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.