Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Dan Edelstein on the Evolution of “Revolution”

by contributing editor Glauco Schettini

Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, and Professor of Political Science and History (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He studied at the University of Geneva (BA) and the University of Pennsylvania (PhD). He is the author of The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago, 2009), The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2010), and On the Spirit of Rights (Chicago, 2018). He is the co-editor of seven volumes, most recently (with Stefanos Geroulanos and Natasha Wheatley) Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (Chicago, 2020). He is currently working on an intellectual history of revolution, tentatively entitled The Revolution Next Time (Princeton, forthcoming).

Edelstein spoke with contributing editor Glauco Schettini about his essay “A ‘Revolution’ in Political Thought: Translations of Polybius Book 6 and the Conceptual History of Revolution,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.1).


Glauco Schettini: In your article, you trace the emergence over the early modern era of a Polybian vocabulary of politics, centered around the concept of revolution. This vocabulary spread alongside (and eventually replaced) a preexisting Aristotelian language—which described change in terms of mutation and sedition—and made “revolution” a recurring term of political analysis. You describe this shift as a revolution in its own right. How does your contribution enrich the existing scholarship on the “invention” of revolution as a political concept, to paraphrase Keith Baker?

Dan Edelstein: Keith Baker’s key contribution to the history of revolution was to recognize how revolution became, in his words, an “action frame” after 1789. The French, who were the first to think of themselves as “revolutionaries,” understood revolution as something that they were actively pursuing, as opposed to something that was happening to them. Or as Baker put it, revolution went from “a fact” to “an act.” My article really focuses on the earlier history of “revolution.” Historians generally view “revolution“ in the early-modern period as confused, rather than contested. Sometimes it was used (generally in the plural) to describe an assortment of political disturbances; elsewhere it referred to the cyclical movement of history; occasionally it designated a particularly fateful event. By bringing Polybius’s Histories (and more specifically translations of book 6) into this account, I argue that these different, apparently disconnected, meanings can all be found in his theory of anacyclōsis—an unusual Greek term, which translators typically rendered as “revolution.”

More broadly, I also emphasize how these different understandings of “revolution“ reflect a particular vision of history, or cosmology. It is a vision of a world governed by fortune, in which the future resembles nothing more than the past. The new meaning of revolution that Baker identified, and became widespread in 1789, depended on an “enlightened” or modern vision of history, according to which human societies are gradually moving towards reason and justice.

GS: Your essay looks specifically at translations as key moments not only in the transmission but also in the very creation of political ideas. Faced with the problem of how to render Polybius’ anacyclōsis into modern languages, translators unknowingly reinvented the language of modern politics. Intellectual historians have recently started to pay more attention to translations (see, for example, the 18th-Century Translators Dictionary project based at the European University Institute). We are learning to look at translations from a perspective that is not only philological, and to highlight the role of translators as cultural mediators. What do you think studies of translations have to offer to intellectual historians?

DE: My sense is that most intellectual historians are in the habit of consulting original sources whenever possible. It’s quite common for scholars working on, say, Grotius’s De jure belli ac pacis to flip between the Latin original, Barbeyrac’s translation and notes, and the English translation of Barbeyrac. Similarly, one of the first things we’re taught when we work with ancient languages is always to consult the original. Things get a bit more challenging where reception history is involved. From our contemporary vantage point, where the entire classical library is just a mouse click away, it can be hard to keep track of when specific ancient texts became available in translation. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that Cicero’s De re publica was only rediscovered in 1819 (though fragments of it were known long before).

So I think this temporal quirkiness of ancient texts can lead to their disappearing from intellectual histories. Intellectual history often tracks chronology: authors respond to events and other authors who preceded them, often closely in time. Locke refutes Filmer, Pufendorf rebuts Hobbes, Rousseau responds to Montesquieu, and so on. But reception history disrupts ordinary chronology. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the translation or publication of previously unavailable texts: François Quesnay, the founder of Physiocracy, was deeply marked by an early encounter with Aristotle. Theological texts can similarly exercise a powerful sway centuries after they were written: just think of Augustine’s influence on Calvin or Jansenius.

Of course, we’re familiar with the famous cases in classical reception, like Lucretius or Sextus Empiricus, which blow chronological intellectual history off course. Polybius falls in this category, but adds two further wrinkles: in addition to the “explosive” content, the circumstances of his reception are spread out over a long time (there’s a period of manuscript circulation, followed by multiple editions) and over an array of languages; and the fact that it’s a Greek text (i.e., not as easily accessible as a Latin one) means that the word choices of the translators are especially critical.

Finally, it’s also worth noting how translations themselves evolve over time. As I point out in the article, late eighteenth-century translations of Aristotle‘s Politics adopted the language of “revolution” to describe political regime changes. That’s still the term that most contemporary translations use. But anyone reading Aristotle before 1770 would have encountered a different set of terms, with a different set of meanings. So it’s really important to consult the translations that were available at the time.

GS: Our readers are probably familiar with your previous work on digital humanities and the use of digital tools for historical scholarship. How did these methods figure in the research for this article? What can they tell us about early modern intellectual history that we have not been able to see so far?

