Intellectual history Think Piece

On Walter Benjamin’s Concept of History

By Dibyokamal Mitra

Among the various cudgels raised against the notions of empiricist history, Enlightenment rationality, and civilizational progress in the last century, Walter Benjamin’s particular intervention stands apart for its methodology, scope of critique, and poetical character. While it is true that the prestige accorded to the influential Rankean notion of “wie es eigentlichgewesen” (“as it actually was”) has been seriously questioned from several intellectual quarters, the basic underlying philosophical assumptions of the Rankean doctrine usually make a reappearance in disguise in the arguments of even its strongest detractors. To illustrate this and better prepare the ground for appreciating Benjamin’s distance from other mainstream thinkers of history, it would be instructive to briefly consider the work of the influential Marxist historian E. H. Carr in his seminal work What is History?

Originating as a series of lectures delivered by Carr at the University of Cambridge in 1961, What is History? has become a modern classic and serves as a ready reference for most undergraduate students of history looking to cut their teeth on the philosophical questions of facticity and causality which face the professional historian. In the widely-read first chapter, “The Historian and His Facts,” Carr seems to mark his distance from the Rankean, “empiricist” notion that historical facts are simply “out there” and it is the task of the professional historian to gather these facts as carefully and exhaustively as possible. For Carr, such a disposition neglects the subjective element of history writing since the historian always chooses which fact is worthy enough to be elevated to the category of the historical; thus history writing is not simply an objective affair concerned with the correct ordering and subsequent narration of facts. This leads to the famous closing lines of the opening chapter where history is seen as “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”

            On the face of it, this seems like a departure from the empirical notion of history writing. Carr follows this up with a similar pronouncement on causality. Just like the objective fact is not simply “out there”, neither is the objective cause and “the relation of the historian to his causes has the same dual and reciprocal character as the relation of the historian to his facts.”

To take our final reference to Carr, in his chapter on the notion of progress in history, he ties his flag firmly to the mast of progress, declaring his preference for a “constructive outlook over the past” without which history writing lapses into either myth or cynicism. Carr’s idea of progress is an infinite one, one that necessarily takes place in history. According to Carr, those who eschew this idea of progress must take an inevitable detour into either the extra-historical logic of eschatology where the “meaning” of history is decided in advance (myth) or the “senseless” position of literature where history writing can be conceived of as mere tales and legends with no actual bearing on the past, present or future (cynicism).

To sum up, Carr’s intervention into the debate regarding objectivity in history concerning facts and causes can be seen in his emphasis on the subjectivity of the process of history writing. One does not find “true” history in the facts and causes themselves, but to a certain extent one creates it in the act of writing. On the other hand, these facts and causes (however subjective they may be) must necessarily be framed through a narrative of infinite progress in order for it to be counted as history writing proper. Without this “proper” framing, we are left with either esoteric ramblings or writings which amount to amusing stories and not much else.

Benjamin’s critique of Rankean history (and even the history writing being produced under the name of Social Democracy) begins from this notion of progress, and the assumption behind this notion, viz., that one may narrate history only as a linear model of continuous improvement, however unreachable its final point may be. An oft-quoted line from his last major work, “On the Concept of History”: “The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the concept of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself.”

It is this question of time which most sharply distinguishes Benjamin from other thinkers and writers on history, and the point where he draws his distance from the idea of historicism as a whole. For a historicist time is empty; it does not have weight and it can be parcelled into periods and epochs. For Benjamin, the task of the historian cannot be to simply record and express (whether objectively or subjectively) facts and causes which explain how things come to be the way they are. To do this is to already legitimize the way that things stand as they do in the present moment, and amounts to a dereliction of duty on part of the historical materialist. To better flesh out the role of the historical materialist (to be distinguished from the mere historicist), Benjamin uses the term Jetztzeit (literally “Now-Time”, translated here as ‘here-and-now’) to describe his conception of historical time. To take an example from “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin writes: “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now [Jetztzeit]. For Robespierre, Roman antiquity was a past charged with the here-and-now, which he exploded out of the continuum of history. The French revolution thought of itself as a latter day Rome. […] It is the tiger’s leap into that which has gone before.”

