeed, on his deathbed, the famous British free trader Richard Cobden is reported to have declared in 1865 that Mill had “done more harm by his sentence about the fostering of infant industries than he had done good by the whole of the rest of his writings” (54).

AG: We have clearly entered a kind of “post-1776” moment, marked by a waning pro-globalization consensus and the “revival” of neomercantilist thinking and policy practice across the globe. In the United States, the Biden administration seeks to affect a “pivot from market-liberal neoliberalism to state-interventionist ‘Hamiltonianism.’” More broadly, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has spoken of a “new Washington Consensus,” which refers to a recognition of the limits of free-trade dogmatism and the emergence of a “new global economic order.” Of course, “neomercantilism with Chinese characteristics” is nothing new, and neither is Chinese ‘party-state capitalism.” How do you feel, as both a scholar and commentator, about the escalating global neomercantilist turn, as it were?

EH: In my book, I note that neomercantilist ideas often gained prominence before 1945 during heightened geopolitical uncertainty and tension. Their popularity also often grew when states were experiencing growing economic vulnerabilities associated with trends such as the emergence of new economic competitors or intensified economic interdependence. In light of this history, it is not surprising to me that neomercantilist thought is undergoing a resurgence at this moment, including in the United States. It has gained strength from many developments, including the intensification of the Sino-American economic and geopolitical rivalry, the growing backlash against free trade in the United States and elsewhere, the increasing weaponization of economic relations, the accelerating rate of technological change (including in the realms of green and digital technologies which are both so central to human futures), and the international economic instabilities and vulnerabilities associated with the pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Some of these developments are winding down already (such as the pandemic), and others may prove relatively short-lived. But many of these trends are likely to be quite long-lasting. In that context, the revival of neomercantist thinking and policy seems unlikely to quickly be reversed. Another reason is that neomercantilist practices tend to feed off each other. Once one major state moves in a neomercantilist direction, others fear losing their competitive position in domestic and global markets if they do not follow. Indeed, famous neomercantilist thinkers such as Hamilton and List played to those fears by highlighted how rival states were already pursuing the policies they were recommending. We are witnessing the growing political prominence of this kind of argument today in countries across the world.

If we are likely to be stuck in this neomercantilist moment for some time, I think it is important to remind its advocates that neomercantilism need not be associated only with inter-state rivalry and conflict. Many past neomercantilist thinkers believed strongly in the importance of multilateral cooperation and some developed innovative ideas about it. List, for example, developed one of the earliest proposals for a “world trade congress” as far back as 1837. Sun Yat-sen was one of the first thinkers to call for a multilateral development institution in 1920. These thinkers showed how neomercantilism can be compatible with creative initiatives to strengthen multilateral cooperation. Given the many serious problems facing humanity today, contemporary neomercantilists should be encouraged to embrace this cooperative impulse and foster innovative forms of multilateralism that can preserve and bolster international cooperation in the new global context in which we find ourselves.

Addis Goldman holds master’s degrees from the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago and the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Colorado College. His research interests include developments in Chinese strategic and intellectual culture, the history of economic thought, and the intellectual history of U.S. foreign policy.

Edited by Andrew Gibson

Featured Images: Utagawa Hiroshige III, “View of the Seafront in Yokohama” (1870). Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Trumbull, “Alexander Hamilton” (1806). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Friedrich List. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Adrian Lamb, “Henry Charles Carey (1793-1879).” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history Think Piece

Diagnosing France

By Elias Forneris       

Ask a French person about their country and chances are they will say France is falling apart. Politics just aren’t like before. From left to right, many in France agree the country is gravely ill. In 2021, 75% of French people thought it “in decline.” To them, their country is the ‘sick man of Europe.’ There is a reason one speaks of the ‘French ailment’ (‘le mal français’). But in their eyes, France has always seemed that way. And it may always seem that way—to a large extent because of a torturous self-perception. For anyone curious about the genealogy of current grievances, this presents a puzzling question: why does a nation which has historically fared so well, feel so miserable?

France faces momentous policy challenges which must not be minimized. Political observers quarrel over rural and peri-urban precarity, the agricultural class feeling left behind, unemployment in the banlieues, an increasing sentiment of insecurity, cultural and religious tensions, political extremism, and rising public debt—to name a few issues. For a historian, one possible contribution is to instead examine France’s self-perception complex, which long preceded these current policy challenges. This complex is in part what Émile Chabal described as the French population’s tendency to expect “grandeur” and to express discontent when they do not attain it. This results in “a yawning gap between the grand ideals they are supposed to embody and the messy reality.” Remarkably, such melancholy is found in France’s main political observers since at least the 1700s. Their verdict sounded almost identical, whether France was the leading world power or losing wars. These writers composed poetic lamentations, while the people periodically erupted in protest for one last attempt at salvaging politics. Perhaps Beaumarchais was right in The Marriage of Figaro that in France “everything ends with songs…” [1] Yet, a history of the French self-perception places these grievances into perspective, and suggests more optimistic verdicts are possible.


