The Dialectic of the Individual and the Paradox of French Absolutism

The European Legacy 16 (6):717 - 734 (2011)
Abstract
In her seminal book, Philosophy and the State in France, Nannerl O. Keohane uncovered something close to a paradox: French absolutism bred a peculiar form of individualism that manifested disregard for civic involvement, yet by the eighteenth century the passive member of the ancient corporations moved without hesitation into participatory politics. The aim of this article is to clarify this apparent paradox. In order to do so, I revive the medieval dialectic between forum internum and forum externum that for more than a thousand years provided the foundation for individualism all across the Western world. One cannot understand the paradoxes that later will mark the French Revolution if one fails to take into consideration the almost obsessive focus on the forum internum and on the authenticity of the self coupled with a drive toward conformism and unity in the forum externum, which was already in place for more than a century before. Furthermore, one cannot understand why political representation as representation of individual wills was not at all appealing to the early modern Frenchmen. Given today's worrisome disaffection of the typical individual with the formalized political sphere, the dialectic of the two fora is worth reconsidering
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DOI 10.1080/10848770.2011.608004
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