This is not a very usual way of thinking about history. Why, for instance does one need to take a “tiger’s leap into the past”, and what does it even mean? The first point to be noted here is that the past for Benjamin is never simply the past; and for the revolutionary, artist or historical materialist, the present or the now (“Jetz”) must be read into the past. This process seems quite at odds with the usual methodology of the historicist whose task is rather to trace as accurately and objectively as possible how the past has morphed into the present due to various political, economic or social reasons. Benjamin’s historical materialist will not be satisfied with such a procedure, and instead will select an event from history which only receives its proper place once it has been exploded out of the continuum of history with the aid of the present.

Another way to conceptualize this notion of time is to consider Benjamin the historian of breaks; not of continuity. E. H. Carr posits that only an insane mind would believe that the infinite line of progress is without breaks and deviations, and that for a sane mind even the sharpest deviations and regressions would not necessarily disrupt the eventual progression of history. For Benjamin, radical change (or revolution) can only occur when the forward-moving train of progress is derailed with the help of the past. The notion of derailment, stopping, and ceasing is not a mere ornamental part of Benjamin’s edifice, it refers to the subjective position of the historical materialist and also describes the methodology employed by them.

For the historical materialist, history is written from the present, but not the flowing present. Benjamin’s notion of historical time originates from the present, and Benjamin uses the word Stillstellung (literally, “quiet-position” and figuratively more commonly used to refer to an interruption in a machinic process) to refer to the subjective position from which the historical materialist operates. In the words of Benjamin: “The historical materialist cannot do without the concept of a present which is not a transition, in which time originates and has come to a standstill. For this concept defines precisely the present in which he writes history for his person. Historicism depicts the ‘eternal’ picture of the past; the historical materialist, an experience with it, which stands alone.”

            Two observations must be made here: Firstly, that history-writing for the historical materialist is not an affair which has any pretentions of “universal history” or objectivity. Secondly, this non-objective history where the subjectivity of the historian is at stake can only be written if the present and a particular epoch in the past are “short-circuited” without care towards the supposed “progress” that has been made in the intervening period. This notion of the present can only be made operational if its additive, empirical and historicist character can be brought to a halt. To quote Benjamin:

Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time. The materialist writing of history for its part is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts but also their zero-hour [Stillstellung]. Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions, there it yields a shock to the same, through which it crystallizes as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad.

Thus, to stop the incessant, “homogenous” flow of time necessary to sustain the narrative of empiricist or historicist modes of writing is a productive endeavour for Benjamin. Once the present is not conceptualised as an inevitable outcome of the past, it is free to interact with a particular epoch from the past, whose pressure weighs down on the present as part of its Jetztzeit. The Benjaminian wager here is that the revolutionary hope or chance already is hanging over the present. While Carr sees any non-linear, non-cynical and non-progressive view of history as necessarily belonging to the mythical and eschatological, Benjamin charges this very notion of history as continually changing, progressing and moving forward in a straight line to be highly ideological, and serving the interests of the ruling classes.

            It must be clarified that the subjectivity of the historical materialist does not consist in freely choosing which epoch from the past they shall short-circuit the present with. The Benjaminian present is always shot through with splinters of what Benjamin calls “messianic time”. The subjectivity of the historical materialist consists of being able to stop the flow of homogenous and empty time so that every moment becomes one where a revolutionary situation might emerge. Benjamin would go on to say that for Jews looking into the future was forbidden, and the Torah and prayers would instead instruct them in the ways of remembrance and that which returned. What this did was that it prevented the future from becoming an empty one waiting to be filled with infinite, additive phenomena. Instead, it could be experienced as one where the Messiah might enter at any moment.

