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Changes of State: Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law.

Changes of State." Nature and the Limits of the City in Early Modern Natural Law, by Annabel S. Brett. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2011. xiv, 242 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

Annabel Brett's book is an accomplished study of the contested boundaries between "nature" and the "city" in early modern natural law discourse. She traces the various discourses on the relation between the political and natural spheres from the influences of ancient and medieval political thought on early modern writers to the debates between and amongst scholastic Catholic political thinkers, Protestant Aristotelians, and others, highlighting the often radical departures from earlier traditions in the thought of Hugo Grotius and especially Thomas Hobbes. The book's achievements are at several levels: as an impressively detailed intellectual history of some of the wide-ranging controversies preoccupying natural law theorists in sixteenth- to mid-seventeenth-century Europe; as a cogent analysis of what is at stake in Grotius's and above all Hobbes's significant developments of natural law theory: and as an innovative approach to the study of political thought.

Brett's introduction nicely sets out the major themes of her work and reveals her methodological concerns. As is clear from her copious footnotes, Brett's study arises out of the so-called Cambridge School approach to the history of political thought as epitomized by the work of such scholars as Quentin Skinner, Noel Malcolm, and James Tully. Hence she is concerned with the formation of the political languages of natural law as they emerge in European thought, and her interpretation of Hobbes is indebted to Skinner's analysis of Hobbesian liberty in contradistinction to republican notions of freedom--implicitly, she shares Skinner's critique of Hobbes's position. But her focus is on intellectual context as much as on the context of historical practice: as she writes, her analysis is "trained upon the characteristic argumentative motifs of this idiom or "way of talking" as a whole, rather than on particular authors as agents within their specific contexts" (p. 9). Thus her work both broadens, for example, contextualist interpretations of Hobbes by situating his thought relative to continental European natural law (rather than focusing mainly on the historical circumstances in England surrounding Hobbes's work), and offers a unique historical perspective which indirectly engages with the work of such contemporary political thinkers as Carl Schmitt, Michel Foucault, and Giorgio Agamben on natural, territorial, juridical, and political spaces.

The study is framed by the divisions between nature and the city, or Libertas and Imperium--in the frontispiece to Hobbes's De Cive (reproduced in Brett's introduction)--divisions which nevertheless are interpenetrated in various ways in Hobbes's thought. Brett shows how Hobbes's account relates to earlier treatments of the nature/city problematic by addressing a dominant theme in each chapter as dealt with by natural law theorists. In "Travelling the Borderline," she relates Francisco de Vitoria's treatment of ius gentium as a law of humanity which sanctions the free movement of travellers into foreign countries to Domingo de Soto's assertion of the right of beggars to travel freely across borders: their chief activity as mendicants seeking to preserve themselves as human beings straddles the "borderline between city and nature, in the physical but not political space of animals" (p. 26). This surprising perspective has important resonance, as she points out, for contemporary debates over economic migrants.

In contrast to the chapter which focuses on Vitoria and Soto, Brett tunas in the rest of the book to a range of natural law thinkers culminating in Hobbes. She addresses the question of freedom in terms of human agency in debates among Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists over the nature of free will. Ultimately, in his famous debates with Bishop Bramhall, Hobbes went much further than other thinkers in not only denying freedom of the will, but also eliminating the human/animal distinction in terms of freedom. Hence Brett demonstrates Hobbes's theologically unsafe stance: not unprecedented, but nevertheless striking in its radicalism relative to earlier positions.

Most of the subsequent chapters more or less follow this pattern of argumentation in their form, though the level of nuance will prove occasionally challenging to non-specialist readers. Brett examines the fluctuating boundaries between the human and natural as they occur in controversies: over the definition of natural law, including its relation to ius gentium; over natural liberty in regard to civil liberty and natural right--the latter emphasized particularly by Grotius and Hobbes; over the founding of states in terms of the competing narratives of the form of the commonwealth as "unity" or "order" (evinced in debates over the state as a body politic or head of the body); over the state's relation not simply to the bodies but to the lives of its subjects; over the question of how far the state's jurisdiction extends to travellers of various sorts; and finally, over the city's "natural place," for example, as framed by the sea.

One of the striking conclusions Brett draws is that these writers' conceptualizations of the emerging modern state "militates against the definition of the state in terms of place or even of territory" (p. 212), given their emphasis on human will and compacts in its formation. In this light, Brett ends not with Hobbes but with Johannes Althusius and Juan de Salas, who conceptualize politics in terms of "consociation" or respublica. Such conceptions incorporate place and locality of humans living together in a way that departs from other natural law theories in allowing "the physical dimension of human life to penetrate the judicial structure of the commonwealth" (p. 221). lmplicitly, Brett endorses a vision of politics that is both more natural and humane than the intellectual strains which culminate in Hobbes.

Simon Kow

University of King's College
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Author:Kow, Simon
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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