DE L’INFINI : A FOREIGNER’S METAPHYSICS
FOREIGNER, THERE : HISTORY OF A POLITICAL CAPTURE
The Renaissance : times of intellectual and artistic renewal after the long Middle Ages. Times of explorations across the globe, with Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. But also, and especially, intense advances in humanism and political thought. Thus, if the Renaissance affected the (hi)story of the foreigner, it is primarily by the side, tangentially, inasmuch it prepared the mindset that would lead, via the Enlightenment century, to the situation of the stranger in the modern nation-state.
The milieu of the 14th century Italy would turn out to be particularly propitious for historical innovations at the political level. Once its internal strives controlled – the birth of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was marked by the final victory of the Guelfs over the Ghibellines – Florence and neighbouring territories could slowly evolve into the newly defined category of the state. A refugee himself, threatened to death for his writings but also his political alliances, Dante expanded the Christian imaginary to the infinite, connecting at once the universal morality of his church, the individualism of his times and the growing legitimisation of monarchism from his environment. A strong monarch and a clearly defined and centralised territory : two centuries later, Machiavelli (1469-1527) pleads for the Renaissance state, placing efficient power over virtue. A firm supporter of Lorenzo II (1492-1519), Machiavelli is a real precursor of international law and diplomacy, but always in the service of pragmatic political ends. Favorable international relations are required for the state to operate effectively internally. Machiavelli is the major impetus, the resonant voice that would make the march of the nation-state start… to continue… forever ?
Across the Alps, the humanist tradition takes different forms. “Marvels Literature” 1 emerges as a new genre, combining recent discoveries with western and Muslim legends. In his series Gargantua and Pantagruel, and in particular The Fourth Book of Pantagruel (1552), French Satirist François Rabelais (1494-1553) short-circuits the explorative spirit of his days to feed in the popular imaginary with narratives of mythical journeys across the globe. The minute and generous descriptions of the imagined indigenous leave an impression of proto-orientalism, but Rabelais’s real subject is human strangeness in general. More : he locates our feeling of wonder at the savage within ourselves : “he strongly emphasised the extent to which those mirabilia had their source in our own world, in our dreams and political conflicts.” 2 With Jonathan Swift, and later Edgar Allan Poe or Henri James, travel literature becomes a way for the character (and the author) to investigate issues internal to his psychology and his times.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) takes over the charge of the stranger’s destiny, and brings to it an irrevocable twist. This close political advisor, always running from one territory to the other, is strongly nationalist and individualist, but also deeply cosmopolitan. Montaigne’s trace : a whole-hearted affirmation of the self : “If I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself.” 3 The self itself is a country, a new land that everyone must explore. Then, one is already a stranger in quest of knowledge, therefore making any judgment borne on the foreigner irrelevant – except, perhaps, for matters of customs such as food, clothing… and women’s beauty… ! His statements on the self and the other foretell at once Levinas and the epistemological hypothesis that we will explore later in this essay ; their collection in Kristeva’s study is worth mentioning:
“Montaigne’s self depended on the “fantastic” opinion of the other, the self knows it is “other” : “That other life of mine that lies in the knowledge of my friends” ; “But we are, I know not how, double within ourselves” ; “Myself now and myself a while ago are indeed two”.” 4
Much before the intuition of Freud and Heidegger, locating the modern stranger within each of us, Montaigne asserts internal difference as equally cardinal as external, inter-subjective difference : “there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.” 5 And interestingly, Montaigne also briefly discusses language with regards to self-otherness : he finds his own take of French language corrupted by “the barbarism of [his] home soil.” 6 When “indigenous “individuals from Brazil arrive in Rouen in 1562, Montaigne is not without Orientalist sentiments, but he appears more careful and modest than his contemporaries when it comes to judging his (radical) others. He expresses what could be seen as some of the earliest forms of anti-colonialist critiques. Montaigne’s universalism is based on his humanist understanding of the self, and in particular, of a fragile self. 7 Towards the world and one’s own self, the humanism of Montaigne applies the same “uncompromising kindness.” 8
Much before the intuition of Freud and Heidegger, locating the modern stranger within each of us, Montaigne asserts internal difference as equally cardinal as external, inter-subjective difference : “there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.”
