Thomas Hobbes famously wrote towards the end of Leviathan that “Papacy is no other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof” (Hobbes 1985). The long shadow casted by the Roman political tradition, however, is still peripheral to the current debates on secularization and political theology, and even in the most sophisticated analysis of the emergence of the fragmented public powers of the twelve century (Bisson 2015). In this seminar (one in a series of three) we will study the relation between Rome and the emergence of political modernity by attending to the multi-volume series Barbarism and Religion (1999-2015) authored by the Cambridge School historian J.G.A. Pocock, who has arguably undertaken the most serious attempt to provide an answer (however incomplete) regarding the passage between Rome and our modern political foundations.
Through a mannerist and highly idiosyncratic reconstruction of Edward Gibbon’s magnum opus, Pocock draws a large canvas of the Roman metapolitics, shedding light on the ongoing process of economic constitution and mutation. In this first seminar we will attend to the first two volumes of the series attending to the “civil” concept as an operative mediation of public order. Our wager is that the civil is at the crossroads in the ongoing crisis of authority and global civil war. Indeed, we tend to forget that the civil is operative in the notion of “civil war” used to describe the exhaustion of institutional and political forms.
Secondly, although we will consider the historiographical and conceptual constructions in Barbarism and Religion, the main focus of the seminar is to furnish an original understanding of the civil dimension from Rome to the modern legitimization of the political. In this sense we ask: to what extent does the concept of the civil discloses a specific genealogy from the decline of Rome and into the modern state? If so, how can one understand the polarity between barbarism and imperium (politics) as the two vectors of modern imagination about public order and the rule of law? And more ambitiously: can one mobilize (departing from Pocock’s historiographical project) the concept of the civil as a historical a priori – as the historical excess to every concept (Cooper 2022) – situated in the intersections of public law, modern commerce, and the rise of the state? What accounts for the event of the civil?
Getting ahead of ourselves, Pocock writes in the last volume of his series: “…so long powerful at the meeting point of imperium and barbaricum, who after defeat became the semi-autonomous subjects of the new kingdom. This is a moment in world history” (Pocock 2015). All things considered, this seminar looks to understand “this moment” in a present in which the civil has resurfaced as the principle of a total encompassing barbarism in the wake of the flaring up of Western civilization. If after concluding the six volume series we are capable of saying something to this end, we would have found ourselves lucky.