The question of the ‘French ailment’ resurfaced with protests against President Macron’s pension reform last spring, and with riots after a policeman fatally shot a teenager in June. The popular upheaval prompted commentators in France and abroad to ask: is France unwell? An article in The Guardian noted “there is an incredible disconnect between what tourists see … and the hyperbolic, catastrophist nature of France’s own domestic discourse about itself.” A journalist for The Economist went viral on Twitter emphasising how “Every evening, images of real war and extreme hardship on the European continent are beamed into its living rooms. Yet France has turned the raising of the pension age to 64 into a national psychodrama.” One former French diplomat and intelligence official concluded after the riots: “The country’s vital prognosis is in question.” The Gilets jaunes movement prompted similar interrogations almost five years ago.

Wittingly or unwittingly, conversations about the ‘French ailment’ fit within a longer tradition of the “body politic”: depicting France as a human body, which in this case is ill. Intriguingly, the historian Antoine de Baecque found that body-politic metaphors were already used in 1770s France and then throughout the French Revolution. “The metaphor of the body,” he wrote, “offers to politicians and men of letters alike the illusion of an organic ordering of the human community, an illusion that thus gives them a scientific claim to observe it and organize it.” However, to visualize France as an ailing patient or to express that disenchantment violently is to lack historical perspective on two fronts. On a fundamental level, it overlooks how most European states face similar challenges, and it fails to account for the numerous current upsides of living in France. More pertinently to the point at hand, it overlooks the longstanding tradition of writers announcing France’s degeneration, which makes the present situation appear less dramatic. Where does this negative self-perception stem from?

One answer may come from an E.P. Thompson insight in The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Thompson noted how “it is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences to run in opposite directions.” In other words, metrics may objectively improve on the whole, while life feels worse for each individual. There may be more of everything, but the perceived experience does not match. In France’s case, the country develops, but popular remonstrances reveal a profound unease. This applies to most domains. France has expanded education, but intellectuals believe that French culture is also increasingly impoverished. Life expectancy rises, but older generations feel life is not as ‘gentle’ as it was during the Trente Glorieuses (1945–1975). Political activity is accelerating, but the substance of political debate feels shallower. All of these complaints merit being addressed. The question here is the everlasting negative human experience the French have, indepentedly of these issues.

Look back to The Social Contract in 1762, and the Swiss-born Rousseau told a publisher “this book is not made for France”—because France was already beyond repair in his eyes for The Social Contract to apply. As Bertrand de Jouvenel summarised, for Rousseau “what is lost is lost; one has to save what is salvageable. Yet, what is salvageable? In the big corrupt society, it’s the individual, and Rousseau [instead] wrote Émile” (1762). In Book IV of Émile, Rousseau judged that France’s capital had degenerated: “farewell Paris … with all your noise and smoke and dirt, where the women have ceased to believe in honor and the men in virtue. We are in search of love, happiness, innocence; the further we go from Paris the better.” Enlightenment France was not good enough for Rousseau’s imaginary pupil Émile (though few places were), and his view was striking considering one sees eighteenth-century France today as the center of intellectual effervescence and power in Europe.

In the 1830s, Tocqueville was worried about France as well. “Since democracy in France has been hampered in its progress or abandoned, without support, to its lawless passions, it has overturned everything that has crossed its path and has shaken everything it has not completely destroyed,” he wrote gloomily in Democracy in America (1835). For Tocqueville, the advance of democracy was inevitable, and fortunately, he thought “God is preparing a calmer and more stable future for European societies.” Until then, the path would be treacherous, and democracy itself could exhibit tyrannical aspects. Shortly after the Revolution of 1848 and the advent of Napoleon III, Tocqueville published The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), where he made an inventory of what remained of the Ancien Régime and what changed since 1789. He wrote about eighteenth-century French society: “I have tried not only to detect the disease of which the patient died, but to discover the remedy that might have saved him.” The next society presented advantages only if “equality” went hand-in-hand with “liberty.” But were the French not careful, this society would also be most susceptible to devolving into a combination of “equality and despotism.” And at the time, he warned, liberty had fallen “in disgrace.”

