The Future of the History of Philosophy

by Josh Platzky Miller and Lea Cantor

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 (“Where is Philosophy Going?“).
If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.
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One way to scry the future of philosophy is to look at its past. However, the history of philosophy – both as a field of academic study and in more popular literature – tends to tell a rather narrow and parochial story. This story predominantly focuses on Europe to the exclusion of almost everywhere else. The shift away from such a bias has already begun, especially in the specialist history of philosophy literature, but there are still deeply Eurocentric assumptions built into the most influential general histories of philosophy available today. One invisible assumption, still widely adopted, is that there is such a thing as “Western Philosophy”. As we will argue, the history of philosophy – both in Europe and globally – would be better understood if we abandoned the idea of a “Western Philosophy”. To see why, we start with the most widespread narratives about philosophy’s past.


Mainstream histories of philosophy contain what we might call a “Standard Narrative”: that philosophy begins in ancient Greece, usually starting with Thales; that it is continuous to the present day (the “Plato to NATO” picture); and that it is a largely self-standing European achievement with minimal influence from elsewhere. Some form of this picture is present in most influential histories of philosophy, from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1945) to more recent works like Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy (2000), Anthony Kenny’s New History of Western Philosophy (2010), James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom’s The Story of Philosophy: a History of Western Thought (2012), and A.C. Grayling’s History of Philosophy (2019). In these histories, the Standard Narrative tends to be equated to the history of “Western Philosophy”, although it is sometimes used interchangeably with philosophy as such, for instance in Philip Stokes’ Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers (2016).

So far, so familiar. But there are real problems with the Standard Narrative. Most obviously, for a supposedly continuous tradition, we might have some questions about a glaring c. 600-year gap (about 450-1050 CE). The gap seems to suggest that there weren’t really any philosophers for over half a millennium – or, as Brian Magee presents it, “for a long time scarcely any new intellectual work of lasting importance was done.”

We might further wonder about a history of philosophy that tells a story of almost entirely men boasting an age-old European lineage. How have the Ancient Greeks become equated to Western Europeans when their main interactions were with the Eastern Mediterranean, and they themselves often hailed from the Levant and North Africa? What of the “canonical” thinkers in the Graeco-Roman world who were actually from contemporary Turkey (e.g., Thales), Egypt (e.g., Plotinus), and Algeria (e.g., Augustine)? And that’s just the start of it: what about philosophers prior to the Greeks, or altogether excluded from the ambit of Ancient Philosophy, who wrote in languages other than Greek or Latin, such as Sanskrit or classical Chinese?

The Standard Narrative is presented by historians of philosophy in Europe as having been passed down since antiquity. Yet, one of its most striking features is how recently it was fabricated. Even until the late 1700s, many European histories of philosophy offered a significantly different picture. For instance, Gilles Ménage in France published a History of Women Philosophers (1690), while in Germany, Johann Jakob Brucker’s 1742 Critical History of Philosophy contained hundreds of pages on philosophy prior to the Greeks and beyond Europe.

The Standard Narrative is presented by historians of philosophy in Europe as having been passed down since antiquity. Yet, one of its most striking features is how recently it was fabricated.

How, then, did we arrive at the Standard Narrative? The story of a Greek origin of philosophy became common in late-18th century Eurocentric historiography. It was used to cement the exclusion of non-European traditions from the mainstream canon of philosophy in the 19th century. Echoing Peter Park’s important 2013 book, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy, Yoko Arisaka recently emphasised that the broader Standard Narrative “is in fact a particular post-19th century construction arising out of the German tradition and establishing itself as the canonical Eurocentric history of philosophy”. It emerged from a long history of exclusion and marginalisation that is tied up with a host of extra-philosophical concerns, including European colonial expansion, slavery, pseudoscientific racial theorising, gendered social restructuring, academic disciplinary specialisation, religious sectarianism, and political expediency. Prominent European philosophers increasingly made a lot of noise about ancient Greece having inaugurated an unprecedented era of logic and reason, of logos, freed from superstition and murky mythos.

By the early 20th century, the Standard Narrative had largely assumed its contemporary form in specialist texts. Amongst Anglophones, it then became popularised through best-selling books like Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (1926) – the most sold book in the United States that year, with some four million copies sold overall – and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which has sold an estimated two million copies since first publication in 1945 and made the Standard Narrative widely known under the label of “Western Philosophy”. The Standard Narrative has since spread to become globally influential, especially in former European settler-colonies.

Contemporary, 21st-century histories of philosophy have an ambivalent relationship to the Standard Narrative. There is usually some recognition of its inadequacy and parochialism, especially amongst feminist historians of philosophy such as Mary Ellen Waithe and Eileen O’Neill. This is also true amongst figures working on less Eurocentric, more global histories (or histories “without any gaps”), such as Hajime Nakamura, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and Peter Adamson. However, many continue to replicate the Standard Narrative as the basis for a specifically “Western Philosophy”, and hence remain wedded to its basic premises (Greek origins, insularity, and continuity with contemporary Europe). In so doing, even contemporary histories of philosophy set up a false dichotomy between so-called “Western” and “non-Western” philosophy, trapped by the Eurocentric biases that birthed it, and are thus unable to offer a truly global history of philosophy.


If the future of the history of philosophy is global rather than Eurocentric, how do we get there? One lesson is from feminist critiques of male-dominated history of philosophy: simply adding [excluded group XX] and stirring is inadequate; genuine integration in the history of philosophy might mean reimagining what counts as philosophy. The same is likely to be true for rewriting the history of philosophy from a non-Eurocentric or global perspective. This will require much painstaking work, from historiographical challenges (that is, how to write such history) to exploring how philosophising itself has been conceptualised beyond Europe.

Meanwhile, however, there is a major hurdle to address: the idea of a “Western Philosophy” itself. The idea of “Western Philosophy” is largely taken for granted: few authors have attempted to define what the term picks out, mostly leaving it implicit and equivalent to the Standard Narrative (noteworthy exceptions include Ben Kies in the 1950s, and Lucy Allais and Christoph Schuringa more recently). When explanations are attempted, these turn out to be implausible, unstable or nonspecific to this supposed “tradition”: from a purely geographical descriptor, to supposed characteristics like “secular” or “scientific” thinking, “rational inquiry” or “concern with argumentation”, to simply a “legacy of the Greeks”.

If “Western Philosophy” is defined by a commitment to secular thinking, then most Greek philosophers probably wouldn’t qualify.