            To conclude, where does Benjamin stand with respect to most mainstream theorisations of history, and why is it worth studying him today? Benjamin’s characterisation of inevitable and infinite historical progress as ideologically subservient to ruling-class ideology, rejection of historicism and empiricism as valid pathways towards generating historical knowledge, and acceptance of a “messianic time” over the empty, homogenous time of mainstream history put him at odds with almost all liberal, conservative or socialist historians working in the field today.

            As to the question of why it is worth engaging with his ideas on history today, it is worth mentioning that the current upsurge in far-Right ideology globally is at its greatest peak since the Second World War. Few theorists have studied Fascism with greater sophistication and from closer proximity than Walter Benjamin. To end with his words:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Dibyokamal Mitra is a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, with interests in psychoanalysis, modernism and the history of ideas. He is also a practising musician and a psychoanalyst-in-formation in the Lacanian orientation.

Edited by Rajosmita Roy.

Featured Image: Sculpture by D’Argenta, based on Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.


Announcing the JHI’s 2022 Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize Winner

Every year, the Journal of the History of Ideas awards the Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history. 

The winner of the 2022 prize is Nathan Vedal, for The Culture of Language in Ming China: Sound, Script, and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge, published by Columbia University Press.

The judging committee offers this statement about the book:

This year’s winner of the Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize is Nathan Vedal for his book The Culture of Language in Ming China: Sound, Script, and the Redefinition of Boundaries of Knowledge, published in 2022 by Columbia University Press. Recent years have witnessed a close reexamination of the early modern history of Chinese philology, to which Vedal’s volume makes an extraordinary contribution. Based on sources, primary and secondary, in a plethora of languages, Vedal draws attention to the distinctive work of Chinese scholars in the latter part of the Ming dynasty, drawing on work in the fields of the history of science, comparative linguistics, music, cosmology, and more. While studies of the Chinese language have blossomed in recent years, Vedal’s work stands out for its great breadth and depth, attending to a multitude of better- and lesser-known scholars, and the unexpected connections at play in their theories of language.

Nathan Vedal is an assistant professor in the department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.

Honorable mention for the 2022 prize goes to Mackenzie Cooley for The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance (University of Chicago Press).

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.

Think Piece

Wolves of Rome: The Lupercalia from Roman and Comparative Perspectives

By Krešimir Vuković

What roles do animals play in ancient religions? What do Roman and Vedic religions and their rituals have in common? What is the role played by non-human animals in shaping this connection? Why is the wolf the symbol of Rome? How did the linguistic concept of “Indo-European” become entangled with racist ideologies?  These are just some of the questions which I discuss in my book where I conduct a comparative study that starts with the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia and ends with Vedic rituals and the ceremonies of Byzantium. 

Everyone knows the famous story about the she-wolf nursing the twins Romulus and Remus but this book delves deep into comparative religion and history to discover the distant origins of Roman wolf rituals in the steppes and river valleys of eastern Ukraine and southern Russia, the very area that is now contested in a bloody war.

The Roman festival of the Lupercalia is the central focus of the book. It was a rite of passage for young men of the equestrian order, an elite class of Roman citizens. The priests that carried out the ritual were called the Luperci, a word derived from the Latin lupus (wolf). After being initiated into the ritual, the young men ran around the centre of Rome almost completely naked and struck women with goatskin whips. The meaning of the ritual was not entirely clear to the Romans of the imperial period but the famous orator Cicero described it as a relic of primitivism, a wild custom that precedes civilisation and laws. The festival was celebrated from the beginnings of Rome down to the turbulent period of late antiquity when Pope Gelasius wrote an angry letter criticizing a carnivalesque version of the ritual staged by Gothic consuls (in 490s AD, a century after the official ban on the old religion by the Christian emperor Theodosius I).

