Seventeenth political theory and its context

Peter follows up my last Leibniz post with a different question. I was talking about how Descartes came just before Leibniz, and how Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, Pufendorf, Newton were his contemporaries. Peter asks

Here’s a perhaps naive question, but isn’t it generally the case that there are really quite few political philosophy classes that include this period for anything other than the English? Certainly, as a political theory student, it was as if the continent didn’t exist—which is perhaps the most enduring Continental/Anglo-American split.

I think that’s right – for the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century you begin to have some – Rousseau and Kant, maybe Montesquieu – and by the nineteenth Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche. But the seventeenth century does seem to be the Hobbes and Locke show. Maybe Filmer. But my sense is that it’s not just continental thinkers that are neglected, but what’s going on outside the Anglo world. Hobbes is taught in the context of the English civil war, for example, but he wrote Leviathan in France, and so the Thirty Years War also provides a crucial context, perhaps also the Fronde.

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2 Responses to Seventeenth political theory and its context

  1. Craig says:

    In addition to Pufendorf, Grotius’ Mare Liberum (1609) was incredibly important, both on Filmer–who sought to refute his account of natural law–and Locke–who used Grotius to develop his defense of dominion. It strikes me as questionable to read Hobbes exclusively in relation to the English Civil War. The war began in 1642. The core of Hobbes’ political theory was already published in 1640 as Elements of LawDe Cive and Leviathan extend the key points and rarely, if ever, contradict them. Given a publication in 1640, it stands to reason that Hobbes was writing the book in the period, roughly, 1635-1639–nearly a decade before the war. This also peridiodizes Hobbes’s positions prior to the Fronde, but concurrent with the outbreak of the Franco-Spanish War. The iconography of the frontispiece of Leviathan clearly points to conflicts between reason and revelation, revolution and state, but these would accentuate what was previously said.

    • stuartelden says:

      Yes, agreed. Grotius though died just before Leibniz was born, which is why I didn’t mention him as a contemporary. But he is certainly a hugely important and influential thinker. The wars you mention are of course part of the broader conflicts known as the Thirty Years War. The Fronde of course came in the aftermath, but it would have been the most immediate context as he was writing Leviathan. I’d certainly put the Thirty Years War as the most important context – and yes, the frontispiece is clearly concerning with temporal/spiritual division, as is much of the text… both of which are discussed in some detail in the book. Thanks for the comment.

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