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Savages, Romans, and Despots

Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Europeans struggled to understand their identity in the same way we do as individuals: by comparing themselves to others. In Savages, Romans, and Despots, Robert Launay takes us on a fascinating tour of early modern and modern history in an attempt to untangle how various depictions of “foreign” cultures and civilizations saturated debates about religion, morality, politics, and art.
Beginning with Mandeville and Montaigne, and working through Montesquieu, Diderot, Gibbon, Herder, and others, Launay traces how Europeans both admired and disdained unfamiliar societies in their attempts to work through the inner conflicts of their own social worlds. Some of these writers drew caricatures of “savages,” “Oriental despots,” and “ancient” Greeks and Romans. Others earnestly attempted to understand them. But, throughout this history, comparative thinking opened a space for critical reflection. At its worst, such space could give rise to a sense of European superiority. At its best, however, it could prompt awareness of the value of other ways of being in the world. Launay’s masterful survey of some of the Western tradition’s finest minds offers a keen exploration of the genesis of the notion of “civilization,” as well as an engaging portrait of the promises and perils of cross-cultural comparison.

272 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: European History, History of Ideas


Savages, Romans, and Despots is an informative, valuable, delightfully readable book. It will be particularly interesting to those unfamiliar with how writers of the early modern period envisioned themselves through their real and imagined encounters with people of other times and places. Anthropologists and intellectual historians alike will be enticed by this highly accessible account to approach these major thinkers anew.”

Lawrence Rosen, Princeton University

“Launay has taken a familiar theme and utterly transformed it. No other account of the European self-imagining through the mirror of multiple others covers so wide a range of peoples and places with such acuity and verve as he has done—this is an original, compelling, and persuasive book.”

Anthony Pagden, University of California, Los Angeles

“Original, persuasive, and accessible, Savages, Romans, and Despots offers a fascinating narrative on ideas of time, space, and history—both of the observer and of the observed society. Launay’s strong sense of history and context in the study of anthropology’s prehistory effectively relinks anthropology to wider currents in contemporary social thought.”

Dale F. Eickelman, Dartmouth College

"This book, 'more than twenty years in the making' (p. 221), reflects the long, slow, deliberate reading of great authors, forgotten explorers, and contemporary scholars who have shaped the concepts of 'others' which have defined 'ourselves' as modern Europeans. It is a learned, highly readable volume."

Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines

"Launay’s vast scope of knowledge and evident erudition are major strengths of this book. . . .this is a remarkably comprehensive survey of philosophical representations of human difference in early modern Europe. It is clearly written enough for students and general readers, and scrupulously researched enough to provide new information to specialists in the field."

American Historical Review

"Savages, Romans and Despots takes the reader on an intellectual journey across the centuries. . . . Launay brings his training as an anthropologist to reread familiar and less familiar authors from innovative angles to provide new insights about how Europeans understood themselves geographically, temporally, and historically."

H-France Review

"To the question of how early modern Europeans developed their sense of self, Robert Launay. . . provides a comprehensive answer in Savages, Romans, and Despots. He argues that early modern Europeans constructed their identity in contrast to non-European ‘others’. Launay circumvents a theoretical debate on what ‘the Other’ is and rejects a uniform historical definition. Instead, he pragmatically allows the ‘others’ to be any contrasting representation of non-European peoples, which often took the form of ‘savages’, ‘Orientals’, ‘ancients’ and ‘despots’. . . .The result is a rich and rewarding book with many cases of how European thinkers employed the representation of ‘others’ in their texts on political theory, philosophy, history, missionary expeditions, law and religion."

European History Review

Table of Contents

ONE / Maps of Mankind
TWO / The World Turned Upside Down: Mandeville
THREE / Between Two Saddles: Montaigne
FOUR / Climactic Harmonies: Bodin
FIVE / St. Confucius: The Jesuits in China
SIX / Distant Relations: The Jesuits in New France
SEVEN / Ancients, Moderns, and Others: Fontenelle and Temple
EIGHT / The Specter of Despotism: Montesquieu and Voltaire
NINE / Savage Critics: Lahontan, Rousseau, and Diderot
TEN / From Savagery to Decadence: Ferguson, Millar, and Gibbon
ELEVEN / Cultural Critique: Herder
TWELVE / “Others” Are Good to Think


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