THE POLITICAL ANIMAL: EARLY MODERN LITERATURE AND HUMAN EXCEPTIONALISM
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Early modern English thinkers increasingly understood human exceptionalism in terms of rationality and self-interest, ideas that were central to the development of political thought in the seventeenth century. This dissertation returns to accounts of “the human” circa 1600 in order to recover the instability and uncertainty of the category prior to the development of Liberalism. In this moment of ideological flux and political volatility, the human is frequently defined in terms of its weaknesses rather than in terms of its strengths. Drawing on the resources of posthumanism and animal studies, this dissertation argues that the exceptional vulnerability of the human animal was central to a previously unexamined mode of early modern political thought. Our individual insufficiency was understood to underpin our communal nature. I reassess early modern representations of vulnerability, which have been important for biopolitical readings of Renaissance literature. Rather than portraying the subjection of human life to sovereign power, this dissertation demonstrates that the frailty of the human provided an ethical framework for political community. By reading literary texts in conjunction with early modern Aristotelian philosophy, I show that thinkers of the English Renaissance reimagined arguments from the Politics about human insufficiency by depicting our species as the frailest of all creatures. I trace this style of thought through William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. My argument extends recent scholarship on “human negative exceptionalism” by demonstrating that tropes of human frailty were not only used as critique. Species difference was also central to theorizing our uniquely political nature. Whereas contemporary posthumanism has sought to decenter the human from our critical inquiry, this project suggests the ethical importance of understanding humans to be distinct from other creatures.