Russ Leo studies early modern literature, philosophy, and political economy as well as theory since the 1940s, paying particular attention to labor and social reproduction as well as to the long histories of Spinozism in Marxism, psychoanalysis, and other theoretical traditions.
Leo received his PhD in 2009 from the Program in Literature at Duke University, where he also received certificates in Feminist Studies and Interdisciplinary Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He joined the English Department in 2012, after a three-year tenure as a Perkins-Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Princeton University.
Leo’s first book, Tragedy as Philosophy in the Reformation World (Oxford University Press, 2019) traces the emergence of distinctly philosophical ideas of tragedy, irreducible to drama or performance, inextricable from rhetoric, dialectic, and metaphysics. In its proximity to philosophy, tragedy afforded careful readers crucial insight into causality, probability, necessity, and the terms of human affect and action—that is to say, the very grounds of early modern philosophy. With these resources at hand, Reformed theologians, poets, and critics produced daring and influential theses on tragedy between the 1550s and the 1630s, all directly related to pressing Reformation debates.
Leo is currently at work on several essays and translations, all related to the critiques of institutions—the universities, churches, sovereign bodies, and emergent political parties—offered by Baruch Spinoza, his “circle,” interlocutors and fellow travelers. The manuscript, tentatively titled: Invisible Colleges, is a study of practical and imaginative efforts to develop new forms of community, politics, and exchange between the 1640s and the 1690s. Milton and Spinoza figure prominently, and Leo resituates them in a shared historical milieu, one that begins with the utopian efforts of the Hartlib Circle and moves across the 1650s and 1660s towards the Dutch Collegiants (particularly in Amsterdam and Rotterdam), English Quakers at home and abroad, and emergent artistic and scientific societies that met in pubs and coffeehouses—all operating autonomously, with incipient critiques of extant institutions. The book reconstructs a vibrant world that Milton and Spinoza shared. As part of this project, Leo recently completed a critical translation of the Preface to Spinoza’s 1677 Opera Posthuma/Nagelate Schriften for the forthcoming Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume III (Princeton University Press), a fascinating work by Jarig Jellesz and Lodowick Meijer that affords insight into the early international reception of the Spinoza’s ideas and legacy. Moreover, he contributed notes to a new French edition of Spinoza’s Éthique (Flammarion, 2021), edited by Maxime Rovere.
Leo is beginning work on another manuscript, tentatively titled Paleoliberalism and Racial Capitalism, a study of early modern political economy, exploring how foundational works of economic and philosophical anthropology obscure real processes of racialization, dispossession, and capture by advancing seemingly-neutral, self-evident, and ahistorical terms like “market,” “labor,” and “property.” William Petty, Johann DeWitt, John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, and various agents of English and Dutch West Indies Companies laid the groundwork for our assumptions not only about economic anthropology but about markets, value, capital, etc. “Labor” and “indigeneity” in particular emerge as signal concepts—masquerading then, as now, as self-evident and neutral. But during this formative phase of political economy, as well as in our contemporary occasion, these are always terms that communicate abiding assumptions about race, kinship, and social reproduction. The book, moreover, examines developments in the late seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic World in order to help us understand Neoliberalism and its exercises in our own moment, from employment crises to social reproduction to the ongoing expropriation of the commons.
“Reason and Scripture in the Ethics and Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: Jarig Jellesz and Preface to the Nagelate Schriften van B.D.S. (1677),” in Spinoza: Reason, Religion: The Relation between the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ed. Daniel Garber, Mogens Laerke, Pierre-Franocois Moreau, and Pina Totaro (forthcoming, Oxford University Press)
“Nil Volentibus Arduum, Baruch Spinoza, and the Reason of Tragedy,” in Shadows of the Enlightenment: Tragic Drama during Europe’s Age of Reason, ed. Blair Hoxby (Ohio State University Press, 2022)
“Thomas Rymer, Poetic Justice and the Limits of Representation: Dispatches from the Representative Regime of Art” in Political Aesthetics in the Era of Shakespeare, ed. Christopher Pye (Northwestern University Press, 2020), 67-88.
Tragedy as Philosophy in the Reformation World (Oxford University Press, 2019)
“Herod and the Furies: Daniel Heinsius and the Representation of Affect in Tragedy,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 49.1 (2019): 137-167.
“Jean Calvin and the Reformation Decensus ad Inferos,” Reformation 23.1 (2018): 53–78. [Reprinted in Scholarship, Sacrifice and Subjectivity: The Renaissance Bible Today, ed. Hannah Crawforth and Russ Leo (Routledge, 2021)]
“Nicolas Gueudeville’s Enlightenment Utopia,” Moreana 55.1 (2018): 24–60.
“Michel Foucault and Digger Biopolitics,” SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 58.1 (2018): 169-192.
Fulke Greville and the Culture of the English Renaissance (with Katrin Röder and Freya Sierhuis) (Oxford University Press, 2018)
“Milton’s Sublime Judaism and Hegel’s Religion der Erhabenheit: The Ends of Typology and the Impossibility of Christianity,” in Milton’s Modernities: Poetry, Philosophy, and History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, ed. Feisal G. Mohamed and Patrick Fadely (Northwestern University Press, 2017), 199-239.
“Paul’s Euripides, Greek tragedy and Hebrew antiquity in Paradise Regain’d,” The Seventeenth Century 31.2 (2016): 191-213. [Reprinted in Milton, Drama, and Greek Texts, ed. Tania Demetriou and Tanya Pollard (Routledge, 2017)]
“Grotius Among the Dagonists: Joost van den Vondel’s Samson, of Heilige Wraeck, Revenge and the Ius Gentium,” in Politics and Aesthetics in European Baroque Tragedy, ed. Jan Bloemendal and Nigel Smith (Brill, 2016), 75-102.
“Geeraardt Brandt, Dutch Tolerance, and the Reformation of the Reformation,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 46.3 (2016): 485-511.
“Hamlet’s Early International Lives: Geeraardt Brandt’s De Veinzende Torquatus (1645) and the Performance of Political Realism,” Comparative Literature 68.2 (2016): 155-180.
“Spinoza’s Calvin: Reformed Theology in the Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch en Deszelfs Welstand,” in The Young Spinoza, ed. Yitzhak Y. Melamed (Oxford University Press, 2015), 144-159.
“Milton’s Aristotelian Experiments: Tragedy, Lustratio, and “Secret refreshings” in Samson Agonistes (1671),” Milton Studies 52 (2011), 221-52.