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Conversations with Phocion: the political thought of Mably

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In recent years a novel picture of Mably's thought has begun to emerge within Anglo-American scholarship, suggesting perhaps a constructive alternative to both the ‘radical’ and the ‘conservative’ interpretations. On this reading, Mably should be seen as neither a proto-socialist nor a reactionary thinker, but as a republican -- a classical republican, in fact, whose writing represents a later Gallic contribution to the political tradition founded by Machiavelli and Harrington.3 In fact, nothing is more obvious to any reader than the absolute centrality of the reference to Graeco-Roman antiquity in his writings, from beginning to end -- with precisely that celebration of the ‘mixed governments’ of Sparta and Rome, and intense preoccupation with the politics of ‘virtue’, that we have come to associate with the civic humanist tradition. The object of this essay is to provide a brief introduction to this ‘new’ Mably. It will do so chiefly through an examination of a single work, albeit a pivotal one in Mably's career. Entretiens de Phocion, a dialogue first published in 1763, introduced in print for the first time most of the major themes of his mature thought; and it remained by far the most popular work to appear in his lifetime. A brief look at it should give us the opportunity to test the cogency of the civic humanist reading of Mably's thought, as well as to suggest something of thespecific character of the French contribution to the ‘Atlantic republican tradition’.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Chicago.

Publication date: March 1, 1992

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