An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2008

The cosmopolitan as a lived category

Margaret C. Jacob

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her recent books include “Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe” (2006), “The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions” (2005), “The Enlightenment: A Brief History” (2001), and “Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West” (1997). She, along with Catherine Secretan, edited the forthcoming “The Self-Perception of Early Modern Capitalists” (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) and, with Lynn Hunt and Wijnand Mijnhardt, has written the forthcoming “Confronting the Gods: How One Book Changed Attitudes toward Religion” (Harvard University Press).

Cosmopolitans, as French philosopher Denis Diderot put it in his encyclopedia of 1751, are “strangers no where in the world.”1 By the time Diderot wrote, the term had become a commonplace. Since then, the cosmopolitan has remained largely that–a term. As a result, the history of cosmopolitan language, the history of the idea, has been carefully and cogently written. Excellent accounts now exist of writers and philosophers, largely from the early modern period, who wrote idealistically and learnedly about the cosmopolitan.2 We know very little, however, about cosmopolitan practices, about actual behavior that might legitimately warrant the label, in any historical period, including our own. As long as wars have their day-to-day histories, and their antithesis remains an idea in search of an instantiation, the critics and defamers of the cosmopolitan will continue to point to its vapidity, its pie-in-the-sky, no-one-ever-went-to-war-under-the-flag-of-the-cosmopolite irrelevance.

Writing such a history of lived practices and habitudes requires sources, finding actual institutions or events that might legitimately be interrogated to reveal behavior reasonably described as cosmopolitan. For the period of the eighteenth century, when the cosmopolitan was used widely as a compliment, one way of proceeding might be to start off by sampling the behavior of those who did not value it. In early-modern Europe, an authoritarian–specifically clerical–vision of the way traditional society should behave existed. Take the Papal territory of Avignon, for example. The Roman Catholic Inquisition gave Avignon the distinction of being the only French-speaking city policed by an inquisition. The city’s inquisitional archives, lost up until 1677 and then mercifully complete up to 1790 (when the French revolutionaries took over the city), tell a tale of bizarre phobias and cruelties, along with a carefully cultivated pursuit of absolutist political goals, all in the service of the church. Indeed the Avignon authorities established a more prosecutorial atmosphere than their rather sluggish counterparts in Spain, Venice, and Naples.3

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  • 1As cited in Thomas J. Schlereth, The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought: Its Form and Function in the Ideas of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire, 1694–1790 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), 47.
  • 2See ibid. and Andrea Albrecht, Kosmopolitismus: Weltbürgerdiskurse in Literatur, Philosophie und Publizistik um 1800 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005); cf. Derek Heater, World Citizenship and Government: Cosmopolitan Ideas in the History of Western Political Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996) and Karen O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). See also Anthony Pagden, “The Genesis of ‘Governance’ and Enlightenment Conceptions of the Cosmopolitan World Order,” International Social Science Journal 155 (March 1998): 7–15.
  • 3See E. William Monter and John Tedeschi, “Toward a Statistical Profile of the Italian Inquisitions, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,” in E. William Monter, Enforcing Morality in Early Modern Europe (London: Variorium Reprints, 1987), 130–157.
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