Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with William Theiss

By Nicholas Barone

William Theiss is a PhD candidate in early modern European history at Princeton University. He received a BA in comparative literature from Yale University in 2016 and an MPhil in early modern history from the University of Cambridge in 2017. His previous scholarly work has appeared here in the JHI Blog and the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.

Theiss discussed his recent JHI article, “The Abbé d’Aubignac’s Homer and the Culture of the Street in Seventeenth-Century Paris,” published in January 2023, with contributing editor Nick Barone. 

Nick Barone: Let’s begin with some basic empirical context. Who was François Hédelin, abbé d’Aubignac? What was his intellectual and educational background?

William Theiss: Hédelin was a French priest who lived from 1604 to 1676, and he took the name d’Aubignac after the property where he was a cleric. But although this property was not in Paris, and although he himself grew up in the provinces, he was the consummate Parisian. He was one of those pre-Revolutionary abbés who were religious in name, but in fact dedicated themselves to erudition or literature. Being the tutor to the nephew of the Cardinal Richelieu, even though this nephew died in a naval battle, put d’Aubignac at the center of arguably the first great age in Parisian literature, the so-called classical age, even though d’Aubignac’s own relationship to this milieu was as of a parasite and an increasingly unpopular gadfly. He wrote notorious screeds against the poet Corneille, and since Corneille was and remains a canonical French author, d’Aubignac comes across as a ridiculous and petty figure. I should also say that unlike many of the other abbés of the Academie Française, d’Aubignac was not especially erudite—ironically for an innovative scholar of Homer, he probably didn’t know much Greek.

I came across d’Aubignac because his book Conjectures académiques, ou Dissertation sur l’Iliade wound up on my generals exam reading list on Greek philology when I was in my second year of graduate school, advised by Joshua Billings. This is a speech that d’Aubignac delivered in the 1660s toward the end of his life, first published long after his death in 1715. There was no English translation, but there are plenty of French editions, so I picked it up from the library and was immediately transfixed. For one thing, the book is hilarious. But for another, it seemed true: it seemed to lay out a theory of the oral transmission of Homeric poetry that is somehow not so different from what some scholars believe today, and yet it did so from a polemic against the poem and a condemnation of it. So all I had at first was the pleasure of spending time with d’Aubignac on the page, and the question of where this wild book came from.

NB: You deftly toggle between different methodological registers, preoccupations, and approaches in this article—contextualist intellectual history, Darntonian cultural history, urban studies, Bourdeiuan social theory, the history of classical reception, the politics of reading and translation. How did you arrive at this theoretical syncretism? What questions initially animated your project? Put more vulgarly, who were your primary influences in drafting this article? 

WT: Thank you! I should say that this article has no new archival discoveries, and it does not unearth anything that is not widely available in the library. Instead, the point is to bring together two worlds of scholarship that have each yielded important results but have not spoken much to each other. One the one hand, there is the urban history of Paris, which was the European city par excellence even before Hausmann’s famous modernizing project, as scholars such as Hilary BallonJoan DeJean, and Nicholas Hammond have shown, among others. On the other hand, there’s the history of classical scholarship, which has been investigating for a long time the cultural history of the reception of ancient texts and especially Homer—I mean scholars such as Anthony GraftonGlenn MostLuigi Ferreri, and Kirsti Simonsuuri. So when d’Aubignac writes, We know there was no Homer because of the way that Parisian street-performers sing on the Pont Neuf, I thought, wait a minute: what? What did d’Aubignac see on the streets of Paris that led him to make this absurd claim? To answer your question, d’Aubignac was the original toggler, the person who connected the ethnography of Parisian street life, almost like a seventeenth-century Catholic Walter Benjamin, with a new social theory of the transmission of culture across class and a new theory of Homer.

NB: Can you walk us through the state of Homeric criticism before Hédelin’s interventions? From what prior intellectual labors did the “Homeric Question” emerge?

WT: I can try. The criticism of Homer was alive and well in antiquity, including in Plato’s Athens, where he complained about the singers who were singing Homeric verse for money. At the library of Alexandria, in the Hellenistic period, ancient critics developed what we call textual criticism in order to set the definitive text of Homer for the first time. Rumors also swirled in antiquity that perhaps Homer had sung rather than written his poetry and that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus had had to gather the different verse fragments centuries after they were performed, and as Tania Demetriou has shown, the best Renaissance scholars, including Isaac Casaubon, had perked up their ears at comments like this, and begun to wonder whether Homer was different from all other poets and all other texts. They invented the special aura around Homer that persists to this day. 

All of this debate was a little above d’Aubignac’s head, and he was not familiar with all of it. Instead, his criticism of Homer came more in our sense of the word criticism: was Homer a good poet? Was the Iliad a good book? D’Aubignac’s heresy was to say, not even close. The book is disorganized, repetitive, with too many battles and no unified plot, and it’s boring. It violates every principle of classical poetics. But the genius of his Academic Conjectures was to say that the book is so bad that it could not have been written by a single author. Instead, all of its flaws are explained by its having been transmitted orally by different poets over a long period and then “stitched” together. This is how he got from the terribleness to the non-existence of Homer.

NB: In an elegant and provocative condensation of your argument on 87, you write, “The death of Homer began with the construction of a bridge.” What modes of sociability did the Pont Neuf instantiate? How do you understand the relationship between new forms of public social intercourse, aesthetic perception, and what you call the “intense experimentation with literary form” that characterized this period? 

WT: Most medieval and early modern European bridges were piled high with shops and houses. They were claustrophobic and built up, so that a pedestrian on a European bridge before the seventeenth century would probably not be able to see the water, whether the Seine, the Danube, the Rhine, or the Thames. The London Bridge is a prime example of such a bridge, which had shops and houses until it was destroyed and rebuilt in the Fire of London in the late seventeenth century. The Pont Neuf in Paris was perhaps the first bridge in European history to be consciously designed with sidewalks and viewing turrets instead of buildings—for a while, sidewalks themselves or banquettes were actually synonymous with the Pont Neuf—and this had profound consequences for the way that people interacted with space in Paris. First, it was beautiful, and it made the Seine beautiful. Second, everybody wanted to gather there, to walk from bank to bank or to the Île de la Cité. Finally, the sidewalks let the bridge become the arena for musical and dramatic performance, the same way that any public square in any major city does today. These players and singers were cultural entrepreneurs, and their experiments were what gave d’Aubignac the idea of using the Parisian streetscape to argue for the non-existence of Homer. 

NB: How did the economic and cultural stratification of Paris during this time shape d’Aubignac’s “social theory of Homeric poetry”? On what understanding of cultural transmission and interclass relations did such a theory rest? How did “the culture of the street” alter, reconfigure, or render visible the symbolic function of class difference in establishing a literary work’s provenance and quality?

WT: With other aristocrats, d’Aubignac found the bridge scene to be amusing and diverting but ultimately worthless. In fact, for him, the worthlessness of Parisian street culture matched only the worthlessness of Homeric poetry. This was one of the keys to his theoretical innovation. Our vision of Parisian cultural history is of course different, and we have learned, partially thanks to Robert Darnton, to regard the literary underclass of Paris as the hero of Enlightenment intellectual history. So d’Aubignac observed correctly—and part of my article tries to verify this—that singers on the Pont Neuf, especially the blind performer Philippot le Savoyard, sang famous airs de cour composed by Lully or other arias that had been heard first in Versailles. But when d’Aubignac heard the Pont Neuf singers performing well-known songs, he could not regard them as authors, because “authors” were famous poets who wrote for the stage of Richelieu. He regarded them instead as beggars. By contrast, when Milman Parry studied oral poetry in Yugoslavia in the twentieth century, he easily saw that the rural performers he recorded on his recording machines were authors of the deepest and most ingenious creativity. That’s why, to put it a little too simply, d’Aubignac and Parry arrived at almost the same theory of the oral transmission of Homer, but from completely opposite perspectives, one from the contempt for street culture and the other from admiration. And that’s why Homer exists more for Parry than for d’Aubignac. 

NB: The blind street-savant Philippot le Savoyard is one of the more delightfully aberrant characters who populate your story, and his dialogic encounters with Homer, plebeian and court culture, and the semiotic tapestry of the new Parisian cityscape provide a rich analytic aperture through which to view how d’Aubignac posed and grappled with the Homeric question. Can you say a bit more about Philippot––the archival traces he left, the different ways in which he was “read,” and the cultural repertoire from which he drew? Did you encounter him first through d’Aubignac? 

WT: Curiously, and probably on purpose, d’Aubignac never mentions Philippot in his Conjectures académiques. But after I encountered Philippot in the literature on Parisian street life in the seventeenth century, it became clear that d’Aubignac’s book is to a large extent about him. Philippot says that he was also the son of a singer, and presumably, based on the nickname, he came from Savoy. He wasn’t just active on the Pont Neuf in the 1640s and 1650s: to a large extent, he defined it, and he was the bridge’s great impresario. We know that he would sing songs in the company of a boy or several boys, who would help attract a crowd, and that he would play the hurdy-gurdy, which is like a cranked violin. There are a few valuable documents that let us reconstruct the world of Philippot: there is a beautiful painting in Philadelphia of Philippot leading a kind of bacchic procession; there are two books of his songs, which were printed on cheap paper at the base of the Pont Neuf, and which have never been critically edited or translated; and there is a kind of interview he supposedly gave to another seventeenth-century poet, Charles Coypeau. Immersing myself in these, I realized that Philippot was even more fascinating than d’Aubignac. In every way, he operated a kind of burlesque, making fun of himself, of his audience, of the city of Paris, and of the entire poetic tradition. Moreover, he actually claimed himself, in one of his songs, that he was like Homer, because he and Homer both drank themselves blind and were condemned to sing from door to door in exchange for money. So Philippot was actually Homer and Homeric theorist in one. And d’Aubignac clearly lifted his own theory of Homeric song from Philippot, a prospect that creates a dizzying hall of mirrors. Who was the author of the theory that Homer was not the author of the poems ascribed to him? The only possible answer is: Paris.

NB: A dialectic between intellectual, imaginative, and physical labor unfolds in this account, particularly in your discussion of blindness (I am reminded also that John Milton composed Paradise Lost after he lost most of his sight through dictating his verse to his daughter, Deborah). How did d’Aubignac interpret the relationship between different sensorial and perceptual capacities—and the role of the body in aesthetic labor more broadly? 

WT: I’m so glad you mentioned Milton, because Milton and Philippot le Savoyard were contemporaries, each was a blind poet, and each was self-consciously competing for the mantle of Homer. Milton did this by revering Homer and nobly claiming for himself the title of the skilled epic poet. Philippot did this by dragging Homer down into the street with him and by impugning Homer as a drunk beggar. But d’Aubignac had his own experience of profane performance, or bodily performance, which he had been pondering for decades by the time he encountered Philippot on the Pont Neuf and devised his Homeric theory. And here lies the importance of Loudun. In the 1630s, d’Aubignac went to Loudun to investigate the notorious possessions of Ursuline nuns there, possessions that were the subject of a great book by Michel de Certeau. D’Aubignac argued that not only were the possessions a forgery, but that he had seen bodies perform more elaborate contortions in the circuses and theaters of Paris, where, if the nuns performed, they would be applauded. This is what your question gets at by asking about the role of the body. Singing bodies and performing bodies were a spectacle in Paris and d’Aubignac used them to banish demons and gods, including Homer.

NB: What are you working on right now? How might your research on d’Aubignac relate to your dissertation work—however elliptically—on local village manuscript preservation and the development of recognizably modern practices of state administration in central Europe? 

WT: I imagined working on this article as an escape from my dissertation, which everybody needs. Unconsciously there probably were some underlying connections. In the most abstract terms, my other research is about embedded observers and anthropologists in otherwise inaccessible premodern communities, whether the oral culture of the Paris underground or Central European rural society. My dissertation is about the history of writing in the second scenario and the transition from the early modern to the modern period. 

Nick Barone is a  third-year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton, specializing in modern Britain and Europe. His research focuses on the social, cultural, and intellectual dimensions of political apathy in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire, with an eye towards homologous developments on the continent. He has secondary interests in the comparative history of European statecraft, post-Kantian philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of the family. Nick graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 2019 with a B.A. in English and History. He has also completed graduate work at Brown University in literary studies.

