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Secular Powers

Humility in Modern Political Thought

Secularism is usually thought to contain the project of self-deification, in which humans attack God’s authority in order to take his place, freed from all constraints. Julie E. Cooper overturns this conception through an incisive analysis of the early modern justifications for secular politics. While she agrees that secularism is a means of empowerment, she argues that we have misunderstood the sources of secular empowerment and the kinds of strength to which it aspires.

Contemporary understandings of secularism, Cooper contends, have been shaped by a limited understanding of it as a shift from vulnerability to power. But the works of the foundational thinkers of secularism tell a different story. Analyzing the writings of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau at the moment of secularity’s inception, she shows that all three understood that acknowledging one’s limitations was a condition of successful self-rule. And while all three invited humans to collectively build and sustain a political world, their invitations did not amount to self-deification. Cooper establishes that secular politics as originally conceived does not require a choice between power and vulnerability. Rather, it challenges us—today as then—to reconcile them both as essential components of our humanity.

256 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Philosophy: History and Classic Works

Political Science: Classic Political Thought, Political and Social Theory


“In this beautifully written book, Cooper makes the case for modesty as the queen of the virtues. By focusing on Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau, she shows how their philosophies rest less on the idea of the sovereign individual and the deification of human powers than on the embrace of ‘finitude’ and an awareness of our limitations. At a time when recent events have forced us to reckon yet again with the dangers of the unintended consequences of our actions, this modest case for modesty could not be more timely.”

Steven B. Smith, Yale University

“Cooper challenges the standard view that modern political secularism displaces God as the ultimate authority in favor of putting humans in that place. Secularism does not inevitably lead to self-deification, but is compatible with humanity. She argues that each of the three major theorists of the early period, Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasizes that humans have to recognize their finitude or limitations and that, paradoxically, this finitude is the source of human empowerment. . . .Recommended.”


“With Secular Powers, Cooper traces an alternative account of secularism, showing that the very feature critics single out for abuse—the relocation of divine sovereignty in the human individual—is in fact a central concern of early secularists, who predicated human empowerment upon the cultivation of a ‘modest disposition.’ Drawing on both little-studied works from the period and a broad range of current scholarship, Cooper makes a highly original contribution to an important interdisciplinary dialogue in the history of ideas.”

Hasana Sharp, McGill University

“Do we need God to be humble? If so, then it seems that secular humility is impossible, as any move towards denying God could imply deifying humanity. Cooper’s challenging and illuminating Secular Powers provides close readings from key works of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau to fashion a genealogical narrative of humility within a secular context.”


“[Secular Powers] will be of great interest in those dealing with the nature and development of early modern political thought. . . . Cooper’s book, with its focus on the secular critique of pride initialised by Thomas Hobbes and continued by such thinkers as Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, hopes to offer an alternative way to understanding the development of that thought.”

Political Studies Review

“Cooper’s Secular Powers wrestles with an enduring idea from which the West seems not to be able to escape, and by which the self-understanding of the modern West, in particular, has been hobbled: Augustine’s antinomy between the ‘City of God’ and the ‘City of Man,’ between Christian humility oriented by the sovereignty of God, on the one hand, and secular agency that purportedly cannot but lose its way, on the other. . . . The question Cooper asks seems especially timely, . . . [and] Secular Powers is written with obvious care, not just with a view to scholarly adequacy but also about the current historical moment.”

Perspectives on Politics

Table of Contents

Chapter 1            Toward a Revised History of Modesty and Humility
Chapter 2            Modesty: Hobbes on How Mere Mortals Can Create a Mortal God
Chapter 3            Humility: Spinoza on the Joys of Finitude
Chapter 4            Self-Love: Rousseau on the Allure, and the Elusiveness, of Divine Self-Sufficiency
Conclusion          A Modest Tale about Theoretical Modesty

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