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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Abba Eban (1915–2002) was an Israeli diplomat who served as Minister of Education and Culture (1960–1963), Deputy Prime Minister (1963–1966), and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1966–1974). From 1949 to 1959 he served as the first ambassador to the United Nations for the newly established State of Israel. The speech from which this selection is excerpted provided the Israeli view of the question of the Palestinian refugees.
Translation by Clifford R. Backman
Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483–1530) was born a prince of Fergana in Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), a region that had been conquered (briefly) by the army of Alexander the Great in the 320s BCE and more recently by Babur’s ancestor Timur-i Lang, or Tamerlane (r. 1370–1405). Driven from his homeland, Babur conquered neighboring kingdoms and moved south into Afghanistan, capturing Kabul in 1504. By 1519, he stepped up his raids into northern India, and his highly mobile, if vastly outnumbered, army defeated Sultan Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526. Victory at Panipat was followed by the conquest of the Lodi capital of Agra and further defeats of Hindu leaders in northern India. Babur’s dynasty would become known as the Mughals (from “Mongols”), but his legacy can also be gauged from the success of his memoirs, the Baburnama. Composed and reworked throughout his life, the Baburnama is the first true autobiography in Islamic literature, and it can be read for insights into his own character as well as the military tactics he employed on the battlefield.
The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, trans. and ed. Wheeler M. Thackston (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 328–329, 330, 331.
Composed in Akkadian and consisting of 480 lines distributed over four tablets, this poem is a protest against one man’s undeserved suffering. The author is tormented but cannot determine the cause, and he feels that the god Marduk is not responding adequately to his lamentation. Because he has always been faithful to his god and assiduous in his worship, the Sufferer begins to speculate that the gods are not concerned with human pain at all. Even more, they may engage in this sort of torment for their own benefit. The figure of the “Righteous Sufferer” is frequently compared to the Biblical figure Job. While this “Babylonian Job” is eventually delivered from his sufferings, perhaps his complaints linger on.
Nels M. Bailkey and Richard Lim, eds., Readings in Ancient History: Thought and Experience from Gilgamesh to St. Augustine, 6th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2002), 20–22.
A few months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in the spring of 2001, Taliban officials oversaw a series of explosions in the Bamiyan Valley, which deliberately detonated priceless elements of world heritage. Among the victims of this depredation were a set of enormous Buddha statues that had symbolized the unity of peoples in the region across religious lines. The two statues of Buddha (at 35 and 53 meters in height, one was the tallest Buddha in the world until its destruction) were rendered in a blended Hellenistic and South Asian style. Even after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, little has been done to restore the objects. (Left: an 1880 drawing showing how they originally appeared; right, what remained of the statues after their destruction.)
©SuperStock (drawing); ©Graciela Gonzalez Brigas (landscape)
A later student of Confucian doctrine, Master Meng (ca. 371–289 BCE) spread the teachings of the master, while also making his own distinctive contributions. Having traveled throughout China spreading Confucian ideals, particularly as a basis for governmental practice, Mencius composed a book that was in more of a narrative form than the Analects and was supplemented by stories, parables, and debates. He often used imagery drawn from the natural world and advocated the rulers’ involvement in cultivating a “well-field” system, both literally and metaphorically.
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), 60–61.
Although he is more famous for his voyages—and for the richly detailed accounts he made of them—Columbus (1451–1506) also composed a book of prophetic revelations toward the end of his life, entitled El Libro de las Profecias. Written after his third voyage to the Americas, the book traced the development of God’s plans for the end of the world, which could be hastened along, particularly by a swift and decisive move to reclaim Jerusalem from Muslim control. When Jerusalem was once more restored to Christian sovereignty, Columbus predicted, Jesus could return to earth, and all of the events foreseen in the New Testament book Apocalypse (and in various medieval revelations, as well) could unfold. It is helpful to place this religious conviction against the backdrop of Columbus’s plans for the original voyage in 1492, as he encourages Ferdinand and Isabella to take their rightful place in God’s mystical plan—as well as in Columbus’s own cartographic charts.
Christopher Columbus, The Book of Prophecies, ed. Roberto Rusconi, trans. Blair Sullivan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), vol. 3, 67–69, 75–77.
A diverse set of writings, the Upanishads were thought to convey secret knowledge and serve as the vedanta, or fulfillment, of the Vedic tradition. Among these documents are the Aranyakas (“forest books”), which may have been recited originally by hermits who had retreated to forests. Throughout the Upanishads one can see the full development of the principle of the joining of the individual self (atman, or “soul”) with the brahman, or “world soul”/ “soul essence.”
The Upanishads, vol. 2, trans. F. Max Müller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1884), 100–101 and 103–105.
This mound marks the grave of an adolescent boy from the “Maritime Archaic” people of Labrador. Roughly 7,500 years ago, his body was wrapped in a shroud of bark or hide and placed face down in the grave with his head facing to the west. At that point, a large mound of rocks was erected over his burial place.
Courtesy of Brian Bursey
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Florentine poet who bridged the artistic cultures of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. Dante’s approach to his poetry foreshadowed the Renaissance with his use of vernacular Italian rather than Latin, and his frequent allusion to classical Greek and Roman literature and history. However, his subject matter was typically Medieval; the Divine Comedy trilogy concerns questions of salvation and of humanity’s relationship with God. It is designed as an imagined explorations of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Paradise, set in the year 1300. Echoing some of the issues of the Investiture Controversy, Dante was also troubled with the church’s continued interest in secular matters, and the continued influence of secular leaders over the church. The following Canto from the first part of the Divine Comedy is about priests (especially popes) who bribed their way into office. To buy one’s office is the sin of simony, named for Simon Magus who in the New Testament Book of Acts attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Inferno of Dante Alghieri (London: JM Dent and Co. 1900)
Composed in Arabic and translated into Persian in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Chachnama details the Arab conquest of the Sind (a province corresponding to northwest India and Pakistan) in the eighth century. The work details the most successful of the many attempts by Muslims to conquer the region, which was led by Muhammad Ibn Qasim, a cousin of the governor of Iraq. In this history of the campaign, Ibn Qasim is both a conquering hero and a defender of Islam, subduing non-Muslims and imposing new religious values in his wake.
The Chachnamah: An Ancient History of Sind, trans. Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg, available online at http://persian.packhum.org/persian/main?url=pf%3Ffile%3D12701030%26ct%3D0.
When European Christian missionaries first came to Ming China, they made very little progress in converting the Chinese, in large part due to their limited training in Chinese language and culture. When he arrived in China in 1583, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) encouraged his followers to immerse themselves in the language and to become conversant with the rich traditions of Chinese literature. He also came to be respected by, and especially helpful to, the emperor, as he offered his expertise in the sciences and mathematics to the imperial court. With a European Jesuit (Adam Schall von Bell) as the official court astronomer to Kangxi, there were reports that the Emperor himself considered converting to Catholicism. Nevertheless, not every encounter between Chinese and Europeans went so smoothly, as the following anecdote from Ricci’s diary reveals.
Matthew Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Louis Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), 161–– 165.
Samuel Huntington (1927–2008) was an influential political scientist who taught for most of his career at Harvard University. He was the author of numerous books and articles on politics and government, including the Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil–Military Relations (1957) and The Political Order in Changing Societies (1968). The latter provided a critique of modernization theory, which had driven much of U.S. policy in the developing world in the prior decade. In Clash of Civilizations, which appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs, Huntington argues that the main drivers of history in this century will not be political or ideological, as they have been in the past, but civilizational. Conflict between civilizations will be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world.
From Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, pp. 209–18.