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3 Civil Society and the Transition to Modernity Transitional periods are never easy, and the passage to moder­ nity was no exception. The disintegration of medieval religious, political, and economic life produced such chaos and instability that it became im­ possible to conceptualize a coherent theory of civil society. The old cate­ gories were plainly inadequate but new ones were not in place; civil society could no longer be understood as a universal political or religious commonwealth , but modern economic and political structures were still in their infancy . The growing power of national markets and national states had been eroding feudalism’s hierarchical structure of grades, ranks, and statuses for some time before the devastating attacks of the Renaissance and Reforma­ tion. Understanding politics as the coercive arm of Christian civil society had generated a powerful principle of legitimacy, but the Christian Com­ monwealth was succumbing to Italian political chaos and German religious turmoil.1 Its universal fabric could not accommodate itself to the au­ tonomous political centers that were being prepared by the growth of mar­ kets, and sooner or later it was bound to collapse. Niccolò Machiavelli’s preoccupation with political corruption led him to the civic virtues that had nourished Roman power, but his debt to the past made him unable to theorize civil society outside of familiar republican cat­ egories. Nevertheless, his thoroughly secular approach to politics antici­ pated a distinctly modern understanding of state and society. The Vatican might still quote Innocent III or Boniface VIII in support of its claim to world dominion or even refer back to Gelasius to buttress more limited as­ sertions, but the relentless erosion of the old order was clear to all. Machi­ avelli’s secular economy of power and the Reformation’s liberated conscience anticipated a civil society organized around private interests. Thomas Hobbes announced the birth of a new calculating individual oper­ ating in a civil society organized by state power. It was not long before the 55 56 | Civil Society and the Transition to Modernity medieval attempt to understand Sacerdotium and Regnum as complemen­ tary jurisdictions within a single Christian Commonwealth was in ruins. Machiavelli incorporated elements of earlier attempts to achieve virtue and balance without the intervention of a timeless moral agent. The papal centralism whose consequences he deplored was matched by an equally rapid consolidation of royal absolutism throughout Western Europe. In both Church and state, the concentration of power came at the expense of the complex array of intermediate orders, monasteries, parliaments, cities, guilds, and estates that marked the landscape of late feudalism. Almost everywhere the medieval structure of corporations and representation was decaying and collapsing. More extensive markets, developed patterns of exchange , improved communications, and far-reaching means of transporta­ tion began to undermine the local monopolies that had supported medieval corporatism and federalism. The control of trade gradually escaped from local bodies and flowed toward the centralized royal bureaucracies that were arising to nurture and feed off it. A commercial bourgeoisie began to take shape, and its initial tendency was to ally itself with the concentrated royal power that protected it from its aristocratic antagonists and depended on it for tax revenue and loans. Monarchies learned how to exploit national resources , expand trade, wage war, and conduct foreign relations. Their bu­ reaucracies moved to outflank or demolish intermediate institutions as they leveled the political field and extended their range of action.2 The consequences of this centralization were enormous. Political power had been widely dispersed during the late Middle Ages but was being con­ solidated in the hands of the king. The Sacerdotium gradually vanished and papal supremacy came to mark a Church that was transformed from the or­ ganizer of Christendom into a junior partner of the state as religion began its slow retreat into the realm of private devotion. Absolute monarchies became the characteristic form of political organization throughout Western Europe, and the notion of a single point of secular sovereign power became a centerpiece of political thought. Benefiting from its proximity to the Mediterranean, northern Italy was distinguished by advanced trading and commercial forces. But the rapid de­ velopment of modern economic relations would not find political expres­ sion there until well into the nineteenth century. While unified monarchies developed rapidly in France, Spain, and England, Italy suffered from a par­ ticularly debilitating combination of economic and cultural development and political backwardness. Like Dante, Marsilius of Padua, and many edu­ cated Italians of his day, Machiavelli blamed this...


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