The worldwide travels of the time are accompanied with a new descriptive press. Publications on the Orient, Turkey or America emerge profusely. In four years, between 1605 and 1609, as many geographical works were published as during the previous fifty-five years, i.e. between 1550 and 1605. 9 The “Antipodes” – the main term for faraway humans – fascinate the European audience, in a premonition of Rousseau’s noble savage. In the early sixteenth century, national and religious values are slowly realised to be relative. The challenge, as Kristeva notes, is in combining the unquestionable process of expansion of France and other European states, without denying the now evident diversity of the world, supported by philosophy’s universalism. 10 The Old Continent prepares its future: the first supranational bodies are conceived, and Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully (1560-1641) suggests a European Federation to resist the Turks.
Evolving towards the historical turn of the French Revolution, the humanist political philosophy of the Enlightenment period would primarily define, and mediate between two categories: the “rights of man” and the “rights of the citizen.” After the Stoic and Christians community, and the utopia as modality, first speculated by Thomas More (1478-1535), Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755) posits the notion of the “general spirit” to justify the possible harmonious arrangement of the human, deemed fundamentally sociable, within and across moderately governed states. Politics becomes a trans-national universal project aiming at accommodating populations within a common ideality. 11 With The Spirit of Laws (1748), Montesquieu thus goes beyond Machiavelli : the good, fair state does not aim at favourable inter-national relations for its own sake, but for the good of all. Recognising the value of economic exchange as the major connection between nations, Montesquieu predicts the tightening of European interdependence :
“Europe is no more than a Nation made up of several others, France and England need the richness of Poland and Muscovy as one of their Provinces needs the others ; and the State that thinks it increases its power through the downfall of its neighbour, usually weakens along with it.” 12
If the rights of the citizen are the extension of the rights of man, the latter remain more important. Striving for further innovations in political systems even after the nation-states, 13 Montesquieu moves towards an effacement of the notion of the foreign… but only at the political level. Through his plea for the private and the secret, Montesquieu is coherent with his time : foreignness is, more and more, to be located within.
The heroes of this ‘exotic’ philosophical literature do undertake ambitious journeys across countries and cultures. But the final goal remains reflective : back in his country, the protagonist has a refreshing, innovative and powerful take on his own culture. In the words of Kristeva, the stranger becomes the alter ego of the philosopher : “The foreigner then becomes the figure onto which the penetrating, ironical mind of the philosopher is delegated — his double, his mask. He is the metaphor of the distance at which we should place ourselves in order to revive the dynamics of ideological and social transformation.”
Through the Persian Letters (1721) of Montesquieu, but also Zadig (1747) and Candide (1759) of Voltaire (1694-1778), the heroes of this ‘exotic’ philosophical literature do undertake ambitious journeys across countries and cultures. But the final goal remains reflective : back in his country, the protagonist has a refreshing, innovative and powerful take on his own culture. In the words of Kristeva, the stranger becomes the alter ego of the philosopher : “The foreigner then becomes the figure onto which the penetrating, ironical mind of the philosopher is delegated — his double, his mask. He is the metaphor of the distance at which we should place ourselves in order to revive the dynamics of ideological and social transformation.” 14 The perspective of a foreigner, thus, for the improvement of a political system. Denis Diderot (1713-1784) continues the tradition, by setting, in Rameau’s Nephew (1763) an imagined philosophical dialogue between the narrator Myself and an eccentric, fierce and intransigent interlocutor : Rameau’s Nephew, the relative of the famous composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Here, the spirit of political self-criticism emerges through playfulness, irony, and a desire to provoke, shock and contradict, not without implicit and explicit references to the classical Cynics. This new model of literary satire also coincides with its contemporary medical discoveries, where the spastic patient evokes that strangeness can be, in its classical sense, cultural, but also organic and neurological. 15 The philosopher, in his evaluation of strangeness, is thus analogous to the doctor : “There is not the slightest difference between a wide-awake physician and a dreaming philosopher.” 16
The term cosmopolite (and its variation, the cosmopolitan), emerging in the 16th century, enters the centre of discussions two hundred years later. In the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert (1751-1772), Jaucourt paraphrases the 1721 definition of the “cosmopolitan” from the Dictionnaire de Trévoux. There, the cosmopolitan is he who has “no fixed abode,” he who is “nowhere a foreigner.” 17 Fougeret de Monbron (1706-1760), an insatiable traveller, wrote in 1750 The Cosmopolitan or the Citizen of the World. This bitter critic of every culture finds nonetheless in the journey a way to recognise oneself as citizen of the world, and to accept the limitations of one’s own society : “The Universe is a kind of book, of which one has read no more than the first page when one has seen only one’s country…” 18 But the idealism of these traveling philosophers is not supported by all. The cosmopolitan becomes a pejorative term, with the Dictionnaire de l’Académie (1762) stating “Whoever does not adopt his homeland is not a good citizen,” 19 while Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) locates political and personal care for one’s co-national above universal concern: “Beware of those cosmopolitans who seek far off in their book duties they fail to accomplish close by.” 20
