Political Theory of the Renaissance and Enlightenment

Frederick G Whelan. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.


The period covered by this chapter extends through three centuries from the time of Machiavelli to that of Burke. The unit as a whole may be thought of as the ‘early modern’ period of European history, post-medieval and yet premodern, if such developments as the Industrial Revolution and effectual movements towards mass democracy are taken to have brought about decisively ‘modern’ social and political change. One must immediately acknowledge the ambiguity of these categories, however. Recent research, for example, has set Machiavelli’s thought in a tradition of Italian civic humanism and republicanism that extends back a century or more before the conventional medieval-modern dividing line of 1500, while it is now recognized that Thomistic or scholastic modes of political philosophy remained robust in some parts of Europe for a century or more after that date. Montesquieu and Burke, for that matter, stressed the medieval (feudal or Christian) origins of modern liberty and civil life in their own ‘enlightened’ theories. On the other hand, contemporary ‘postmodern’ theorists usually take the thought of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to be distinctively modern, displaying the essential philosophical (or ideological) features that have allegedly been superseded or at least subjected to severe criticism by the postmodern sensibility.

The conventional temporal units nevertheless remain useful for surveys such as this, as well as for pedagogical purposes. It remains, then, to note that the three-century period covered in this chapter is rich in subperiods of intellectual and political history that provide elements of the background for political thought: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and religious conflicts, state-building and the emergence of absolutism, the evolution of the European state system and its enshrinement in the modern law of nations and in reason of state doctrine, the scientific revolution, economic modernization and the emergence of ‘commercial society’ or what was later to be termed ‘capitalism,’ overseas explorations and empires, the civil conflicts of seventeenth-century England, the Enlightenment, the aristocratic resurgence of the eighteenth century, and the American and French Revolutions. All these episodes, along with the political theories in which they are reflected, have left their mark on the political heritage of the modern Western world.

The study of historical political theory continues to be healthily eclectic in methodology, just as it continues to be a discipline that, while primarily located (in the United States) in political science departments, has long enjoyed interdisciplinary contributions from scholars in philosophy, history, and law. An additional recent trend is for scholars in literary and cultural studies, using approaches developed in literary theory for the interpretation of texts, to scrutinize the works of classic political theorists.

The traditional enterprise of scholarly commentary on and interpretation of the works of classic authors continues, both because these works continue to provide the indispensable canon or common core of concepts for political studies, and because each generation inevitably rereads the classics, with novel results, from the vantage point of its own political and intellectual concerns. One may distinguish three approaches that, singly or in combination, guide the study of classic texts. They may be analysed, without too much worry about anachronism, as containing the intrinsically valuable ideas of great thinkers, who can be compared with one another and mined for insights of timeless importance. They may be read in a strictly historical fashion, along the lines defended over the past few decades by Quentin Skinner (Tully, 1988), in relation to their political and intellectual context and the debates being carried on by their contemporaries. Or they may be viewed as key contributors to the development of modern political science or political philosophy and accordingly (re)read as precursors of or as valuable contributors to contemporary developments in these fields. A noteworthy recent publishing venture, the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, most of whose volumes are devoted to individual authors, testifies to the ongoing vitality of the field conceived in this manner, as do recent surveys of ‘great political thinkers’ (Hampsher-Monk, 1992).

A prominent alternative to studying the ideas of particular thinkers is to take the ideas or concepts themselves, or the languages in which they are expressed, as the objects of study. The method of studying the history of political thought that has been elaborated and self-consciously applied by Skinner (now often referred to as the ‘Cambridge approach’) aims to recover an author’s intention in issuing (or ‘uttering’) a given text regarded as a linguistic act. The intention is inferred by examining not only the precise political circumstances in which the author was situated, but also how the author deployed and perhaps altered the received vocabularies and assumptions of political argumentation. The latter project requires comparison of the text in question with texts of the author’s contemporaries and predecessors on similar themes. The result is a showing that the author should be understood as standing within a definite tradition of discourse or, more interestingly, as deviating from it or building on it in innovative ways and for his own political purposes (Skinner, 1978). Since this approach requires the reconstruction of what may variously be termed intellectual traditions, languages, language games, idioms, discourses, or paradigms as they have been employed by theorists in different periods and as they have evolved over time, it is a short step to taking the latter phenomena as the primary objects of investigation. This approach may diverge from Skinner’s in so far as it downplays the role of any particular author and eschews any aim of recovering intentions. In viewing particular authors and texts as vehicles for the transmission of ideas as expressed in distinctive languages or, more interestingly, of entire discourses over time, this approach has affinities with some branches of contemporary literary theory and, as in the case of Skinner as well, has been influenced by the ‘linguistic turn’ in modern philosophy.

