Today’s political despondency is informed by how Western populations no longer believe in the cosmopolitan stories that underpinned the modern world. Before Kantian universalism became hegemonic, the eighteenth century offered a variety of perspectives, like those of outpost philosophers Giambattista Vico and Johann Gottfried Herder. The scholarly and dramatic works of another thinker from the European periphery, Ludvig Holberg, have recently received new attention for their historicist themes. The ornery Norwegian polymath is praised for having anticipated the transnational cosmopolitanism that has reemerged in the past decades. Holberg was Scandinavia’s preeminent Enlightenment figure and is still beloved for his stage comedies. His only European success, Niels Klim’s Underground Travels (1741), argues for a cosmopolitanism situated in history, geography, and local culture. This article analyzes how the novel subverts its conte philosophique form to criticize common Enlightenment views on reason, universalism, and colonialism. Holberg’s philosophical “agonism of difference,” inferred from Niels Klim’s themes, is then used to evaluate four contemporary cosmopolitanisms: Appiah’s “universality plus difference” (2006), Tully’s “agonistic dialogue” (2008), and Habermas’s “legal order” (1997) and “postmetaphysical reason” (2019). What emerges suggests that Holberg anticipated a cultural collapse similar to what we experience today.

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