One thing that has long made Europe what it is, distinct from any other part of the world, is a peculiar mix of division and integration. Since the fall of Rome, Europe has never been unified by an overarching imperial power. Instead, the continent evolved from feudal fragmentation into a system of independent, competing nation-states, restrained from devouring one another—at least before the twentieth century—by a system of balance-of-power politics. Competition goaded each state to develop its political and economic capabilities, so that by the mid-1700s, the continent as a whole was well on the way to realizing its potential to dominate other regions—a power that would alter the world in the age of imperialism.

This mix of separateness and coordination preserved the distinct identities of Europe’s parts but created a frame in which trade, competition, and a semblance of religious unity drew them all together. It was also a chief factor in cultural development and social change. Take, for example, the Enlightenment. In France, the movement was largely devoted to a critique of the ancien régime’s political and religious oppression. It morphed into a celebration of native civility and constitutional liberty in Great Britain and shifted its focus in Germany from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s emphasis on the politics of domination to the conditions of inner moral freedom.

It was against this background that the notion of cosmopolitanism began to spread in Europe. Cosmopolitanism was primarily a political ideal, associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in a 1795 essay entitled Perpetual Peace posited a “cosmopolitan law” that would give individuals rights as “citizens of the earth” rather than as citizens of particular countries. But cosmopolitanism also had a strong literary dimension. Travel writing—such as Captain James Cook’s diaries of his travels to Oceania and the Pacific and Montesquieu’s fictitious Persian Letters—encouraged people to imagine themselves in foreign environments. One French writer of the period thus referred to himself as a cosmopolite, declaring that “all countries are the same to me.”

Other people drawn to a cosmopolitan perspective approached it by way of the special mix of internal division and integration that made Europe a favorable site for cosmopolitanism in the first place. They posited a kind of dialectical relationship that made more restricted ties a starting point for developing broader ones. This dialectic was also at the heart of the celebrated Republic of Letters, which attracted many partisans of the Enlightenment. The republic was made up of writers, thinkers, and other truth seekers linked together by networks of correspondence, publication, patronage, and friendship. It was dedicated to liberating its members from the prejudices and attachments that their local, national, or denominational ties produced. But this goal could only be pursued as long as it was never fully realized, because if it were, then all otherness would be eradicated, depriving successive participants in the republic’s activities of the exposure to the alternative perspectives that could help them become more enlightened, more rational, and more cosmopolitan citizens.

Portraits of Ivan Turgenev, Pauline Viardot, and Louis Viardot
Portraits of Ivan Turgenev, Pauline Viardot, and Louis Viardot
Left to right: Chronicle / Alamy stock photo; GL Archive / Alamy stock photo; Heritage Image / Alamy stock photo

Had this interplay between the local and the universal fully informed the story of cosmopolitanism that Orlando Figes puts at the center of his cultural history, The Europeans, his good book could have been much better. Figes provides a vast store of information on European cultural institutions—theaters, opera houses, museums, and international exhibitions—as well as their social and economic underpinnings. He seeks to integrate all this material in two ways. First, he shows how Europe’s cosmopolitan culture was formed by the international links that were either created or strengthened over the nineteenth century, so that by the end of the period, not only was “all of Europe reading the same books”—a fact that the literary historian Franco Moretti established with statistics in his Atlas of the European Novel—but people everywhere were also hearing the same music and looking at the same pictures. This development owed much to an expansion of publishing and, in particular, of translations. It also stemmed from a variety of new photographic techniques that publishers combined with lithography and engraving in order to tap a growing market of consumers. But the most powerful engine of cultural integration in the nineteenth century was the railroad.

Trains crisscrossed the continent with great rapidity starting in the 1850s, bringing together people and objects that were once weeks or months of travel apart. Figes begins his book with a colorful account of the opening of the first short-range international lines in 1843 and 1846. This appealing curtain raiser already announces the book’s one-sidedness, however, because such an emphasis on the railroad as an engine of internationalism obscures the degree to which it served as a vehicle for national integration, providing such countries as France and Germany with the market unity that was crucial to the establishment of modern industry. In addition, it underestimates the role railroads played in forging cultural unity. Continental Europe entered the nineteenth century as a linguistically splintered congeries of local cultures. Railways helped merge many of these cultures and turn them into national characteristics by making travel easier and faster than ever before.

The Europeans’ second unifying thread is human rather than technological: throughout his volume, Figes traces the lives of three exceptionally cosmopolitan Europeans. One of the protagonists of Figes’s narrative is a Spanish soprano, Pauline Viardot. Although best known as an opera singer, Viardot was also a first-rate pianist and a talented composer, whose charm and intelligence made her the center of cultural life wherever she set up her household. The Europeans also follows her French husband, Louis Viardot, who was a writer, art critic, impresario, and radical political activist. The last of the three lives in the book’s subtitle belongs to the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, best known for his remarkable story of radicalism and generational conflict, Fathers and Sons.

What bound Turgenev to the Viardots was his emotional attachment to Pauline, with whom he fell in love in 1843. Turgenev would spend the rest of his life either in close proximity to Pauline or wishing for it, following her and Louis to Paris and London, often living near them and spending long, languorous days in their company. Turgenev was also Pauline’s lover and very likely the father of one of her children. Louis accepted his wife’s liaison with Turgenev and maintained friendly relations with the Russian writer throughout his lifetime.


