Early Modern Philosophy and the Paradoxes of Cosmopolitanism


by Justin E. H. Smith

Cosmopolitanism is most closely associated with certain tendencies in Hellenistic philosophy. Diogenes the Cynic answered the question, “Where are you from?” by saying simply, “I am a kosmou polites– a citizen of the world” (DL 6.63).

Many scholars have noted the broad resemblances between this Cynic gesture, on the one hand, and, on the other, the various universalist, and therefore necessarily transnational, religious movements that appeared in the so-called Axial Age, not least Buddhism and Christianity. Both sought to establish the global validity of their central truth claims, and in so doing to break the historical link to a given culture. When Christ recommends that what is Caesar’s be rendered unto Caesar, while what is God’s be rendered unto God (Matthew 22:21), he is among other things delimiting two separate spheres of rule, one of which enjoys only local or regional legitimacy, the other of which both entirely overlaps with and extends infinitely beyond the domain of the former.

Christ’s commandment is harder to follow however when ‘Caesar’ sets himself up as a representative of the divine order to which Christ had his primary loyalty. Christ was able to distinguish between the two sorts of rendering only because Caesar was not, yet, Christian. But when an earthly ruler claims himself to be acting in the name of the divine order, then we have a political universalism that translates fairly readily into imperialism. Divine truth is universal; I rule in the name of divine truth; therefore, my rule must be extended as widely as possible. This was already the case for the Buddhist emperor Aśoka, who effectively transformed Buddhism into a pan-Asian religion through imperial conquest.

The Maurya Dynasty would by no means be the last illustration of the general rule, whereby universalism, when translated into political action, tends to run roughshod over the interests of neighbors and minorities who might have preferred to keep going with their localism. This conflict between the local and the universal extends well beyond the universalist religions that appeared in antiquity, and even as far as the supposedly universal values of secular democracy– liberty, equality, and so on. As scholars such as Michael Mann and, in his own way, Charles Taylor, have noted, there are many respects in which minority groups fared better prior to the emergence of democratic republics –here France and Turkey are the preferred examples– that sought to wash out the local concerns and values of the minorities in favor of overarching values that are expected to be shared and cherished by all human beings equally, qua human beings.

Diogenes’s claim to be a citizen of the world, then, is one thing when it is a sort of report on the disposition of a harmless world-renouncer; it is quite another thing when world-citizenship is understood as the inevitable outcome of the rule of a leader in posession of universal truth. This tension, I would like to suggest, has always been at the heart of cosmopolitanism. Claims to possession of universal truth, and claims of loyalty only to the global order at which such truths hold, are one thing in the hands of philosophers and mendicant monks, another in the hands of armies. And yet, even when there is so to speak an armed wing of the spread of universal truth, we often find a proper cosmopolitan spirit in the philosophers who give voice to the values that are simultaneously being spread by force by their contemporaries in armies, missions, aggressive trade cartels, and in the grey area between all three of these. Nowhere is this clearer, perhaps, than in the history of early modern European cosmopolitanism, particularly as it was expressed in European reflection on the share of universal truth that East Asian civilizations may be thought to enjoy.

With the 1624 expulsion of the Spanish from Tokugawa Japan, and the following Closed Country Edict of 1635, in most of the period of interest to me Japan remains as if blurred out in the European imagination, though much recent scholarship has been focused on the previous century’s significant syntheses of western and Japanese knowledge systems. China by contrast remained an important field on which European thinkers and actors continued to try out their ideas about what commitment to a universal order of truth must be, and about the different ways this truth can be expressed in different cultural settings.

We might helpfully distinguish between two overlapping strains of reflection on universal truth and the way it is expressed differently in different local inflections. One is played out more in the domain of practices and values: are this distant culture’s practices on an equal footing to mine, or are my prejudices about my own culture’s distinctly superior forms justified? This is principally the sort of prejudice Diogenes was seeking to renounce when he identified himself as a kosmou polites. But there is another variety, which is perhaps best expressed already in Aristotle’s observation in the Nicomachean Ethics that “nature is unchangeable and has everywhere the same force (as fire burns both here and in Persia)” (Book 5, ch. 7). From the fact that nature is everywhere the same, it follows that different people in different parts of the world are accounting for the same thing when they offer up descriptions or causal explanations of how the world works. There is then a sort of ‘scientific cosmopolitanism’, to speak very anachronistically, which holds that these different explanations are different ways of expressing the same truths, and that insofar as nature itself is governed by reason, these different explanations are all therefore rational.