The Lupercalia was a rite of reversal, a type of ritual in which normal regulations are suspended in favour of chaotic playfulness. However, none of the actions of the Luperci were accidental. The naked priests sacrificed dogs and goats, smeared themselves with oil and drank wine. They served Faunus, a chthonic divinity of animals and they belonged to the elite order of equestrians, the original cavalry of ancient Rome. All these actions stand in sharp contrast to the prohibitions that bind the flamen Dialis, the priest of Jupiter, who must never be completely naked, must never name or touch a dog, a goat or a horse, must avoid intoxicants and all fermented stuff, and must never apply oil to his body. The series of contrast between the two priestly orders points to an ancient system that was deliberately devised in a structural fashion. Moreover, the prohibitions that bind the Roman priest of Jupiter closely parallel the taboos placed upon the Vedic Brahmin (as discussed in Chapter 3).

The parallels between the Brahmin and flamen Dialis opens the framework of Indo-European comparison, a thorny political issue (examined in Chapter 4). The racist ideologies that have plagued Indo-European studies can be traced to imperialist tendencies of European scholars of the 19th and 20th century, from Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) to James George Frazer (1854-1941) and Georges Dumézil (1898-1986). However, one must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Indo-European is a concept that betrays colonial tendencies from its inception in British India but it remains a linguistic fact that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin are related. It is also a fact that this is a consequence of prehistoric migrations from the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia, i.e. the Pontic-Caspian steppes.

[Map showing scheme of Indo-European language dispersals from c. 4000 to 1000 BCE according to the widely held Kurgan hypothesis. – Center: Steppe cultures 1 (black): Anatolian languages (archaic PIE) 2 (black): Afanasievo culture (early PIE) 3 (black) Yamnaya culture expansion (Pontic-Caspian steppe, Danube Valley) (late PIE) 4A (black): Western Corded Ware 4B-C (blue & dark blue): Bell Beaker; adopted by Indo-European speakers 5A-B (red): Eastern Corded ware 5C (red): Sintashta (proto-Indo-Iranian) 6 (magenta): Andronovo 7A (purple): Indo-Aryans (Mittani) 7B (purple): Indo-Aryans (India) [NN] (dark yellow): proto-Balto-Slavic 8 (grey): Greek 9 (yellow):Iranians – [not drawn]: Armenian, expanding from western steppe.]

The migrations that took place in the third and second millennium BC are usually connected to the supposed technological superiority of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European culture, especially the use of chariots with spoked wheels. Horses played an essential role in the relatively fast advance of steppe migrants to new areas of Eurasia. However, the role of the wolf is usually not discussed in this respect.

Wolves are the most sociable land predators and can traverse thousands of miles on their migrations. They are extremely flexible and have adapted to a range of different environments, from the deserts of Arabia to hunting in the Pacific Ocean. Comparative religion shows that young men on the verge of adulthood identify with animal predators in rites of passage, as is the case in the Roman Lupercalia.   

The bold claim and the central thesis of this book is that the migrants who spoke dialects of Indo-European followed animals on their migrations that took them as far as northern India and western China in the east and Ireland in the west. The role of wolves in a number of ancient Italic rituals shows that the animal was central to the identity of young men who were the first to advance into new territories. A number of Italic peoples were named after wolves (or Mars, the warrior god of wolves) and the animal was the focus of a number of crucial rituals, such as the Lupercalia.

The horse plays a central role in a number of Vedic rituals, especially the Rājasūya and the Aśvamedha, the elite royal rites of investiture. The latter closely parallels the Roman rite of horse sacrifice, October Equus, indicating a shared origin in Indo-European migrations. In the wake of climate change that brought increased aridity to the Pontic-Capian steppes, the human migrants followed horses to capture new territories and imitated wolves in pursuit of plunder and cattle.

The modern distinction between wild and domesticated animals (which also appears in the ancient world) is insufficient as a heuristic model to explain the relationship between non-human and human animals in Indo-European migrations. The human animals of this time did not see their animals merely as objects of possession. They conceived them as companions, as animal kin (to use Donna Haraway’s term), related but distinct species. Human animals depended on non-human animals for everything from sustenance to trade and religion.

