Introduction: Historical Context and Textual Interpretation
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Spiritual and intellectual crises and social and political disruption in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe elicited three of the canonical texts of political philosophy. The Prince, Leviathan, and the Second Treatise advance a conception of the human condition and of the role of the state in human affairs that is profoundly different than that held by their authors’ ancient and medieval predecessors.
Two basic orientations have informed interpretation of these texts. Contextualists inquire after the causes of the positions taken by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. They search for those causes in the political and socioeconomic circumstances in which The Prince, Leviathan, and the Second Treatise were written. Textualists read these works as responses to perennial questions about authority and power and obedience and freedom, for example. They search in the text for the reasons adduced by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke for their answers to those perennial questions.