Jean Jaques Rosseau
François-Marie Arouet (who published under the pen name Voltaire) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were two of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Both somewhat cynical about the limits of human goodness, Voltaire, however, believed in progress only if the lower orders were firmly directed by a political and intellectual elite. For commoners—rural and urban alike—he had nothing but disdain. Voltaire was known for throwing literary punches and was imprisoned twice, beaten up by hired thugs, and spent several years in exile (in England) for his troubles. On his return he published his Philosophical Letters on the English (1733) which made him famous. Rousseau, apart from sharing a giant ego with Voltaire, was in every way his opposite. A commoner by birth, Rousseau came from Geneva and was almost entirely self-educated. Although he was a morally suspect misanthrope himself, in his writings he proposed that goodness is an inherent human capability. It is society that corrupts people, he believed, imposing false inequalities on them. In On the Origin of Inequality Rousseau discusses two types of inequality, natural (based on physical attributes) and moral (based on political or social circumstances). His main concern, however, is with the latter, what he calls civil society, which allows man to enslave man. Voltaire’s letter to Rousseau, acknowledging his essay, illustrates the former’s style and his flippant dismissal of Rousseau’s critique of civilization, suggesting that it made him want to “walk on all fours.”
From J. J. Rousseau, “A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.” In The Social Contract. Trans. G. D. H. Cole, Everyman’s ed. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., n.d., pp. 236–8.
In this excerpt from an article in The Atlantic Monthly (July 1919), the British Zionist Harry Sacher (1882–1971) explains to an American audience why the issue of a Jewish homeland is such a necessary part of the then-ongoing Paris Peace Talks, at the end of World War I.
Translation by Clifford R. Backman
From The Atlantic Monthly, July 1919
Born on the Golden Horn and raised in the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul, Çelebi traveled throughout Ottoman domains between 1640 and 1680. He published an account of his travels and experiences as the Seyahatname, or Book of Travels. In the first of his ten books in the document, Çelebi provides a lengthy description of Istanbul around the year 1638, including a panoramic view of 1,100 artisan and craft guilds. The numbers and diversity of trades represented underscore the extent of Ottoman commerce—as well as the pride of place each of the city’s working people claimed as their due.
Robert Dankoff, An Ottoman Mentality: The World of Evliya Çelebi, 2nd ed. (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2006), 86–89.
Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi
Born in Timbuktu in 1596, Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi wrote, in Arabic, a chronicle entitled Tarikh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan). The document addresses the political, cultural, and religious history of the Songhay state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it also offers detailed accounts of various states in the Niger River valley into al-Saadi’s own day. Al-Saadi was particularly interested in the impact of Islamic thought and culture on the African kingdoms, as the following excerpt demonstrates. The document was discovered by a German explorer in the 1850s during his visit to Timbuktu.
Abd al-Rahman al-Saadi, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, trans. John Hunwick (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 38–40.
The defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853–1856) convinced the newly enthroned Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) of the need for fundamental reforms in his country. The first institution he tackled was serfdom, and his Emancipation Edict (1861) ostensibly freed peasants from their bondage to the landowning aristocracy. Although the edict affected some 50 million serfs, it was not fully implemented. Peasants were not given land titles per se; the land was turned over to the control of local communities (mirs), which then allocated parcels to individual serfs. Moreover, they were forced to make annual payments to the government in the form of loans that would compensate the former landowners; the loan amounts were often higher than the dues aristocrats had demanded before emancipation.
Ibn Fadlan was a tenth-century Arab chronicler. In 921 C.E., the Caliph of Baghdad sent Ibn Fadlan on an embassy to the King of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga (present-day Russia). Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of his journey: the Risala. During the course of his journey, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, acting as traders in the Bulgar capital.
Smyser, H.M. "Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus with Some Commentary and Some Allusions to Beowulf." Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. eds. Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York University Press. 1925, pp. 92-119.