Featured image: Hendrick Mommers, Vue de Paris et de la Seine, prise du milieu du Pont- Neuf. A droite, le palais du Louvre, 1665/6. Photo copyright 2010, RMNGrand Palais (Musée du Louvre), Stéphane Maréchalle.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Broadly Speaking: An Interview with Roel Konijnendijk and Fernando Echeverría

By Alex Collin

Roel Konijnendijk is Darby Fellow in Ancient History, at Lincoln College, Oxford. He studied History at Leiden University, followed by a PhD in Greek warfare at UCL, which he completed in 2015. He researches Classical Greek military thought and practice as well as the encounters between the Greek and Persian military systems. His publications cover topics including Greek tactics, Athenian democracy, Spartan traditions, Persian kingship, Herodotus, and the way modern scholarship has shaped our understanding of Greek warfare. His latest book Between Miltiades and Moltke: Early German Studies in Greek Military History was published by Brill in 2023.

Fernando Echeverría graduated in History and Classical Philology and obtained his PhD in Ancient History from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid with a research project on the theory of the “hoplite revolution” and historiography of the Greek polis. Since 2012 he has been a member of the faculty at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. His research has focused on Greek military history, as well as archaic and classical literature and iconography, especially archaic Attic vascular painting. He is part of the Editorial Board of the Warfare in the Ancient Mediterranean World series published by Brill.

Konijnendijk and Echeverría spoke with Alex Collin about their recent JHI article, “Max Weber, the Rise of the Polis, and the “Hoplite Revolution” Theory” (volume 84, issue 1).


Alexander Collin: History is still largely a discipline of single authored papers—not exclusively, but by and large—so why did you decide to collaborate for this one? What does the collaboration add that might have been missing from a sole authored paper?

Roel Konijnendijk: I suppose I should answer this because I was the one who initiated it. I was asked to give a paper on Max Weber as an ancient historian for a seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research in London. I had never worked on Weber before but it was tangentially related to historiographical work that I was doing, so I felt out of my depth on Weber. Initially I asked a different friend of mine, Jeroen Bouterse, to come and give the paper with me—I would do the ancient history side and he would do the Weber side because he knew more about that. And in the course of setting it up, I found that I had something to say about this aspect of Weber’s theory which hadn’t been covered by any other scholarship.

But when I set out to write that up, I immediately ran into the debate about the “hoplite revolution,” which is so tied into Weber’s work. This is where Fernando comes in; he is the expert on this. He wrote his thesis on it and has continued to develop this kind of work. So, as far as I was concerned, doing all the work myself would firstly be unnecessary and secondly would be taking away the spotlight from somebody who really deserves to be a part of something like this. So I felt that collaborating would be a really good way to make sure that my new idea was well grounded and that we would draw on each of our strengths to try and make this useful as possible.

Fernando Echeverría: Well, you’re very kind, Roel. We’ve known each other for some time and I find myself in agreement with most of what Roel says or writes, so for me it was a natural step. My feeling is that each of us had one of the pieces of the puzzle. So it was pretty straightforward to just to put them together because I had, as Roel has said, included Weber in my own research on the “hoplite revolution.” I was influenced initially by my supervisor, Domingo Plácido, who is a social historian.

I didn’t realize at the time that, as far as I can tell, I was the only one considering Weber as part of the theory, none of the reconstructions even mention him. And Roel had been digging into German historiography of the nineteenth century, where he noticed not only Weber’s extremely peculiar position in the field at that time, but also the omission of his work by later historiography, which doesn’t recognize him as one of the forerunners of the “hoplite revolution” theory.

AC: Let’s start by putting the article in a little bit of context. Where does this “hoplite revolution” theory come from? What is it responding to? What’s the histography that precedes that on the Greek world and the rise of the polis.

RK: Ancient history in this period is still developing as a discipline. So there isn’t a very long tradition of serious scholarship that offers different theories to try and explain things. It’s more just people reading these ancient texts, and maybe they have some theories or some holistic ideas, but the idea of trying to explain things that aren’t already in the text is still emerging.

I think most of these German historians are still responding to George Grote, who wrote in the 1830s and 1840s. He wrote his History of Greece, but he was not a historian as a profession because that profession essentially didn’t exist yet. So you just had this one guy who in his spare time wrote a history of Greece, but given his own background as an English person and someone who works in finance, his view of the rise of an urbanized culture with a somewhat democratic-tending political system was obviously that it had to be prefaced by, or predicated on, a rising bourgeoisie. That it had to be because there was new money on the rise and that broke the power of a landed elite. And so he posited that as his theory for the emergence of the city state culture that we know from ancient Greece.

I think most of the early German work is essentially taking that for granted. I mean, once you have a theory in mind, you can always find bits of the sources to confirm it, right? So then you can work that out and say, well, there it is. So that’s what we’re going with. And I think Weber was one of the first to chafe against that and say, that’s not how it works, that’s not how ancient cities actually emerge. But because he was leaning so heavily on [Eduard] Meyer, he wasn’t able to separate himself entirely from it. That only came much later.

FE: Regarding the origins of the theory, the connection to the ancient world in all those reflections was basically Aristotle. They were all following, to some extent, Aristotle’s observations on the transition from monarchy to oligarchy and then to democracy. So that was, let’s say, the framework of how the rise of the Polis was reconstructed at that time. I would say that the major difference between the “hoplite revolution” and previous histography is probably the development of causality.

The old German scholarship probably took Aristotle’s sequence of political transformation at face value. It saw the transitions between the different stages as rather mechanical. Twentieth-century scholarship put some effort into establishing the causes behind those transitions. They incorporated technological determinism and class struggle, which were arguments that were really fashionable in the first decades of the twentieth century. So the “hoplite revolution” is a twentieth-century construct based on nineteenth-century assumptions.

AC: That brings us nicely to a question that I was going to ask later, but I’ll jump to it now, which is about the centrality of Aristotle’s Politics. You mentioned that, even now, this tends to be the starting point. Why is that particular text so central compared to other texts that you might begin from when thinking about Greek politics?

FE: Well, there are so many reasons why Aristotle is at the center of the discipline. He’s been an extraordinary authority in Western thought and philosophy for so many centuries, and it’s almost impossible to start thinking about anything remotely connected to Greece without considering Aristotle. But for historians and classicists, I would say that it has to do with the fact that Aristotle provides explanations of historical processes, not only details of events like the classical historians.

So the fact that those explanations may be theoretical or anachronistic hasn’t always been a deterrent. But there are alternative accounts that we probably should take into consideration, such as Thucydides’, which have an alternative reconstruction of the early stages of Greek history, probably more materialistic, let’s say, more grounded on economic means.

RK: One of the things that has made Aristotle more prominent than he perhaps deserves to be is that the later Greeks, whose texts we have from the classical and the Hellenistic periods, they didn’t know their own archaic history. They had a limited sense of what had happened more than a century back, beyond oral history. And so there are very few accounts of events in that period. So whenever anybody offers what seems like a theory about how their present had developed, it often sounds very authoritative because we kind of assume that they must know something on which to construct it.

But in practice, they are just models. They are just ideas about how things may have happened, which are not founded on any real information. But in the absence of any kind of competing historical narrative or grounded arguments, I think it can be very tempting to mistake something like Aristotle’s theory for something based on a thorough reading of Archaic Greek history. But that reading just didn’t exist.

Even for Aristotle, there was nothing for him to use except poetry to understand the period he was talking about. So even for the Greeks themselves, there’s just very little of the kind of historical insight that we would want. And so whenever we find a scrap of it, we tend to put a lot of weight on it. I think that a lot of historians have fallen into that trap.

AC: How reflective is that problem with Aristotle of the sources more broadly for this period? It’s a very ignorant, non-ancient historian’s question, I know, but what do we have? How reliable is what we have? To what extent is the material we have now different from what the nineteenth-century scholars were working with?

FE: In terms of literary sources, we’re pretty much dealing with the same scraps and pieces as scholars a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty years ago. We’ve been twisting and turning the same pieces for over two centuries. Archaeology, I think, has made a real difference in the last decades. This is the only field that can guarantee a permanent incorporation of new evidence. Regarding the “hoplite revolution” theory, it was, in fact, archaeological observations by Anthony Snodgrass that opened the first cracks in the theory.

So archeology has been a major source for innovation in the field, and still is. Not only in terms of the weapons, and the artifacts themselves, but also contexts and settlements. There’s so much to say about the rise of the Polis from the perspective of archeology, also taking into account the colonial contexts, in Sicily, southern Italy, and the Black Sea.

RK: You see that in the period we were writing about too, that is the time when you get a quite radical change in the perception of Greek history because of archaeology. Around the time the first of these histories are being written, people didn’t know about the world of Troy and Mycenae. They thought that Homer represented some kind of early stage in Greek history, maybe the late Bronze Age, but it wasn’t really clear, and that kind of conception didn’t really exist or wasn’t connected to any tangible material culture.

And when that was eventually discovered, first by Schliemann and then by more serious archaeologists, it created a problem where Homer became detached from this period because he clearly wasn’t referring to the same period as the archeology and became therefore unmoored in time, which is something that we’re still trying to resolve.

So the nineteenth-century writers were trying to fill a gap, essentially, between the material culture of the late Bronze age, which had now been discovered, and the Greek world that they knew, which looked and felt and wrote very differently. If you’re trying to explain something like the rise of the Polis neither the Mycenaean Greeks nor the Homeric narrative seem to be much help. And so you have to try and work out a new theory almost out of whole cloth, because there’s just nothing else there that you can use to say, okay, well, this is where we start, this is our baseline, to get to this thing that we know so much better. I think this evidence for a period that had not previously been recognized as such, made life a lot more difficult for scholars at that time but also opened up the way for these radical theories about what supposedly happened connected with that.

FE: And to be fair, I would also mention one of the revolutions in the interpretation of the literary text, which is the work by Joachim Latacz in 1977. As I was saying before, the only novel thing you can do with the literary sources is to look at them differently. And what he did was absolutely crucial because it completely demolished the idea that heroes were the only warriors present at the battlefields in the Homeric world. Research took a new impulse from that observation. A lot of later research has benefited so much from that idea. It is a very significant book written in German, but never translated into other languages. It’s an example of how unfair historiography is sometimes, what happens with really relevant and crucial contributions.

AC: Next I’d like to focus on those cracks that Fernando mentioned opening up in the theory from the second half of the twentieth century. As the “hoplite revolution” has become a theory that’s less dominant, what attracted you to writing about it now? Why is it still important to shed more light on the historiography of the “hoplite revolution”?

FE: Well, I think that it’s still pretty much alive. We sometimes think that there’s been a lot of questioning and criticism, so it must be a thing of the past, and perhaps that is true for the dozen or so colleagues that are working on Greek warfare. For the rest, I think it still looks like a reasonable argument, very intuitive and straightforward. So I think it still has its appeal.

For my part, I think it’s fairly common now to try to offer alternative views to new generations of students, alongside the “hoplite revolution,” because they often come with very vague ideas of how political and military transformation works. In that sense it’s really important to spread alternative views and try to find a proper place for them in the formation of new scholars.

RK: Your thesis was intended specifically to try and undermine this theory, wasn’t it, Fernando? It basically sets out to prove that this theory doesn’t work.

FE: I was trying to collect all the criticism that had been growing separately and scattered in different places. I was trying to put that together in order to find a coherent “counter narrative,” so to speak. That has been my main effort for the past years.

RK: I think the key point with the “hoplite revolution” theory today is that there is always a lag between what happens at the cutting edge of a particular subfield, what reaches academics in that field more generally, and then what reaches pop history and wider audiences. Those things always take a lot of time, especially if there are reasons to retain the older narrative.

There can be a lot of resistance against adopting the new ideas that are developed by the people who actually work in a field, because, exactly as Fernando says, the appeal of the “hoplite revolution” theory is that it is so holistic. It seems to draw in everything, it makes sense of the whole history of archaic Greece by connecting military to political to social to economic developments and saying: all you need to understand about this entire period is this one thing which drives everything else. It lets you easily explain how to make sense of everything all at once for an entire period, in which very little evidence exists.

FE: Yes, that is central to the problem here. If you’re explaining the Greek colonization, and the tyrannies, and the presence of mercenaries abroad, and so many different processes with this single argument, you obviously must be suspicious, especially when everything comes down to one single item, which is the hoplite shield. That’s definitely something to be suspicious about.

RK: It becomes difficult to replace that with anything else because people are going to say that any new idea doesn’t explain things quite as comprehensively as this one does. It’s just so tempting and so convenient, but, of course, you should be suspicious of anything that is that convenient. The evidence is very thin; it’s a few lines in Aristotle, that’s pretty much all it is. Still, the convenience of the explanation is very powerful. So it will at least remain something that’s very widespread among people whose last encounter with Greek history was maybe when they were in school or when they read about it at some point in their lives. It’s going to be a long journey to try and convince a wider audience that this theory is actually not what we believe and that there are good reasons to doubt it.

AC: To pivot a little away from the classical side of the article, and more into the nineteenth-century intellectual material, there are a lot of references to class struggle and to the rise of the bourgeoisie throughout the piece, which give one the feeling of Marx lurking in the background here. But as far as I could see, he never actually appears. Is he involved in the debate around the “hoplite revolution,” either personally or through his influence?

