How does discontent explain the French revolution? Why did the French focus on forum internum (the inner self) while the Brits focused on forum externum (the outer self)?
Although one has to be careful when trying to establish relationships of straightforward causality in such matters, I suspect that a major cause for this French revolution was the increased pressure for conformity exercised over the individual by an increasingly authoritarian state.
Let us remember that Louis XIV was also called the Sun-King, and he famously declared “I am the State.” No such thing happened in Great Britain.
Besides, in Great Britain, thanks to the Church of England, no longer Catholic, yet not fully Protestant either, the religious picture was more fragmented and more complicated, and—unlike anywhere on the continent—the Parliament (allegedly representing “every single Englishman”, not the English people as a whole) enjoyed a long-established reputation and authority.
The French equivalent of the Parliament, the Estates (not to be confounded with the French Parlement, a judicial institution) were far from enjoying the same tradition and power.
By the time the idea of the individual having rights got traction in France as well, at least a century later than in England, the French took it seriously and were not satisfied with a mere delegation of rights. As Rousseau famously put it, the British vaunt their freedom and rights, while in effect they are “free” only every few years, when participating in the election of the MPs.
The French, on the other hand, wanted as much direct, participatory democracy as possible, hence the radicalism of French public life, visible to a certain extent until today.
Is the freedom of religion absolute within the individual? Where does the boundary between an individual’s right to express his religion end and the government’s obligation to protect the public good begin?
The first part of the question has a straightforward and simple answer: yes. Not just the French and the British, but the Americans as well, agreed a long time ago that no one has control over someone else’s inner self, or inner thoughts (forum internum). There’s no question about it.
The disagreements appear when one has to decide to what extent—and if—this inner freedom is of concern to the state. The second part of the question, however, is more complicated.
Let me begin by pointing out that, the way it is phrased, the question implies a built-in tension between the freedom of expressing one’s religion and the public good, that might not be there. I am not saying that it cannot be, I am saying that one should not assume from start that individual freedom of religion is detrimental for the public good.
As a matter of fact such freedom might prove beneficial for the public good.
As for the limits of its expression, some are quite clear.
- If, for example, some expression of a religion directly attacks the well-being of others, the state has an obvious right to step in.
Yet most cases are not as clear-cut. We, humans, are quite sensitive creatures. We can be hurt not just physically, but emotionally as well, and here things become more complicated:
- To what extent does someone else’s religious practice hurt someone else’s feelings?
There are no simple answers, but as far as I am concerned, I believe that these limits ought to be negotiated and constantly re-negotiated in the public sphere. The role of the state should be reduced to implementing and reinforcing only those limits that, for the time being, have been largely accepted in the public sphere, not to imposing its own, in the name of an abstract “public good”.
Could there be an American religious revolution?
If I understand the question correctly, this “revolution” is already taken place (although I find the term “revolution” too strong in this context). Some Americans find this phenomenon profoundly disturbing, while others welcome it with the same enthusiasm turned upside-down—which in itself speaks volumes about the extreme polarization of our society.
It would be easy to make an emotional plea to dialogue and understanding. Many have done so before. It is admirable, but apparently of little effect.
Thus, we have to understand the causes of this polarization, before we even start looking for solutions. I suspect that one of the main reasons is a crisis of identity, manifested both at individual and group level, and this crisis has something to do with the new media, which changed drastically the ways in which we understand ourselves—and, consequently, the world, including the political one.
The more one is insecure about one’s identity, one’s value system, and so forth, the more one becomes intransigent and less willing to compromise.
Put differently, I think we have become too used to finding the culprit for our problems somewhere else—we blame politicians, society, family upbringing, genes, discriminatory policies, and so forth. Anyone and anything but ourselves. It might be time to turn the blaming finger toward the mirror. Toward ourselves, so to speak.
What would the layman find most interesting and accessible within your research?
I’d like to think that I never write only for the academia. I think that many of my ideas are easy to apprehend, even by laymen.
