Nineteenth Century Paradox: Progress, Nietzsche and Orientalism

Essay, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 8.5


The nineteenth century is usually referred to as the century of unprecedented progress of the Modern Age. It is, however, of high importance to realize the relativity of the concept “modern”. People living in a particular historical period of time always consider their time as modern. One may view “modern” as a distinguishably new way of life, change in technology, industry, culture and society, whereas another may relate the word “modern” to something that belongs to the present time. Again, the concept of the present is highly subjective to the observers of the so-called present and relative in the historical framework. The most applicable understanding of the word “modern” in this work is in its comparison with the times before the period of the nineteenth century.

As far as the nineteenth century is concerned, the century appeared a bridge between the past and our present. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries would not have been possible if there had not been such a period as the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, there were numerous changes that took place in people’s lives. Europe had been internally diverse and disunified for the most of the last 1000 years. Due to the new political order that was introduced in the late eighteenth century and the growing interest in expansion out of Europe, it was necessary to build up a frame under which it would become possible to cooperate instead of merely compete; nevertheless, a connecting element was found by itself – European nations united under the notion of opposition. Newly discovered lands with their odd and alien cultures, customs and traditions were so unfamiliar and strange to the old-fashioned self-assured Europe that finding common traits with each other and contradistinguishing with the rest of the world became one of the leading motives of the century. Another concern within political changes was the fact that since the French revolution there had been a rapid people’s movement and involvement in the state affairs, and the government had to respond to it by liberalizing and democratizing its processes in order to secure that there were no new revolutions coming. A noteworthy thing is that the process of democratization went more smoothly in those countries that did not practice authoritarian or absolutist measures beforehand. The nineteenth century could be thus called the starting point of the modern democracy: this is how the class system appeared as we know it today, and the whole century was dedicated to finding out how to abolish it. When it comes to the working class, their activity was characterized by a high interest and desire to participate in the affairs of the state. Work and home were distinctively separated, hard labour conditions pressed on people and there was an urge in organizing labour movements which would not only secure working people’s rights, but enable people to have a relatively equal say in domestic politics. Those working movements gave rise to different liberal, socialistic, anarchist and later nationalistic associations, which later resulted in promoting expansionism, imperialism and the superiority of one nation – this, of course, was highly profitable and useful for the local governments, and later used in establishing and promoting the foreign policies.

Apart from political and ideological changes, the nineteenth century is known for its industrialization and urbanization. Europe underwent a fundamental transformation from a predominantly agricultural society into an industrialized one. Because of the rise of the new technologies, certain adjustments had to be made in order to comply with the new order. The introduction of factories and railroads gave rise to people’s mobility, increased city immigration and changed the ecology dramatically. As a result, there was a demand in emergence of the new social order – the society was represented from the political perspective because politics became a matter of not only the nobility. Since the birth of classes, economic relations became uneven which impacted the make-up and social relations in Europe. Though, the emergence of the middle class was still only possible due to the economic changes which aspired the nineteenth century. The century characterized by the social and economic inequality gave rise to emancipatory movements which resulted in a more active socio-political position of the society, women empowerment, vivid participation in all spheres of life such as politics, education, art and market. Even though it is usually argued for the increase in the feminist movement activity throughout the nineteenth century, in fact women were usually allowed to participate only in charity work for the poor and nationalism. Still, there is a clear display of women empowerment organizations opening their doors to women in whole Europe, improving female positions in comparison with the previous centuries. When it comes to an overall change which followed industrialization, it is important to mention which role the rural agriculture and rural relations played in this process. Changes in agriculture were a pre-condition for the industrialization, making the development possible through labour and raw sources provisions. Urbanization was stimulated by standardization of general rules in the countryside and unification of legal codes, currencies and mapping of the territories done on a new level which could not be accessed at the times before the industrialization. All in all, it definitely was a two-sided process: rural relations triggered industrialization, and the other way around.

Economic, political and social changes had enormously influenced the cultural and scientific background of people of the nineteenth century. The decline of influence and heavy critique of the Church and religious doctrines was very common for the nineteenth century intellectuals who would base their ideas not on God’s authority and divine providence as usually practiced by the past philosophers, but on simple scepticism and trust in science. Science had fastened this process, especially as far as the Darwinian theory of natural selection is concerned; this brand new concept amazed the minds of the century and played a huge role in shaping the insights and ideas of the century in almost all spheres of life.