J. G. A. Pocock, a practitioner of this method, explains that it involves a shift from the ‘history of political thought’ to the ‘history of discourse,’ making reference or alluding to methodologists such as Saussure, Gadamer, and Kuhn, as well as Skinner, who have influenced his work (1985: ch. 1; cf Pocock, 1987). The objective, he argues, is ‘the recovery of an author’s language no less than of his intentions, toward treating him as inhabiting a universe of langues that give meaning to the paroles he performs in them.’ It should be borne in mind that in any period a number of different discourses, with their conventional modes of understanding and judging, will exist simultaneously and interact in complex ways. Thus a given thinker may draw upon several distinct languages, shifting from one to the other or combining them in creative ways. The research of Pocock and various associates on the Anglophone eighteenth century, for example, has touched upon the distinctive discourses of republicanism, ‘ancient constitutionalism,’ ‘politeness,’ natural and common law jurisprudence, Anglicanism, and political economy, among others. This approach is exemplified by—and indicated in the very titles of—works such as Nicholas Phillipson and Quentin Skinner (1993) and Anthony Pagden (1987). Although a few individual writers are mentioned, the titles of the essays included in the latter volume indicate that the objects of study are such matters as the ‘history of the word politicus,’ the ‘language of Spanish Thomism,’ the ‘language of Renaissance humanism,’ the languages of republicanism, and the ‘language of sociability and commerce,’ among others. Well-known or canonical figures such as More, Harrington, and Rousseau are treated not as solitary theoretical geniuses but as exemplars of traditions. Under close historical scrutiny, it may be said, no idea is entirely new and no one’s body of thought as original as it may seem at a distance.

It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that discourses in political theory, like other cultural artefacts, change, incrementally or sometimes dramatically, and the contributions of creative figures to this process should not be underestimated. Closely related to the study of discourses as such, therefore, are investigations into ‘conceptual change’ or ‘innovation,’ the study of which Terence Ball terms ‘critical conceptual history’ (Ball, 1988; Ball and Pocock, 1988; and Ball, Farr and Hanson, 1989). All these approaches to studying political thought, however, remain deeply historical. Political theorists who are not primarily historians can certainly learn much from the applications of these methods, while not being committed to them as the exclusive manner of reading historical texts. Certainly the classic texts continue to invite interpretation and appropriation in ways that reflect timeless or contemporary concerns of political theory (and contemporary political life)—which is, of course, why they are considered ‘classics.’

Machiavelli and His Times

The most prominent interpretation of Machiavelli’s political theory in recent decades, that associated especially with the work of Skinner and Pocock (1975), has situated it in the civic humanist tradition of Florence and Renaissance Italy more generally and has focused on its republican themes. Machiavelli’s Discourses, his debt to classical theory, his commitments as a citizen, and his experience of the crises that overtook republican regimes in Italy (except in Venice) have been emphasized to the near exclusion of Machiavelli’s traditional reputation (Bock, Skinner and Viroli, 1990). However, a recent study largely in this vein also recognizes Machiavelli’s practice of the anti-classical and more cynical ‘art of the state,’ a precursor of reason of state teaching (Viroli, 1998). The study of Machiavelli in his historical context requires access to texts of his contemporaries for comparison. A noteworthy contribution here is a new English edition of a work by Guicciardini that contains the first mention of ‘reason of state’ (Brown, 1994).

The more venerable view of Machiavelli as a political realist and an advocate of amoral power politics was reasserted several decades ago by Leo Strauss, who regarded Machiavelli as a key founder of modernity and its problems. As such, Machiavelli was shown to have repudiated key elements of the classical and Biblical traditions (including natural law), distorting classic texts for his purposes, sometimes by esoteric methods, in the process. This reading has been continued, most notably by Harvey C. Mansfield, who has examined Machiavelli’s contributions to the modern political science of executive power (Mansfield, 1993) and what is presented as his deliberate and pervasive, if disguised, assault on Christianity and its political teachings (Mansfield, 1996). Mansfield and his associates have also provided accurate translations of all three of Machiavelli’s major political works, thus making the Florentine Histories available to students as well as The Prince and the Discourses.

Two recent studies that fall in neither of these opposing camps are Fischer (1997), who offers a valuable analysis of Machiavelli’s psychology, and Coby (1999), who examines Machiavelli’s treatment of ancient Rome. These studies, along with the interpretive controversies indicated above, suggest that Machiavelli remains a challenging and ambiguous figure.

The Later Renaissance

The period between Machiavelli and Hobbes produced no single political theorist of their stature and therefore has been comparatively neglected by students of political thought. Montaigne has been invoked appreciatively by Judith N. Shklar (1984) as an inspiration for her distinctive approach to liberalism, but she grants that Montaigne himself was neither a liberal nor primarily a political thinker. Montaigne was, however, an important contributor to the sixteenth-century revivals of stoicism and scepticism and to the sensibility that supported both subjective individualism and religious toleration, and thus to a rich literary culture in which many political themes can be traced. Bodin, the author of a major political work of acknowledged importance for the emergent conception of sovereignty, seems to have attracted few Anglophone specialists other than Julian H. Franklin, whose earlier research is continued in Franklin (1991).

Francis Bacon is another important figure from this period who has attracted a steady stream of interest but has never quite been accepted into the first rank of political theorists. Traditionally, work on Bacon’s political theory related this to his extensive writings promoting the advancement of science and focused on The New Atlantis as an ambiguous prophecy of modern society in which science provided the political authorities with technologies of control as a facet of power more broadly (Faulkner, 1993). More recent scholarship has explored Bacon’s debts to civic humanist themes and to the discourse, prevalent in his lifetime, of reason of state (Peltonen, 1996). Bacon’s long career as a royalist statesman close to the centre of power in England undoubtedly shaped the practical, even openly Machiavellian, orientation of his political writings. Bacon’s insights into the machinations of courtly politics and his concern with the sources of the ‘greatness’ or power of the state relative to its rivals reflect the diplomatic intrigues and growing absolutism of the period.

