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Political Theory

H14(b) - Comparative Political Thought

Date: Jun 5 | Time: 03:45pm to 05:15pm | Location: SWING 107

Chair/Président/Présidente : Torrey Shanks (University of Toronto)

Discussant/Commentateur/Commentatrice : Torrey Shanks (University of Toronto)

Family and State in the Analects and Voltaire’s Orphan of China: Simon Kow (University of King's College)
Abstract: Calls for comparative, cross-cultural political theory are intended to counter traditional “Eurocentric” approaches to the history of political thought. Comparing different traditions of political theorizing is thus often characterized as challenging universalist claims in western political theory, particularly in the wake of the European Enlightenment. This paper seeks to interrogate that characterization by examining an Enlightenment engagement with a non-western society through a comparative lens. Voltaire’s play L’orphelin de la Chine (1755) largely reflects the idealization (as expressed in his 1752 Dictionnaire philosophique and the 1756 Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations) of Confucian China as a peaceful and prosperous society governed by rational and virtuous emperors and scholar-officials. But the dramatic conflict the play depicts between duty to the state and the bonds of nature also mirrors analogous considerations in the Analects of Kongzi (latinized as Confucius), a central text of classical Confucianism. In the Analects as in Voltaire’s play, conflicts between filial piety and obedience to the laws indicate a fundamental disharmony in the state: the latter should never displace the former. The Confucian teaching, however, points to the need to cultivate filial piety as the root of ethical governance, while the resolution to Voltaire’s drama situates rational virtue in the historical progress of mores. Thus, I hope to show that a comparison of these texts enables a dialogue between distinct cultural traditions on questions concerning family and state, and illustrates the openness of Enlightenment political theory (or aspects thereof) to genuinely cross-cultural encounters.


Alberti's Renaissance: The Autonomy of the Political and the Politics of Space: Peter Galambos (Sheridan College)
Abstract: In 1452 Leon Battista Alberti published his De Re Aedificatoria (On the Art of Building). In addition to being the first major architectural treatise of the Italian Renaissance, Alberti’s work arguably represented the first attempt to outline a comprehensive theory of edification. From the design of rooms, the organization of cities, to the planning of entire geographical regions, Alberti’s work elaborated a unified method for conceptualizing the built environment. Even more importantly, as Francoise Choay has agued, in doing so, Alberti’s work was also the first to refuse to subordinate the art of building to any external body of knowledge or higher value, be it political, technical, or theological. In other words, Alberti was arguably the first to posit an autonomous theory of building that positioned the built environment as the most important factor affecting the political and moral makeup of a community. While much has been made of the emergence of the idea of the “autonomy of the political” in the work of Italian Renaissance writers like Niccolo Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini, Alberti’s innovation has received comparatively less attention outside of architecture and urban planning circles. By exploring his spatial politics and especially the ways in which it clashed with the political thought of more well-known thinkers, like Machiavelli, this paper attempts reveal the hidden legacy of Alberti’s work - a legacy that, it is argued, has been severely under-appreciated within the tradition of Political Theory.