The Black Muslims (or the Nation of Islam) were founded by an orthodox Muslim immigrant to America, Wallace Fard Muhammad, in 1931, and made into a powerful movement by Elijah Muhammad. Historically and doctrinally distinct from Islam proper, Black Muslims believed that whites were innately evil and that it was necessary to live apart from them. They also condemned Christianity as a slave religion used to hold blacks in a submissive status and advocated discipline and self-reliance to overcome the demoralizing effect of unemployment, broken families, drug abuse, and white racism. Because of his personal charisma, powerful speaking ability, and organizational talents, Malcolm X (1925-1965) rose quickly in the leadership of the Nation of Islam and was appointed to lead the important Harlem mosque in New York City. But following a trip to Mecca in 1964, he broke with the Nation of Islam and modified his views on whites and separatism, stating that he could now envision the possibility of a world brotherhood. While addressing a crowd in a Harlem ballroom in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three Black Muslims who were angered by his defection from the Nation of Islam.
The selection included here comes from one of his 1964 speeches warning America that there will be trouble ahead if race issues are ignored. The historical context of the speech is important: the civil rights movement was approaching a climax and about to reach fruition in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislative avalanche. Moreover, the focus of American race relations was shifting from the apartheid-like system of the South to the urban ghettoes of the North, Midwest, and West, where unemployment and alienation were about to erupt in paroxysms of violence and rage in a series of riots known as the “long, hot summers” of 1964 and 1965. It is also important to note that the speech was made after Malcolm had separated from the Nation of Islam, and it explains why he made a distinction between his Islamic faith and his identity as a black nationalist.
Malcolm X, Address to a Meeting in New York, in Two Speeches by Malcolm X, ed. George Breitman, 7–21. Copyright © 1965 Pathfinder Press.
Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who has dominated Russian political life since 2000, delivered this remarkable oration after annexing the Crimea region from the nation of Ukraine in March 2014. This move came after a protest movement had driven the pro-Russian president of Ukraine out of office, and as tensions between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in the country had erupted into violence in several Ukrainian cities. Once a referendum was held in the Crimean Peninsula about whether to remain within Ukraine or to be united to Russia, Putin, believing that “the numbers speak for themselves,” authorized the annexation of the region as Russian territory. In this speech, justifying his country’s move against a fellow former Soviet Socialist Republic, Putin appealed to both recent and distant history—and, perhaps, signaled his further intentions for the future.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
The beginnings of German national identity were not political but rather cultural. Already in the eighteenth century, Germans had begun to react against the intellectual domination of the French Enlightenment and against the idea of a purely rational and universal definition of human nature. Instead, German thinkers began to develop the idea that humanity consists of different peoples (in German, Volk, people or folk) who share a common language, culture, and history. This idea was picked up on and carried forward by the Romantic movement, which emphasized emotion and particularity as opposed to the reason and universality of the Enlightenment.
Against this backdrop of growing German cultural self-identity, the military and political humiliation of the crushing Prussian defeat at Jena by Napoleon in 1806 flashed like a bolt of lightning. Prussia was forced to surrender all of its territory west of the Elbe River, and Napoleon even occupied Berlin. This defeat led to reforms of the feudal system in Prussia in 1807, not wholly unlike the changes in Japan after the Meiji Restoration. It also inspired one of the most important statements of German nationalism, a series of lectures delivered in Berlin in 1807–1808 by the most important German philosopher of the time, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814).
Despite his success as an academic philosopher, Fichte’s best-known work derived from a series of lectures inspired by the nationalist awakening he experienced as a result of Napoleon’s defeat and occupation of Prussia, the leading German state. He gave the lectures, entitled Addresses to the German Nation (1807), to raise morale and inspire patriotism among Germans.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation (1807–1808), trans. R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbull. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (1979): 3–4, 12–13, 15, 131, 132, 135–36, 138, 143–44, 145, 146–47, 151, 153, 223–24, 264, 266, 268.
A Catholic priest and writer, François Fénelon (1651–1715) was enlisted by the church to preach to French Protestants (Huguenots) in order to bring them back to orthodox belief. His bestseller work, The Adventures of Telemachus, adds to the story of the Odyssey (Document 4.1) by describing the travels of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Guiding Telemachus is his tutor, simply called Mentor (but later revealed as Diana, goddess of wisdom), who explains the tenets of a truly good society—one that abolished government, upheld the brotherhood of citizens, and looked back to ancient Greece as a model. Thus, Telemachus served as a fierce criticism of the rule of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France (1638–1715).