An important theme in this period was the rise of the reason of state discourse that has been studied recently by Richard Tuck (1993) and Maurizo Viroli (1992). This research involves, in effect, a reconsideration of material that was last treated by Meinecke in his Die Idee der Staatsrason of 1924. Reason of state has no single definitive text but was propounded in a number of influential writings, mainly by Italians and Spaniards associated with the Habsburg Empire in the sixteenth century and French writers associated with Richelieu in the seventeenth. Bacon, as mentioned above, may count as an English adherent. Reason of state refers both to a theory about politics and the state and to a practical orientation that became increasingly common and explicit among statesmen in the service of the emergent monarchies of the period. It focused on what Viroli identifies as the ‘art of the state,’ which displaced the older emphasis on ‘civic life’ and participatory ‘politics’ that were upheld in the older civic humanist tradition as republican life gave way to absolutism in most European countries. The ‘art of the state’ included practical doctrines regarding the strengthening of the central government, administration, and economic and military resources of the state, as well as strategies for advancing the state’s well-being in what was coming to be seen as a permanent international system of competing states. Its central analytic concept for understanding politics was interest, as its basic value or objective was the state’s interest. As a derivative of Machiavellianism (although deliberately formulated so as to be compatible with Christianity), reason of state upheld a double standard with respect to the problems of political morality; that is, statesmen or state officials, by virtue of their role or office, were permitted (or required), by special ‘reasons,’ to act in ways that violated ordinary moral principles when doing so was necessary for the good of the state. More than just a chapter in the intellectual and political history of Europe, reason of state is thus an important source for ideas of continuing interest in political realism and the practical ethics of real-world politics.

Another important (and understudied) current in the political thought and culture of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is Tacitism. The earlier ‘civic’ humanism of the Renaissance was dominated by Cicero, who supplied arguments and rhetoric in praise of the virtues of a good ruler, the civic virtues of good citizens, and a life dedicated to the service of one’s state or republic. Ciceronian moralism was partially displaced, or supplemented, later in the sixteenth century by the influence of another classical model, the Roman historian Tacitus, who was best known for detailing the unscrupulous high politics and tyranny of the early Roman Empire. Tacitus could be viewed as teaching the arts of absolutist rule (arcana imperii, in his famous phrase), along with all the strategems and intrigues of political manoeuvre in an absolutist court, increasingly the dominant setting for affairs of state in early modern Europe; or alternatively he could be read as warning against these methods by exposing them. Either way, Tacitism implied a politics of interest, conflict, and deception as the standard modes of operating, a view that fitted the mood of moral scepticism and political cynicism in the wake of the religious wars, as well as the evident permanence of conflict in the emergent European international system. The assumptions and teachings associated with Tacitism resembled those of both Machiavellianism (as usually understood) and reason of state; all three of these traditions may thus be said to have reinforced one another in promoting an attitude of political realism in the writers of this period and beyond (Burke, 1991).

This period, finally, is of course that of the Reformation and its aftermath of religious-political conflict in much of Europe for the following century and a half. The political writings of Luther and Calvin do not seem to have retained the place they once had in the canon of political theory, although scholarly interest in the political aspects of the Reformation of course continues (Oakley, 1991; Kingdon, 1991). This may be due in part to a decline in confidence in the theses, once so prominent in Protestant historiography, regarding the decisive contributions of early Protestantism to both capitalism and liberal democracy—though these claims may be due for re-examination. It may also reflect an extension of attention to a wider array of figures in varying national contexts; the Cambridge Texts series, for example, has made available works not only of Luther and Calvin, but the ‘Radical Reformation,’ the Dutch Revolt, Knox, Baxter, and, for the Counter-Reformation, Bossuet, as well. One theme of continuing interest is the religious sources, in contexts where religious dissidents were able to assert themselves, of resistance theory and, by extension, theories maintaining the limited authority and putatively contractual basis of a legitimate state. Traditionally, this theme was associated mainly with French, Dutch, English, and Scottish Calvinists. In earlier work that continues to be decisive, Skinner drew attention to Catholic versions of resistance theory rooted in continuing traditions of scholastic philosophy. Similarly, sixteenth-century Anglican political thought, as reflected in the Aristotelianism of Hooker, like other variants of Protestant Aristotelianism, seems not to have attracted a major new study in the period covered in this survey.


Hobbes continues to be a major presence in political theory, both historically and analytically. Important trends in contemporary social science and political philosophy acknowledge Hobbes as an intellectual precursor and sometimes even a figure whose work can be profitably reassessed and systematized to bring out its contributions to contemporary research. These include most notably the revival of interest in the logic of social contract theories (Hampton, 1986; Krauss, 1993) and the development of rational choice or game theory (Kavka, 1986). Such contemporary uses of Hobbes take him to have been a founder of economistic approaches to political theory through his postulation of a strict form of rational egoism in combination with methodological individualism. Although passages in Leviathan can clearly be cited to support this interpretation, it relies on a process of abstraction that falls short of a full appreciation of Hobbes’s social and psychological thought in relation to the culture of his time (Holmes, 1990).

