Mission to Civilize, Enlightenment and Racism

Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. Born in Königsberg, Kant's comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him one of the most influential figures in modern Western philosophy. Kant was one of the most notable Enlightenment thinkers to defend racism, and some have claimed that he was one of the central figures in the birth of modern scientific racism. The interior of Königsberg Cathedral in Kaliningrad, Russia houses the museum dedicated to the history of the city and the philosopher Immanuel Kant (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

Although the idea of colonialism existed since time immemorial, it is generally associated with the subjugation of and domination over countries in Americas, Africa and Asia by European states. The occurrence started in earnest roughly in the 15th century and grew exponentially ever since, to such an extent that Europe, which constitutes only 8 percent of the world’s land surface, managed to control in 1800 about 35 percent of the world. At the peak of the colonialism crusade, which was the turn of the 20th century, that figure climbed as high as 84 percent (Philip Hoffman, Why did Europe Conquer the World?).

The main reasons for colonialism were economic and political dominance, Christianization, and civilization (a mission to civilize). Europeans perceived themselves as superior to the rest of the world in terms of each and every aspect of existence. The world therefore had to be in service to them, their needs and their programs. A new Euro-centric world order was on the horizon. It was anchored in a biased worldview that favoured everything European or Western to the disadvantage of everything non-European or non-Western. Europe was the world and the world belonged to Europe, revolving around it.

Admittedly, conquering the world in the name of either spreading Christianity or creating political and economic hegemonies was not tenable and could not be sustained. That was by virtue of Christianity becoming a fading force and so, a point of contention. If such was the case back home, how marketing and selling it to the rest of the world was reasonable. Moreover, neither embarking on the colonialism enterprise of global proportions merely for the political and economic supremacy would have also been any exceptional and attractive a proposition. That would have been a classic case of brute subjugation and exploitation with which countless human antagonizers were familiar throughout human history. Doing so furthermore would have been along the lines of a primitive and ever-recurring tit-for-tat tactic.

Nonetheless, the enlightened Europeans were different. Their colonialism intentions and agendas were much nobler. They were a gift to the world, and perhaps its last hope. All their scientific, technological, intellectual and socio-cultural boons - which were enclosed within the bosom of the idea and palpable marvel of civilization – were to be shared and optimized across the globe. All communities were to be recipients of the civilization benefits and at the same time be devoted to the enhancement of the same under the auspices of the European colonial masters.

Thus the proselytization of Christianity was replaced with the proselytization of civilization. The European man was liberated from the fetters of blinding darkness and stifling traditions, hence they were obliged to carry the torch of the new mind-set and its revolutionary thinking far and wide across continents. Christianity was still in operation, though, but it assumed a subsidiary role. It was just an additional catch. Quest for political and economic control by no means subsided, however, it became contingent on the vicissitudes of the civilization processes. The interests of the former became answerable to the interests of the latter, so to speak. That was capable of camouflaging political cruelty and economic exploitation, rendering them consecrated in the eyes of the offenders, and a work of the hand of destiny in the eyes of the victims.

The whole procedure was called a mission to civilize. If the hitherto prospect of Christianisation was a mandate of heaven, the prospect of proselytising and evangelizing civilization was now a mandate of reason. Geographically Europe and conceptually the West were the centre of attention and direction, and were the focus of civilizational pilgrimages; the works of European (Western) intellectuals were the civilization Holy Scriptures; exclusive socio-political, educational, economic and cultural institutions were the civilization temples; civilization qua westernization mores were the rituals; and the entire world citizenry stood for the civilization fraternity and their private dwellings for civilization altars and even tabernacles. As Georg Friedrich Hegel said: “World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning” (Georg Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History).

If there were Christendom and Islamdom, there was now civilization-dom as well, whose aim was to absorb and assimilate the existing devout conditions and affiliations. Civilisation was envisioned as the capstone of the human all-inclusive progress (evolution). Later, its finest was yet understood to be part of the end of history and the civilized man the last man standing, which is the thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man”. No human activity was to be comprehended in terms other than those of civilization. Even global conflicts were set to cease to be fought on the basis of any correlations and identities apart from those linked to civilization, as proposed by Samuel Huntington in his controversial book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.”

The civilizing mission proved the best and most yielding option. It was popularized as a justification for colonialism and later imperialism in equal measure by France, Britain, Germany, Russia and others. In her book “A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930”, Alice L. Conklin believes that of all, it was France that led the charge. Its civilization policies and accompanying actions were most extreme, most violent, and, as one would expect, the bloodiest. This comes as no surprise because the author reiterates that civilization is a particularly French concept. The French had the honour of inventing the term and have celebrated the civilizational achievements of their own ever since.

