PowerPoint added: The Enlightenment in France

For Week 9 in my Western Civ course: The Enlightenment in France.

Previous files in the series:
voltaire-young1. Introduction.
2. The Renaissance Context.
3. England to the Glorious Revolution.
4. Justice and Modernizing the Law.
5. From Feudal to Modern Business and Economics.
6. The American Enlightenment.
7. The Battle for Women’s Liberty and Equality.
8. The Enlightenment.

Gannibal, “dark star of the Enlightenment”

Imagine that this is your life story:

You are born in Africa, possibly in Ethiopia or perhaps Chad, but as a child you are taken by Arab slavers and sold in Constantinople to the Sultan of Turkey, before long catching the eye of a Russian diplomat and spy, who acquires you and smuggles you out in order to send you to the Kremlim in Moscow as a gift to Peter the Great, who becomes your godfather and, impressed with your wit and obvious intelligence, has you given the best education, whereupon you grow up to be a first rate military engineer, being posted on campaigns from the Basque country to the Baltic (where you meet in Königsberg the then-mathematics tutor Immanuel Kant), along the way learning French (naturellement!) and studying mathematics, such that when you engage in further study in Paris, you charm not only the wives of noble women with your sexual charisma but meet and impress Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Leibniz as one of the few people in the world who is proficient at Newtonian mechanics and the new calculus, leading you to be nicknamed “dark star of the Enlightenment,” barnes-hugh-gannibalalthough when you return to Russia you run afoul of a power struggle after Peter the Great’s death and are exiled to a place in Siberia 4,000 miles east of St. Petersburg and near the then-Chinese border, though some years later you are pardoned and return to further exploits of military engineering for which you are rewarded with large estates of your own, meaning, in 18th-century Russia that you become a slave owner yourself because of the serfs who come with the land, and all is well except that your first wife hates you because it was an arranged marriage against her will and she has cheated on you, leading to a divorce and your marriage to a woman of noble Scandinavian and German origin, with whom you have ten children, one of which would become General-in-Chief, the second highest rank in imperial Russia’s military, and one of which would become the grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, thought by many to be the greatest of Russian poets.

Except that your story is real, your name is Abram Petrovich Gannibal, and your biography is well told by Hugh Barnes’s Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg.

According to Barnes, Peter the Great’s interest in the young Gannibal was both personal and social-reformer: “by educating the young Negro in a style befitting a prince, the tsar hoped to teach the nobility a lesson, ‘and to put Russians to shame by convincing them that out of every people and even from among wild men—such as Negroes, whom our civilized nations assign exclusively to the class of the slave—there can be formed men who, by dint of application, can obtain knowledge and learning, and thus become helpful to the monarch’” (p. 97).

gannibal-memorial-300x400Further, “[Peter] admired the African’s didactic spirit, and believed his formidable mathematical talents would unlock Russian potential: ‘Abram Gannibal furnished the most striking proof of the injustice of that odious prejudice which assigns to the Negro race a reputation of intellectual and moral inferiority. He had immense spirit, a prodigious facility for study, and a rare capacity for mathematics and diverse branches of the human sciences, although mathematics always served as the science-mére. He was also blessed with a noble and elevated character and an incorruptible probity’” (p. 129).

Barnes’s Gannibal is well worth reading for a colorful, quintessentially Enlightenment-era life.

[The image is of a memorial bust of Gannibal in the province of Pskov, Russia.]

Herder on multicultural relativism

[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

Herder on multicultural relativism

herder-50x61Sometimes called the “German Rousseau,”[57] Johann Herder had studied philosophy and theology at Königsberg University. Kant was his professor of philosophy; and while at Königsberg Herder also became a disciple of Johann Hamann.

Herder is Kantian in his disdain for the intellect, though unlike the static and rigid Kant he adds a Hamannian activist and emotionalist component “I am not here to think,” Herder wrote, “but to be, feel, live!”[58]

Herder’s distinctiveness lies not in his epistemology but in his analysis of history and the destiny of humankind. What meaning, he asks, can we discern in history? Is there a plan or is it merely a random happening of chance events?

