Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Nature, Desire, and the Law: On Libertinism and Early Modern Legal Theory

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Nature, Desire, and the Law: On Libertinism and Early Modern Legal Theory

Article excerpt

The subject of secularization in political and legal theory, in the context of societal changes in the seventeenth century, is a theme too vast to treat in one essay. Even if one could reduce the subject to the transformation of political theology into "contractual naturalism"1-and the residual presence of theological traces in contract theory in the latter-sufficient reflection would not be possible in this context. But the landscape of secularized political philosophy and jurisprudence, with political theology seen as both its foundation and its vanishing point, can be clarified, as I intend to do in these few pages. I will narrow this essay to a particular phenomenon, Restoration libertinism, and a particular line of thought, the notion of the "state of nature." These two cases- one is more concrete and the other is more abstractly legal-do not have much in common: there is, of course, their historical simultaneity in the second half of the seventeenth century, but there is another, less obvious similarity. For Thomas Hobbes, who conceived the boundaries of the "state of nature" as a crucial issue, the notions of "sovereign" and "sovereignty" are reflected upon by dramaturgical tools, such as actor, author, and persona.2 The subversive practices of the libertines at the court of Charles II in England between 1660 and 1685-even if its subversiveness can be questioned-constitute a different spectacle, but these "actors" were well aware of the possibilities of radical theatricality. So performativity can be conceived as an analytical and epistemological concept to be used in order to link both phenomena.3 This thought experiment is thus an exercise in performative knowledge.

This essay offers some reflections on a central concept in legal-political philosophy during the Restoration era in the England-the second half of the seventeenth century. These ideas are most clearly elaborated and expressed in crucial texts by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, with the work of Baruch de Spinoza in the background. The concept in question is "the State of Nature," which functioned as the clean slate on which theories about political sovereignty and about the state would be inscribed.4 The apparently naïve question raised explicitly by Hobbes and Locke could be formulated thus: what made humankind decide-if you could call this a "decision," of course-to accept and even to submit to a political authority? Was there some kind of crisis that invited this submission or was it a logical step in the course of (hypothetical) history? Posing these questions presupposes, of course, the rejection of history- i.e., society and its institutions as they exist at a given moment-as the realization of the plan of God. In the second half of the sixteenth century, starting with Jean Bodin, political philosophy experienced a kind of Copernican revolution.5 Theorists no longer compared societal realities with a supposedly divine design; they wondered how many and what kind of institutions a society needed-how much "governmentality"-in order to function and to move forward.6 The idea of a contingent societal order was a real novelty since a society built along divine plans is, by definition, finalized and thus stable. Contrary to many superficial interpretations, the "state of nature" or the "natural condition of man"-Hobbes prefers the latter term-is not a reflection of a primitive, almost pre-human situation, it is rather a pre-societal hypothesis in which natural law-understood as a set of norms resulting from reason-rules social interactions without a central authority. C.B. Macpherson formulates it sharply, perhaps somewhat a-historically: the state of nature is the market.7 In other words, the "state of nature" is a hypothetical societal condition constructed in order to justify (or not) sovereign institutions and sovereign authorities. The "state of nature" is not an anthropological concept, but a liberal assumption, maybe even in a partisan sense. And here libertinism-whether or not in the version of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester and his "cabal"-enters the stage, as a particular "school" testing the concept of the "state of nature. …

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