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Tragedy of Reason: Natural Law and Literature in Early Modernity

December 2, 2013 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Portrait image of Ben LaBreche outdoors in front of a large rock wearing a grey sweater

Monday Seminar:

Ben LaBreche

Solmsen Fellow (2013-2014)

English, University of Mary Washington


The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw a renewed interest in natural law, which offered a means of rationalizing political relations and promoting justice. The potential violence and determinism of natural law, however, also threatened to undermine justice. The seminar will show how English texts, particularly the poetry and prose of John Milton and Andrew Marvell, grappled with the problems of rationalization, and it will connect these conflicts to a revised history of how natural law was disseminated by legal and historiographical texts ignored by modern political theory. We will examine how these theoretical problems forced a wide variety of writers—not only poets, but also less obviously “imaginative” writers—to turn to literary techniques and tradition in order to conceptualize new political models, and on this basis, we will also consider how political theory is written today.


Ben LaBreche, Solmsen Fellow, is an assistant professor of English literature at the University of Mary Washington. His interdisciplinary research focuses on how British writers of the seventeenth century grappled with problems that would come to define modernity. His forthcoming article in Milton Studies will examine how English toleration tracts of the mid-1640s anticipated the theoretical problems of twenty-first-century postsecularism, and his article “Espousing Liberty: The Gender of Liberalism and the Politics of Miltonic Divorce” received the Milton Society of America’s James Holly Hanford Award for the best essay on John Milton in 2010. In addition to the Solmsen, he has also recently received fellowships from the Clark Memorial Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Harry Ransom Center, and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.


December 2, 2013
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
Event Categories:


University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States