DE: Working on a big digital humanities project like “Mapping the Republic of Letters” was a lot of fun! We were basically making things up as we went along. It was also exciting to think about what we could do with data (and metadata more particularly), rather than just text. That said, working with data is extremely time-consuming and can get rather tedious. Designing visualization tools, similarly, is exciting, but also extraordinarily complex and quite expensive.

So I’ve become more interested of late in all the low hanging fruit that mass digitization has made available. Plug away search terms on Google Books for long enough and you’ll likely find treasures. More scholarly databases (such as EEBO, ECCO, Gallica, ARTFL-FRANTEXT, etc.) offer amazing search functionality “out of the box.” Even library catalogs are terrific resources. I discovered the first print translation of Polybius book 6 simply by searching in the online catalog of the Italian National Library. Because the reference to Polybius only appears at the end of a very long subtitle, earlier scholars, using card catalogs or book lists, had missed it. I was just lucky to be working in the digital era.

In this respect, I feel that we should all aspire to be more like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who happily discovered that he was already speaking in prose. We’re all digital humanists now, whether we realize it or not. But once you do realize it, you’ll recognize that there’s a host of simple steps you can take to take advantage of basic digital resources. You don’t have to know how to code, or secure a grant, to unlock 90% of what digitization affords scholarship. Obviously, this (entirely made up!) statistic only applies to fields where mass digitization has taken place. But those of us working on early-modern European intellectual history have an embarrassment of riches.

GS: Although your article is mainly focused on the period of time between the late fifteenth and the seventeenth century, in the concluding section you sketch a narrative that goes up to the Age of Revolutions, and suggest that the eighteenth century witnessed “another revolution in the history of ‘revolution’” as a political concept. The Polybian conception of revolution as a problem was supplanted by the new Enlightenment idea of revolution as a solution, a transformation that you fascinatingly term “the twilight of the Polybians.” What role did Polybius and translations of his Book 6 play in this eighteenth-century process, if any?

DE: This article is taken from a book I’m working on that sketches an intellectual history of revolution from Antiquity to the twentieth century. The American Revolution features as the concluding act of the two English revolutions that preceded it. What these “Three British Revolutions,” as Pocock dubbed them, have in common is an overriding concern with establishing a well-balanced constitution. The primary example of such a constitution came from the Roman Republic, and its primary theorist was none other than Polybius.

What’s striking to me is how the dominant political interpretations of the American Revolution mostly write out the importance of classical authors on American constitutional thought. Gordon Wood made an exception for John Adams (how could he not?), suggesting that Adams was the odd man out among the Founders. But even a cursory reading of the Records of the Federal Convention, the letters of the Founders, or The Federalist reveals that Adams was far from alone in his obsession with classical political thought. The debate over the organization of the senate even appears to have been settled by an authoritative reference to the structure of the Achaean league (which the delegate verbally footnoted!).

In a 1940 article that appeared in the very first issue of the JHI, Gilbert Chinard outlined the extent to which the Founders relied on Polybius in particular. He’s certainly the star of Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions of the United States (1787). But to appreciate Polybius’s influence, you also have to consider his central place in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English constitutionalism. Put simply, Polybius is everywhere, and serves as a shorthand reference for the idea that the ideal constitution combines elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. While not all Americans were as forthcoming as Adams about seeking this arrangement in their own federal constitution, it doesn’t take much squinting to recognize its outline. As Eric Nelson has persuasively shown, the presidency is an explicitly “monarchic” office (some of whose powers can even be traced back to those of the Roman consuls, in Polybius’s analysis). Many of the delegates in Philadelphia described the senate as an aristocratic chamber; and the House was obviously democratic.

Equally important for my own story, though, is the purpose of this arrangement. Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and others do not hide their conviction that a well-balanced constitution of this sort is specifically designed to prevent another revolution (and Shays’s Rebellion gave them reason to fear one). What made Polybius so attractive is that his theory offered a guarantee against different types of revolution. It guarded against a populist takeover, but also from oligarchy or despotism. That’s the promise of the well-balanced constitution.

So rather than inaugurating an “age of revolutions,” I argue that the American Revolution really marked the close of a Polybian era, during which the revolutions in general were viewed as something dangerous, and were only applauded (and designated as “glorious”) if they brought about the desired Polybian outcome. By 1789, by contrast, the French had learned to stop worrying and love revolution. For them, revolution was a step toward a transfigured future. The modern doctrine of progress—which I distinguish from the Koselleckian idea of acceleration—made the classical phobia of revolution obsolete. Historical change was no longer something to be prevented, but to be embraced. That’s the general idea, at least for now!

Glauco Schettini is a PhD candidate in history at Fordham University, New York. His research centers on religion and politics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Atlantic world. His dissertation, titled “The Invention of Catholicism: A Global Intellectual History of the Catholic Counterrevolution, 1780s-1840s,” investigates how European and Latin American counterrevolutionary thinkers reinvented Catholicism during the Age of Revolutions. An alumnus of the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, Italy, he is the author of more than a dozen articles and book chapters.

Featured Image: Bavarian State Library, Munich, Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana) Clm 4660; fol. 1r with the Wheel of Fortune. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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