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środa, 7 grudnia 2011

‘Western World’, ‘East’ and the Idea of Progress in eighteenth century Britain

Article presented at the conference:

Writing Central Eastern Europe

International Conference, Jagiellonian University, Kraków
11-12 June 2010


In this article I tried to explain how was it possibile that from 18th Century the elite of western european countries started on to distinguish the ‘eastern Europe’ as a group of states and nations which desprerately needed reform and political education. To achieve this goal I will analise the terms ‘Eastern Europe’ and ‘progress’ as well as such problems like the Enlightenment’s ideal of a good economy, the 18th Century British vision of Poles and Russians with all superiority/inferiority complexes connected with that vision and the idea of marquess Condorcet concerning the progress as a vital factor in the history of nations.

An English poet Richard Glover (1712–1785) and politician published in 1737 an epic poem in praise of liberty: Leonidas which was a literary attack on Sir Robert Walpole’s government and the corruption which the minister developped into a political system. Leonidas, the King of Sparta was depicted in it not only as a defender of liberty fighting against Persian tyranny (Walpole’s government was to ‘asian’ for Glover), but also as a representative of the West (‘western world’) fighting against ‘Asian world’. It appears that all Europe was than considered to be thw West. When ‘the West’ started to mean ‘western European’ i.e. France, Britain or Italy? There are very few examples of using the term ‘Eastern Europe” in British eighteenth century press and books. One we can find for example in the article about Polish Jews , which referred to the book by Beatrice Baskerville: The Polish Jew published in the same year:

…The two great movements among the Polish Jews, and indeed among all the Jews of
Eastern Europe, have been the Zionist scheme and the Bund…


Eastern Europe as a purely geographic term appers also in a title of Edmund Burke’s article in the 33th volume of his periodical The Annual Reigister - Situation of Northern and Eastern Europe at the Commencement of 1790 , also such words as: ‘western’ or ‘west’ were almost never meant to be anything more than as a purely geographical statement (West Indies, West Friesland) and even as such were by no means frequent.

For example the title of one of Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg’s (1676-1747) works from 1738: An historico-geographical description of the north and eastern parts of Europe and Asia: but more particularly of Russia, Siberia, and Great Tartary; both in their ancient and modern state: together with an entire new polyglot-table of the dialects of 32 Tartarian nations contains the name: „Western Europe” and „Western Europe” as a purely geographical term, without any cultural connotations. In december 1756 edition of London Magazine we can find a term: ‘eastern Europe’ but the adjective: ‘eastern’ begins with minuscule as a refering to geography only . Very similar is the case of an article from: The Monthly Magazine edition from 1800 , or the biography of Carl von Linné written by Dietrich Johann Heinrich Stöver in 1794, an than translated from swedish to english . Even in the text of: The Theosophist from 1609 we can find the term ‘eastern Europe’ as geographical statement . In relation to Eastern European countries the most frequent name used in 18th century was: eastern kingdoms of Europe. The same we can find for example in a work of a Dutchman Cornelis de Bruins: Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie from 1711.

The other problem consists in the fact that the countries we know today as a part of Eastern Europe like Russia and Poland were very often called ‘the nations of the North’, just like Sweden or England in the early modern period. In his main work from 1576 Jean Bodin reffered for instance to the character of northern nations who praise personal independence and dislike absolute monarchy . This manner of naming nations was still alive in the 18th century (Great Northern War – 1700-1721, Catherine’s the Great alliance with Prussia and Britain called ‘the northern concerto’ in opposition to ‘the southern concerto’ formed by Austria and France).
The clear division we know today between ‘civilised’ Western Europe and somehow barbaric Eastern Europe is first and foremost the result of Condorcet’s idea of progress. Marquess de Condorcet stated that Britain and France are more ‘advanced’ than other European countries in securing the public liberty and constructing reliable, lawful administration for the people. The Germans and Italians were supposed to be still somehow errant, and the inhabitants of Eastern Europe (although the term itself was of no interest to Condorcet) tending to despotism. The aforementioned Condorcet’s idea of progress was yet nothing more but a scientific elaboration of an older sentiment typical for the age of Enlightenment, that all human institutions can be relatively easily reformed and their functioning - rationalized. The conservative Polish or Hungarian nobility was seen as slaves of the old ways of governing. At the end of the 18th century even some Polish political theorists (Hugo Kołłątaj, Stanisław Staszic) started to describe the Polish liberty as ‘archaic’ unlike the British implicating the responsible law-abiding attitude and respect for individual rights .

