My research focuses on how early modern political thinkers grappled with dangerous religious enthusiasm. It explains why some of history’s most clear-eyed realists devoted so much of their thinking to extreme religious positions. In the process, I interrogate political realism’s core commitments and show how contemporary political theory can benefit from closer engagement with classical International Relations theory. My work also innovates methodologically by using automated text analysis to answer new questions in the history of political thought.
Project 1: Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times
My first project begins with the observation that three of history’s most important political realists—Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Hans Morgenthau—wrote during times in which powerful political actors thought the world was ending. Given an apocalyptic context, what are the available responses? And how ought we to evaluate them? I answer these questions in Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and two related articles, “Politics in Apocalyptic Times: Machiavelli’s Savonarolan Moment” (Journal of Politics, 2016) and “Salutary Fear: Hans Morgenthau and the Politics of Existential Crisis” (American Political Thought, 2017).
The book shows three major realist responses to apocalypticism. While the early Machiavelli was seduced by apocalypticism, the later Machiavelli and the early Morgenthau rejected apocalyptic thinking and insisted instead on a clear-eyed, tragic acceptance of the brute realities of politics. Hobbes and the later Morgenthau redirected apocalypticism, using its own rhetorical resources to combat its excesses.
The scholarly contribution of the book is to show how attending to the apocalyptic contexts in which these thinkers wrote provides more plausible answers to some of the most enduring puzzles about their work. For instance, when we read Machiavelli alongside the Renaissance friar Girolamo Savonarola’s doomsday prophecies for Florence, the final chapter of The Prince starts to look less like an attempt to gain the favor of the Medici and more like an apocalyptic exhortation of despair and redemption. The normative contribution of the book is to show why rejecting apocalyptic thinking is often the best strategy. Despite its enduring appeal, as seen in today’s rhetoric over climate change, apocalyptic thinking risks engendering political withdrawal, resignation, or zealotry.
Since its release in January 2018, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times has been reviewed favorably in Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theory, Reading Religion (American Academy of Religion), and Perspectives on Politics. I participated in an author-meets-critics session at APSA (2018). The dissertation on which the book is based won the APSA Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in Political Philosophy. Adapted excerpts from the book have also appeared in Foreign Affairs (07/2016, 11/2016) and the New York Times and I have been interviewed about the book on National Public Radio.
Project 2: The Promise and Limits of Political Realism
My first project treats political realism more historically and contextually; my second project approaches it more conceptually and analytically. This project consists of three linked papers. First, in “The Case for Kinship: Political Realism and Classical Realism” (Politics Recovered, 2018), I show that, contrary to what many realists in contemporary political theory seem to think, they and classical realists in International Relations have the same core commitments. I argue that the former group ought to engage more deeply with the latter, and I show the important conceptual, analytic, and normative payoffs from such an engagement. For example, contemporary political realists might look to their classical counterparts for a more empirically-grounded account of human motivation.
Second, in “Political Realism and the Realist Tradition” (Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, 2017), I argue that contemporary political realists too readily appeal to a realist “tradition” stretching back to Thucydides in making the case for their approach. Yet there are methodological worries about such an appeal: almost none of the thinkers included in this “tradition” self-identified as realists, or sought to defend exclusively realist doctrines. I argue that contemporary realists can (and should) accept these methodological worries and make more modest claims about their intellectual tradition.
“Political Realism and Moral Corruption” (European Journal of Political Theory, 2016) takes up a familiar criticism of political realism: that it is merely a rationalization of the status quo and therefore morally corrupt. Yet many self-identified realists personally support progressive political projects and show a profound awareness of the problem of rationalization. How, then, might they become apologists for the status quo? Paradoxically, it is realists’ very fear of rationalization that leads them to suspect all arguments for justice as apologies for power. This suspicion leads realists to affirm the status quo by default, not by design.
Project 3: Absolving God
My third project uses innovative methodological techniques to identify and explain dramatic changes in Thomas Hobbes’s religious arguments across his three major political works —Elements of Law (1640), De Cive/On the Citizen (1642), and Leviathan (1651). Despite a burgeoning literature on Hobbes and religion, no one has rigorously documented (1) his increasing focus on scripture, (2) his growing attention to the Old Testament in particular, or (3) his progressive adoption of a multi-pronged strategy of religious argument. This book will be the first to systematically explain why Hobbes was increasingly concerned with violent religious pluralism and to account for his ever-more sophisticated responses to it.
A substantial part of the work for this project has been published or is forthcoming or under review. The paper “Mosaic Leviathan: Religion and Rhetoric in Hobbes’s Political Thought” (Hobbes on Politics and Religion, 2018) offers a succinct account of my argument about the second change. “Absolving God’s Laws: Thomas Hobbes’s Scriptural Strategies” (under review) sets out my argument about the third change. The paper “‘A Rhapsody of Heresies’: The Scriptural Politics of Hobbes’s On the Citizen” (in Hobbes’s On the Citizen: A Critical Guide, forthcoming) addresses all three changes from Elements of Law to De Cive. Finally, I am currently working with a doctoral student, Jackie Basu, to use automated text analysis (topic modelling) to systematically track changes in religious discourse in Hobbes’s England.
Absolving God makes three major contributions. Its scholarly contribution is to show how we can explain many of Hobbes’s most puzzling and politically risky arguments once we recognize how they track the very specific religious debates that fueled Britain’s bloody civil war. The book’s methodological contribution is to show how automated text analysis can give a more comprehensive and precise account of the arguments to which Hobbes was responding. Except for some of my own collaborative work (see below), these methodological tools have not been used by political theorists.
The book’s contemporary relevance comes from showing why a major political thinker thought that the best strategy for dealing with dangerous religious enthusiasm is to meet it on its own terms. Absolving God also isolates the very specific distinctive argumentative tactics that Hobbes thought would be most effective for defusing violent sectarian conflict and evaluates their potential use today.
In addition to my primary projects, I have published three major stand-alone papers. First, in “Mirrors for Princes and Sultans: Advice on the Art of Governance in the Medieval Christian and Islamic Worlds” (Journal of Politics, 2018) Lisa Blaydes, Justin Grimmer, and I use automated text analysis to identify common themes in the medieval advice literature of Christian Europe and the Islamic world. We examine how emphases on these themes varies across the two regions and over time in ways that track political and ideational changes. To our knowledge, this is the first use of automated text analysis to isolate and track themes in the history of political thought. This work, along with “Mosaic Leviathan,” was featured prominently in an Annual Review of Political Science article on new methods in the history of political thought. The papers were singled out as part of an innovative emerging approach that takes traditional contextualist methods in “new, uncharted directions.”
Second, in “Tocqueville in Jacksonian Context: Expansionism and Discourses of American Indian Nomadism in Democracy in America” (Perspectives on Politics, 2017), Burke Hendrix and I challenge a conventional reading that holds that Alexis de Tocqueville thought Native Americans were “doomed” to an inevitable extinction. We show that Tocqueville knew that Andrew Jackson’s campaign of Indian Removal was neither easy nor inevitable—and that Tocqueville’s observations on Western expansion can challenge today’s comfortable consensus about this critical period of American history.
Third, my paper “Wages of Fear? Toward Fearing Well about Climate Change” (Philosophy and Climate Change, forthcoming) takes up a set of questions raised in the conclusion to my first book. Is cultivating fear about climate change morally acceptable? If so, how can we do this well? I argue that the climate change context is well-insulated from the standard concerns about a “politics of fear” and that Aristotle offers us a good model for how to cultivate fear responsibly. This paper therefore contributes to pressing debates about the ethics of climate change communication.