The idea of “Western Philosophy” cannot be purely geographical, since “west” is a relational term. Does it rule out “any sources east of Suez”, as Antony Flew put it in his Introduction to Western Philosophy (1971)? If so, this would exclude Australia and New Zealand while including indigenous thinkers from the Americas. Nor is “Western Philosophy” easily defined by putative characteristics. Take secular thinking: as Grayling puts it in his recent History of Philosophy, “this is a history of philosophy, not of theology and religion”. But if “Western Philosophy” is defined by a commitment to secular thinking, then most Greek philosophers probably wouldn’t qualify (interest in the nature of the divine and theological concepts underpinned many of their philosophical theories and scientific explanations), let alone Medieval Christian thinkers in the “Latin West”. In Europe, you would have to wait until about the 18th or even 19th century before finding widespread secular theorisations in metaphysics, ethics, and so on. On the other hand, you can find plenty of evidence of “secular thinking” amongst, say, ancient Indian Cārvāka/Lokāyata thinkers, but nobody sees Cārvāka as part of “Western Philosophy”.

What about the “legacy of the Greeks” idea? On this conception, philosophy in the Islamic world (as Peter Adamson frames it) would be a much stronger contender for being characteristic of “Western Philosophy” than anything happening across medieval Latin Christendom in Europe for, roughly, 600 years. As it happens, this is precisely the issue with the 600-year-gap in the continuity story. If there is any continuity in philosophising with Greek sources in or around Europe, the story predominantly runs through scholars east and south of Greece, in Byzantium and the Islamic world. In this period, translations of Greek texts proliferated in numerous languages, including Syriac, Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Armenian, Coptic, and Ge’ez.

The incoherence of the idea of “Western Philosophy” doesn’t stop at the 600-year gap: one exemplar is Ibn Rushd (Latinised as Averroes, 1126-1198), a rationalist scholar working between Al-Andalus – contemporary Spain, one of the westernmost regions of Europe, no less – and northwest Africa, especially contemporary Morocco. Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle and distinctive philosophical views were hugely influential in Europe up to the 16th century. If we wanted to tell a story that was continuous, Greek-responding, and in a geographical “West” (of Europe), then Ibn Rushd would appear to be an essential part of such a narrative. However, he is rarely foregrounded in Histories of “Western Philosophy”, and sometimes excluded entirely. Often, he is presented in passing as having merely “preserved” and “transmitted” Aristotle.

“Western Philosophy” is presented as a purely European phenomenon (at most, perhaps, extending to North America and Australasia), hermetically sealed from outside influence.

This leads us to the final major problem with the idea of “Western Philosophy”: insularity. It is presented as a purely European phenomenon (at most, perhaps, extending to North America and Australasia), hermetically sealed from outside influence. Even some of the “global” histories of philosophy, such as Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks (2018), recreate the narrative of hermetically sealed traditions in isolation from one another. Despite being written out of histories of “Western Philosophy”, however, there is increasing scholarly interest in the histories of exchange, connection, and conversation (or even outright theft of ideas) between canonically “Western” philosophers and the rest of the world. Some examples are well known, such as the influence of Indian and East Asian philosophy on Schopenhauer and Heidegger, while others have been the subject of more recent scholarly work, such as Leibniz’s interest in China.

This trend also holds within the ancient periodisation of “Western Philosophy”, which downplays the exchanges between ancient Greece and much of Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, and India, as well as between the Roman Empire and much of North Africa and Eurasia. In fact, some scholars have argued that quintessential periods in so-called “Western” history, such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, are in fact the product of European learning from Islamic and, later, indigenous American, African, Indian, and Chinese thinkers.

Historical entanglement is, perhaps, the key problem with the narrative of “Western Philosophy”: if philosophers in Europe have, throughout history, been in conversation with those outside of Europe, then it becomes difficult to justify sectioning off a “Western Philosophy” that is distinctive from all others (much less holding “Western Philosophy” as unique and equivalent to philosophy proper). This is precisely the argument raised by Ben Kies (1917-1979), a South African school teacher, anti-colonial activist, and public intellectual – and perhaps the first person to challenge the idea of a “Western Philosophy”. As Kies argued in 1953, the formation of this narrative is primarily “a matter of myth and political metaphysics”. Moreover, as Kies argues, the project of “Western Civilisation”, with an attendant “Western Philosophy”, only becomes widespread in post-World War II attempts to recuperate a racial category of “white civilisation”. If Kies is right, then “Western Philosophy” is fundamentally an ideological construction, tied to forms of political dominance. This would explain why none of its explanations can coherently track the cast of characters and intellectual movements associated with it.


The idea of a “Western Philosophy” is a recent invention: a political project that masks its origins in, to no small degree, racial and imperialist thinking. Indeed, the very idea itself is the productof a fabricated history that does not fit the facts, and inhibits our understanding of both philosophy and its history. As a result, we should abandon the idea of a “Western Philosophy” and re-examine the history of philosophy without its distorting effects. In doing so, we have much to learn from the past. Throughout history, thinkers around the world have engaged in philosophy that is “cross-cultural”, even globally entangled, but today their insights and methods are largely missing in historiographical and metaphilosophical debates. We suggest that a crucial step to rectify this situation is to draw these approaches into the history and historiography of philosophy, without reusing and reinforcing the Eurocentric category of “Western Philosophy”.

If you are interested in reading more about these issues, we recommend:

Josh Platzky Miller is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the Free State (South Africa), with a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Josh’s primary research interests are social movements, African and Latin American politics and political thought, social epistemology and the imagination, and the global history and historiography of philosophy.
(Not really on) Twitter: @jplatzkymiller

Lea Cantor is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Worcester College, University of Oxford, and a British Society for the History of Philosophy Postgraduate Fellow (2022-2023). Lea’s primary research interests are in classical Chinese philosophy, early Greek philosophy, the reception of ancient Chinese and Greek philosophy in European philosophy, comparative methodology, and the global history and historiography of philosophy.
Twitter: @LeaMundi

Josh and Lea are organising a conference addressing these themes in April 2023.

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 1 (“Where is Philosophy Going?“).
If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.
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This article is shared from The Philosopher – Published since 1923.

The Philosopher is the journal of the PSE (Philosophical Society of England), a charitable organisation founded in 1913 to provide an alternative to the formal university-based discipline. You can find out more about the history of the PSE here.

