In this article, the author applies the methodology of Begriffsgeschichte to the study of the concept of despotism in France, focusing mainly on the eighteenth century and the Revolution. During this period despotism became a basic concept (Grundbegriff), and thus highly contested. At the same time, the concept's long history, which stretches back to antiquity and includes the semantic boundaries that previously made it indistinguishable from "tyranny," created a diachronic thrust against which anyone seeking to add a new meaning or application had to work. Finally, as other key concepts, despotism produced political consequences unanticipated and undesired by those using it, not only major theorists but also pamphleteers, in a number of intensely fought conflicts which helped bring down the monarchy.
The Metaphor of the Turk and the Crisis of the Spanish Monarchy in the Early Nineteenth Century
Juan Luis Simal and Darina Martykánová
King Ferdinand VII of Spain was often compared to the Ottoman sultan. It was a rhetorical operation that continued a tradition in Western Christendom by which Christian rulers were compared to oriental despots not because they were considered to be equal to them, but to show how far astray from the ideal of good government they were. This article examines the multiple dimensions of this comparison. To what extent was it a reaffirmation of the construction of the Turk as a radical other? Or were there new essential elements, and therefore the metaphor of the Turk can also be interpreted within a new universalistic discourse that opposed tyrants to oppressed peoples across cultural and religious barriers? Our examination leads to a reflection on the transnational character of the discursive frameworks in which the metaphor of the Turk was built and rebuilt, on its circulation and limits, and on its specific uses.
Cary J. Nederman
During the Latin Middle Ages, as today, “tyranny” connotes the exercise of power arbitrarily, oppressively, and violently. Medieval thinkers generally followed in the footprints of early Christian theologians (e.g., Gregory the Great and Isidore of Seville) and ancient philosophers (especially Aristotle) regarding the tyrant as the very embodiment of evil rulership and thus as the polar opposite of the king, who governed for the good of his people according to virtue and religion. However, examination of the writings of some well-known and influential authors from ca. 1150 to ca. 1400—including John of Salisbury, Ptolemy of Lucca, William of Ockham, Bartolous of Sassoferrato, and Nicole Oresme—reveals three very diverse and distinct conceptions of tyranny, each of which justified the tyrant in one way or another.
Jansenist Nuns and Unigenitus
In the decades following the promulgation of the anti-Jansenist bull Unigenitus, scores of nuns and convents resisted the efforts of authorities to make them acquiesce to the Bull. Male Jansenist authors writing from a figurist perspective transformed this female dissent into the model for all forms of spiritual resistance against Unigenitus. Their gendered constructions represented a challenge to the church hierarchy, forging nuns into a political weapon against the ultramontane episcopacy. The controversy over the Religieuses Hospitalières during the 1750s reveals how Jansenist lawyers and magistrates deployed the controversies over these “model” nuns to censure episcopal despotism and to legitimate parliamentary intervention in religious affairs, thereby opening the way to prescribing constitutional limits on the monarchy itself.
Reviving a Sense of Uncoerced Political Possibility
Utopian thought has been discredited because attempts to re-engineer society using Utopian formulae have invariably produced violence and despotism. But the apparent eclipse of Utopia has left a yawning gap, for economic and social conditions across the globe suggest a need for alternatives to the reigning social order - and thus for Utopian thinking which avoids the pitfalls of 'classical' Utopias. This needs to begin by recognising that the chief flaw in earlier Utopias is that they aspired to a world in which contention and conflict were banished. If Utopia is imagined as a state in which contest persists but in which all can contest equally without violence, it becomes a state in which democratic difference is not abolished - as in earlier Utopias - but in which it reaches its fulfillment. By conceptualising democracy as an 'openended' Utopia we can reconstruct the vision of an alternative which will legitimise neither violence nor the suppression of difference. Utopia is, in the mainstream of social and political thought, no longer seen as a subject for serious discussion. It is necessary that it become one again.