A principal contribution to Hobbes scholarship in the past decade (Skinner, 1996) presents an approach and conclusions that are strikingly at variance with efforts to recruit Hobbes to contemporary issues. Skinner attempts to situate Hobbes’s aspiration to found a new ‘civil science’ or political theory, always a central concern of his, in the complex intellectual context of its time. According to Skinner, Hobbes stood at the juncture of two major cultural forces, the continuing, classically inspired humanism of the Renaissance, with its attention to the uses of rhetoric in moral discourse, and the increasingly influential methods and culture, generally anti-classical, of the natural scientists, who held that scientific demonstration compelled intellectual assent without recourse to persuasive techniques. Hobbes, who sought to create a novel ‘science’ of the state in a modern sense, rejected the humanist legacy (with which he was of course fully conversant) in his earlier political works, the Elements and De Cive. In Leviathan,however, a work whose rhetorical qualities are readily apparent, as others have noticed, he returned to a mixed position in which eloquence is recognized as indispensable to the persuasive enterprises of political life. This study brings out previously underestimated links between Hobbes’s thought and that of the previous century, thus making Hobbes a less isolated intellectual figure than he has sometimes appeared. At the same time, his close affinity to the scientific revolution is reaffirmed, although with qualifications. In this work Skinner reaffirms his well-known method of studying political texts, one that regards them as linguistic actions performed within a determinate historical setting: ‘The essence of my method consists in trying to place such texts within such contexts as enable us in turn to identify what their authors were doing in writing them’ (1996: 7). Not surprisingly, this book has revived debates and controversies about the method and its success when applied to Hobbes (Goodhart, 2000).

Several other recent studies of Hobbes may be mentioned. The unresolved issues of Hobbes’s religious belief and the religious basis of his political theory, especially his account of obligation, is addressed by Martinich (1992), which examines Hobbes’s theology at face value. In contrast to Skinner, Flathman (1993: xxi) sets out to ‘wrench [Hobbes] out of his context’ and into ours, finding in his theory a programme of self-creative individuality that informs Flathman’s own conception of a highly voluntarist or ‘willful’ form of liberalism. A valuable collection of essays (Dietz, 1990) comprises a wide range of recent scholarly interests in Hobbes, both historical and contemporary.

The Republican Tradition

Thanks in large part to earlier work by Pocock, it is now recognized that a tradition or discourse of republicanism subsisted as an important current in early modern Europe and America alongside the previously more familiar liberal tradition with its constituent elements and precursors. Indeed, republican thought, a derivative of civic humanism extending back to the Renaissance, was arguably a more self-conscious phenomenon, and less purely a construction (however useful) of scholars, than ‘liberalism,’ a term that is anachronistic prior to the nineteenth century. Pocock emphasized the role of Machiavelli in transmitting republican ideals from the ancient world to his own, and the role of Harrington in transmitting this body of political analysis and values from Machiavelli to mid-seventeenth-century England and beyond. More recent work has found evidence of civic humanism in pre-Civil War England (Peltonen, 1995). This republicanism is described as ‘classical’ because it drew on ancient political theory and relied on ancient models, especially an idealized picture of the Roman republic. A central theme, acccordingly, was a concern with the civic virtue or public-spiritedness of self-governing citizens and its constant susceptibility to various corrupting influences. Classical republicanism also emphasized the importance of a balanced constitution, the independent-mindedness of citizens sustained by widespread landed property-holding, and a martial capacity that would enable arms bearing citizens to resist tyranny as well as external enemies.

So conceived, classical republicanism may have accorded with the political aims and self-conception of the parliamentary gentry in the era of the English interregnum. As an essentially anti-modern doctrine, however, deeply distrustful of commerce and finance as factors that would undermine the landed interest and corrupt both virtue and the constitutional balance, it came to seem increasingly archaic by the eighteenth century. In England it survived as the outlook of an ongoing but marginal ‘commonwealth’ tradition and of the ‘country’ opposition to the dominant Whig oligarchy, with its ties to the modern economic sector. In France it was praised (though not embraced) by Montesquieu and asserted powerfully by Rousseau in conjunction with his attacks on the modern world. In eighteenth-century Britain, however, republicanism seems to have assumed a more modern form that coexisted with, perhaps gradually displacing, the classical version. Modern republicanism had to accommodate both a society marked by the increasing pursuit of wealth through commerce and a world of power politics and imperial aspirations among states that relied on professional armies rather than old-fashioned civic militias. Hopes for civic virtue seemed misplaced in this context, where the interests (and self-interest) of both individuals and states predominated, but the possibility of balanced constitutional government and the rule of law could be reasserted, as by Hume, both drawing on and checking the competition of interests. Recent studies of Harrington himself have downplayed the role of civic virtue, and emphasized more the role of institutional design, in his thought (Wootton, 1994; Worden, 1994), and republicanism in this post-classical form is arguably that most often found among the American founders (Rahe, 1992). Such ‘modern’ republicanism merges with ‘classical’ (i.e. early modern) liberalism, to which it adds confidence regarding people’s capacity for self-government though in representative rather than direct fashion.

Republicanism, like other themes and writers in the period covered by this chapter, has been studied not only as a historical phenomenon but as a rich source of contributions to contemporary political philosophy and public debates. Pettit (1997) analyses the ‘republican’ conception of liberty as ‘non-domination’ or freedom from arbitrary power, with numerous historical references. It may be questioned, however, whether republicanism so conceived is adequately distinguished from liberalism, especially when Locke and the Federalist authors are located in the former camp. It is not simply that historical authors have sometimes drawn upon and mingled two or more different discourses, but that ‘republicanism’ and ‘liberalism’ as plausible organizing constructs or concepts of political philosophy appear to overlap considerably, particularly if the former is meant to embrace modern as well as ‘classical’ forms of the doctrine. Thomas L. Pangle (1988) likewise points to Locke’s influence on the republicanism of the American founding, but his Straussian framework accentuates the important differences between modern and classical republicanism.

