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Abstract PhD Thesis

Cosmopolitan Republicanism in the French Revolution: The Political Thought of Anacharsis Cloots

Republicanism has been on scholars’ research agenda since the 1950s, and several studies on French republicanism in the eighteenth century have linked it to the Atlantic republican tradition. A central question that has puzzled intellectual historians studying republicanism is how this concept considered as antiquated or only adapted to small city-states became the concept of choice for a large modern nation such as France.

The works of Pocock, Skinner, and Pettit launched a vast research programme on Atlantic republicanism as a theory of liberty as non-domination. Focusing on eighteenth-century France and the French revolution, historians such as Baker, Hammersley, Monnier, Spitz, Whatmore, and Wright have argued against Furet,  Ozouf, Maintenant, Nicolet, and Vovelle that this republicanism existed before and during the revolution as a language of opposition based on classical Greek and Roman authors. In particular, Edelstein has shown how the two languages of republicanism and nature collided to form a ‘natural republicanism’ that pervaded during the revolution and intellectually explains the Terror, whilst Hammersley has shown how English republican texts provided answers to the fundamental question for early modern republicans: how republican institutions and practices (securing liberty) could be made workable in the context of a large nation-state?

However, these studies on classical republicanism and natural republicanism have overlooked or insufficiently explained the universalist side of the language of republicanism in the French revolution: how could republicanism be made workable for the world, and how could it be argued that humankind formed a nation? This thesis provides an answer to how a ‘universal republic’ could be theorised in the French revolution by examining the writings of Anacharsis Cloots (1755–1794). It argues that Cloots was one of the leading proponents of ‘cosmopolitan republicanism’. The thesis uses Cloots’s entire corpus of works, which have been published in a three-volume collection entitled Œuvres, as well as a collection of all his revolutionary writings in Ecrits révolutionaires. Using Skinner’s contextualist method, the thesis presents an interpretation of these writings by setting them in the political, social, and intellectual contexts in which Cloots wrote them.

Chapter one presents a brief biography of the life of Cloots from his childhood in Prussia to his death after Robespierre’s indictment of espionage for a foreign power. It sums up the significant events in Cloots’s life such as his education at collège du Pléssis-Sorbonne in Paris and Académie des Nobles in Berlin, his intellectual affinity with his uncle the philosopher Cornelius de Pauw, and his early ambition to enter the Parisian intellectual salons with his first book presenting a deist argument against religions. It then focuses particularly on his revolutionary career as a pamphleteer and publicist, and his engagement in the revolution as the beginning of a universal revolution propagating the principles of the Déclaration des droits de l’Homme to the world.

Chapter two proposes an overview of Cloots’s body of works, focusing particularly on his revolutionary writings and presenting his ‘system’ of a ‘universal republic’. It argues that his choice of writing pamphlets over treatises was a revolutionary custom, and may explain why he has been overlooked by political philosophers in favour of Kant. It presents the main elements in Cloots’s universal republic that will then be analysed in the following chapters: nature and God, humanity and individuality, and the minimal republic he proposed for the world.

Chapter three kicks off the analysis of Cloots’s republicanism by looking at his self-appointed title of ‘Orator of the human race’, and his change of first name from Jean-Baptiste to Anacharsis. Looking at the educational context that Cloots received, it argues that his title of ‘orator’ was directly linked to classical republican works, which defined the orator as an important actor in a civis: at the same time a philosopher using (ratio) in search for the truth or <isapientia with a scientia civilis, and a speaker who communicates the truth through the use of rhetoric (elocutio). Related to this ‘title’, the revolutionary context explains his un-baptising himself and choosing the name of a philosopher from the Greek antiquity—Anacharsis—made famous in a best-selling historical novel published a few years prior, thereby self-fashioning himself as this foreign philosopher in the world capital of philosophy.

Related to this function of orator communicating a true scientia civilis obtained through ratio, chapter four presents the intellectual context of eighteenth-century philosophy to explain why Cloots referred to his universal republic as ‘system’, and why he considered it universally applicable. Cloots’s understanding of reason was in line with the Enlightenment, but he used the expression ‘cosmopolitan reason’ rather than ‘universal reason’, which points to a limit to reason if local disagreements proved it not universal. The scientia civilis in Cloots’s writings is the ‘science of man’ as defined in the Encyclopédie in a Baconian fashion: just as nature can be studied scientifically for its physical phenomena it can equally be studied for its political and moral phenomena.

Building on this understanding of ‘science of man’ as an observation of nature, chapter five presents the intellectual background of the philosophies of nature, natural law, and natural rights. Cloots’s opposition to religion replaced God with nature, but also with humankind, creating a contradictory system of natural law where nature and humankind are both the supreme moral authority. Negating a passage from nature to society, and invoking a ‘legal despotism’, Cloots’s thought is part of what Edelstein called ‘natural republicanism’.

Chapter six presents the intellectual context for thinking about humankind and individuality. Cloots considered that there was a single human race, even if he acknowledged its diversity. The human race is only composed of individuals, all vested with the same natural rights, and as such forming the single ‘nation of the human race’.

Chapter seven analyses then republicanism in Cloots’s thought after presenting a brief overview of the historiographical controversy around republicanism in France before the revolution. As so many other revolutionaries, Cloots was not openly anti-monarchist before the revolution, but a classical republican. After the revolution Cloots switched from a republicanism with a puppet king to an anti-monarchist ‘universal republic’ aligned with ‘natural republicanism’.

The concluding chapter argues that Cloots’s ‘universal republic’ is better interpreted as ‘cosmopolitan republicanism’. After looking at the occurrences of the words ‘cosmopolite’ and ‘cosmopolitisme’ in eighteenth-century texts, it argues that the two need not be related and that cosmopolitanism rarely occurred as a word but did exist as an idea nonetheless. It then goes on to define what this cosmopolitan republicanism was in Cloots’s political thought.

This thesis is the first contextual analysis of Anacharsis Cloots’s political thought and the first to offer a definition of ‘cosmopolitan republicanism’, which other scholars labelled to his work. Thereby, this thesis contributes to studies of the Atlantic tradition of republicanism by proposing to study a new type of republicanism: ‘cosmopolitan republicanism’. Rediscovering these eighteenth-century discussions on cosmopolitan republicanism sheds a new light on contemporary ones regarding global governance: how can we improve democratic representation and participation to decisions affecting the whole humankind without imposing certain views on others? While contemporary philosophers ask if cosmopolitan republicanism is the answer, this thesis sheds a light on its origins in the French revolution with Cloots. But Cloots was not isolated: Condorcet and Thomas Paine were other major authors with a republican vision that can be characterised as ‘cosmopolitan republicanism’, and this deserves further research.