Other monumental French thinkers such as Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine abandoned hope wholesale by the 1890s. France had gone through a century of formidable growth, industrialization, literary and artistic prowess, and scientific innovation. Undeniably, it was a century equally marked by loss of territory, uprisings, and regime change. From the triumphs and defeats, these thinkers retained the proclivity for defeat. “Renan and Taine died doubting French vitality,” Maurice Barrès wrote. “They believed new generations would live in the shadow of a shadow and would die of moral inanition, like the old Carolingian emperor did, seeing the Normand boats on the ocean and shedding tears while prophesizing the invasion.” Reading them, one would have thought it was the end.

Somehow, France endured. It emerged scarred from the World Wars: it was conquered then liberated; it suffered millions of deaths, and the tragedies and hatred resulting from collaboration. Until the early 1960s, it fought domestically divisive wars in Southeast Asia and in Algeria. But at least the contours of a strong France continued to exist: it experienced extraordinary economic recovery, gained a solid constitution under the Fifth Republic, attained nuclear power status, adopted a leading role in the European project, and had its seat at the U.N. Security Council. Nonetheless, even General de Gaulle—responsible for many of these developments—was melancholic about the result. In 1969, he apparently told André Malraux:

I wanted to resurrect France and, to a certain extent, I did … The month of May [1968], the quarrels of politicians … I tried to erect France against the end of a world. Did I fail? Others will see. Undoubtedly, we are witnessing the end of Europe … [But] France has seen other days like these. I told you once: it wasn’t going very well on the day of the Treaty of Brétigny, nor was it going well on 18 June [1940].

De Gaulle’s assessment was doubly insightful: one, no matter the material progress, the assessment of whether France ‘died’ or not depended on something immaterial. He was conveying a feeling, a historical intuition. Two, France always had an extraordinary capacity for renewal out of the worst situations. Waterloo, the Franco-Prussian War, June 1940, and the independance of Algeria were seismic events. But each time France reappeared under a slightly different form, with a different regime, and with different lessons.

Alain Peyrefitte, one of de Gaulle’s ministers, captured the persisting unease in ‘The French Ailment’(1976). He cited historical figures ranging from King Henri IV and poet Jean de La Fontaine, to Renan and statesman Georges Clemenceau, who all mentioned the ailment. “How many times, observing our difficulties from up close, has it appeared to me that they were of the psychic or sociological order; or, if we prefer, derived from mentality?” Peyrefitte asked. “As if the French did not face ‘problems’ from outside. As if they carried these problems within them, and projected them on the reality that surrounded them.” France is the talented athlete who always has an ‘off day.’ The player who has numerous qualities, could win, but is struggling with the mental game.

Amusingly, the metaphor of a ‘sick man’ or a ‘sick man of Europe’ has been used for at least 60 other places, yet in few has this issue persisted as long. If France has been ‘dying’ for centuries, then is it dying at all? Or is this time different? In the 2010s, countless media sources argued over the “sick man” label in light of worrying economic stagnation and security issues. Pessimistic outlooks on French society lined bookshelves. Most famously, Eric Zemmour’s ‘The French Suicide’ (2014) fit “the French obsession with national suicide” (another body-politic metaphor), and Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission shortly followed (2015). Both figures are often associated with the political extremes, their texts extensively linking decline to immigration and Islamization. Though the popularity of their works undoubtedly attested to a widespread curiosity about a French decline, it was simultaneously a reminder of how easily narratives of France’s decline could be used to serve the political aims of the extremes.


Recently, a leading French talkshow, Répliques, organized a debate on the country’s lingering anger. One guest, Denis Olivennes, wroteThe Delightful French Malheur’ (2019). He underlined how France is one of the countries in which individuals work least (in the OECD), yet it feels entitled to the quality of life of the richest countries. Because of this, the French experience frustration when seeing the Germans and Americans outperform them. This example is the last in a long line cited, and truly illustrates the self-perception complex consisting of high aspirations and frequent disillusion.

Turn back to Rousseau, who decried France’s alleged corruption, and one also finds possibilities for optimism. In Book II of Émile, he asked: “Where is the path of true happiness? The mere limitation of our desires is not enough … neither is the mere extension of our powers … True happiness consists in decreasing the difference between our desires and our powers.” According to him, an individual can improve self-perception by sensibly recalibrating expectations and efforts until these are aligned. Rousseau’s prescription would certainly prove challenging if applied to a population aspiring to “grandeur”: to tell the French to “expect less” would be akin to telling a nervous individual to “just relax.” Still, historical perspective enables one to take a step back and achieve such a recalibration.