Natural Jurisprudence

Another major tradition of thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was natural law, which was often pursued (outside England) in close connection with Roman or civil law jurisprudence. The depth of the rupture between modern and ancient or medieval systems of natural law has long been a matter of dispute. The emphasis in modern versions on individual rights draws on the Roman law of property and contract, but in the modern context this theme seems to be associated with distinctively modern forms of individualism and thus to constitute one of the strands that contributed (via Locke, for example) to the emergence of liberalism. The centrality of the concept of rights in jurisprudence also seems to mark a clear differentiation between this tradition and that of civic humanism or republicanism, with their focus on virtue and the public good, although these discourses were sometimes combined, for example in some eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers. Civil law also provided the materials for the modern theory of state sovereignty in seventeenth-century thinkers like Hobbes, to which corresponded what has been termed the ‘neo-Roman’ understanding of the civil liberty of the subject of the modern state (Skinner, 1998).

The most important figures in seventeenth-century natural jurisprudence in Protestant Europe were Grotius and Pufendorf, who have been neglected in Anglophone scholarship. Two new editions of some of his writings suggest that this situation may be changing at least with respect to Pufendorf (Tully, 1991; Carr, 1994; also Tuck, 1991). Pufendorf’s theory responded to what he viewed as the excessive egoism of Hobbes; his own understanding of individualism and sociability was influential in later doctrines of property and the evolution of society (Hont, 1987). Haakonssen (1996) offers a survey of the (largely Protestant) tradition of modern natural law and explores its impact on the Scottish Enlightenment, while Hochstrasser (2000) concentrates more intensively on the German tradition. In Catholic Europe, on the other hand, a more explicitly Aristotelian or Thomist form of natural law survived into the modern period. A particularly interesting chapter in the history of early modern political thought is the application, in Spain, of this neoscholastic jurisprudence to questions arising from the Spanish conquests in America the justifiability of the empire and the status and treatment of the Indians. The most important figure in this setting is Vitoria, whose writings are accessible in a new edition (Pagden and Lawrence, 1991).

Natural jurisprudence, finally, as enunciated by Vitoria, Grotius, Pufendorf and others, both Protestant and Catholic, formed the basis for the early development of the law of nations. The need for agreement on principles of international law reflected the emergence of the modern European state system, which was generally recognized by 1648 and which rested, along with modern diplomatic practice, on the notion of formally equal and independent sovereign states. This conception was formally enshrined in the work of Vattel, the principal eighteenth-century exponent of the law of nations, whose doctrine indicates the complementarity in Enlightenment thought of liberal principles (internally) and the right of the sovereign state (externally) to pursue its interests as it sees fit (Whelan, 1999).

Varieties of Enlightenment

Use of ‘the Enlightenment’ as a term to cover much of the liberal, progressive, or revolutionary thought of the eighteenth century continues to be inescapable, even though it is now recognized that thinkers considered to be ‘or who understood themselves to be’ ‘enlightened’ did not monopolize the thought of the period. Moreover, sweeping criticisms of the Enlightenment go back to the succeeding Romantic period or indeed back to the Enlightenment itself in thinkers as diverse as Rousseau and Burke. For a generation after World War II the liberal aspects of eighteenth-century thought enjoyed an enthusiastic revival, although misgivings about the ‘Enlightenment project’ that had been expressed earlier continued to be pursued by scholars of the Frankfurt School. Recent years have seen a renewal of criticisms, some new and some amounting to variations on older themes. Conservatives deplore the Enlightenment’s overconfident utopianism or reformism, communitarians its individualism, multiculturalists its universalism, feminists its patriarchalism, Foucauldians and critical theorists its legacy of technologies of social control and manipulation, postcolonial theorists its endorsement of Eurocentrism and imperialism, and postmodernists its earnest embrace of foundationalism (e.g. MacIntyre, 1984; 1988; Rorty, 1989; Gray, 1995). To actual scholars of the period, however, it seems that the very concept of ‘the Enlightenment,’ and especially the notion of a unitary ‘Enlightenment project,’ have often been constructed by the critics and bear little relation to what is found in the texts of the period (Schmidt, 2000). Certainly the moral and political theories of the Enlightenment are far more complex and diverse than the criticisms imply, with such key figures as Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Hume scarcely fitting such stereotypes as ‘rationalism’ or disregard of history and context. Nevertheless, each age rewrites history from its own perspective, including the history of political thought, and new questions have and will continue to provoke new research into what will doubtless continue to be referred to by many, if sometimes obscurely, as the Enlightenment.

A noteworthy feature of recent Anglophone political philosophy has been a relative decline in the stature accorded to Locke, for two unrelated reasons. The increased attention to the republican tradition has involved a downgrading of the place of Lockean ‘liberalism’ in eighteenth-century thought; concurrently, the revitalization of liberal philosophy has brought with it an increase in attention to Kant as the key figure among the classical liberal antecedents of contemporary doctrines. The latter development reflects a general acceptance of Rawls’s claim that Kantianism furnishes the essential philosophical basis for his liberal theory of justice and, by extension, an assumption that Kant is decisive for the entire liberal tradition. Closer attention to Locke, however, might reveal substantive similarities, in the relevant respects, between these two major figures, standing as they do towards the beginning and end of the eighteenth century. Locke as well as Kant grounds his political theory in an objective moral law, knowable by the practical reason of autonomous individuals conceived as responsible moral agents, that prescribes equality, equal liberty, and the reciprocity of rights and duties properly understood. In any event, neither the Kantian nor the republican turn in political philosophy has discouraged significant ongoing research into the political thought of Locke.