Both strains come together in the question of natural theology: whether it is possible, namely, for a person or a group of people to come to a sufficient knowledge of God –sufficient, that is, for salvation– by means of reflecting on the order and orderliness of God’s works alone, or whether by contrast revelation is also needed? Revelation, obviously, happens within a particular culture at a particular historical moment (in the case of Christianity, it is thought to have happened among Eastern Mediterranean Jews a few centuries after the reported enlightenment of the Buddha in North India), while reflection on nature can happen anytime and anywhere.

Typically, the different sorts of cosmopolitanism go together: where it is presumed that each culture no matter what its textual sources of knowledge is capable of coming to knowledge about the order of nature and ultimately about this order’s divine source, it is also presumed that different cultural expressions are going to be relatively insignifcant variations on a single underlying human nature. This is particularly clear in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s dual interest in China: first, at an urgent, practical level, to take the side of the liberal Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci in the so-called ‘rites controversy’ by defending the cultural practice of ancestor veneration as in no way incompatible with acceptance of Christian dogma; and second, offering a theoretical account of the Chinese distinction between the transcendent and immanent, arguing that this suffices as evidence for an understanding of the fundamental distinction between God and creation, and that such a distinction is already sufficient for purposes of salvation in the next world and piety in this one, and reflecting, finally, on the philosophical-anthropological sources of this understanding.

Since his forward to the 1699 Jesuit report from China, the so-called Novissima Sinica, Leibniz had been preoccupied with the parity between Europe and China, conceiving them as two mutually balancing poles of the Eurasian continent; he writes “that the greatest culture and the greatest technical civilization of humanity are concentrated on the two extreme ends of our continent, in Europe and in China… which is equally a sort of Europe of the East, which adorns the opposite end of the earth.” Leibniz ultimately believes that every culture is equally equipped to express the eternal wisdom written into the natural order, which is itself an expression of divine reason. But he supposes like many contemporaries that China constitutes a special case among world cultures, as having attained a level of technological and political complexity equal or superior to that of Europe, but as having done so without the help of what, by European standards, would have been recognizable as philosophy. A common prejudice held that the Chinese are in effect wise automata, or that Chinese technology and statecraft are developed blindly, without reflection on the first principles, of nature or of justice, behind these.

Such a prejudice took a different form, yet not categorically different, in early modern European assesssments of, say, the herbal-medicinal knowledge of Amerindians living in traditional hunter-gatherer societies: here, it was supposed that the knowledge was a sort of outcropping of nature itself, that it did not fundamentally differ from zoopharmocognosy, or the ability of animals to seek out plant remedies when ill. Thus a typical term for aboriginal people was les naturels: the people who are literally not distinct from nature. In China however it was thought that a separation from nature had occurred through practices and technologies, but without the reflection on abstract principles that Europeans had tended to suppose must ground these practices and technologies in order for them to exist at all.

Various implausible theories were contrived to account for this apparent paradox. The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, to cite one example, maintained that the Chinese had their origins in the ancient Near East, that the Chinese writing system is a deformation of Hebrew. On this theory, the Chinese wandered long and far, and ultimately forgot the metaphysics and knowledge of first principles that had once underlain their science, ethics, and statecraft. Leibniz would not need to contort himself in this way. For him, it is helpful to recall, absolutely everything is an expression of one and the same rational order, and every substance contains within its complete concept every truth about every other substance. It is for this reason that the study of indigenous languages, for example, strikes Leibniz as worthwhile: as he explains in the Nouveaux essais of 1704, it is not just the ancient texts of the Chinese and other classical civilizations that need to be studied alongside the sacred scripture, but also the languages of non-textual cultures, since, he argues, reason is embedded in vocabulary itself, in etymologies and in morphemes. So human cultures constitute a living repository of reason, and are quite literally the world’s greatest library. It follows also, inter alia, that for Leibniz a culture’s practices do not need to be given explicit theoretical explanations by members of that culture in order to qualify as rational.