Read the original article here.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

Remembrance plaque on the Marktplatz in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, reading: Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. (Heinrich Heine, 1820) In memory of the book burning by the National Socialists on May 14, 1933

Remembrance plaque on the Marktplatz in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, reading: Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. (Heinrich Heine, 1820) In memory of the book burning by the National Socialists on May 14, 1933

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) was a list of publications deemed heretical or contrary to morality by the Sacred Congregation of the Index (a former Dicastery of the Roman Curia); Catholics were forbidden to read them.

There were attempts to ban heretical books before the sixteenth century, notably in the ninth-century Decretum Glasianum; the Index of Prohibited Books of 1560 banned thousands of book titles and blacklisted publications, including the works of Europe’s intellectual elites. The 20th and final edition of the Index appeared in 1948; the Index was formally abolished on 14 June 1966 by Pope Paul VI.

The Index condemned religious and secular texts alike, grading works by the degree to which they were seen to be repugnant to the church. The aim of the list was to protect church members from reading theologically, culturally, or politically disruptive books. Such books included works by astronomers, such as Johannes Kepler’s Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae (published in three volumes from 1618 to 1621), which was on the Index from 1621 to 1835; works by philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781); and editions and translations of the Bible that had not been approved. Editions of the Index also contained the rules of the Church relating to the reading, selling, and preemptive censorship of books.

The canon law of the Latin Church still recommends that works should be submitted to the judgment of the local ordinary if they concern sacred scripture, theology, canon law, or church history, religion or morals. The local ordinary consults someone whom he considers competent to give a judgment and, if that person gives the nihil obstat (“nothing forbids”), the local ordinary grants the imprimatur (“let it be printed”). Members of religious institutes require the imprimi potest (“it can be printed”) of their major superior to publish books on matters of religion or morals.

Some of the scientific theories contained in works in early editions of the Index have long been taught at Catholic universities. For example, the general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index in 1758, but two Franciscan mathematicians had published an edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687) in 1742, with commentaries and a preface stating that the work assumed heliocentrism and could not be explained without it. A work of the Italian Catholic priest and philosopher Antonio Rosmini-Serbati was on the Index, but he was beatified in 2007. Some have argued that the developments since the abolition of the Index signify “the loss of relevance of the Index in the 21st century.”

J. Martínez de Bujanda’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1600–1966 lists the authors and writings in the successive editions of the Index, while Miguel Carvalho Abrantes’s Why Did The Inquisition Ban Certain Books?: A Case Study from Portugal tries to understand why certain books were forbidden based on a Portuguese edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum from 1581.

Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. The burning of Arian books. (Illustration from a compendium of canon law, ca. 825, MS. in the Capitular Library, Vercelli)

Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. The burning of Arian books. (Illustration from a compendium of canon law, ca. 825, MS. in the Capitular Library, Vercelli)

European Restrictions on the Right to Print

The historical context in which the Index appeared involved the early restrictions on printing in Europe. The refinement of moveable type and the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg circa 1440 changed the nature of book publishing, and the mechanism by which information could be disseminated to the public. Books, once rare and kept carefully in a small number of libraries, could be mass-produced and widely disseminated.

In the 16th century, both the churches and governments in most European countries attempted to regulate and control printing because it allowed for rapid and widespread circulation of ideas and information. The Protestant Reformation generated large quantities of polemical new writing by and within both the Catholic and Protestant camps, and religious subject-matter was typically the area most subject to control. While governments and church encouraged printing in many ways, which allowed the dissemination of Bibles and government information, works of dissent and criticism could also circulate rapidly. As a consequence, governments established controls over printers across Europe, requiring them to have official licenses to trade and produce books.

The early versions of the Index began to appear from 1529 to 1571. In the same time frame, in 1557 the English Crown aimed to stem the flow of dissent by chartering the Stationers’ Company. The right to print was restricted to the two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) and to the 21 existing printers in the city of London, which had between them 53 printing presses.

The French crown also tightly controlled printing, and the printer and writer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake for atheism in 1546. The 1551 Edict of Châteaubriant comprehensively summarized censorship positions to date, and included provisions for unpacking and inspecting all books brought into France. The 1557 Edict of Compiègne applied the death penalty to heretics and resulted in the burning of a noblewoman at the stake. Printers were viewed as radical and rebellious, with 800 authors, printers and book dealers being incarcerated in the Bastille. At times, the prohibitions of church and state followed each other, e.g. René Descartes was placed on the Index in the 1660s and the French government prohibited the teaching of Cartesianism in schools in the 1670s.

The Copyright Act 1710 in Britain, and later copyright laws in France, eased this situation. Historian Eckhard Höffner claims that copyright laws and their restrictions acted as a barrier to progress in those countries for over a century, since British publishers could print valuable knowledge in limited quantities for the sake of profit. The German economy prospered in the same time frame since there were no restrictions.

Early Indices (1529–1571)

The first list of the kind was not published in Rome, but in Catholic Netherlands (1529); Venice (1543) and Paris (1551) under the terms of the Edict of Châteaubriant followed this example. By mid-century, in the tense atmosphere of wars of religion in Germany and France, both Protestant and Catholic authorities reasoned that only control of the press, including a catalog of prohibited works, coordinated by ecclesiastic and governmental authorities, could prevent the spread of heresy.

Paul F. Grendler (1975) discusses the religious and political climate in Venice from 1540 to 1605. There were many attempts to censor the Venetian press, which at that time was one of the largest concentrations of printers. Both church and government held to a belief in censorship, but the publishers continually pushed back on the efforts to ban books and shut down printing. More than once the index of banned books in Venice was suppressed or suspended because various people took a stand against it.

The first Roman Index was printed in 1557 under the direction of Pope Paul IV (1555–1559), but then withdrawn for unclear reasons. In 1559, a new index was finally published, banning the entire works of some 550 authors in addition to the individual proscribed titles: “The Pauline Index felt that the religious convictions of an author contaminated all his writing.” The work of the censors was considered too severe and met with much opposition even in Catholic intellectual circles; after the Council of Trent had authorized a revised list prepared under Pope Pius IV, the so-called Tridentine Index was promulgated in 1564; it remained the basis of all later lists until Pope Leo XIII, in 1897, published his Index Leonianus.