Whether the French express their melancholy in books, protests, or cafés, they all experience it to a certain degree. As a Frenchman who has lived abroad, I tend to as well. It is an instinctively compelling narrative. It is also a maddening state of mind to be in. The political thinker Mark Lilla most suitably concluded “one can’t help thinking that if the French were able to recognize themselves for what they are, and the advantages of being that way, they would deal with their problems moderately but steadily.” France does not have to be the moribund ‘sick man of Europe.’ A nation can be in imperfect health, without dying.

[1] Unless cited from an English translation, translations from French are mine.

Elias Forneris is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Cambridge, researching European intellectuals exiled in Britain during the Second World War. He is an Editor for Tocqueville 21, the online presence of The Tocqueville Review | La revue Tocqueville. He previously studied at Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris.

Edited by Tom Furse and Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Le Malade imaginaire (‘The Imaginary Invalid’) by Honoré Daumier (c. 1860-1862) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Intellectual history Think Piece

The monster of the Lagoon: On the Circulation of Images and Ideas in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World

By Morgana Lisi

“The tail was three varas and three-fourths longer than the body. The horns were a vara [(0.835 meters)] and a half long, and very modelled. The ears were three-fourths long, the neck of the head got caught on the foot when walking, the teeth as gems. The legs were no longer than a quarta, the nails longer than the whole head. The wings were proportioned to the body, the mouth as wide as the face, and the shell was green. The lower tail, although of a larger size than the one above, was entangled and used to get a grip.”

José Celestino Mutis, Spanish botanist, was among the first to describe the so-called “Tagua Tagua monster”, or “monster of Lake Fagua”. According to his sources, the creature was found in the Tagua Tagua Lake, in today’s Los Lagos region in southern Chile, in the estancia of Don Próspero Elso whose cattle was devoured by the monster. Fortunately, the monster no longer posed a threat to the local inhabitants and their livestock because it was flushed out and “burnt alive”. The handwritten description in Mutis’s notes, preserved at the Archive of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid, is undated. However, we do know that the Spanish botanist explored the nature of the New Kingdom of Granada, in today’s South America, leading the Royal Botanical Expedition between 1783 and 1808.

Curiously, nowadays, in San Vicente de Tagua Tagua there is a statue depicting some sort of horned dragon with its jaws wide open. The tale about the monster of the lagoon probably arose as a mixture of elements from Mapuche mythology and rural legends, which was amplified by Creoles. Beyond the debates on the nature of the creature, or its dubious existence as it was described, this case suggests interesting insights into the production and circulation of knowledge, ideas, and images, in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world. As this piece wishes to show, collecting information about a monster in the southern regions of the American continent has significant implications for the more general dynamics of circulation of knowledge during the Enlightenment, both for the Americas as much as for Europe.

Indeed, Mutis’s description of the Tagua Tagua monster is not an isolated case. Similar representations of the beast circulated between America and Europe from 1784, along with a fascinating iconography that appeared in Chile, New Granada, Spain, and France. On 16th October 1784, in the Journal de Paris, an announcement sponsored the sale of an engraving by Madame Boutelou portraying a monster found in Chile. The beast, whose behaviour was predominantly nocturnal, devoured pigs, cows, and bulls in the area. It had bat-like wings, and two tails (one of which was arrow-shaped, to kill its prey). The engravings and the attached descriptions are very similar between them, differing only in some minor details. Interestingly, in the Paris newspaper, it is reported how the monster was captured and nourished by the order of the Viceroy of Peru. In Lima, it was fed properly (with an ox, a cow, and a bull a day, along with three or four pigs – “of which they said it is very fond of”). Finally, it would have been carried to Spain via Cadiz where, in three weeks, it would have been shown to the Spanish monarch Charles III. Remarkably, the announcement states that the beast, probably a harpy “heretofore considered a legendary animal”, would be given the chance to spawn in Europe.

“Monster that appeared in the Tagua Lagoon.” 1784. Archivo General de la Nación, Bogotá.

Descriptions convey different details about the existence of the monster, especially regarding its sighting place. In the same year, a pamphlet Description historique d’un monster symbolique… authored by Louis Stanislas Xavier of Bourbon – the future Louis XVIII during the Bourbon Restoration – appeared in Paris. In it, he attests to the existence of a Mexican amphibian monster, called “the harpy”. But his source of information raises a critical issue: the naturalist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, in his ambitious Histoire naturelle… (1749-1789), had not referred to the existence of the beast in his description of monsters. Therefore, the Tagua Tagua creature may have been a different type of beast.