RK: It’s an odd thing, obviously, Marx was a classicist, but I don’t know if he ever actually wrote about this himself. You’’e absolutely right that his thought is influential in the later nineteenth century. You get a couple of scholars who deliberately tried to renew their broad histories of ancient Greece by making it more focused on social and economic factors. This kind of argument is obviously an idea that comes out of Marx and others saying, look, there are bigger things than just the surface level of generals leading their armies around.

On the other hand, people who do that—people like Robert von Pöhlmann, who I cite very much—might be interested in labor history, but almost to prove Marx wrong. So it’s not necessarily that this language is them just saying, Marx had some really nice ideas, let’s incorporate those. It’s more that Marx makes these factors part of the debate, but other writers don’t necessarily either agree with him or want to include him in that debate

Weber and his contemporaries were obviously influenced by him too, in that they were trying to see history through a sociological lens. But again, there’s no explicit reference. There’s no point where someone says: well, obviously, this is what we’re going for, this is a Marxist model. Rather, I think that those kinds of thoughts are there in the background, but never explicitly invoked or debated. It’s one of those weird situations where you feel like it should be there, and you feel like they should be engaging with it, and you feel even like this must be the entire reason why they’re asking these questions, and yet it doesn’t seem to be there.

The answer may be that there is an increasing sense among historians in this period, especially in Germany, that the only people with valid opinions on this must be people who are trained and working in it. So there’s a professionalization of the discipline which leads to them no longer listening to amateurs. Even if the entire subfield was built on the work of George Grote, who was an amateur, just half a century ago.

By the late nineteenth century they’re basically saying you need to have a degree and training in order to have valid opinions. And they may have thought: Marx, well, he went off the rails, so we don’t have to listen to him anymore. They do react very violently to people who work outside that system, like Schliemann. There’s so much polemic against something like that, these people are reviled. So that might be one reason why they don’t directly engage with Marx and other non-specialists.

AC: I don’t know how interesting this question is, so by all means skip it if you feel there’s nothing to say, but the phrasing in the article piqued my interest. You mention Meyer’s version of the “hoplite revolution” being influenced by a controversy around Hans Delbrück’s comparative military history. What is the controversy, and what is it that Meyer gets from it?

RK: So this is where you have to stop me because I’m going to talk for too long. But Hans Delbrück is an intensely controversial figure because he was trying to become a military historian in the academy, and that was something that just didn’t exist at the time. Military history was something that was done by the general staff, and they did it for the practical reason that they needed to educate officers and, generally speaking, they denied that historians had the authority to write about military history because they didn’t know warfare. There was a very strong claim to military history, being an exclusively military pursuit, a part of military science.

The historians in the academies generally didn’t do military history, because they didn’t feel like they could challenge the authority of officers. So Delbrück was doing something really odd as an academic by saying he was going to be a military historian. And essentially everybody hated it. Nobody wanted to accept this. Officers could not bear that this historian, this civilian, was challenging their interpretations of military history, and historians felt that he was claiming for himself a role that he couldn’t justify.

And when he was doing this in a diachronic way, trying to be a military historian of all ages, he stepped onto the toes of experts in all of the periods that he was working on. They would all be saying, no, you don’t know our period. You don’t know—when you start writing about the Persian Wars. Well, what do you know about that? You’re not a classicist. You’re just a historian. You wrote your thesis on medieval history. So there was a lot of resistance against what he was doing. And almost everything he wrote was controversial. But it was not just because of the project that he chose, but also because he was just a person who courted controversy. He just liked to say things and write things that he knew were going to get everybody riled up.

When it comes to Greek history and what Meyer is working with, Hans Delbrück had launched this theory that the Persian Wars were not actually the victory of civilized Greeks against this massive but poorly organized rabble of the Persian army, but rather that because the Persians were a very highly effective and enormous empire, they must have had a strong, small, professional army. He just sort of theorized away these numbers and argued that the Greeks must have won because they had either numerical superiority or maybe a very small numerical discrepancy, but they were fighting in a more disciplined way. So they had these unit formations which allowed them to defeat the Persians, because the Persians were focused on individual skill and professionalism but weren’t as well organized.

And that apparently makes sense of some of the accounts that you find in the sources. And it also follows from some of the theories about the emergence of the hoplite and the phalanx that you see in earlier periods. But it was controversial because it essentially said: okay, these sources with these numbers, we can just throw them out because they cannot be true. And historians reading that say, you can’t treat the sources that way, you can’t just throw them out and hypothesize what history must have been regardless of what the sources tell you. So everything that Delbrück wrote about this was controversial, but it did launch some radically new interpretations of the history of that period, which allowed people to think in different ways about, for instance, the hoplite and the phalanx.

So that’s fundamentally why I flagged up that theory’s influence on Meyer, but also I wanted to highlight that Meyer’s acceptance of Delbrück’s influence should not be taken for granted. He should be applauded for even listening to Delbrück because many of his colleagues would not. In fact, Meyer himself would eventually just give up on Delbrück. He would effectively say, I can’t engage with him because he will never give in and he won’t listen, he just argues and argues and argues, so I’m done with him. So Delbrück was an impossible person and he fought everyone all the time, but his ideas were creeping in nonetheless and having their effect, that’s why I wanted to point that out.

AC: To then broaden out from the questions about particular thinkers, the Greek polis was not just a historical topic, but also an inspiration and a model for European political thinkers in the nineteenth century, and indeed earlier. There’s a very strong identification between some political assemblies and what they would see as their classical forebears. What connections do you see between that modern political milieu and the understanding of Greek politics that develops alongside it? Does it affect the “hoplite revolution” theory, particularly Weber’s version of it, in any notable ways?

RK: There is a huge question about the extent to which contemporary culture influences the emergence of any historical theory. Obviously, we’ve just highlighted a few points where we can be reasonably certain that aspects of contemporary life were affecting the way that people were looking at the “hoplite revolution.” But it’s very difficult, I found, to see concrete links.

One of the things that often gets noted is that in nineteenth-century Germany, and indeed in earlier periods of German history, there was a lot of association between Germany and ancient Greece. They had an ideological sense that being politically fragmented but culturally united was something Germany shared with Greece, as well as having a cultural significance that is outsized relative to their worldly power, so to speak. That was something that a lot of educated Germans in this period were drawn to; this idea that you can still be great even without political or military dominance.

That narrative shifts in the course of the nineteenth century. One part of that is the professionalization of the discipline, which makes it harder to appropriate some part of Greek culture and say “I know this, this is mine as well.” If you want to talk about ancient history, you increasingly need specialist knowledge. A second aspect is that, in the nineteenth century, Germany could no longer claim to be politically fragmented and powerless in a military sense. They were claiming superpower status. So it becomes much harder to associate yourself with fragmented realm of hundreds of little states when that is no longer your own reality.

So, you see this kind of identification with Greece much more strongly in an earlier period. Around the revolutions of 1848, you see a lot of people trying to champion Greek democracy, for instance, and try to bring out the idea that democratic states are more efficiently organized, they have more participation and buy-in from their populations. You see these are modern political ideas being bounced off antiquity, so to speak. And you see works getting criticized for being overtly political in the way that they read ancient history. But by the end of the nineteenth century, you see this less and less, for the reasons that I already mentioned.

FE: For me this is a reminder that historiography needs to be researched more. As historians, we are always encouraged to make use of the latest works and the latest papers and so everything older than, let’s say, fifty or sixty years gets almost forgotten. It’s like a cycle. We tend to repeat those ideas from seventy or eighty years ago, because we forget about them and so they look new to us. So, it’s really crucial for us to know the history of our discipline and how our own ideas have been evolving across different periods.

We need to be aware of how current theories and current assumptions are based on previous ones. They rarely come directly from the ancient world. That’s my point. They always go through the lens of our modern perspective. That happened in nineteenth-century Germany, it happened in early twentieth-century North America and Great Britain and it’s happening to us as well. So it’s a nice reminder of that duty, to pay attention to the historiography of the discipline.

AC: Thank you. I have one final question on the modern aspect of the article. Weber lived for another twenty years after publishing Agrarverhältnisse im Altertum. How did he respond to people not really paying much attention to it? Did he did he try and push it to find an audience? Or did he just accept that it had not quite worked out and move on to the next thing? Do we know how he responded?

RK: I don’t know of any direct response. I don’t think he would have gotten upset that no one was reading it. The one thing that we obviously do know is that he wrote a first version of it, and then he wrote a second version, and he wrote an enormously expanded third version over the course of almost fifteen years. So he was obviously not satisfied with the way that he had initially written it, and he kept returning to it. But when he’s writing about ancient history, I wonder if he’s just doing that in order to get a sense for his own understanding, that he can then use for the models that he was developing about the rise of the city state and things like that. 

So I think it would not have been very like him, I would say, to be upset about people neglecting the Agrarverhältnisse, especially because he may have recognized that he was not the expert on this; he was following Meyer for a lot of things. So, he may not have written this for the sake of changing a debate about ancient history, but rather about changing wider debates about historical development of political and economic systems.

In that way he is a real contrast to Hans Delbrück, who we mentioned earlier. Delbrück added an appendix to a book on something totally different just to argue with Weber about the development of states in the ancient Mediterranean. And as a reader you think, neither of you are experts on the ancient Mediterranean, why are you arguing about this? But Delbrück always pursued controversy, always wanted people to think his way, and would never stop arguing until they accepted. Whereas, Weber seems to have thought much more, “this is what I’m doing, you can do with it whatever you want.”

AC: Okay, one last question on the “hoplite revolution,” as a theory in its own right. Where does it stand now in the academic literature? We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but as you say, the idea turns so much on this one pivotal piece of technology. Where does our understanding of that stand now at the start of 2023?

FE: It’s funny because we have this concept that you can build a whole narrative based on the hoplite and the development of military technology in archaic Greece and so on. But now, the theory is much more fragmented, or at least I see fewer scholars attaching themselves to the whole theory. Instead you have people just picking out specific ideas or selecting particular elements from the theory. But it’s difficult to see the whole structure being pushed forward in the way that it was thirty years ago, for example by Hanson.

So there’s no clear successor to Hanson’s position. But, in so far as scholars have picked up particular ideas or arguments from the theory, those parts are quite alive. But no one is constructing or rewriting the narrative all over again, because it has been set by Hanson.

On the other hand, revisionism is probably trying another approach. Revisionist historians, scholars who are very critical of the idea of the “hoplite revolution,” are more interested in trying to build a narrative themselves. But I don’t think that is particularly relevant or even necessary. It’s not a matter of competing narratives, but of revisiting the ancient sources and coming up with significant interpretations. It’s an interesting development that revisionism seems to be leaning towards the building of an alternative narrative, while the orthodoxy, is leaning more towards picking out specific elements. That’s my impression of the field, at least. Roel, would you agree with that?

RK: I think that’s right. Although, I do think there may be some merit to those narrative building projects; in trying to come up with a way to explain archaic Greek history that is at least equally instinctively attractive, if not as all-encompassing as the “hoplite revolution.” As you said, so much of the appeal of the “hoplite revolution” comes from how convenient it is. And if there is a way to talk about Greek history that way, then it would be great if we had another way to do it that is more responsible and that is more embracing of the evidence.

And I think Hans van Wees in his Farmers and Hoplites has done a pretty good job of that. So it’s an attempt to write the history in a similarly straightforward way, which generalizes and you can quibble about the different aspects of it, but which makes more sense of the actual evidence. Especially if it doesn’t require us to hinge all of history on the development of a second grip on the shield, but argues for a slow rise of a new way of fighting as wealth increases over a long period characterized by struggle over political rights and available resources. I think this new theory, that has been launched about a decade ago now, does a better job of acknowledging that, rather than just saying, oh, whatever Aristotle says goes.

FE: I agree with that. I don’t see how another “monument” is supposed to counteract a previous “monument,” but I can see the merit of those projects. It is certainly a more interesting path to follow than the older ones, like technological determinism, that revolved so much around weapons and their use, or how heavy they were.

AC: Okay, I think that’s perhaps a nice point to end on for our discussion. Do either of you want to add a quick remark on what you’re working on now, if you have any forthcoming work you’d like to let people know about.

RK: What are you working on now, Fernando? I don’t actually know.

FE: I have co-edited a volume on Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in Spanish and I am working on a synthesis of warfare in the Classical world for students. But the “hoplite revolution” is still in my list. My bet for the future of the theory is that a new argument reinstating orthodoxy will probably come up in a few years, because if you look backwards into the history of the theory, that’s exactly what happened. Both fundamental positions have been reacting to each other in periods of, let’s say, ten to twenty years. For my part, I will continue to dig into alternative ways to think about political and military change.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. 