The relative subjectivity of the matter was intensified during the new empire-building of the French Third Republic (1870-1940). Such was a time when the country had to ward off the ideologized versions of the civilizing mission put forth by the expansionism adversaries of France. Of those adversaries Britain stood out, and expectedly so, for Britain might have considered rather itself as the home of the notion of civilization and of its biggest ensuing successes. For France, civilization was the purpose of life, and the task of civilizing others was elevated to the realm of official imperial doctrine.

Alice L. Conklin writes: “From about 1870, when France began to enlarge its holdings in Africa and Indochina, French publicists, and subsequently politicians, declared that their government - alone among the Western states - had a special mission to civilize the indigenous peoples now coming under its control… The notion of a civilizing mission rested upon certain fundamental assumptions about the superiority of French culture and the perfectibility of humankind. It implied that France's colonial subjects were too primitive to rule themselves, but were capable of being uplifted. It intimated that the French were particularly suited, by temperament and by virtue of both their revolutionary past and their current industrial strength, to carry out this task” (Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930).

The civilization mission was used for the self-legitimization of colonial rule, premised on the colonizers’ material and moral superiority. To be civilized meant to be free “from all forms of tyranny: the tyranny of the elements over man, of disease over health, of instinct over reason, of ignorance over knowledge, and of despotism over liberty.” Though the French were the harbingers, the British were as guilty a party in institutionalizing and propagating the idea as anybody else. The British civilizing attitudes towards their Indian empire and the rest of their non-white colonies were no different from those of the French. Their cultural ethos was deemed far more superior, while the colonial subjects were too backward to govern themselves. The latter, therefore, needed to be enlightened, reformed and “improved”.

Thus, one of the principles upon which the British civilizing mission was based was the claim to improve the colonies and to bring the fruits of progress and modernity to the subject peoples. It was inherent “in the logic of colonialism that people who were different because they were regarded as inferior had to be made similar and, hence, equal by being civilized. This was the self-inflicted ‘duty’ of the ‘white man’ whose ‘burden’ derived from the permanent atonement for original sin as well as from the sympathetic attitude of the philanthropic Enlightenment.” This gave rise to the concepts of “improvement”, “betterment” and “moral and material progress” which were subsumed under the term of the “civilizing mission” of the British (Michael Mann, ‘Torchbearers Upon the Path of Progress’: Britain’s Ideology of a ‘Moral and Material Progress’ in India).

The impact of the civilization mission on the enlightened European mind

Obviously, since its inception, the civilization mission was problematic, dividing opinion like no other. Its inherent negative sides were compounded by its emerging outcomes, which were anything but tolerable. The outcomes oscillated between perpetual brutality, slavery, quasi-feudal forced labour, expropriation of property, dehumanization of large sections of populations and their living conditions, and denying many their basic human rights. This reality split the believes of the leading lights of the Age of Enlightenment - and its aftermath - whose philosophy and major principles revolved around tolerance, freedom, equality, moral integrity, and the humanness of all people, all of which were diametrically opposed to the most of what was going on in the name of the civilization mission.

As a result, some of the first seeds of an anti-colonial political theory were planted. Denis Diderot (d. 1784), a French philosopher, Gottfried Herder (d. 1803), a German philosopher and theologian, and Immanuel Kant (d. 1804), a German philosopher and one of the most important Enlightenment thinkers whose essay “What Is Enlightenment” is peerless – were some of the most outspoken critics of Western colonialism and everything it entailed, including the mission to civilize. According to Sankar Muthu, these scholars not only defended non-European peoples against the injustices of European imperial rule, but also challenged the idea that Europeans had any right to subjugate, colonize, and civilize the rest of the world.

Denis Diderot, by way of illustration, based his anti-colonial theorizing on three elements. First is the idea of a basic human dignity that all humans share, in part because of their individual freedom, sociability, and ability to reason and communicate about justice. Second is the pluralistic understanding of humanity based on which all humans are fundamentally cultural agents - that is, that they are social creatures who craft, maintain, and reform their own social and political practices and institutions. And the third element in Denis Diderot’s anti-imperialism “balances his commitment to cross-cultural moral norms with the view that whole peoples, as well as many of their practices and institutions, are morally incommensurable; that is, they cannot be rank ordered as definitively inferior or superior.”