The blacklisting of some Protestant scholars even when writing on subjects a modern reader would consider outside the realm of dogma meant that, unless they obtained a dispensation, obedient Catholic thinkers were denied access to works including: botanist Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium; the botanical works of Otto Brunfels; those of the medical scholar Janus Cornarius; to Christoph Hegendorff or Johann Oldendorp on the theory of law; Protestant geographers and cosmographers like Jacob Ziegler or Sebastian Münster; as well as anything by Protestant theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin or Philipp Melanchthon. Among the inclusions was the Libri Carolini, a theological work from the 9th-century court of Charlemagne, which was published in 1549 by Bishop Jean du Tillet and which had already been on two other lists of prohibited books before being inserted into the Tridentine Index.

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books, anonymous 18th century Chinese painted album leaf; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books, anonymous 18th century Chinese painted album leaf; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Sacred Congregation of the Index (1571–1917)

In 1571, a special congregation was created, the Sacred Congregation of the Index, which had the specific task to investigate those writings that were denounced in Rome as being not exempt of errors, to update the list of Pope Pius IV regularly and also to make lists of required corrections in case a writing was not to be condemned absolutely but only in need of correction; it was then listed with a mitigating clause (e.g., donec corrigatur (forbidden until corrected) or donec expurgetur (forbidden until purged)).

Several times a year, the congregation held meetings. During the meetings, they reviewed various works and documented those discussions. In between the meetings was when the works to be discussed were thoroughly examined, and each work was scrutinized by two people. At the meetings, they collectively decided whether or not the works should be included in the Index. Ultimately, the pope was the one who had to approve of works being added or removed from the Index. It was the documentation from the meetings of the congregation that aided the pope in making his decision.

This sometimes resulted in very long lists of corrections, published in the Index Expurgatorius, which was cited by Thomas James in 1627 as “an invaluable reference work to be used by the curators of the Bodleian Library when listing those works particularly worthy of collecting”. Prohibitions made by other congregations (mostly the Holy Office) were simply passed on to the Congregation of the Index, where the final decrees were drafted and made public, after approval of the Pope (who always had the possibility to condemn an author personally—there are only a few examples of such condemnation, including those of Lamennais and Hermes).

An update to the Index was made by Pope Leo XIII, in the 1897 apostolic constitution Officiorum ac Munerum, known as the “Index Leonianus”. Subsequent editions of the Index were more sophisticated; they graded authors according to their supposed degree of toxicity, and they marked specific passages for expurgation rather than condemning entire books.

The Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church later became the Holy Office, and since 1965 has been called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation of the Index was merged with the Holy Office in 1917, by the Motu Proprio “Alloquentes Proxime” of Pope Benedict XV; the rules on the reading of books were again re-elaborated in the new Codex Iuris Canonici. From 1917 onward, the Holy Office (again) took care of the Index.

Holy Office (1917–1966)

While individual books continued to be forbidden, the last edition of the Index to be published appeared in 1948. This 20th edition contained 4,000 titles censored for various reasons: heresy, moral deficiency, sexual explicitness, and so on. That some atheists, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, were not included was due to the general (Tridentine) rule that heretical works (i.e., works that contradict Catholic dogma) are ipso facto forbidden. Some important works are absent simply because nobody bothered to denounce them. Many actions of the congregations were of a definite political content. Among the significant listed works of the period was the Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century for scorning and rejecting “all dogmas of the Catholic Church, indeed the very fundamentals of the Christian religion”.

Abolition (1966)

On 7 December 1965, Pope Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio Integrae servandae that reorganized the Holy Office as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Index was not listed as being a part of the newly constituted congregation’s competence, leading to questioning whether it still was. This question was put to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, pro-prefect of the congregation, who responded in the negative. The Cardinal also indicated in his response that there was going to be a change in the Index soon.

A June 1966 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notification announced that, while the Index maintained its moral force, in that it taught Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of those writings that could endanger faith and morality, it no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties.

Pedro Berruguete: Saint Dominic and the Albigensians

Pedro Berruguete: Saint Dominic and the Albigensians. A dispute between Saint Dominic and the Cathars in which the books of both were thrown on a fire and St. Dominic’s books were miraculously preserved from the flames.

Censorship and Enforcement

The Index was not simply a reactive work. Roman Catholic authors had the opportunity to defend their writings and could prepare a new edition with necessary corrections or deletions, either to avoid or to limit a ban. Pre-publication censorship was encouraged.

The Index was enforceable within the Papal States, but elsewhere only if adopted by the civil powers, as happened in several Italian states. Other areas adopted their own lists of forbidden books. In the Holy Roman Empire book censorship, which preceded publication of the Index, came under control of the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century, but had little effect, since the German princes within the empire set up their own systems. In France it was French officials who decided what books were banned and the Church’s Index was not recognized. Spain had its own Index Librorum Prohibitorum et Expurgatorum, which corresponded largely to the Church’s, but also included a list of books that were allowed once the forbidden part (sometimes a single sentence) was removed or “expurgated”.

Continued Moral Obligation

On 14 June 1966, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to inquiries it had received regarding the continued moral obligation concerning books that had been listed in the Index. The response spoke of the books as examples of books dangerous to faith and morals, all of which, not just those once included in the Index, should be avoided regardless of the absence of any written law against them. The Index, it said, retains its moral force “inasmuch as” (quatenus) it teaches the conscience of Christians to beware, as required by the natural law itself, of writings that can endanger faith and morals, but it (the Index of Forbidden Books) no longer has the force of ecclesiastical law with the associated censures.

The congregation thus placed on the conscience of the individual Christian the responsibility to avoid all writings dangerous to faith and morals, while at the same time abolishing the previously existing ecclesiastical law and the relative censures, without thereby declaring that the books that had once been listed in the various editions of the Index of Prohibited Books had become free of error and danger.

In a letter of 31 January 1985 to Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, regarding the book The Poem of the Man-God, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (then Prefect of the Congregation, who later became Pope Benedict XVI), referred to the 1966 notification of the Congregation as follows: “After the dissolution of the Index, when some people thought the printing and distribution of the work was permitted, people were reminded again in L’Osservatore Romano (15 June 1966) that, as was published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1966), the Index retains its moral force despite its dissolution. A decision against distributing and recommending a work, which has not been condemned lightly, may be reversed, but only after profound changes that neutralize the harm which such a publication could bring forth among the ordinary faithful.”