Featured image: Oil flask showing the head of a hoplite, Allard Pierson Museum, photo by Dick Osseman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Iberian Theories of Empire: An Interview with Giuseppe Marcocci

By Elsa Costa

Giuseppe Marcocci is an Official Fellow and Lecturer in History at Exeter College and Associate Professor in Iberian History (European and Extra-European, 1450–1800) at the University of Oxford. His research has mostly focused on religious history and the history of political culture. He has written on conversion and persecution of religious minorities in the Iberian kingdoms and their overseas possessions, Spanish and Portuguese debates over race and slavery, as well as the Iberian theories of empire and colonial authority across the Iberian globe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His latest book The Globe on Paper: Writing Histories of the World in Renaissance Europe and the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2020) reconstructs the transformation of historical writing in the age of exploration.

Marcocci spoke with Elsa Costa about his recent JHI article, “Iberian Theories of Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (volume 83, issue 4).


Elsa Costa: Thank you for this wonderful article, which encouraged me to question my assumptions about intellectual interchange between Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century. In my own work I highlight the permeability of the barrier between what we normally conceive of as Renaissance humanism and what we call Spanish scholasticism, but reading this piece I became a little more aware of the extent to which this is a pan-Iberian story. I want to start with a very ambitious question. By the time of Vitoria, as you explain, the tendency is for the Portuguese to believe in the Pope’s real power to adjudicate international disputes, while Vitoria famously asserts that the papacy only has religious power. This comes in the wake of enormous concessions given to Spain and Portugal by a relatively strong, pre-reformation papacy—the bulls Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex for Portugal in the 1450s, and the pase regio in the Americas granted to Spain between 1493 and 1508. How is it that the Portuguese become so content with the Pope’s ability to make these huge grants by personal fiat, while Vitoria is uncomfortable with personal mediation and insists on staying within the impersonal (and more secular) realm of natural law? Is this strictly a matter of territorial dispute, i.e., the Portuguese attachment to their alleged papal mandate to exercise maritime control of Africa, Asia, and Brazil? 

Giuseppe Marcocci: Thank you very much for this question, Elsa. Should we reduce Portuguese theories of empire to a matter of mere political interest, and therefore see them as less relevant or sophisticated than the Spanish? I don’t think so. True, the Portuguese empire was relatively weak. It had to fight for its survival almost from the start, but it ended up being the early modern empire that lasted longer than any other, which I believe also depended on ideological factors. The assumption that only great empires have real imperial ideologies is wrong.

The possibility of considering together two rather dissimilar empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese is what makes the perspective that you call “pan-Iberian” so productive. It is a perspective that invites us to do something other than comparative history. Its origin can be traced back to the debate over global history and connected history that took place at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris about twenty years ago. Books like Serge Gruzinski’s Les quatre parties du monde (2004), or Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s articles on the connected histories of the Iberian empires in the American Historical Review (2007), have changed the field, or at least the rhetoric of the field. There is some excellent work on the so-called “Iberian world”––which is better understood as a mosaic than in flat binary terms in any case. One has only to think of historians like Fernando Bouza, Pedro Cardim, Tamar Herzog, or Stuart Schwartz, to name a few. Too often, nonetheless, the word “Iberian” in the title of an article or a volume disappointingly corresponds to an exercise in juxtaposition or, even worse, assuming excessive uniformity. Nor is the idea of an “Iberian world” unproblematic. While scholars grapple with the significant fact that at some point in the sixteenth century, areas as distant as Central and South America, the Iberian Peninsula and various other territories in Europe including large part of Italy, coastal outposts and strips of land in North, West and Southeast Africa, the Persian Gulf, Western India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and South China came to participate in aspects of Iberian culture, they may easily gloss over local histories. As ethnohistorians show for Colonial Latin America, indigenous sources can allow us to rewrite the history of the Spanish conquest. Therefore, it is important that we do not understand the notion of “Iberian” as self-sufficient, as if studying what the Spaniards and the Portuguese did and said is all that matters.

In my book The Globe on Paper (2020), which is about histories of the world written in Renaissance Europe and the Americas, I argue that we should listen more carefully to the conversations that occurred across cultural, linguistic, and political borders in the early modern world. This also applies to theories of empire. Imperial ideologies have been the subject of much comparative analysis since Anthony Pagden’s Lords of All the World (1995), but the depth of their mutual interaction and exchange is still rarely considered, especially when it comes to early modern European empires. Surprisingly enough, this is particularly true in the case of Spain and Portugal. We have a lot in common here, such as the Catholic political thought and the legacy of the Roman imperial tradition. We have writings and thinkers who moved across the two sides, and well beyond the metropolitan centers. There was a large conversation going on, partly encouraged by religious orders and their global networks, and of course, the union of the crowns under the same Habsburg monarchs between 1580 and 1640 was also important. But as you rightly point out, there were also considerable points of divergence between Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire.

To come to the time of Vitoria, clearly imperial debates did not occur in mid-air. Charles V’s annoyance at papal interference in his overseas dominions, especially after the falls of the Aztec and Inca polities dramatically reconfigured the Spanish enterprise in America, was not unrelated to his invitation to Vitoria to deliver public lectures on the rights of indigenous people in Salamanca. But we would have a very poor understanding of what was going on if we reduced Vitoria’s rejection of the papal power to grant a Christian ruler the right to conquer lands inhabited by non-Christians to an attempt to please Charles V. The same would go if one argued that the Portuguese attachment to mid-fifteenth-century papal diplomas was merely driven by the aim to defend an advantageous position respect to European competitors. The Portuguese perfectly knew that papal power was a double-edged sword. They had learned it after Columbus’s return from the first journey to the Caribbean. It was no chance that the crisis triggered by Alexander VI’s concessions to Ferdinand and Isabella was resolved autonomously by the two monarchies with the Treaty of Tordesillas.

After 1494, both Iberian sides shared the principle that the global order established at Tordesillas was inviolable and its exact definition was a matter to be decided between them. How to achieve this in relation to the papacy was another issue. Of course, individual thinkers were important. By the time of Vitoria, ideological lines as regards the Portuguese empire were largely dictated by traditionalist theologians, among whom stood out Pedro Margalho, curiously enough the main competitor of Vitoria for the main chair in Theology in Salamanca a few years earlier. Even on a personal level, there was something deeply Iberian in the distinct directions taken by Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire in 1530s. But there is another way to look at things. It has to do with law. The supremacy that was acknowledged to Roman imperial law in Spain, as a result of the Castilian tradition of the Siete Partidas and the very fact that Charles V was also the Holy Roman Emperor, placed Vitoria in a context that encouraged the recovery of natural rights discourse in a way that Canon law, which had the highest priority in case of controversy in Portugal and obviously could not overlook papacy, would never do. Hence, the importance that we reflect on the strong jurisdictionalism that distinguished Portuguese theories of empire. It alerts us to their rich and complex nature. For instance, the exercise of interpretation of papal diplomas as carried out by the royal council called Mesa da Consciência, established in 1532, was certainly generative of creative thinking.

More generally, what I tried to show in the article is that when one looks at the circulation of people and ideas, it becomes difficult to say what exactly is Spanish or Portuguese in Iberian theories of empire. At first, this may seem an exaggeration. But if we think of imperial ideology as a fluid debate instead of a rigid doctrine, we cannot disregard that not infrequently important Spanish thinkers lived for long time in Portugal and spoke and wrote about the Portuguese empire, as was the case with Monzón or the Doctor Navarrus (but also famous Jesuits such as Molina or Suárez, who were professors in Coimbra). There were also Portuguese jurists who were active in territories of the Spanish monarchy, such as Afonso Álvares Guerreiro in Naples or Serafim de Freitas in Valladolid. And of course, our knowledge is limited by the fact that there were many levels of discourse as well as self-censorship. No one appeared to follow Vitoria’s ideas in mid sixteenth-century Portugal, which clashed with an official line that was content with papal diplomas, but his teaching circulated through manuscripts. The Spanish Martín de Ledesma, one of his disciples, held the main chair of Theology in Coimbra. Vitoria’s ideas were presumably discussed in some of his lectures. Certainly, they are referenced in handwritten commentaries by Portuguese theologians from the second half of the sixteenth century. But even when it became more accepted to quote and even use Vitoria’s arguments, roughly around 1570s, there were still theologians in Portugal who approved his positions in their personal notes but refuted them in their published work.

Please forgive the very long response. That is what happens when you ask very ambitious questions! I will be more brief in my next answers.

EC: My second question is closely related to my first. In your discussion of Afonso Álvares Guerreiro, you mention how the Portuguese papalist position becomes associated with reviving medieval positions which either refuse to ascribe any legitimacy whatsoever to pagan polities, or which place very low barriers to just war against pagan polities. In your perception, does this association between ultramontanism and Christian expansionism go back to the Crusades (which can be interpreted partly as a bid to keep peace among Europeans by lowering the barriers to war outside Europe), or does it emerge specifically out of the context of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese maritime activity, along with the struggle to remain independent from Spain?

GM: There has been much debate over the legal framework that emerged in association with the Crusades and its importance for European exploration. I think that specific aspects of its legacy can be traced in some papal diplomas concerning Iberian penetration into North Africa, or in the justification of the right to reduce persons of African descent to perpetual slavery, which was granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century. However, I tend to be skeptical about interpretations that emphasize direct continuity between medieval confrontation with Muslims, including the fragmented process that some historians still call Reconquista, and the cultural background to early modern Iberian imperialism. This is not to deny that medieval theories matter when it comes to your question about the right to wage war against non-Christian polities in the context of Spanish or Portuguese theories of empire. James Muldoon is the scholar who probably has the most accurate and influential work on this topic. It seems to me that what Guerreiro was concerned with is the thirteenth-century dispute over papal power. The position that became more popular and was still prevailing among early modern Iberian thinkers, was a moderate one, if still quite bellicose. It was usually ascribed to Pope Innocent IV, who argued that the Vicar of Christ had only indirect power over those who lived outside the Christian world and could not deprive them from their right to self-government and freedom only because they were not Christians––or were “pagans,” if you prefer to use the language of the sources. Guerreiro adhered to a more aggressive interpretation, which was promoted by Cardinal Hostiensis and the likes, according to whom it was always licit to wage war against non-Christians for the sole reasons that they were not Christians. The same position had been held in fourteenth-century Portugal by Alvarus Pelagius, a Franciscan friar from Galicia whose writings had a few editions between the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. However different, both doctrines of papal power significantly expanded the pontiff’s right to promote military action against non-Christians beyond Muslims. Therefore, these doctrines were of particular interest during the early age of European exploration.

I should clarify that the fact that the Portuguese recognized papal authority as a valid source of legitimacy for their empire is not the same thing as saying that they endorsed the doctrine of direct papal power over non-Christians. The diplomas that were granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century were based on an ingenious reinterpretation of the doctrine of indirect power according to which the pope had the right to entrust a Christian prince with sending armies against non-Christians who infringed natural law. Medieval theories were seen as repertoires of arguments that could always been reused and transformed for specific needs. Guerreiro was a supporter of the doctrine of direct papal power and, although he was Portuguese, he lived in Naples and did not refer to the Portuguese empire in his writings. Conversely, Martín de Azpilcueta, better known as Doctor Navarrus, was a Spanish canon lawyer who taught and wrote against such doctrines when he was professor in Coimbra. He made reference to its recent use to justify conquests in the Americas, although rather vaguely. His preference was for the doctrine of indirect papal. Navarrus coincided with the official Portuguese imperial ideology on this point. It is worth recalling, nonetheless that in the end the doctrine of indirect papal power complemented the theory of just war, which was broadly interpreted and still used extensively in early eighteenth-century Brazil to enslave indigenous people.

EC: The debate over Machiavelli’s claims about Roman religion in the Discourses on Livy is one which was very common in sixteenth-century Iberia. Yet the way in which it maps to the debate over the legitimacy of pagan polities and the right of conquest is ambiguous. On the one hand, if Roman religion was completely illegitimate and did not in any sense secure God’s favor, this would seem to map to the Portuguese papalist argument that pagan polities have little essential legitimacy. On the other hand, the argument that pursuing “worldly glory” is not such a bad thing, quietly paraphrased from Machiavelli, frequently shows up in encomia for Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion (and in mirrors for princes in general). Can you speak a little more about why you chose to open with this particular debate?

