Siep Stuurman, a Dutch intellectual historian, won’t be familiar to most American readers. Before The Invention of Humanity, his only book published in English was a biography—and a celebration—of another little-known author, the French Cartesian philosopher François Poullain de la Barre, who wrote three treatises on the equality of the sexes in the 1670s. “The mind has no sex whatsoever,” Poullain declared, and he told his female readers: “You are endowed with reason; use it, and do not sacrifice it blindly to anyone.” These treatises, Stuurman argues, played a significant part in “the invention of modern equality.” His new book is a much larger and bolder account of that “invention,” stretching across two millennia and virtually every known civilization; it takes as its focus not just the idea of equality but also of our “common humanity.”
Stuurman’s earliest (untranslated) books were about Dutch socialism, and he is obviously a supporter of both of these ideas. So, he argues, is everyone else these days, though the support is often inconsistent and hypocritical. Once, long ago, the ideas of equality and a common humanity were literally “unthinkable”; today, they are the default position of almost all of us. The Invention of Humanity is the story of how this dramatic change came about—and how long it took.
Stuurman’s book is a big one, and it violates many of the current rules of academic writing—especially the ones regarding turf. Stuurman provides us with a critical discussion of texts and authors from ancient Israel, Greece, and China; early Christendom and Islam; medieval Europe and Central Asia; Europe’s colonizers and the colonized peoples; the Enlightenment and the American, French, and Haitian revolutions; the Indian and African national-liberation movements and the African-American struggle for equality. The book ends with an account of the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights following a critique of Samuel Huntington’s the “clash of civilizations.”
Stuurman includes a good number of philosophers and religious writers (Confucius, Ibn Khaldun, Francisco de Vitoria, John Locke, and many more) and also the sort of people we now call public intellectuals (Voltaire, W.E.B. Du Bois). Unexpectedly, he also writes about travelers and ethnographers. Covering such a wide terrain and such a long period of time means that he trespasses on many academic fields, and I am sure the book will be criticized by scholars defending their specific expertise. Don’t let that bother you; Stuurman offers very skillful readings of the texts and figures that he surveys.
The range of his work also requires him to reject the current commitment of many intellectual historians to deep contextualism. These days, scholars are supposed to tell us in great detail how a particular book was read in its time: What did the words mean to their first readers? What other, perhaps lesser-known books and pamphlets were written around the same time? What were the immediate occasions of this writing? Who were the living targets of its arguments? Too much of this sort of thing, Stuurman argues, makes it impossible to understand the lasting significance of a given text. He is, instead, interested in a different question: Why is a text still important to us? And so he provides a more limited context—and then focuses on the temporal placement of each book alongside the others in his universal history.