Changing Judgments

The content of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum saw deletions as well as additions over the centuries. Writings by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati were placed on the Index in 1849 but were removed by 1855, and Pope John Paul II mentioned Rosmini’s work as a significant example of “a process of philosophical enquiry which was enriched by engaging the data of faith”. The 1758 edition of the Index removed the general prohibition of works advocating heliocentrism as a fact rather than a hypothesis.

Listed Works and Authors

Noteworthy figures on the Index include Simone de Beauvoir, Nicolas Malebranche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel de Montaigne, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Nikos Kazantzakis, Emanuel Swedenborg, Baruch Spinoza, Desiderius Erasmus, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Browne, John Milton, John Locke, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal, and Hugo Grotius. The first woman to be placed on the list was Magdalena Haymairus in 1569, who was listed for her children’s book Die sontegliche Episteln über das gantze Jar in gesangsweis gestellt (Sunday Epistles on the whole Year, put into hymns). Other women include Anne Askew, Olympia Fulvia Morata, Ursula of Munsterberg (1491–1534), Veronica Franco, and Paola Antonia Negri (1508–1555). Contrary to a popular misconception, Charles Darwin’s works were never included.

In many cases, an author’s opera omnia (complete works) were forbidden. However, the Index stated that the prohibition of someone’s opera omnia did not preclude works that were not concerned with religion and were not forbidden by the general rules of the Index. This explanation was omitted in the 1929 edition, which was officially interpreted in 1940 as meaning that opera omnia covered all the author’s works without exception.

Cardinal Ottaviani stated in April 1966 that there was too much contemporary literature, and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could not keep up with it.

A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of "un-German" books on the Opernplatz in Berlin. In 1933, Nazis burned works of Jewish authors, and other works considered "un-German", at the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin.

A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin. In 1933, Nazis burned works of Jewish authors, and other works considered “un-German”, at the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin.

Wikipedia – Index Librorum Prohibitorum

List of Book-Burning Incidents

Book Burning

Internet Archive: Digital Library

Open Library

Project Gutenberg

The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

In a letter to his daughter, written in 1803, Thomas Jefferson said: “A promise made to a friend some years ago, but executed only lately, has placed my religious creed on paper. I have thought it just that my family, by possessing this, should be enabled to estimate the libels published against me on this, as on every other possible subject.” The “religious creed” to which he referred was a comparison of the doctrines of Jesus with those of others, prepared in fulfillment of a promise made to Dr. Benjamin Rush. This paper, with the letter to Dr. Rush which accompanied it, is a fit introduction to the “Jefferson Bible.”

Washington, April 21, 1803:

Dear Sir: In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that Anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.

At the short intervals since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, this subject has been under my contemplation; but the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Dr. Priestly his little treatise of “Socrates and Jesus Compared.” This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road, and unoccupied otherwise. The result was to arrange in my mind a syllabus, or outline, of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity, as I wished to see executed by some one of more leisure and information for the task than myself. This I now send you, as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies.

I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others, or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the right of independent opinion by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself.

Accept my affectionate salutations.

Syllabus of an Estimate of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others

In a comparative view of the ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews, and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors. Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.


  1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquility of mind. In this branch of philosophy they were really great.
  2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced indeed the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity, and love to our fellow-men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.


  1. Their system was Deism, that is, the belief in one only God; but their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.
  2. Their ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.


In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent. He was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence. The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.

  1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
  2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing of his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.
  3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33 years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
  4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective, as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.
  5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist (Plato), frittering them into subtilties and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

  1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only god, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
  2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
  3. The precepts of philosophy and of the Hebrew code laid hold of action only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thought, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
  4. He taught emphatically the doctrine of a future state, which was either doubted or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.

I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials (The Gospels) which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. It is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the Gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.

– Jefferson to Mr. Charles Thompson

“Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”

– Thomas Jefferson

Full Text of the Jefferson Bible (PDF)

Philosophers in the Midst of History

This excellent series by Professor Gregory B. Sadler helps put some major thinkers in the Western tradition into historical context. Context is key when attempting to properly interpret a writer’s intentions, motives, influences, and thought processes.

These are video recordings from sessions in a quarterly lecture/discussion series, hosted by the Frank Weyenberg Library. Each of these talks takes a philosopher and places him or her within the historical context informing his or her work and life.

Videos in this series include:

  • Aristotle, Athens, and Alexander the Great
  • Anselm of Canterbury, the Church, and the Normans
  • Rene Descartes, Early Modernity, and the Wars of Religion
  • Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Holocaust
  • Plato, Athenian Democracy, and the Greek Enlightenment
  • Boethius, King Theodoric, and the Middle Ages
  • Thomas Hobbes, English Civil War, and Modern Political Theory
  • Nietzsche, the Apex of the West, and the Threat of Nihilism
  • Cicero, Greek Philosophy, and the Fall of the Roman Church
  • Augustine of Hippo, Struggles in the Church, and Rome’s Fall
  • John Locke, Absolute Monarchy, and Constitutional Government
  • Albert Camus, Absurd World, Resistance to Evil
  • Epictetus, Slavery, Stoicism, and the Roman Empire
  • Thomas Aquinas, Mendicant Orders, and High Middle Ages
  • J-J Rousseau, Barbarism, Civilization, and Revolutions

The video series is ongoing, so expect more to come in the future!

After a decade in traditional academic positions, Dr. Sadler started ReasonIO and began doing philosophical work in more practical contexts. He is an APPA-certified philosophical counselor, a public speaker, an author, an ethics trainer, and an executive coach (among other things!). He is also the editor of Stoicism Today and the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series.

Want to support this public philosophy work? Become a Patreon backer!

Interested in booking Dr. Sadler for a talk, interview, workshop, consultation, or tutoring? Check out ReasonIO!

Atheism has been Part of Many Asian Traditions for Millennia

File 20190328 139361 138qhpw.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Atheism is not a modern concept.
Zoe Margolis, CC BY-NC-ND

Signe Cohen, University of Missouri-Columbia

A group of atheists and secularists recently gathered in Southern California to talk about social and political issues. This was the first of three summits planned by the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C.

To many, atheism – the lack of belief in a personal god or gods – may appear an entirely modern concept. After all, it would seem that it is religious traditions that have dominated the world since the beginning of recorded history.

As a scholar of Asian religions, however, I’m often struck by the prevalence of atheism and agnosticism – the view that it is impossible to know whether a god exists – in ancient Asian texts. Atheistic traditions have played a significant part in Asian cultures for millennia.

