Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Cosmopolitan Egalitarianism in the Enlightenment: Anquetil Duperron on India and America

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Cosmopolitan Egalitarianism in the Enlightenment: Anquetil Duperron on India and America

Article excerpt

At the present time, Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (Paris, 7 December 1731-17 January 1805) is not a household name in the historical imagination of the West. If he is remembered at all, it is as the pioneer of the European study of the manuscripts of the Zoroastrian creed and one of the founding fathers of French Orientalism.1 Readers of Edward Said's Orientalism will have encountered Anquetil as an early avatar of the Orientalist project which Said discursively took apart in that justly famous and timely book. Said labeled him "an eccentric theoretician of egalitarianism," but apparently felt no need to inquire further into the nature of Anquetil's egalitarianism.2 This is a pity, for an unbiased examination of Anquetil's writings calls into question Said's lumping together of all varieties of Orientalism as intellectual vehicles of the imperial imagination. In Anquetil's own opinion, his work was an integral part of his critique of colonial robbery and European arrogance. The study of the history and the ancient languages of Asia, he declared, was of greater import than the satisfaction of mere curiosity, "because it contributes to our knowledge of lands that are more considerable than Europe, and it presents us with a grand survey, proper to perfect the knowledge of mankind, & above all to assure the inalienable rights of humanity."3

What Said so cavalierly dismisses as an "eccentric" egalitarianism, was in fact a life-long defense of the equality and dignity of non-European peoples, from India to the Americas and the Arctic zone. The story of Anquetil's intellectual trajectory calls into question all interpretations that depict the Enlightenment's thought about the extra-European world, exclusively or predominantly, in terms of Eurocentric arrogance and "Othering." Historians such as Urs Bitterli, Anthony Pagden, Melvin Richter, Sankar Muthu, and Jennifer Pitts have called our attention to the wide dissemination of critical judgments of European expansion and its cultural consequences in the thought of the eighteenth century.4 Yet, much remains to be done in this field before we will have a picture of the Enlightenment that fully recognizes its transcultural egalitarian dimensions. In this context, Anquetil's thought merits a closer examination than it has received thus far.5 This essay will show that his egalitarianism, while influenced by Jansenism and natural rights philosophy, acquired its global dimension from the critique of Eurocentrism that he began to develop during his stay in India. I will further demonstrate that Anquetil's study of Zoroastrianism, and later of the Vedic writings, perhaps began under the aegis of Christian sacred history, but that his recognition of the historical autonomy of the ancient Asian sources pushed him towards a less Christianizing and Eurocentric interpretation. The theoretical view underpinning this shift was a project for a comparative global history of civilizations. I will then discuss the further development of Anquetil's egalitarianism in his unfinished work on the Arctic peoples of America and Eurasia. In the conclusion, I will come back to the larger issue of the Enlightenment and eighteenth-century globalization.

A YOUNG FRENCHMAN SAILS FOR INDIA

In February 1755 a young man left France for India, to study and translate, if he could lay hands on them, the Zoroastrian manuscripts of the ZendAvesta, something no European before him had been able to do. AbrahamHyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron was born to a petit-bourgeois Parisian family of Jansenist persuasion. His parents prepared him for a church career. Accordingly, he read Hebrew at the Sorbonne, but then turned to Arabic and Persian while completing his education at the Jansenist seminaries in the Dutch Republic. Back in Paris, he abandoned his ecclesiastical career and devoted himself entirely to Oriental philology. Daniel Caylus, the Jansenist bishop of Auxerre, helped him to obtain a stipend to study the Oriental manuscripts in the Bibliothèque du roi. …

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