Enlightenment and Empire

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Enlightenment and Empire

From its very beginnings in the late seventeenth century, the Enlightenment—a term used to describe a host of transformations in European cultural, social, economic, and political thought that placed a great deal of emphasis on reason and empirical knowledge—has been intimately connected to the expansion of European empire. Enlightenment thinkers valued highly and thrived on public political debate. As the modern German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) has described it, new social institutions like coffeehouses and the wider circulation of newspapers and political pamphlets made this kind of debate possible; it also, Habermas has argued, created a social revolution by creating a "public sphere," dominated by the urban, male middle-class and increasingly differentiated from the domestic, or the private, sphere.

Both in person and print, this newly expanding world of politics, particularly in Great Britain, was increasingly dominated by overseas affairs and imperial conflicts. Even the social spaces themselves, like the coffeehouse, had imperial roots, tying together as they did the conversations upon which the Enlightenment depended and the consumption of luxury goods, like coffee, tea, and tobacco, so deeply connected to empire.

Still, the associations between Enlightenment and empire are even deeper. The very foundation of much political theory characteristic of the Enlightenment was inspired by European expansion, and particularly by increasing contact with new peoples. It was increasingly commonplace in the Enlightenment that European explorers and colonists had found in the indigenous peoples of the Americas—and later the Pacific—human beings in their "natural state." European fascination with the extra-European world was only further nourished in the context of the expansion of the British Empire in India in the late eighteenth century and the growth of British, French, and German Orientalism, a branch of Enlightenment study concerned with cataloging and elucidating the languages, customs, and history of the East.

Meanwhile, the new languages of class and species that emerged through the efforts of natural philosophers, such as the Swedish scientist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus, 1707–1778), to sort and arrange the animal and plant world were applied equally to understanding difference and hierarchy amongst humans. As early as the late seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) had founded his influential theory of property and his notion of an original "state of nature" on the claim in his Second Treatise of Government (1690) that "in the beginning all the world was America."

A century later, the notion that Europeans had discovered what the Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729–1797) called "the great map of mankind" led philosophes like the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers William Robertson (1721–1793) and Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) to argue that Europe had found in its global expansion evidence of human history itself at its various stages of development. The "stadial" or "conjectural" histories that followed were even further nourished by the growth of theories that simultaneously put European civilization at the top of an evolving human history. It also provided an argument for European distinctiveness and often superiority.

While empire was the basis for some of the most fundamental intellectual assumptions of the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment in turn underpinned a great many of the ideological, political, and cultural foundations for empire. The fact that Europeans envisioned themselves as "enlightened" lent support to arguments that justified command over those who were not. More specifically, Enlightenment thought about the appropriate nature and use of law, religion, political economy, and history can be found directly influencing the thought of imperial policymakers, most notably in British India. Furthermore, the great emphasis on what contemporaries called "useful knowledge" and "improvement" demanded the discovery and exploitation of the world's resources; it also quite often justified the dispossession of those that failed themselves to do so.

In addition, the search for knowledge became an imperial imprimatur. Explorers like James Cook (1728–1779) and Louis-Antoine Bougainville (1729–1811) in the Pacific became national heroes, but their efforts at expanding Europe's imperial reach were also inseparable from scientific missions: to observe celestial phenomena; to report upon and collect exotic florae and faunae; and to gather ethnographical and geographical knowledge.

Back in Europe, this knowledge was codified by mapmakers and "armchair geographers"—figures like James Rennell (1742–1830) in Britain and J. B. B. d'Anville (1697–1782) in France. These men translated the Enlightenment emphasis on empiricism into a new cartographic rhetoric. On the one hand, they "wiped the map clean" of its assumed knowledge to demonstrate how little of the world Europeans actually knew. At the same time, surveys, cartography, and new geographical techniques, such as stood behind the Great Trigonometrical Survey in India (begun 1802), supported the demands of military expansion, revenue collection, and policing raised by these ever-growing imperial dominions.

There was also a cultural connection between Enlightenment and empire that concentrated on a fascination with collecting and consuming the "exotic" and what contemporaries referred to as "curiosity." In turn, genteel patrons of science, as well as state-supported institutions, came to serve empire. Perhaps the most vivid example of this is found in the British Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew near London. Under the stewardship of its principal patron, the naturalist Joseph Banks (1743–1820), president of Britain's Royal Society, Kew became a museum of exotic curiosities: plants from the far reaches of the world. Yet, it was also a laboratory for experimenting with their uses and possible circulation and transplantation across the empire. Similar gardens, geographical societies, scientific associations, and museums were soon found throughout Enlightenment Europe, in colonial India, and elsewhere. In the process, the rendering of much of the rest of the world as both "exotic" and "erotic," from the prelapsarian liberation of the South Seas to the hypersexualized mystique of the harem, provided another crucial ideological groundwork for the rational and reforming imperial regimes in the early nineteenth century.