GM: With pleasure. In the first place, I wanted to show that there was a moment in which even when it came to religion, Iberian theories of empire could still go beyond scholasticism. The debate over Machiavelli and his praise of the civic religion of the ancient Romans as opposed to Christianity with respect to encouraging military valor, was very intense in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. It came well before the strong interest in The Prince, which is evident in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Jesuit writers and their dissimulative strategies. Machiavelli’s position in the Discourses on Livy hit a raw nerve. It was also because of the insinuation that the true heirs of the Roman soldiers were the Turks. This was highly problematic from the point of view of Catholic empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese. Why did God permit the Roman empire to become so great? Why was something similar happening again with the Ottomans? It was a truly Iberian debate, in which many famous humanists engaged, from the Spanish Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda to the Portuguese João de Barros. Some of them harshly condemned Machiavelli as an author who favored pagans and Muslims, others were captivated by his idea of a link between religion and military value and endeavored to reconcile his argument with a Christian perspective. Several scholars have explored this dispute over Machiavelli since Adriano Prosperi highlighted its importance in an article from the late 1970s. In a volume that Lucio Biasiori and I edited in 2018, the mid sixteenth-century Iberian discussion is presented as being part of a much deeper and ambivalent interaction between the reception of Machiavelli and the perception of the Islamic world in early modern Europe and beyond. But what mostly interests me in the clash between Monzón and Azpilcueta in the 1540s, to which I specifically refer in my article, is that this debate between two Spanish thinkers taking place in Portugal helps us understand why official attitudes towards Machiavelli deteriorated so rapidly there unlike in Spain, whose inhabitants continued to be allowed to read his writings, including the Discourses on Livy, for another forty years or so.

The other reason that I decided to open my article with this episode is that it demonstrates that Iberian theories of empire were not static. Not only did they provide a set of arguments to be used against rival empires, but imperial ideologies themselves were the outcome of internal conflicts and a periodic redefinition of power relations among different thinkers. For long time, Catholic political thought and the Roman imperial tradition were the two main sources of inspiration for Iberian theories of empires, but there was a clear hierarchy. After roughly the mid-sixteenth century, classical culture could remain a point of reference only if purged from its most dangerous elements, whose risks Machiavelli exemplified. The hegemony of scholastic theology was obtained through episodes such as the public exposure of Monzón’s conciliatory approach toward the Discourses on Livy. Obviously, things changed over and over again. Historians of Iberian imperial ideologies and cultures, nonetheless, may show greater awareness of these tensions and anxieties as well as the domestication that the Roman imperial tradition went through over the course of time. The point is analyzed in works that are milestones in the field, such as Marie Tanner’s The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor (1993), and Sabine MacCormack’s On the Wings of Time: Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru (2007). I also believe that there is still a lot to learn from authors such as Marcel Bataillon or, on a less compelling intellectual level, José Sebastião da Silva Dias.

Elsa Costa is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Atlantic History at Fulbright University Vietnam. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her PhD in 2021. She has received fellowships from UCLA, the Fulbright program, the Tinker Foundation, among other institutions. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy and political thought.

Featured image: Baptism of Philip II (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Bureaucratic Documents as Sources for the History of Ideas: An Interview with Shoufu Yin

By Alexander Collin

Shoufu Yin is an assistant professor in history at the University of British Columbia. His research centers on Chinese and Inner Asian political cultures and thoughts in global historical contexts.

Yin spoke with Alexander Collin about his recent JHI article, “Redefining Reciprocity: Appointment Edicts and Political Thought in Medieval China,” which appears in volume 83, issue 4.


Alexander Collin: Let’s start with some general background. Your research is very broad; you’ve written on periods from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, not only covering China itself, but also its global connections with Koreans and with Europeans and even the history of animals. Could you start by setting your recent JHI article in a little bit of context? How did you come to write about Tang Dynasty edicts and how do they fit into your work more broadly?

Shoufu Yin: Yeah, this article addresses an even earlier period, right? It is about Tang China, and especially about ninth-century transformations. The article is a sort of nexus of different things I have been doing. It is about rethinking or even rewriting intellectual histories by focusing on the functional, bureaucratic documents, such as the edicts received from the emperor or the petitions that would have been sent out. We might think that these documents are tedious, repetitive, formulaic, and rote; however, I really think they are as rich in political thought as the treatises, chronicles, and other genres familiar to intellectual historians. In order to read these formulaic documents as sources for the history of ideas, it is imperative to understand their tradition as genres, as objects, and as a part of the institutional processing. The Tang laid out a model, which is important for East Asia in later centuries. This is why I take a longue durée approach to history.

Interestingly, the use of these official, functional documents often happens in transcultural, trans-polity contexts. It is not only diplomatic documents that matter. It is also about people going to other realms and courts, submitting a document while following local rules. For example, I am originally from Shanghai, but when I came to Canada, I needed to write visa applications and grant proposals that aligned with Canadian standards. The process of filling in blanks in these bureaucratic forms is itself a transcultural and translingual practice. Likewise, when the Jesuits or the Koreans arrived in China, they needed to draft petitions: “Hi, we lack this or that; we are starving. Please give us something.” How do you do that? You need to learn to write these official documents, to express your concerns and make a petition in this unfamiliar and idiosyncratic context. This is another dimension that links my projects together. They are about how individuals—in many cases non-elite individuals—utilized these documentary technologies and forms in different contexts to advance their concerns.

AC: I’d like to follow up with another contextual question, this time a little more specific to the article. You introduce two concepts in the piece: the commoner-centered approach to appointments and the official-centered approach to appointments. I would like to ask you about your influences there, either other historians or philosophically. What’s the background to these terms you introduce here, and what led you to that insight?

SY: Maybe I should provide a bit more background here. There’s a kind of clichéd or stereotypical vision that the history of political thought of imperial China is about benevolence and meritocracy. Accordingly, the emperor was responsible for taking care of the subjects, and for this reason, they employed worthy officials to promote the common good. Something like that. Even in recent debates, some scholars have imagined that this kind of benevolent meritocracy provides an alternative to liberal democracy. To be very frank, I’m so sick of that kind of argumentation. At a philosophical level it doesn’t make sense, at least not to me. Critically, from a historical perspective, I think it misrepresents a lot of documents, and it is based on a very selective reading of the sources from the Chinese and East Asian traditions. So, big picture number one is that, if we go beyond a specific and very confined scope of sources, and pay real attention to the kinds of documents with which political actors do things, we will discover that this benevolent rule—what I call a commoner-centered approach, or selecting good officials for the well-being of the commoners—is only one of the multiple models of governance. There are other models that matter.

This leads to another deep concern, or big picture number two. Comparison is an important dimension. The paper has really accompanied me for nine years. During this process, I took courses from European medievalists and also Byzantinists, especially Geoffrey Koziol, Maureen Miller, and Maria Mavroudi at Berkeley. One thing that struck me was that the making of the narrative of the European history of political culture and thought has paid a lot of attention to diplomas and charters, not only the Magna Carta kind of canonical documents but also everyday documents, especially Koziol’s study. If we really want to compare China with elsewhere, we cannot start the comparison from a very limited view of Chinese materials and compare them to a research result drawn from different materials, right?

This paper, of course, is not a comparative project per se, but the first step is to broaden the source base and then to compare the right genre with the right genre, official documents with official documents, and top-down documents with top-down documents. At that point, we may realize that certain stereotypical visions of the East versus West, or China versus Western Europe, kind of boil down and we need to rethink these questions.

AC: Great. Thank you. That connects nicely to what I was going to ask you next, which is about the sources themselves, about these edicts. In the article, you describe the process by which they are created: moving from an initial drafter, then going to the chancery to be checked, and then to be made in the correct materials and so on, and then eventually to the key final officials to be confirmed and signed off. Could you talk a little more about that process and how it links to the content of the sources? Who’s having what influence in that process? And how do these things come together?

SY: Thank you, first of all, for reading that so closely. The process is a complicated one. In a certain sense, it is a black box. There are many details that we do not know, and what we do know are exceptional cases. Such exceptional cases include the edict draft being presented and then someone saying, “No, you must fix this.” And then the edict drafter says, “Oh, you are not fine with me? You do not think I’m capable of doing this? I resign.” This is one kind of exceptional case, attesting to a broader culture in the sense that the edict drafter occupies a really prestigious post and they are expected to do it well first time around.

Another exceptional case that I discuss is that, when the recipient discerns something is not right, they write a memorial saying, “Hi, I received this edict and there’s something here. . . Hmmm. . .” While this did not happen very often, it does tell us something valuable. On the one hand, the edict is really important as a cherished, cult object, so it would be put in a certain place for ancestral worship. People carry out specific performative uses of these edicts down the generations, with descendants using them as material tokens to show that their ancestors were really great officials. On the other hand, due to specific reasons embedded in the political or military situations of certain periods, the space for negotiation was more open. This was especially the case when the court really wanted to gain the support of certain groups of prefects, power holders, or local magnates. These situations opened the textual representation for negotiation.

So, the simple answer is that it’s a black box that we try our best to understand. But, there are serious limitations. Transmission is also an important problem because ultimately the edicts come to us, most of them, from literary collections. We do not know whether certain modifications were made when they were anthologized. For instance, during the eleventh century, many of them were block printed. Then, the next question is how the print culture affected the content. So with regard to that, we do the best we can, but there are still serious limitations concerning what we know about the process.

AC: Now, I’d like to come back to this cliché of benevolent rule that you were discussing earlier. In one of the sources you quote in the article, they write that “without oversight, who can say that the area will recover?” I was very interested in what sort of oversight is expected, what are the officials supposed to do? As you say, there’s a lot of normative language about how they’re supposed to take care of the area they’re appointed to in some way, but relatively few concrete directives. So, I wondered if you had more insights into what they were doing on the ground to meet those expectations?

SY: A first important argument, and one that I would make very explicit, is that previous scholars tend to read them as a kind of merely formulaic language, piling up one formula after another. So, I’m trying to show that it’s not just a random kind of compilation of formulaic language. It’s not just clichés piled up. They actually follow the argumentative structure for specific reasons. On top of that, there’s a dimension that I have not really unpacked in the article, in part due to the word limit, but also because it’s complicated and requires more exploration. There is a specific science, a Wissenschaft, a system of knowledge already systemized in the third century, which concerns personnel management based on an ontology and epistemology of human talents.

By the seventh and eighth centuries, we are talking about a very well-established field of knowledge in imperial China. Basically, the idea is that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Today, we probably believe that if we really work hard, we might eventually overcome our weaknesses. The elites of Tang China believed, however, that one can hardly get rid of one’s weaknesses because strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. Or at least in the context of imperial personnel management, Tang elites believed that the emperor should place one in a position where one can make full use of one’s strength, and where one’s weakness might prove to be an advantage. For instance, if a region had recently suffered warfare, pillaging, and turmoil, then the ideal candidate for a governor would be one with a disposition capable of pacifying the region in the wake of chaos. Such a person might be ideal for such a region, but this does not mean that they would be ideal for every region. Let’s consider another example. Imagine a different region, where the previous governor proved ineffective and incapable of achieving anything. What would be useful would be a candidate with an iron heart, one who could really get things under control, right? So this is the idea—matching specific situations with specific talents—that underlies the seemingly formulaic language.

AC: Thank you, that’s really illuminating. To follow up, they have this system of knowledge for personnel management that they’re using to construct these edicts. This would seem to rely on the person doing the drafting knowing this system, but also the person who’s going to receive the edict. So, where do they get instructed in this system of knowledge? Is that something they’re formally taught? Is it just kind of abroad in the culture?

SY: During the seventh and eighth centuries, these appointees came from a very limited number of great clans. They were aristocrats; they were educated in certain ways; they read the classics; they shared a common language. But, from the seventh up to the ninth century, that changed because of the political-military situation. Appointments started to be made to people with different backgrounds. I don’t want to call them military men, that’s a misleading stereotype. But it is appropriate to say that they were leaders of their own troops. So they had followers, and they were not necessarily from the same pool of aristocratic clans. Some of them were from failing branches or lineages, while others were really grassroots; they were peasants who had fought bravely in certain battles, and who had retinues, followers. Gradually, they started to have small troops supporting them. For these people, they did not share this kind of language, this kind of knowledge.

Because the appointees came from different social backgrounds, with different mentalities, their knowledge and preparation of knowledge was different, precisely as you point out. It makes less sense to address them with the previous language. So, basically you have two options when the world changes that much. One possibility is to ignore the changes; employing the same language, you show your audience that the court is very persistent: everything has changed, but we are still here. That is one way of projecting imperial power: stability and continuity can mean something. Another approach, another possibility, is more pragmatic: things have been changing, and so it doesn’t make sense that we stick to old formulae, technology, ideology, or rhetoric. Wouldn’t it be more effective if we try to talk to these people with different backgrounds according to their own expectations? Those expectations were there for a long time, they weren’t new, but previously they were covered up with high-flown imperial rhetoric. So, does it make more sense if imperial edicts were altered a little bit to address concerns? And in that sense, does it make more sense to negotiate with them, to make a compact with them? That’s precisely what was happening in the early ninth century. There were certain edict drafters thinking through this idea and saying: “Well, why not? We should adjust to a new reality. The empire should adapt itself not only in terms of concrete political, administrative, and military measures, but at the ideological level as well.” This was a cultural form that people carried. Why not use that?