This is indeed exactly what we would expect of the philosopher who gives us petites perceptions, the doctrine according to which every substance expresses the entire order of nature, even if most do so in a dim or confused fashion and so never succeed in gaining what could be called ‘knowledge’ in a proper sense. And yet it would be a sort of condescension that Leibniz does not intend to attribute to him the view that Chinese knowledge systems consist in mere petites perceptions. On the contrary, by the time of the 1714 Discours sur la théologie naturelle des Chinois, he is prepared to argue that at least in antiquity there was knowledge of a separately existing transcendent God. He writes:

It may at first be doubted that the Chinese recognize, or have recognized, spiritual substances. But after having thought about this much, I judge that yes, they do; although perhaps they do not recognize these substances as separate, and entirely beyond matter. There would be no harm here as concerns created substances, for I myself tend to suppose that angels have bodies, which was also the opinion of many of the ancient Church Fathers. I am also of the opinion that the rational soul is never entirely liberated from a body. But as concerns God, it may be that the sentiment of some of the Chinese has been to give him a body, to consider God as the soul of the world, and to join him with matter, as the ancient philosophers of Greece and of Asia did. However, in showing that the most ancient authors of China attribute to Li or to the first principle the very production of Ki or of matter, there is no need to start from scratch, and it will suffice to explain what they meant. [In this way], it will be easier to explain to their disciples that God is the Intelligentia supramondana, above all matter.

Now I share the concern of those anti-Eurocentric authors who would get stuck on the first lines of this passage, on Leibniz’s extreme presumption in granting to himself the authority to judge in this matter, from afar, with a rudimentary knowledge of the Chinese language, and assuming at the outset that Li properly understood must come out as a wholly transcendent principle in order to be, not just like the Christian God, but indeed correct. But let us try to set that aside in order to see what else is going on here. Leibniz is to some extent echoing Kircher’s old prisca theologia, but is doing so in a rather more charitable way. He does not suppose that the ancient texts of the Chinese need to come from the same source as those of the ancient Church Fathers in order to arrive at the truth.

For Leibniz, in effect, the Chinese have a concept of God even if they do not know it, or always know it. The concept can be extracted from Li, even if historically there is a tendency to regress towards a corporealized anima mundi, a regression that has also often occurred in western history, and that indeed Leibniz is, when he writes the Discours, actively criticizing English natural theology, in particular Locke and Newton, for having brought about. The Chinese do know God –even Newton knows God– but they all need Leibniz to help them clarify the concept they already possess. This is indeed part and parcel of Leibniz’s general method of conciliation: he supposes that everyone agrees, and that disagreement results only from insufficient clarity in the way we understand the terms we are using. Leibniz is of course famous for having supposed that we could prevent wars by declaring Calculemus! –Let us calculate!–, as if war ever had, as its deep cause, disagreements about belief.

So Leibniz believes we all share in the same universal rational order, that we all know it with varying degrees of clarity or confusion, and that we all therefore know, in some way or other, the truth. These beliefs taken together clearly constitute a variety of cosmopolitanism, which Diogenes himself would have recognized. But Leibniz also embodies the tension we have already discerned in the cosmopolitan commitment to universal truth: he thinks we all share in the same truth, and therefore thinks we need to send missionaries to other parts of the world in order to convince them of the truth they already implicitly have and subconsciously know. While Leibniz liberally declares that China should be sending missionaries to Europe in matters of ethics, he never doubts the necessity and righteousness of the Christian mission to teach the Chinese, and indeed the entire world, not how to act, but about the first principles that ground right action.

Leibniz tends to side with the Jesuits in their conflicts with Rome; many of his principal informants are Jesuit missionaries such as Nicolò Longobardo. But his concrete purpose is to promote Protestant missionary activity to rival the Catholics, and he was particularly close to the liberal Protestant Orientalists of Halle, such as Hiob Ludolf. Here, though, it is difficult to separate what Leibniz and his like-minded missionary associates hoped to deliver to the Chinese and other non-Christian cultures, and what by contrast they hoped these groups might deliver to them. Leibniz writes the Discours as a justification for ongoing missionary activity in China, but his main argument is that it is a mistake to suppose that on arrival the missionaries must, so to speak, start from scratch. On the contrary, he supposes that there is already much there to work with. And Leibniz’s interest in promoting missionary activity may have more to do with his eager interest to have missionaries continue to bring back information about ‘what there is to work with’, what the Chinese themselves believe, than with any real interest in changing what they believe.

