In This Review

Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter With Asia
Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter With Asia
By Jürgen Osterhammel. Translated by Robert Savage
Princeton University Press, 2018, 696 pp

For Europe, the eighteenth century was a time of intense study of the lands to the east. Intrepid travelers spent years and fortunes learning languages, registering facts, and coming up with generalizations that were as often wrong as right. The travelers’ images of the East, Osterhammel writes in this learned and engrossing account, played “a key rhetorical role in the domestic controversies of the era.” Montesquieu, who never visited Asia, used the idea of Oriental despotism to expose the risks of Bourbon absolutism; his less well-known royalist compatriot Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron defended the Bourbons by showing that Oriental monarchies ruled through law. Every major philosophical dispute of the age was influenced by the work of scholars of the East, on subjects as diverse as the nature of civilization, the forms of government, the sources of national wealth, the stages of social development, and the role of women. These disputes laid the foundations for much of modern political thought. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Europeans shifted from an open attitude toward Asia to the belief that only European society was rational, dynamic, and just. That attitude then helped justify the colonialism of the following century.