The tendence of perceiving Eastern European countries as barbaric and underdeveloped was by no means practiced in Britain only. The same was the position of 18th century Austrians and Germans. On the so-called Table of Nations (Völkertafel) printed between 1730 and 1740 in Vienna, the nations of Western Europe are depicted as genarally more virtuous. The French were seen as great warriors, who end their lives in battles but also a bit unreliable . The Englishman (nervous – unruhig, man of the world - Welt-weiß) positioned between Swede and German is somehow inferior to the wise Spaniard and bellicous Frenchman. Eastern nations were presented as far more infterior even to Englishman. The Russians were seen as barbaric, a Turk as a lazy, egoistic, tyrannical and effeminated sort of Man, the Poles and Hungarians were as primitive and unreliable. Poles were seen as a nations of brawlers and Hungarians as the most disloyal subjects (anti-Hapsburg rebellion of 1702). The British negative vision of eastern Europeans based first and foremost on their uncompatibility with the enlightened ideas popularised by The Spectator (1711-1714).
The suposed effeminacy of the Turks was also mentioned in the march 1792 edition of: The European Magazine and London Review containing information about Persia, Turkey, and a travel journal of a man called Beauchamp who travelled in the Middle East in 1787.

The British relationship with Poland was more complicated, although Poland was almost as exotic to 18th century Londoners as Turkey was. Polish minister to St. James Court (1769-1772) Tadeusz Burzyński (b. about. 1730, d. 1773) noticed that: ‘the two free nations have some sort of a deep respect for each other ’. On the other hand Lord Mansfield informed him once about British view of Poland: In this country Poland has no enemy. But Poland and its problems were still exotic. It is always easy to like a distant and a barely known nation. The Russians were disliked and feared like in Poland, but for instance the contradictions in Polish and Prussian foreign policy used to be uncomprehended. Poland and its political system was frequently seen as unjust as William Pitt the Elder put it in his speech given in the House of Lords on January the 9th 1770 roku about the previous speech by George III and some governmental proposals: If this question be given up, the freeholders of England are reduced to a condition baser than the peasantry of Poland ”. Poland as some sort of hell to farmers and peasants used to appear in many political texts and speeches of the era.

Did the 18th Century Britons know something vital about Poland, or was this country completely exotic? To anwser this question we must observe how the Britain’s policy towards Poland looked like. It seems that there was no such thing as a separate British policy towards this country. The Sir Robert Walpole’s cabinet (1721-1742) tended to stay away from the conflicts of the continent. Even the war with Spain (1739) was announced under the strong pressure of public opinion. The main source of information of this cabinet’s foreign policy: Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole edited by William Coxe in 1798 contains only a very few remarks about the political situation in Eeastern Europe. Walpole was anxious about the political and military growth of Russia , but it seems that there was no gouvernmental conception how the situation could be altered. Walpole and his ministers generalny relied on the French alliance (1717-1735) and French diplomacy, and after the brech with Versailles they started to rely on Austria (even in early 1730’s polititians openly hostile to Austria, like Charles Townshend (1674-1738) were not tolerated , other like Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle (1693-1756) liked very much to play role of imperial loyals to please the king George II who was in the same time elector of Hannover and thus – subject to the emperor.