For example, “people are less willing to compromise whenever they feel—rightfully or not is irrelevant–that their identity (as Evangelists, homosexuals, or even as Americans) is under threat”. What is complicated here?
Or let me give you another example: We all know that the new social media encourages the practice of self-disclosure of some of the most intimate aspects of one’s life—something utterly inconceivable in classical psychoanalysis or, say, in the Catholic practice of confession, both resting on the concept of “privacy” protected at all costs. And yet nowadays we are afraid of the Big Brother, but not of all the little brothers that we chose as witnesses of our intimate lives.
However, the practice did not appear with Facebook. As I alluded before, the Puritans practiced the same voluntary self-disclosure of their inner selves as early as the 1630s. One may say that there is nothing new under the sun. But this, instead of making life boring, makes it even more interesting.
On a more general point: Academia should not retreat in its (in)famous ivory tower, and shouldn’t be perceived by the “outsiders” as such.
The guilt, I think, is to be found on both sides. But, to remain consistent with my “culprit-in-the-mirror” recommendation, I’ll say that the main blame remains on us, the people from the academia. We are the ones not able to explain “in lay terms” that our research is about this world, not about things utterly disconnected from “real life”, even if sometimes it might look so.
What is the most interesting story in your academic career?
This is an easy question. My entire research on the topic of “compromise” started by accident.
While writing a paper, as a graduate student, I wondered who said the well-known phrase “politics is the art of compromise”. Being a fresh grad student, I assumed that I am the only one that doesn’t know. So I asked a professor, then another, and yet another one. To my surprise, no one knew.
This is why I started digging up the conceptual genealogy of compromise, and this is how I realized the overlooked (till then) sharp difference (mentioned above) in the usage of the word “compromise” across the Channel during the seventeenth century. The rest is history.
My interest in early American political thought is a somewhat late development, a consequence of my previous work. In my book Compromise: A Political and Philosophical History (Cambridge University Press, 2013) I show how throughout the entire seventeenth century the British used “compromise” consistently with positive connotations, often as a virtue.
With the same consistency, turned upside-down, during the same period, the French used it with negative connotations: “I won’t compromise my integrity, my virtue, myself,” etc. Even the first dictionaries of the time capture this difference.
As I explained in my book, the reason for this stark discrepancy in a century of intense cultural exchanges across the Channel, is to be found in two different forms of modern individualism: one “centripetal”, typically French, that considers the inner self as the only authentic one, while the outer self remains a mere costume; the other one “centrifugal”, that focuses on the outer self, and is suspicious of the inner self, precisely for being outside anyone else’s reach.
In turn, these two forms of individualism resulted in two different understandings of what political representation stands for.
After finishing that project, I came to the realization that the American founding presents, from this perspective, a peculiar case. Not only did the Puritans develop their own form of individualism, demanding that the inner self should be “purged” by exposing it voluntarily, to other people to judge, but later on the Americans combined the French and the British understandings of both compromise and political representation. This “oddity” is quite fascinating, not just from a theoretical perspective, but also from a practical one, and helps illuminate key moments of the founding.
With all the funding in the world, what would you have researched and how?
Luckily for me, research in political theory does not involve a lot of money. We don’t need laboratories, expensive technologies, nation-wide polls, and the like. All we need are books and a pencil. Then, we just think. So I wouldn’t have researched anything else, regardless of the funding.
How I would have research it, however, is an entire different matter. With all the money needed, I would hire people to digitize every single written page, from the oldest to the newest one available. Having access to digitized records makes the life of the researcher much easier. At the same time, however, I would make sure that I have a library with as many hard copies as possible, as old as possible. We shouldn’t lose this tradition.
And, to keep with the dream until the end, I would hire my own personal assistant to help me sort, find, and organize all the information that I need. For now, I spent an incredible amount of time doing that, instead of doing just the thinking. No complaints, though.