James Tully (1993) offers a methodologically mixed set of studies of Locke. As a historian in the Cambridge tradition he seeks to understand Locke in the ‘discursive and practical contexts’ in which he wrote and criticizes projections of more modern frames of reference (such as capitalism) back onto Locke’s accounts of property and citizenship though Locke is credited with a theory of ‘popular sovereignty’ that was radical for its time. At the same time Tully maintains that an enhanced historical understanding of a theory as influential as Locke’s can illuminate such contemporary issues as aboriginal rights. Expanding on this latter theme, Barbara Arneil (1996) interprets the Two Treatises, and especially Locke’s theory of property, as providing a justification of the dispossession of the Amerindians and a defence of English colonization, an enterprise in which Locke was involved. A non-historical approach to the texts is embodied in John A. Simmons (1992), who examines Locke’s theory of rights in light of recent philosophical analysis of rights, obligations, property, punishment, and related matters. A political concern with contemporary rights controversies animates Kirstie M. McClure’s inquiry into the ‘problematic of judgement’ (1996: 8) and what is seen as the premodern world view that underlies Locke’s notion of consent to authority. The unmistakable differences in style, method, and research questions in this small sampling of recent books indicate something of the diversity of approaches to the acquisition of political understanding, to all of which the study of a historical theorist like Locke may contribute.

Of the handful of indisputably major Enlightenment figures, Montesquieu has attracted less attention than others from political theorists, at least in the English-speaking world, evidently because his digressive, descriptive, and sometimes aphoristic style does not readily yield the elements of a clear normative theory. The complexity or ‘non-linear’ composition of the comparative analysis of regimes in The Spirit of the Laws is the point of departure for Anne M. Cohler (1988), who also considers the affinity between Montesquieu’s thought and that of the Federalist Papers and Tocqueville. A very different approach (Macfarlane, 2000) looks to Montesquieu and others for clues about the sources of the great transformations of ‘modernity’ that took hold in eighteenth-century Europe.

The complexity of Rousseau’s thought, reflecting his own passionate and troubled personality, has long attracted astonishingly diverse interpreters and continues to do so (Gourevitch, 1998). Scholars who turn to Rousseau do so, it seems, less in a strictly historical spirit (in the Skinnerian mode) than in search of anticipations or the inspiration of any number of contemporary concerns—problems of the self, authenticity, alienation, community, egalitarianism, feminism, and other critical (and postmodern) inquiries. Conceding Rousseau’s complexity, as well as his great and variegated impact on modern sensibilities, Arthur M. Melzer (1990) attempts to explicate his philosophy as a systematic whole. Mira Morgenstern (1996) is a recent addition to a series of studies of Rousseau’s controversial views on women and gender issues. A somewhat more historical study, but one that is germane to the problem of the ‘Enlightenment project’ mentioned above, treats Rousseau in relation to the philosophes and sees in him the Enlightenment’s capacity for self-criticism (Hulliung, 1994). Attention to the philosophes, as to the venerable question of their responsibility for the French Revolution, has not been prominent in Anglophone scholarship, but a recent study of Helvetius may be cited as an exception (Wootton, 2000).

As mentioned above, research into Kant’s political thought, scarce a generation ago, has enjoyed a resurgence. This is true despite the fact that its study, like that of other major philosophers who wrote on politics, presupposes mastery of a formidable system of thought. Kant’s essentially liberal theory of ‘right’ or law is thoroughly integrated with his theory of ‘pure practical reason,’ or ethics, with its conception of self-legislated principles of action. His theory of the gradual realization of a regime of individual freedom within a constitutional state is associated with a teleological philosophy of history, in which progress is conceived as the collective development or emancipation of the rational and moral capacity of humanity (for an overview see Kersting, 1992). These themes comprise what is often taken today to be central to the Enlightenment and its ‘project.’ In this regard, it is noteworthy that Kant (like others in Germany as well as France) was quite self-conscious about being a participant in a process of enlightenment or Aufklaerung and sought to articulate the historical significance as well as the political implications of intellectual efforts (Schmidt, 1996). Two recent collections of essays contain contributions by many of the political theorists and philosophers who have been elucidating Kant’s politics in recent years (Williams, 1992; Beiner and Booth, 1993). The latter collection especially contains studies not only of Kant’s thought as such but of the contemporary impact of ‘Kantian liberalism’ that has stimulated much of the interest in him, including essays by Rawls and Habermas. It is useful to assess this entire subject in light of the criticisms of modern appropriations of Kant offered by a scholar who was among the first to make Kant’s political writings widely accessible in English (Reiss, 1999).

Consideration of Enlightenment political thought must, finally, acknowledge Pocock’s studies, in progress, of the intellectual formation of Gibbon and of the text of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(1999a; 1999b; with forthcoming volumes expected to focus on Gibbon’s treatment of Christianity and the influence of Tacitus). As a study of a historical classic, Pocock’s work is concerned with problems of eighteenth-century historiography, but, as is shown in his previous work as well as in this, historiography was a common and important mode of expressing political theories in the early modern period. Perceived tensions among civic virtue, commercial society, and the Christian religion formed an important part of the background of the problems Gibbon addressed in his history, just as they engaged many of the political theorists of the period. Of special interest is the second volume, titled Narratives of Civil Government, which surveys several ‘enlightened’ constructions of European history, including those of Voltaire, Hume, Smith, and Ferguson, as the frameworks of these writers’s own assessments of modern politics as well as of Gibbon’s thought. Methodologically, Pocock’s aim is to establish the intellectual ‘contexts’ in which Gibbon should be read. In addition to the various political and philosophical discourses available to him, the notion of ‘contexts’ here refers to the claim that there were in fact a number of ‘Enlightenments’ among which the cosmopolitan Gibbon moved, varying in their preoccupations and tone from one country to another, especially with respect to religious issues. Gibbon reflects, among other things, Protestant and English forms of Enlightenment that, though sceptical about religion and its political impact, were more conservative than the Enlightenment of the French philosophes.