The richness of both the personalities and the story seeds Figes’s book with memorable moments. Pauline, in particular, stands out. A figure less remembered than her achievements merit—in large part because her singing and her ability to foster far-reaching networks of friends and acquaintances left little material trace—Pauline captured the cosmopolitanism of the period. Descriptions of her deep yet flexible soprano and the dramatic quality of her performances leave one yearning for some way to hear them; alas, her work as a composer, which competent judges admired, was impeded by the common assumption that women were not up to writing music. Pauline was also connected to dozens of famous composers and musicians, from Frédéric Chopin and Richard Wagner to Johannes Brahms, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Camille Saint-Saëns, Clara Schumann, and Johann Strauss II. One memorable example of Figes’s talent for uncovering fascinating vignettes is his account of a soiree at the Viardots’ house in 1860, where Pauline and Wagner gave the first performance of the famous love duet from the second act of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s great epic of love and death.

A view of Paris, 1865
Charles Soulier / Wikimedia Commons

Turgenev’s career also serves as a lens through which to view European cultural history. His literary realism provides an entry into the development of the novel, and his radicalism, into the continent’s politics. One of his early books helped turn Russian opinion against serfdom. Turgenev was a determined westernizer who was nevertheless close to such deeply Russian figures as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Among his contributions to cosmopolitanism was his sponsorship of French and German writers in Russia—he was especially close to Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola—and of Russian ones in the West. Turgenev was also an active participant in the movement to establish an international system of copyright. Louis Viardot receives the least attention of the three, but he, too, has a place in the weaving of international connections; his writings on Spanish art and his guides for visitors to museums were highly popular.

But there are two reasons why, despite these virtues, The Europeans falls short of fulfilling its promise. The first is that Figes’s attempt to make a general cultural history of the period cohere around the lives of Turgenev and the Viardots forces him to alternate biographical sections with ones that take up various bigger topics. This may seem like a promising way to integrate individual lives with larger historical currents, but as a result of this organization, the reader is obliged to engage in a kind of literary multitasking, made even more difficult by the many complex details and the multitude of minor figures who enter into the story along the way.

Cosmopolitanism is not a state into which people can enter once and for all.

The greater problem, however, is not organizational but conceptual. There can be no doubt that Europe became more closely integrated as railroad construction proceeded; there was also something new about the fact that people across the continent were reading the same books, listening to the same music, and gazing at the same works of art. But Figes is also perfectly aware that opposition to cosmopolitanism developed alongside its progress, notably in the rise of nationalist currents in every cultural domain. Because he generally regards these currents as mere episodes of resistance to cosmopolitanism, he never succeeds in establishing a meaningful relationship between them and the growth of a cosmopolitan outlook. At the start of the book, he quotes the British art historian Kenneth Clark’s claim that “nearly all the great advances in civilization” have come at times of “utmost internationalism.” And he calls on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche at the end to say that “the process of becoming European” involves “a growing detachment” from local conditions, “an increasing independence of any definite milieu.” He extends this point even further in his discussion of the opera Carmen. Figes writes that “it was no longer possible, or even meaningful, to distinguish between what was nationally ‘authentic’ and what foreign or international—so much cultural exchange was there across national borders in the modern world.”

And yet people still found it necessary to make such distinctions, as Figes himself tells us a few pages later. Western audiences still “wanted Russian music to sound ‘Russian,’ Spanish music ‘Spanish,’ Hungarian ‘Hungarian.’” When the Belgian journal L’Art moderne proposed to serve as a space where Latin and Germanic sensibilities could interact and stimulate each other, the premise was not that becoming fully European required dissolving such differences but that something positive would come of the encounter between them. Moreover, sometimes The Europeans seems to question its own premise that the overall trajectory of nineteenth-century European cultural history was toward the triumph of cosmopolitanism. For instance, Figes observes that Meyerbeer’s death in 1864 marked “the passing of the cosmopolitan idea of European culture which his life and work had embodied.” Elsewhere, he quotes Henry James’s accusation that the writers in Flaubert’s circle were dogmatic to the point of being “ignorant of anything that was not French.”


The point is not that Figes would have done well to pay more attention to the kind of nationalism that would become so destructive in the twentieth century, and remains so today. In order to understand the manner in which Europe could and could not be cosmopolitan, historians must remain attentive to the long-standing pattern wherein the continued separateness of Europe’s parts functions as the underlying condition of the continent’s special mode of unity. Cosmopolitanism is not a state into which people can enter once and for all by reading the same books or listening to the same music. Human beings can never wholly detach themselves from the definite milieus of which Nietzsche saw only the dark side; they can only aspire to be citizens of the world by acknowledging their rootedness in some smaller part of it. The British poet T. S. Eliot affirmed this when he defined a “good European” not as one who seeks to diminish “local and national” differences but as one who becomes more critical of his or her own culture by recognizing that other ways of life have something to teach. Treating cosmopolitanism as an aspiration to dissolve all differences in favor of some universal way of being is misguided, as it would lead to a condition “in which we should have nothing to gain from each other,” Eliot notes. Since the same differences that make those gains possible are the ones that also lead to conflict and hostility, the path Europeans must walk is a narrow one.

This lesson is especially important after the success of Brexiteers in convincing a large proportion of the British electorate that the United Kingdom’s national interests could be served only by renouncing international ties. To save liberal cosmopolitanism at a time when populist sentiment in Europe and the United States promotes the revival of a divisive and narrow nationalism, it is important to recognize that cosmopolitanism need not set itself against local loyalties and attachments and that, properly understood, the two can nurture each other. The best way to become cosmopolitans is by aspiring to the broad perspectives that coming to know a range of diverse cultures and viewpoints opens up. One belongs best to the wider world when one perceives it as the sum of all the particular ways of being and seeing of which it is composed.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JERROLD SEIGEL is William R. Kennan, Jr., Professor of History Emeritus at New York University.
  • More By Jerrold Seigel