This research focuses on the conceptual history of compromise, which (despite the widely accepted definition of politics as 'the art of compromise') has largely been ignored by scholars until today. This overlooked history reveals a dazzling discrepancy between the usages of the word in England compared with continental Europe, notably France, starting with the 16th century and persisting all the way to the late 18th century. Even today, after a long process of homogenization, these differences are discernable both across the English Channel and across the Atlantic, but at the beginning of the modern era these discrepancies were striking. Such a salient discrepancy between 'commendable' and 'condemnable' compromise demands explanation. How did the neutral Latin term of 'compromissum,' initially restricted to a particular meaning, come to signify so many different things—a mutual adjustment of otherwise irreconcilable positions, a method of election, even a social contract, but also an act by which a man might 'endanger' himself or 'to put to hazard his own reputation'?
The dissertation undertakes to explain these differences for the first time by tracing the conceptual history of compromise—a long overdue enterprise for one who might wish to place the terms of debate over compromise in their proper context. I argue that in fact the genealogy of compromise shows it as much like the tip of an iceberg—it signals other important but oft-overlooked differences in basic assumptions about the individual and the political sphere. These differences proved remarkably resilient throughout the seventeenth century despite increased intellectual exchanges across the English Channel. By recovering the forgotten history of compromise we can, for example, begin to comprehend the two distinct individualisms that developed during the 17th century on either side of the Channel that have puzzled historians, the 'centrifugal' (focused on the forum internum ) and the 'centripetal' (emphasizing the forum externum). In turn, these different types of individualism affected not only the representation of the self but also the understanding of political representation.
Contrary to the assumption embraced nowadays by virtually everyone who follows the influential lead of Walter Ullmann, the representation of 'the people' cannot be automatically equated with an ascending representation of individuals. For continental Europeans and especially for the French, the representation of the people preserved its descending character for more than a century afterwards. In their view 'the people' continued to be understood as a conceptual whole, and thus standing above its representatives—kings, magistrates, Estates or the like—as many writings of the time bear witness. The reason, I argue, is to be found in the preservation and exaggeration of the distinction between the two fora of the individual inherited from medieval thought. In his forum externum, the individual apprehended himself and was apprehended in terms of membership in several universitates : his parish, guild, the people, and so forth. On the other hand, the forum internum remained the seat of uniqueness and authenticity—hence the fear to compromise oneself or one‘s honor or virtue.
It was only in England, thanks in particular to the peculiar centrality of a national Parliament, the explosion of contractarian language, and the practice of taking oaths of allegiances, that the distance between the two fora collapsed and compromise came to be identified as a central method for addressing political disagreements and thereby embraced as a virtue. It was understood as a contract that created the authority of an arbiter (compromissarium). The first French and British dictionaries of the time reflect well these different apprehensions of compromise and (self-) representation. While the works of Hobbes and Locke illuminate this peculiar understanding, it is the forgotten work of Gilbert Burnet that offers supplementary proofs, by explicitly equating the contract that created both 'civil society and government' with a generalized compromise between otherwise independent individuals. An analysis of contemporaneous continental versions of contract theory (French, Dutch or German) further confirms these findings: in these countries, unlike Britain, the contract between the people and its representatives was understood in a more sophisticated way than we normally care to admit. No 'delegation' of authority or rights between individuals and their representatives and no preeminence of wills over reason was ever presupposed, and therefore there was no artificially created distance between individuals and the political sphere—a distance that worries so many political scientists today, and for good reason.
I claim that a reconsideration of the 'outdated' theory of descending representation and a better understanding of the genealogy of compromise offer new venues for rethinking basic assumptions that we take for granted regarding political representation and the relationship between individuals and politics. At a time when trust in 'our' representatives registers historical lows all over the world, such an enterprise is worth contemplating. After all, this loss of trust in representative democracy raises challenges not just for politicians but for the very future of democracy itself.