In the Vedas, the relationship between human and non-human animals is one of close dependency. Philippe Descola’s analogist theory provides a fruitful heuristic model for the place of animals in Vedic religion. Descola’s analogies closely match the Vedic associations called bandhu (‘connections’) that are used to connect different aspects of the cosmos. For example, the horse was the animal of the warrior class and royal animal par excellence. By analogy the horse is connected to the sun, the king in the sky. The sun rides in a chariot as does the king in the rituals of royal initiation. The analogy extends into the world of plants: the king is connected to the banyan tree: the tree’s rootedness in the Earth is compared to the way a king’s rule is grounded in the people.

It is notable that the ritual of royal investiture, the Rājasūya,invokes the powers of several non-human beings in order to facilitate the sovereign’s rule. In the anointing ceremony, the priests invoke the lustre of the Sun and the brilliance of fire on the new king. The tiger skin on which he stands gives him the strength of a predator, and the horse that he rides on the ability to raid cattle. After the raid, he puts on boar skin sandals to invoke fertility and establish a connection to the earth, from which all goods spring and which is the ground of his rule. He pays homage to Mother Earth, recognizing a super-entity that is beyond his powers. His hands are dipped into milk curds in order to restore his power and transfer the power of cattle to him. Finally, in the Sautrāmaṇī ritual of invigoration, the hairs of wild beasts (wolves, tigers, and lions) are offered to attain the qualities of wild beasts.

The connections of the analogical system point to an understanding of the world in which various human and non-human entities are interdependent. It is in this respect that we should also see the central place of the wolf in Roman mythology. According to Roman tradition, the twins Romulus and Remus established the ritual of the Lupercalia. The sons of Mars, Romulus and Remus, are divine but ferocious, and the she-wolf, the animal of Mars, nurses them with the milk of a beast. As young men, they become wolf-men, leaders of predatory groups of men in pursuit of plunder, and their aggressive behaviour infects their own relationship with bitter antagonism, culminating with the death of Remus. The polyvalent associations of the wolf as a symbol made an indelible mark on Roman identity. 

As Milinda Banerjee and Jelle Wouters argue, “we must recognize the interdependence between human and nonhuman that has always characterized non-capitalist life-worlds: think through multispecies communities.” This book is a call to reconsider our relationship with our animal kin as one of mutual dependency, not possession or mastery. The study of ancient religions has much to offer in this regard.

Krešimir Vuković holds a doctorate in Classics from the University of Oxford. He was Lecturer at Oxford’s Faculty of Classics, Rome Fellow of the British School at Rome and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at LMU Munich. He is strongly interested in environmental humanities and ecocriticism and ways in which they can provide valuable lessons in current global crises. He is currently Researcher at the University of Venice, NICHE, where he is studying the fluvial environment of the Venetian lagoon in late antiquity and writing a book entitled The Living Streams: Rivers as More-than-Human Entities in the Ancient World for the series Cambridge Elements in Environmental Humanities (Cambridge University Press).

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Roman Mosaic Depicting Lupercalia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Theory: The JHI Podcast Intellectual history

Merchants of Virtue: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Divya Cherian

In this latest episode of In Theory, Disha Karnad Jani interviews Divya Cherian, Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University, about her book, Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia, (University of California Press, 2022). 

Cherian’s book examines the central place of untouchability in the constitution of the Hindu subject, through a precise and wide-ranging study of the kingdom of Marwar in eighteenth century South Asia. Via disputes over access to temples, wells, hunting grounds, and other spaces, and through legal, courtly, religious, and other mechanisms, Cherian documents how the caste ideal shifted in Marwar over the course of the eighteenth century. She shows how the rise of merchants in the region and in the court ushered in dominant practices such as vegetarianism, chastity, and austerity. Set against the backdrop of sweeping global changes in state-making and trade networks, Cherian’s granular study of eighteenth-century Marwar shows how this process fashioned a new elite and destabilized social relations and longstanding ways of life in caste-oppressed communities. By tracing ideas and ideals through legal orders, court decrees, and everyday life, Cherian makes a powerful claim about the longevity and precarity of caste’s operation in precolonial South Asia, and in India today.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Research Training Group “World Politics” at Universität Bielefeld. Her current book project is an intellectual history of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937. She is the co-host of In Theory, the podcast of the JHI Blog. 