There is a plan.[59] History, Herder argues, is moved by a necessary dynamic development that pushes man progressively toward victory over nature. This necessary development culminates in the achievements of science, arts, and freedom. So far Herder is not original. Christianity held that God’s plan for the world gives a necessary dynamic to the development of history, that history is going somewhere. And the Enlightenment thinkers projected the victory of civilization over the brutish forces of nature.

But the Enlightenment thinkers had posited a universal human nature, and they had held that human reason could develop equally in all cultures. From this they inferred that all cultures eventually could achieve the same degree of progress, and that when that happened humans would eliminate all of the irrational superstitions and prejudices that had driven them apart, and that mankind would then achieve a cosmopolitan and peaceful liberal social order.[60]

Not so, says Herder. Instead, each Volk is a unique “family writ large.”[61] Each possesses a distinctive culture and is itself an organic community stretching backward and forward in time. Each has its own genius, its own special traits. And, necessarily, these cultures are opposed to each other. As each fulfills its own destiny, its unique developmental path will conflict with other cultures’ developmental paths.

Is this conflict wrong or bad? No. According to Herder, one cannot make such judgments. Judgments of good and bad are defined culturally and internally, in terms of each culture’s own goals and aspirations. Each culture’s standards originate and develop from its particular needs and circumstances, not from a universal set of principles; so, Herder concluded, “let us have no more generalizations about improvement.”[62] Herder thus insisted “on a strictly relativist interpretation of progress and human perfectibility.”[63] Accordingly, each culture can be judged only by its own standards. One cannot judge one culture from the perspective of another; one can only sympathetically immerse oneself in the other’s cultural manifestations and judge them on their own terms.

However, according to Herder, attempting to understand other cultures is not really a good idea. And attempting to incorporate other cultures’ elements into one’s own leads to the decay of one’s own culture: “The moment men start dwelling in wishful dreams of foreign lands from whence they seek hope and salvation they reveal the first symptoms of disease, of flatulence, of unhealthy opulence, of approaching death!”[64] To be vigorous, creative, and alive, Herder argued, one must avoid mixing one’s own culture with those of others, and instead steep oneself in one’s own culture and absorb it into oneself.

For the Germans, accordingly, given their cultural traditions, attempting to graft Enlightenment branches onto German stock has been and would always be a disaster. “Voltaire’s philosophy has spread, but mainly to the detriment of the world.”[65] The German is not suited for sophistication, liberalism, science, and so on, and so the German should stick to his local traditions, language, and sentiments. For the German, low culture is better than high culture; being unspoiled by books and learning is best. Scientific knowledge is artificial; instead Germans should be natural and rooted in the soil. For the German, the parable of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden is true: Don’t eat of that tree! Live! Don’t think! Don’t analyze!

Herder did not argue that the German way is the best and that it is justifiable for the Germans to become imperialistic and impose their culture upon others—that step was taken by his followers. He argued simply as a German in favor of the German people and urged them to go their own way, as opposed to following the Enlightenment.

Herder is relevant because of his enormous influence on the nationalist movements that were shortly to take off all over central and eastern Europe. He is also relevant to understanding how far from Enlightenment thinking the German Counter-Enlightenment was. If Kant is partially attracted to Enlightenment themes, Herder rejects those elements of Kant’s philosophy. While Herder is broadly Kantian epistemologically, he rejects Kant’s universalism: for Herder, how reason shapes and structures is culturally relative. And in contrast to Kant’s vision of an ultimately peaceful, cosmopolitan future, Herder projects a future of multicultural conflict. Thus, in the context of the German intellectual debate, one was offered a choice—Kant at the semi-Enlightenment end of the spectrum and Herder at the other.


[57] Barnard 1965, 18.

[58] In Berlin 1980, 14.

[59] Herder 1774, 188.