From François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus. Trans Dr. Hawkesworth. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1872, pp. 450–8.
The Papyrus Lansing is a letter of instruction from the royal scribe (and “chief overseer of the cattle of Amun-Re, King of Gods”) Nebmare-nakht to his apprentice Wenemdiamun. It seems to date from the reign of the pharaoh Senusret III (Sesostris III). The letter conveys a great deal of practical advice to an up-and-coming scribe—as well as warnings about what temptations he must avoid to be successful. While Nebmare-nakht is clearly proud of the status his work has earned him, he also illuminates the specific duties and responsibilities of a royal official in this period.
Translated by A. M. Blackman and T. E. Peet, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11 (1925): 284–298, as quoted by Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, 171–172.
Huysmans (1848–1907) was a French novelist and art critic and one of the early supporters of Impressionism. While he supported himself financially as a member of France’s civil service, living in Paris, he was able to retire in 1898 on the back of the success of his novel La Cathedral. As a novelist, Huysmans had a close association with Emile Zola and the “naturalists,” but later gravitated toward the “decadent” school of French literature, as illustrated by his novel Against the Grain. Huysmans’ discontent with modern life led him to search for a spiritual solution, culminating with his conversion to Catholicism. Against the Grain became his best-known work, its depiction of homosexuality making it a favorite of gay literature, but infamous in more conservative society. Both its style and is themes had an influence on the Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, and it was used as an exhibit in that writer’s trial. In this excerpt the protagonist, Des Esseintes, goes on an olfactory odyssey, mixing and experimenting with different aromas in a private perfumery.
From Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature. Trans. Margaret Mauldon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 101–2.
Abd al-Hamid, al-Ghazali
Born in 1058 to a family of spinners and sellers of wool in a small village in eastern Iran, Ghazali became one of the most prominent expounders of Islamic theology of his day. Traveling widely, from Persia to Baghdad to Damascus, he mastered a wide range of disciplines, and he energetically engaged in arguments with those he considered extremists. When he died in 1111, he left behind a series of treatises, many of them incorporating autobiographical material, particularly the discoveries he had himself made and was fully capable of defending.
Abū Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazzālī, The Alchemy of Happiness, trans. Claud Field (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1991), 6–7 and 11–13.
João José Reis
Although slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888, slave revolts were frequent and remarkable for their ambitions, success, and diversity of participating elements. Two urban revolts of the nineteenth century were especially significant. First, the Tailor’s Rebellion of 1798, in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, drew on the assistance of freedmen, people of mixed race, and even craftspeople of Spanish descent. The second was a Muslim-inspired and Muslim-directed uprising of slaves in Bahia in 1835, organized by African-born freedmen and slaves who had attained an Islamic education in West Africa before enslavement. This Muslim revolt is particularly fascinating because of the role of written documents, here deployed as protective amulets, among the members of the slave resistance. This excerpt from a book by a Brazilian scholar attempts to demonstrate the role of the written word in this rebellion, illustrating another, and less frequently recognized, “power” within historical documents.
João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Arthur Brakel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 99–103.
John Locke (1632–1704), the noted English philosopher, scientist, and political theorist, was one of the leading intellectuals of his age and one of the most influential architects of the modern western world. Like his French counterpart René Descartes, Locke came from a respected family and did well in school, directing his studies at Oxford University for a career as a physician. But Locke’s interests were much broader than medicine, and with the assistance of influential friends such as Lord Shaftesbury, he was appointed to a series of governmental positions following the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 that brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne. In his Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690), Locke argued against the Divine Right Theory and began to formulate and espouse a liberal political philosophy based on the notions of natural rights, limited government, and the legitimate right of people to rebel against tyranny.
