Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law

Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law

Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law

Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law


This is a book about the theory of the city or commonwealth, what would come to be called the state, in early modern natural law discourse. Annabel Brett takes a fresh approach by looking at this political entity from the perspective of its boundaries and those who crossed them. She begins with a classic debate from the Spanish sixteenth century over the political treatment of mendicants, showing how cosmopolitan ideals of porous boundaries could simultaneously justify the freedoms of itinerant beggars and the activities of European colonists in the Indies. She goes on to examine the boundaries of the state in multiple senses, including the fundamental barrier between human beings and animals and the limits of the state in the face of the natural lives of its subjects, as well as territorial frontiers. Drawing on a wide range of authors, Brett reveals how early modern political space was constructed from a complex dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. Throughout, she shows that early modern debates about political boundaries displayed unheralded creativity and virtuosity but were nevertheless vulnerable to innumerable paradoxes, contradictions, and loose ends.

Changes of State is a major work of intellectual history that resonates with modern debates about globalization and the transformation of the nation-state.


This is a book about what the sixteenth-century philosopher John Case called “the sphere of the city.” By it he meant, and I mean, the political space that human beings have constructed as a space in which to live a distinctively human life. “City” here is not “city” in the sense of an urban environment, urbs in the Latin. “City” is instead the Latin civitas, a civic not a stone structure. Again, this is not, at least in the first instance, civitas in its sense as a city like London, but in its sense as synonymous with the respublica, the commonwealth. It is what, at the end of our period, Thomas Hobbes would defi ne as nothing other than the state: “that great Leviathan called a Common-Wealth, or State, (in latine Civitas).” It is a metaphysical, not a physical place. And yet it is central to this idea of the city that it is not something immediately given in nature but something that has to be built out of it, just as the walls of the urbs have to be built on a patch of ground. Both are constructed by a peculiar kind of agency, human

John Case, Sphaera civitatis (Oxford 1588). See fig. 1. The sphere of the city is here depicted by analogy with the celestial sphere, with Elizabeth I as the mobile primum or “prime mover,” as the accompanying poem makes clear.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. R. Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), p. 9.

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