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Troublemakers: A Philosophy of Puer Robustus

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Troublemakers: A Philosophy of Puer Robustus

Dieter Thomä, Jessica Spengler (Translator)

ISBN: 978-1-509-52561-4 July 2019 Polity 400 Pages

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The political crises and upheavals of our age often originate from the periphery rather than the center of power. Figures like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning acted in ways that disrupted power, revealing truths that those in power wanted to keep hidden. They are thorns in the side of power, troublemakers in the eyes of the powerful, though their actions may be valuable and lead to positive changes.

In this important new book, Dieter Thomä examines the crucial but often overlooked function of these figures on the margins of society, developing a philosophy of troublemakers from the seventeenth century to the present day. Thomä takes as his starting point Hobbes’s idea of the puer robustus (literally “stout boy”), meaning a figure who rebels against order and authority. While Hobbes saw the puer robustus as a threat, he also recognized the potential, in the right conditions, for figures to rise up and become agents of positive change. Building on this notion, Thomä provides a rich survey of intellectuals who have been inspired by this idea over the past 300 years, from Rousseau, Diderot, Schiller, Victor Hugo, Marx, and Freud to Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and Horkheimer, right up to the recent work of Badiou and Agamben. In doing so, he develops a typology of the puer robustus and a means by which we can evaluate and assess the troublemakers of our own times.

Thomä shows that troublemakers are an inescapable part of modernity, for as soon as social and political boundaries are defined, there will always be figures challenging them from the margins. This book will be of great interest not only to students and scholars in the humanities and social sciences but to anyone seeking to understand the crucial impact of these liminal figures on our world today.

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • I. The puer robustus as an evil man: Thomas Hobbes
  • 1. The threshold creature caught between power, morality and history 2. Self-interest and reason 3. Hobbes’s egocentric troublemakers: Fools, epileptics, madmen, the poor and the rich 4. Author-actor-audience theory: The eccentric troublemaker in the belly of the Leviathan 5. The puer robustus of Horace – a model for Hobbes?
  • II. The puer robustus as a good man: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • 1. The power and morality of the savage 2. The transformation of the puer robustus into a citizen 3. What does Rousseau’s puer robustus do after his victory? Democracy and disturbance of the peace
  • III. Rameau’s nephew as a puer robustus: Denis Diderot
  • 1. Hobbes’s sublime definition 2. The puer robustus as a social problem or ambivalent character: Diderot beyond Helvétius, Hobbes and Rousseau 3. Life on the threshold: Rameau’s Nephew 4. Hegel’s and Foucault’s nephew
  • IV. Unloving child, wicked son, strong savior: Friedrich Schiller
  • 1. The puer robustus as a “freedman of creation” 2. Franz and Karl Moor: All power for me – or a different power for all? 3. Wilhelm Tell’s journey from loner to league founder
  • V. The puer robustus as victim and hero: Victor Hugo
  • 1. Quasimodo as a monkey gone wrong 2. The birth of wickedness from humiliation 3. Moral emancipation 4. The street urchin as a puer robustus 5. The relatives of the street urchin: Balzac’s real man and Baudelaire’s little savage
  • VI. Siegfried, foolish boy: Richard Wagner
  • 1. The contract as a crime against nature 2. External salvation 3. The hero as child and dullard: Siegfried’s recipe for success
  • VII. The puer robustus between Europe and America: Alexis de Tocqueville
  • 1. The birth of the puer robustus under the yoke of despotism: Tocqueville’s first insight  2. Praise for America and a warning against the Wild West 3. The birth of the puer robustus from the spirit of capitalism: Tocqueville’s second insight 4. Life as a revolution and experiment: Tocqueville, Mill, Nietzsche
  • VIII. The puer robustus as a revolutionary: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • 1. The people is by far the most dangerous 2. The fight against dependence and separation 3. The lumpenproletariat as the spoilsport of the revolution 4. The revolutionary subject as a species-being or community-being
  • IX. The puer robustus as Oedipus: Sigmund Freud
  • 1. The little savage 2. Democracy and dictatorship 3. Politics after Freud: A debate between Walter Lippmann, Paul Federn, Hans Blüher, Thomas Mann and Hans Kelsen
  • X. Anarchists, adventurers, young rowdies and little savages:
  • Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Helmut Schelsky and Max Horkheimer
  • 1. Blossoming in dark times: Hobbes da capo 2. Carl Schmitt on the total state and its enemies 3. Leo Strauss on the closed society and adventurers 4. Helmut Schelsky on power and young rowdies 5. Max Horkheimer on the authoritarian state and little savages
  • XI. Good spirits and poisonous weeds: The puer robustus in Italy in 1949 and China in 1957
  • 1. Togliatti’s New Year’s message to his comrades 2. Mao Zedong and Tan Tianrong on fragrant flowers and poisonous weeds 3. From China back to Europe: We can forget Alain Badiou
  • XII. The puer robustus today
  • 1. No end to history 2. The egocentric troublemaker and the financial crisis 3. The eccentric and nomocentric troublemaker – and the democratic paradox 4. The massive troublemaker and fundamentalism 5. The little savage and the populism of Donald Trump 6. On the threshold
  • Notes
  • List of abbreviations
  • Literature
  • Index

“In fluent and energetic style, Dieter Thomä offers a compelling response to the current threats facing our economic, social, and political order. This timely and important book will be of great interest to anyone who is struggling to understand what is going on in the world today.”
Joachim Whaley, University of Cambridge

“For some years now, Dieter Thomä has been writing extraordinarily original, elegantly conceived and executed books about topics as varied as parents, fathers, and Americans – in effect, he has been re-defining the proper topics of philosophical reflection. His new book on the puer robustus, a notion introduced by Hobbes about the ‘troublemakers’ in society, is a masterpiece of this genre, the literate philosophical essay. The scholarship is astonishing, ranging over Hobbes, Rousseau, Diderot, Schiller, Hugo, Marx, Freud, and others, the insights acute and important, and the pleasure of reading it constant.”
Robert Pippin, University of Chicago

“With an admirable combination of historical serendipity, hermeneutical sensitivity, and philosophical farsightedness, Dieter Thomä manages in this fascinating book to reanimate a political figure always present in the imaginary of democratic societies but never fully disclosed or theorized: the puer robustus, the troublemaker, who since the times of Hobbes has again and again haunted the fantasy of political philosophers as someone either undermining or rejuvenating the democratic order of modern societies. It is the path-breaking thesis of this masterful study that, without revealing the exact role of these troublemakers, we are not capable of understanding both the risks and the potentials for renewal, the dangers and the vitality of democratic regimes.  A must read for everyone interested in political theory and philosophy.”
Axel Honneth, University of Frankfurt

“As the philosopher Dieter Thomä shows in this brilliant study, the puer robustus is a central element of societies marked by division and uncertainty. His book could not be more timely.”
NZZ am Sonntag

“Dieter Thomä tells a captivating adventure story of the troublemakers who have disrupted social order.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

“Endlessly lively… tremendous entertainment”
Catholic Herald