The Melancholy Sovereign: The Politics of the Human-Animal (in)distinction in Hobbes, Schmitt and Benjamin

The general area of my studies concerns the link between modern sovereignty and the idea of an exclusively human politicality.  The questions, topics and methodologies that orient my work emerge from historically inflected democratic theory and critical political theory.  My dissertation “The Melancholy Sovereign: The Politics of the Human-Animal (in)distinction in Hobbes, Schmitt and Benjamin” offers a combined genealogical and interpretative study of the way the distinction between human and animal is established and invoked in foundational texts of modern sovereignty.

I focus on the intellectual founder of the modern nation state, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679,) who maintained that human beings in the natural state lived a brutish existence where “man is a wolf to man,” and offered a way out from this natural condition by means of a theory of sovereignty.

Today we assume a clear boundary differentiates human and animal. In the age of Hobbes though, the existence of liminal figures oscillating between humanity and animality was a topic that even sophisticated minds would take seriously. The possibility of a human becoming an animal if overwhelmed by feral passions or by melancholy was addressed not only by writers interested in witchcraft and possessions such as Reginald Scot, but also by 17th physiologists like Robert Burton, monarchs like King James, and portrayed by Shakespeare in The Tempest’s Caliban. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I suggest that Hobbes should also be added to this list of authors interested in the unstable nature of human nature.

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