Theorizing the Nation: The French Revolution and the Social Contract
Barbeau, Aimee E.
Recent strides in the scholarship on nations and nationalism have proceeded almost entirely without reference to the history of political thought. This neglect has been supported by the received wisdom that there are few, if any, figures who address the nation. In this dissertation, I consider the character of the nation in the modern world by drawing on the philosophies of four individuals in the history of political thought who engaged the nation: Joseph de Maistre, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Benjamin Constant, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Their experiences of the French Revolution shaped their thinking on the nation in profound ways. Specifically, they identify the Revolutionary project as an attempt to instantiate the theories of the social contract and popular sovereignty and thus as an attempt to undermine and ignore the cultural, political, and historical traditions that constitute nationhood. These four authors seek to unravel the political vision of the French Revolution. In this endeavor they appeal to a language of nations, exemplified by Montesquieu, which points to the relationality, particularity, historical depth, and pluralism of political community and of the human experience more broadly. I will proceed by considering Maistre, Coleridge, Constant, and Tocqueville in turn, exploring four distinct metaphors that they develop to describe the nation, namely, the nation as organism, church, home, and association, respectively. I conclude with observations on how these thinkers' vision of the nation as creating political community can further current scholarship on the nation.
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