And finally, Denis Diderot’s rebuke of the standard justifications of European imperialism concerned not so much the activities of the empires themselves, but more generally the corruption of European civilization. “Accordingly, he challenges European pretensions of civilizing others by criticizing many of Europe’s religious and political institutions and practices as fundamentally unjust, and thus as unfit to be exported abroad” (Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire).

Another example is Immanuel Kant whose belief in humanity agency helped him produce a moral philosophy that is both universal and pluralistic, and it “makes clear the wide diversity of ways of life and understandings of happiness that Kant affords to individuals to order their lives as they see fit.” Kant then applied “this understanding of human flourishing and freedom to whole societies, as part of his defence of non-European peoples’ resistance against European imperial power.”

Kant further believed that all people were equal and free. He asserted that European imperialism was manifestly unjust. In light of his idea of “cosmopolitan right”, Kant “criticized European imperialism and defended non-European peoples against what he viewed as the destructive powers that were being exercised by imperial trading companies, explorers, and other imperial travellers whose violent conquests of foreign lands and peoples transgressed the fundamental right to hospitality shared by all humans” (Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire).

The cultivation of racism 

However, many were torn between the prerequisites of honest intellectualism and the strains of the real life, the latter having been dictated by nationalism, economic aspirations and empire-building. While most things within the frame of the truth and its values were relativized, stereotypes abounded inevitably. In consequence, even some of the greatest minds succumbed to the pressure. They were torn by divided loyalties and hence, could not think straight.

This made the Enlightenment Age fraught with paradoxes. On the one hand, the Enlightenment is assumed to have been about liberty, equality, humanity and infinite opportunities, but, on the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise. There existed many nuances that gestured towards the probability that the Enlightenment was for an exclusive club. The elite fraternity was the Western society in its most generic sense, concentrated on Europe as a geographical unit that operated as the axis of the world and to which all paths of human existence led.

As might be expected – to digress a bit - the latter was a remix of the ancient Roman idiom to the effect that all roads led to Rome. If nothing else, the idiom unmistakably showed how much the fundamentals of the modern Western civilization have been rooted in the classical culture of Greece and Rome, and how much, conceivably, the modern Western civilization represents the fulfilment of the aspirations of the classical antiquity. The battle lines between the barbarian and the civilized had long been drawn, and had been neither annulled nor significantly altered ever afterwards. No more than the veneer was occasionally fine-tuned.

The whole Enlightenment (civilization) show was run by the white man. The original precept that man is the measure of all things - as proudly preached by the fathers of Greek and Renaissance humanism - was now explained and transferred from the realm of theory to that of reality. However, doing so should have been intellectually – and morally – anticlimactic; in addition, it should have been frustrating. The precept was refined whereby its scope was narrowed down to indicate that the white man only was the measure of all things. Others were there but to be measured. The white man furthermore was the only source of absolute value and authority on the whole of earth. Others were there but to be tamed and exploited. As such, the white man’s status and role were virtually deified, mostly by himself and sporadically, by any means necessary, by some sections of “others”.

A person therefore may want to know if the Enlightenment was truly that which it professed to be, or it was a double-dealing operation in the same spirit as the rest of the negativities of the age. In the final analysis, was it a let-down, or even a distraction?

One of the scourges of the Enlightenment was racism, which operated unabated until the present time. As a result, some people feel inclined to assign guilt for all the racism of the modern and post-modern times to the thinkers of the Enlightenment. As if their ideas not only safeguarded the menace, but also sustained it ad infinitum. Such were the profundity of their thought and the influence of the age in which they lived civilizational development-wise. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Enlightenment and its chief protagonists exemplified a model people looked up to - and still do. Which, irrespective of the degree of one’s optimism, may not bode well for racism being ever done away with.

David Hume

For illustrative purposes, as part of David Hume’s humanistic and naturalistic philosophy, whereby he strove to create a naturalistic science of man that scrutinized the psychological basis of human nature and the empirical framework for its development – hence his books “A Treatise of Human Nature”, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” and “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” – David Hume displayed his propensity for racism and xenophobia. Of all the human races, the whites were superior. The black Africans (the Negroes) fared most poorly. They were relegated almost to the level of animals. The worst (the most savage and most barbaric) of the whites were still above the best of the Negroes. The two groups were worlds apart, resulting from what David Hume proposed to be a natural or biological determinism.

David Hume wrote in “Political Essays”: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

Georg Friedrich Hegel

Next is Georg Friedrich Hegel who, like David Hume, harboured an unfavourable view especially towards the Africans (the Negroes). And since many parts of Africa were Muslim, Hegel did not hesitate to express similarly unfavourable views towards Muslims as well. Islam as the ideological force that propelled the Muslim standards of living was likewise targeted.

