David W. Bates


On his book States of War: Enlightenment Origins of the Political

Cover Interview of December 28, 2011

The wide angle

Although I was trained as a historian I have always been interested in thinking about how contemporary problems animate historical work, and how historical understanding might address our own world.

This is not an easy task, since paying attention to the historical moment and its specificity usually entails a certain distancing from (and defamiliarization of) the historical texts. At the same time, there is no question that we are still living with the remains of the past and a deeper historical understanding of those origins can give us a new perspective on our own world.

The Enlightenment is such an interesting period to study precisely because it was the incubator of so many ideas and even institutions that form the foundations of modern life.  Whether we celebrate or criticize that legacy, it cannot be ignored.

In this book I argue that our political concepts and our basic constitutional beliefs have their origin in the Enlightenment. The American constitution, for example, is an Enlightenment document.

Normally, we think of the Enlightenment as emphasizing individual rights and popular sovereignty. The Enlightenment philosophers developed the idea of legitimate authority using fictional (“conjectural”) histories of the formation of political communities.

I reexamine these stories of political origin to show that the beginnings of such community were more fraught than they first appear. I look at the canon of modern political theory, beginning with the natural law theorists Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf, before analyzing the key works of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Through a close reading of the texts, I show how important existential ideas of survival and protection were for these thinkers as they tracked the theoretical origins of the state. At the same time, I demonstrate how legal (and particularly constitutional) ideas were in fact derived from that existential approach.

Therefore, through a careful, historically sensitive reading of the Enlightenment texts, I aim to show that it was possible to imagine a legal community from within the “political” logic of existential conflict.  Indeed, with the final chapter on Rousseau, I suggest that it was precisely because the political logic of survival involved every citizen equally, with no differences between them (survival is “all or nothing”), that a democratic legal-political order, defined by equality and liberty, was even possible.

With this interpretation of Enlightenment, I am offering both a new way of thinking about the historical role of these important authors, and a new way of thinking about the theoretical problem of law and political authority itself. The book is therefore both a contribution to intellectual history and an attempt to intervene in debates concerning emergency power and related issues in the twenty-first century.