But although Locke may be best known for his political theories, he was also deeply interested in epistemology and the ways in which people acquire knowledge. In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1690), Locke expressed frustration with overly abstract forms of thought, which he believed only yielded meaningless and futile discussions of truth and reality. Instead, Locke argued that all knowledge was based on data acquired by the dual process of sensory experience (what he called “sensation”) and subsequent mental thought and analysis (“reflection”). By stressing the importance of observation, the collection of evidence, and inductive reasoning, Locke defined a mode of inquiry called empiricism, which became the foundation for the scientific method so important to the discoveries and technological innovations of the modern world.
In the reading that follows, Locke carefully advances his new theory of human understanding. He begins with his statement of purpose, which he claims is to know and understand the limits of human knowledge. He then proceeds to explain his ideas of “sensation” and “reflection,” as well as his assertion that people are born lacking all innate ideas.
John Locke, The Works of John Locke, a New Edition, Corrected, Vol. 1 (London: Thomas Tegg, 1823): 1–2, 13, 82–84, 86–87, 90–91, 96–98, 99–103, 153–54.
The details of Confucius’s life are murky, especially given the chaos surrounding the declining Zhou period in the 490s and 480s BCE. It is important to take into account the impact of interstate conflict on Confucius’s philosophical insights. A commoner who was effectively shut out of power by the three noble clans of Lu, Confucius was eventually driven out and forced to wander among the other states, due to the resentment of this traditional aristocracy. Despite the resistance of warring aristocrats, Confucius advocated a new approach to government, in which respect for the weak, poor, and defenseless would form the basis for civil society.
Victor H. Mair, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin, eds., Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 48–49.
During both the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1556-1046 BCE; 1046-256 BCE) families, both noble and common, worshipped and sacrificed to their ancestors. These sacrifices were of the utmost importance and any neglect would bring about misfortune and calamity, since ancestors had the power to aid or punish their descendants.
The selections that follow are from the Books of Songs (the Shih Jing) the oldest collection of Chinese poems, dating to the 11th century BCE. The Book of Songs was one of the five definitive Confucian classics that formed the backbone of Chinese culture and education for centuries.
From The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Arthur Waley, trans. (London: Allen/Unwin, 1937).
When he became emperor in 1658, Aurangzeb attempted a radical “Islamification” of Mughal India, imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law and implementing reforms that he thought would benefit Muslims more than adherents of other religions. Repudiating his great-grandfather Akbar’s vision of religious transcendence and harmony, while Aurangzeb stopped short of forcible conversion, he offered incentives to non-Muslims to convert, destroyed many of their temples, and reimposed the hated jizya tax. This tax on Hindus had been abolished by Akbar in 1564, and its reinstatement by Aurangzeb in 1679 triggered mass protests and violent reactions from authorities in the many cities. Revolts among Sikhs and among Hindus left the Mughal Empire weakened and in decline by the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. An excerpt from his proscriptions is offered below.
In the aftermath of the Great War, the Allied nations compiled both regimental and general histories of the conflict. In these narratives, the experiences of the soldiers and their commanders are filtered through the ultimate outcomes—and attendant sufferings—inflicted by the war. The errors of judgment and planning made by commanders are preserved in these records, and are particularly significant to our understanding today of battles whose brutality and massive death tolls are still shocking. The contribution of ANZAC (the acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops to the campaigns at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles (April 1915–January 1916) against the Ottoman Turks is marked in the ANZAC countries as a solemn day of remembrance. In this excerpt from a multivolume narrative of the campaigns compiled by C. E. W. Bean, the casualty figures, and Bean’s reactions to the deployment of soldiers and the possible waste of war, are striking.
C. E. W. Bean, The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the Evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, 11th ed. (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1941), 743–745, 761–762, available online at http://www.awm.gov.au/histories/first_world_war/AWMOHWW1/AIF/Vol2/.
Ibn Wahab was an Arab merchant from Basra (Iraq) who sailed to China via the Indian Ocean around 872 CE. His travel account includes a description of his interview with the Chinese emperor. Wahab's visit at the height of the T'ang dynasty (618-907 CE), with its flourishing trade and efficient civil service, provides a first-hand account of China when its influence extended throughout all of Eurasia.
Fitzgerald, C.P. China: A Short Cultural History (London: Cresse Press, 1930), pp. 339-340.