AC: You mention in the article that the An Lushan Rebellion is a sort of historical marker around which these changes started to appear in the edicts. Do you have further thoughts on the degree to which that was a causal thing, versus the degree to which these changes were independently happening at the same time but due to broader trends?

SY: Yeah, I would say the latter. So it was more of a continuity than a juncture or disjoint. Let me offer a little bit more background. The Empire of China was bizarre in the following sense: the emperor was hereditary, but bureaucrats were not. So, the emperor was a single person, ruling over a hereditary enterprise, and all his staff were appointed based on this system of personnel management I mentioned earlier. In terms of the beliefs that people held, a real question was: “Can I actually build a hereditary thing for myself? If I offer really important contributions to the emperor, can I receive a rank of nobility which is heritable?” Well, the short answer was yes, but the real challenge was whether something concrete could be passed to descendants. Not just a title or a rank of nobility, but territory. This idea was very important, especially for rising magnates who had their own retinues. This was something they really cared about.

They wanted to have terrain that they could pass on, and during the ninth century, they were trying to negotiate for prefectures. These were more valuable than counties, which were relatively small; a prefecture was relatively large. Long story short, some fiscal management was involved with prefectures, and one could have one’s own troops, thus making it more like a dynasty or regime. So, these magnates really cared about getting a prefecture. In the ninth-century edicts discussed in this paper, we don’t see the hereditary succession issue because the imperial documents do not address that. But what the officials really wanted was to earn a prefecture so that they had something that was theirs, something they could enjoy. The implication is that they wanted to pass it on to their offspring when they passed away, and the court was not really addressing that.

Allusions to those interests emerged in the late ninth century, and during the tenth century it became a big issue for empire builders. Regime builders need supporters, right? But their supporters really wanted to have something that was a hereditary enterprise. Going back to your question, what is interesting about that kind of highly formulaic, high-flown language is that it is embedded in specific periods. They are actually showing a certain mentality that can have longue durée significance; and that goes back to even broader questions concerning the merit of governmental documents for understanding not just cultural history, but also intellectual history.

AC: Thank you. We touched already on the two competing logics that you identify—the commoner-centered and the official-centered—and I would like to return to that. Is this distinction something you see contemporaries being aware of? Or is this distinction something that only becomes apparent after the fact, when we look at the edicts as historians and take a whole corpus? During this sixth- through ninth-century period, were people talking about the fact that edicts looked a little different, were making different arguments or were implying new things about leadership?

SY: Well, if there was language that explicit in the period, I would use that. But there was definitely some kind of contemporary awareness of that. The challenge is precisely that rewarding men with prefectures was considered not good from the perspective of mainstream statecraft. For that reason, in the received textual tradition, if you’re looking at treatises as historical narratives, people will say, well, it is a phenomenon but it’s wrong. They asked why does it happen? And their answer is that it is because these generals were greedy. Or that it happens because the emperors are either impotent or their decision-makers and counsellors did not know how to do things well. So this is a kind of contemporary discussion that is most direct in addressing that.

Moving up to the tenth century, we start to have more epitaphs. In this context, epitaphs mean a kind of funeral inscription. When a person died, a huge biography was carved onto a stone. This was a narrative that was a little bit more from the perspective of the deceased person, but still premised upon the literary tradition, as you can imagine. There, we start to see a bit more from the perspective of these men who fought, becoming aware that they expected certain rewards based on certain services, and that the reward often should be a prefecture or governorship. So the expectation, even though it was not written down, was more or less familiar to the players of the game. And what is really interesting is that, the rules being clear to the players, they were not recorded in the historical narrative, which in turn makes these documents particularly telling and important as historical sources.

AC: Thank you! How about its later legacy beyond the ninth, tenth century? How much of an echo down the centuries in Chinese history do we see from this distinction that you pick up here?

SY: Its importance is tremendous. So, I started this during my MA thesis. Back then, I already noticed that a lot of manuals were produced during later periods on how to write official documents, how to emulate them, how to imitate them. And, I didn’t really understand why. We are talking about sixth, seventh, up to the ninth century. They are specific events, specific documents. But then, in the fourteenth century, fifteenth century, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not only in China but also in Korea and in other regions, they were writing the same prompts. Why were they doing that? This was kind of a by-product, something that I noticed but that I didn’t really understand while writing this paper, and it turned out to be a starting point of my later research.

So, this goes back to your question in the sense that the legacy is tremendous. In terms of the literary legacy, rhetorical knowledge based on the Tang legacy was produced from the fourteenth century. Elites were producing their own way of analyzing these edicts, how to divide them into three parts. So, I’m actually building upon their discussions, by dividing them into three parts. On the one hand, then, it is a rhetorical legacy of how to write a document. On the other hand, it is a legacy about political ideas. The idea became very . . .  I don’t want to use the word constitutional, it sounds very value loaded, and nor do I particularly want to say contract-based either, as that seems very loaded as well. But let’s just say contract-based, especially starting from the tenth, eleventh, twelfth century, into the thirteenth century.

The idea is that individuals were employed. The emperor was a manager, he employed me, and then I offered my services and if I offered this amount of service, then a certain kind of reward was due to me. A big question I want to figure out is whether it was a kind of conceptualization of rights; whether it was contract-based, a kind of entitlement. That is basically the framework I use here and the one that became so important later. So, as long as I offer a service to you, something is due back to me, and this contract is right there in my appointment letter. This kind of mentality became really important not only in China, but also in many nearby regions.

AC: Great, thank you! To wrap up, you mentioned that this article has served as a lead into some subsequent projects, which prompts the question, what are you working on now? What comes next?

SY: Next! There are many things next! But directly related to this article is the big project, basically a monograph based on my doctoral research. Before going into that, I want to add that I started this article as a Tang history project and gradually it became more comparatively enriched. I want to emphasize that it shows the merits of going beyond a regional and dynastic focus. In this article, we are talking about official documents of the eighth and ninth centuries. But I think I came to a much better understanding of them after I have read and studied later rhetorical manuals on how to write the Tang-style edicts, especially those of the thirteenth century and onward. Although many modern and contemporary scholars have theorized the theme of reciprocity, I am no less indebted to early modern Manchu writings on this subject matter. The Manchus, as we know, originated in northeast Asia. They have their own language and conquered China in 1644. When translating Chinese chronicles into Manchu, they were offering interpretations of medieval Chinese history, including Tang personnel management. Overall, I think it is productive to engage these marginalized intellectual traditions.

In addition, I believe that it helps to think about things comparatively. And not just the familiar comparisons between China and Europe. I’m trying to do more comparison with Byzantine, Japanese, and some Persian material too. The Tang edicts made new sense to me when I started to translate Byzantine appointment documents and see the parallels, and then I gained new insights into these kind of Chinese documents. In brief, the longue durée, trans-dynastic perspective, critical attention to previously marginalized intellectual traditions like the Manchu, and what one might call world philology—that is,  putting the Chinese documents, Latin documents, Byzantine Greek documents together—really pays off.

So going back to your question, I started writing my PhD dissertation around 2018, which basically originated from these documents. As we just discussed, I noticed that from the fourteenth to the eighteenth or even nineteenth centuries, many individuals were practicing writing the Tang edicts; not only those in China, but also the educated ones in Korea and Vietnam. There was once a curriculum that specifically trained individuals to produce documents in the voice of previous figures. It is a little bit like Renaissance humanism: you learn to recreate a document from the perspective of Cicero and so on. I want to understand how this curriculum took its shape, and in particular, I will argue that the Mongol tradition of employing scribes and valorizing scribal services played a pivotal role.

But what is really interesting is that it is also about political imagination. The politics behind the negotiation and making of an educational curriculum is always important but, for me, what is even more important is the fact that a curriculum, once there, creates countless imagining communities. Teachers and students, while teaching and studying the assigned or even imposed materials, came up with very creative ideas! It is this form of imposed intellectual creativity that remains most overlooked. In some cases, this training even promoted counterfactual imagination about real history. In 821, this political actor, this emperor, this minister, did this or that, right? Five hundred years later, when I am about to recreate this document, I want my political actor to do something else. In some cases, I want my political actress to do something else. If the emperor asked, “High palace lady, please marry the barbarian leader so that they will not invade us,” in real history the palace lady would say, “Oh, I have to accept my fate, however sorrowful I am.” But in rhetorical training, the writer could propose, “Nope, I don’t want to go, so I am writing a memorial, in this case, a formal official document saying: Emperor, you have important considerations, but I have my reasons. I decline.”

As such, directly related to this paper, there is a broader project about the reception of historical rhetorical knowledge. Particularly, it is about the institutionalization of rhetorical training and the reproduction of rhetorical knowledge that this kind of training fostered. These institutions and practices led to new kinds of political imaginations about what individuals said or could possibly have said in a very complicated bureaucratic system. In this sense, I am particularly interested in how the political imaginations of ordinary individuals in East Asia matter in our narratives of the history of political thought. So this is a book project that I’m working on.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of “The Decision” and to what extent it is a human universal.

Featured image: Portrait of Emperor Xianzong (778–820), Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

From Aristotle to Machiavelli: An Interview with Giorgio Lizzul

By Elsa Costa

Giorgio Lizzul holds a PhD in History from King’s College London, an MA in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History from UCL and Queen Mary, and a BSc in Government and Economics from the LSE. He has been a research fellow on the ERC project “Aristotle in the Italian Vernacular” at the Department of Italian Studies, University of Warwick, and Teaching Fellow in Medieval European History at King’s College London. His research concerns the intersection of economic, political, and ethical thought with the financial institutions of medieval and Renaissance Italy. Currently he is reworking his thesis into a monograph entitled “Debt and the Republic: Economic Thought and Public Debt in Italy 1300–1550.”

Lizzul spoke with Elsa Costa about his recent JHI article, “Liberality as a Fiscal Problem in Medieval and Renaissance Thought: A Genealogy from Aristotle’s Tyrant to Machiavelli’s Prince” (volume 83, issue 3).


Elsa Costa: Thank you for this fascinating article. There was one subplot I found particularly interesting. I am accustomed to thinking about early modern debates over political expedience in terms of the debate over whether Machiavelli was immoral or whether he was perhaps onto something. Generally there’s a correlation between loyalty to Aristotle and dismissing Machiavelli as amoral, in other words as someone who inverts Aristotle’s political virtue ethics in service of cheap expediency. Yet here we see that there were also debates over whether Aristotle himself was a philosopher of expediency. Contemporaries of Machiavelli connected the latter’s financial expediency with Aristotle’s methods for keeping a tyranny on life support, and even before that Petrarch had speculated on the unvirtuous cynicism of Aristotle’s financial recommendations in this passage. As you explain, this was further complicated by the fact that Aristotle apparently only offered financial advice for tyrants, leaving it unclear whether the good king ought also practice oikonomia. Can you speak a little more on how contemporary readers perceived Machiavelli’s relationship with Aristotle, on the suspicions which recur in this article that Machiavelli was more Aristotelian or that Aristotle was more Machiavellian than we normally assume?

Giorgio Lizzul: Thank you. By way of answering your question on expediency and morality in Machiavelli’s thought and its relation to Aristotle, it might be useful to first briefly set out how I came to work on this article. As a side part of my doctoral research on debt and fiscality in Italian political thought between the fourteenth and early sixteenth century, I became interested in the intellectual exchanges between the Neapolitan Court and the d’Este court at Ferrara, and specifically the traffic of missives and memoranda that touched on economic topics around the time of the marriage of Eleonora d’Aragona, the daughter of King Ferrante I, to Ercole d’Este. The earlier 1444 letter of Borso and the Marquis Leonello d’Este to Ferrante’s father Alfonso in its advice to limit liberality, and its attitude toward expediency in the organization of the Neapolitan fisc, struck me as foreshadowing important aspects of Machiavellian political morality and specifically the advice in the Prince Chapter 16. This was of course a text unknown to Machiavelli. So, I was interested in exploring what could account for certain thematic similarities. Was the absence of citations to philosophical authorities and the expedient attitude to moral virtue symptomatic of a political culture found and developed in pragmatic and chancellery writings in the vernacular? If so, were there interfaces and interpenetration with political theory? An underexplored connection, to which lots of the concerns about expediency in fiscal writing could ultimately be traced, was the reception of Aristotle’s Politics Book 5 in texts such as the Secretum secretorum and Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum, as well as the commentary tradition. This part of the Politics and its traces in later texts was key for understanding where a problematization of liberality emerged, and how it shaped some of the formal framing of problems of public finance and moral philosophy in late medieval and Renaissance political thought. Working on the ERC project “Aristotle in the Italian Vernacular: Rethinking Renaissance and Early-Modern Intellectual History,” a project run between Cà Foscari and the University of Warwick, enabled me to explore this topic in greater depth.