Late eighteenth-century explorations consisted of a vast effort to portray and describe distant territories for useful purposes. The Spanish monarchy’s scientific expeditions, for instance, were aimed at defining an avant-garde mapping of the domains and profitable resources (e.g., cochineal, cinchona bark, tea, cinnamon, etc.). From 1759 to 1808 almost sixty scientific expeditions explored the Spanish domains, many financed by the crown. These endeavours were helped by the support of two key peninsular institutions, namely the Royal Botanical Garden (1755) and the Royal Cabinet of Natural History (1776) in Madrid.

Such institutions intertwined their efforts to sustain the crown’s endeavours in the Americas. Pedro Franco Dávila, the founder of the Royal Cabinet, drafted and sent instructions to be delivered to the Viceroys, Governors, and Corregidores (a town’s chief magistrate) of the American Provinces, in which he requested to send “all the most curious productions of nature” to Spain so as to increase the brand-new cabinet’s collection. He also sent particular instructions to Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón who were the heads of the Royal Botanical Expedition to Peru and Chile. The assignment not only reiterated the guidelines for the collection of potentially useful plants for trade or medicine, but also emphasised the importance of collecting “natural curiosities”. Indeed, although the study of nature by the Spanish expeditions was mainly driven by economic interests, “curiosity” was also a powerful incentive. “Nature’s productions” were fascinating in all forms, from bizarre artefacts to endemic flora, unique minerals, and odd fauna – including our “monster”.

The word “monster” comes from the Latin monstrare (to demonstrate) or monere (to warn). From the bestiaries of the Middle Ages to Ambroise Paré’s Des monstres et des prodigies (1573), or Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia… (1642), monsters and curiosity had been part of European imagery and continued to be so into the eighteenth century. Distant geographies, “the edges of maps” that remained predominantly unknown, were the typical scenarios where such creatures were situated. Yet, the Americas suited well for such imagery, as proven also by the case of the so-called “monster of Buenos Aires” described by Louis Feuillée in 1714.  

This tends to discuss the traditional idea that the “disappearance of monsters” from the European cultural horizons was due to the process of affirmation of the discourse on “truth” in scientific thinking, along with a rejection of what was not observable and measurable at first-hand; namely, the prevailing of empiricism over erudition. As Georges Canghuilhem noted, the “eighteenth century made the monster not only an object but also an instrument of science”. Monsters did not disappear in the Age of Enlightenment but were rather translated into a new system of knowledge based on analytic and rational scientific discourse. Indeed, the idea that the Enlightenment was an “age of disenchantment”, driven by Reason only, was an ex-post facto fabrication.

In the eighteenth century, cultural practices such as occultism, mesmerism, and magic were popular and were incorporated into scientific thinking. Not only did these traditions survive, but they were also “enmeshed with elite culture, empirical science, and the celebration of reason”. For instance, in the early editions of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1735), the botanist also considers Animalia paradoxa (contradictory animals) found in medieval bestiaries in his system of classification. The hydra, the satyr, the phoenix, and the dragon appear in the taxonomic system.  

In a world that was becoming increasingly rationalised, strange animals and beasts raised the scepticism of well-read people, but their existence was often ascribed to a plausible explanation. Folklore permeated eighteenth-century scientific thinking, generating an original mixture in which fabulous elements were blended with rational thought. This conjuncture did not quite fade away but continued to dominate “science” until the late eighteenth century. As Robert Darnton points out, “so strong was the popular enthusiasm for science in the 1780s that it almost erased the line (never very clear until the nineteenth century) dividing science from pseudoscience”.

“Monster found in Lake Fagua, in the province of Chile, subject to Peru, in the Kingdom of Santa Fé.” 1784. Campion frères, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, coll. De Vinck, inv. 1155.

Although interest in natural curiosities was a centuries-old inheritance, new interpretative paradigms, linked to the direct observation of nature and its study (by classifying and naming), did arise in Enlightenment natural history. Michel Foucault drew attention to the experience of Buffon to explain the essence of the definition of Enlightnment “natural history”. Buffon expressed his astonishment when he was called to study Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et draconum historiae (1640), due to its singular content and structure. In Aldrovandi’s work, existing animals and monstrous or mythological figures such as the dragon or the basilisk are alternately depicted, along with their sighting locations. Yet, Buffon questioned what proportion of natural history was contained in such hotchpotch of writings, which were not descriptions but “legends” – stricto sensu as legenda, namely,“things to be read”, as Foucault underlined.