[60] Herder 1774, 187.

[61] In Barnard 1965, 54.

[62] Herder 1774, 205.

[63] Barnard 1965, 136.

[64] Herder 1774, 187.

[65] Herder 1769, 95; see also 102.


[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

Worth Reading for November 2007

11/30 Why were Enron’s Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling convicted? Professor Larry Ribstein argues that no one seems to know for sure.

11/29 Eyal Mozes investigates: Is there a rational basis for determinism? And in Spiked, Stuart Derbyshire surveys the state of brain science and free will and argues that we’re no slaves of our senses.

11/28 The New York Times reports on further progress for women in India. (Thanks to Virginia for the link.)
Prospect magazine has this fascinating overview (statist assumptions aside) of India’s under-achieving middle class. Philosopher Stone has a post with links about India and Ayn Rand. And thanks to my friend Bill, I’ve been watching Bollywood movies this year—let me recommend Guru (“a villager, Gurukant Desai, arrives in Bombay 1958, and rises from its streets to become the GURU, the biggest tycoon in Indian history”), Lagaan (“the people of a small village in Victorian India stake their future on a game of cricket against their ruthless British rulers”), and Veer-Zaara (“the story of the love between Veer Pratap Singh, an Indian, and Zaara Hayaat Khan, a Pakistani”).

11/27 A sad case study in far-left educational culture: Charlotte Allen explains Who killed Antioch College. (Thanks to Charles for the link.) On financial accountability in higher education: Ward Connerly looks at the factors. And Yale professor Anthony Kronman reminds those of us in higher education Why We Are Here.

11/26 A brief look at the social skills of the new generation of entrepreneurs. Here is an overview of Dietrich Doerner’s work on failure. The BusinessPundit on the one book every executive should read. And some useful advice to young entrepreneurs from a young entrepreneur.

11/20 Three interesting conferences coming up next April: Objectivity in the Law at the University of Texas, Liberty Studies at the College of New Jersey, and the annual conference of the Association of Private Enterprise Education in Las Vegas. Update: And in February a Students for Liberty conference at Columbia University, featuring speakers David Boaz of Cato, Alan Kors of the University of Pennsylvania, and Will Thomas of The Atlas Society.

11/19 It’s getting better all the time. Graphically-presented data on average income in the USA along with several other progress-related charts and graphs. Here is a website devoted to improvement indicators. (Thanks to Anja for the link.) And why even the optimistic Star Trek series underestimates future potential.

11/17 Professor Tara Smith investigates: Why Originalism Won’t Die—Common Mistakes in Competing Theories of Judicial Interpretation. (Thanks to Richard for the link.)

11/16 “In 1993, over a million saiga antelopes roamed the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan. Today, fewer than 30,000 remain, most of them females.” Unintended consequences meet the tragedy of the commons, as Tyler Cowen explains.

11/12 Sawse has twenty-five photographs taken at precisely the right time.

11/11 Reflecting on Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Lester Hunt makes some shrewd observations about the moral psychology of cynicism, socialism, and nihilism. And John Palmer, the EclectEcon, has a datum on the European left’s deep crisis.

11/10 The bedbugs are back. Yet another thing to thank Rachel Carson for. Or not.

11/8 This Friday’s Free Kareem rallies. And while a relatively liberal young man languishes in jail, here is a classic piece explaining the attraction of intellectual-lightweight entertainment superstars to heavyweight-murderous political thugs: Humberto Fontova considers the case of Che.

11/7 In The New York Times, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has a closer look at health care comparison numbers. Johan Norberg is also looking at the number of uninsured Americans. Philosopher Stone has a good round-up of links on the economics and politics of healthcare. Meanwhile, John Enright wonders what life-saving information we should suppress next. And Tom Kirkendell reminds us of an important anniversary: 30 years of angioplasty.

