In the first decades of the eighteenth century, the Society of Jesus was busy changing its interpretation of the Chinese world and denying the possible existence of a society of atheists. To safeguard the Chinese mission, the Jesuit Antonio Provana claimed that European cultural models could not be used in order to interpret China, and that the voices and purported beliefs of the Chinese should be reported on their own terms. The same refusal to interpret Chinese culture through the interpretative schemes that European cultures had inherited (largely from the ancient Greeks or Romans) also filled the pages of the Jesuit journal Mémoires de Trévoux between 1701 and 1719, the period analyzed in this contribution. My article in this special issue argues that, due to the extreme rhetorical caution necessary to the Jesuits in France during the third phase (1700) of the Chinese rites controversy, the Mémoires de Trévoux pursued a cultural policy intended to deny the existence of any atheism whether in a single individual or in a whole nation. This departure from a Eurocentric perspective, as well as the denial of atheism in any form, became themes that forcefully reappeared during the Enlightenment.
Few authors of scholarly classics shy away from being acknowledged, but such is the case of the author of Mœurs et coutumes des Indiens (Mores and customs of the Indians) (1777)—the first treatise of Indology and a classic of early anthropology—whose real, Jesuit identity remained obscured for over two centuries. The author’s concealment did not, however, prevent his work’s regular re-editing, or its conveyance of an original methodology that helped found ethnography as a discipline and harmonized with enlightened conservatism. To date, this methodology has been read simply as a direct reply to enlightened authors, especially Voltaire, but this essay demonstrates that it derived also from the immersion of eighteenth-century Jesuits in Indian culture, and above all from the vast Indianist tradition that members of the Society of Jesus developed over two centuries of missionary work. Indeed, the story of Mœurs et coutumes discloses that, far from being limited to Europe, enlightened conservatism was a global discourse; and that beyond being invented by Europe’s armchair philosophers, anthropology was a science born outside Europe from the pens of missionaries.
The former Jesuits Adam František Kollár and György Pray each devoted much of their careers to work in libraries; thereby contributing to the literary and scholarly culture of the eastern Habsburg lands during the second half of the eighteenth century. Kollár, who left the Jesuits early in his career, authored works defending the rights of the Hungarian crown, and chronicled the history of the Rusyn people, ultimately achieved an international reputation as a scholar, coining the term ethnologia. Pray is remembered for his discovery of the oldest written example of the Hungarian language, his extensive historical publications, and for his role, following the papal suppression of 1773, as “Historiographus Hungariae” (Hungary’s hagiographer). The impact of these scholarly efforts by these former Jesuits was a rich and enduring foundation upon which later Hungarian historiography and library science would be based.