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The Formation of the State in Italian Humanist Political Thought, c.1250-c.1550


The subject of this dissertation is how the Renaissance humanists of the Italian peninsula conceptualized the formation of the civitas, their term for “state.” Its results point towards a need to re-configure to some degree our historical account of the modern concept of the state. When investigating the origins of this concept, intellectual historians and political theorists alike emphasize the innovations of the mid-seventeenth century. It was at this time, they argue, that the term “state” came to refer to a “fictional person” that, acting through a duly-authorized representative, is responsible for preserving human society. This dissertation shows, however, that the belief that the integrity of human society depends on the institution of an entity called the “state” had already existed for centuries prior to this. It does so by re-constructing a tradition of thinking about the formation of political society indebted to the political, philosophical and rhetorical works of the Roman author Cicero. It argues that this tradition was established by the humanist intellectuals of the Italian Renaissance, then Europe’s leading scholars of Greco-Roman antiquity. According to this tradition, the civitas is the name of a distinctive association established specifically to order and maintain a pre-existing social life. It is, moreover, the name of a kind of abstract person, brought to life by a representative and believed to be the subject of sovereignty. Yet not only did the humanists develop such a theory; the dissertation also demonstrates that this theory became itself an object of debate, with later generations of humanists, most notably Machiavelli, articulating alternatives in response to it. However, shaped as they were by the terms of this Ciceronian theory, these alternatives nevertheless continued to endorse certain key tenets of it, most importantly that the “state” is the name of a kind of body and that this body is instituted to maintain human society. The dissertation concludes by showing that these different ways of thinking about states would go on to shape some of the political thinking of the seventeenth century.

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