11/6 Overcoming the destructive eras in our history. An important history lesson by Shelby Steele on the legacy of Little Rock. Some pictorial evidence relevant to the question: to what extent were the Nazis Christian? And here’s an essay on the Regressives—or rather, the so-called Progressives in American history. Professor David Mayer has also written wisely on the reactionary progressives.

11/5 Laocoön Art historian Lynn Catterson speculates on the Laocoön scuplture: Hellenistic masterpiece or Michelangelo’s brilliant ploy? More on the hypothesis here—though would “forgery” be the right word? Meanwhile, classicist Mary Beard plays hooky to visit the Laocoön exhibition in Rome.

11/4 Cato’s David Boaz argues that on balance we are freer than at many points in our past (PDF format). Here is a stellar line-up of back issues of Cato’s Letter. By contrast, it’s election year in Saskatchewan, the resource-rich and socialism-poor Canadian province. The contrast to its neighbor Alberta is instructive. And even worse: Meghan Cox Gurdon puts some of our domestic rhetoric in perspective.

11/3 Where is Voltaire when you need him? John Leo wonders who will stand up for free speech on campus. Here is one university committed to brainwashing students with false and destructive messages. (Thanks to Johann for the link.) And David Thompson comments on the right not to be offended. Update: The FIRE reports that the University of Delaware has dropped its obnoxious indoctrination plans.

11/2 Ayn Rand in Latin America, with these follow-up interviews with Alex Chafuen, Giancarlo Ibargüen, and Juan Fernando Carpio. Harry Binswanger’s useful The Ayn Rand Lexicon is now free online. (Thanks to Anja for the link.) And YouTube user DJ Lorenzen has Ayn Rand on audio.

11/1 Trends of the times: A short interview in The Globe and Mail with the always-observant Grant McCracken, a summary look at IRS tax data, more data on badly misplaced priorities in the drug war and the fight against crime (thanks to Virginia for the link), and evidence that being a cop just keeps getting more difficult.

Worth Reading for March 2006

3/31 Being a Brief Guide to Religious Denominations in America:

A Baptist is a man who got saved.

A Methodist is a Baptist who got shoes.

A Congregationalist is a Methodist who moved to town.

A Presbyterian is a Congregationalist who got rich.

An Episcopalian is a Presbyterian who ran for public office.

(Author unknown.)

3/30 In the Chronicle, Diane Ravitch has a short history of the College Boards and SAT—and a suggestion that we revive the College Boards.

3/29 An extended interview with Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng, who was imprisoned by the communist Chinese for twenty years. And here’s an interesting, briefer interview with Shelby Steele, author of the new classic The Content of Our Character.

3/28 Professor David Mayer argues that political “progressives” are anything but that.

3/27 Do you recall the (now-debunked) claim that 500 scientists had signed a letter opposing evolution and supporting “Intelligent Design”? Here’s a snappy comeback: the Alliance for Science has published a letter with the signatures of 10,000 members of the clergy who support evolution. And here is a troubling item: some public school districts in Arkansas prohibit teachers from mentioning evolution.

3/25 Collectivism and human rights: Disabled newborns are killed in North Korea, says a defector. Here is a musical based on an unlikely theme: North Korean concentration camps. (Thanks to Karen for the link.) A picture that is worth one-hundred-thousand words: North Korea is dark. And R. J. Rummel has this summary overview of the horror that is living in North Korea.

3/24 In Wired, Will Wright, creator of The Sims, argues that video games build “creativity, community, self-esteem, problem-solving” skills. Not to mention that growing up on video games means you can kick tail on the real battlefield.

3/23 Political philosopher Tibor Machan takes the editors of a recent book on business ethics to task for a package-deal besmirching of libertarianism. And economist George Reisman places the blame for higher oil prices on those who help prop up the Middle Eastern cartel—including the U.S. Senate.

3/22 Is it teaching-versus-research in higher education? Professor Jonathan Zimmerman argues that it is time to give teaching more weight. Or is it athletics-versus-education at some state universities? Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman is fed up with the University of Colorado. And here is an example of the education bureaucrat mindset in action. (Via John Enright.)