Atheism in Buddhism, Jainism

Buddhists do not believe in a creator God.
Keith Cuddeback, CC BY-NC-ND

While Buddhism is a tradition focused on spiritual liberation, it is not a theistic religion.

The Buddha himself rejected the idea of a creator god, and Buddhist philosophers have even argued that belief in an eternal god is nothing but a distraction for humans seeking enlightenment.

While Buddhism does not argue that gods don’t exist, gods are seen as completely irrelevant to those who strive for enlightenment.

Jains do not believe in a divine creator.
Gandalf’s Gallery, CC BY-NC-SA

A similar form of functional atheism can also be found in the ancient Asian religion of Jainism, a tradition that emphasizes non-violence toward all living beings, non-attachment to worldly possessions and ascetic practice. While Jains believe in an eternal soul or jiva, that can be reborn, they do not believe in a divine creator.

According to Jainism, the universe is eternal, and while gods may exist, they too must be reborn, just like humans are. The gods play no role in spiritual liberation and enlightenment; humans must find their own path to enlightenment with the help of wise human teachers.

Other Atheistic Philosophies

Around the same time when Buddhism and Jainism arose in the sixth century B.C., there was also an explicitly atheist school of thought in India called the Carvaka school. Although none of their original texts have survived, Buddhist and Hindu authors describe the Carvakas as firm atheists who believed that nothing existed beyond the material world.

To the Carvakas, there was no life after death, no soul apart from the body, no gods and no world other than this one.

Another school of thought, Ajivika, which flourished around the same time, similarly argued that gods didn’t exist, although its followers did believe in a soul and in rebirth.

The Ajivikas claimed that the fate of the soul was determined by fate alone, and not by a god, or even by free will. The Ajivikas taught that everything was made up of atoms, but that these atoms were moving and combining with each other in predestined ways.

Like the Carvaka school, the Ajivika school is today only known from texts composed by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is therefore difficult to determine exactly what the Ajivikas themselves thought.

According to Buddhist texts, the Ajivikas argued that there was no distinction between good and evil and there was no such thing as sin. The school may have existed around the same time as early Buddhism, in the fifth century B.C.

Atheism in Hinduism

There are many gods in Hinduism, but there are also atheistic beliefs.
Religious Studies Unisa, CC BY-SA

While the Hindu tradition of India embraces the belief in many gods and goddesses – 330 million of them, according to some sources – there are also atheistic strands of thought found within Hinduism.

The Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy is one such example. It believes that humans can achieve liberation for themselves by freeing their own spirit from the realm of matter.

Another example is the Mimamsa school. This school also rejects the idea of a creator God. The Mimamsa philosopher Kumarila said that if a god had created the world by himself in the beginning, how could anyone else possibly confirm it? Kumarila further argued that if a merciful god had created the world, it could not have been as full of suffering as it is.

According to the 2011 census, there were approximately 2.9 million atheists in India. Atheism is still a significant cultural force in India, as well as in other Asian countries influenced by Indian religions.The Conversation

Signe Cohen, Associate Professor and Department Chair, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Was the Real Socrates more Worldly and Amorous than We Knew?


Detail from Socrates Dragging Alcibiades from the Embrace of Aspasia (1785) by Jean-Baptiste Regnault. Louvre, Paris. Courtesy Wikipedia

Armand D’Angour | Aeon Ideas

Socrates is widely considered to be the founding figure of Western philosophy – a thinker whose ideas, transmitted by the extensive writings of his devoted follower Plato, have shaped thinking for more than 2,000 years. ‘For better or worse,’ wrote the Classical scholar Diskin Clay in Platonic Questions (2000), ‘Plato’s Socrates is our Socrates.’ The enduring image of Socrates that comes from Plato is of a man of humble background, little education, few means and unappealing looks, who became a brilliant and disputatious philosopher married to an argumentative woman called Xanthippe. Both Plato and Xenophon, Socrates’ other principal biographer, were born c424 BCE, so they knew Socrates (born c469 BCE) only as an old man. Keen to defend his reputation from the charges of ‘introducing new kinds of gods’ and ‘corrupting young men’ on which he was eventually brought to trial and executed, they painted a picture of Socrates in late middle age as a pious teacher and unremitting ethical thinker, a man committed to shunning bodily pleasures for higher educational purposes.

Yet this clearly idealised picture of Socrates is not the whole story, and it gives us no indication of the genesis of his ideas. Plato’s pupil Aristotle and other Ancient writers provide us with correctives to the Platonic Socrates. For instance, Aristotle’s followers Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli preserve biographical snippets that they might have known from their teacher. From them we learn that Socrates in his teens was intimate with a distinguished older philosopher, Archelaus; that he married more than once, the first time to an aristocratic woman called Myrto, with whom he had two sons; and that he had an affair with Aspasia of Miletus, the clever and influential woman who was later to become the partner of Pericles, a leading citizen of Athens.

If these statements are to be believed, a different Socrates emerges: that of a highly placed young Athenian, whose personal experiences within an elevated milieu inspired him to embark on a new style of philosophy that was to change the way people thought ever afterwards. But can we trust these later authors? How could writers two or more generations removed from Socrates’ own time have felt entitled to contradict Plato? One answer is that Aristotle might have derived some information from Plato in person, rather than from his writings, and passed this on to his pupils; another is that, as a member of Plato’s Academy for 20 years, Aristotle might have known that Plato had elided certain facts to defend Socrates’ reputation; a third is that the later authors had access to further sources (oral and written) other than Plato, which they considered to be reliable.

Plato’s Socrates is an eccentric. Socrates claimed to have heard voices in his head from youth, and is described as standing still in public places for long stretches of time, deep in thought. Plato notes these phenomena without comment, accepting Socrates’ own description of the voices as his ‘divine sign’, and reporting on his awe-inspiring ability to meditate for hours on end. Aristotle, the son of a doctor, took a more medical approach: he suggested that Socrates (along with other thinkers) suffered from a medical condition he calls ‘melancholy’. Recent medical investigators have agreed, speculating that Socrates’ behaviour was consistent with a medical condition known as catalepsy. Such a condition might well have made Socrates feel estranged from his peers in early life, encouraging him to embark on a different kind of lifestyle.

