Schlereth: The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought

Schlereth, Thomas (1977) The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought: Its Form and Function in the Ideas of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire, 1694-1790. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Thomas J. Schlereth studied how the cosmopolitan ideal had a “noticeable impact on Enlightenment intellectual life throughout the trans-Atlantic community”.[1] But Schlereth does not advance that cosmopolitanism was responsible for most of the movements of the eighteenth century. However, one can only but assume that, given the limit of his essay (based only on the works of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire), he could not go further in affirming the impact of cosmopolitanism on a larger scale. (Schlereth 1977)

According to him, the concept of eighteenth century cosmopolitanism could be delimitated as possessing the following characteristics: “an attitude of mind that attempted to transcend chauvinistic national loyalties or parochial prejudices in its intellectual interests and pursuits”[2]; “… an aspiration of the elite intellectual class that Voltaire called the world’s petite [sic: petit] troupeau des philosophes[3]; “… more symbolic and theoretical than actual and practical”[4]; “… a psychological construct that prompted many philosophes to replace or to modify their attachment to their geographical region or sphere of activity with a more expansive, albeit abstract, attitude toward the whole world.”[5]

I think that starting a study with a definition of the subject to investigate is an analytic error to avoid. The term cosmopolitanism should not be delimitated in advance when looking at the Enlightenment period, because, otherwise, one runs the risk to look with present glasses on the past and interpret it anachronistically. But it has to be given to his credit that Schlereth writes that he tried to be critical of the cosmopolitanism he found in Voltaire, Hume and Franklin. And he evaluates where he found their account inconsistent, compromised or uncosmopolitan. Schlereth’s history, therefore, must be taken as a personal essay about intellectual history, a bit in the line of Todorov’s Nous et les autres.

“In the essay that follows, I argue that certain intellectual premises (for example, the Newtonian cosmology or the natural-rights philosophy), certain psychological dispositions (perhaps a self-conscious individualism or a strong cultural awareness), and certain historical realities (for instance, the development of world commerce or the exploration of the Western Hemisphere) combined in conditioning the Enlightenment philosophe in the direction of the cosmopolitan ideal. At the same time, the ideal also had since antiquity a historical life of its own which enabled the philosophe, who was aware of the classics and the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century, to confront social, economic, and political realities of that period in cosmopolitan terms.”[6]

Schlereth’s thesis of the blooming of cosmopolitanism is combining material and ideational elements, a certain discourse related to Newton and natural-right, social and economic structures with the development of world commerce and new explorations, and individual methodology with the idea of thinkers being responsible of changes.

Schlereth identifies the cosmopolites of the Enlightenment as the third generation of cosmopolites, the first being the Ancients (Greeks and Romans), and the second being the moderns of the Renaissance (Bacon, Locke, Newton, Bayle, and Leibnitz).[7] This third generation was influenced by the two first generations. “But the Enlightenment cosmopolites developed an even wider definition of the ideal and extended its appeal to a broader, although still elite, membership. Antiquity’s cosmopolites made their greatest contributions to the ideal in formulating its political and philosophical tenets; the Renaissance and early modern cosmopolites pursued its additional religious and social ramifications—especially when they confronted religious pluralism or became conscious of themselves as an emerging intellectual class. Enlightenment cosmopolites assimilated these earlier characteristics of the ideal while grappling with its further implications in science and economics. Employing this legacy of past expressions of cosmopolitanism as points of reference, inspiration, and departure, the Enlightenment philosophes formulated a distinctive mental attitude that can be viewed as one of the common denominators underlying the variety of eighteenth-century thought.”[8]

The sociology of an International class:

“The typical eighteenth-century philosophe aspired to be a cosmopolite, and in turn, the cosmopolite was, by the Enlightenment’s own presumptuous definition, pictured as a typical eighteenth-century philosophe.”[9]


The philosophes were all, to a certain degree, educated with classical Greek and Roman lettres. Schlereth suggests that the reason why they turned to the classics is that they were looking for non religious thinking about contemporary issues.

Paris as the capital of the Enlightenment and cosmopolitanism.

Many philosophes of the Enlighenment regarded Paris as the capital of cosmopolitanism and of Enlightenment.[10]

The diffusion of ideas:

Salons were the place where trans-class intellectual exchanges were possible.

Diners organised by aristocrats were the more virile equivalent of the salons organised mostly by erudite women.

Journals and publications were the means to diffuse the philosophes’ ideas. Nouvelles de la république des lettres was founded by Pierre Bayle in 1684, Nouvelles de la république des lettres et des arts was founded by Pahin de Champlain de la Blancherie, and Journal étranger, edited by Prévost, Fréron and Suard, had as its editorial policy to combine “the genius of each nation with those of all the others”.[11]


Philosophes were some kind of a “band of brothers”. They were extensively exchanging ideas between each others through correspondence. The ideal of the world citizen was realised by the unique class formed by the philosophes, or what the contemporary word “intellectual” could translate in our present discourse. They were neither from the nobility nor the bourgeoisie. They considered themselves as forming a class of their own.[12]

Economic and political theory of World order:

However, Hume and Voltaire considered the merchants to be cosmopolites.[13] The idea of a commercial society and economic interdependence is linked with the idea of a more civilized world and widening tolerance.