Hegel considered that the Negroes were still at the first stage of their development. They were dominated by passion, and were nothing more than savages. There was neither history, nor religion, nor culture in Africa. There was only a succession of contingent happenings and surprises. No aim or state existed whose development could be followed; and there was no subjectivity, but merely a series of subjects who destroyed one another. Like so, the Africans were lesser human beings and unsusceptible to refinement in respect of either culture or civilization.

To Hegel, “all our observations of African man show him as living in a state of savagery and barbarism, and he remains in this state to the present day. The Negro is an example of animal man in all his savagery and lawlessness, and if we wish to understand him at all, we must put aside all our European attitudes.”

Hegel was explicit that much of his views depended on the circumstantial reports of the missionaries – agents of Christianisation and civilization. He also admitted that Islam and Muslims (Mohammedanism) seemed to be the only factor that somehow managed to bring the Negroes at all nearer to culture (Georg Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History).

Here Hegel submitted – and certainly not inadvertently – that Islam is a religion of neither culture nor civilization. There were many segments of Africa that were Muslim, but still, even after accepting Islam, the Negroes persisted as anarchic barbarians and ruffians. The most that Islam and Muslims could do to the Negroes was to bring them somewhat closer to culture, not to culture per se, because neither did they possess it.

In like manner, Hegel said that in the north of Africa, where the Moors had propagated Islam (the Moslem faith) to the Negroes, the customs of the Negroes became less barbarous. “And the Negroes with whom the English first had dealings were Mohammedans.” Again, Hegel did not say that Islam and Muslims unfettered the Negroes from the vice of barbarism, but rather, that they made them less barbarous only, exposing thereby the civilizational limitations of Islam and its adherents. Islam was deemed a failed alternative.

This in no way was surprising, insofar as Hegel’s views concerning Islam and Muslims were part of the European orthodoxy. Assaulting essentially everything that was associable with Islam and its Arabian origins was consistent with the ideological bents of the mainstream schools of thought everywhere in Europe. Doing so was gratifying, almost fashionable.

Moreover, according to Hegel, the origin of the faith of Mohammedans was admittedly later than that of Christianity, but it is a more primitive system than that of the latter. Studying the Mohammedan faith, the Mohammedans and Mohammedan societies was the scope of a new obsession, yet a science: Orientalism, one of whose main objectives was the provision of a philosophical underpinning for the prospect of the civilization (Westernization) mission in the Muslim world. This obsession-cum-science was relatively new, in consideration of Hegel’s phrase: “…of what we call Orientalism” (Georg Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History).

In keeping with his views on Islam, Muslims, racism and civilization, Hegel proclaimed that from Arabia, the empire of unrestricted freedom – that is, the land of anarchy, lawlessness, barbarity and cruelty – the most extreme fanaticism had sprung. The life of that land was marked by the extremes of hospitality and plundering. The cases of aggression and theft occurred more frequently if the Arabs were surrounded by civilized countries, providing thus a stark contrast between the refinement of civilization and viciousness of barbarism.

Hegel then not only justified, but also invited the colonization of certain (most strategic) portions of the Muslim world, those which were geographically close and behaviourally susceptible to the civilized ways of Europe: “This portion of Africa (North Africa), like the Near East, is orientated towards Europe; it should and must be brought into the European sphere of influence, as the French have successfully attempted in recent times.”

To civilize Muslims - preconditioned by colonization - was obligatory. Muslims had spread their dominion across the continents and had contaminated the world with their religious extremism and civilizational incompetence, together with inappropriateness. Only to colonize them was able to neutralize the former and improve the prospects of the latter. To Hegel, Islam or Mohammedanism was an image of fanaticism, which impelled its adherents to conquer the world. Having done so, Islam was incapable of producing “a state with a differentiated organic life and a system of laws framed in the interest of freedom.”

Hegel has been slated for correlating a hierarchy of civilisations to a hierarchy of races. On the whole, he argued that, from a philosophical point of view, non-European peoples: American Indians, Africans and Asians, are less human than Europeans because, to varying degrees, they are not fully aware of themselves as conscious, historical beings. In the same way, he “considered slavery a necessary stage in the moral education of the African by the European.”

Hegel likewise “considered the imperial and colonial projects carried out by European nations outside of Europe as necessary and logical consequences of the capitalist modernization of European societies.” As with slavery, he “morally justifies imperialism and colonialism on the grounds that while Europe is civilized, the non-European victims of colonialism are barbarians and, for him, the civilized nation is conscious that the rights of the barbarians are unequal to its own” (Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed., Race and the Enlightenment).