If the received picture of Socrates’ life and personality merits reconsid­eration, what about his thought? Aristotle makes clear in his Metaphysics that Plato misrepresented Socrates regarding the so-called Theory of Forms:

Socrates concerned himself with ethics, neglecting the natural world but seeking the universal in ethical matters, and he was the first to insist on definitions. Plato took over this doctrine, but argued that what was universal applied not to objects of sense but to entities of another kind. He thought a single description could not define things that are perceived, since such things are always changing. Unchanging entities he called ‘Forms’…

Aristotle himself had little sympathy for such otherwordly views. As a biologist and scientist, he was mainly concerned with the empirical investigation of the world. In his own writings he dismissed the Forms, replacing them with a logical account of universals and their particular instantiations. For him, Socrates was also a more down-to-earth thinker than Plato sought to depict.

Sources from late antiquity, such as the 5th-century CE Christian writers Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Cyril of Alexandria, state that Socrates was, at least as a younger man, a lover of both sexes. They corroborate occasional glimpses of an earthy Socrates in Plato’s own writings, such as in the dialogue Charmides where Socrates claims to be intensely aroused by the sight of a young man’s bare chest. However, the only partner of Socrates’ whom Plato names is Xanthippe; but since she was carrying a baby in her arms when Socrates was aged 70, it is unlikely they met more than a decade or so earlier, when Socrates was already in his 50s. Plato’s failure to mention the earlier aristocratic wife Myrto might be an attempt to minimise any perception that Socrates came from a relatively wealthy background with connections to high-ranking members of his community; it was largely because Socrates was believed to be associated with the antidemocratic aristocrats who took power in Athens that he was put on trial and executed in 399 BCE.

Aristotle’s testimony, therefore, is a valuable reminder that the picture of Socrates bequeathed by Plato should not be accepted uncritically. Above all, if Socrates at some point in his early manhood became the companion of Aspasia – a woman famous as an instructor of eloquence and relationship counsellor – it potentially changes our understanding not only of Socrates’ early life, but of the formation of his philosophical ideas. He is famous for saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But the one thing he claims, in Plato’s Symposium, that he does know about, is love, which he learned about from a clever woman. Might that woman have been Aspasia, once his beloved companion? The real Socrates must remain elusive but, in the statements of Aristotle, Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli, we get intriguing glimpses of a different Socrates from the one portrayed so eloquently in Plato’s writings.

For more from Armand D’Angour and his extraordinary research bringing the music of Ancient Greece to life, see this Video and read this Idea.Aeon counter – do not remove

Armand D’Angour

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Muhammad: an Anticlerical Hero of the European Enlightenment


Thomas Jefferson’s copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Quran is used in the swearing in ceremony of US Representative Keith Ellison at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, on 4 January 2007. Photo by Getty

John Tolan | Aeon Ideas

Publishing the Quran and making it available in translation was a dangerous enterprise in the 16th century, apt to confuse or seduce the faithful Christian. This, at least, was the opinion of the Protestant city councillors of Basel in 1542, when they briefly jailed a local printer for planning to publish a Latin translation of the Muslim holy book. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther intervened to salvage the project: there was no better way to combat the Turk, he wrote, than to expose the ‘lies of Muhammad’ for all to see.

The resulting publication in 1543 made the Quran available to European intellectuals, most of whom studied it in order to better understand and combat Islam. There were others, however, who used their reading of the Quran to question Christian doctrine. The Catalonian polymath and theologian Michael Servetus found numerous Quranic arguments to employ in his anti-Trinitarian tract, Christianismi Restitutio (1553), in which he called Muhammad a true reformer who preached a return to the pure monotheism that Christian theologians had corrupted by inventing the perverse and irrational doctrine of the Trinity. After publishing these heretical ideas, Servetus was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, and finally burned with his own books in Calvin’s Geneva.

During the European Enlightenment, a number of authors presented Muhammad in a similar vein, as an anticlerical hero; some saw Islam as a pure form of monotheism close to philosophic Deism and the Quran as a rational paean to the Creator. In 1734, George Sale published a new English translation. In his introduction, he traced the early history of Islam and idealised the Prophet as an iconoclastic, anticlerical reformer who had banished the ‘superstitious’ beliefs and practices of early Christians – the cult of the saints, holy relics – and quashed the power of a corrupt and avaricious clergy.

Sale’s translation of the Quran was widely read and appreciated in England: for many of his readers, Muhammad had become a symbol of anticlerical republicanism. It was influential outside England too. The US founding father Thomas Jefferson bought a copy from a bookseller in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, which helped him conceive of a philosophical deism that surpassed confessional boundaries. (Jefferson’s copy, now in the Library of Congress, has been used for the swearing in of Muslim representatives to Congress, starting with Keith Ellison in 2007.) And in Germany, the Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe read a translation of Sale’s version, which helped to colour his evolving notion of Muhammad as an inspired poet and archetypal prophet.

In France, Voltaire also cited Sale’s translation with admiration: in his world history Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), he portrayed Muhammad as an inspired reformer who abolished superstitious practices and eradicated the power of corrupt clergy. By the end of the century, the English Whig Edward Gibbon (an avid reader of both Sale and Voltaire) presented the Prophet in glowing terms in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89):

The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish. In the author of the universe, his rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal being, without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection … A philosophic theist might subscribe the popular creed of the Mahometans: a creed too sublime, perhaps, for our present faculties.

But it was Napoleon Bonaparte who took the Prophet most keenly to heart, styling himself a ‘new Muhammad’ after reading the French translation of the Quran that Claude-Étienne Savary produced in 1783. Savary wrote his translation in Egypt: there, surrounded by the music of the Arabic language, he sought to render into French the beauty of the Arabic text. Like Sale, Savary wrote a long introduction presenting Muhammad as a ‘great’ and ‘extraordinary’ man, a ‘genius’ on the battlefield, a man who knew how to inspire loyalty among his followers. Napoleon read this translation on the ship that took him to Egypt in 1798. Inspired by Savary’s portrait of the Prophet as a brilliant general and sage lawgiver, Napoleon sought to become a new Muhammad, and hoped that Cairo’s ulama (scholars) would accept him and his French soldiers as friends of Islam, come to liberate Egyptians from Ottoman tyranny. He even claimed that his own arrival in Egypt had been announced in the Quran.

