Reading, Society, and Politics in Early Modern England

By Kevin Sharpe; Steven N. Zwicker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
Cato's retreat: fabula, historia and the question
of constitutionalism in Mr Locke's anonymous

Essay on Government

Kirstie M. McClure

There are books that are of the same chemical composition as dyna-
mite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes only
once, while a book explodes a thousand times.

Yevgeny Zamiatin1

In the autumn of 1689 London publishers Awnsham and John Churchill offered up a timely, if badly printed, anonymous tract that would long outlive the concatenation of hands and purposes that first gave it life. Two further anonymous editions followed, in 1694 and 1698. With the fourth edition of 1713, nine years after the death of its author, the official fame of the Two Treatises of Government accelerated apace as the work of the celebrated philosopher John Locke. Over the next two centuries, the second of the treatises accumulated its modern reputation as a freestanding whole. Severed from the first initially in the French translation of 1691, under the title Du gouvernement civil it saw seven further French language editions between 1724 and 1790.With successive waves of translation from the French it developed a life of its own in a variety of European vernaculars German in 1718, Italian in 1773, Spanish in 1821, Russian in 1902.2 Thus associated with an unfolding history of European revolutions and popular agitations, the Second Treatise has few rivals as a paradigm case of exploding print.

Like The Prince, The Social Contract and The Communist Manifesto, it was endlessly reprinted, embraced and repudiated by generations of readers, marshalled to illuminate the dilemmas of disparate political presents. Like these, too, it has been elevated to canonical status in the history of political thought, made at once a staple of the undergraduate curriculum and an ongoing site of scholarly dispute. And, perhaps surpassed by the Manifesto alone, amidst the ideological struggles of the twentieth century it has been seen by many as a singularly resonant site of historical and intellectual authority for the elaboration of modern political understandings.

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