Indeed, Aldrovandi and Buffon mirror different ways of making natural history, but this should not imply the lack of rationality by the former, nor the latter’s propensity for such studies. What this argument underscores is how such intellectuals culturally were part of different epistemic systems of observation. Early modern natural history does not represent a defined discipline, but a blurry field of study in which information collected on a specific subject were assembled into a comprehensive and descriptive work. Most significantly, such an analysis also gives us some insight into the transformations that natural history underwent between the mid-seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, reaching its zenith through the gradual systematisation of its methods and practices.

“Departure of the Harpy or amphibious monster from Cadiz to be taken to the king and royal family of Spain.” 1784. Esnauts et Rapilly, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, coll. de Vinck, inv. 1157.

During this period, the study of nature brought order to a heterogenous system of dispersed knowledge, by applying empiricism to describe and arrange it. If we may consider natural history as the “nomination of the visible”, I argue that the “invisible” should also be included in such a framework. Order, although perhaps apparent, permeated the scientific thinking about nature. The passion for classification and rationalisation dominated the intellectual discourses to the extent that unreal animals were included. Their essence or existence did not matter, as long as they could fit into some class and an ostensible order was maintained. In this context, the intellectual debates about nature and “its productions” were widespread, despite the coexistent ontological contradictions.

In conclusion, some of the interpretative paradigms that form the idea of Enlightenment based on fixed and standardised stereotypes should be revised to include the dialogue and exchanges of knowledge from different and distant places. The information about our “monster” reflects the buzzy intellectual milieu of the period, in which the legacy of Medieval and Renaissance knowledge on beasts and monsters was conveyed into the Enlightenment’s scientific discourses. If natural history was the conjuncture of social, cultural, and economic processes laying at the foundations of its studies, “science” may be conceived as a set of practices and debates produced by a complex cultural environment.

In this context, Mutis’s and the French descriptions of our monster exemplify the dynamics of the circulation of knowledge between distant centres in the late eighteenth century. Although the legend probably originated in a rural context, it reached the salons of the French enlightened elite, sparking the curiosity of nobles and upper-class men – except for the interesting mention of the painter and art dealer Madame Boutelou who, in any case, as a woman in a predominantly white male context, remained a marginal actor in these scientific vicissitudes. The curious Tagua Tagua monster never reached Europe, contrary to what is reported in the sources. However, the information about it migrated through today’s Chile, Colombia, Spain, and France with minor alterations. An idea and image were crafted in Chile but spread throughout the region and, finally, reached Europe. Still, this is not a story about a monster. This interesting event points our attention to the artificiality of a Eurocentric “scientific” discourse and rather highlights the existent processes of recollection, filtering and, sometimes, crafting of information which commonly flowed from the Americas towards Europe, and not the other way around.

Morgana Lisi is a PhD Candidate in Global History of Empires at the University of Turin, Italy. Her research interests include the history of science, the history of knowledge, and the history of ideas in the early modern Iberian world. Currently, she is exploring the process of epistemological transformation of Natural History in the eighteenth-century Spanish monarchy, focusing on the studies by Creole naturalists in the province of Chile.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image: “Harpy, living amphibious monster.” 1784. Marquart Wocher, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, coll. De Vinck, inv. 1151.

Intellectual history Think Piece

Reframing History through an Islamic Lens: Muslih al-Din Lārî’s Insights into the Essence of History

By Nilab Saeedi

Muslih al-Din Lārî (d. 979 AH/1572 CE) was a historian on the move. During his lifetime, he traversed and lived in all the “Three Gunpowder Empires” – the Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman Empires. As a polymath of extraordinary versatility, Lārî’s intellectual pursuits ranged from poetry and commentary to mathematics and astronomy, establishing him as a prominent figure in the intellectual milieu of the 16th-century Islamic world.

Lārî excelled in speculative sciences (ulûm-ı akliye) and practical sciences (ulûm-ı nakliyeye)—such as fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence), tefsir (Quranic Exegesis), and hadith (Prophetic Tradition)as well as in various other scientific fields. He wrote poetry in both Arabic and Persian, and produced numerous works of history, most of them being commentaries on other Islamic authors’ writings. Through Lārî and his writings, we gain insight into key debates regarding politics and the intellectual life of the 16th century Islamic world.

Lārî’s best-known work was Mir’atü’l-advâr ve Mirkâtü’l-Ahbâr (The Mirror of Periods and The Staircases of News): a world history written in Persian encompassing the history of humankind from the first human being, Adam, to the enthronement of Sultan Selim II in 1566. Comprising 10 chapters, the book was dedicated to Selim II, as Lārî sought his patronage. Importantly, Mir’at al-advar underwent significant revisions and expansion at the hands of a well-known Ottoman historian of the period, Hoca Sa’deddin (d. 1599), who, on the demand of the Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha (d.1579), translated it into Ottoman Turkish. Lārî’s book holds a noteworthy status in Ottoman world historiography, and its popularity among the Ottoman elite is evident from the surviving number of manuscripts.

