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Citizens of the World

  • Jerrold Seigel
  • Nov, 2020
  • 150
  • Review Essay

How cosmopolitanism made Europe modern

One thing that has long made Europe what it is, distinct from any other part of the world, is a peculiar mix of division and integration. Since the fall of Rome, Europe has never been unified by an overarching imperial power. Instead, the continent evolved from feudal fragmentation into a system of independent, competing nation-states, restrained from devouring one another-at least before the twentieth century-by a system of balance-of-power politics. Competition goaded each state to develop its political and economic capabilities, so that by the mid-1700s, the continent as a whole was well on the way to realizing its potential to dominate other regions-a power that would alter the world in the age of imperialism.

This mix of separateness and coordination preserved the distinct identities of Europe’s parts but created a frame in which trade, competition, and a semblance of religious unity drew them all together. It was also a chief factor in cultural development and social change. Take, for example, the Enlightenment. In France, the movement was largely devoted to a critique of the ancien régime’s political and religious oppression. It morphed into a celebration of native civility and constitutional liberty in Great Britain and shifted its focus in Germany from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s emphasis on the politics of domination to the conditions of inner moral freedom.

It was against this background that the notion of cosmopolitanism began to spread in Europe. Cosmopolitanism was primarily a political ideal, associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in a 1795 essay entitled Perpetual Peace posited a “cosmopolitan law” that would give individuals rights as “citizens of the earth” rather than as citizens of particular countries. But cosmopolitanism also had a strong literary dimension. Travel writing-such as Captain James Cook’s diaries of his travels to Oceania and the Pacific and Montesquieu’s fictitious Persian Letters-encouraged people to imagine themselves in foreign environments. One French writer of the period thus referred to himself as a cosmopolite, declaring that “all countries are the same to me.”

Other people drawn to a cosmopolitan perspective approached it by way of the special mix of internal division and integration that made Europe a favorable site for cosmopolitanism in the first place. They posited a kind of dialectical relationship that made more restricted ties a starting point for developing broader ones. This dialectic was also at the heart of the celebrated Republic of Letters, which attracted many partisans of the Enlightenment. The republic was made up of writers, thinkers, and other truth seekers linked together by networks of correspondence, publication, patronage, and friendship. It was dedicated to liberating its members from the prejudices and attachments that their local, national, or denominational ties produced. But this goal could only be pursued as long as it was never fully realized, because if it were, then all otherness would be eradicated, depriving successive participants in the republic’s activities of the exposure to the alternative perspectives that could help them become more enlightened, more rational, and more cosmopolitan citizens.

Had this interplay between the local and the universal fully informed the story of cosmopolitanism that Orlando Figes puts at the center of his cultural history, The Europeans, his good book could have been much better. Figes provides a vast store of information on European cultural institutions-theaters, opera houses, museums, and international exhibitions-as well as their social and economic underpinnings. He seeks to integrate all this material in two ways. First, he shows how Europe’s cosmopolitan culture was formed by the international links that were either created or strengthened over the nineteenth century, so that by the end of the period, not only was “all of Europe reading the same books”-a fact that the literary historian Franco Moretti established with statistics in his Atlas of the European Novel-but people everywhere were also hearing the same music and looking at the same pictures. This development owed much to an expansion of publishing and, in particular, of translations. It also stemmed from a variety of new photographic techniques that publishers combined with lithography and engraving in order to tap a growing market of consumers. But the most powerful engine of cultural integration in the nineteenth century was the railroad.

Trains crisscrossed the continent with great rapidity starting in the 1850s, bringing together people and objects that were once weeks or months of travel apart. Figes begins his book with a colorful account of the opening of the first short-range international lines in 1843 and 1846. This appealin...

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