Fougeret de Monbron (1706-1760), an insatiable traveller, wrote in 1750 The Cosmopolitan or the Citizen of the World. This bitter critic of every culture finds nonetheless in the journey a way to recognise oneself as citizen of the world, and to accept the limitations of one’s own society : “The Universe is a kind of book, of which one has read no more than the first page when one has seen only one’s country…”
A careful reader of Diderot and his Rameau’s Nephew, as well as a commentator of the French Revolution, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) also locates estrangement as a key figure in his dialectical history, when the world of Spirit becomes stranger to itself. It is culture itself that is the model of strangeness for the historical subject, and here Hegel comments on the French culture of the 17-18th century, as described for instance in Diderot’s text. Hegel locates this strangeness at three levels. First, the individual, at this historical juncture, becomes stable when it liberates itself from the universal, a process facilitated by the recurrent role of the philosopher, or the figure of Myself in Diderot’s text. Second, the state finds its power alienated in the entity of an individual and a name – “Louis” 21 – an absurdity that provokes hypocritical courtly culture, the target of the Nephew’s frankness. And third, the Nephew reveals a deeper level of estrangement, through the structure of language and the Nephew’s inability to bypass the opposition between “noble” and “base,” an opposition of appearances that remains the trait of “pure culture.” 22 Ultimately, for Hegel, the world of Culture is overtaken by that of Morality, then Religion, and finally the absolute Spirit.
The popular perception of regal power as undeserved and factitious is indeed growing, and France goes towards its Revolution. From its very inception in 1789, the movement affects the future condition of the foreigner, first with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The liberty of man (Article I) soon shifts into the dimensions of the political (Article II), and then of the national (Article III) – dimensions, or we may perhaps say, ‘modalities’ of the newly defined subject. In this direction, the free man, de facto a citizen, makes of the nation an organically welcoming space… with the exception and the exclusion of the foreigner. Affecting directly the situation of foreigners in the new French regime, the Declaration would also be particularly discriminatory in its application to state-less peoples. A dangerous slope that Hannah Arendt would not miss: “The modern world… includes people who are no longer recognised as citizens of any sovereign state, thus do not belong to any sovereign community nor, by extension, to any community whatsoever.” 23
The political uproars unveil : in early 1793, Barère demands the banishment of all strangers, and one month later Robespierre insists on removing all the foreign generals from the army. Cambon accuses foreigners for the increasing economic crisis, and the Hébertists soon find opposition in the Dantonists – the former defend foreign patriots but demand a stronger aggressivity against foreign countries, while the latter are pacifists but request more severity towards strangers.
In the political events of the very ground, the developments of the French Revolution testify for the growth and decay of an ideality. Guy-Jean-Baptiste Target suggests to the Assembly in 1790 the naturalisation of all strangers residing for at least five years and owning property – a project extended and validated by the Constitution of 1791. In a pacifist mood, the Assembly announces in early 1790 that it will never undertake conquest by force again. In 1792, honorific naturalisation is offered to important writers as “allies of the French people.” Among them, the illustrious Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Paine, Anarchasis Clootz, George Washington and Friedrich Schiller. 24 The cause of strangers is taken further by Jacques Hébert (1757-1794), founder of the party of the Hébertists. But the political uproars unveil : in early 1793, Barère demands the banishment of all strangers, and one month later Robespierre insists on removing all the foreign generals from the army. Cambon accuses foreigners for the increasing economic crisis, and the Hébertists soon find opposition in the Dantonists – the former defend foreign patriots but demand a stronger aggressivity against foreign countries, while the latter are pacifists but request more severity towards strangers. 25 Objects of several conspiracy theories, criticised for their attempts at dechristianisation, accused by Robespierre for “all the crises,” 26 many foreigners are arrested and guillotined in 1794, along with the Hébertists. The Committee on Public Safety issues a new law in March 1794, extremely repressive towards ancient nobles and strangers, forbidding their stay henceforth in Paris and most major towns, as well as any professional activity or association, and denying their public rights. 27 Among the targets of the Committee on Public Safety, the Prussian-Dutch Anacharsis Clootz (1755-1794) comes to France to join the Revolution. Active in the Jacobin Club, he would present in 1790 a project before the Assembly, named “mission of mankind,” claiming, with his thirty-five foreign partners, the worldwide support of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Anacharsis Clootz was close to Hébert and he, too, dreamt of a universal Republic, to the point of revoking the concept of the foreigner altogether : “The ‘foreigner,’ a barbarous term that is beginning to make us blush, and the enjoyment of which we shall leave to those savage hordes who shall be eliminated without effort by the plough of civilised men.” 28 Another marking figure of these “allies of the French people,” Thomas Paine (1737-1809), one more self-defined ‘citizen of the world,’ defends the French Revolution to the point of provoking accusations of treason in England. His implication in his new country of adoption is sincere enough to provide him with the seat of deputy for the Pas-de-Calais department. He supports the Revolution but asks for some compassion for the king on his way out. After being jailed for almost a year, he is finally called back in the Constitution Convention, but his critical feedbacks are not conventional and he is marginalised. The Age of Reason (1794-1796) remains a hallmark of the Enlightenment’s moving away from priests and religion, and towards reason, while contending a spiritual connection across religions. Paine’s success remains mild, in France but also in the USA, in spite of having greatly inspired the Patriots.
