Northwestern Events Calendar


Global Lunchbox: Savages, Romans, and Despots: Robert Launay on Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder

When: Friday, February 19, 2021
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM CT

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: Free

Contact: Cindy Pingry  


Category: Global & Civic Engagement, Academic, Lectures & Meetings


Please join us for the Global Lunchbox series, a weekly conversational forum hosted by the Weinberg College Center for International and Area Studies featuring work-in-progress by members of the Northwestern community.

Our guest this week will be Robert Launay, Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern, who will discuss his recent book Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder.

About the book

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Europeans struggled to understand their identity in the same way we do as individuals: by comparing themselves to others. In Savages, Romans, and Despots, Robert Launay takes us on a fascinating tour of early modern and modern history in an attempt to untangle how various depictions of “foreign” cultures and civilizations saturated debates about religion, morality, politics, and art.

Beginning with Mandeville and Montaigne, and working through Montesquieu, Diderot, Gibbon, Herder, and others, Launay traces how Europeans both admired and disdained unfamiliar societies in their attempts to work through the inner conflicts of their own social worlds. Some of these writers drew caricatures of “savages,” “Oriental despots,” and “ancient” Greeks and Romans. Others earnestly attempted to understand them.

But, throughout this history, comparative thinking opened a space for critical reflection. At its worst, such space could give rise to a sense of European superiority. At its best, however, it could prompt awareness of the value of other ways of being in the world. Launay’s masterful survey of some of the Western tradition’s finest minds offers a keen exploration of the genesis of the notion of “civilization,” as well as an engaging portrait of the promises and perils of cross-cultural comparison.

About the speaker

Robert Launay is a social/cultural anthropologist. He has conducted extensive field work in West Africa (specifically in Côte d’Ivoire) with Muslim minorities historically specializing in trade. His first book, Traders without Trade (Cambridge University Press), focused on how this minority was able to adapt to its loss over its former trade monopoly. His second book, Beyond the Stream: Islam and Society in a West African Town (University of California Press), which won the Amaury Talbot Prize for best African ethnography in England in 1992, dealt with religious change and controversy. He is editor of Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards (Indiana University Press) and Foundations of Anthropological Theory: From Classical Antiquity to Early Modern Europe (Wiley/Blackwell 2010).

Most recently, he has begun a project on French foodways in the Midwest, in collaboration with Aurelien Mauxion, a graduate of the program who wrote his dissertation under his supervision. The project takes as its starting point the fact that the Midwest was colonized by France before it became part of the United States. They are looking at how early French settlers adapted to specifically American foods and environments, and how contemporary descendants of French settlers express their identities in terms of what they cook and eat.

This event is free and open to all, but registration is required:

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