Also after 1748 the collaboration with Austria was a priority of british diplomatic service . It is worth remembering that British diplomats were among the most limited by ministerial instructions, so the only British diplomat who really tried in the period of 1748-1756 to influence the British policy towards Eastern-Europe was Charles Hanbury Williams (1708-1759) residing subsequently in Dresden (1747-1750), Berlin (1750-1751) and Petersburg (from 1751 on). Williams was also political instructor to young Stanisław August Poniatowski, whom he had introduced in 1755 to Catherine the Great . Leaving almost all initiative in Eastern Europe to Austria was a mistake, as the isolated Britain A.D. 1756 can confirm. The only Britain’s ally than was king of Prussia depending on British subsidies. The 18th century ends for the British diplomats with the conquest of Canada and the lost of America. The war against american rebels, alhough justified by law, temporarily endangered the vision of Britain as a ‘country of freedom’ in Poland , France and Germany . To conclude: there was no moment during 18th century in which Britain elaborated some kind of separate Policy towards Poland.

It is hard to find among 18th century Britons someone who possesed similar knowledge of Polish affairs as Charles Hanbury Williams did. Poland seemed to interest the British more after 1764 i.e. after the coronation of Stanisław August Poniatowski, a great anglophile, who never missed an oportunisty to practice the english language especially during conversations about the perfection of english political system. Becouse of this many Britons had an easy acces to king, who confined with them. James Harris, a diplomat who arrived to Poland from Prussia in 1767 noticed the poor condition of peasants and the policy of the allmighty Russian ambasador. The king discussed with Harris the problem of the famous new military academy (Szkoła Rycerska) saying that the only reason the Russians agreed to establish the academy was that they found it potentially useful for Russian officers in the future . The tradesman Joseph Marshall, who was in the Polish Commonwealth in 1770 (mainly to Gdańsk and Elbląg), has mentioned the private little wars among magnates and noblemen which terrified him . Nathaniel William Wraxall, agent of the East India Company, and – later – of the British government, who has visited (1777-1779) all central and eastern european courts was mainly interested in Polish economy. One of the British minister in Warsaw Thomas Wroughton’s (d. 1787) duties was to give Wraxall all information he needed. The Journal (published in 1778) of Wraxall is dominated by the lack of faith in Poniatowski’s economical knowledge and experience. Wraxall was also shocked why the Poles were so little interested in using the natural resources of their land. Wraxall was one of the very few British of his time aware of the Prussian economical pressure Poland suffered .

The best British historical work written in 18th century concerning Poland was William Coxe’s Travel to Poland (1778). Coxe has made a very minute analysis of Poland’s internal affaires and history of Polish realm . Befor this editio, the British had to rely maliny on the information given by the German from Gdańsk Gottfried Lengnicha and his series of editions known as Polnishe Bibliothek. Poland was still much less known to a British reader than Spain or Bavaria.

The press information about Poland concerned mainly the private live and movements of the monarch. For example information about August II personal character in Gentleman’s Magazine (May the 2nd 1732) . This magazine used to bring news about Polish diets and confederacies but no information about the condition of Polish population. There were also little news from Warsaw when compared with those from the Hague, Paris, Madrid, Vienna or Philadelphia, so stereotypes took place of reliable information. The travel journals like Marshall’s mentoning a loaded gun kept by one Polish nobleman as a warning and weapon against his neightbour, must have been confirming all negative stereotypes.