It is interesting to look at the response to those rapid changes from the cultural and social points of view. The new order required shifting the perspectives on not only how people perceived the world around them; more importantly, from that moment on it became crucial to actually reorganize and structure the world according to the new set of values. The nineteenth century got accustomed to categorizing, ordering and mapping the knowledge and experiences. Because of the vast flow of new scientific knowledge and cultural, earlier undiscovered, heritage, the older ways of perceiving and dealing with history and contemporary events could not sustain the rapidly shifting horizons of the present. The attempt to fit the world in a certain set of dispositions resulted in the rise of contra responses within the cultural sector, such as the emergence of such movements as romanticism, spiritualism, esotericism, also social activism as argued above. All spheres of life rose up to react to the Zeitgeist of the century, ready to get adopted to it or reject it. Romanticism, for instance, got its birth from the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and being so controversial in its roots seemed to reject the relationship with the Enlightened epoch. Romanticists denied the industrial prevalence, promoted cult of youth and championing of nature. At the utmost they were in favour of conveying the emotion, which the century readily renounced as a useless component. Spiritualism and esotericism, in their turn, were the result of Europe getting acquainted with the other parts of the world. In the industrial, categorized era of machines and classes, unfamiliar but very pretty things flew into people’s lives: one should be able to live in harmony with it both physically and mentally.

At this point, the discussion comes to Orientalism. Orientalism is a Western scholarly discipline of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that encompassed the study of the languages, literatures, religions, philosophies, histories, art, and laws of Asian societies, especially ancient ones.[1] Orientalism appeared as such because of the growing colonisation, Europeans meeting other cultures, either absolutely new or hardly known. Anything which was experienced as mysterious and exotic would automatically fall within the category of Orient. The term "Orient" derives from the Latin word oriens meaning "east" (lit. "rising" < orior " rise"). The use of the word for "rising" refers to the east (where the sun rises) and has analogues from many languages: compare the terms "Levant" (< French for "rising")[2]. For instance, geographically speaking, North Africa is located southward from Europe, however it was still referred to as the Orient, or the East. Nowadays, there is more accuracy to it, and the region bears the name of North Africa, though when coming up with something oriental, people would think of Morocco, Tunisia as well as India and China.

Why did the Orientalism become a matter of not only the colonisers, anthropologists and linguists, but ordinary people? The society was challenged by a dry period of accuracy, precision and wealth accumulation. As Max Weber justly puts it, it was a period of disenchantment at home and re-enchantment “abroad”. People reluctantly gave themselves up to the mystic, enchanting, charming, sacred and poetic new things which could be compared to breaking the egg shell – the great width would open with unlimited possibilities. However, this would also have its downside, as argued by Emile Durkheim. He developed a concept of “anomie”, while looking at his contemporary society, which basically describes a state of instability due to a breakdown of norms and values, transition in the societal order, lack of purpose and ideals. In our case, orientalism appeared an ideal certain people stuck to.

Orientalism is a wide concept which contains many elements. One of those elements, in particular Islam, will be considered in detail. Historically, Islam has always been seen as a threat by Christian theologians. Those who followed Mohammed were considered, according to Thomas Aquinas, as brutal and beast-like men. Hatred for Islam found its roots in the medieval romances through the incorporation of myth, chivalric legends and open propaganda of the Crusaders fighting the Saracen foes in the Holy Land. Also, the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors which lasted almost 800 years did not contribute to a better attitude towards the Muslim invaders. In general, Islam in its essence of belief and religion was understood as a form of Christian heresy, and with the Ottoman Empire advance into Europe in the sixteenth century, Islam acquired military and political threat status as well. Islam was and is still viewed as at least partly responsible for Oriental despotism, slavery, degradation of women and a society obedient and submissive to violence.


[1] Orientalism. (2015). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[2] (2015). Orient. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 21st March 2015].

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Nineteenth Century Paradox: Progress, Nietzsche and Orientalism
Tilburg University  (Liberal Arts and Sciences)
The Impact of Colonialism on 19th-century European Culture
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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colonialism, colonial history, 19th century, nietzsche, orientalism, edward said, modernity, progress
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Master of Arts Vera Ande (Author), 2015, Nineteenth Century Paradox: Progress, Nietzsche and Orientalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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