Nasty, Brutish, and Short
Anyone that is interested in history knows that there are countless different perspectives on any one subject and you can spend an entire career investigating what is seems to be just one very specific subject. The lecture given by Cambridge Professor Emma Spray was further proof of this. Originally, we were expecting a lecture on Enlightenment politics and political theory, an issue that after 15 weeks of discussion, we believe we had a good handle on. What we got was a new perspective that I don’t think any of us had anticipated.
In her lecture, Dr. Spray took a metaphorical approach to explain some political themes of the era. Her argument was based on the competing views of Enlightenment thinkers on the subject of nature and, more specifically, natural government. Which view the nation’s government adopted would shape the world in the 18th century and beyond. Dr. Spray focused particularly on France, who was the historic great rival of the British. The first perspective was that of a well-respected and well known Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who believed that nature was in a state of perfection when it was left untouched by humans. Rousseau also believed that the territory in which people lived provided sufficient resources for the population to survive.
The counter argument, put forth by Georges Butel-Dumont and others, focused on the idea that humans had the capability to improve nature. He believed that resources were unevenly distributed throughout the world and through agriculture, horticulture, and especially free trade, humans had the ability to improve the natural environment in which they lived by essentially evening out the distribution of resources. Another important theme of the Butel-Dumont train of thought was the idea of naturalization, where once a plant has been transplanted from its original habitat to a new one, over time it will become natural in that new habitat and work its way into the ecosystem as if it had grown there naturally.
These are two clearly differing opinions on how trade should be conducted and what would best suit individual societies, but a key part of the lecture was about how the ideas surrounding nature and agriculture translated into the creation of new government. According to the Rousseau rationale, each individual territory was able to discover what method of governing worked best for them. This would be the perfect state of natural government that should be left undisturbed by other societies. The opposing opinion would have the much greater impact. Like the distribution of resources, the Butel-Dumont line of thinking believes that you can transplant “modern” ideas on government into other societies. This was used as a justification for French imperialism at the time because they believed that by creating colonies around the world, they were creating a mutually beneficial relationship between France and the colonial populations. Then, through the process of naturalization, the improved, “modern” government, like transplanted fruit, will eventually become so ingrained into the new territory that it will eventually be regarded as the natural.
The history books have shown which argument drove the politics in the years following the 18th century. As students, I think we enjoyed Dr. Spary’s nuanced and alternative look at the events of the enlightenment. It added a new and creative element to a common theme that we have been studying all semester. Dr. Spray was an enthusiastic and engaging speaker that sparked everyone’s interest, no matter what their area of study. It was also beneficial to get a French perspective of the time period, since we have been studying almost exclusively British thinkers during our seminar. Most importantly I think all of us came out with a better understanding of the complicated politics of the era and at the very least, we all have a better appreciation for the complexity of Western European society during the era of the Enlightenment.
Reporter: Alec Rampe
Photographer: Jake Ross