The Lost Passions of Republican Thought: Politics and Emotions in the French Enlightenment

This book manuscript argues that emotion has historically played a central role in theories of republican citizenship, a role that contemporary republican political thought neglects at its peril. Since its origins, classical republican theory has placed great demands on the emotional lives of citizens through an emphasis on a rich understanding of civic virtue. The republican citizen demonstrated his virtue by privileging duty, honor, responsibility, concern for the greater good, and dedication to public service, over and above self-interest. Thus while the history of republican thought and the history of emotions rarely find themselves considered together, I argue that the emotions associated with civic virtue provide the architectural framework upon which the edifice of republicanism rests. However, contemporary republican theory, specifically neo-republicanism, deemphasizes virtue and its affective dimension, focusing instead on institutional challenges to freedom and relying on juridical solutions to normative problems. While the language of civic virtue abounds in neo-republican discourse, little attention has thus far been paid to its substance or function. Most often it appears in a moralizing guise that sublimates its explicitly emotional qualities. In spite of the wider affective turn in the humanities and social sciences, and the republican revival within political theory, neo-republicanism continues to suffer from what I call an affective deficit. I contend that neo-republicanism’s juridical orientation compromises its social and political uptake, a problem remedied via a substantive theory of emotions.

In Lost Passions, I examine the role of emotion in classical republican understandings of civic virtue, with particular attention to the French Enlightenment and the work of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in order to recover a neglected connection between emotion and republican citizenship. In doing so, I advance three main claims. First, as I argue in the introduction, neo-republicanism suffers from an affective deficit stemming from its inattention to the concept of civic virtue. As a political philosophy, republicanism imposes a high standard of public behavior on its citizens. Yet remarkably little attention has thus far been paid to the function of virtue in neo-republicanism. Nor has the neo-republican literature supplied a particularly compelling account as to why one ought to adopt a republican ethos or politics, if one is not already sufficiently virtuous: the affective deficit is a motivational deficit. If, however, republicanism can be shown to incorporate, and indeed influence, ordinary human passions, the ‘virtue threshold’ for adopting a republican philosophy might be lowered. To enliven virtue, therefore, we must consider the ways in which emotions motivate political participation for good and ill.

Second, as I argue in chapter one, neo-republicanism’s affective deficit stems specifically from its ahistorical approach to republican tenets. In focusing almost exclusively on the definition of freedom as non-domination, neo-republicanism neglects the breadth of values (such as public spiritedness and vigilance against corruption) historically associated with republicanism, values which may only be realized via a commitment to civic virtue. The emphasis on non-domination has narrowed the concerns of contemporary republicans to those susceptible to institutional and juridical solutions – politics reduced to procedure, rather than pursuit of the good life. It is an ironic turn when one considers that, whereas liberalism will come to replace the burden of virtue with the burden of dispassionate judgment, republicanism clings to the potential of citizens’ virtuosity and the idea that something akin to character is required to participate in politics. However, the historical offers rich resources for integrating emotion into neo-republicanism. In demonstrating this, I develop a genealogy of emotions as they have previously been depicted within the republican tradition. I offer close readings of key thinkers in the tradition on the role of emotion in the cultivation of civic virtue, as a first step toward integrating affect into neo-republicanism.

Third, having reconstructed the republican tradition’s enduring interest in emotion in chapter one, I offer close readings of two philosophers who take seriously the republican project in chapters two, three, and four. I interpret a range of texts by Montesquieu and Rousseau that consider the emotions related to civic virtue (fear, courage, ambition, and ‘associative feelings,’ such as compassion and sympathy) to demonstrate that republicanism can support, and benefit from, a theoretically rich account of the passions as they relate to contemporary public life. I do not argue that either Montesquieu or Rousseau endorsed a republican political philosophy in their mature works, nor that they are representative of the republican tradition as it is understood in the secondary literature as descending from early modern humanists, such as Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). I do insist that their works offer a critical point of entry for developing a theory of the passions capable of integrating republican practices and civic virtue. Though it sounds so unlikely as to be untrue, both Montesquieu and Rousseau are untapped resources in theories of republicanism. That alone would, however, be insufficient reason for turning to them. But in fact, both Montesquieu and Rousseau understand politics as a means of managing men’s proclivities and passions and both attempt to navigate between an ethos of detached, fully rational civic virtue on the one hand and an impassioned and sentimental attachment to one’s homeland, fellow countrymen, and kin on the other.

Virtue remains an unsettled idea in contemporary republican political theory. In particular, neo-republicanism remains uncertain as to how democratic, pluralist societies might instantiate a shared sense of virtue without devaluing or destroying other, competing qualities that resist the imposition of civic virtue. Lost Passions provides one way forward: it suggests that an understanding of virtue that takes into account something as personal and subjective as individuals’ emotions as motivating factors in their political behavior may be one way to avoid the imposition of values while still affirming the role of virtue in republican political theory. More broadly, I argue that civic virtue, integral as it is to republican thought, is effectively stifled when accompanied by underdeveloped understandings of the passions. A theory of neo-republicanism reliant upon institutional and juridical solutions to assure non-domination is thus critically flawed. A turn to republicanism’s rich history demonstrates that contemporary neo-republicanism requires the incorporation of citizens’ affective relationship to one another and the nation-state.

A provisional chapter outline for the book looks as follows:

Introduction | The Lost Passions of Republican Thought
I. Why Republicanism? Civic Virtue and the Emotional Turn
II. The Affective Deficit
III. Organization of the Book

Chapter 1 | A Genealogy of Republican Passions
I. Emotions in Ancient Republicanism
II. Emotions in Early Modern Republicanism
III. Contemporary Affect Theory
IV. Affective Practices and les philosophes

Chapter 2 | Fear and Courage in Isfahan
I. Despotic Passions in the Persian Letters
II. Roxane’s Courage
III. Death and (Dis)Honor
IV. The Afterlives of Anaïs

Chapter 3 | Sovereign Passions
I. Ambition and Honor in the Dialogue between Sulla and Eucrates
II. Sulla and the Pursuit of Glory
III. Cicero’s ‘Common Soul’
IV. The Enlightened Despot’s Corrupt Glory

Chapter 4 | From Ritual to Virtue
I. Spectacle and False Feelings
II. Distinguishing Spectacle from Ritual
III. Participation as Consent
IV. The Civic Education of Emotion

Conclusion | Reconsidering Republicanism