In Perpetual Peace, Kant adds one more level of law above the jus civitatis (a people’s civil code) and the jus gentium (international law) : the jus cosmopoliticum – the cosmopolitan law. This new kind of jurisdiction, calling for the development of federations, goes against the age-old reduction of the foreigner to the enemy.
But if one name resounds from the Enlightenment, it is, naturally, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). As we will see, the extent of his incorporative understanding of foreignness will prevail in the modern and contemporary political solutions to the question of the stranger, in spite of the historical and pragmatic complications we just discussed. Kant dedicates some of his last, major essays to the ambitious project of a political system at once cosmopolitan and with universalist pretensions : Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784) and Perpetual Peace (1795). Like some of his contemporaries, Kant dreams of a League of Nations centralising at once force and legal framework. The philosopher remains modest in his claims, arguing that this achievement will have its own temporality, being actualised only after a long wait – but it is nonetheless an inevitable outcome. The project of a liberation from the very concept of foreignness is also present in Kant’s idea, yet one that also attempts to avoid reductions : “Kant’s text inscribed, at the outset of a political ethics and a legal reality that are still to be carried out, the cosmopolitan concept of a mankind finding its full accomplishment without foreigners but respecting the right of those that are different.” 29 In Perpetual Peace, he adds one more level of law above the jus civitatis (a people’s civil code) and the jus gentium (international law) : the jus cosmopoliticum – the cosmopolitan law. This new kind of jurisdiction, calling for the development of federations, goes against the age-old reduction of the foreigner to the enemy : “hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another.” 30 This federative hypothesis is also distinct from a unified mega-monarchy : in Kant’s view, the ideal political construction of humanity would be a set of collaborating and friendly states.
Image courtesy: Gustave Doré
|Foreigner, There : History of a Political Capture|
|Book 1 from
De l’Infini : A Foreigner’s Metaphysics
|EXPLORE THE SERIES|
|Stories from a History||Foreigners of the Antiquity|
|Part 2||Part 3|
|The Foreigner Enters Reason (1500-1800)||Centripetal Foreignness (1800-1920)|
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 114, modified translation.
- Ibid., 114.
- Donald M. Frame, trans., The Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 297.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 120, with reference to Frame, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, respectively 475, 474-475, 469 and 736.
- Frame, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, 244.
- Ibid., 484.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 123.
- See Geoffroy Atkinson, Les Nouveaux Horizons de la Renaissance (Geneva: Droz, 1935), 9.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 124.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 129.
- Montesquieu, Considérations sur la richesse d’Espagne, in Œuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1985): 2:10.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 131.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 133-4.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 139.
- Denis Diderot, “D’Alembert’s Dream,” in Rameau’s Nephew and Other Works, trans. Jacques Barzun and Ralph H. Bowen (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), 117.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 140
- Fougeret de Monbron, Le Cosmopolite ou le Citoyen du monde, suivi de La Capitale des Gaules ou la Nouvelle Babylone (Bordeaux: Ducros, 1970), 35.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 143
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, in Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), 4:248-249. I follow the translation of Leon S. Roudiez, translator of Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves.
- G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 535.
- Ibid, 543.
- Hannah Arendt, “Imperialism,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979), 295.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 156.
- Ibid., 158.
- Cited in Albert Mathiez, La Révolution et les étrangers (Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, 1928), 172.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 161.
- Speech from the 16 April 1793, cited in Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 162.
- Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 171.
- Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” in On History, trans. Lewis White Beck (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1963), p. 103.