Home » Departments and Centres » History and Civilization » Research & Teaching » Seminars » 2020-2021 2nd term » Figures of conspiracy. History, Politics, Religion

Figures of conspiracy. History, Politics, Religion

Research seminar

Organised by Prof. Nicolas Guilhot
Registration code: HEC-RS-FIGCON-20
Tuesdays 13:10-15:00 

Starts on 12 January 2021, sala degli Stemmi
Admin. Assistant: Francesca Parenti

Seminar description

From the suspicions of collusion with the Boscoli Capponi conspiracy that destroyed Machiavelli’s diplomatic career to Maurice Joly’s Dialogue of Machiavelli and Montesquieu in Hell (1864), which was later plagiarized by the author(s) of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Sion, the idea of conspiracy has always featured in the background of modern politics. Yet, it has received little attention. The Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe lexicon, for instance, has no entry for it. Today, this idea survives essentially under the form of “conspiracy theory,” a concept coined in 1948 by Karl Popper.

What is a conspiracy? Why does this notion apply to both events and theories? What is the relationship, if any, between historical conspiracies and conspiracy theories? How did historians, political thinkers and philosophers address the theme of conspiracy? In which historical contexts were conspiracies a subject of political argument?

Taking stock from the current resurgence of “conspiracy theories” in politics and neo-skepticism in science, the seminar intends to revisit the history of a notion that never upgraded to the status of a major political concept and yet captures fundamental assumptions about the legitimacy of the social order and its accredited representations.

The working premise of the seminar is that the idea of conspiracy has provided a fundamental if overlooked foil for the development of Western political thought and the modern state. It has designated a threat to the social order, but also the hidden modus operandi of the state itself, from arcana imperii to current notions of “deep” state. It has designated internal enemies since Catiline, but also, in the age of the ethnic nation-state, indeterminate threats lying beyond its confines. The idea of conspiracy also marshals political theologies that have informed lasting visions of world politics and of history’s course, from early Christian apocalypticism to the Cold War. By recovering these different dimensions, the seminar will revise the tradition of political thought and foreground a figure of politics that has never ceased to haunt it.

The seminar is intended for students working in different historical fields who have an interest in the history of political thought and the history of ideas more broadly. It will also address some basic questions in historical research, as the idea of conspiracy brings into focus questions of evidence and proof, rhetoric and fact, truth and fiction that are central to any historiographical enterprise.


12 January 2021: The political epistemologies of conspiracy theory (I): Neoliberalism [via zoom]

  • Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, ch. 14, “The Autonomy of Sociology.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994 [1950], pp. 301-310.
  • Friedrich Hayek, “Scientism and the Study of Society. Part II.” Economica, Vol. 10, No. 37 (Feb. 1943), pp. 34-63.
  • Philip Mirowski, “Conspiracy? What Conspiracy? A Conversation with Philip Mirowski,” boundary2, 46:1, 2019.

19 January 2021: The political epistemologies of conspiracy theory (II): Totalitarianism

  • Alexandre Koyré, “The Political Function of the Modern Lie,” Contemporary Jewish Record, vol. 8, n. 3 (June 1945), pp. 290-300.
  • Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part III, ch. 2, “The Totalitarian Movement.” New York: Schocken, 2004.
  • Franz Neumann, “Anxiety and Politics,” in The Democratic and the Authoritarian State. New York: The Free Press, 1957, pp. 270-300.

26 January 2021: Paranoid style: between psychology and art history

Special guest: Andrew McKenzie-McHarg (Australian Catholic University – Rome)

  • Richard Hofstadter. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics. New York: Vintage, 2008 [1965].
  • Ernst Gombrich, “Myth and Reality in German Wartime Broadcasts,” in Ideals and Idols: Essays on Values in History and Art. London: Phaedon 1979.
  • Ernst Gombrich, Art & Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (“Psychology and the Riddle of Style” (introduction)). London: Phaedon 1960.
  • Luc Boltanski, Mysteries and Conspiracies, ch. 5 “The endless inquiries of ‘paranoids.’” Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014.

2 February 2021: The Good News as fake news: apocalypticism as conspiracy theory

  • Paul of Tarsus, Second Letter to the Thessalonians, New Oxford Bible.
  • Bernard McGinn, Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of Human Fascination with Evil, Introduction, ch. 2, 3. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
  • Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, Part 1, ch. 3. New York: Telos Press, 2006.

9 February 2021: Arcana imperii: radiography of the deep state

  • Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 6, 11.
  • Ernst Kantorowicz, “Mysteries of State: An Absolutist Concept and Its Late Mediaeval Origins,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Jan., 1955), pp. 65-91.
  • Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’Etat and Its Place in Modern History, New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1998, Introduction.
  • Peter Donaldson, Machiavelli and Mystery of State, chapter 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

16 February 2021: The real thing: conspiracy and early modern politics

Special guest: Marta Celati, University of Warwick, Center for the Study of the Renaissance

  •  Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses on Livy, Book III, Ch. 6, “On Conspiracies.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
    • Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 19. London: Penguin 2009.
    • Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine Histories, Book VIII, Ch. 1-9.
    • Francesco Guicciardini, Ricordi, no. 19, 20. Milano: Garzanti, 1999.
    • Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, London: Penguin Classics, 1990, introduction and part 1, “The State as a Work of Art”.

23 February 2021: 19th century historiographies of conspiracy

Special guest: Guillaume Lancereau, Visiting Fellow, HEC-EUI; EHESS.

  • Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Collected Works, Vol. 11, International Publishers, New York, (excerpts).
  • Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (New York, 1973 [1932]), 210-211.Fred Morrow Fling, “Review on Nesta H. Webster, The French Revolution: A Study in Democracy,” American Historical Review 25-4 (1920): 714-715.
  • Gustave Bord, La conspiration révolutionnaire de 1789, Paris, Bibliothèque d’histoire moderne, 1909 (excerpt).
  • Maurice Talmeyr, La franc-maçonnerie et la Révolution française, Paris, Perrin, 1904 p. 8-10. (excerpt)
  • Bernard Faÿ, « République et franc-maçonnerie », Les documents maçonniques, n°7, avril 1942, p. 4-5. 
  • François Guizot, Des conjurations et de la justice politique. Paris: Fayard 1984[1821], ch. 3-5

2 March 2021: Political myths, forgeries and conspiracies

  • Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Eyre & Spottiswoode: London, 1967, ch. 3.
  • Hans Speier, “The Truth in Hell: Maurice Joly and The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion”, in The Truth in Hell and Other Essays on Politics and Culture 1935-1987, 279-293. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Carlo Ginzburg, “Representing the Enemy: On the French Prehistory of the Protocols,” in Threads and Traces: True False Fictive. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

9 March 2021: Does history have a plot?

Special guest: Benjamin Carver, EUI

  • Karl Löwith, Meaning in History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949, Introduction & Conclusion.
  • Gordon S. Wood “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century”, The William and Mary Quarterly 39 (3), 1982, pp. 401-441.
  • Bernard Bailyn, “A Note on Conspiracy,” in David Brion Davis, ed. The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un-American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971, pp. 23-28.

16 March 2021: Truth in History

  • Arnaldo Momigliano, “The History of Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of History: On Hayden White’s Tropes,” in Settimo contributo alla storia degli studi classici. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1984, pp 49-59.
  • Carlo Ginzburg, “Description and Quotation” in Threads and Traces : True False Fictive, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012, pp. 7-24.
  • Quentin Skinner, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth,” Visions of Politics, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.




Page last updated on 19 February 2021

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