The British, and especially the English of the 18th century were a rather xenophobic nation . They were afraid of the possibility of French invasion, of Spanish customs officers and inquisitors, they laughed at the Dutch Republic not as prosperous as in the previous century. The German preacher Wendeborn visiting London in the 1780’s was suprised seeing that even an English beggar thinked himself superior to German or French rich tourist, becouse they weren’t as ‘free’ as he was . A poor Polish nobleman would have reacted in a similar way , but Poland was still to much exotic for Britons to anable any recognition of similar public virtues in both countries.
Russia was as exotic as Poland, but also much feared. That was why Russian diplomats were treated with great civility by British authorities. The appearance of Russian troops at the Rhine (1735) shocked Londoners what Sir Joseph Jekyll commented in 1738 saying ‘God had punished French ambitions using the Russian army’. Defoe has written some lines about Muscovite stupid ignorance in 1701 roku. In spite of all this Britain never really avoided to cooperate with the somwhat barbaric Power. In 1734 a commercial treaty was signed, in 1738 Britain proposed an alliance to Russian government, which was eventually signed in 1742, and than renewed in 1746 and 1752 . The British were terrified hearing of Russian brutality in the Eastern Prussia during the seven years war (1756-1763). It is also very hard to find some trace of sympathy for Russian absolutistic reforms made by Peter the Great and later by Catherine the Great, which was so distinct among enlightened circles in Paris (before Diderot went to Russia and found himself very dissapionted).

How was it possibile that the British point of view on European affairs became so important? Great Britain (England befor the union with Scotland -1707) eneterd the 18th century as a new-born superpower. The whole Europe was astonished that the British monarchia mixta (mixed monarchy) was able to fight and defeat absolutistic France and to take a stable place between the greatest european powers. The British growth of power was a proof that it was possibile to combine declarations of individual ‘freedom’ with political power. Venice and tho other republic – the Dutch Republic were unable to acheive this goal. Being in London in 1754 Stanisław Poniatowski was impressed that a ‘free’ nation could be and was so well organised , so he became an anglophile for the rest of his life . The absolutistic Kingdom of France were in 18th century less attractive for its form of governemt, although Paris was still concidered as center of european culture. In the same age the characteristic inferiority complex of the eastern european nations started to be visible. It was not only caused by British and French cultural influence but also by the changes in the political map of Eastern Europe where the new powers like Prussia and Russia were gaining advantage over old multinational countres – Poland, Hapsburg Empire and Turkey. Being aware of tis situation the western europeans tended to think themselves superior to the East . This superiority complex was based on being a ‘free’ nation, or on technological development (Britain) or on military and administrative superiority (France, Prussia).

Professor Hubert Orłowski who has studied the origins of german negative stereotypes concering Poland and Poles came to opinion that the Prussians built their conviction on the modernity of absolutistic bureaucracy or the rationality of Prussian economical discours (cameralism) , especially when it was all confronted with polish constitutional and administrative dis order. Already Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) Prussian historian and theorist of state depicted Polish political system as an examle of constitutional chaos:

„…caprice of several deputies makes the whole work of the diet point less… but they call it jus contradicendi – the very soul of Polish liberty … ”.


Very similar was the opinion of Prussian economist Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi (1717-1771), who praised enlightened absolute monarchy which would protect private property and act within the frames of law as the best form of government. His opinion about Poland we can know from the passage in his work: Die Natur und das Wesen der Staaten (1760):

„…Polish constitution is arranged in such a way, that it’s absolutly impossible to do anything useful … ”.


Justi claimed that a state is a mechanism but also a moral organism. This position implicated that it must have been something wrong with the character of Polish nation itself if Polish economy was so disorganised and week . The Swedes also refered to Polish troubles, liberum veto etc. by creating a word: polsk riksdag.
According to Johann Christoph Krause (1748-1799), professor ath the Univesrity of Halle the Polish constitusion was so defectiv becouse it was developed without any planning or rational concept . Here we can see an enlightened but not neceserily absolutistic point of view.
Poland controled by selfish and uneducated nobility was no favorite of pragmatic german bourgeoisie whose virtues were by 18th century becoming german national virtues .