No wonder that knives were out for Hegel, more than ever following the emergence of Nazi Germany. In some circles he was held responsible for providing a basis for modern racism. He was yet blamed for the emergence of German racism, including the racism of Nazism. Numerous studies have been carried out either in support of or in opposition to this theory. Karl Popper’s book “The Open Society & Its Enemies” is an example of the former, and Walter Kaufmann’s article “The Hegel Myth and Its Method” and Sandra Bonetto’s article “Race and Racism in Hegel – An Analysis” are the examples of the latter.

As part of the ongoing debate, Walter Kaufmann accentuated: “(Karl) Popper’s most ridiculous claim is that the Nazis got their racism from Hegel. In fact, the Nazis did not get their racism from Hegel, and Hegel was no racist.”

Immanuel Kant

Another face of the Enlightenment Age and its matchless flair, Immanuel Kant, was of the opinion that “full perfection of humanity was reserved for the white race; next came the yellow Indians, following by the Negroes and finally the American peoples. Americans he regarded as uneducable and lazy” (Peter Harrison, Enlightened Racism). The white race has been described as “the very blond, soft-white-skinned, red-haired, pale-blue-eyes variation.” Only the white man was civilized; the rest were savages and barbarians.

Kant infamously said that solely by reason of being a Negro, whatever a Negro says must be stupid. Once he was informed about a Negro carpenter who had been reproached for a haughty treatment of his white masters’ wives. The Negro retorted: “You whites are indeed fools, for first you make great concessions to your wives, and afterward you complain when they drive you mad.” At this, Kant snapped: “And it might be that there were something in this which perhaps deserved to be considered; but in short, this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid” (Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed., Race and the Enlightenment).

All this despite Kant’s many praiseworthy Enlightenment characteristics. Could this imply that he was of those who were additionally uncertain about the ways to reconcile between abstract ideas and applied solutions, frequently wavering between the ideals of one side and those of the other? Could it still be that he himself failed to translate the highest standards of his ethical thought into the fluctuations of daily life imbued with entrenched and regulated self- as well as ethno-centrism?

This means that Kant’s philosophy known as Kantianism and his prominent Kantian ethics, after all, were not as wholesome and universally acceptable as they may seem. Undeniably, they were European history and Western culture oriented, regarding European civilization as pre-eminent, and the white man and his brilliant mind as the foremost clients. Others’ admission into this elitist club was conditional and limited.


Finally, Voltaire (d. 1778) - a famous French Enlightenment philosopher and writer, who is often celebrated as a champion of freedom and reason - classified the Caffres, the Hottentots and the Topinambous as children. “In his ranking of races, he proposed that Negroes occupy a median position between Europeans and apes. For Voltaire, natural differences provided the explanation of why Europeans had been able to subdue and enslave inferior races” (Peter Harrison, Enlightened Racism).

Not only did Voltaire thus prepare the way for institutionalizing modern racism - in equal measure as many of his European Enlightenment counterparts have done - but also did he associate himself with and assist the evolution of what later came to be known as Islamophobia in the West. It would not be exaggerating to say that France as the front-runner of Islamophobia today is greatly indebted to the views of Voltaire.

As an Islamophobe, Voltaire composed “Mahomet” (Prophet Muhammad), which is a five-act tragedy, or drama, whose subject is religious fanaticism. Voltaire is said to have been inspired to compose the work by his “love of mankind and the hatred of fanaticism”. Prophet Muhammad, his mission and his followers were chosen to be satirized because they epitomized superstition, evil and fanaticism. They were a poison that still subsisted. They were a plague that still broke out from time to time and was sufficient to infect the earth.

The Prophet was depicted as a founder of superstition and extremism. He was a ruffian who first carried the sword to the altar to sacrifice those who refused to embrace his doctrines. He was a deceitful impostor, merciless tyrant, cunning manipulator, indoctrinator, and as suffering from obsessive love disorder (Voltaire, Mahomet).

That being the case, Voltaire never stopped courting controversies. He had as many admirers as haters. This is especially so today when the civilizational direction of the modern world requires a great deal of soul-searching. Voices for re-evaluating Voltaire’s legacy – and some of the legacy of the Enlightenment Age in general – grew louder over the years. For instance, in her article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Nabila Ramdani exclaimed that Voltaire spread darkness, not enlightenment. He was “an unapologetic racist and anti-Semite who inspired Hitler.” Hence, “France should stop worshipping him.”

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