The Scottish Enlightenment

The political thought of eighteenth-century Scotland deserves separate treatment because the exceptional richness of the Enlightenment in that country has attracted notable scholarly attention in recent years. Scottish writers of the period seem to have been uniquely situated to address important problems with a variety of intellectual resources. As inheritors of well-established intellectual links to the continent, they were in a position to combine European philosophy and jurisprudence with modes of thought emanating from England. As members of a peripheral nation that had been united (in 1707) with a more powerful and advanced one, they confronted issues of economic development in a modern commercial society that led to decisive contributions to political economy. And as members of a nation with a strong historical identity that was now joined politically to England, with its own distinctive constitutional traditions, the Scots pioneered historical approaches to an understanding of social development and comparative government. Christopher J. Berry (1997) provides a useful overview of the themes of eighteenth-century Scottish social thought. An older volume (Hont and Ignatieff, 1983), however, remains indispensable for its more specialized articles, particularly for a focus on the creative tensions between the legacy of civic, republican, and patriotic commitments and the inexorable growth of commerce, which forced a rethinking of the possibilities of virtue in the modern world. Many of the contributors to this book continue to be active in research on aspects of this branch of political theory.

Eighteenth-century Scotland produced a number of writers of interest in the area of moral, social, and political thought. Among the less well-known ones who have attracted recent scholarly attention are the philosophers Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid, the jurist Lord Kames, the social theorists John Millar and Adam Ferguson, and the historian William Robertson. In Hutcheson and Reid one can observe the movement from natural law modes of thought to the more peculiarly Scottish ‘moral sense’ and ‘common sense’ approaches to moral life. In Ferguson one finds strong traces of the ‘republican’ outlook, marked by its concern with civic virtue and corruption, combined with an apprehensive sense of the special qualities of modern life. Some of these figures (especially Kames and Millar) were instrumental in formulating or applying the distinctive Scottish ‘four-stage’ theory of social development, from hunter-gatherer and pastoral ways of life through agricultural predominance to the commercial society that was the principal contemporaneous concern. The historical mode of understanding societies and social development, in which complexes of customs, manners, laws, forms of government and other institutions are viewed as forming functional systems, suggests the influence of (or convergence with) Montesquieu’s approach to political theory; the emphasis on changing forms of property and modes of production has been seen as influencing Marx’s as well as Smith’s historical approach to political economy. Others (including Robertson), in keeping with the Scottish historical perspective, sought to describe the transition from the feudal institutions and manners of the middle ages to the emergence of a more modern society and state system over the previous two centuries.

The major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, however, continue to be Hume and Smith, whose traditionally high reputations have been enhanced by recent work. Hume’s political theory has received less attention (and is less often taught) than that of other major thinkers because it is not presented in a single, easily accessible work. An abstract account of justice and government is presented in his Treatise of Human Nature as an adjunct to extensive investigations of the philosophy of mind and moral psychology; more concrete political and economic topics, such as parties, commerce, the British constitution, the theory of the ‘original contract,’ and a scheme for a ‘perfect commonwealth,’ are discussed in a large number of lucid essays. Hume’s once-famous History of England (which, like the Essays, is now readily available in a Liberty Classics edition) is also attracting attention as a source of political ideas, which Hume, like the other Scottish thinkers, often treats in a historical context. Frederick Whelan (1985) offers an analysis of Hume’s political theory based largely on the Treatise, emphasizing Hume’s account of how social order is created through rules prescribed by ‘artifices’ such as justice (with their attendant ‘artificial virtues’ of compliance with rules), and paralleling his sceptical account of how cognitive order is created through the application of rules of inferential reasoning. Although on many key issues, such as civil and economic liberty and constittional government, Hume is a central figure in the classical liberal tradition, his emphasis on rules and order leads Whelan, with others, to characterize his philosophy as ‘conservative.’ In response, John B. Stewart (1992) argues that Hume’s aim was to influence public opinion in a ‘reform’ oriented direction in relation to the more practical political issues of his time. More specific facets of Hume’s wide-ranging political thought have been explored in articles, including his constitutionalism (Manzer, 1996), his critique of contractarianism (Whelan, 1994), his account of the balance of power in relation to British foreign policy (Robertson, 1993; Whelan, 1995a), and his version of a doctrine of ‘prescriptive right’—an idea more often associated with Burke—as the basis of regime legitimacy (Whelan, 1995b).

Renewed attention to Smith, finally, has followed in the wake of a new edition of his works. The old ‘Adam Smith problem’ of reconciling the sentiment-and sympathy-based ethics of the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the self-interest of the Wealth of Nations continues to serve as a starting point. One approach might involve the view that in both works Smith portrays people as sociable beings motivated by the desire for recognition and the esteem of their peers rather than by the simple desire for economic gain. Another holds that Smith’s doctrine is a version of classical liberalism in which moral and economic individualism, grounded in equal dignity and independence, reinforce each other (Darwall, 1999).

