Reading Room Archives

Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Early Tudor England

The period between the Wars of the Roses and the England Civil War has been referred to by scholars as the ‘monarchy of counsel’: an era where advice and advisers were at the centre of political discourse. As concepts of ‘counsel’ (political advice-giving) and ‘command’ (sovereign authority) developed and came into conflict, writers also touched on issues of free speech, political prudence and reason of state. This blog series explores these topics and the essential changes to ideas of politics that came about, drawing on material from Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Dr Joanne PaulIn this instalment, we explore some of the best-known and influential writers of the reign of Henry VIII, painting a picture of the ‘humanist’ counsellor, with its emphasis on opportunity, rhetoric and morality

The political philosophy of Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings presents several societies with different approaches to government. The most prominent include the idyllic Shire, the grand realm of Gondor, the hardy kingdom of Rohan, and the absolute dictatorship of Mordor. Looking at them gives strong indications of his views of government. In addition, we have his own words on the kind of governance he favored. 

James Madison and Disobedience in the Public Interest

James Madison’s most radical proposal in The Federalist No. 51 was grounded in personal experience, even though he didn’t say so. Madison used a magisterial writing style, like all the authors who wrote the various Federalist Papers under the pen name Publius. He did not cite specific occurrences; only generalities such as “experience has taught mankind”. But his views were shaped by years in the rough and tumble of Colonial politics.

Bridges Across the Void in H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos

“All my stories,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft, “unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.” (August Derleth, “The Cthulhu Mythos” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, vii)

Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Classical and Medieval

“On the one hand, it was a long-standing requirement that monarchs receive counsel in order to legitimise their rule. On the other, this condition had the potential to undermine their authority if the monarch was required to act on the counsel given. In other words, if counsel is obligatory, it impinges upon sovereignty. If it is not, it then becomes irrelevant and futile.”

Benjamin Tucker Today - War, Antisemitism, Lawyers

Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty in 1882 had a few things to say about our day’s concerns, such as war, antisemitism, and lawyers.

Acceptance, Rejection, and Otters

In Chapter 4 of my book, I explore a subtle but important distinction between a person having decisive reason to accept or endorse some view (“acceptability”) versus lacking decisive reason to reject it (“rejectability”). I have in mind conflicting views, none of which are clearly right or wrong, that may be used by states or private entities as justification for legal or social coercion.

Christian Prudence in C Major

In recent months, financial services company Northwestern Mutual has used the chorus from a song by the Americana band “The Avett Brothers” in a commercial about managed wealth. The song, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” soars: “I had a dream/ and one day I could see it.” For Northwestern Mutual it is a material dream, but for the band it has to do with moral objectivity.

“Call me Schnitzel”: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Anti-Satan

One of the surprise cultural hits of this past summer was the three-part Netflix docu-series Arnold, which has scored a 96% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and which has been lauded by critics and audiences alike. 

John Stuart Mill, Private Property, and Slavery

In recent years, there has been a growing literature among historians regarding the relationship between slavery and capitalism, known as the “New History of Capitalism,” which postulates that slavery was the institutional basis for the rise of capitalism and economic development in the U.S. 

The Institutes of the Christian Religion and Calvin’s Lasting Reforms

It is so common for major, innovative thinkers to suffer at the hands of their states that it is almost a trope in the history of politics and theology. Socrates was tried and executed for impiety, Aristotle was accused of impiety (but fled rather than face trial and death), Machiavelli was tortured and exiled, and the list goes on.

John Stuart Mill on Say’s Law

One of the most important and controversial principles originating from classical economics is the principle known as “Say’s Law,” or the fundamental law of markets. Although this economic principle can trace its roots back to Adam Smith, as its namesake suggests, it is generally credited to the political economist Jean Baptiste Say, who first stated this principle in his classic book, entitled A Treatise on Political Economy; or the Production, Distribution, and Consumption of Wealth ([1803] 1971). 

JS Mill:The Principles of Political Economy

In 1848, John Stuart Mill published his Principles of Political Economy.  The book was an elaboration on the concepts and ideas developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo and included applications to social philosophy and political problems of the day.  Principles of Political Economy became a classic, eventually going through seven editions, the last published in 1871.  The Principles remained the main textbook for what we now call economics throughout the United Kingdom and America into the 1900s, when it would eventually be replaced by Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics.  

The Self & Sympathy: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

David Hume conceives the mind in metaphors. The mind is a theater, a republic, a stringed instrument. These metaphors suggest that an individual has multiple selves, whose relations resemble social interactions.

A Modified Proposal: The Man of Law’s Tale

There is a third theme which weaves its way through the first few of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, building up to its use in one of the most famous Tales, the Wife of Bath’s Tale. This is the theme of a good woman. 

Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning

It may seem strange to those this side of the Enlightenment that “the advancement of learning” should need any defense. If anything, we today are plagued with fears of misunderstanding rapidly advancing science, or of standing on the “wrong side of history” whose alleged progressive march seems constant. Perhaps one of the worst things of which one can be accused today, if one hopes to be taken seriously, is of being outdated, irrelevant, archaic, or positively Medieval. 

Review: The Soul of Civility

Review of: Alexandra Hudson, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press, 2023)

Paradise Lost, Perhaps the Greatest English Poem. Banned for 216 Years

Paradise Lost, published more than 350 years ago (1667), is still almost routinely characterized as the greatest poem in English. More guardedly, it is called “the greatest epic poem.” (Yes, there are others, such as Beowulf, TheFaerieQueene, Don Juan, John Brown’s Body, and Song of Myself. . . .)

Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Life was nasty, brutish and short. Many of us recall these famous words from Thomas Hobbes’ political treatise, Leviathan (1651).  Fewer of us remember the context in which he described this state of humanity. 

Banning Shylock

“One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy, The Merchant of Venice, is a profoundly anti-Semitic work.” This is the pronouncement with which Shakespeare scholar, Harold Bloom begins his account of the play.  And Bloom is not alone. 

Obfuscating John Milton’s Paradise Lost

As Caroline Breashears has recently discussed, John Milton (1608-74) was a  prominent champion of the freedom of the press, something he most famously exhibited in his 1644 tract Areopagitica.  But Milton’s own writings were and continue to be subject to various types of censorship.  

The Complaint of Peace

“As Peace, am I not praised by both men and gods as the very source and defender of all good things?...Though nothing is more odious to God and harmful to man, yet it is incredible to see the tremendous expenditure of work and effort that intelligent beings put forth in an effort to exchange me for a heap of ruinous evils.” (Erasmus, The Complaint of Peace, 1517, Dolan translation)

A Proposition Critiqued: The Miller’s Tale

An earlier post explored the rigorous ‘dialogue’ elicited by the Knight’s Tale between the other pilgrims. The Miller is the first to push back, using a two-pronged attack against the ideas of high philosophy and courtly romance in his own Tale in the form of two of its principal characters: Absolon and Nicholas.

Lear: a King and Play in Exile

King Lear is a graphic, grotesque, visceral play. Blow after blow strikes Lear and the audience as we see a great man transformed from King of England to homeless, mad wretch, worse than the blind Gloucester and the raving Poor Tom.