Since the 2016 election, there has been much soul searching in certain progressive circles about the role that identity should play in liberal politics in the United States and beyond. Authors as diverse as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Francis Fukuyama, Mark Lilla, and David Wootton have recently urged us to consider the possibility of constructing a form of liberalism in which identity does not necessarily play a central role. In the writings of at least some of these authors, we may discern a desire to recover the heritage of classical liberalism, with its emphasis on abstract individualism and the importance of so-called “negative” freedoms, such as freedom of speech. In this panel, we would like to explore what Milton and Milton’s contemporaries can offer us in our attempts to think through – and possibly think beyond – this implicit dichotomy between identity politics and the liberalism of negative freedoms. Our hope is to provide at once a genealogy and a critique of our current predicament by examining texts written at the dawn of the classical liberal tradition. In centering this panel around Milton’s work and the work of his contemporaries, we are following Milton’s insistence in Areopagitica that poetry is a form of critical thinking and a potent vehicle in the formation of identity. We welcome papers from the fields of early modern studies (literature, history, politics, and gender studies), as well as scholarship that engages with the reception of early modern texts in later times and places.
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