30 January, 2012Issue 18.2History

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The Law of Boundaries

Nicolas Stone Villani

BritishAnnabel S. Brett
Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law
Princeton University Press, 2011
242 pages.
ISBN 978-0-691-14193-0


“State” is an extraordinarily polysemous word. One of its myriad meanings is that of a nation or territory considered as a political community. The geographical boundaries of states have generally been determined by wars. The contours of political communities, on the other hand, have always been defined by the system of laws and rights established to preserve individual liberties. Natural law theorists erected this system almost half a millennium ago, in the wake of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas, and as a result of contemporary cosmopolitan ideals. The task they faced was enormous. On the one hand the exigencies of the time required them to resolve the tension between justifying colonial enterprises and defending notions of legitimate sovereignty or dominion of individual nation states. On the other, they were forced to forge a legal armour that would protect individuals’ universal rights without jeopardising states’ control over their subjects.

Ancient and modern historians, from Polybius to most recently Simon Jenkins with his A Short History of England, have long paid wars their well-deserved attention. Annabel Brett’s Changes of State, faithfully picking up from where her mentor Quentin Skinner had ended in The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, looks at the debate that helped define political communities. The book is, therefore, “about the metaphysical boundaries of the city [or state], the ontological ground on which its structure of laws and rights is erected, and it is about the complex negotiation involved in maintaining those limits in the face of a human life that can be neither wholly naturalised nor wholly politicised.” Brett stops to consider chiefly the writings of Vitoria, Soto, Suarez, Grotius, and Hobbes without, however, neglecting those of other lesser known authors such as Case and Conan, turning what might have been a specialist monograph on a single concept into a magisterial survey of early modern natural law theory.

In the 16th century, states had to face the increasing problem of mendicancy and vagabondage whilst safeguarding the interests of their multicultural society. Natural law theorists thus began forming an intellectual membrane that retained some individuals, whilst forcing others out. This enterprise acts as the starting point of Brett’s discussion, which however fails to explore how, practically, this membrane exerted unwanted pressure on already strained international relations. The scope of her research is, in fact, limited to “academic or at least theoretical treatises…rather than on the myriad strategic deployments of natural law arguments and principles in the practical political conflicts of the period.” Thus the readers may not only fail to see how such discussions were borne out of contemporary problems, but how they helped resolve them. There is a sense in which, however, this is no great loss, as they are ushered into a war of words on the political nature of man.

In the 1550s, when the world was strongly dominated by Christian theology, discussions on sovereignty could easily be turned from the external to the internal sphere. Determinism, which is the doctrine that all actions and events are external to the will, and knowledge of God were clearly at odds with notions of free will and human agency. Hobbes’s conception of politics, as Brett rightly shows, provided in the 1650s the antidote to this philosophical impasse. “Political government is government by law, and law is not physical violence, but a verbal or written directive that is comprehensible by reason, and backed up by a system of rewards and punishments that apparently demand a nature that can freely respond to them.” Therefore free will and human agency were inextricable to man, which is by nature, in Aristotelian terms, a political animal.

The debate was manifestly indebted to the contemporary Aristotelian commentary tradition, thus Brett thankfully pays attention to a genre that has unduly suffered incredible neglect. She examines it however only under the lens of her current concerns, leaving us with a broken picture of the true impact of this tradition in early modern political discourse. Her attention is, in fact, chiefly aimed at the juridical language that helped define the legal space of human agency, a topic de rigueur for a proponent of the Cambridge School, a movement that places strong emphasis on the language in which debates were couched.

Some sections of Changes of State are a re-elaboration of Brett’s Liberty, Right and Nature: Individual Rights in Later Scholastic Thought, such as her discussion of natural liberty and its relationship to the individual as well as “the relationship of the state to its subjects as necessarily physically embodied beings”. In the 16th century, subjects were often thought of as elements of an abstract composite, the people. Questions about the limits of the obligations of individuals transiting between commonwealths brought to the fore the paradox that a non-physical body can have a spatial location. It similarly made notions of jurisdiction central to early modern natural law theorists, ultimately highlighting the fact that “locality or situation is an essential presupposition of the way they [Hobbes and others] think about sovereignty and subjection”.

In 500 years, not much may have changed. Like Soto, Vitoria, Grotious, and Hobbes, we question the bases of our multicultural societies. We enquire about our fundamental human rights. Are we all bound by natural law or is there a positive law between states? The recent and ongoing Arab Spring evokes questions not only about the nature of sovereignty. The massive surge in emigration that still results from it has forced us to examine the rights of individuals in foreign land and the legitimacy of political communities’ jurisdictions. In this context, Brett’s Changes of State is illuminating and could not appear more topical. The notion of state may have been blurred in recent times, partly as a result of globalization. But in the face of the European Union’s potential disintegration, we may have to redefine it again soon.

Nicolas Stone Villani is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.