Featured Image: Jodhpur State (orange) within Rajputana (yellow), in the Imperial Gazetteer of India. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Think Piece

The last politeia?: A short(er) history of liberal democracy 

By Hugo Bonin

Democracy is a word that hardly comes alone nowadays. An ongoing project at the University of Canberra has listed more than 3500 adjectives. Some are quite straightforward: direct, global, local, representative, etc. Others, such as consociational or deliberative, are a bit more technical and will be familiar to political scientists mostly. A few are rather arcane: one wonders what exactly expresso or solvent democracy implies. One, however, that might not raise eyebrows at first is liberal democracy.

Since the beginning of the 2010s, this notion has become increasingly common, both in political discourses and academic circles. In countries with widely different relationships to the word ‘liberal’, such as France, the United Kingdom, and Canada, various calls to ‘claim’, ‘defend’, or ‘save’ ‘liberal democracy’ can be found. Major research institutions are funding projects into the ‘future of liberal democracy’, foundations are asked to pitch in, and parliaments are also looking into the question.

However, if we take a step back, this quasi unanimity around ‘liberal democracy’ can be puzzling. Especially since, from a conceptual point of view,  the notion is a bit oxymoronic. There is a tension between the (absolute) exercise of popular power implicit in democracy, and in liberalism’s goal of limiting the state’s power. Most political theorists of the 19th century clearly recognised this duality. Historically, liberals were quite wary of democracy’s ‘tyrannic’ tendencies, while for socialists and anarchists, fulfilling the democratic promise meant going beyond a limited state, usually in order to achieve social equality.

So if such tensions between liberalism and democracy were explicit, how do we explain the current popularity of ‘liberal democracy’? When—and how—were the two concepts reconciled? A few suspects come to mind immediately. Maybe, as argued by Duncan Bell, after 1918, with the twin rise of fascism and communism, ‘liberal democracy’ emerged to rally the United Kingdom, France, and the United States under a common banner. Or, more probably, in the midst of the 1950s, ‘the West’ took up the mantle of ‘liberal democracy’ against the ‘people’s democracies’ of the East? In this narrative, the victory of the former in 1989 signified ‘the end of history’ and the universalization of ‘Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’, as Francis Fukuyama famously put it.

Approaching the question with a perspective inspired by conceptual history yields a different picture. If we treat language ‘as an indicator and a factor of political reality’, we need to pay attention to the specific words used by past political actors as well as their intellectual context. As part of a larger ongoing project at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) analyzing political representation in a historical perspective, we have been studying the different redefinitions of ‘democracy’ since the 18th century, focusing especially on parliamentary debates—a type of source whose popularity in intellectual history is growing. Indeed, parliaments can be seen as nexuses, that is, spaces where competing power relations and discursive formations are expressed. With records going back to the 19th century for several European countries, they enable both long-term diachronic analysis and comparative synchronic studies. Of course, these sources have some biases and should be studied together with other corpora (newspapers, books, pamphlets etc.). Nonetheless, these debates being available through various interfaces means that methods and tools from digital humanities can be used, helping researchers to quantitatively back up their claims, while proving interpretations based on qualitative analysis and secondary literature.

As an example of the possibilities of this perspective, I chart below the course of ‘liberal democracy’ in France and the United Kingdom, two countries with very different intellectual traditions regarding liberalism, with two contrasting models of representative institutions, as well as distinct partisan configurations. Doing so helps me to shift the focus of both French and Anglophone histories of liberalism, as well as challenge previous interpretations on the story of ‘liberal democracy’. While I only deal with English and French here, a similar approach could be applied to a range of languages (and countries).