We see exactly the same hope for a fruitful bidirectionality in Leibniz’s parallel campaign to obtain samples of all the non-textual languages of the Russian empire, which would consist in a transcription of the Lord’s Prayer. This would serve the dual purpose of rendering this core bit of Christian doctrine for the first time in the pagan languages of the Samoyed and the Kalmyks; but it would also gain, for Leibniz himself, a new bit of linguistic data to add to his ever-expanding database. This project is but one instance of Leibniz’s vastly more ambitious ‘science of singular things’, of res singulares: the amassing of massive amounts of individual bits of data in different domains of knowledge that will enable an eventual mapping of the range of diversity within a given domain, and then, ultimately, will make possible an account of the unity that underlies the diversity.

Other clear examples of this approach are in areas as different as the study of magnetic variation and the collection of public-health statistics. But perhaps the most fruitful of all was the role that this approach played in the foundation of comparative linguistics as a concrete domain of scientific inquiry. The presumption was that each natural language amounts to an expression of the same rational order, even if each will be in its unique way more confused in certain domains than in others: an Amazonian language might be vastly ‘clearer’ (in both the metaphysical and the linguistic senses), for the description of the properties of some medicinal plant; Latin might, for now anyway, be clearer in its ability to express the true nature of God. But there is no reason in principle why any given natural language should not be able to express the same truths about the world as any other. The Lord’s Prayer is no less the Lord’s Prayer in Samoyed than in Latin.

Cultural practices pose many of the same problems that natural languages do, and send us looking for the unity behind the diversity. They also generate serious epistemological problems for any outside attempt to judge the beliefs that are guiding the practices. The awareness of such problems, and of a consequent need to deploy a principle of charity in cases of intercultural contact, seems to have been what guided the liberal Jesuits, with whom Leibniz agreed, in the rites controversy: it is all very easy to declare, from Rome, that a Catholic service must look exactly the same in China as it does in St. Peter’s Basilica, but the missionaries on the ground will understand that of necessity accommodations need to be made to local realities.

Correlatively, in the direction not of adoption of Christianity but of its rejection or apparent rejection, Shūsaku Endō tells the story, in his 1966 novel Silence, of a Portuguese missionary who decides to trample on the fumie the Japanese authorities have laid at his feet. This saves him from the fate of being hung upside down and bled to death, and it also, in the local context, comes to seem to him not as an expression of the ultimate sacrilege, but rather of his supreme commitment and love of Christ. Ritual is perhaps infinitely variable; the meaning of gestures can easily be reversed. What Rodrigues believed to stay fixed and unchanging through this reversal was the truth of Christianity, even though his gesture was sure to cut him off forever from the earthly institution for which he worked.

Similar stories abound in the ethnographic record: the Danish-Inuit anthropologist Knud Rasmussen tells of the Greenlandic shamans who, in the early 20th century, converted to Christianity by eating, as their first communion, parts of the internal organs of the walrus that had previously been tabooed to men of their status. There is obviously nothing about walruses in the Bible, but the fact that Christianity could only take root through the body of the walrus shows the inevitability of responding to local exigencies in the expansion of a universal order.

Father Rodrigues was, we might suggest, a true cosmopolitan, of Diogenes’s caliber. He did not need to remain attached to Rome, because he was, in fact, a Christian, and the matter of his continued ordination by an earthly institution made no difference one way or the other. This is the purest sense of kosmou polites; the difference between the Cynic and the Christian lies in the different ways they understand the kosmos— variously as either a nature that gives its own immediate and self-evident dictates, or as a natural order created and directed in accordance with a divine plan. But these are minor variations on the same basic commitment.

Most expressions of cosmopolitanism, by contrast, are marked by the circumstances of their origins, and therefore by a certain paradox that I have been trying to describe here: Leibniz, for example, takes himself as a citizen of the world, believes that we are all in fact citizens of the world, in fact, but also takes the civilization in which he happens to have been born to be the one with the clearest understanding of certain basic truths about that world. This in turn legitimates the project of going out into the rest of the world and convincing other people, perhaps aggressively, to appreciate these truths. I’m here to tell you we’re all the same, it says, whether you agree or not.

Plainly, not everyone agrees, and this fact remains, mutatis mutandis, one of the enduring problems of the purported universality of modern liberal-democratic secularism. It is at the heart of debates about everything from wars of intervention on the international level, to minority rights at the national or provincial or local level. Cosmopolitanism as an individual philosophy of life seems a lovely and harmless thing; once it becomes a force for social change, it seems to generate difficulties that no political philosopher, or indeed politician, has been able to resolve.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website

Oiginally presented at the Department of Philosophy, Kobe University, Japan, November 10, 2013