Savages, Romans, and Despots: A Selected Bibliography

May 12th, 2019

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. Robert Launay will join us on Sunday 5/19, 3pm at the Co-op to discuss Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about others from Montaigne to Herder. He will be joined in conversation by Ada Palmer.


Essays, by Michel de Montaigne - Montaigne's famous (and marvelous) essay "Of Cannibals" is most obviously related to the theme of my book, how early modern Europeans understood themselves in relation to others. I read it in college, regularly assigned it in class to undergraduates, and it was undoubtedly at the core of my formulation of the book project. But the other Essays are wonderful in their own right, and in some ways relevant to our contemporary predicament. They center on how, in a time of virulent polarization, it is possible to remain a decent human being.

New Voyage Round the World, by William Dampier - For the most part, I avoided discussing travel accounts in my book in favor of broader attempts to theorize differences with "others". However, they provided an essential background to such discussions. Among them, Dampier's account is one of the most engaging and original. Starting off as a buccaneer in the Caribbean, he jumped ship several times to make it around the world. He wrote with wry humor and genuine sympathy for the different peoples he encountered in his travels.

Persian Letters, by Montesquieu - Another genre which I reluctantly left out of my book—though I devoted much of a chapter to Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws—consists of epistolary novels ostensibly written by exotic foreigners who cast an outsider's view on Europe, reversing the perspective (at least in theory!). Persian Letters is the most famous of these, using Persian visitors to elaborate a witty critique of contemporary Parisian society while simultaneously employing the Persian harem as the basis of Montesquieu's critique of "despotism", expanded in his later work.

Letters of a Peruvian Woman, by Francoise de Grafigny - This is another epistolary novel, less famous than Persian Letters but even more original. It tells the story of an Inca princess kidnapped by the Spanish and put on a ship bound for Spain. The ship is captured by a French vessel, whose captain and his sister rescue the Princess and take her to Paris. More than any of the other epistolary novels, this powerfully conveys the experience of learning another culture. The heroine is initially bewildered and terrified, only gradually apprenticing herself to alien European ways. This is a remarkable novel, sensitively trying to explore the subjectivity of a captive foreign woman.

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges - Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (from Labyrinths). The story is a thumbnail biography of an imaginary early 20th century French symbolist who decides to rewrite the Quixote word for word, but from his own experience. This is a whimsical and witty meditation on the relationship between our own historical imagination and our understanding of the written word.


About Robert Launay: Robert Launay is Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. His books include Islamic Education in Africa (Indiana University Press 2015) and Foundations of Anthropological Theory: From Classical Antiquity to Early Modern Europe (Wiley-Blackwell 2010).