The Apotheosis of Europe

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History book series (CIH)


In the preceding chapters, we have observed that French Enlightenment authors used cross-cultural comparisons in a number of ways: to comment approvingly or disapprovingly on their own country’s culture and institutions, to engage in debates regarding natural law and the principles governing human society, and to prove or disprove theories regarding human origins, human nature, and the causes of racial and cultural diversity. This chapter will focus on one very specific trope that developed out of these cross-cultural comparisons, which was widely though not universally shared among French Enlightenment writers, and on whose significance we have already remarked on several occasions: the idea of a space-time continuum in which all of the peoples of the world represented different stages or points along a common axis of social and cultural development. Both the anarchic “savages” of the various new worlds known to the eighteenth century and the “despotic” empires of the Orient served an important function in this multidimensional comparison, which increasingly operated to Europe’s advantage as the century drew nearer to its conclusion. In the “stadial history” of the Enlightenment, Europe came to be defined as civilized (in contrast to the primitive peoples of America, Africa, and Oceania) and also as dynamic and free (as opposed to the allegedly static and despotic societies of the Orient).


Spanish Conquest Universal History Enlightenment Thinker Benevolent Form Oriental Despotism 
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© David Allen Harvey 2012

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