Democratic republicanism and political competence in treatments of radical Enlightenment

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This article argues that what was understood as democracy in the eighteenth century differs fundamentally from modern democracy. While modern democratic states take locally born or naturalized personhood as the criterion of citizenship, eighteenth-century advocates of democracy demanded proof of political competence to allow participation in politics. While the requirement of competence to engage in any activity is not unreasonable, if defined, as it was by most Enlightenment thinkers, as a combination of independence, cultural standing and wealth, it is clearly elitist. Enlightenment criticisms of birth and status as criteria of political standing should not be mistaken for demands for broadly inclusive, modern conceptions of equality and democracy. Rather, most Enlightenment thinkers and publicists, fully aware of the implications of widespread and debilitating poverty, expressed reservations about granting the ‘people’ an effective role in politics. Far from being ‘radical’, Enlightenment political theory called for the replacement of an elitism based on status and privilege with an elitism of ability and wealth.

Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory of European Ideas
StateAccepted/In press - 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
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  • democracy
  • equality
  • political competence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Philosophy


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