Liberty and Property: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Renaissance to Enlightenment

Ellen Meiksins Wood

Language: English

Pages: 378


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

The formation of the modern state, the rise of capitalism, the Renaissance and Reformation, the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment have all been attributed to the “early modern” period. Nearly everything about its history remains controversial, but one thing is certain: it left a rich and provocative legacy of political ideas unmatched in Western history. The concepts of liberty, equality, property, human rights and revolution born in those turbulent centuries continue to shape, and to limit, political discourse today. Assessing the work and background of figures such as Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, Spinoza, the Levellers, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Ellen Wood vividly explores the ideas of the canonical thinkers, not as philosophical abstractions but as passionately engaged responses to the social conflicts of their day.

“This book is clearly written, incisively argued, and immensely informative.” —CHOICE

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It was the English, not the French, who most readily adopted the idea of a ‘mixed constitution’, and they elaborated ideas of separated powers well before the French. This may seem paradoxical when we consider that it was the English, not the French, who possessed a more truly undivided sovereignty, and that even theorists of the ‘mixed constitution’ remained wedded to a centralized and indivisible sovereign power. But the ‘mixed constitution’ was, after all, perfectly consistent with a truly unitary state in which the sovereignty of the central state was shared by Parliament and Crown.

At the centre of the first volume, which covers a ‘universal’ history from the beginning of the world to the reign of Charlemagne, was the history of ancient Rome and the rise of Christianity. Bossuet’s account of the later periods, up to 1661, would be reproduced from his notes after his death. The intention of this massive work was to demonstrate that the history of the world was providentially ordained in the interest of a unified Catholic Church; and one of its principal conclusions was that a single, indivisible sovereign monarch, as a repository of that single, unified Church, was required to fulfil God’s purpose.

If anything, the social history of political theory is more attuned to historical specificities than is a mode of contextualization devoted to ‘language situations’ in which common vocabularies may disguise important historical differences. Despite the Cambridge School’s insistence on the specificity of every historical moment, its conception of linguistic contexts and their detachment from social conditions occludes all kinds of historical specificities, the differences of meaning that even common languages may have in different social contexts, not only giving different answers but posing different questions.

But the dominant class continued to depend to a great extent on politically constituted property – that is, on means of appropriation deriving from political, military and judicial powers, or ‘extra-economic’ status and privilege, in contrast to the English landed classes and their dependence on competitive production. In France, in contrast to England, even in the eighteenth century peasants still dominated agricultural production, and relations between landlords and tenants had very different effects.

Political society is, he argued, a human creation, constructed by men endowed with a natural inclination to live in communities, who establish polities to fulfil purely human and temporal purposes. Naturally free, individuals relinquish that freedom by common consent, agreeing to form a political body and set up government with legislative power. Political power thus resides not in individuals but in the community. At the same time, Suárez rules out the medieval principle that, even if the king is greater than any other individual, the community as a corporate body is greater than the king.

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