So, to come back to your question on the connection between Aristotle and Machiavelli. It’s an old topic that has quite a venerable literature stretching from the very earliest reception of Machiavelli until the present day, including recent contributions from scholars such as Jean-Louis Fournel, David Lines, and Carlo Ginzburg. In Giuliano Procacci’s study of the reception of Machiavelli in European political culture the topic has been quite thoroughly mapped. Following the notoriety gained with his inclusion on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 and Innocent Gentillet’s later demonization of him following the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, Machiavelli was associated with defending tyranny and expediency. Ginzburg has argued that seventeenth-century attempts to rehabilitate Machiavelli by figures such as Kaspar Schoppe sought to underline Machiavelli’s adherence to Aristotle and the commentary tradition. Political amorality was argued to be shared character of the art of politics. Prior to his posthumous vilification and defense in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of Machiavelli’s acquaintances and contemporaries read him alongside Aristotle, seeing them as part of a shared enterprise of writing on political science, and perceived strong correspondences between aspects of their texts. Parallels between the morality of the Prince and Aristotle’s tyrant were not lost on them. This of course led to Machiavellian readings of Aristotle, or the reading of the Politics through the lens and problems of the Prince. Machiavelli was fed into attempts to make sense of Aristotle’s advice on the preservation of tyranny. This influenced the presentation of new translations and commentaries. For example, the Florentines Antonio Brucioli and Bernardo Segni’s Italian vernacular versions of the Politics felt the need to make clear that when discussing a tyrant’s simulation of good kingship, his gifting and spending on superfluities was not to be associated with curbing liberality but the avoidance of prodigality. This introduction of the vice of prodigality in a description of the tyrant had not been seen in the previous Latin translations and commentaries before Machiavelli’s Prince appeared and problematized the moral virtue of spending. Segni and other mid-sixteenth century commentators would note the parallels between the Aristotelian tyrant in the Politics and Ethics and Machiavelli’s prince. They also drew on Machiavelli’s examples to illustrate arguments within Aristotle’s political theory. Agostino Nifo would provide a notable case of an attempt to Aristotelize Machiavelli and harmonize the two in his Latin specula regis where he rewrote large parts of the Prince prior to the actual print publication in the 1530s. Although Nifo would drop many of Machiavelli’s most controversial arguments, he followed Machiavelli and an earlier tradition of reading Aristotle’s tyrant, that liberality was indeed troublesome for preserving kingdoms. With Machiavelli’s increased notoriety from the mid sixteenth century, his early reception and association with peripatetic philosophy was increasingly relaxed or dropped, especially in Italy.

I do not mean to create an Aristotelian Machiavelli or vice versa, or suggest that Machiavelli must be contextualized in a problem originating in Aristotle’s Politics—my intention wasn’t to suggest that Machiavelli was an Aristotelian, whatever such an identity would consist of in the early sixteenth century. I guess part of the question is: what is the nature of Aristotelianism in the Renaissance? Besides the application of ideas drawn explicitly from Aristotle and pseudo-Aristotelian texts, another fundamental aspect is an Aristotelian framework for approaching problems and organizing inquiry into them. One aspect of this I was specifically interested in was how an intellectual legacy unconsciously held could subtlety shape the formal presentation of arguments and ways of posing questions. So, in the article my aim was to emphasize how liberality came to be problematized in a series of texts shaped by the reception of Politics Book V.11’s discussion of tyrannical fiscality. The model of the tyrant’s oikonomic techniques was taken up and used by authors who did not always know its provenance. As I show in the article, for a variety of reasons certain practical fiscal recommendations from the thirteenth century came to either be disjoined from a discussion of virtue or vice (for example in extrapolating the tyrant’s economic techniques, such as limiting gifting and accounting, from the art of good kingship) and then newly problematized in relationship to virtue (as in the concern for “excessive liberality”).  Machiavelli’s discussion of taxation and liberality in chapter 16 of the Prince engaged with key elements of the inheritance of the fiscal concerns raised by Aristotle’s tyrant. Machiavelli never defends tyranny, but the connection with Aristotle’s tyrant is seen in the discussions of taxation and appearance. These parallels were not lost on those who accused him of defending tyranny. What was perhaps ignored by some of his critics was how expedient actions suited to circumstances could nonetheless be tied to higher moral ends. In Aristotle’s analysis of defective constitutions and how tyrannies are preserved, he demonstrates how expedient actions suited to circumstance can preserve rule and benefit subjects. For Aristotle the techniques of simulation of good kingship by a tyrant make the worst constitution less bad by reducing fear and hatred and incline his character toward virtue, or at least make him only half bad.

EC: To generalize a rich and complicated argument, you show here, among other things, that liberality was not generally considered a problematic virtue until the fourteenth or fifteenth century. I think it’s fascinating how you suggest toward the end (p. 382) that in Machiavelli the problematization of liberality is associated with a new valorization of martial virtue. This seems to be true of more writers than just Machiavelli: you see enormous anxiety over “excess” and “luxury” as contrary to martial virtue throughout the early modern period, across Western Europe. Do you think the early modern tendency to see military spending as the most crucial form of spending to achieve political stability could help explain why liberality came to be associated with excess?

GL: The primacy given to fiscal matters in political literature, I show in the article, simply came from the formal presentation and ordering of Aristotle’s recommendations to the tyrant who sought to preserve his regime through regal methods. This prioritization is also found in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, where it is among the first things a deliberative orator should have knowledge of and be able to give counsel on. In the pseudo-Aristotelian Book of Secrets and in Giles of Rome, this importance is undermined by the virtue of liberality, alongside a discussion of the relationship of this virtue with regard to the use of wealth for the defense and preservation of a kingship. So, there is certainly an Aristotelian tradition of statecraft that prioritized matters of revenue management for military expenditure. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, among the Italian states for example, it certainly becomes a commonplace of deliberative preambles and prefaces to provisions on military fiscal matters, as well as in civic chronicles, that there was a continuous fiscal crisis where ordinary revenues were inadequate for extraordinary expenditures. This required prioritization of fiscal policy. There is of course in part a socio-economic explanation for these discursive developments; however, the tendency for the growth of military expenditures certainly predated the fourteenth century. But as a broad generalization I think it is fair to say a concern for extraordinary finance comes to permeate political observations with greater ubiquity. However, I didn’t want to make the argument that liberality was problematized on the basis of new political fiscal dynamics that emerge with the fiscal contraction of the fourteenth century, not only because some of these dynamics were present in the earlier communal period, but also because part of what is so important was the vernacularization and translation of texts of moral philosophy and the lexical choices that had to be made. This opened philosophical texts to new readings that could be used at this specific juncture to frame and problematize fiscal dynamics. How to render liberality was a site of contention in this respect. Contemporary usages of liberalitas and largitas and their corresponding vernacular translation problematized where the stress of liberality lay: was it in a disposition of generosity to give or was it more the correct measure of expenditure and receipt. Liberality’s association with excess can of course be related to Aristotle’s suggestion that in being liberal it is better to err toward prodigality than avarice, since it is preferable to put wealth to use rather than to hoard. I don’t want to suggest the caution I describe in the article toward liberality became by any means a dominant way of treating liberality; it certainly didn’t in much moral and political philosophy. However its problematization becomes more frequent especially in texts touching upon taxation.

We can see how some of the issues raised by Aristotle’s tyrant and his impact on later writers intersected with the wider debates on excess and luxury. First of all, that a reputation for not spending on luxuries was expedient, since it avoided earning the hatred of subjects when they saw their wealth spent on morally decadent superfluities. So avoiding a reputation for spending on superfluous luxury was a technique to prevent sedition, yet it was also an important contribution to much debated question of whether it is better to keep the people poor and the treasury rich or to leave wealth with the people and not accumulate riches in a treasury. Of course, Machiavelli’s treatment of this topic would be informed by his reading of Roman historians such as Sallust and moralists such as Vegetius, where Rome’s martial virtue was negatively correlated with its citizens’ prosperity. This was a topic that had already been taken up by the scholastics, for example, we can find it in Aquinas’s portion of De regimine, as well as notably in the humanists of the fifteenth century, many of whom were concerned with how city-republics with a fundamentally mercantile character balanced a disposition toward money-making with defending their patria and liberty. What is interesting in the Aristotelian contributions to this debate is that there are dangers associated with funding a treasury and the power it could give those who seize it, and also that there is an illusory distinction in part of whether wealth is left in the people or accumulated in the fisc, since tyrannical power does not respect ownership. The medieval commentators would emphasize how wealth could be then seized when needed but were also careful to explain it ought to be accompanied by legitimation through appeal to higher ends such as the common good. These issues of fiscal sovereignty, property, and reputation would be taken up Machiavelli in a most striking way.

EC: It seems extraordinarily significant to me that Machiavelli is so comfortable with expropriation. The question of the expropriation of Church property, for example, arguably became the fundamental issue of the early modern era. Aristotle considers the tyrant to have possession of his subjects’ property, but does not specifically mention expropriation as a means toward stability (although he associates it with democratic excess). You mention that the medievals were not always averse to reading Aristotle’s prescriptions for extending tyranny as recommendations for competent rulership in general. What was the medieval attitude toward the monarch’s potential to appropriate his subjects’ lands into the royal demesnes?

GL: It would be hard to give a characterization of a general attitude and associated policies that were shared across medieval European polities with regard to appropriation and subsummation of subjects’ lands into royal demesnes. Also because of the very different ways in which wealth was extracted and utilized from demesnes. Local conditions effected the logic and efficacy of sale, leasing, resumption and retention, or growth of the demesne alongside the diversification and introduction of new forms of exaction as part of states’ fiscal strategies. Notwithstanding the developments that occurred with regard to the demesne’s contribution to the total revenues of the state over the course of the late Middle Ages and early modernity in the so-called move from a “domain state” to a “tax state,” it would be fair to underscore a shared character to much medieval and early modern monarchical political theory regarding it. Generally, for scholastic writers, such as Thomas of Aquinas and Giles of Rome, and humanists, such as Petrarch and Patrizi, and pragmatic-administrative writers such as Diomede Carafa, there was a strong advocacy for the retention of the royal demesne rather than any overtly explicit advocacy regarding expansion at the expense of subject’s land holding and property rights. These were to be respected with the exception of outlaws and rebels. The demesne, for many of these writers, enabled a prince’s self-reliance and its preservation. The ideal that a king should live off his own holdings became a staple of monarchical advice literature. Oikonomic writing in this context clearly had a political-economic character, as I try to show in the article. In much medieval political theory a large demesne enabled provision for military expenses and only when it was insufficient should extraordinary taxes be levied on subjects through appeal to emergency. Valorization of the demesne ran parallel to warnings against reliance on credit or instituting permeant direct taxation that could earn the hatred of subjects and could lead to sedition. We can see this caution regarding taxation in Aristotle’s tyrant and also in pseudo-Aristotle’s Rhetorica ad Alexandrum and later for example in the d’Este brothers’ warning against Alfonso’s use of the focatico. The Neapolitian Diomede Carafa when writing on management of the demesne stressed the importance of a prince managing his reputational image by using tax farmers for income collection. In mid fifteenth-century England, John Fortescue advised Edward IV on the resumption of crown lands and against selling any of the demesne as it reduced revenues and leads to the depopulation of the realm. In England we can see this prizing of the value of crown land in fiscal literature all the way back to Richard FitzNigel’s twelfth century Dialogue of the Exchequer, where he would hark back to the time of the Conquest when a king was able to live off his own demesne. This importance given to the demesne can also be seen in the early modern period. If we fast forward to Jean Bodin, the public demesne ought to be inviolable and never alienated. Its preservation would avoid burdening subjects with imposts or the need to confiscate their property. To come to your other point with regard to Church property, its vast wealth made it a keen focus for fiscal systems seeking new sources of revenue. The Reformation was key in changing rulers’ relationships with subjects’ property and see would see huge increases of revenue from ecclesiastical expropriation; however, there were many notable prior attempts before the sixteenth century to harness Church wealth. For example, in Florence the often-cited case of the War of the Eight Saints in the late fourteenth century where the clergy were targeted with forced loans and church property was sold to finance its war with the Papacy.