Investigating the uses of ‘démocratie libérale’ in France transforms the periodization from the get-go. During the Second Empire (1852-1870), especially in its ‘liberal moment’ of the 1860s, one can find the first attempt to fuse explicitly democratic and liberal principles. In a crucial period of self construction and tradition building for French liberalism, under the pen of figures such as Eugène Pelletan and Jules Simon, ‘démocratie libérale’ emerged as a way to defend freedom within the (allegedly democratic) Empire. But this early birth proved short-lived: during the Third Republic, the prevalence of a republican language within a parliamentary framework favored alternative notions. In Westminster, most of the uses of ‘liberal democracy’ before the 1920s actually refer to the Liberal party leading the democracy (as in the working-classes), in contrast to a ‘Tory democracy’ and thus has not much to do with contemporary understandings of the notion.

Looking at the 1920s and 1930s closely further complicates things. While there was an intense discussion of the ‘crisis of parliamentarism’, this was not particularly framed as a question of ‘liberal democracy’: in both British and French parliaments, representatives barely used the terms. The exception that confirms the rule is to be found in a few speeches of Winston Churchill, which did portray France and Britain as ‘the two surviving liberal democracies of the West’. In the public sphere, those who did talk of ‘liberal democracy’ were usually critical of it. Between 1918 and 1940, one of the French newspapers that wrote about ‘démocratie libérale’ the most was the royalist Action Française, and it was not to endorse it. In a similar fashion, the first British book to use ‘liberal democracy’ in its title is Claude W.H. Sutton’s Farewell to Rousseau: A Critique of Liberal-Democracy (1936), a Platonist and Nietzschean pamphlet in favor of an ‘Authoritarian Popular Aristocracy’. Thus, by the end of World War II, if ‘liberal democracy’ had been in use, its position was far from hegemonic within British or French political discourse.

Writing a conceptual history of democracy and liberalism after 1945 can seem like an impossible task. With a rise in transnational networks (from UNESCO to the Mont-Pelerin Society), the academization of certain disciplines (such as political science and sociology) as well as ideological fragmentation, the intellectual fogs are rather thick. This is where focusing on parliamentary debates is useful: they provide a compass, between high end theorists and mundane uses of concepts, which allow us to discern trends and ruptures.

In both the French and British parliament, ‘liberal democracy’ did gain traction in the 1950s, mostly in geopolitical discussions. Some references were made to the struggle between ‘oriental totalitarian Communism and the forces of Western liberal democracy’, but these types of antagonistic views proved rare. Rather, it is decolonization that proved crucial: ‘liberal democracy’ became something the newly independent States should strive towards (as Foreign Minister Pierre Mendès France recommended that Tunisia do so in 1954) or a legacy of colonialism (for Baron Strang ‘the rule of law, the heritage of a great literature, the freedom of the individual and an instinct for liberal democracy’ were amongst what the British left behind in India). 

Even outside of parliaments, ‘liberal democracy’ was not where we might expected it. For Jan-Werner Müller, fearful liberals such as Isaiah Berlin or Karl Popper focused on tolerance and moderation as central values, leaving democracy out of their investigations. Those who did not tended to be outside of anglophone circles. Jacob L. Talmon’s idea of a Rousseauist ‘totalitarian democracy’ was built in contrast to its liberal counterpart, but he left the latter unexplained. Raymond Aron might talk of ‘liberal democracy’, but tended to prefer his more technical ‘constitutional pluralist regimes’ in opposition to the monopolistic party regime. In the neoliberal constellation, the issue was clearly to ‘restrict the people’ in order to preserve the ‘free market’ but there was no embrace of ‘liberal democracy’. Even by 1965, Maurice Cranston’s A Glossary of Political Terms could avoid any use of the term, while deeming it necessary to include a separate entry on ‘People’s democracy’.