German scientist and a supporter of the french Johann Georg Forster (1754-1794) has invented the expression: Polnische Wirtschaft in his letter from december the 7th 1784 in which he mentioned filth of Polish inns, lazyness of Polish servants and lack of good artisans . During next two years he wrote much about the lack of entrepreneurial spilit and lack of practicism among Poles as well as ignorance and extravagance of Polish nobility and the general poverty of the people. He has written in one of his letters: In Poland the poor half-barbaric people coexists with the decadence of the rich nobility . German virtues like: order, industry, frugality and hygiene (Ordnung, Fleiß, Sparsamkeit, Sauberkeit), which Forster praised didn’t let him to approve the state Poland was in . Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) was -unlike Forster – fond of both Poles and revolution , but it was Forster who was ‘typical’ in his opinions.

Very similar were bourgeois virtues praised by już Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and his news paper (edited in years: 1711-1714) The Spectator. Under the impression of English pragmatism Voltaire wanted to transplant the same way of thinking to France. The French-German thinker Paul Henry Thiry, baron d'Holbach (1723-1789) tried to combine pragmatism with atheism and strict morality:

„...An atheist is a Man who knows the nature and its rules and who knowi his own nature and his responsibility ...”.


In his work: Ethocratie, ou le gouvernement fondé sur la morale (Ethocracy or Government Founded on Ethics) published in 1776 in Amsterdam Holbach highlighted the need to apply morality in politics , wrote against the French nobility wanting new privileges and advised to the king Louis XVI (the work was dedicated to the monarch) to preserve simplicity and modesty which sholud secure the respect of the people and public order . Reading d’Holbach’s work one can get an impression that it could have been written in 17th century – so much it was all about morality and virtue. But it was the discours typical also for englightened philosophers , especially those coming from bourgeoisie (especially german) , who was to be united by pragmatic virtues . Holbach, didn’t share Voltaire’s respekt for entrepremeurs but he did share his pragmatic viewpoint.

Poles and other Eastern European countries were thus seen as not pragmatic enough to be called prosperous and not prosperous enough to be perceived as promising. Already in 18th century they started to be seen as far less ‘progressive’ than western-Europeans. All this does not mean that Britons of the age of Enlightenment never considered themselves superior to other nations - of course they did and this convincement was connected with pride of British political achievements. When they criticized the French – they used to refer rather to the ‘despotic’ power of Burbon monarchs, than to French culture. On the other hand they used to have much sympathy for Poles and Russians although they perceived them as barbaric.
In Eighteenth Century Britain the word ‘progress’ still used to mean first and foremost the individual progress of a men i.e.: his achievements and his ability to make choices. Sometimes this word referred also to the process of constructing some political system.

The typical example of using of the word ‘progress’ in 17th- and 18th century British literature is the title of the work by John Bunyan (1628-1688): The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come published in 1678 roku. Bunyan has depicted a pilgrimage of an anonymous Christian to Zion. The preacher Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) was Th author of: The Progress of Sin: or the Travels of Ungodliness (1684). The pelaograph Thomas Astle (1735-1803) has written in 1784 a book intitled: The Origin and Progress of Writing. The seres of graphics by Williama Hogarth (1697-1764): A Rake's Progress (1732–1733) about a merchant’s son wasting his inheritance is very famous. An American of Scottish descent James Thomson Callender (1758-1803) has written: The political progress of Britain: or, An impartial history of abuses in the government of the British Empire, in Europe, Asia, and America: From the Revolution, in 1688, to the present time. This work was published in 1794. In the same year in London was Publisher: The history of the origin, progress, and termination of the American war by Charles Stedman. The year after the English edition of marquess de Condorcet’s work: Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind.

