Pocock’s Positions

Blair Worden

The front cover and title-page conceal the central fact of Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain, that it is a Festschrift for the historian of political thought J.G.A. Pocock. Publishers are generally wary of Festschrifts, which are liable to interest the recipient’s friends and colleagues more than a wider audience; but this is not an ordinary Festschrift. There are no hushed tributes, no rehearsals for obituary notices. By the time he gets a Festschrift, a historian’s ideas are often seen as the product of a generation that has had its day. No one could say that of Pocock’s work, which remains as productive and controversial as ever. The agenda he has set out is far from completion: indeed we may only just be appreciating its measure. The volume concludes with a lengthy commentary by Pocock himself which, in reviewing each of the essays, primarily asks, not how far his earlier positions are vindicated by them, but where we should go next.

The last thirty or forty years have seen a revolution in the history of political theory of which Pocock has been as near as anyone to the centre. Its chief concern has been to reconstruct the languages of political argument and their relationship to the values and preoccupations of the societies that produced them. With others, Pocock has reacted against the tradition which set the great political thinkers in a timeless limbo and invited them to argue out the big issues of virtue or sovereignty or resistance. Yet his insistence on context – a context as much of shifting mentality or vocabulary as of political events – has avoided the trap against which contextualists are often warned. He has never belittled the canon of political thinkers, though he has sometimes attempted to revise its membership.

Pocock’s first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), explored the political vocabulary of 17th-century England. In the Fifties, when the ‘storm over the gentry’ raged, his emphasis on the importance of ideas in politics was unfashionable. Yet no book has done more to illustrate the interaction of ideology and politics in that turbulent period. And no book has done more to illuminate the outlook of the 17th-century ruling class. Pocock showed its insular preoccupation with the common law and the ancient constitution, with the medieval language of custom and precedent, and thus explained its inability to understand the events that plunged it into civil war.

Time, as Pocock admits, has done something to modify that picture, and a contribution to Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain by William Klein examines some of the modifications. The picture is further modified by Michael Mendle’s searching essay on the constitutional programme of Charles I’s Parliamentary opponents in 1641-2. In the emergency created by royal mismanagement, Mendle argues, MPs were concerned less to assert legislative rights than to seize executive power – though, aiming for ‘a very English absolutism’ they can look as insular in Mendle’s account as they do in Pocock’s.

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[*] The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics, published in 1977 by Cambridge in Pocock’s edition of The Political Works of James Harrington, have been reprinted in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series.