Work on Smith must now attend to the fact that Smith left three, not two, major works on ‘moral philosophy,’ broadly construed to include political matters. His Lectures on Jurisprudence, now readily available, link Smith to the natural and civil law tradition mentioned above as well as to the Scottish school of historical sociology, which also figures prominently in The Wealth of Nations. Adding these to political economy and moral sentiments, one can say that Smith was a key participant in at least four of the major discourses of Enlightenment political thought. It is also apparent that a theory of justice figures in all three works—a theory whose emphasis on property and contract derives from jurisprudence, whose psychological basis is the resentment an impartial spectator would experience in the face of oppressive actions, and that indicates the necessary legal framework that the ‘sovereign’ must provide in order for a market economy to function.

Interest in Smith as with other thinkers considered here is often not strictly historical but reflects contemporary intellectual issues. Inquiry into the philosophical sources of (neo)classical economics naturally turns to Smith (as well as Hume) and reveals that the moral foundations of this doctrine were more complex than simplistic modern accounts, whether friendly or hostile, might suggest (Minovitz, 1993). Charles L. Griswold (1999) presents Smith’s moral philosophy not only as embodying central Enlightenment ideals such as liberty and equality, but also as anticipating and responding to contemporary criticisms of Enlightenment liberalism through his concern with virtue and sociability. Samuel Fleischacker (1999), finally, not only pursues similarities between the moral philosophies of Smith and Kant, but relates these to a subsequent tradition of liberalism centring on the development of the individual’s capacity for judgement, to Rawls, and to contemporary justifications of the welfare state.

English Radicals and Burke

Burke and a group of writers who were often his critics or adversaries may be treated together, in the conventional manner, in this final section, although this conjuncture would doubtless have irritated all of them. The writers in question, usually termed the English radicals, include Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. As religious dissenters or freethinkers, they were excluded from the major establishments of eighteenth-century English life, a fact that did not preclude economic prosperity and high levels of intellectual vigour in the communities to which they belonged. Not surprisingly, their central political cause was the anti-establishmentarian one of regularizing and extending the parliamentary franchise in a democratic direction, a programme which, along with the removal of religious disabilities, Burke opposed. They also espoused and developed some of the self-consciously progressive and egalitarian elements of philosophical radicalism more characteristic of the French than of the British Enlightenment; these included both natural rights (or Paine’s ‘rights of man’) and utilitarianism (or appeals to the ‘principle of utility’), both of which sometimes in combination—were deployed in such a way as to attack traditional institutions and social privilege of all sorts. They were of course favourably disposed to (and in Paine’s case, took part in) the American and French Revolutions. This latter issue led to dramatic clashes in the 1790s with Burke, whose attack on the French Revolution was denounced by the radicals (and some of his fellow Whigs) as inconsistent with his earlier sympathetic response to American grievances.

In the end, the war with France and the general reaction against the revolution terminated radical agitation in England and set the radicals’ causes back for a full generation. Nevertheless, the works of these writers remain well worth reading as expressions of Enlightenment and as a chapter in the history of political theory; recent editions of all of them have facilitated their study and teaching, though scholarly work in this area is sparse. The major exception is Isaac Kramnick (1990), which studies the political theories of Price, Priestley, Paine and others, as well as the dissenting political culture that produced this current of middle-class radicalism. Kramnick unabashedly reasserts the primacy of Locke and of Lockean, individualistic liberalism, with its call for equal opportunity and its valuation of productive work over privileged leisure, among these thinkers and in the later eighteenth-century Anglo-American world more generally. His primary target is Pocock and his followers, who have challenged the earlier thesis of Lockean hegemony in eighteenth-century British thought by documenting the prevalence of classical republicanism, and who have also sometimes suggested that the emphasis on Locke has been perpetrated by (Straussian) critics of modernity and (Marxist) critics of ‘bourgeois’ society in need of a theoretical personification of the (liberal) values they oppose. Kramnick’s secondary target is contemporary communitarians who have embraced the ‘classical republican’ idea as providing historical and moral support for their programme of reviving a public-spirited civic culture in the United States today. Thus do the ‘politics of scholarship’ (1990: 35) animate the study of political theory, joining contemporary debate and historical research.

The ‘politics of scholarship’ is a concept that may be applied to Burke as well. The still unanswered question is whether the ideological uses (or dismissals) of Burke as a stereotyped ‘conservative’ will subside with the passing of the Cold War, and the almost exclusive focus on his Reflections on the Revolution in France give way to broader study of his thought (Whelan, 2001). A new edition of Burke’s writings and speeches (Oxford) is replacing the century-old versions that have been used until now, and a detailed new biography (Lock, 1998), of which the first of two volumes has appeared, will provide political theorists with valuable background information on a thinker whose ideas are closely tied to an active political career. Conor Cruise O’sBrien (1992) and James Conniff (1994) are two recent interpretive studies of Burke’s political thought as a whole, the former arguing that its major components were inspired by Burke’s sympathy for those suffering various forms of oppression, and the latter associating Burke with the reformist politics of his time. Burke’s views on Great Britain’s Indian Empire and his role in the impeachment of Warren Hastings (one of Burke’s reformist causes) in relation to his general political theory were until recently the major gap in Burke scholarship. This topic has now been treated by Whelan (1996), which, in addition to an analysis of Burke’s views on the practical problems of administering an empire, attempts to square Burke’s appreciation for the integrity of traditional Indian civilization with his commitment to the norms of an evidently universal moral law. Political theorists should note that Burke, especially his rhetoric and his ambivalent position in relation to British imperialism, is a frequent subject for scholars in literature and cultural studies departments, where theoretically driven studies of political issues and texts are very much in vogue.