Machiavelli praised the virtue of the Eight Saints (the name given to the Florentine war council), for having served their patria rather than their souls by despoiling the Church of its possessions. The wealth of the clergy, however, could also be tapped in to through other means than expropriation, for example, in the city-states by seeking their participation in civic credit through forced loans or voluntary investment to secure perpetual endowments. Machiavelli’s statements on expropriation were in part so controversial because he is promoting being a liberal user of wealth derived from the property of others. Aristotle and Cicero explicitly argued giving from the property of others was not generosity but the mark of tyranny. It is interesting to note in the Prince and the above example drawn from his Florentine Histories the targets of expropriation are conquered enemies and the Church, so in certain ways external to the political community. However, like many medieval writers who came before him, Machiavelli was not promoting an unrestrained use of the power to exact. What limits how much a prince taxes is a Prince’s estimation of how much it tarnishes his reputation and his ability to preserve his regime. Machiavelli looks to a model of redistribution that in part he draws from the examples he found in Roman history, but also a model provided by the Aristotelian tyrant, who need not overaccumulate, since his power is in effect a sign that his subjects do not enjoy an unlimited right or capacity to preserve their own wealth.

Elsa Costa is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Atlantic History at Fulbright University Vietnam. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her PhD in 2021. She has received fellowships from UCLA, the Fulbright program, and the Tinker Foundation, among other institutions. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy and political thought.

Featured image: “He took great pains in going from bush to bush until every individual flower and bud and even the worms at the heart of some of them were changed gold,” illustration of King Midas by Arthur Rackham, from A Wonder Book, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style: An Interview with Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

By Grant Wong

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg is a research fellow affiliated with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies research team at Australian Catholic University (ACU) and based at the university’s Rome campus. His research focuses upon themes of conspiracy, secrecy, and anonymity as they were instantiated in early modern history and subsequently conceptualized in modern history under the influence of social science. Some of the results of this research recently appeared in the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories, in which he served as a co-editor and contributor.

McKenzie-McHarg spoke with Grant Wong about his recent JHI article, “From Status Politics to the Paranoid Style: Richard Hofstadter and the Pitfalls of Psychologizing History.”


Grant Wong: In your article, you trace American historian Richard Hofstadter’s intellectual development of the “paranoid style.” Hofstadter defined his psychological concept as a mode of individualistic and collective political thought characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Your study stresses that the idea did not emerge fully formed in 1963, but instead was an ongoing project refined by Hofstadter in response to the political events of his day, namely McCarthyism and the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater. How does your approach encourage us to think differently about the paranoid style?

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg: What made me realize that there was a story to tell here was the discovery of Hofstadter’s first presentation of the paranoid style. Some years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Manchester. After I presented a paper that simply elaborated upon the known facts, namely that Hofstadter had first outlined his understanding of the paranoid style at a lecture in Oxford University in 1963, I received a tip-off from another attendee that Hofstadter had in fact lectured on the paranoid style four years earlier in 1959. With the help of the archivists at the BBC Written Archives Centre, I located a transcript of this lecture, which has since been published in the Library of America volume of Hofstadter’s writings edited by Sean Wilentz.

Hofstadter is well-known for being somewhat dismissive of historians who bury themselves in archives—“archive rats,” he called them—and so on one level, I approached my article with a slightly ironic goal: what better way to vindicate the value of archival research than with a study devoted to Hofstadter himself? Admittedly, the discovery of the BBC lecture does not completely upturn our understanding of the paranoid style, but it definitely enriches our understanding of how Hofstadter formulated this concept and then presented it to the general public in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964.

It also provides us with a revealing example of how Hofstadter engaged with the past. One of the most striking aspects of the BBC lecture is how it limited itself to the American Far Right in its McCarthyist and post-McCarthyist incarnations—in other words, to the recent past and the present, as seen from the vantage point of 1959. When Hofstadter returned to England four years later for the Oxford lecture, he did so with a lecture manuscript brimming with examples of this phenomenon drawn from far more distant episodes of American history. Clearly, this practice of discovering in the past earlier iterations of something originally observed in the present entails risks for the historian. As much as Hofstadter might have been aware of these risks, his interpretations were by no means fully immune to them. This also applies to his characterization of the paranoid style. Yet staging this conversation between past and present can also be very fruitful, and its potential is the source of much of the freshness and liveliness that Hofstadter’s work still retains—even if his present and the liberalism that dominated it have receded into the past faster than many might have expected. And even if the validity of historians taking their cue from the present remains contentious.

As for Goldwater, by the time the Republican Party nominated the senator from Arizona as their candidate for the 1964 presidential election, the essential elements of the paranoid style were already locked in place. The significance of Goldwater to the story seems to me that his candidacy helped Hofstadter overcome his reservations about exposing an American audience to the diagnosis of a paranoid style recurring throughout their history. We must remember that the first two occasions on which he presented the paranoid style were in lectures (for the BBC and Oxford, respectively) addressed to British audiences.

If I might indulge here in some counterfactual speculation, if the Goldwater movement had not taken liberals such as Hofstadter by surprise in 1964 by seizing control of the Republican party and elevating their leader to the party’s candidate in the contest for the presidency, it is not out of the question that the paranoid style might have remained an intriguing but largely forgotten conceptual experiment. The only evidence of the concept would survive in a lecture manuscript in the BBC Written Archives Center and another in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. From other documents, we can infer an initial reluctance on Hofstadter’s part to deploy the concept of the paranoid style, as he correctly foresaw the controversy it invited. The prospect of a Goldwater presidency spurred him into action. It is only necessary to read some of Hofstadter’s characterizations of Goldwater and the Goldwater movement, now easily accessed in Wilentz’s edited volume, to acquaint oneself with a less familiar Hofstadter, namely Hofstadter the deeply committed—and extremely panicked—intellectuel engagé.

GW: You note that historians and journalists who employ the paranoid style “tend to name Hofstadter as its source, perhaps out of a respect for ‘intellectual property’ or a desire to distance themselves from the concept’s implications.” I was struck by this fact, especially because the concept is still alive and well today, adapted by scholars to “numerous revisions and qualifications.” Could you speak more to this? Why is the paranoid style, a concept now older than half a century, still affiliated so closely with Hofstadter?

AM: One of the pre-publication readers of the essay objected to this point on the grounds that it is impossible to prove a negative—the negative being the statement that there are no occasions on which the paranoid style is invoked without also acknowledging Hofstadter as its originator. As valid as the objection might be, and as much as I am asking the reader to take this statement on trust, I have genuinely yet to find an appeal to the paranoid style that does not explicitly acknowledge Hofstadter as the concept’s originator. Since this article emerged from a larger inquiry into the language of conspiracy theory, it seems apposite to make the comparison to this somewhat synonymous or at least overlapping concept. “Conspiracy theory” is not a concept whose use imposes upon the user any obligation to reference the concept’s originator for the simple reason that no one person can lay claim to that honor. Instead, “conspiracy theory” entered our conceptual vocabulary in a process stretching approximately from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. There was no singular moment of creation. As for the paranoid style, the situation appears—at least at first glance—markedly different.

Part of why Hofstadter is always cited as the “inventor” of the concept of the paranoid style has to do, I suspect, with its polemical edge. It is certainly not a neutral concept, and Hofstadter was, in fact, quite candid about its pejorative connotations. Even if a subsequent commentator endorses the concept, pointing to Hofstadter as its originator provides a cover from some of the controversy that arises when one psychologizes and pathologizes participants in the sphere of democratic debate. As a fêted historian occupying a chair at a top Ivy-League university, his name obviously retains a cache of credibility which commentators gratefully avail themselves of when deploying his concept.  

A final observation is in order. If above I contrasted the “paranoid style” with “conspiracy theory” on the grounds that the former is firmly linked to its creator, I must qualify this comparison by pointing out that Hofstadter was, in fact, not entirely alone in alighting upon the “paranoid style” as a useful term. In 2017, cultural historian Alexander Dunst, in his highly stimulating book Madness in Cold War America, drew attention to the fact that Adorno had used the same combination of words in The Authoritarian Personality. To my mind, this does not justify a claim that Adorno, and not Hofstadter, was the originator of the concept, though it would be interesting to locate Hofstadter’s own copy of this seminal work; did he underline the term?

Yet just as significant was my discovery that in 1965, the same year that the Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays appeared as a book, the psychologist David Shapiro published Neurotic Styles, a work drawing upon his clinical work at the famous Austen Riggs Center in Massachusetts. In addition to the “obsessive-compulsive style,” the “hysterical style,” and the “impulsive style,” Shapiro devoted a chapter of his study to delineating the “paranoid style.” Upon noticing this convergence, I took advantage of one of the affordances of modern history not available to students of early modern history (where much of my research is otherwise focused), namely that it is on occasions possible to reach out to still living witnesses of events and participants of debates. I spoke with David Shapiro, and he admitted to me that he had often pondered the convergence, not least because he had originally felt a certain proprietary pride in having coined the term “paranoid style.” But the discovery reminded me that what we consider to be instances of individual originality are often predicated upon diffuse cultural currents and semantic trends. In other words, society invented the phrase as much as any individual did.

GW: American politics are in a particularly contentious state today, given the Democratic Party’s tenuous majorities in Congress, the aftereffects of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think that the paranoid style remains an effective means to analyze American politics? Just as scholars have amended it over the years to fit the conditions of their times, how do you think they might continue to adapt it for future use?

AM: On the eve of the last presidential election, I grappled in a JHI blog post with the efforts of commentators to characterize Trump’s form of populist politics in terms of the “paranoid style.” Of course, one reason for skepticism might lie in the impression that Trump tends more to narcissism than paranoia. But the whole point of the paranoid style as a concept was that whoever might deploy it as a mode of political communication did not need to be personally paranoid. Hofstadter’s motivation for recruiting the notion of a style was to posit an analogy linking a neurosis familiar to us from psychology with cultural and communicative rhetorical patterns.

Another impression drawn from my research reinforced a point that other scholars had already emphasized in identifying the political agenda that informed Hofstadter’s writings. Although the description of Hofstadter as a “consensus historian” might sit uneasily because he was averse to celebrating this consensus, he showed himself to be one of its most stalwart defenders whenever he encountered political forces that seemed to threaten it. In this regard, his hope was that his denunciation of the paranoid style would help ward off incursions into the political center undertaken by those not committed to democratic civility and liberal rationality. But in 2022, is there still a consensus or political center to defend? In a period of entrenched division, in which the commitment of one of America’s two political parties to the democratic process is open to question and a large portion of the American population have no problems imagining a new civil war, one might be forgiven for entertaining doubts on this score. In light of this situation, when commentators reach for the notion of the “paranoid style” in today’s climate, it’s like using a prophylactic when what the body politic requires is a cure, or at least a very different treatment. Of course, what exact “treatment” the United States needs to overcome its hyperpartisanship and mend its political divisions is another matter entirely.

Perhaps I can conclude with two points directed more at the academic debate about conspiracy theories and the paranoid style: I am more than willing to agree with some of the criticisms recently formulated by Michael Butter and directed at the shortcomings of Hofstadter’s essay; undoubtedly, Hofstadter got a few things wrong, particularly his characterization of the paranoid style as a marginal phenomenon that was the “preferred style only of minority movements.” In this respect, his presentism genuinely proved misleading. But Butter also revisits the misgivings about Hofstadter’s appeal to paranoia that many others have expressed since Hofstadter published his essay. This raises the question of how appropriate this psychiatric concept is for the study of conspiracy theories. Does the concept of paranoia have the potential to be useful or helpful in this regard, or should we abandon it because it only creates confusion? I’ve come around to believing that it does have value. This is because subjects diagnosed with paranoia do indeed often manifest grandiose suspicions of conspiracy and manipulation. It is only necessary to read Shapiro’s description of the “paranoid style” in a clinical context to appreciate the parallel to Hofstadter’s rhetorical and cultural paranoid style.

One can bemoan the defects in Hofstadter’s account and link them to the blind spots of the cold-war liberalism that he so archetypally embodied. Nevertheless, it remains necessary to honor his achievement of recognizing the existence of a recurring pattern of political action and expression. Undoubtedly, Hofstadter’s investment in post-war social science instilled in him a confidence in making such generalizations. Even if today we often pay lip service to the interdisciplinarity that came to Hofstadter so naturally, there aren’t many contemporary historians willing to posit the kinds of general historical patterns that Hofstadter felt equipped to tease out from the historical record. Whatever issues one might have with the nomenclature, we—and “we” might even include the occasional “archive rat”—can recognize the discovery of such a pattern as an achievement in its own right.

Grant Wong is a Ph.D. student of twentieth-century American popular culture at the University of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in how popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s manifested itself in all aspects of American life, especially within music, capitalism, thought, and youth culture. Grant’s writing can be found in Slate and PopMatters.

Featured image: Campaign Buttons, Sam Teigen, Flickr,