The Anxiety of Time

Virtue and Political Decay in 18th Century French Classical Republican Thought

  • Dustin van Boxtel MacEwan University


The French Enlightenment is known for bequeathing to the moderns their secular, linear and progressive view of time. In this atmosphere of great optimism, time was thought to be an unstoppable and inevitable march towards better. And for its part, better was defined as more rationality, more liberty, more peace, more happiness, and more commerce. However, at the same time, there existed a political discourse that was highly critical of this optimistic view of time. This political discourse was classical republicanism. Instead of seeing time as an inexorable march of progress, its exponents saw time as cyclical and a tremendous source of anxiety. In brief, they held to the premise that it is a law of time that all things which exist in time must inevitably decay and die in time; thus, no political order or state of affairs could persist indefinitely. Temporary preservation was the best that could be reasonably hoped for. Thus, this discourse sought to identify those virtues that prolonged a just political order and those vices that undermined it. This paper is an attempt to unearth, examine and explain the thoughts of these vexing contrarians. The thesis set forth is that their understanding of time was both more comprehensive and coherent than their optimistic contemporaries.


Faculty Mentor: Kelly Summers

Department: History