Lārî was a critical historian, an example of which can rarely be found among Muslim historians in the early modern period. His approach was distinguished by an extensive yet conscious use of diverse sources and narratives. For instance, when recounting Persian legends and the stories of the first prophets like Adam, Noah, and Abraham, he did not refrain from subjecting them to thorough criticism.

Lārî’s book offers a unique perspective on the intellectual climate of his time, shedding light on the interrelation of politics with theology and displaying the significance the Ottoman elite attributed to historical knowledge. In this article, I intend to examine how the respective works of Muslih al-Din Lārî conceptualized history and how he defined the vocation of a historian.

Lārî commences Mir’atü’l-advâr with a heartfelt expression of gratitude to God. From the opening lines of his book, he acknowledges that God bestows historians with the gift of knowledge and reason, and that the pious will always recognize God’s presence in their historical accounts. Lārî stresses that historians who recognize the oneness of God and maintain unwavering faith will receive divine aid and guidance in their work. His emphasis on piety and religion shapes his conception of history: only a historian who is true to their faith can be true to their scholarship.

For Lārî, history is more than a mere chronicle of events; it serves as a means of understanding the society we inhabit and our place within it. He suggests that the pursuit of scholarship and the pursuit of faith need not be mutually exclusive but should coexist harmoniously. According to Lārî, only a historian who recognizes this interconnection is capable of understanding and interpreting the past.

The introduction to the Mir’atü’l-advâr includes an important poem encapsulating his vision of history as a field of study. According to Lārî, history is a discipline that serves as a reminder of God and its divine powers.

This is the way that every historian knows it:

That He was, and that there was no trace of anyone.

This is how obvious the Lord of meanings is:

He is eternal, while all else is transitory.

Lārî views history as a study of the past with the purpose of applying its lessons in the future. He sees history as knowledge (‘ilm) to be used for future endeavors, with a particular focus on its implications for those in positions of power. Understanding history is important as it empowers individuals to learn from past events, enabling them to make informed decisions and avoid repeating past mistakes.

At the same time, Lārī emphasizes that all events unfold in accordance with divine will, implying that history mirrors God’s will and intentions. A truly wise and knowledgeable historian should have a profound comprehension of the nature of existence and the role that God plays in shaping the course of the world’s destiny. As all things are transient, only God remains eternal. Therefore, Lārî’s assumes that faith and the pursuit of knowledge are inseparable: the pursuit of wisdom should be guided by faith, while faith should be enriched by the pursuit of knowledge. This combination enables the historian to gain clearer insights and a deeper understanding of past events.

Lārī believes that history constitutes a reservoir of knowledge about the past, valuable for its potential to inform and improve the future. His book focuses on preserving the accomplishments of individuals who have made noteworthy contributions to various fields of knowledge and the arts. Consequently, he views the study of history as a means of remembering those who have preceded us and ensuring that their legacy is not forgotten. By documenting their achievements, we can ensure that their wisdom is passed on to future generations. Lārî sees history as a bridge between the past and the present, connecting us to the knowledge of our ancestors and guiding us toward a more promising future.

The idea that human knowledge has boundaries is firmly established in Islamic scholarship. According to Islamic theology, while human beings possess the ability to acquire knowledge and understand the world, there are inherent limitations to our intellectual capacities. Consequently, Islamic scholars have developed a discipline known as ‘ilm al-kalam (Arab. The Science of Islamic Theology), which explores the limits of human reason in understanding nature and the universe. Islamic theology acknowledges the significance of the human intellect in understanding God’s creation but recognizes that knowledge is always incomplete and fallible. While Lārî accepted this assumption, the conclusions he derived from it differed from those of his contemporaneous scholars.

According to Lārî, only a historian who recognizes the limits of knowledge can appreciate the transience of human existence. Lārî was convinced that all aspects of lifebe it individuals, societies, and civilizationshave a beginning and an end. Only God, as the ultimate source of existence, transcends these limitations, being the sole eternal being. Thus, Lārî was convinced that past events reflect God’s will: with human actions having an impact, but the course of history ultimately determined by a Supreme Power. Recognizing the transience of human existence is a necessary attribute of a wise and knowledgeable historian, who should approach their work with humility and reverence. However, Lārî does not conclude that historians should abstain from studying the actions of individuals and communities. Instead, he believes historians should be aware of the larger forces at work in the world. This perspective encourages the historian to focus on the bigger picture and not become entangled in the minutiae of human history.

