Charting the Path Not Taken: Pluralist Explorations in Early Modern Political Thought
14 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2011
Date Written: August 15, 2011
It is the fate of theories of strong pluralism to be notable chiefly by their absence from the mainstream of modern Western political thought. Whether because of the concern to achieve a strong basis of unity amid warring religious factions, or, more strongly, to make a political declaration of faith in the autonomy of human reason, moderns have sought to develop rights-based theories of political rule upon whatever non-religious bases that people might be found to hold in common. And so from Hobbes to Hegel, from Bodin to Bentham, students of the mainstream of Western political theory learn that a healthy public life is one wherein people depend upon the things they have in common, rather than their differences.
This paper explores the early development of this “common-basis” strategy, focusing on the 100-year period prior to Thomas Hobbes (approximately 1550-1650). It considers the strategies developed in this period that attempted to “filter out” certain complicating social phenomena or institutions - especially religion, but also the family, ethnicity and culture more broadly - in favor of a focus on the singular relationship between the individual and the state. As non-state social phenomena were diminished insofar as rights were concerned, differences between persons also faded from significance. The result was a modern politics of rights that systematically diminished vital features of political and social life, perhaps at the cost of the very resources we most need as we contemplate the great political challenges around us.
The paper concludes with a consideration of the possibilities for a re-reading of the tradition, including a search for solutions from countries where the Protestant Reformation was “incomplete,” and where approaches other than the “common-basis” strategy were pursued in order to find ways that groups who disagreed on a great deal could live together peaceably. This results of such an exploration, the paper suggests, will have relevance, first, to those societies presently experiencing great conflicts, including violent conflicts, concerning religion and other differences, but second, to modern liberal democracies that experience great difficulty navigating the contemporary politics of difference.
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