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Politics that matters. Materiality and the Body Politic 1500-1800

Carlsberg Foundation Monograph Fellowships

What

Political thinkers of the past have always thought about the meaning of matter and about the flesh of bodies. They have written about the bodies of kings and of citizens, about the anatomy of subjects and foreigners, about sex, birth, and death. They have meditated on the matter of life: on food, waste, on earth and mud, on clothes, trinkets, and other 'things', and have called this 'the stuff of the state'. The body politic itself (what we today would understand as 'the state'), strange as it might seem to us today, was seen as an embodied being, which had to go through its own life cycle, its own illnesses, and for which the political thinker needed to find remedies as medicine. The book will show the centrality of these reflections for the early modern world.

Why

In contrast to other historical disciplines, the history of political ideas has yet to have a material or a bodily turn. Motivated by the quest to understand how our modern abstract idea of 'the state' came into being, historians of political thought have not fully explored this other, seemingly 'medieval' side to early modern political thought. My monograph will change and innovate this and show that reflections on materiality and bodies 'built' the modern state and its theory. The book will also show that early modern thinking was global by nature. It will contextualise political treaties with those travel accounts European thinkers were reading avidly, and so show that foreign bodies (of states and of people) mattered decisively for the early understanding of the state.

How

Through a re-reading of a large source corpus of the most important political writers of their time, contextualised with contemporary knowledge on medicine, the monograph will show that many seemingly abstract concepts, like liberty, justice, civic virtue, and 'the state' itself were always conceived as concrete and with a view to material and embodied realities.

SSR

The monograph will contribute to our knowledge about the paths taken and the paths neglected on the way to the states and societies in which we are living today. We are now in an era of pandemics and climate change, in which political theory and political action need to take the material foundations of life, and the health of states and their citizens, seriously. The book will help to show the lineage of this kind of thinking and it so excavates the historical foundations of our modern approaches to politics.