The Individual in Political Theory and Practice

The Individual in Political Theory and Practice

The Individual in Political Theory and Practice

The Individual in Political Theory and Practice


In this major study, a team of leading European scholars explores ways in which the concept of the individual developed in various areas of political and social life. The story concerns the changing nature of individual identity, community interest and corporate groups, as they were gradually redefined by common western European experiences of universal Catholicism, feudalism, civic republicanism and absolutism, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, commerce and capitalism. As European societies evolved into increasingly centralized national states, there emerged a range of religious and secular discourses which expressed the autonomy of individual agents not only as political subjects but also as private selves.


Jacques Verger

It is commonly accepted that in a movement parallel to the rise of the modern State, the individual as a political subject asserted himself in Europe from the thirteenth century onwards. This subject was immediately confronted with the demands and constraints of power, but also, from this moment on, became a direct partner in the dialogue between the government and the governed, and even, sometimes, an actor within the state apparatus.

Moreover, it is clear that among the elites making up the political society of the period, the proportion of graduates educated in the universities and holding university degrees rose constantly from the last centuries of the Middle Ages to at least the beginning of the seventeenth century (the very birth of the universities having only barely preceded the political evolution considered here). It thus seems logical to wonder whether the universities were not partially responsible for the appearance of 'individualism' in the political domain.

One may ask this question at different levels. Some may ponder over the status of the individual and the subject in philosophical, theological, and legal works produced by and for the universities. The theoretical training of the social elite obviously influenced its ideas and political practices, and the content of what it was taught, its principles of action.

The level chosen here is more concrete. It is rather that of behaviour and mentality. I will attempt to explore in what way--through the living conditions, the organization of the curriculum and examinations, the structure of studies, and the meaning of the degrees offered to students--medieval universities might have helped students gain awareness of their individuality. In other words, we will examine how the universities might have helped them escape, at . . .

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