Lārî stresses the importance of studying history, claiming that its existence stretches back to the beginning of time. Therefore, the study of history is not merely a human endeavor: God Himself reminds the Prophet Muhammad of past events, underlining the divine significance of historical control over the destiny of life. Lārî asserts that individuals who pursue truth and demonstrate wisdom are the most content in both their worldly and eternal lives. The people who study history gain valuable insights into past actions and their outcomes, enabling them to make conscious choices between positive and negative choices. Thus, Lārî argues that history is a propaedeutic knowledge—a discipline that equips individuals to learn from the past and make wise choices about the present and the future.

Lārî explains the paramount importance of knowledge and learning by quoting a Qur’anic verse that states: So ask those who know, if you don’t know.” This reference underlines the crucial role of scholars in disseminating information and facilitating the acquisition of knowledge. According to Lārî, a historian’s defining characteristic is their ability to preserve the virtues and attributes of significant individuals throughout history. Historical accounts enable people to learn about the lives of great individuals, their virtues and vices, and the impact they had on their society and the world. By chronicling these figures, historians ensure that their names and achievements are commemorated to educate and guide future generations. Lārî further asserts that this emphasis on preserving knowledge is vital for good governance, and he emphasizes the pivotal role of historians in documenting and providing insight into the past. Thus, the expertise and knowledge of historians are indispensable to political leaders in their decision-making process.

Throughout Mir’atü’l-advâr, Lārî emphasizes the importance of historical awareness for monarchs and rulers. In his view, knowledge of the past allows rulers to draw lessons from history and improve their future decisions and policies. For this reason, he explicitly states that the intended audience for his book is high-ranking individuals, such as sultans and monarchs. Lārî’s use of specialized language and writing style reflects his belief that historical knowledge is the exclusive domain of the educated elite, who are best equipped to understand and utilize its insights. His book was intended to advise and instruct the Ottoman political elite.

Lārî’s emphasis on the importance of historical awareness for those in power reflects the broader belief in Islamic theology that history is a potent tool for the ethical and political guidance of society. This perspective stems from the belief that history provides lessons and examples to guide moral and political behaviors. Consequently, Lārî perceives the study of history as an essential component of the education of those who aspire to positions of power and influence. Equipped with historical awareness, they are better positioned to make informed decisions and develop strategies for the future governance of their state. The political elite must possess a comprehensive understanding of the past to remain vigilant in the face of dangers and challenges.

Lārî believed that historical awareness was critical to the survival and prosperity of a state. However, in this perspective, knowledge of history was not for everyone. He perceived history as belonging solely to an elite class of people entrusted with the ethical and political guidance of society. His book viewed history as an archive of learning through which societies could review past experiences and make present and future choices. Nevertheless, only high officials and those in positions of power would be making these choices, making history, as Lārî understood it, reserved for the elite.

Lārî’s focus on appealing to leaders and rulers highlights the value of patronage in the intellectual and literary life of the Ottoman Empire. After all, it was no coincidence that he dedicated his book to Sultan Selim II. When Hoca Sa’deddin translated Mir’atü’l-advâr into Ottoman Turkish, the work received high praise from the Ottoman political elite. According to Turkish historian Baki Tezcan, Hoca Sa’deddin’s career as both a historian and a prominent figure in Ottoman politics was initiated through this translation, after he was appointed as the tutor of Prince Murad (later Murad III) in 1573. Despite Lārî having passed away before his book gained widespread popularity, the intellectual legacy of his work endured long after his passing.

Lārî’s book played a vital role in shaping historical understanding within the sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire. Mir’atü’l-advâr stands out as a remarkable work of world history, distinguished by its original insights into the significance of historical awareness for theology, politics, and society. Lārî’s sophisticated grasp of the complexities involved in writing history renders Mir’atü’l-advâr a monument to the advancement and depth of early modern Islamic historiography. Many of his arguments can still be used in contemporary discussions concerning the role of history in our understanding of the world around us.

Nilab Saeedi is a Ph.D. student in history at İbn Haldun University in Istanbul, Turkey. She also holds a research fellowship position at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her research interests encompass early modern Ottoman history, the intellectual heritage of Islamic scholars, and manuscript study. Fluent in several languages, including Turkish, English, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Uzbek, Hindi, and Urdu.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Osman Hamdi Bey, Islamic theologian with Koran, 1902. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.