Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe

Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe

Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe

Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe


The mingling of aristocrats and commoners in a southern French city, the jostling of foreigners in stock markets across northern and western Europe, the club gatherings in Paris and London of genteel naturalists busily distilling plants or making air pumps, the ritual fraternizing of "brothers" in privacy and even secrecy--Margaret Jacob invokes all these examples in Strangers Nowhere in the World to provide glimpses of the cosmopolitan ethos that gradually emerged over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Jacob investigates what it was to be cosmopolitan in Europe during the early modern period. Then--as now--being cosmopolitan meant the ability to experience people of different nations, creeds, and colors with pleasure, curiosity, and interest. Yet such a definition did not come about automatically, nor could it always be practiced easily by those who embraced its principles. Cosmopolites had to strike a delicate balance between the transgressive and the subversive, the radical and the dangerous, the open-minded and the libertine. Jacob traces the history of this precarious balancing act to illustrate how ideals about cosmopolitanism were eventually transformed into lived experiences and practices. From the representatives of the Inquisition who found the mixing of Catholics and Protestants and other types of "border crossing" disruptive to their authority, to the struggles within urbane masonic lodges to open membership to Jews, Jacob also charts the moments when the cosmopolitan impulse faltered.

Jacob pays particular attention to the impact of science and merchant life on the emergence of the cosmopolitan ideal. In the decades after 1650, modern scientific practices coalesced and science became an open enterprise. Experiments were witnessed in social settings of natural inquiry, congenial for the inculcation of cosmopolitan mores. Similarly, the public venues of the stock exchanges brought strangers and foreigners together in ways encouraging them to be cosmopolites. The amount of international and global commerce increased greatly after 1700, and luxury tastes developed that valorized foreign patterns and designs.

Drawing upon sources as various as Inquisition records and spy reports, minutes of scientific societies and the writings of political revolutionaries, Strangers Nowhere in the World reveals a moment in European history when an ideal of cultural openness came to seem strong enough to counter centuries of chauvinism and xenophobia. Perhaps at no time since, Jacob cautions, has that cosmopolitan ideal seemed more fragile and elusive than it is today.


Being cosmopolitan in Europe during the early modern age meant—as now—the ability to experience people of different nations, creeds and colors with pleasure, curiosity and interest, and not with suspicion, disdain, or simply a disinterest that could occasionally turn into loathing. This benign posture, whether toward foreigners or disbelievers in one’s own religion, did not come about—then or now—automatically, or even easily. It happens when circumstances or situations, times, and places exist that are propitious. In other words, such a varying stance in the world possesses a history, and this book seeks to recapture aspects of it. Focused on Europe from roughly 1650 to 1800, the chapters ahead take their definitions of the cosmopolitan from what those contemporaries said, as well as inevitably from our own lived experience.

We can recognize the early modern words used to describe the cosmopolitan as now being a part of our own idealistic vocabulary. Cosmopolitans, as French philosopher, Denis Diderot, put it in his encyclopedia of 1751, are “strangers no where in the world.” They accept the foreign hospitably, without necessarily agreeing with, or practicing, every cultural value associated with it. They enjoy people different from themselves, live next to them comfortably, or socialize and trade with them respectfully. A gossipy journal of the 1770s in the Dutch Republic called itself, De Kosmopoliet of Waereldburger (The Cosmopolite or World Citizen). It surveyed theater and the arts, taking a particular interest in foreign languages and unusual dialects. It sought to treat nothing foreign or strange as unknowable or despicable. It also satirized the new sociability associated with the cosmopolitan, in effect making fun of its own ideal. By the second half of the eighteenth century the word, and the ideal, had become commonplace.

Then in the 1790s the implications of cosmopolitan mores received a novel treatment and were given international dimensions. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant created a political agenda for the Western nations by proclaiming the cosmopolitan acceptance of all peoples to be a necessity. It would become, he said, the foundation for a perpetual peace among nations.

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