The following years saw a plethora of critiques, both theoretical and practical, of the ‘stable democracies’ of Europe and North America. While some activists saw the rise of ‘direct action’ as opposed to (representative) liberal democracy’, others, like C.B. Macpherson, hoped for a renewal of liberal democracy through more participation. By 1975, the famous Crisis of Democracy report, (while it did not mention ‘liberal democracy’ specifically), worried about a ‘democratic overload’ and problems of ‘governability’ in the West. In Westminster, Conservative Lord Monson shared similar concern about a ‘shift from Parliamentary to trade union power [which] has turned Britain into arguably the least free of the small group of liberal democracies’. In both parliaments, the transition of ‘liberal democracy’ from a geopolitical concern to a domestic category thus took place in the 1970s. As a reaction to the ‘spirit of ‘68’, parliamentarians were increasingly concerned by imposing limits on the reach of the State (especially in the economy) while channeling political energies. In France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing defended ‘an advanced liberal society’, while liberals launched a counteroffensive in the intellectual sphere.

The 1980s witnessed an explosion in the use of the notion. In Westminster, Lord Chalfont, a former Foreign Minister, would warn against external threats (‘totalitarianism’, international terrorism) but also internal menaces to liberal democracy such as ‘Marxists’, and ‘growing public expenditure’. In the National Assembly, Alain Madelin, a rising-star with ties to neoliberal networks, would use ‘liberal democracy’ to refuse any regulation on press conglomerates or to argue for constitutional restraints on majority rule. By the end of the 1980s, the notion finally found its way into textbooks. Philippe Bénéton’s Introduction à la politique moderne: Démocratie libérale et totalitarisme (1987) and Barry Holden’s Understanding Liberal Democracy (1988), while widely different, both took ‘liberal democracy’ as a basic category of political science. The intellectual reconfiguration went beyond academia: the Liberal-Democrats adopted their name in 1989, while Madelin would go on founding the party Démocratie libérale in 1997. More broadly, the ‘third wave of democratization’ saw the creation of a number of ‘liberal-democratic’ parties, especially in post-communist states.

By the 1990s, the whole 20th century was now read by scholars and politicians in the light of the struggle of ‘liberal democracy’ against competing forms of social organization. Both France, the United Kingdom, and countries outside ‘the West’ could simply (re)described as ‘liberal democracies’. Which usually meant a limited democracy, with guaranteed individual rights, a free market economy and an elected representative system. Broader than the ‘parliamentarism’ of the 1930s, less technical than the ‘constitutional-pluralistic regimes’ of the 1950s, more appealing than the critical epithet of ‘bourgeois democracy’, ‘liberal democracy’ became, to paraphrase Samuel Moyn, the last politeia, the ultimate form of human government. At least for two decades or so, since as stated in the introduction, it is now deemed in need of saving. 

What does this ‘short history of liberal democracy’ mean for us today? First, it shows that it is not the East-West antagonism itself that anchored the notion in political discourse, but rather the West’s ‘victory’ that recast the struggle in an opposition between liberal democracy and totalitarianism. It is not only that history is written by the victors: it is also conceptualized by them, with ideas that might have been foreign to their forebearers.

Second, it reminds us that most of the locutors of the notion have been more concerned by its ‘liberal’ element, and less so about its democratic credentials. Especially from the 1980s onwards, this meant limiting the state’s intervention in economic and social affairs, with little concern for the democratic credentials of such politics. From an example for postcolonial states to a model to be preserved from participatory pressures from below, ‘liberal democracy’ has increasingly turned into a geopolitical weapon and an ossified form with fewer and fewer supporters. Instead of the various calls to defend or protect it, one might rather ask which adjectives we need to add to democracy so that it can live up to its promises. 

Hugo Bonin is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, working on political representation. His work focuses on the theories, histories and practices of democracy in the so-called West. 

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: DreamStudio AI produced image of “liberal democracy”, courtesy of the author.