Jan Waszink

Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Tacitism: the Dynamics of Political Scepticism in Seventeenth-century Northern Europe

 

Abstract

Tacitism is the sceptical and secular political and historical thought inspired by the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, which flourished from the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century. In the scholarship Tacitism is presented as a successful current because retrospectively, its ideas belong to the 'winning' ideas of history. This picture needs revision. As the Tacitist outlook emphasised political realism over moral and religious duties, it was felt to resemble Machiavellism. Consequently it was controversial in its own time, and confined to particular minorities. The problems of acceptance that Tacitism encountered can be recognised in the texts by the complex literary forms and rhetorical strategies they almost invariably contain, and by the personal difficulties which most Tacitist authors experienced in their own lives or with the publication of their works. This programme will employ these forms, strategiesand difficulties to gauge the degree of acceptance of Tacitist ideas at their respective times and places. Paradoxically, most of the 'Tacitist minorities' belonged to the ruling elites. This unrecognised paradox points at a serious deficiency in our understanding of the intellectual climate of the seventeenth century.