This contact with new peoples, places, and political systems—and particularly the romantic idea of an uncorrupted "noble savage"—also quite frequently provided the lens through which to refract the critique of Europe that was also very much a concern of the Enlightenment. French philosophes like Denis Diderot (1713–1784), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and Voltaire (1694–1778) capitalized on this new ethnological knowledge—and their audiences' fascination with the Americas and Asia—to put in relief the fundamental problems they saw in European politics, economy, and morality. Works like Montesquieu's (1689–1755) fictional Persian Letters (1721), in which two Persian travelers visit and comment both upon their own society and still Feudal France, offered both an exoticized vision of Asia and a subtle and satirical comparison between the much-maligned "Oriental despotisms" of the East and political and social behavior under the absolutist monarchies in Europe.

But the Enlightenment emphasis on the universality of human nature, reason, beauty, and natural liberty sat uncomfortably with empire's emphasis on difference, dominance, and hierarchy. This was especially stark when Enlightenment thought turned to slavery and the slave trade that underwrote European Atlantic empires. Thus, while underpinning empire, Enlightenment thought also inspired some of its most trenchant critiques. For example, Abbé Guillaume Thomas Raynal's (1713–1796) Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des européens dans les deux Indes (A Philosophical and Political History of the Establishments are commerce of Europeans in the Two Indies, 1770) popularized the idea of the noble savage and made a persuasive argument for international commerce and against much of the colonizing project, particularly Atlantic slavery.

More broadly, the rediscovery and popularization of the sixteenth-century arguments of Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), Francisco de Vitoria (ca. 1483–1546), and in particular Bartoloméde Las Casas (1474–1566) against Spanish treatment of Amerindians, known as the leyenda negra or "black legend," continued to offer a powerful ideological critique of Spanish empire in the Atlantic, while also still serving as justification for the Protestant European Atlantic empires. In the late eighteenth century, Edmund Burke's calls both for conciliation with Britain's rebelling American colonies (1775) and the impeachment from 1786 to 1794 of the East India Company's governor-general, Warren Hastings (1732–1818), drew heavily upon arguments about rights, liberties, and the nature of politics at the core of the Enlightenment.

While many of these critiques criticized only the way in which European empires conducted themselves, other strands of cosmopolitan and relativist Enlightenment political theory rejected empire outright. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), in his essay on "Perpetual Peace" (1795), offered a vision of an international federation of republican states that left little room for colonial empires or universal monarchies, let alone the imperial wars that underwrote them. His student, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), particularly in his Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784–1791), made perhaps an even more explicit argument against colonialism. He insisted not only on the virtues of pluralism but also that the heterogeneous and hybrid nature of large empires was ultimately doomed to failure.

As the Enlightenment began to manifest itself in Europe's colonies, it also became a powerful intellectual and political challenge to those empires. Enlightenment science thrived in British America. From the well-known, like Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), to more anonymous and popular experimenters, the Enlightenment implicated itself quite famously in British-American culture. Moreover, from Franklin and Jefferson in the British mainland American colonies to Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) in Spanish South America to Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743–1803) in French Saint-Domingue (Haiti), the Enlightenment critique of Europe and its emphasis on republican liberty informed the wave of American revolutions against European empires in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Enlightenment also influenced a host of other responses to empire in colonies, including "reform" movements such as the "Bengal Renaissance" or "Bengal Enlightenment" in early nineteenth-century India. While these movements came to have a great influence over the policy and politics of colonial rule, they also contributed its eventual rejection of colonial rule. The ideological and social revolutions of the Enlightenment became crucial to early nationalism, particularly in giving rise to an urban middle-class "public" that would in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries form the vanguard of anticolonial movements throughout European empires.

see also Anticolonialism; Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Empire, British; Empire, French.


Ballantyne, Tony, ed. Science, Empire, and the European Exploration of the Pacific. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, VT: Variorum, 2004.

Commager, Henry S. The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment. London: Anchor, 1977.

Drayton, Richard. Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the "Improvement" of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2000.

Edney, Matthew. Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765–1843. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Livingstone, David N., and Charles W. J. Withers, eds. Geography and Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

McLaren, Martha. British India & British Scotland, 1780–1830: Career Building, Empire Building, and a Scottish School of Thought on Indian Governance. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2001.

Marshall, P. J., and Glyndwr Williams. The Great Map of Mankind: Perceptions of New Worlds in the Age of Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1982.

Muthu, Sankar. Enlightenment Against Empire. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003.

O'Brien, Karen. Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge, 1995.

Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c. 1500–c. 1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Porter, Roy, and G. S. Rousseau, eds. Exoticism in the Enlightenment. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press, 1990.

Raychaudhuri, Tapan. Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth-Century Bengal, 2nd ed. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Wilson, Kathleen. A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity, and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.