Napoleon had an idealised, bookish, Enlightenment vision of Islam as pure monotheism: indeed, the failure of his Egyptian expedition owed partly to his idea of Islam being quite different from the religion of Cairo’s ulama. Yet Napoleon was not alone in seeing himself as a new Muhammad: Goethe enthusiastically proclaimed that the emperor was the ‘Mahomet der Welt’ (Muhammad of the world), and the French author Victor Hugo portrayed him as a ‘Mahomet d’occident’ (Muhammad of the West). Napoleon himself, at the end of his life, exiled on Saint Helena and ruminating on his defeat, wrote about Muhammad and defended his legacy as a ‘great man who changed the course of history’. Napoleon’s Muhammad, conqueror and lawgiver, persuasive and charismatic, resembles Napoleon himself – but a Napoleon who was more successful, and certainly never exiled to a cold windswept island in the South Atlantic.

The idea of Muhammad as one of the world’s great legislators persisted into the 20th century. Adolph A Weinman, a German-born American sculptor, depicted Muhammad in his 1935 frieze in the main chamber of the US Supreme Court, where the Prophet takes his place among 18 lawgivers. Various European Christians called on their churches to recognise Muhammad’s special role as prophet of the Muslims. For Catholics scholars of Islam such as Louis Massignon or Hans Küng, or for the Scottish Protestant scholar of Islam William Montgomery Watt, such recognition was the best way to promote peaceful, constructive dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

This kind of dialogue continues today, but it has been largely drowned out by the din of conflict, as extreme-Right politicians in Europe and elsewhere diabolise Muhammad to justify anti-Muslim policies. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls him a terrorist, paedophile and psychopath. The negative image of the Prophet is paradoxically promoted by fundamentalist Muslims who adulate him and reject all historical contextualisation of his life and teachings; meanwhile, violent extremists claim to defend Islam and its prophet from ‘insults’ through murder and terror. All the more reason, then, to step back and examine the diverse and often surprising Western portraits of the myriad faces of Muhammad.

Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today by John Tolan is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

John Tolan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

African Art in Western Museums: It’s Patrimony not Heritage


Detail from a 16th-century bronze plaque from Benin, West Africa, held at the British Museum, London. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Charlotte Joy | Aeon Ideas

Museums with colonial-era collections have always known about the brutal parts of their biographies. But, through acts of purification via historical distance, they have chosen to ignore them. Museum directors now have to re-think their position as defenders of their collections in light of a different political agenda that locates people and their patrimony in a precolonial, yet radically altered, landscape.

When learning about cultural heritage, you will be directed to the etymology of the words ‘heritage’ and ‘patrimony’. Whereas ‘heritage’ invokes inheritance, ‘patrimony’ leads us to patriarchy. In French, patrie refers to the homeland, the fatherland, and during colonialism vast swathes of West Africa were brought under this French conceptual model in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Objects taken from West Africa (the periphery) and brought back to the centre/metropole were therefore conceptualised as part of the coloniser’s national identity. They were used in a series of Great Exhibitions and expos to gain support for the colonial project before entering national and private collections throughout Europe.

The immediate paradox here is that, whereas objects from the periphery were welcome in the centre, people were very much not. Since the independence of West African countries throughout the late 1950s and early ’60s, the retention of objects and the simultaneous rejection of people has become ever more fraught. Young undocumented migrants from former French colonies stand metres away from the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, a museum in Paris full of their inaccessible patrimony. The migrants are treated with contempt while the objects from their homelands are cared for in museums and treated with great reverence. The migrants will be deported but the objects will not be repatriated. The homeland is therefore only home to objects, not people.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a unique demographic profile. By 2050, it is projected that the region will be home to the 10 countries with the youngest populations in the world. Most Western leaders would like to see strong and stable states in West Africa, states that can provide their citizens with jobs, cultural pride and a reason for staying in their countries and building new futures. The return of objects from museums could become central to this nation-building, undoing some of the harm of the colonial project and supporting emerging creative economies.

The objects taken from West Africa during the colonial period indexed many things, most of them problematic and racist. Some objects acted as a catalyst for the creative work of Western artists, and consequently entered the artistic canon as prompts and props (seen in the background of artists’ studios such as that of Pablo Picasso). The objects that Picasso encountered at the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris were the impetus for his ‘African period’ at the beginning of the 20th century, which produced one of his most famous works, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

Beyond the influence that non-European art had on many Western artists, some objects, such as the Benin Bronzes (looted by the British in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin, in current-day Nigeria) entered global art history on their own merit, as unrivalled technological and artistic accomplishments. This recognition came about only after a difficult period of skepticism, when art historians expressed doubt that African artists could produce work of such sophistication.

Thus, the way in which African objects are held and displayed in Western museums can tell us a lot about the legacy of colonialism and the West’s ambivalent relationship towards its former colonies. But it cannot be said to provide generations of young people in sub-Saharan Africa with a rich cultural repository from which to draw.

Regardless of the politics of return, over the next few decades people born in sub-Saharan Africa will be brought up within a vibrant cultural milieu of art, photography, music and film. However, as colonialism was a humiliating experience for many formerly colonised people, it is not hard to see why regaining control over their patrimony would be a step towards the beginning of healing. The return of cultural objects would allow meaningful access to art and cultural knowledge that could fuel the creative economies of these young nations.

The acts of return in themselves are a symbol of strong contrition, re-opening the dialogue on past wrongs to better establish relationships for the future. It seems that behind proclamations of the complicated nature of the process of return lies this more difficult truth. Human remains have been returned from museums to be reburied with dignity. Nazi-looted art has been seized from unsuspecting collectors and returned to Jewish families. Now is the time for colonial patrimony to be reckoned with because patrimony indexes the biographies of those who made and acquired the objects, drawing their descendants into moral relationships in the present. It is now not a matter of if but when objects will be returned, and whether this happens with good grace or through a fractious period of resistance.

The museums’ ‘cosmopolitan’ defence, made for example by Tiffany Jenkins in Keeping Their Marbles (2016), is that only by juxtaposition in global centres can we truly make sense of global art and the experience of being human. This might be true to some extent but the juxtapositions in themselves are problematic: for example, the British Museum houses its Africa collections in the basement. Museums are also bursting at the seams, and what isn’t displayed is housed in vast stores. To date, the logic of the museum is not one of access and display but of acquisition and retention. The defenders of the museum’s patrimony, the trustees, are appointed on the understanding that their primary role is to protect collections for future generations, narrowly defined within the model of nation states. Perhaps if trustees of museums could rethink their role to include descendants of the colonised, as well as the colonisers, they could help reshape a heritage ethic that is alive to the challenges of global demographics.Aeon counter – do not remove

Charlotte Joy

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.