3/21 Fascinating: a study released in 2005 by Shanghai Jiao Tong University: The Top 100 Universities in the World. The global-distribution patterns are striking: Of the top 10 in the world—8 are in North America, and 2 are in Europe. Of the top 30 universities—23 are in North America, 5 are in Europe, and 2 are in Asia. Of the top 50 universities—39 are in North America, 9 are in Europe, and 2 are in Asia.

3/20 Fortune magazine has a list of 10 cool colleges for entrepreneurs. I especially like the University of Rochester’s idea of integrating entrepreneurship across the curriculum rather than having it located only in the business department. And Forbes has a great list: The Twenty Most Important Tools Ever. (Thanks to Roger for the link.)

3/19 Art insight: painter Michael Newberry explains and illustrates triangulation of light and color.

3/18 Aesthetics—from beauty to edginess: Donald Pittenger begins a chronicle on the decline and fall of the classical face.

3/17 Professor Margaret Soltan suggests that the professor-as-intellectual is obsolete and asks a dangerous question: Do sabbaticals create more value than they cost?

3/16 Fruits of the Enlightenment: Researchers have restored the vision of mice blinded by brain damage. And scientists have harvested stem cells from menstrual blood.

3/15 Bjørn Stærk requests that we translate Shakespeare into English.

3/14 With March Madness upon us, Neal McCluskey takes on the morality of taxpayer money and public university sports programs. (Via University Diaries.)

3/13 Why are there so many unhappy endings in great literature? And how can we change that? Ben Macintyre shows us how To Cuddle a Mockingbird.

3/11 Has another Michelangelo fresco been authenticated? And here is a site with some good quality images of Leonardo da Vinci sketches.

3/10 FIRE has announced its college speech code of the month.

3/9 When government schools fail, some of them turn to the private sector for help. On the other hand, as Mark Lerner reports, some failing government schools turn to yet more centralized, top-down control.

3/8 Simply excellent: Dr. Wafa Sultan on Al Jazeera television. Joshua Zader also has the link and some key quotations from the talk. And R. J. Rummel has the text of a widely-distributed letter written by Major General Vernon Chong, Command Surgeon, Headquarters U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany. Update: Here is a follow-up article on Waha Sultan and her outstanding interview. (Thanks to Karen for the Sultan links.)

3/7 In the new Cato Unbound, philosopher David Schmidtz asks: When does inequality actually make a difference?

3/6 Breath-taking photographs of aurora phenomena. And is Jupiter developing a new red spot?

3/4 In the Literary Encyclopedia, Ashland University’s John Lewis states that “Ayn Rand wrote the most intellectually challenging fiction of her generation” and provides an introduction to the themes of Rand’s novels. Grant Schulyer opines about the state of the debate about Ayn Rand’s literary and philosophical significance. In a talk to SLIS, doctoral student Robert White gives an overview of Ayn Rand’s thought and significance. And if your German is up to it, check out Kapitalismus-Magazin, Freie Radikale—Das Blog der deutsch- sprachigen Objektivisten, and Objektivismus. Update: George Reisman takes Robert Mayhew to task for altering Ayn Rand’s wording in a newly-published volume of her Q & A.

3/3 For researchers and admirers of the Enlightenment: Electronic Enlightenment, a developing site with texts and correspondence of over 3,800 eighteenth-century figures. Check out also the Voltaire Foundation, the force behind Electronic Enlightenment.

3/2 In The New York Times, Dr. Brian Day on Canada’s socialized medical system: “This is a country in which dogs can get a hip replacement in under a week and in which humans can wait two to three years.” Worth reading again is Mark Steyn’s review of a Canadian film, The Barbarian Invasions. And at Division of Labour, Frank Stephenson follows up on the issue of how much high medical bills contribute to personal bankruptcies in the USA.

3/1 At San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a set of science experiments anyone can do. And Australian scientists have grown a prostate gland from stem cells.