#ReadWithMe: Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment Part 6: Doing Cosmopolitan History

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Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

Enlightenment ideas and methods come for the historians. Chronological and eye-witness accounts are out and empirical data, statistics, source criticism, and footnotes are in. Learn more about these and other changes in Part 6 of Willis' #ReadWithMe on Ritchie Robertson's The Enlightenment.
Chapters 11 and 12 of  Ritchie Robertson's The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790, pick up right where we left off in my previous post- the search for the underlying causes of societal progress. In these chapters, Robertson turns away from political economy to consider the practice of history.
As we have noted earlier, a new strand of secular history emerged, but it is not only the distinction between sacred and secular history that Robertson finds notable during this period. Beginning with Voltaire’s, Essai sur les moeurs (1756), Robertson recounts a new style of “doing” history, which takes much from the new methods of science in the Enlightenment. Robertson says that earlier histories were merely chronological accounts of events, generally drawn from eyewitness accounts. Voltaire aimed to adopt the ideals of Newtonian physics to the study of history, basing it on the careful collection of empirical data, consistent with the fashionable new fascination with statistics we learned about in the previous section. Related, Enlightenment historians began to harbor some distrust of “witness” accounts. Enlightenment histories also became notable for implementing source criticism and authors footnoting their sources.
Robertson also notes the pre-Enlightenment tendency for histories to offer exemplars- good and bad- of conduct, a trend which carries over into the Enlightenment. In addition, Enlightenment practitioners also came to believe that history illustrated general truths, though the historian must dig deeper than mere facts or statistics to arrive at them. Thus, writes Robertson, “History now ceased to be simply narrative or anecdotal. It analyzed events as well as recounting them.” (560) The purpose of history to the enlighteners was to address the ‘progress of society.’ (561) 
Robertson spends a considerable amount of time recounting enlighteners’ fascination with stadial theory- the progression of all societies through four stages: hunter-gatherers, herding, agriculture, and commerce. In this context, Robertson is turning his attention to the problem of inequality. Property begins during the second, or herding, phase of history, when people are settled enough to domesticate livestock, thereby discovering the need for enforceable property rights. The more stable the society, the more important property rights are, according to Robertson. And with property comes the distinction of ranks, ever increasing specialization, and ever greater economic inequality.
Again, Robertson reluctantly suggests commerce, which develops after agriculture and with the demise of feudal order, as the antidote. And here we turn to Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Robertson appreciates Gibbon on the “ambivalence of luxury.” (585) Both see luxury as an antidote to inequality as its emulation causes ever more money to circulate, raising the living standards of all. But while more equal, Gibbon also cautioned that people also become softer. 
“A cyclical pattern becomes visible, in which a military nation achieves conquests through its solidarity and discipline, enjoys the resulting wealth, but then succumbs to its own prosperity, grows soft, employs mercenaries to do its fighting, and is financially overcome by those very mercenaries.” (585-6) 
The Enlighteners, too, as Robertson has been quick to remind us all along, see dangers in the same liberty that commerce allows, recalling his earlier discussion on the relationship between manners, luxury, and virtue.
Gibbon appears to me in these chapters as Robertson’s alter ego. The most emblematic line to me is:
“Certainly, as is clear from many asides, Gibbon valued his relatively free and civilized society, the decline of superstition and the defeat of clerical authority. But he offers no guarantee that modern commercial society will not fall victim to the cycle of growth, luxury, and corruption that, on his showing, has afflicted so many others.” (593) 
While Robertson’s skepticism with regard to commerce obviously frustrates me, it is a useful segway into his discussion of empire and colonialism. He notes that Enlightenment era “empires” were more the work of trading companies to whom the state has granted monopolies. 
He points to the East India company, Adam Smith’s main example of the detrimental effects of monopoly. He also notes the belief of many enlighteners that colonialism degraded the people of both nations- colonizer and colonized- as well as the deleterious effects of colonialism on domestic treasuries, noting the case of Spain in particular.

Robertson ends with an encouraging discussion of cosmopolitanism, emphasizing the work of Enlighteners in fostering cultural as well as economic exchange. He writes, 
“European reason transforms the world; but it is saved from desiccation by being transformed in turn. It is not a question of imposing European norms on the rest of the world, but of coming to appreciate the diversity of human cultures, and thus building up a richer understanding of humanity.”
On this optimistic note, Robertson will turn his attention to forms of government and then revolutions to conclude his epic. Until next time, I leave you with some questions I hope you’ll consider. We’d love to hear what you think!

Questions for Us:

1- What do you think the job of the historian is? To what extent can/ought the historian “fill in the blanks” when there are gaps in the historical record?

2- What do you see as the origin of social and economic inequalities? To what extent is a “distinction of ranks” a worrisome inequality? To what extent does such a scheme persist today? What is the relationship between liberty and equality?

3- According to this account, should Gibbon be seen as an optimist or pessimist? To what extent do you believe that commerce necessarily fosters luxury and corruption? 

4- Robertson emphasizes that all work in the humanities and social sciences carries the scholar’s perspectives and prejudices with it. Is this true? What might a scholar do to mitigate the effects of her prejudices and perspective on her work?

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