It seems that the word: progress was initially an equivalent of other word – process and could mean something neutral, positive or negative depending on the context. It will suffice to mantion the poem: The progress of religion by Jacob Hildebrand (ed. London 1737) or the aforementioned: The Rake’s Progress i The Progress of Sin.
In Condorcet’s work the word: ‘progress’ has a definitely positive connotation and to some extents gets a new meaning – as a stable process of gaining more and more freedom and happines by humanity thanks to respect for personal responsibility.
„Progress’ not as a term but as a modern Condorcet’s way to understand it comes from Francis Bacon and his hope in power of science. This scientific enthusiasm was expressed by Locke, d’Holbach, Voltaire, Kant and many other in relation to human institutions. Condorcet was sure that the progress is stable and irrevercible whereas Kant thought about it as about some sort of prize for human efforts. History was – according to Kant – very hard and errant way from barbaric conditions to civilisation. An age later Nietsche didn’t believe in progress at all, and prefered the old tradition of ages of happines and dark ages.

In the opinion of a liberal and a critic of liberalism Pierre Manent, the liberals living after French revolution praised its acheivements although abhored the crimes commited by jacobins. For those the progress was so sure that it became a sort of religion . In Times of the revolution it wasn’t so easy. Whereas Georg Forster believed in revolution and progress despite the jacobin terror, but Herder and Schiller fund themselves very dissapointed. With the idea of a stable and sure progress determinism has invaded all humanities preparing the way for secular regions like marxism.

Assuming that progress is irrevesivle we must came to a motion that if some countries succesfully develop themselves through ages it will be very difficult to Reach heir level of civilisation. Today the inhabtants of Eastern Europe are constantly afraid that they will never be able to compete their western european collegues.

Marquess of Condorcet wrote his main work: Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain) in 1793-1794, when he concealed himself from the gang of Robespierre and was eventually captured The conflict between him and jacobins resulted from the quarrel about natural equalities of mankind. Condorcet wanted them preserved becouse the differences in property or intelligence were not result of defective political or educational systems but of individual industry and virtue. Esquisse d'un tableau was edited in 1795 when jacobine terror was already over. Condorcet is an unique case of an intellectual who played a vital role both in enlightenment and the revolution. Robespierre have accused him of prefering Voltaire’s idea to that of Rousseau. Today Condorcet is perceived as one of French national heroes. His monument is situated next to the mint in which he has worked for years.
The very core of Condorcet’s political philosophy and his idea of progress was a believ that every monopole is harmful for society. It should be thus avoided both in science, education and in political culture. He was against Church’s monopole for morality, as well as nobility’s monopole for making politics . Although he was never a radical democrat, he praised the United States for fighting those monopoles, as much as he praised some of the characteristics of the political life in antient Athens. Condorcet thought, that Great Britain (if the crown will let the Americans go their way). The United States inherited good English laws , and revolutionary France were very close to realisation of the concept of a free country, with education for all, and easy acces to inventions and science. Poland controlled by ill-educated nobility had still very much to do. Although we don’t find only mention of Poland in: Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain we can assume that Condorcet’s opinion of it would be very much like Forster’s.

When Condorcet was developing his liberal ideas in Prussia and Austria were still many devoted absolutists who – in spite of their different political views - shared with English and French liberals their ‘modern’ contempt for archaistic institutions of Poland and Hungary. Russia was given more chance because of the breathtaking reforms of Peter the great ang Catjerine the Great. In relation to Prussian absolutistic reforms very frequently is used the term ‘separate way’ - Sonderweg to modernity, which is sometimes praised as the most efficient way to control the conservative and anarchistic nobility , and sometimes seen as a source of all later german troubles with transition from absolutism to liberal society . Notwithstanding the differencies between the 18th century Prussia, Britain and France and the countries culturally depending on them formed and still form the core of the modern West.

In Condorcet’s main work we cannot find any case of using the terms of ‘West’ and ‘East’ in some not only geographic but also cultural context, I thint that the cultural meaning of ‘Eastern Europe’ we know today is based first and formost on the idea of progress, which explains why ‘Eastern Europe’ meant anything onl to geograpgs before the idea of progress was formuled. The word ‘progress’ gained his positive meaning only thanks to real administrative and economical achievements of particular states and nations.


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