Political Theorists and Tragedians: Historians of the Early Modern State

The impetus for these thoughts came from my reading (still in its early stages) of Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Allen Lane 2006/Penguin 2007).  My attention was first drawn to this book by Tyler Cowen at his Marginal Revolution blog.  Cowen is an economist who blogs on a wide range of topics.

I can ‘t say much about this book right now, I will return to it when I finish.  But for now, it reads well, it seems very scholarly, and it deals with a major topic in European history.  What  stimulated this post were remarks about Samuel von Pufendorf (pages 36-37).  Sadly, not as many people known much about Pufendorf as should be the case.  He is not a name that could be known to everyone, but he should be better known to those with a serious interest in political theory.  Close to one hundred percent will know the name, but a small percentage will have read anything by him.  His texts are readily available online.  If you check major online bookshops, you can find very affordable scholarly editions from the same source, and some other editions.  The Whole Duty of Man, According to the Law of Nature looks like the essential text here to me, but some Pufendorf specialists might agree.  Even those with a more passing interest in political theory should really know the name and a few bullet points.  More below about this situation.

The context in which Clark introduces Pufendorf is the Thirty Years War (1618-48) which devastated Germany, Pufendorf’s presumably linked belief in the power of the state to enforce peace, and his role as historian to the Elector of Brandenburg in Berlin (he had previously undertaken the same role in Sweden).  There is no great revelation there to anyone with some knowledge of Pufendorf and the German history of the time, but what is generally lacking is all round discussion of why this matters.  Clark suggests that we see Pufendorf’s historiography as a continuation of his political theory and jurisprudence, in the justification of the absolute power of the state, preferably a monarchical state.  I should point out that it would be a great mistake to think of Pufendorf as simply an advocate of state brutality and actions unrestrained by law, or as a sycophant to absolute rulers.  He is a major figure in the development of the idea that the state is limited by law, and rules through uniformity and equality of laws.

It’s not just Pufendorf who did this kind of historiography for princes, a bit earlier, as G.W. Leibniz a bit later.  Leibniz is widely read for his general philosophy, but again could be better known as a political thinker.  If we go back to the fifteenth century, Machiavelli wrote a History of Florence for Pope Leo X, a member of the princely family of Florence, the Medici.  Writing legal and political theory in that time was associated with the writing of history for a ruler, as opposed to the current situation, where there is more prestige for a political theorist in engaging with the most fomalised aspects of social science and decision theory.  The writing of history by political theorists was not restricted to work for rulers, Grotius wrote on Dutch history, and was employed as diplomat by the Crown of Sweden; Spinoza wrote about the history of the Jews as part of commenting on the Torah/Old Testament, in the Theologico-Political Treatise; Hobbes wrote Behometh a history of the Civil War; Hume wrote a multi-volume History of England.

What is significant about these histories?  Not just the accident that philosophers and political theorists obtained financial compensation in this manner, or were pushed to serve a prince in this way.  As Clark suggests, this is part of the emergence of the idea that a state is part of a narrative over time, in which each prince tries to build on, improve and expand, what went before.  Is this just a justification of princely power, and its tendency to centralise and dominate?  In some part yes, but it is also an imposition and a constraint.  The prince represents the people because of a contract according to Pufendorf, and exists to guarantee the natural rights of citizens.  It’s part of the process in which as princes become more absolute, their personal power becomes more and more constrained by laws, institutions, bureaucrats, and apologists, necessary to their rule.

As the title of this post indicate, tragedians are part of this process.  There is only one clear case of a tragedian employed as historian I’m aware of, Jean Racine who was employed by Louis XIV, but a pretty major case.  Before that, Pierre Corneille had received patronage from Cardinal Richelieu (Chief Minister of Louis XIII).  In Spain, Pedro Calderón was employed by the royal court, as Shakespeare had been earlier.  Their tragedies refer to history and monarchical power, as seen by royal patrons,  but also see the king as a figure about to fall, as someone who is dangerous if unrestrained in the use of power, whose individual desire threatens the continuity of the state, whose life and rule is conditioned by grand errors, who is weak in relation to the playing out of destructive passions around him.

Literature and political thought are tied to writing history, or historical plays, often for the sovereign, but that process is part of the emptying out of personal power, even as princes become more grand and dramatic in the symbolism of power, and use personal discretion in extreme ways.  The best discussion I can think of in relation to this is Walter Benjamin’s in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, a remarkable and very difficult work of literary aesthetics and genre theory.  It’s not a secret that these early modern thinkers and dramatists were tied to state power, but it could certainly be discussed more, and certainly the relation between historiography and theory could be discussed more.

On the relative obscurity of Pufendorf, which also applies to Grotius.  Standard texts and courses on early modern political theory go through Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.  Political philosophers may overlook Machiavelli, which is terrible.  Hobbes was transmitted to continental Europe in large part through Pufendorf.  Locke was in the Netherlands for several years not long after Pufendorf had been there, but seems to have picked up his books in Paris, where he may have met him; and clearly Grotius was an influence on him.  Rousseau must clearly be understood in relation to Grotius and Pufendorf, as well as to Hobbes and Locke.  These are all topics informing scholarly endeavour, but they are not part of the standard courses, introductory texts, and common sense narrative in the field.  This is a loss.

Why this loss?  As far as I can see, the feeling that Grotius and Pufendorf were part of a continental natural law tradition appropriate to European polities, and not to British polity with judges and a legal system independent from monarchs, and making laws in the common law tradition through judicial precedence.  Continental states are seen as run by prince dependent administrative law, which connects with Grotius, Pufendorf and the most monarchist aspects of Hobbes.  These are highly dubious distinctions and generalisations, I believe, and I doubt that many specialists in the field would subscribe to them, but it is still a widely spread common-sense semi-conscious story, which still informs debate about law, human rights, and European structures in Britain.

The thoughts above are a bit long and variegated, but I believe they belong together to argue for the following points:

1.  Modern political and legal theory emerged in connection with historiography, and needs to be seen, at least part of the time, as inherently historical, taking historical processes as its subject, just as much as universalist arguments about principles.

2.  This emergence of political and legal theory in historical consciousness is tied to early modern tragedy.

3. Pufendorf (and Grotius) should move close to the centre of the introductory story, the common sense set of preconceptions, about early modern political theory. (Michael J. Otsuka is one of the few major figures in current political theory to give a big role to Grotius and Pufendorf, and this pure gesture anyway, see Libertarianism without Inequality, Oxford University Press, 2003).

4.  There is no absolute distinction between continental civil or administrative law tradition, and English common law.  The relation between these kinds of law and the foundations of jurisprudence and political sovereignty, is a single question, of a complex kind, with no discrete parts.


One thought on “Political Theorists and Tragedians: Historians of the Early Modern State

  1. Pingback: Early Modern Thought Online: Recommended Website « Stockerblog

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