“The idealization of the cosmopolitan merchants can be traced to the middle-class origins of many philosophes. For while they appealed to economic principles and programs that they considered universal in scope, they did so quite naturally in terms of the specific interests of the social group that they considered to be the most progressive class of their time, that is, the emerging bourgeoisie or haute bourgeoisie from which so many of them originated.”[14]

Hume and Voltaire equated economic individualism with the development of political liberty. Probably, they are at the origin of the dogma in many international organisations and political thinking, that, in order to encourage democracy and political liberty in developing countries, neo-liberalist economics should be implemented. But they professed an absolute laissez-faire and laissez-passer, i.e. no only goods and capitals are free to travel, but also labour. Migration was seen as a right of Man.

“The notion of international commerce as a promoter of world civilization and peace became a consistent, if at times naïve, premise of Enlightenment cosmopolitan thought.”[15]

“The philosophes’ international outlook in economics influenced their attitude toward political theory, since they viewed both disciplines as interrelated branches of moral philosophy.”[16] The philosophes were not anti-national, but they had a clear idea of what constituted an appropriate and legitimate allegiance to one’s nation-state.

According to Schlereth, the majority of Enlightenment philosophes “made the usual Lockean distinction between society and government in that they considered society as a natural social unit and government as only a man-made social arrangement.” All political philosophies start with the individual.


Schlereth’s eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism is delineated as possessing the following characteristics: ‘an attitude of mind that attempted to transcend chauvinistic national loyalties or parochial prejudices in its intellectual interests and pursuits’ (1977, xi); ‘… an aspiration of the elite intellectual class that Voltaire called the world’s petite [sic: petit] troupeau des philosophes. This definition assumes and defines cosmopolitanism as elitist, beyond the national, and abstract. The problem is that the historian must then look for the national at a period when it did not yet exist, and oppose normatively a supposedly ‘abstract’ and ‘elitist’ cosmopolitanism to what seems to be a ‘concrete’ and ‘popular’ nationalism. What is wrong in this picture is that, not only did the ‘national’ not yet exist, but that, in eighteenth-century political thought, what is today identified as ‘national’ was just as abstract and elitist as cosmopolitanism is imagined to be. Not only that, it also referred to a unifying political community — beyond the local under the natural law conception of freedom and equality among men. This sounds almost identical to the very same working definition provided of cosmopolitanism. However, based on this contemporary conception of cosmopolitanism as opposed to nationalism, one must assume that the latter was different from the former. Why is that so? Moreover, important actors of the French revolution actually argued and acted in very cosmopolitan terms; and chiefly the 1789 Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen represents an important piece of practical cosmopolitics in recognising the freedom and equality of the whole humankind. This is far from a ‘more symbolic and theoretical than actual and practical’ conception.

Behind all this lies a need for a re-conceptualisation of the relationship between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, especially in regard to the French revolution. This method of ontological definition is problematic for both the historian and the philosopher. For the historian, there is a risk of applying an anachronistic vision of cosmopolitanism, based on a contemporary approach of what it is a vision biased by nationalism as argued supra and ignoring what it has been. For the philosopher, it is ruining future ontological constructions by reproducing again and again the same ‘knowledge’ of what cosmopolitanism is and has been.

A possible way out of this ontology/epistemology conundrum is to make a Foucaultian ‘history of the present’ by means of a genealogy of this battle between discourses.

[1] Schlereth, 1977: xi.

[2] Ibid.: xi.

[3] Ibid.: xii.

[4] Ibid.: xii.

[5] Ibid.: xiii.

[6] Ibid.: xiv.

[7] Ibid.: xxiv-xxv.

[8] Ibid.: xxv.

[9] Ibid.: 1.

[10] Ibid.: 6

[11] Ibid.: 15-16

[12] Ibid.: 13.

[13] Ibid.: 101.

[14] Ibid.: 102.

[15] Ibid.: 103.

[16] Ibidem.


About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
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5 Responses to Schlereth: The Cosmopolitan Ideal in Enlightenment Thought

  1. Nikos says:

    COSMOPOLITANISM must be examined under anthropological focus , not only political

  2. Frank Ejby Poulsen says:

    Hi Nikos,
    Would you care to elaborate your reasons? Why must cosmopolitanism be examined under anthropological focus? (I know it has to, and I’ve also read some of these studies — I guess I’ll be posting about books edited by e.g. Cheah and Robbins, Vertovec and Cohen, or Bhabha, Breckenridge, Chakrabarty, and Pollock — it’s just for the sake of argumentation and to know your own thoughts about the subject). What do you think it brings to the study of cosmopolitanism? Also what would be your working definition of cosmopolitanism for an anthropological study?

  3. selena says:


  4. ideal says:

    There is some really great information at this site. I spent quite a bit of time reading these tidbits of knowledge and came away enlightened.

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